The Battle of Gettysburg is often marked as the turning point of the Civil War. The high losses in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia both in terms of soldiers and commanders left him with few tactical choices other than fighting defensively for the rest of the war. Occurring in July of 1863, the battle was positioned roughly halfway through the war.
The idea of a turning point, however, is an interpretive tool of historians. Determining a historical turning point involves looking back after all the events are completed. Had Lincoln been defeated at the polls and had the Confederates effectively defended Atlanta, late 1864 could have been a turning point in the war. No one knows what the results would have been if General George B. McClellan had been elected as the Democrat replacement for Lincoln.
In the spring of 1865, had Lee led his men to the mountains and fought a guerrilla-style war for ten years after the fall of Richmond, historians might have talked about that as the turning point in the South’s successful War for Independence.
Small details, minor actions, and slight mistakes often determine the course of history. Almost any battle is, at some point, a close call, a near miss, a result of the unexpected and unplanned event, and the result of luck, fortune, or providence, depending upon who is writing the account. The “what if’s” of history entertain the thoughts of history students and the passions of history’s partisans.
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