Gettysburg was not the pivotal battle of the American Civil War. Antietam was. So says Professor Edward T. O’Donnell in his “Turning Points in American History” series of lectures.* Although the loss of 50,000 casualties by July 3, 1863 made Gettysburg the most costly battle of the Civil War, loss of life does not a turning point make.
The results of the Battle of Gettysburg were inconclusive. As in so many other Civil War battles, the Union did not pursue the enemy army to extinction. Lee escaped to fight again. O’Donnell goes so far as to suggest that if Lee had won at Gettysburg, his options were not promising. Washington, D.C. was the most well fortified city in the world! Lee would have mucked about the Chesapeake countryside like Hannibal outside Rome .
So why was the September 16, 1862 Battle of Antietam the pivotal battle, even though it occurred a year before Gettysburg?
1) The battle could be conceived as a tactical victory for the Union because Lee had retreated.
2) Because it was a victory, Lincoln’s Republicans did better in the mid-term elections in November.
3) England decided not to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy because it didn’t want to back a loser.**
4) Lincoln needed a victory in order make his Emancipation Proclamation official. If he issued it before such a victory, his action would be perceived as desperate. Antietam gave Lincoln what he needed.
5) Long before 1863, the United States had become the last bastion of chattel slavery in the world. Although the war had always been about slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation made it official. No self-respecting European government*** would now come to the aid of the South. Lincoln’s Proclamation hammered the last nail into the coffin of the Confederacy’s hope for European aid.
6) Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation legalized what had already been occurring, the self-emancipation of slaves. Whenever a Union army was in the neighborhood, slaves just up and left the plantations. Now after Antietam and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation, their freedom became official.
Each slave that defected to the North deprived the South of a laborer who could feed and clothe Confederate soldiers. Alternately, freed slaves now constituted a new labor force for the union—they first served in labor battalions and then in combat units.
Antietam signified the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
The words above are my own but they are based on what I learned from Professor O’Donnell and some subsequent reading.
*“1862 Terrible Reality—The Battle of Antietam,” Lecture #22 in “Turning Points in American History” by Professor Edward T. O’Donnell, College of the Holy Cross. The Teaching Company: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=8580
**The victory of the American colonists at Saratoga brought the French in on the side of the Revolutionaries.
***Not even Russia, which had abolished slavery by decree in 1861!