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July 1863 Reconsidered
Vicksburg, Charleston, the Dakotas, Indian Territory...and that dustup in Pennsylvania...
Now, I know some of my readers will disagree with me...you know who you are.
July 1863 was a pivotal month in the American Civil War. The most important, of course, was the fall of Confederate-held Vicksburg, Mississippi, to a Union army group led by US Grant on 4 July. Strategically, this had more to do with the conclusion of the conflict than what ended the day before in southern Adams County, Pennsylvania, near a small market town called Gettysburg. There, a Union army under GG Meade stopped a Confederate army under RE Lee.
ARGH! I hear some of you cry...expectedly and predictably.
Well, yes, I answer calmly. Let's back up for the benefit of my readers who are not Civil War scholars, students, buffs, or even unrecognized authorities. (And I know that the number of authentic Civil War authorities who read this thing are few). In the early summer of 1863, there were five major military operations being undertaken in the United States:
A raid into Pennsylvania by Confederate forces;
A continuing investment of the Confederate city/port of Vicksburg;
A continuing campaign in what is now North Dakota by Minnesota volunteers against the Sioux;
Another continuing campaign in the Indian Territory against the Pro-Confederate Five Civilized Tribes;
The continuing siege and campaign on the many islands around Charleston.
Traditionally, the Pennsylvania raid that ended at Gettysburg was the Most Important Battle of the Civil War...but not for any military reasons. Yes, it was big. It was three whole days. Yes, it was sort of close to Washington. But Gettysburg was strategically irrelevant, though it was an important crossroads in southeastern Pennsylvania. Geographically and militarily, the bloodbath decided nothing but the fighting power of the Army of the Potomac when properly led, nor could it.
Lee could not have stayed in Pennsylvania for more than a few weeks, nor could it have attacked a major city.
An army travels on its stomach, and though Lee's troops foraged in the rich farmlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania on the way—and sent back rich stocks of food and other supplies, as well as several thousand African-Americans as slaves—Lee's Army of Northern Virginia could not forage enough ammunition or military equipment to sustain itself, nor could it stay in Pennsylvania without destroying its opponent, the Army of the Potomac.
But the Confederacy had not yet destroyed, nor would it ever destroy, any major Federal army in the field.
Indeed, such a so-called decisive battle was rare, and still is. It is indeed so rare that military professionals learned not to expect it after the mid-18th century, even if they kept trying and occasionally succeeding.
At no time during the war did the Confederacy have over three or four Gettysburg-level stocks of powder.
Vicksburg, on the other hand, was the bastion holding the eastern, western, and far western Confederacy together. Foodstuffs and military supplies—especially imports from Europe coming into Mexico—crossed at Vicksburg nearly every day until that spring, when the Union fleet began patrolling the river there. As the Union forces blockaded, then captured by land invasion, the few Confederate ports served by railroads, every shipment was precious. As noted above, Confederate ammunition and equipment was precious and hard to replace.
Material was still getting through the blockade, but in 1863 it was still luxury goods, not military supplies.
The hard-fought battles of 1863, from Chancellorsville on depleted Confederate powder stocks perilously. They would sorely feel the loss of another import source. The state of the Confederacy's railroads compounded the problem which, by mid-summer 1863, were literally falling apart because of heavy use and a lack of manpower for maintenance.
Lee's raid into Pennsylvania—that's all it ever could have been—came at the cost of Vicksburg.
Confederate higher-ups suggested that spring that Lee detach a division to join the embattled JE Johnston's and John Pemberton's defense of the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi; a mere 5-7000 men. To Lee, this would be a minor detachment that he would make without demur in August to counterattack at Chattanooga, Tennessee. But that many Confederate combat veterans in the Vicksburg area in May or June might have been decisive. Lee explained he had a plan to pull the Army of the Potomac away from Virginia and replenish in the North, perhaps winning a morale-boosting victory. However, that was a gamble that he had to have know was on long odds.
Higher leadership was lacking in spine.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis felt that Vicksburg in hand was more important than two possible victories in the bush, but was unwilling to overrule Lee or any other senior officer. So Lee's army stayed intact, marched to Gettysburg, and lost.
Meanwhile, in North Dakota...
A small Union army out of the District of Minnesota under HH Sibley chased several Sioux tribes across the Badlands and eventually across the Missouri River, never to come back in strength. Sibley's force fought the Sioux at Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake during the last week in July. While it is politically incorrect to mention such things, the Sioux were an economic drain on the settlers along the Mississippi during a time when economic drains were a problem. There simply wasn't a lot of money on the prairie, and the Sioux's habit of simply taking cattle or corn from cash-poor farmers could not be tolerated. The importance of this little-known campaign is that they pushed the Sioux into the arms of their cousins further west, including the Oglala of Crazy Horse, that would have serious consequences in the 1870s.
And in what's now Oklahoma...
At Honey Springs, a Union force under JG Blunt defeated a larger Confederate force under DH Cooper in the middle of the month. What's important is that the Confederate force literally disintegrated, leaving the Union in control of important land and water access to Texas, especially to Unionist areas. This, coupled with the Confederate loss of Vicksburg, nearly destroyed the Confederacy's control of the Five Civilized Tribes in the Indian Territories.
And in South Carolina...
The Morris Island campaign had been ongoing for several months, and while it was less spectacular and decisive than the others listed here, it was, in the long run, important, keeping the close blockade of Charleston alive. While Fortress Wagner held out against repeated assaults, the Confederacy simply lacked the resources to sustain resistance in all five places at once. In addition, any disruptions to their supplies from Europe were a problem they could not easily address.
Why did all this matter?
It shows that the action in Pennsylvania was not the most important battle of the war; it was one of several actions that month that broke the back of armed Confederate resistance. In September Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet would win the Confederacy's last major land victory at Chickamauga in Georgia... a victory bought in part by troops from the Army of Northern Virginia, and that nearly destroyed the Army of Tennessee.
July 1863 was decisive, but not because of Gettysburg alone.
Can We "Correct" The Historical Record?
True Or False: Behind Every Successful Man Is There A Woman Rolling Her Eyes?
On 2 July:
1776: The “These United Colonies” resolution was passed by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, enabling the Declaration of Independence that John Hancock would sign two days later. Contrary to all the popular illustrations and movies, the entire Congress did not sign that day; many of them weren’t even in town.
1908: Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The future Supreme Court justice, according to some accounts, didn’t even think about a career in the law until he got to college.
And today is NATIONAL ANISETTE DAY. THIS is legal in the US, though true absinthe is not. Still, I can’t drink it….but enjoy!
Get your own if this was forwarded to you.