Major Turning Point of the Civil War

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Major Turning Points of the Civil War

When was the "Major Turning Point" of the Civil War? When did the major turning point happen? What was the major turning point of the Civil War? Was there a so-called major turning point in the conflict? Or, were there several major turning points? Many people, even historians, disagree on when the Civil War turned or experienced its pivotal moment. Was it a battle, event, date, political moment or another occurrence? Although it is a subject that has been debated through the ages, let's examine the facts.

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. President Lincoln, however, signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation just days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam. He was able to broaden the base of the war and may have prevented England and France from lending support to a Country that engaged in slavery. See also The Trent Affair, Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy, and American Civil War and International Diplomacy.

In practical terms, the Emancipation Proclamation had little immediate impact; it freed slaves only in the Confederate states, while leaving slavery intact in the border states. And, moreover, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory. Furthermore, the proclamation allowed the arming of approximately 180,000 blacks for the Union army. Antietam, consequently, was the initial major turning point in the American Civil War. See also "Subsequent Turning Points" below.

Battle of Antietam

The battle transpired on Wednesday, September 17, 1862, and less than 3 weeks after the costly Confederate victory at the Battle of Second Manassas (aka Battle of Second Bull Run). The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, changed the entire course of the Civil War and not only halted Lee's bold invasion of the North (Why Lee Invaded Maryland), but thwarted efforts to force President Lincoln to sue for peace. It further provided Lincoln with the victory he needed in order to announce the abolition of slavery. The Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, was the turning point of the Civil War and during eleven solid hours of fierce fighting, a man was killed or wounded every two seconds. The casualties were 6 Generals killed, 12 Generals wounded, and approximately 23,000 killed, wounded, and missing (9 times the number who fell on the beaches of Normandy). It was the bloodiest single-day battle of the American Civil War. The First Texas Infantry Regiment lost eighty-two percent of the 226 engaged at Antietam, and at least four female soldiers (including Sarah Emma Edmundson Seelye) participated at Antietam. Consequently, Antietam produced twenty Medals of Honor.

"In the time that I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield." Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, USA, Commander, I Corps, Army of the Potomac (At the Antietam Battle)

Antietam: Ramifications for the South and North

South: Defensive War Only

Pro-Unionists and conscription opponents (present day draft dodgers) of Tennessee fled daily, crossed the Cumberland Mountains, and joined the Federal army in Kentucky and Ohio. During the fighting in East Tennessee, additional pro-Unionists and conscription opponents fled into Western North Carolina. During General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North in September 1862, many vacated their homes while others deserted the army (Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis, is the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington). They strongly believed in a defensive war only; after all, the South is defending their homeland against Northern Aggression. Some adamantly declared that "I do not own any slaves" and they viewed it as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” On June 20, 1863, with strong pro-Unionist sentiment, western Virginia broke from secessionist Virginia and formed the state of West Virginia.

North: Preservation of the Union

The Battle of Antietam led to President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and reflected that the "pen is mightier than the sword." However, with the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern soldiers also deserted with many stating, "I am not fighting to free the blacks or to abolish slavery!" In other words, many Federal soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union. The Copperhead ranks swelled as a direct result of Lincoln's Proclamation. 
 
Subsequent Turning Points
 
The Battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg

Gettysburg was a "tactical victory" while Vicksburg must be considered a "tactical and strategic victory." President Abraham Lincoln stated that "Vicksburg is the Key!"
The fall of Vicksburg gave more tangible results to the Union than the defeat of Lee's army at Gettysburg. At Vicksburg, the Union army split the South in two along the line of the Mississippi, making it extremely difficult for the Confederacy's blockade runners into Texas to supply the Southern armies east of the Mississippi. In general, it made it extremely difficult for the South to transfer supplies and troops to its Eastern and Western Theaters fulfilling Gen. Scott's Anaconda Plan.
The Union also gained political objectives at Vicksburg and to a degree at Gettysburg. Lee was turned back at Gettysburg, and the public perception of Lee's invincibility was tainted. With the North's victory at Gettysburg, however, the South discontinued its offensive war in the North. For the remainder of the American Civil War, the South fought a defensive war. 

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Related Reading: What Caused the Civil War?

