Gettysburg or Vicksburg: Which Was More Important? July 4, 2013Brooks D. Simpson You tell me. Take Our Poll Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:Like Loading... Related
I believe the two victories to be significantly equal in value, though certainly not for the same reasons. From a strictly strategic standpoint, Vicksburg opened the Mississippi River to the Union and completed the encirclement of the Confederacy, literally cutting the CSA off from the rest of the world [with the exception of the rare and all too lacking in value of any type except morale]. Additionally, Vicksburg was the catalyst that brought Grant east, where he would finish the war in what was a half military and half political theater of combat [Grant had proven himself highly capable in both disciplines]. There were no significant threats west of Nashville, and he could afford to leave Sherman in southern Tennessee to take command there.
Gettysburg was important on many levels. The most obvious are the military and political ones. But the morale boost that came from that July 4th news came predominantly from Gettysburg, and the corresponding blow to southern morale was principally from the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Additionally, The Army of Northern Virginia suffered major losses in manpower and command, supplies and livestock, while gaining absolutely nothing but defeat. The Battle showed how big a loss Jackson’s death was, as it affected the way the Confederate commanders from Lee down to brigade command performed. Lee’s army would fight on for another twenty or so months, but it would never again be the threat it was prior to Jackson’s death. Conversely, Gettysburg marked the coming of age of the Army of the Potomac, which showed signs of getting there at Antietam and South Mountain, but had that confidence shattered at Fredericksburg by a commander who was as lacking as an Army commander as he stated he was to Lincoln. At Chancellorsville, they got it back only to see it yanked from under them by a commander who, probably due to head trauma, lost his way and ordered a retreat just as his men were rallying successfully. At Gettysburg they had a commander who allowed his subordinates to make key decisions, and who backed them up, at the same time having a plan B just in case. His preparations for movement of the army to Gettysburg were superb.
And the men got their revenge for the debacle at Fredericksburg. Additionally, it solidified the Army of the Potomac as a strong, veteran fighting force, and prepared them to work for Grant.
Both victories were huge, both likely presented Lincoln with enough confidence that the war was indeed winnable. Both showed that Lincoln was a better war-president than the USMA graduate and combat veteran, Jefferson Davis. Each presented significantly different after effects with Vicksburg being a more meaningful strategic victory, but Gettysburg being a more significant political and morale victory for the people of the North.
Take either one away and the other shines more brightly, but together, they were two gems in the crown of ultimate Union Victory.
I agree with your assessment. Politically Gettysburg was very important as a victory. However, even if the Confederates had won at Gettysburg what would they have won? They sustained an enormous amount of manpower losses and that would not have changed with a victory. They would not have been able to capitalize on the victory. A blocking maneuver would have placed the Army of the Potomac between Lee and the South forcing Lee to attack again in order to go South. Moving any other direction would have resulted in the gradual attrition of his forces which would have rendered the Army of Northern Virginia impotent after a while.
What Gettysburg did show was that it was exceedingly difficult for either side to sustain an offense away from their support. This had been going on for the previous two years. Also, most of the major battles either side had won were defensive in nature and on their own ground. Of all the commanders in the war to this point, only one, Grant, had displayed the ability to envision a campaign which culminated in victory. Not only a military victory, but a strategic one at that.
The fact that these two victories occurred in the same week after so many Union losses was very telling. The Union was not quitting. Lincoln wasn’t throwing in the towel which could be taken by modern viewers as something unthinkable in today’s era. No, he had the same problem the South had: no general to that point had shown themselves to be capable of envisioning a winning strategy, the ability to plan a long term campaign using the resources available, and an aggressive military mindset that was willing to suffer some losses while achieving the long term campaign goals.
That is, no general in the East….
Gary Gallagher would disagree that Gettysburg was a bigger blow to Confederate morale than Vicksburg.
Kent Masterson Brown (and probably Eric Wittenberg) would disagree that Lee’s army gained no logistical benefits from the Gettysburg campaign.
I would like to see something that quantifies the value of opening “the Mississippi River to the Union” beyond some meager supplies from the west. Most of the Mississippi was cut off by Union forces in Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri.
Actually, opening the Mississippi allowed the transportation of troops and supplies up and down the river, and gave almost unfettered access to the interior of the middle South via the river systems.
It also cut off safe access to the west for the Confederacy. Anything that came across the Mississippi after the fall of Vicksburg came by stealth. That automatically pretty much choked the flow to a trickle.
