When the tide turned in the Civil War

July 18, 2013

Donny Schraffenberger tells how the Civil War reached a turning point 150 years ago.

THIS MONTH marks 150 years since two critical battles of the U.S. Civil War when the tide turned decisively against the Southern slaveocracy: the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the Battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.

Never again would the Confederacy manage a major offensive that posed the possibility of winning the war. Instead of its incursions into the North to destroy Union morale and gain recognition from the great powers of the time, Britain and France, from this point on, the South was only able to stop the blows coming at it on many fronts.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, most people thought it would be over in a few months. President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers for 90 days of service, in the hopes that a majority of white Southerners were still loyal to the federal government and would come to their senses against the leaders of the Southern states that had seceded from the U.S. Instead, Lincoln's call for volunteers caused more states to secede.

The North did poorly during the first two years of the war in the Eastern theater, which was primarily fought in Virginia. The Confederate Army won several overwhelming victories, including the battles of Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Expectations of a quick Union victory were dashed.

The Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg

The main exception was the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in September 1862, when Northern forces won a bloody victory over the South's push into the North. But the advantage was lost when the Union's top commander, Gen. George McClellan, decided against pursuing and destroying Confederate forces, as Lincoln urged.

Generals like McClellan--a supporter of the Democrats, which was the party of slavery in the South and pro-slavery sentiment in the North--were against the abolition of slavery and preferred a moderate approach to the war. They wanted to preserve the U.S. as it was before the South seceded, with slavery kept intact--and they pursued a war strategy that was consistent with this aim.

Essentially, the conservatives wanted the war to impact Southern society only minimally. The Lincoln administration, at first favored this weak, timid approach.

The Southern ruling class relied on its Black slaves to provide the necessary labor power to keep the economy and war effort going while a large proportion of Southern white men fought. Black slaves did the backbreaking work of building fortifications for the Southern armies--armies that fought to keep slavery intact. Without slaves doing the essential work of the southern economy, the Confederacy would crumble.

Lincoln, meanwhile, was facing pressure from below--from Black and white abolitionists in the North, from radicals in his own party who wanted the war to end slavery, and above all from the growing force of Southern slaves who escaped to the lines of the Union Army, wherever they are, recognizing this as a means of emancipation.

Frederick Douglass, the famed Black abolitionist, took the leading in urging Lincoln and Northern leaders to allow Black soldiers to fight in the Union Army--to win their own freedom and to destroy the slave South. Douglass' newspaper editorial "Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand" hit the crux of the North's strategic problem in the war:

Why does the Government reject the negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other?...We would tell him [Lincoln] that this is not time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight with your white hand, and allow your Black hand to remain tied.

Lincoln was convinced, and Black soldiers entered the fight in 1863. Some 50,000 Black men had enlisted by August, and 180,000 would join by the war's end. From this point on, the war would pit the all-white armies of the South against a Union force with both white and Black regiments.

Karl Marx, writing from Britain, called the first part of the Civil War the waging of "a constitutional war"--one to preserve the Union with slavery intact, by the most modest of means. The second part of the war, Marx predicted, would be the waging of a revolutionary war to destroy the slaveocracy of the South and abolish slavery.

1863 began with another decisive step in that direction. The Emancipation Proclamation, unveiled after the Union victory at Antietam, declared that all slaves in the Southern states still in rebellion would be "forever free" as of January 1, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a calculated half-measure--it left slavery intact in the border states like Kentucky and Missouri that hadn't seceded. But Lincoln--along with abolitionists like Douglass--recognized the document would transform the Civil War from an attempt to keep the union intact into a war to destroy slavery. From January 1, 1863 on, Blacks would win their freedom wherever the Union Army advanced in the Confederate states.

THIS WAS the context for the Civil War campaigns of 1863. The Confederate administration of President Jefferson Davis was convinced by its top general, Robert E. Lee, a slave owner himself, to go on a dramatic offensive on Northern soil.

The strategy was to draw the Army of the Potomac--the main Northern force in the Eastern theater--into a battle that would end in a stunning victory for the South. This would completely demoralize the North, Lee believed, and allow Britain and France to finally recognize the Confederacy as the sole legitimate government of the South. The Civil War would end with two governments in power.

As Lee's Army of Northern Virginia pushed into Maryland and Pennsylvania, it enslaved the free Black residents that it encountered--the opposite role that the Union Army would play when it moved South as an army of liberation.

The two armies met at a crossroads--the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Neither army had planned for a battle to begin there, but it did anyway, starting on July 1--becoming the most deadly of the Civil War, as both sides fed more and more forces into the fight.

The battle began badly for the Union, and a Southern victory was actually in Lee's grasp in the first day. Union soldiers fought on, knowing that this battle had to be won in order to stop the South's advance.

The Army of the Potomac had a new commander, Gen. George Meade. Though not a brilliant strategist, he was able to provide a competent leadership during the battle, which put him head and shoulders above McClellan. The real heroes of the battle, however, were the rank-and-file soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. They suffered appalling losses, 23,000 in all, but they inflicted 28,000 on Lee's army.

The Union side repelled one last head-on assault by Confederate soldiers on July 3, and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated. Once again, Meade didn't pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia as Lincoln urged.

JULY 1863 was critical in a number of other respects.

The Civil War wasn't only a fight between the Northern and Southern states. Within the North, there were supporters of the Confederacy, known as the Copperheads, with their base in southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Not long after Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan rode with nearly 2,000 cavalry forces onto the north side of the Ohio River, through Indiana and Ohio, in the hopes of stirring a Copperhead uprising.

No such uprising took place. But during this incursion into the North, New York City was gripped by the draft riots on July 13-16.

Less than 10 percent of Union soldiers were drafted into the war--92 percent volunteered. Many of the soldiers who joined up earlier in the war were politically motivated. But the impact of the draft was on the poorer white population of the North. Poor immigrants, mainly Irish, protested the draft system, which allowed richer men to pay for a substitute.

The draft riots of 1863 began initially over the issue of conscription, but quickly targeted the Black residents of New York City--they were blamed as the cause of the war. More than 100 African Americans were killed by white mobs.

A few days later, on July 18, in South Carolina, the 54th Massachusetts, an all-Black regiment with white officers, fought heroically in a Union attempt to overrun the defenders of Fort Wagner, an important coastal Confederate fortification. Their story is told in the movie Glory. The courage and determination of the Massachusetts 54th's assault demonstrated to the populations of North and South alike that Black soldiers would fight as well or better than white soldiers.

The July Days of 1863 expressed all of the contradictions of the Civil War in the North, with reactionaries and revolutionaries and many more in the middle. It has also rightly gone down in history as the turning point that led to the death of slavery in the South.

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