Was Gettysburg Really a Major Defeat for the South?

Oct 2018
19
Virginia
#1
I was listening to a Gary Gallagher lecture series [ and a recent book I read supports him] and he said that in 1863 the south did not view Gettysburg as a defeat. But as a draw on the battlefield and many considered the campaign a success even thoe it fell short of its major goal to win a major victory over the army of the Potomac and earn peace. He mentioned how the south was not driven from the field they simply failed to remove the federals from the field and since they were not driven from it, it was viewed by most as a draw. Some southern soldiers [and populous, newspapers etc] viewed it as a victory since they won day 1 and drove the federals back and than maintained position day 2 and 3.

“There was no spirit of defeat in the army this morning [4th] men waited hopefully for federal attack on their hill.” -Burke Davis Jeb Stuart the Last Cavalier

Gallagher said how day 1 was one of the great attacking victories of the war pushing back and inflicting heavy damage on 2 union corps. After the vicious day 2 fighting general Meade was ready to retreat and made plans but was talked out of it by his subordinates. Lee declared day 2 a victory. The federals suffered such large causalities [the largest of any battle of the war ] they did not mount a major offensive in Virginia for 10 months.

"Gen Lee maneuvering the Yankees out of Virginia is the grandest piece of strategy ever herd of.”
-Jeb Stuart letter to his wife July 13th


The campaign removed the federal army from Virginia to the north giving Virginia much needed rest. Stuart and the army had great success on their secondary goal, capturing much needed food and fodder for the army while living off northern farmland.

I think many see Gettysburg as a major defeat because Lee never invaded the north again. Yet this had more to do with accumulative loss of manpower to all southern armies and drop in morale coupled with larger more aggressive northern armies. At the time nobody new lee would not invade again and some thought he would.

We return without defeat to recuperate and reinforce when no dout the role will be reenacted....
Jeb Stuart letter to his wife July 13th



Further Early did invade in 64 and Lee sent Longstreet and 2 divisions to Tennessee. Not something a defeated army would likely do. But a confident army would and Lee showed they had plenty of fight left in 64. Others say the south lost the war at Gettysburg, I dont see how this is so. Gettysburg combined with Vicksburg was a big blow for sure. But Lincoln was not likely to be reelected [ peace democrats would have been ] until Sherman captured Atlanta and Early was defeated in the valley along with the capture of Mobile. Those events secured Lincolns reelection and won the war for the north, not Gettysburg. The high causalities of 64 and battles like Gettysburg [union losses 23,000] almost cost the republicans the war.
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,062
VA
#3
They won their only significant victory in the western theater after Gettysburg.

Those events secured Lincolns reelection and won the war for the north, not Gettysburg. The high causalities of 64 and battles like Gettysburg [union losses 23,000] almost cost the republicans the war.
The electorate has an amazingly short memory; Union losses in 1864, not 63, were a campaign issue in 1864. You sidled around the issue that while Southern newspapers invented rationales to explain away Gettysburg, it really was seen as a great victory by Northerners and for the Army of the Potomac.

In any case, the battle was a clear defeat. Not a single useful thing was achieved for the South on the fields of Gettysburg; the army could have raided for food and withdrawn without a battle if that had been the whole point. It wasn't. Stuart's wagons that he captured were mostly useful as ambulances after the battle and for moving fodder for the horses, not for taking long-term stores back to Virginia. The Confederates took at least as many casualties as the Union in the battle and probably more, not to mention losing more along the way during the retreat, and those were massive losses that could ill be afforded. That said, while the battle was a significant defeat for the Confederates, it didn't change the operational tempo in the eastern theater over the long term, though that's partly because Meade was reined in after he chased Lee across the Potomac so troops could be detached for putting down draft riots. It would ultimately take Grant coming east to change the underlying facts on the ground for campaigns in Virginia.

One shouldn't confuse the South's efforts to explain away the defeat with the fact that it was still a defeat.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#4
The quotes from Jeb and his brother seem a little more like spinning the situation to make the best they could. Especially when thinking about a man writing to his wife immediately following an obvious defeat.