Sorry W.G. The transportation of troops and supplies to where to do what? And Vicksburg gave access to what river systems specifically? And the states west of the Mississippi were contributing how much to the east before Vicksburg fell? Note that I am not condemning the North’s riverine strategy in this. It is just a comparison of the impact of the two battles or at least what should have been the full impact of Gettysburg — the destruction of Lee’s army but at least enough pain was put on it to keep it south of the Potomac for the rest of the war.
I was going to comment but find W. G. Davis has said it better then I can. Vicksburg important strategically = Gettysburg important both militarily and politically…
In a democracy public opinion is crucial. Northerners saw the AOP as their premier army. All the victories in the West did not convince them that the AOp could defeat Lee and “win the war”. Gettysburg restored confidence in the population center of the North.
Also, if Grant had failed to take Vicksburg and Meade had been defeated by Lee, I think the later would have had the more disastrous result.
This is why I think of them as equivalent.
I disagree — northerners watched with great interest the developments in the west and the surrender of Vicksburg was celebrated widely in northern cities.
A meaningless justification from a strategic perspective.
Neither Gettysburg nor Vicksburg showed that Lincoln was a better war President than Jefferson Davis. That is patently absurd. What they demonstrated was the simple fact that the United States had huge, enormous, advantages in resources, men, and materials over Confederate States. And without those extraordinary advantages, the U.S, very obviously, does not win the war.
All those disadvantages makes you really wonder why the South decided to start a war that they could not win. It is colossal bad judgment calls like the one Jefferson Davis made when he decided to order the attack on Ft. Sumter that go down in history as some of the biggest errors ever made. Of all the mistakes made from 1860-1865 that has to be the worst one.
Jeff Davis as Vizzini? It all makes sense now…
I agree, Davis’ order to fire on Sumter was a massive blunder by someone who really did not have both feet in reality.
As for Lincoln, his worst blunder was re-posting McClellan to command the Army if the Potomac, followed closely by posting McClellan to that command the first time.
Both sides knew that going in. Both sides knew going in that the South could not win militarily but had to achieve enough success to gain international support.
By 1863 Lincoln was far more attuned to the capabilities and limitations of the military forces under his command than was Davis. Davis was, quite simply, not a realist, but a zealot, and that affected his military thinking. And remember, Davis’ military record in the field consisted of getting his force surrounded by Mexican badly enough that he needed John Fulton Reynolds artillery to rescue him.
By 1862 Lincoln was out-thinking McClellan on the Peninsula, and post-Antietam.
Lincoln had an army that learned and grew, Davis had one that did not take lessons from the battles it fought, and shrank in size.
I think that all makes him a far superior war president that Davis. There is more of course: the civilian morale, the ability to maintain the national war effort,
And then there is the South’s raising of Black/Slave troops to fight for it…in March of 1865, some three weeks or so before Lee’s surrender. It is a dilemma that Davis never solved.
Something that would provide the manpower the Army needed, and yet it would make hypocrisy of their reason for secession.
Meanwhile, Lincoln was using the war to free slaves, and pushing Congress to make it permanent.
There really is little comparison between the two with their presidencies, Lincoln’s was far more successful and accomplished far more than did Davis, militarily and politically.
Actually, if you look at the forces involved in both battles, the disparity in sizes is not that large. Grant began his campaign against Vicksburg with a smaller army than Pemberton’s. At Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac pitted 94,000 men against Lee’s 75,000–that’s not even 1.5 to 1. Another factor, at least in the West, was that the advance south, with ever longer supply lines, required many garrisons to be left behind to protect them. This had a tendency to sap the Northern advantage in manpower. At one point during the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman had nearly half his total strength strung out along the Western & Atlantic Railroad protecting his supply line back to Chattanooga. But I agree, there was a great disparity in the raw materials and industrial capacities of the two regions.
Depends on what you’re comparing. A Confederate victory at Gettysburg could have had a profound impact on war. A Union victory at Vicksburg, meant the war went on for almost another 2 years. The union occupation of Vicksburg without the temporary loss of 30,000 confederates – meant little. The Confederate’s instead of shipping men from Lee to Vicksburg, should have taken Joe Johnston 20,000 men and shipped them to Lee. Result: Probable Confederate victory at Gettysburg.
In the big picture, IMVHO, they were both of equal importance. People seem to forget there was a western theater too.
Because the west was a road to nowhere. Cutting off the least populous states meant nothing. Controlling the Mississippi was near irrelevant.
What about reopening the Mississippi to Midwestern shipping? Had producers in the Midwest already found economical work-arounds or was the river still a commodities highway.
