Today, July 3, is the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, more specifically, it’s the anniversary of the day that the Confederacy failed to break the Union line with Pickett’s Charge. In the last few years it seems to have become de rigueur to say that the South never had a chance to win the Civil War. I can’t prove it but I suspect the view started its rise in popularity when Shelby Foote stated it in Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War. And yet, that view has always seemed to me to be somewhat one dimensional.
It is true, of course, that the Confederacy never truly had the resources—military or otherwise—to defeat the North. The North (not even counting the Border States) had a population of 18.5 million people, versus the South’s 9 million, more than a third of which were slaves. The North had almost five times the number of factories, and nearly ten times the number of factory workers. The North’s railroad system was almost twice as large as the South’s. At the War’s height, the Union’s military was more than 2.6 million strong, versus the South’s 1.2 million. [Source: National Park Service]
And yet, those numbers alone do not mean that the South’s defeat was inevitable. War never takes place in the realm of the military alone. It exists, of course, in the larger political realm. That the South had little chance to utterly defeat the North militarily misses the point. While the North had to impose its will on the South, the South’s strategic goal was different, if not more difficult to accomplish. It had to convince the North that the war wasn’t worth fighting, and that it would be better to the South go its own way—a goal the Confederacy came closest to achieving in those few days at Gettysburg.
The immediate aim of Lee’s invasion of the North in that Summer of 1863 was to defeat the Army of the Potomac, and thereby force the Union to pull troops away from the siege at Vicksburg to counter him. But his move North had deeper strategic goals too. A clear Union defeat on its own ground, as well as the relief of Vicksburg, offered the possibility of a European intervention to broker a piece. (Although slavery’s continued existence would seem to preclude that.) A Confederate victory, especially one that lead to Washington being directly threatened—from the north, no less—would almost certainly have doomed Lincoln’s reelection, and brought the Democrats back into power. Although the Democrat’s nominee, Major General George McClellan, was pro-war, his running mate, George Pendleton was a leader of the peace faction of the party, and had very close tie to the Copperheads, those who openly advocated letting the South go its way. In fact, the party platform was for peace, although McClellan rejected it.
Playing “What If” is a fun, if not futile, game where history is concerned. But it’s not too much to say that had Colonel William Oate’s men turned the Union flank on Little Round Top on the afternoon or July 2, or had Pickett’s Charge broken the Union line at Cemetery Ridge the next day—had Lee defeated the Army of the Potomac yet again—the South may very well had convinced the North that it was not worth paying the price to hold the Union together. In short, the Confederacy would have shown the North’s superior numbers to have been ultimately irrelevant.
For more information about the Battle of Gettysburg, read Carl Smith’s Gettysburg 1863 (Campaign 52).