Not many people are aware of this, but July 1st was the day that saw the beginning of the battle of Gettysburg, which ran from July 1-3, 1863. I hold these three days in very high honor, because many people argue that had the confederate forces defeated the Union soldiers in Pennsylvania that day, the North American continent would look very different today on a map. But let’s think for a moment; what happens if the Confederacy actually wins at Gettysburg? Warning: quite long and full of civil war history.
The typical scenario goes thus: General Ewell doesn’t freeze (or the Confederate army acts on one or more of the numerous chances it was given to destroy the union army), takes the high ground in Gettysburg and the army of the Potomac beats itself to death trying to dislodge General Lee’s army. The confederate army marches into Washington DC and forces Lincoln to surrender, effectively ensuring the south victory.
BUT, is this really what would have occurred, even under the most optimal circumstances? The only way this occurs is if the army of the Potomac is completely destroyed. Even if the Union Army had been defeated at the battle of Gettysburg, barring its complete destruction, which seems quite unlikely given the state of Lee’s army and the absence of Stonewall Jackson, who was perhaps Lee’s only commander with the ability to pull off such a crushing victory (such as he did at Chancellorsville earlier that same year before he was shot by his own troops while returning from a recon mission). Additionally, Union troops outnumber Confederate troops by over 20,000 in the final tally, so the idea that Lee would be able to completely destroy the army of the Potomac without numerical superiority or his top offensive general seems highly implausible.
The confederate army is victorious, and has most likely not completely destroyed the Union army, but has instead forced it to fall back and regroup. It is also a Pyrrhic victory, as casualties from most civil war battles were extraordinarily high, even for the winners. For example, even at Fredericksburg, VA, where the Confederate army trounced the Union soldiers, losses still numbered in the range of 5000-6000. Lee’s army, already numerically inferior, cannot afford even this loss. Even so, for the time being, he commands the area.
Washington DC seemingly lays open…or does it? Washington DC was in reality encircled by an elaborate system of defenses of entrenchments and fortifications 33 miles long, which by war’s end included 68 forts and over 1,500 guns. Even if those numbers are reduced by a third, that is still quite impressive and would pose a serious difficulty for the Confederate army in attacking the city to force Lincoln to sign a treaty.
So the union army limps away, either to Washington or to the North, and Lee’s army, though bloodied, for a time reign’s supreme on norther soil until new troops can be brought up to reinforce the army of the Potomac. Lee cannot march into Washington to force Lincoln to let the south have its independence. What’s next?
Even though the union general (Meade) ultimately won at Gettysburg, he was replaced soon after by General Grant as supreme commander of union forces. We might assume that Sherman is then put in charge in the west, but that troops are funneled away to the eastern theater to counteract the threat that lee now poses. We will assume that these troops, the army of the Potomac and any reserves and newly trained troops that Lincoln is able to draw on are enough to counter if not outmatch Lee’s strength. Lee realizes that he will be unable to continue to rampage on hostile Northern soil unopposed and without great risk to the destruction of his army. He retreats to the south, hoping that this victory breaks the spirit of the union to continue fighting.
Without a lot of background research, it is apparent that even through continual Union losses in the first two years of the war, such as Antietam and Mananas did not break Lincoln’s resolve to stop the war. The only thing that ends this war is his former general turned presidential candidate, McClellan, defeating Lincoln in 1864 and making peace with the Confederates. What ultimately wins the election for Lincoln is Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. Assuming that troops shuffled away from Sherman’s army derail this possibility, Grant proved himself highly capable of carrying out an all out war on Lee in Virginia with the intention of completely destroying his army. As a side note, Atlanta was the rail hub of the deep south and was incredibly important as both a logistic and moral victory for the Union. Once it fell, supplies from the deep south to the northern Confederate states were essentially ended.
Knowing that Sherman will not make it to Atlanta (which he historically captured September 2nd, 1864), Grant will push Lee’s army much harder and faster, knowing that he will either destroy Lee or capture Richmond if Lee fails to give battle. Either way, Lincoln win’s his symbolic victory, in the process making the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln wins reelection, Lee is crushed and the Confederacy is incorporated back into the Union.
So sorry to my friends in the south. Even in my alternative universe, you can’t win the civil war (or the war of northern aggression, whichever you prefer). By that point in 1863, you were doomed anyways.
My final synopsis: without much stronger and complete victories earlier on in the war, the industrial might and larger potential northern troop population would eventually overwhelm the south, as long as the will to fight remained. As much of the will for the continuation of the war came from one man (Lincoln), it is fair to say that this one man literally changed the course of history.