There are typically many turning points in a conflict. The Civil War probably had a number that anyone could argue was ‘the’ turning point of the war. The most popular one pointed out is the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the one battle that defeated the South more in spirit than anything else and took the energy out of the war. It truly was the turning point in the American Civil War.
The beginning of 1863 brought a political move of Lincoln to defeat the south and preserve the Union through the Emancipation Proclamation. He hoped it would be the beginning of the end. The truth was that hindsight would show that it would not begin to end until a few months later as the tremors of a huge turning point began to be felt. In April, the Union moved against Virginia while moving along the Mississippi at the same time. Lee found himself facing the Union army and winning first at Chancellorsville. A battle at Winchester gave the Confederacy another win. It was from there as the Union moved against Virginia and Lee pushed back into the North that the Battle of Gettysburg commenced.
Gettysburg became the bloodiest victory as it stopped Lee’s invasion of the north. The offensive move quickly became a souring defeat that would start a domino effect. Gettysburg was the first time that Lee’s Virginia army was completely defeated by the North. The great Lee was not as powerful as the South had thought. He could lose and lose decisively. The Confederate soldiers and those back home were embarrassed at the loss that came just before Vicksburg was taken. They could see their strength falling apart. Since it would be close to a year before another major battle occurred, one could argue that Gettysburg accompanied by the loss of Vicksburg was the turning point. (1)
To the mind, heart, and soul, Gettysburg would be huge. So much of the land was damaged by the fighting. Most of the ground was covered in bodies and blood. Both sides suffered horrible losses, but combining the loss with the horrific sights the day after the battle was demoralizing. The South lost and did so under an ugly cloud of blood. The South was disgusted by the turn of events and the fact that Lee lost. It was a reflection on them, and they did not take the news well. (2)
Battle after battle had the South losing. It was as though the blood drained in Gettysburg had come from the soldiers still alive to fight. With the news of Vicksburg falling to the Union, the South’s morale had taken a severe blow. The momentum of the South was gone. The war was suddenly no longer the same energized conflict.
Was Gettysburg ‘the’ turning point of the war? I would have to say yes because of how bloody it was. The loss of Vicksburg might have been huge, but would it have by itself been the turning point? Probably not. Gettysburg bloody battle as well as being the first obvious defeat of Lee hit the South in the heart. Vicksburg was salt on the wound and the realization that the wound was serious. Gettysburg was the turning point.
(1) “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” teachinghistory.org, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.
(2) David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, (Touchstone: New York, 2001), 553-554.