The Point of No Return

There were no turning points in the Civil War. There were, however, several turning points identified after the war. Determining a “turning point” is an academic exercise: we see the events that determined the ultimate outcome of the war only after we know the ultimate outcome. A turning point is, as historian Erik Rau described, “ultimately a construct of historical reflection.”[1] Historian Carl Becker went a step further in a 1926 speech to the American Historical Association, describing a turning point as a “symbol, a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use.”[2]

The symbol a historian chooses depends on the outcome she wishes to highlight. Social historians interpret Antietam as a turning point because the Union victory gave Lincoln the impetus to proclaim the emancipation of slaves in areas in rebellion of the Union. The Union’s hard-won victory over Vicksburg could be seen as an economic turning point because it effectively broke the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi, further stressing already over-extended Confederate supply lines.[3] Gettysburg, on the other hand, could be understood as a military turning point because it demonstrated General Grant’s ability to definitively defeat Lee on the battlefield.[4] It is also considered the “high watermark of the Confederacy,” a characterization that only makes sense in hindsight as we can only recognize the Confederacy’s highest point in reference to its lowest point, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Turning points–symbols–are very personal things: one hundred fifty years later, historians continue debating the relative importance of individual battles. Gary Gallagher, for example, rejects the importance of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in favor of the Seven Days Battles, writing Gettysburg “looms largest in the public imagination as the war’s grand turning point…(but) affected the long term-shape of the war relatively little” while Vicksburg “generated a greater emotional than military result.”[5]

These debates can get historians into trouble as it can be very difficult to requite the knowledge gifted by historical hindsight with the information Americans had at the time. A turning point, Rau reminds us, is not something that “reveals itself to the people living through it at the time.”[6] The soldiers fighting at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and countless other battles, did not know the tide of battle shifted as they took and left the field.

As a budding military historian focused more on war’s effects on society than how they were fought, I am much more interested in the war’s point of no return than in the war’s various turning points. In 1861, the North and South alike anticipated a speedy end to the conflict. Twelve months of battle proved this expectation dead wrong. Union and Confederate corpses littered the battlefield of Shiloh in alarming numbers, yet somehow the armies’ determination to keep fighting did not die. Grant responded to a demoralizing Confederate attack at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 with his own counterattack, telling one of his officers that retreat was not an option: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”[7] Soldiers seemed to share the same dogged determination despite the horrors they witnessed. “If my life is spared I will continue in my country’s service until this rebellion is put down, should it be ten years,” wrote a Union soldier after the battle of Shiloh.[8] Fifteen months and thousands of casualties letter, another soldier’s correspondence echoes the same. Concluding a letter to his family written after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant William Wheeler of the 13th New York Battery wrote,

“The time may vary a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, but the job will be settled and that all right too. I am…ready to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things for the cause, knowing that if we do so, we also, like Charity, shall never fail.”[9]

Shiloh was a wakeup call to the North and South, but the soldiers also experienced it as a point of no return. It was their first taste of the brutal battles to come, yet it did not deter them from fighting. Whether their motivation was honor, moral conviction, or some other amorphous justification, the soldiers fought on. Both sides knew the short war they predicted was simply not possible: that bridge was crossed and burned. Something changed around Pittsburg Landing in Spring 1862. As the armies progressed to Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, they did not know the war was shifting in favor of Union victory, but the battle experiences of 1862 and 1863 gave rise to different soldiers and different armies. In contrast to the “turning points” identified by historians years after the fact, the renewed determination to keep fighting despite the brutality, trying conditions, and uncertainty experienced after Shiloh was “reveal(ed) to the people living through it at the time.”[10] As poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1883,

“Future years will never know the seething help and black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession War…the real war will never get in the books…The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness…will never be written.”[11]

Amid all this speculation I also wonder how women experienced the inertia of the war. Their experiences were very different from those of the men, but no less difficult and certainly of no less importance. How did one feel the war on the homefront, especially as the line between homefront and battlefront blurred? “I do not write often now – not for want of something to say, but from a loathing of all I see and hear. Why dwell upon it?” wrote diarist Mary Chestnut in 1865.[12] These words demonstrate Chestnut’s own feeling of loss and awareness of an ending, but how did Northern women feel? Or the emancipated slave women? Did they sense the beginning of the end or recognize the turning of the tide?

Historians are quite adept at finding “the few great battles,” but they sometimes overlook the minutia of individual experience. The difference between a turning point and a point of no return is quite simple, really: one we find in the words of historians, the other in the words of the soldiers themselves.

 

[1] Erik Rau quoted in Roger D. Launius, “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, (NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007), 22.

[2] Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[3] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gary W. Gallagher, “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[6] Rau, 22.

[7] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 410.

[8] Unknown Union soldier quoted in McPherson, 413.

[9] “Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

[10] Rau, 22.

[11] Walt Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 81.

[12] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 834.

 

Sources Referenced

Becker, Carl L. “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Chestnut, Mary Boykin Miller. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Gallagher, Gary W. “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Launius, Roger D. “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007.

“Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days and Collect. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883.

 

*Image taken from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Online Photo Archive. https://www.nps.gov/applications/hafe/detail.cfm?Image_No=hf-0002

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