Gettysburg: what happens if the south wins?

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.


update 10/17/2013: it’s been 3 years since I wrote this post, and wow, over 41,000 hits!  In a twist of irony I now live in Memphis where Sherman had his HQ before moving South to Vicksburg.  My opinion hasn’t changed that the south would have indeed lost the war regardless of the outcome with Gettysburg.  If anything, Lee’s invasion and victory would have likely weakened McClellan and the copperheads stance by demonstrating that the south was not just an innocent defender fighting to preserve their way of life.  Thanks for all the comments!

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10 Comments on “Gettysburg: what happens if the south wins?”

  1. bolvark1 Says:

    First point i wish to make 68 forts and 1500 guns over 33 miles sounds like a great defence untill you start looking at what can engage an attacker maby a mile or two of the line less for a tight formation so only 2 forts and 43 or so guns.

    second point i wish to make you use the term Pyrrhic victory way too lose. it refers to victory at great cost yes, but aginst a lesser force not a greater. loseing less forces then a numerically superior enermy usually doent count as Pyrrhic.

    third you go stright from battle of gettys burg to “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” which is to assume lee is sitting their while while the north funnels in troops. when the enemy is divided you conquer. in this sernaio the army of the Potomac now the weaker of the forces would be hunted down and destroyed removing that force fromt he equation. the union would then have tublle achiving local superiorty for some time durign which we would have the confederit version of shermans marthch to the sea.

    forth you compleat fail to suport serval statments that are critical to your argument.

    fifth you calim that grant would destroy altanta before the election. and that takign atlant is key to lincions reelection. September 2nd, 1864 is when atlanta fell elections in less then 3 months destroyign the army of the potomac would buy the confederates more than that.

    sixth you know of the battle its self seems schecy at best.
    im sorry but your logic is flaw, selsuporting, and deeply biases

  2. S John Massoud Says:

    Lincoln would have had no political ability to carry on the war if Lee won at Gettysburg. One can not do things in a Representative Republic without the consent of the Legislature and the consent of the governed.

  3. Hello Says:

    What about the American Revolution? You could also say that we stood no chance against the British, But look what happened there. What I’m saying is that anything can happen. The South just hoped to pull off another miracle,

  4. Kevin Smith Says:

    This could be true, but you have a biased point of view, as you say “sorry to my friends in the south” meaning that you live in the north. It is truly unclear what would have happened if the south had won the battle of Gettysburg.

  5. I concur that a CSA victory at Gettysburg would have still not changed the outcome of the War of Yankee Aggression. The real decisive battle in my opinion of that war was the May 5, 1862 Mexican victory over the French at Puebla which lost the European’s’ foothold in Mexico and ended their potential involvement in the American conflict.
    Further, as described by author Harry Turtledove, a Confederate war victory would’ve left the two continental powers to be played as pawns for the Germans, French, Russians, and British in addition to requiring a heavily fortified boundary between our two nations. This Bama boy is quite happy that the correct side won our Civil War because we are infinitely stronger today for it.

  6. […] Battle of  Gettysburg (top) = […]

  7. BFarley Says:

    Although Gettysburg certainly has earned its status as one of the greatest battles in world history, and was certainly an important factor in directing the future course of the American Civil War, the events that took place in the Pennsylvania countryside on July 1-3 1863, were not as important to the overall Union War effort as what happened on July 4, 1863.

    For just 87years after the Declaration of Independence, in the western city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Gen US Grant was gaining a far more important victory to the Northern War effort, by accepting the surrender of that important, strategic city. As American flags rose over Vicksburg buildings, the Last impediment to the free navigation of the Mississippi River, came under Union control, allowing unvexed Northern waterborne support and splitting the Confederate States of America in half.

    This important victory at Vicksburg would lead to the appointment of General Grant as overall Union commander, and that is in spite of the perceived Union victory at Gettysburg. Had the north lost in Pennsylvania, Grant’s appointment would have come just as fast, if not faster.

    General Grant knew, as Lincoln has said, “how to face the arithmetic”, and had a devoted strategy of throwing his entire army against Confederate troops with a relentless determination, and a no retreat philosophy. Grant recognized the Unions’s superiority in both materials and personnel of war, and was dedicated to the use of both to achieve victory as rapidly as possible. This strategy, recognized and deployed by the Lincoln/Grant partnership, was what eventually would cause the North to vanquish the Confederates. And as strange as it may seem, a loss at Gettysburg may well have accelerated this team and their strategy.

    All this of course would have been predicated upon the defense of Washington, which with its large number of troops and forts would have been very difficult for Lee to capture, particularly with his relatively small number of remaining troops. Had he won Gettysburg, the sacking of Harrisburg and/or Philadelphia could well have resulted, but unlike Washington, with its strategic position between southern sympathizing Maryland and Virginia, additional victories or destruction in Pennsylvania would more than likely have reawakened, and not disheartened, the North.

    Accordingly, a loss at Gettysburg may well not have had any change on the ultimate outcome of the war.

  8. Jim H. Says:

    Interesting analysis.

    However, Lee’s goal in invading the north wasn’t the defeat of what remained of the United States, which was a practical impossibility as you point out, for many different reasons.

    The goal was to bring the war to largely untouched northern soil and entice the Europeans to recognize the south as an independent entity, thus relieving the blockade and perhaps gaining the material, logistical and perhaps even boots on the ground support.

    Let’s remember in the summer of 1863 northern Virginia especially had been ravaged after 2 long years of war and of the blockade. Not to mention the situation in the west along the Mississippi which was tenuous at best. This, along with the emancipation was having a devastating effect on morale and the combat effectiveness of the Army of Northern Virginia. An Army which didn’t have the luxury of time.

    Again, there were many different reasons why another invasion of the north and potentially gaining European support was a long shot. The legality of slavery being one of them. However, Lee himself said that given the logistical situation in the south it was a practical necessity to take the fight to the enemy on his own soil. His own troops reported during the march north the abundance of crops and supplies in Pennsylvania compared to war ravaged parts of northern Virginia. A victory at Gettysburg would have gone along way towards framing the debate in a positive light for the south, in European capitals. Or helping to sway public opinion in the North towards a peaceful settlement and perhaps recognition of an autonomous south.

    The end result is Lee destroyed his Army in those fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It would never recover. Even so the war dragged on almost 2 more years.

    • Jim H. Says:

      Some of you may enjoy this pic. It’s one of the few that shows live confederate soldiers in their normal battle accoutrement. The body language of these guys and their captors speaks volumes.

      ** Confederate prisoners from the battle of Five Forks. On or about April 1, 1865.

  9. sitio web Says:

    I like reading through an article that will make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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