Dr. Mark R. Scherer, associate professor and chairman of the department of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is one of two scholars who will delivers a series of lectures at the Durham Museum this year tied to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We asked him to write an essay about his speech.
Historians frequently speak of “turning points” in war — events or time periods that produce crucial changes in the progress, nature or ultimate outcome of a conflict. During the Civil War, no period better fit that description than the year 1863. Indeed, that year might justifiably be considered the single most critical 12-month period in all of American history. As we now mark the sesquicentennial of that momentous time, it is — to borrow Lincoln's elegant phrase — “altogether fitting” to recall some of the key events of 1863 and reflect on their enduring legacy.
During the first 18 months of fighting, Confederate forces in the eastern theater had defeated Union armies in almost every major engagement. Desperately seeking a leader who could match wits with Robert E. Lee and his fellow officers, President Lincoln had already repeatedly relieved and replaced his commanding generals.
In the western theater, Union naval and ground forces in the Mississippi and Tennessee River valleys had experienced greater tactical success, but complete victory still remained an uncertain prospect. As the fighting dragged on with no end in sight, popular support for the war waned in many northern regions, and the Confederate government continued to maneuver toward one of its most cherished goals — gaining formal diplomatic recognition from the British Empire and other European powers.
The political dynamics of the period were equally troublesome. Lincoln endured scathing attacks not only from the rival Democratic Party, but also from the increasingly strident abolitionist faction within his own Republican Party, who denounced what they saw as his half-hearted efforts to deal with the great moral issue of slavery, which they (correctly) viewed as the fundamental cause of the war.
Though he personally detested slavery on both humanitarian and economic grounds, Lincoln had consistently maintained that, as president, he did not possess the constitutional authority to unilaterally abolish it. He had repeatedly asserted that his sole aim in prosecuting the war was not to end slavery but to preserve the Union.
In an oft-quoted August 1862 letter to newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, Lincoln said: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Even as he wrote those words, however, Lincoln understood that the crisis of the Union might soon compel him to change course. On Sept. 22, 1862, he announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves held in any state that remained in rebellion against the federal government would be “thenceforward and forever free.”
Lincoln found the authority for this bold step in his wartime powers as commander-in-chief and justified it as a matter of military necessity. To no one's surprise, the Confederate states ignored Lincoln's announcement. In the late afternoon of Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the final proclamation into effect. That moment was nothing less than the definitive turning point in American history — the act that would finally bring the nation face-to-face with its “original sin.”
While it is true, as countless commentators have noted, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, the larger point is that the Proclamation fundamentally altered the very nature of the war. It assured that, as the struggle went on, and as Union military and industrial strength inexorably prevailed, more than 4 million slaves would become “forever free.” The Civil War had been transformed into a campaign of human liberation. The country, and indeed the world, would never be the same.
Still, that dramatic result remained more than two years away as 1863 began, and the nation would have to endure far more political, social and military trauma before it would be achieved. As volunteer enlistments declined, Congress enacted a controversial Conscription Act in March, which provided that draftees could pay a fee or hire a substitute to avoid serving. Those “rich man's exemptions,” combined with the unpopularity of the Emancipation Proclamation among some segments of the northern populace, led to widespread ethnic and class-based conflict that spawned riots in New York City and elsewhere.
The proclamation also specifically authorized the enlistment of African-Americans into Union ranks, further altering the dynamics of military operations on both sides. Ultimately, more than 175,000 black soldiers served in the Union armies and some 37,000 died in the fighting, a rate of loss that was more than 40 percent higher than among white troops.
In early May, Union military fortunes suffered yet another humiliating setback at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In that engagement, Union commander Joseph Hooker crossed the Rappahannock River to attack Lee's numerically inferior forces arrayed in position to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond some 60 miles to their rear. In an operation that defied conventional military wisdom, Lee divided his forces and counterattacked at three separate locations. After several days of intense fighting, Hooker withdrew in defeat.
Though Lee's army suffered more than 12,000 casualties, including the death of his most aggressive and effective subordinate, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, many historians view the victory at Chancellorsville as his most brilliant achievement, and its immediate effects were immense. Besides cementing Lee's reputation as a seemingly infallible tactician, it further demoralized the northern war effort and produced yet another change in the Union leadership, as Hooker resigned and Lincoln replaced him with Gen. George Meade.
Even more significantly, the victory at Chancellorsville emboldened the Confederate leadership to launch their second and last major invasion of Union territory — an offensive that would culminate at Gettysburg. Seeking to achieve multiple diplomatic, military and economic goals, Lee moved his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac into Maryland in mid-June, and then marched northward into Pennsylvania. His soldiers foraged as they advanced, seizing livestock, food, clothing and other supplies. Meanwhile, Union forces shadowed Lee's army on the east, screening Washington from the Confederate threat. On July 1, the two armies came into contact just outside the small town of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania.
The brutal three-day battle that ensued has become the most thoroughly analyzed event in American history, typically described in books, articles and films as the “high water mark of the Confederacy” or the “turning point of the war.” Eminent Civil War writer Shelby Foote memorably referred to it as the “price the South paid for having Lee on its side.”
Details of the battle are beyond our scope here, but the least that must be said is that when the fighting ended in the late afternoon of July 3, 1863, more than 50,000 American soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured, and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had lost its mantle of invincibility. Combined with the almost-simultaneous capture of Vicksburg, Miss., by forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, the Union victory at Gettysburg crippled the Confederacy's ability to engage in further offensive military operations and permanently extinguished its hopes for foreign diplomatic recognition.
To the great chagrin of President Lincoln, however, Meade's forces could not deliver a knockout blow to Lee's army while it lay vulnerable in the aftermath of Gettysburg. Instead, Lee managed to withdraw the remnants of his Army south into Virginia once again, ensuring that the struggle would continue for 20 more blood-saturated months.