Ending the war earlier opens up many more markets. Grant did not go west when given total command or even to Georgia. There is a reason he went after Lee — to end the war. Why was Lincoln angry after Antietam and Gettysburg? Because Lee’s army was not destroyed. Pemberton’s was at Vicksburg and Johnson got hammered and it changed nothing.
Not exactly. Mexico was a major supplier of mercury to to the Confederacy. Mercury was needed to produce mercury fulminate, the explosive primer used in percussion caps for small arms and friction primers for artillery pieces. Texas, likewise, was a principal source of food and of horses for the Confederate cavalry. Complete Union control of the Mississippi cut these off, as well as all other trade with Mexico and the Trans-Mississippi. It was a huge blow to the fragile Confederate economy, as well as to its military.
Gettysburg was a huge morale-booster for the Union, as the Army of the Potomac’s campaigns recieved more media attention–they operated closest to the U.S. capitol. But it arguably settled little militarily, apart from heavy casualties which hurt Lee’s offensive power. Even so, Jubal Early would make another thrust at Northern territory during the Overland Campaign the next year.
Having said all that, both Vicksburg and Gettysburg were unquestionably tremendous victories.
Indeed, not arguing that as I admire Grant. But until Lee was destroyed, what happened in the West was pretty irrelevant.
Until the Western army came up the east coast from Savannah. If Lee hadn’t already been pushed near his breaking point, the Western and Eastern armies would have crushed Lee between them.
Yes, and in addition to that, Sherman’s activities in Georgia and the Carolinas ensured that Lee’s army would be much smaller when the final confrontation came. In addition to creating serious food shortages for soldier and civilian alike, desertion in the ANV went through the roof as a direct result of these destructive marches.
That depends on whether you’re fighting to preserve the Confederate States of America or the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. Look at a map of the CSA as we progress from summer, 1862 to January, 1865. While the Big Dance was going on between Henrico County and Fairfax County, the rest of the gray area on that map was shrinking exponentially.
For that matter, suppose McClellan learns how to count in 1862, thrashes the ANV, and takes Richmond. Assuming Davis and enough Confederate Congresscritters escape, the war ain’t over. The whole West still has to be conquered and subdued – they’re not ready to roll over and play dead by a long shot. Vicksburg and Atlanta and much else still need to be taken. Maybe the war ends a year or two early. Maybe not – both sides are going to shift whoever they’ve got left to the west to slug it out there.
WG did a nice job of summing it up.
Would a Confederate victory at Gettysburg have had a profound impact on war? Anymore than the other Confederate victory’s of the ANV? It would have only been a set back for the Union.
How can anyone possibly believe that anything but beating Lee’s army was most important? Both sides put way to much effort in the west.
The war was won and lost in the West. Without the occupation of Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi River Valley, which contained most of the South’s assets in manufacturing, agriculture, railroads, and trade, the war would have lasted a LOT longer. The Western Federal armies crushed the life out of the Confederacy, destroying its ability to wage war and finally approaching Lee’s back doorstep, while the Army of the Potomac spent nearly the whole war less than 200 miles from Washington.
The strategic consequences of doing nothing in the West would have been staggering. The Confederates could have occupied Kentucky–gaining its resources and threatening the whole Midwest; the Union could have done what it did with less opposition. Had both sides merely pumped those troops into the two major Eastern armies, the war would have been a never-ending meat grinder– like fighting Germany in WWII without a second front to divide enemy resources. Plus, history shows that the capture of Richmond did not end the war.
When the defender has fewer troops, it’s strategically to the attacker’s advantage to make him try to defend as large a front as possible.
I’m in general agreement with SF Walker. I’m currently convinced (always open to being convinced otherwise) that the Civil War was won in the Western theater. I actually believe the Confederates did enough to gain independence by how they waged war in Virginia and along the Atlantic coast. If the Confederates could have blunted some of the Union movements in the West this would have cost the Lincoln administration time and probably political support. Lincoln may would have then lost the 1864 election because he couldn’t seemingly bring closure to the war.
Those are good points. Lincoln’s re-election was decided by events in the West–specifically the capture of Atlanta and Mobile Bay. There certainly wasn’t any news coming from Virginia that would have kept him in the White House. Like you said, had Bragg or Johnston been able to keep the Union armies out of the Southern heartland like Lee was doing, even for a few more months, Lincoln may well have been defeated.
