Secession and Civil War

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Why were the Vicksburg siege and Gettysburg battle crucial to the war's outcome?

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The two Union victories, which occurred almost simultaneously (Gettysburg on July 3 and Vicksburg on July 4, 1863) were together arguably the turning point of the war, though some might dispute this because the war dragged on for another year and nine months, with some of the heaviest fighting and...

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worst casualties during that period. Of the two engagements in question, many Americans would be surprised at the claim that Vicksburg was the more important. Grant's victory there meant that the Mississippi River was now under Union control. The Confederates were no longer able to use it for transportation and the supplying of their armies, and the Confederacy was now effectively split in two. There was also a psychological component to the Union victory that is often overlooked. The advantage the South had from the start was the vastness of its territory and the fact that Confederate forces merely had to fight a defensive war in order to win. The burden of conquest lay entirely upon the Union: in order to achieve victory, the Union had to take over a huge land-mass on a scale that had really never been done in modern times. With the example of the War of Independence behind us, in which it had been impossible for the British to subdue even the smaller land-mass of the original thirteen colonies, it seemed to many an insurmountable task for the North to "conquer" the South. However, in the West (which at that time meant all the area west of the Appalachians), Grant overcame huge obstacles, and in an relatively short space of time—only a little more than a year and a half—carried out one brilliant campaign after another in which the Confederate forts and strongholds fell one by one, culminating in Vicksburg. Southerners at the time were enormously disheartened by this final defeat in that series of campaigns.

The question of Gettysburg is more complex because at the time, though the Union won the battle, the failure of Meade to follow up the victory and destroy Lee's army was seen as a missed opportunity. Many people at the time believed that if Meade had not permitted Lee to escape through the mountain passes west of Gettysburg, retreat south, and get his army back over the Potomac, the war would have ended then and there. However, Gettysburg demonstrated once and for all that Lee could be beaten. Before this, Lee's military prowess had, in the space of a year since the Seven Days's battles outside Richmond, taken on an almost mythic status. As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had scored a string of huge victories, the only exception being Antietam, which was more or less a stalemate. All of these had been achieved against borderline incompetent or timid Union generals: McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker. In spite of the failure to pursue Lee after Gettysburg, the victory there demonstrated Lee's vulnerability and meant that he would never again attempt to invade Northern territory. This too was, like Vicksburg, a psychological as well as military triumph for the Union. Though from this point the war was still theoretically winnable for the Confederates, the fact of these nearly simultaneous victories meant that the odds were against them.

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Vicksburg and Gettysburg were two crucial Union victories that were made even more important because they occurred just days apart in July of 1863. Vicksburg, Mississippi occupied bluff atop a bend in the river, and as long as it was under Confederate control, the Union could not fully control navigation on the river, which had been a major strategic objective from the beginning of the war. Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863 after a siege of almost two months. The loss was a crippling one for the Confederacy, which saw its western department severed from the East. It also resulted in the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious commander at Vicksburg, to command of all Union forces.

One day before Vicksburg's surrender, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been halted in its invasion of Pennsylvania at the battle of Gettysburg. Lee's forces, which had achieved a series of stunning victories, were repulsed after a series of attempts, over three bloody days, to smash through the Union lines outside the small town in the Pennsylvania countryside. The battle marked the "high-water mark" for the Confederacy, which would engage in strategically defensive operations only from that point forward. Taken together, the two battles are viewed by historians as the crucial turning points of the war in the western and eastern theaters, respectively.

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