News Flash: Gettysburg Wasn’t “The Turning Point” of the Civil War

If you have even the slightest interest in the American Civil War (and any American  who doesn’t needs some serious brain recombobulation), you know that the great battle of Gettysburg happened 150 years ago this month.

For the past few weeks, the Internet and newspapers have been full of stories about the anniversary of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, which climaxed on July 4th with the hideously foolish and disastrous “Pickett’s Charge.” There were massive reenactments of the battle, people camping out in period costume, and all kinds of stuff about how it was “The Turning Point” of the Civil War.

Except it wasn’t.

Something far more critical to the outcome of that incredibly bloody war was happening at the very same time that all those Americans were slaughtering each other on the fields surrounding that little Pennsylvania town.

Just over 1,000 miles to the southeast, on that same July 4th, 1663, Vicksburg surrendered and totally changed the Civil War.

Don’t misunderstand: Robert E. Lee’s failure to whip the Union army at Gettysburg was important. The Confederates might have changed history if they’d won.

But the biggest Union victory went to the men under Ulysses S. Grant. The surrender of Vicksburg, which followed one of the most dazzling military campaigns in American history, opened up the Mississippi. It cut off the western Confederacy. From that moment on, Lee and Jefferson Davis and their would-be slave-holding nation were doomed.

The reason Gettysburg gets all the attention it does has to do with how ungodly horrible it was; and that it happened near Washington, D.C., under the noses of the eastern newspapers; and that it meant that gray genius named Lee had finally been whupped.

But it didn’t match the fact that, as Grant put it in a telegram to Lincoln, “The father of waters rolls unvexed to the sea.” That’s how important the Mississippi was then, and may still be, to the American economy.

So next time you hear something was “The Turning Point,” you might want to take a little closer look. And remember that Gettysburg wasn’t.

National Park Service photo.

National Park Service photo.

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