However, I suspect Gallagher makes a fair point that many in the South believed that type of hype. People can believe some pretty amazing things when they want to. But most historians I have heard (including VL directly above this post) have little doubt that Gettysburg was a defeat. Lee invaded, got whipped on the battlefield, and turned around in retreat. While true the defeat was orderly, I have never heard it described as anything other than a retreat due to defeat on the battlefield.

I listened to a couple of class series from Gallagher a few years ago. Really enjoyed them. One on the Civil War overall and the other was called Lee and his Generals.
 

Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,069
Eastern PA
#5
Whenever you have to have use a 5th dimensional chess rationalization to justify your argument, you are not telling the truth.
 

Maki

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,060
Republika Srpska
#6
I was listening to a Gary Gallagher lecture series [ and a recent book I read supports him] and he said that in 1863 the south did not view Gettysburg as a defeat.
They most certainly considered Gettysburg a defeat. Josiah Gorgas wrote this about Gettysburg and Vicksburg: "today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction". Speaking of Gettysburg alone, a clerk in the CSA War Department claimed this on July 8th: "this is the darkest day of the war". Lee even offered to resign due to his defeat.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,061
Dispargum
#7
Lincoln certainly thought that Gettysburg was a major Union victory. In the days after the battle he sent telegrams to Meade urging him to finish off Lee while Lee was still vulnerable.

Calling Gettysburg a decisive Union victory is something one can only do with hindsight. The decisiveness of the victory was not obvious in July 1863, but it was known to be a Union victory. One reason for the hindsight is that time would prove that Confederate losses at Gettysburg could not be fully replaced, but this may not have been known immediately.
 
Oct 2018
19
Virginia
#9
more of a turning point than a defeat.
I don't believe the rebels won a major victory after that.

I agree a change occurred. But I think it had to do with other factors than gettysburg alone. Grant in command, Jacksons death, vicksburg, southern morale and desertion, lees health to name a few. And the south indeed won a major victory at Chickamauga soon after vicksburg/gettysburg with the help of Longstreet and some ANV divisions. I would also see many of the grant/lee battles as southern tactical victories.
 
Oct 2018
19
Virginia
#10
The electorate has an amazingly short memory; Union losses in 1864, not 63, were a campaign issue in 1864. You sidled around the issue that while Southern newspapers invented rationales to explain away Gettysburg, it really was seen as a great victory by Northerners and for the Army of the Potomac.
Very true. I was just pointing out that heavy losses [non more so than Gettysburg] worked against federal victory. I also agree the papers tend to put a spin on facts. Gettysburg was a northern victory. But was it seen this way by the south? how would you support this? if so, than most all the grant/lee battles must be southern victories since you dont need to push the army from the field just hold ground and cause damage.




In any case, the battle was a clear defeat. Not a single useful thing was achieved for the South on the fields of Gettysburg; the army could have raided for food and withdrawn without a battle if that had been the whole point. It wasn't. Stuart's wagons that he captured were mostly useful as ambulances after the battle and for moving fodder for the horses, not for taking long-term stores back to Virginia. The Confederates took at least as many casualties as the Union in the battle and probably more, not to mention losing more along the way during the retreat, and those were massive losses that could ill be afforded. That said, while the battle was a significant defeat for the Confederates, it didn't change the operational tempo in the eastern theater over the long term, though that's partly because Meade was reined in after he chased Lee across the Potomac so troops could be detached for putting down draft riots. It would ultimately take Grant coming east to change the underlying facts on the ground for campaigns in Virginia.

One shouldn't confuse the South's efforts to explain away the defeat with the fact that it was still a defeat.
I am not saying it was not a defeat, only that it was a minor defeat and the campaign was viewed a success by the south in many ways. I wont repeat myself from my op but I saw multiple positives from the battle and campaign for the south. And since they were not driven from the field, they did not view it as a defeat.