With regards to the Union victory at Gettysburg being the turning point of the American Civil War:

  • Were there any major Confederate victories after the battle of Gettysburg?
  • Did the Confederacy ever come close to returning the war to their favor?
  • If they did come close are their any battles that historians regard as a battle that if it had gone the other way it would have led to a longer/drawn out war?

Or would I be more correct in thinking that following the battle of Gettysburg it seemed that any chance of a Confederacy victory was very slim?

6 Answers 6


Besides the battle losses, the period around the battle of Gettysburg had two important strategic effects. 1) It established the winner, George G. Meade, as the General of the army of the Potomac. 2) More to the point, it established U.S. Grant, who captured Vicksburg at about the same time as Meade's boss.

The Army of the Potomac began the 1864 campaign with the battle of the Wilderness, suffering losses at worse than the two- to one ratio by which the North outnumbered the South. This qualifies as a major Confederate victory, and under different circumstances, might have helped them win the war.

Meade actually wanted to retreat, like all his predecessors. But when the Union army marched east to reach the main north-south road, Grant stood in the intersection, facing west, with his left hand pointing SOUTH. This forced a followup battle at Spotsylvania, where the casualty ratio was about one to one.

This gave Grant the idea of forcing battles at a one to one (or slightly worse, for the Union) casualty ratio. When questioned about his bloody tactics, his reply was "I plan to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer." The South could not survive such a war of attrition. Does Grant's use of attrition tactic support his reputation as a general?

The battle that might have decided the war in favor of the South was the battle of Chancellorsville (just before Gettysburg). There, Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson conceived a bold plan to cut off and capture the entire Union army after a successful initial flank assault. In reconnoitering the ground (at night) for this plan, he was shot by his own men, who mistook his blue overcoat for a northern uniform. This cost the South both a lost opportunity, and the services of Jackson himself.

  • 4
    There is no evidence that Meade wanted to retreat after Wilderness - he had troubles with hostile reporters. He tossed a reporter out of the army for claiming this. But Meade, alone, would not have had the clout to be comfortable fighting battles like the Wilderness and the other Overland battles. Grant had to provide the moral support and military cover.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 0:32
  • When the Union army retreated from the Wilderness on the east-west road, it was GRANT who stood in the intersection of the north-south road directing traffic SOUTH.. Also, Meade had a chance to win the war right after Gettysburg (by pursuing and destroying the defeated Confederates) and failed to do so. Not having done so after a victory, it's unlikely that he'd do so after a defeat. Only a bulldog like Grant (or Prussia's Marshal Blucher) would do so. Also, Caesar at Alesia.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 15:16

Chickamauga in September, 1863 was also a major tactial victory for the Confederates, although due to inadequate resources and command controversies they were unable to sustain the campaign and change the strategic outcome in the western theater. Interestingly, James Longstreet, the commander of Picket's charge, was sent west with his troops after Gettysburg and was able to exploit a gap in the Union lines at Chickamauga - his charge turned the battle into a rout. Longstreet subsequently had a falling out with army commander Braxton Bragg, had perhaps his low point in command for a failed campaign in eastern Tennessee, and returned to Lee's army in the spring of 1864.

Union victory was not viewed as certain after Gettysburg. Heavy casualties led to a decrease in morale in the North. Lincoln had major doubts about his chances for re-election throughout 1864. The Union victory at the Battle of Atlanta in September provided momentum for the November election. If the South had somehow been able to drive Sherman back into Tennessee it might have been enough to give victory to the Democrats, who ran on a peace platform (despite the opposition of their candidate, George McClellan). A Lincoln loss in turn may have led England and France to reconsider their positions and for them to actively push the North to make a settlement.

  • Vey good points, especially about the election. +1 Commented May 7, 2014 at 5:44

After Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Confederacy had little hope of an ultimate military victory over the Union army. Their best remaining hope was for a political victory. They nearly achieved it. Grant's Overland campaign was very bloody, and closely covered by journalists (who had some antipathy toward General Meade). The subsequent siege of Petersburg dragged on for close to 10 months without seeming to achieve anything. The summer of 1864 was one of the lowest ebbs for Northern political support of Lincoln and the war.