Those are good points on Tennessee and making the south defend everywhere but this strategy did not occur until Grant was in command of all of the Army though unbelievably it was McClellan who first devised this strategy but was unable to execute. Perhaps if McClellan had been in Halleck’s position. Never the less, this misses the main point that destroying Lee by clamping down like a pit bull on him was the most important thing to do and Gettysburg helped make that possible while Grant’s victory at Vicksburg was certainly not part of any organized Union strategy nor had the impact of Gettysburg. Grant was to demonstrate how to clamp onto Lee like a pitbull and thus end the war.
Actually this was always the Union’s strategy–Grant’s campaigns against Forts Donelson and Henry and his occupation of central Tennessee in early 1862 (culminating in the Battle of Shiloh) were part of it. His campaign against Vicksburg, along with the capture of Memphis, Island No. 10, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Port Hudson by other forces were part of Scott’s Anaconda Plan to cripple Southern trade and logistics. The victory at Vicksburg didn’t have the media impact that Gettysburg did, but it was nonetheless effective.
What the Army of the Potomac did was keep Lee occupied so his troops couldn’t interfere with any of this–even if the result was a stalemate, it served its purpose in the grand scheme of things. My point is that what happened in the West helped make an early defeat of Lee’s army possible. Basically the Union “held” in the East and “hit” in the West.
What Grant did after being given command of all Union armies was to try to make them operate simultaneously against the Confederates in all theaters in a more organized way than they’d been doing previously. He was too late to put a stop to shenanigans like Banks’ Red River Campaign, though, which effectively marched 40,000 veteran Union troops right out of the war–with the useless objective of occupying Shreveport in the Trans-Mississippi, which the Union conquest of the “Father of Waters” had already isolated.
Grant’s 1864 plan was basically this: Meade would attack Lee in Virginia, Sherman would move against Johnston and Atlanta, Butler would advance down the James and threaten Richmond, and Sigel would operate against the Shenandoah Valley.
Like Lincoln pointed out, whoever wasn’t skinning could hold a leg while someone else skinned.
I notice in the voting that while “Vicksburg” and “Equally Important” have almost the same number of vote, “Gettysburg” gets only a third as many. Is there a sort of political correctness in which people who really view Gettysburg as more important (if their book expenditures and tourist dollars are any indication) feel that they have to add in that more western place and vote for Battleground Equality.
Self selection has an impact on responses, true?
The more interesting question is this: What if lee had “won” on the the 1st day or 2nd day? What then? Worst case, the AoP shambles back to Washington (Like AoV after Bull Run) and regroups. More militia are called up to protect Baltimore and Philadelphia. Maybe, 20,000 men from Rosecrans are sent East.
Great discussion, everyone (particularly nice analysis, Jeff). I agree with a lot of what’s been said. However, I do think the Vicksburg and Pea Ridge campaigns showed that it was quite possible to sustain an offense away from an army’s source of support. And, with a victorious ANV just 35 miles from Harrisburg, not sure I can agree that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg wouldn’t have had a major impact. Even a quick raid on Harrisburg and return to VA would have been huge. Vicksburg was important, just not equally important. Surprised to see I’m in such a small minority in thinking that. 🙂
Vicksburg by far. Remember that this citadel had occupied most of the focus of the Union forces in the West for almost a year. Its fall allowed Grant’s (later Sherman’s) forces to move further into the interior of the South, with no major force to slow them down.
A Confederate victory at Gettysburg would not have been decisive (unless one assumes that Lee was able to wreck every Union corps as it came up – not a likely scenario). Lee might have stayed in Pennsylvania for a few more months, but would then probably retreat back to Virgina in September.
Without considering the events that transpired in East and Middle Tennessee, this debate is meaningless. Logistically, Union moves there ripped the guts out of the Confederate war machine. Copper, nitre, iron and coal from Tennessee provided the material foundation for all of the Confederate military forces. Without these raw materials, the Confederate factories in Selma, Columbus, Macon, Atlanta, and Augusta soon began to see crippling shortages. Tennessee corn and hogs fed the Confederate armies. Without this abundance, the Confederate commissary soon found it difficult to meet the demands of the Confederate armies. We must take all three events of summer 1863 (Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma) into account when thinking about the important events of June and July 1863.
The way I look at it is: imagine losing at Gettysburg. I think that was possible (unlike Vicksburg, at least during the final month or so), would have been disastrous, and might have led to a settlement by the North (and possibly Lincoln’s impeachment; note the near simultaneous draft riot in NYC as it was, before word of the victories). Vicksburg might well have been regained in any negotiations. Vicksburg was about winning a rook — a gain in position and relative strength. But Gettysburg was about protecting the king. It was about not losing the game.