May 10, 1863 — A turning point of the Civil War


I’m in search of a bright line answer here: Was there an actual date which we can consider the turning point of the Civil War?

Two years ago, in April 2011, America kicked off its so-called Sesquicentennial recollection of the American Civil War, which technically began on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate artillery attack on the Fort Sumter, a federal island fortress in the Charleston, SC harbor. While writing a number of columns for The Colorado Statesman in recognition of this 150th anniversary of that period of U.S. history, I’ve subscribed to the obvious acknowledgement that 1863 was a singularly important year in our history — consider just the following list, which is by no means complete:

• January 1, 1863 — Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation

• January 2, 1863 — Battle of Stones River, at Murfreesboro, TN

• April 30-May 6 — Battle of Chancellorsville (General Robert E. Lee defeats General “Fighting Joe” Hooker)

• June 7, 1863 — Battle of Milliken’s Bend (bravery of African American troops helps preserve the Siege of Vicksburg)

• July 1-3, 1863 — The Union (barely) prevails at Gettysburg

• July 4, 1863 — The Confederacy surrenders at Vicksburg

• July 18, 1863 — The 54th Massachusetts Regiment (African American troops) heroically led the Union’s (unsuccessful) attack on Ft. Wagner, SC

• September 20, 1863 — Battle of Chickamauga (Rebels rout Union General Rosencrans, but Union General Thomas averts disaster with legendary last stand.)

• November 19, 1863 — Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

• November 25, 1863 — Grant routs Bragg for Union victory at Chattanooga

But what event or day can be authoritatively termed the turning point of the Civil War? Those of us who were “history nerds” even in grade school were most likely taught that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point, but that’s at best simplistic, and more likely also incorrect.

No less an authority than James M. McPherson, the pre-eminent Civil War and Civil Rights historian, identifies no less than four different so-called “turning points” back and forth over the course of the four-year conflict. And when Professor McPherson theorizes on this period of history, I automatically defer and accept his analysis and conclusions.

But back to my more pedestrian and simplistic quest for a date certain. Here are my choices:

Turning Point Year: 1863 — African Americans are finally “allowed” to fight for their own freedom. In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln made it national policy that African Americans (then called “Colored”) could enlist as armed troops in the Union Army. It is not an exaggeration to say that without the service and sacrifice of nearly 200,000 “Colored Troops” from 1863 until the end of the war, the Union would not have been preserved.

Turning Point Day: Sunday, May 10, 1863 — Ulysses S. Grant got his “Mojo” back, and Stonewall Jackson died. I cannot think of two more negative individual outcomes for the Confederacy.

Grant at Vicksburg: Beginning April 30, Grant finally got his troops to the same (east) side of the Mississippi river as the enemy army based at Vicksburg. But the first landing for those troops was on swampy and densely forested bottom land in Bruinsburg, MS.

As the story goes, Grant stayed with the leading edge of his command for the next several days with his horse, a tooth brush, and no change of clothes, looking over the shoulder of his incompetent Corps commander, General McClernand. Essentially taking field command of this “tip of the spear,” Grant willed his troops forward against vigorous Confederate defenses, thereby ensuring that a sustainable and defensible base of operations was carved out to the south of Vicksburg.

On May 10, having stabilized a beachhead, and able to land the remainder of his Army on the same side of the Mississippi River, Grant issued marching orders to his three Corps commanders, Generals McClernand, Sherman, and McPherson. They were directed to fan out along three separate paths to the north, from which they were able to effectively eviscerate the Confederacy in Mississippi, spanning a continuous swath from the state capital in Jackson westward to the supposedly invulnerable Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.

Many consider Grant’s eventual acceptance of the surrender of a Confederate army at Vicksburg on July 4 to be the most consequential military victory of the war for a variety of reasons which merit lengthier discussion at another time. But for now, suffice it to say that this was point at which President Lincoln most likely knew he had finally found the general he had been hoping for during what must have seemed unending futility with the likes of Scott, McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Halleck and Hooker.

Jackson at Chancellorsville: On May 1, the second full day of battle between Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Hooker’s Army of the Potomac, things were looking grim for Lee. Hooker had meticulously plotted out supply lines and crossing points over the Rapidan River, and his troops outnumbered Lee’s about 2:1 (approximately 120,000 to 60,000).

But the arrogant “Fighting Joe” Hooker suddenly got cautious once across the river, thus leaving the initiative to “Bobby Lee” and “Stonewall.” Bad idea, Joe! Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was (at least) the Confederacy’s 2nd best general, and Lee’s top lieutenant.

Not surprisingly, given the time to regroup by “Suddenly Cautious Joe” Hooker, Lee and Jackson came up with an audacious plan on the evening of May 1. On May 2, in one of the most legendary and successful military maneuvers in U.S. history, Jackson embarked with more than half of Lee’s forces (25,000) on a flanking maneuver around the Union’s right, eventually surprising the entire Union line that evening and routing them into a huddled defensive bundle as the crossroads outpost of Chancellorsville.

But while this would rank as Lee’s greatest military victory, it was illusory at best because later that evening Jackson was wounded by his own picket line while out on night patrol.

At first it seemed he would survive, although his left arm had to be amputated, giving rise to Lee’s famous
quote that General Jackson “has lost his left arm and I have lost my right.” Over the course of the next several days, however, Stonewall’s health ebbed and flowed, until on May 10 he passed away with his wife and infant at his bedside.

So, in summary, this week is the 150th anniversary of a very, very bad day for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who’s family plantation and slaves were between Grant and Vicksburg, and who’s Army of Northern Virginia had lost one of two indispensable generals.

And adding to the Confederate lament of this date, it was in large part as a response to Grant’s pending defeat of the Rebels at Vicksburg that Lee and Davis decided that invading Pennsylvania was a wise idea. There’s a lot to write about in recalling 1863, but May 10 deserved a column this week.

Patrick Teegarden, an award-winning columnist, is director of policy and legislation for a department of Colorado state government.

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