However, Lee won out, and the solid line attacked. It was a fatal decision as Union forces literally mowed down Confederate troops by the thousands.
One historian later concluded, "Apparently it never occurred to him that the position [the Union line on Cemetery Ridge] could not be taken" (Wert 101). While the numbers vary, most people agree the South lost between 3,900 to 4,500 men, while the Union lost about 3,155 during the three days of battle. Clearly, not nearly as many men died at Gettysburg as did at Antietam. The turning point did not rely on the number of men killed or wounded in battle. Ultimately, it depended on the momentum of the army and its leader. Lee made some mistakes on the battlefield, such as demanding a long, united line. It cost him thousands of men, the battle, and ultimately the war. The South turned toward home after Gettysburg, and never again made it that far north in any of their campaigns. They were defeated; it just took time for the Union forces to sink the final nail in the South's coffin.
Finally, the most compelling reason that Gettysburg was the turning point in the war is the fact that the South lost the battle, and so the war continued. One historian notes, "The greatest offensive effort of Confederate arms, the campaign represented perhaps the only opportunity that the South had to win the war by offensive means. The Confederate loss at Gettysburg meant that the war would go on" (Nofi 223). If the South had won, and continued their winning momentum, the war could have gone a very different way, and the Union might have been defeated. With the loss at Gettysburg, the Confederate forces not only lost thousands of men, they had to turn and retreat, heading back toward Southern soil. They certainly won battles after Gettysburg, but they were truly lost after that loss. They came too far north, expended too much energy, and lost too many men to make up the difference. They still put on a good fight, but it was inevitable they would lose after Gettysburg. What is remarkable...
It marked a major defeat for the southern forces, who turned south and never regained a foothold so far north again. It ended the momentum of the South and generated a feeling of defeat among many soldiers and civilians. It meant the war would continue, which might not have occurred had the South taken the victory. Finally, it created a feeling of success in the Union forces that speared them on to more victories. As another historian notes,
The Army of Northern Virginia was not destroyed at Antietam, as Lincoln had hoped. Nor was it beaten utterly, as McClellan claimed. But it was badly hurt. Three of the nine division commanders, nineteen of thirty-six brigade commanders, and eighty-six of 173 regimental commanders were killed or wounded (McPherson 133).
Antietam then, was not the turning point of the war. Lee came back from defeat seemingly stronger than ever, and engaged in many successful battles after Antietam. However, he never really regained his "edge" after Gettysburg. He did win some battles, most notably the Battle of Cold Harbor, but he lost many more thousands of men in several more defeats, and the South no longer had enough men to send replacements. After Gettysburg, the South was demoralized, and they never again gained the momentum and determination they had at Gettysburg. This battle was the turning point of the war, and without Union victory, the Civil War could have seen a remarkably different outcome.
Editors. "Antietam National Battlefield." National Park Service. 2007. 2 May 2007. http://www.nps.gov/anti/battle.htm
Kinsel, Amy J. "9 From Turning Point to Peace Memorial: a Cultural Legacy." The Gettysburg Nobody Knows. Ed. Gabor S. Boritt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 203-222.
McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nofi, Albert a. The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863. Conshohocken, PA: Combined…
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