Most historians say that if the election had been held in late August, Lincoln might not have won. The Democratic platform included making peace with the Confederacy; so that would have been the political victory the Confederacy needed. Then Sherman took Atlanta on Sept 3, and the North was re-invigorated. Lincoln wins reelection in a landslide.

It follows that the Atlanta campaign and siege should be a good place to look for a military result that, had it gone the other way, might have given the Confederacy its political victory. There is a controversial decision in that campaign. On July 17, Jefferson Davis relieved a capable, defensive-minded general (Joe Johnston), and replaced him with a reckless one (John Bell Hood). Six weeks later Sherman was in Atlanta.

Could the canny Johnston have held Atlanta for two months longer than Hill did? Maybe Sherman would have had Atlanta anyway; but could Johnson have held it thru the 1864 elections? That's where I would look, for a "last turning point."


Consider the strategic situation. The South was losing. The Mississippi was Union-controlled except around Vicksburg (until Grant took it too), cutting off a good chunk of the Confederacy. The Union blockade was in effect, making it very difficult for the Confederacy to trade abroad. The Emancipation Proclamation had made it politically impossible for any European power to come out in favor of the Confederacy, since it established the war as for and against slavery. Southern industry and resources were unable to supply armies big enough to win.

Lee's idea to prevent the fall of the CSA was essentially to make the Army of Virginia too dangerous to the North, threatening Washington and parts north, so that Lincoln would feel compelled to make peace despite the strategic situation. Essentially, the South's only hope was aggressive action east of the Appalachians. Any failure in that would allow the Union to exploit its strategic advantages. Gettysburg was the last attempt, and with its failure as a clear Union victory, it wasn't going to be repeated.

In 1864, Grant went with Meade to pin down Lee's army in Virginia, while Sherman swept through the Confederate heartland, effectively destroying the Confederate ability to resist.


After forces were drawn off in the autumn for 1863 for Chickamauga and Chattanooga - Longstreet's corps for the south, and the XI and XII corps for the north, Lee again tried to turn the Army of the Potomac and win a victory.

Meade was too deft, and after Lee suffered a severe check at Bristoe Station the two stood back at the Bull Run battlefield. Lee retreated but left a fortified post at Rappohannock Station, which Meade attacked and wiped out, capturing most of a brigade of troops.

Lee retreated behind the Rapidan, and Meade followed but cancelled an attack at Mine Run, and that was it for the winter.

So Lee tried for more in that fall, but Meade was too good to be netted, and delivered small but punishing blows in return.

  • Interesting. I have actually never heard of this. Do you have a site or book source? I'd like to look into this a little more. Thanks for the fresh answer :)
    – sealz
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 15:15
  • 1
    Historians tend to skip straight from Gettysburg to the Overland campaign too. Probably the best coverage, and very accessible ones too, is in Volume II of Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy. The state of Virginia produced a series of histories on little known actions and they cover these battles in a little book each. Savas Beattie just produced a "maps" book: "The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns: An Atlas of the Battles and Movements in the Eastern Theater after Gettysburg" you can get at Amazon. I have it but haven't read it.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 17:44

The Civil War is largely written about in terms of the importance of the Eastern theater, and Gettysburg as the turning point of the War. However, as far as a battle the south could have won that would have made a major impact on the war, I suggest the much earlier (Feb 1862) fight at Ft. Donelson. The Union victory there compelled the abandonment of Kentucky and much of Tennessee. Tennessee was the second most populous state in the Confederacy and a leading agricultural producer, as well. Large military manufacturing capabilities at Nashville were lost, along with considerable iron manufacturing in the area between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.

Gettysburg ended the last serious Confederate offensive operation in the east and was certainly important for protecting Washington and for national morale. However, Donelson, the Tullahoma campaign--which cost the Confederacy most of the rest of Tennessee--and the Vicksburg campaign seem to me to have been more important, strategically. After Vicksburg, the 3 Trans-Mississippi states were lost to the Confederacy. Even after the debacle at Chickamauga, the Union held Chattanooga and Knoxville in East Tennessee; Tennessee's resources were lost, along with the shortest rail connection between Virginia and Georgia.

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