America’s Hinge of Fate: July 4th, 1863

Somehow, despite my deep and broad lifelong study of world and American history, it never jelled in my mind until just recently that the (arguably) two most pivotal battles of the American Civil War concluded on the same day.

In 1863, the Siege of Vicksburg ran from May 18 – July 4 and the Battle of Gettysburg occurred over July 1-3. On July 4th, 1863, the fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi slicing the Confederacy in two. On July 4th 1863, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were in full retreat from Pennsylvania having received a savage mauling. From that point on, the Confederacy lost all hope of foreign intervention and any chance of winning the war.

While we eat our hot dogs and watch our fireworks, it behooves us to recall what others have suffered for us:

Casualites for the Vicksburg campaign:

Union casualties for the battle and siege of Vicksburg were 4,835; Confederate were 32,697 (29,495 surrendered).[4] The full campaign, since March 29, claimed 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate killed and wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles.[42]

One of my great-great uncles, IIRC a Col. Brown, was killed at Vicksburg, vaporized by a direct hit from a 88-lb explosive mortar shell fired from a Union ironclad bombardment barge.

Vicksburg was arguably the first city in the world to face a sustained and massive bombardment by explosive shells. Photos from the city clearly presaged those of WWII. The civilians of Vicksburg were the first civilians to have to dig and live in bomb shelters.

The only saving grace of Gettysburg in comparison was that there was only one civilian death.

The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing),[4] while Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate. Many authors have referred to as many as 28,000 Confederate casualties,[58] but Busey and Martin’s more recent definitive 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing).[5] Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured.[59] The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225.[60]

In his epic work on WWII, Churchill titled the volume covering 1942, “The Hinge of Fate.” Clearly, July 4th, 1863 represented the hinge of fate for America.

I find it strange that I never put those two events of great important together in my mind. I suppose it happened because most histories of the war follow specific individuals or specific regions longitudinally, instead of giving a latitudinal snapshot of the entire war at any single point in time.

6 thoughts on “America’s Hinge of Fate: July 4th, 1863”

  1. After Vicksburg, in a letter dated August 27, 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,”

    At Gettysburg, Lee lost his head and fought a battle he should not have accepted. Perhaps here is where he most felt the loss of Jackson.

  2. The two battles are so closely related by more than the date.

    The fall of Vicksburg was such a threat to the Confederacy, an invasion of the Union sweeping through Pennsylvania to threaten Washington was hastily planned and executed. If it succeeded before Vicksburg fell, the Rebels believed the Union would sue for peace. Gettysburg was the opening move of this invasion.

    The Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) was poorly provisioned in the best of times. The hasty nature of the campaign only made worse the usual bad supply situation. The thrust into Gettysburg (believed to have had boots and food)was to gain adequate supplies for the remainder of the campaign. The Army of the Potomac (AofP)arriving “firstest with the mostest” assured a loss by the invaders. The ANV history of taking and winning big risks conditioned the ANV to place too much stock in moral, leadership and “fighting spirit” over the straight numbers of battle.

    Although a bad loss for the Confederacy, Meade’s failure to pursue, rout and destroy the ANV changed the loss to a setback from the decisive loss it could have become. The fall of Vicksburg ended the raison d’etre of the invasion.

  3. It’s the curse of slavery and our founding fathers’ countenancing it that keeps us from having the right to secede and makes us buy into Obamacare with no recourse.

    To secure our liberty from the Nanny State requires another war and more bloodshed, sadly. Will we live to see the “Amerikan Spring”?

  4. “From that point on, the Confederacy lost all hope of foreign intervention and any chance of winning the war.”

    An observation that few recognize today. I’d sat through Civil War coverage in half a dozen classes in high school and college before a professor described for us the extensive diplomatic overtures to the Empire from both sides (from the North, to keep them neutral; from the South, to bring them in). He was the first from who I heard the tale of Hampton Roads in terms of diplomatic fallout rather than the (far more interesting to boys) novelty of the first clash of ironclads.

  5. Mr. Kennedy: Lee didn’t have much head to lose. He was a fairly mediocre general, lacking the insight and daring of Jackson or, in the West, Forrest. Like love, it took me some time to realize that. Just wasn’t looking. Lee’s record at Antietam, the Seven Days’ Battles, and along the Rappahanock (Fredericksberg, Chancellorsville) bears it out.

  6. Cris,

    Lee didn’t have much head to lose

    Some believe that Lee suffered a heart attack in the spring of 1863 and that he might have suffered another during Gettysburgs. Even if not, there are multiple reports that he seemed cognitively and emotionally impaired. So, he probably wasn’t at his best.

    However, I think you’re right in the broader sense. I would classify Lee as being one of history’s “unbalanced” generals. Unbalanced in that he excelled in one attribute of generalship but was sorely lacking in another. Lee, like Patton or Alexander the Great, was tactically brilliant, daring and innovative but he lacked any serious strategic vision. He had an obviously romantic, pre-industrial view of warfare and a general contempt for the perceived “softness” of the non-aristocratic northerners much as Napoleon is said to have derided England as “a nation of shopkeepers.” Lee really had no understanding of the causes of the war or diplomatic issues and little real strategic vision beyond the immediate tactical needs of fighting in the Potomac river valley.

    Most of history’s “great” generals are in fact unbalanced. MacArthur was brilliant in the offensive but sucked defensively and he largely ignored peacetime planning, training and preparation. He got caught with his pants down big time twice (in 1941 and 1950) after letting his army grow lazy and sloppy in peacetime.

    Balanced generals often don’t see so “great”. Winfield Scott and Eisenhower don’t capture the imagination the way Lee or Patton did. Grant might be the exception but even he isn’t considered a romantic figure like Lee.

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