Recommended Reading: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, by Edwin C. Bearss (Author), James McPherson (Introduction). Description: Bearss, a former chief historian of the National Parks Service and internationally recognized American Civil War historian, chronicles 14 crucial battles, including Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Sherman's march through the Carolinas, and Appomattox--the battles ranging between 1861 and 1865; included is an introductory chapter describing John Brown's raid in October 1859. Continued below...

Bearss describes the terrain, tactics, strategies, personalities, the soldiers and the commanders. (He personalizes the generals and politicians, sergeants and privates.) The text is augmented by 80 black-and-white photographs and 19 maps. It is like touring the battlefields without leaving home. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. Also available in hardcover: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.
 
Recommended Reading: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History) (Hardcover). Description: The bloodiest day in United States history was September 17, 1862, when, during the Civil War battle at Antietam, approximately 6,500 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded, while more than 15,000 were seriously wounded. James M. McPherson states in Crossroads of Freedom the concise chronicle of America’s bloodiest day and that it may well have been the pivotal moment of the war, as well as the young republic itself. Continued below...

The South, after a series of setbacks in the spring of 1862, had reversed the war's momentum during the summer, and was on the "brink of military victory" and about to achieve diplomatic recognition by European nations, most notably England and France. Though the bulk of his book concerns itself with the details--and incredible carnage--of the battle, McPherson raises it above typical military histories by placing it in its socio-political context: The victory prodded Abraham Lincoln to announce his "preliminary" Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. England and France deferred their economic alliance with the battered secessionists. Most importantly, it kept Lincoln's party, the Republicans, in control of Congress. McPherson's account is accessible, elegant, and economical. Also available in paperback: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History)

 

Recommended Reading: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War). Description: The Maryland campaign of September 1862 ranks among the most important military operations of the American Civil War. Crucial political, diplomatic, and military issues were at stake as Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan maneuvered and fought in the western part of the state. The climactic clash came on September 17 at the battle of Antietam, where more than 23,000 men fell in the single bloodiest day of the war. Continued below...
Approaching topics related to Lee's and McClellan's operations from a variety of perspectives, numerous contributors to this volume explore questions regarding military leadership, strategy, and tactics, the impact of the fighting on officers and soldiers in both armies, and the ways in which participants and people behind the lines interpreted and remembered the campaign. They also discuss the performance of untried military units and offer a look at how the United States Army used the Antietam battlefield as an outdoor classroom for its officers in the early twentieth century. Also available in paperback: The Antietam Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War)
 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War Battlefield Guide: The Definitive Guide, Completely Revised, with New Maps and More Than 300 Additional Battles (Second Edition) (Hardcover). Description: This new edition of the definitive guide to Civil War battlefields is really a completely new book. While the first edition covered 60 major battlefields, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, the second covers all of the 384 designated as the "principal battlefields" in the American Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report. Continued below...

As in the first edition, the essays are authoritative and concise, written by such leading Civil War historians as James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Edwin C. Bearss, James I. Robinson, Jr., and Gary W. Gallager. The second edition also features 83 new four-color maps covering the most important battles. The Civil War Battlefield Guide is an essential reference for anyone interested in the Civil War. "Reading this book is like being at the bloodiest battles of the war..."
 
Recommended Viewing: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns. Review: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns is the most successful public-television miniseries in American history. The 11-hour Civil War didn't just captivate a nation, reteaching to us our history in narrative terms; it actually also invented a new film language taken from its creator. When people describe documentaries using the "Ken Burns approach," its style is understood: voice-over narrators reading letters and documents dramatically and stating the writer's name at their conclusion, fresh live footage of places juxtaposed with still images (photographs, paintings, maps, prints), anecdotal interviews, and romantic musical scores taken from the era he depicts. Continued below...
The Civil War uses all of these devices to evoke atmosphere and resurrect an event that many knew only from stale history books. While Burns is a historian, a researcher, and a documentarian, he's above all a gifted storyteller, and it's his narrative powers that give this chronicle its beauty, overwhelming emotion, and devastating horror. Using the words of old letters, eloquently read by a variety of celebrities, the stories of historians like Shelby Foote and rare, stained photos, Burns allows us not only to relearn and finally understand our history, but also to feel and experience it. "Hailed as a film masterpiece and landmark in historical storytelling." "[S]hould be a requirement for every student."

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