History Wars Civil War

What the Confederates might have done if they won at Gettysburg

The Confederate general took the war to the Union on a number of occasions. Gettysburg was just the most decisive.
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The Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup.

The Confederate States Army had very little chance of winning the Civil War and any Confederate leader worth his cotton knew it. This lot included Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. 

The only chance the South had to win the war was to prolong it to the point that the general public in the Union could no longer stand to live in a country at war and force a settled peace, Gen. William T. Sherman wrote in his memoirs. Sherman, of course, would later storm across the South to keep that from happening.

If things had gone differently for Lee, the Confederates had a solid plan in place. Historians and writers have long argued about how single events in the three-day battle might have changed the outcome, and then the history of the war.

If Gen. Richard Ewell had seized Cemetery Hill from the Union on July 1, 1863, if Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had provided key intelligence, or if Gen. James Longstreet would have hit the Union as hard as he could on July 2, the entire course of the war might have changed. 

Long before Sherman’s March to the Sea, Robert E. Lee was focused on taking the war to the North before it could ramp up its industrial advantages and turn the tides. The 1863 Battle of Gettysburg was not Lee’s first invasion of the North. The Confederate general took the war to the Union on a number of occasions. Gettysburg was just the most decisive. 

robert e. lee confederates gettysburg
Robert E. Lee

Unfortunately for Lee and the South, it was decisive in the way that spelled the end of the Confederate States. Lee would never be able to seriously threaten the North, European powers lost any thought of intervention, and the concurrent Confederate loss at Vicksburg doomed the South to its eventual surrender. 

Lee might not have known how pivotal Gettysburg would be at the time, but he and the political powers in Richmond had a definite plan in place in case of a Confederate victory. The Confederate government had already dispatched Vice-President Alexander Stephens with the mission of making peace overtures to Abraham Lincoln. It was alleged that he would have a strong hand at the negotiating table.

With a Union loss at Gettysburg, Lincoln might have been forced to receive Stephens as Lee’s victorious army marched on Washington from the North, around much of the city’s stout defenses. Lee’s army would be beaten up and low on supplies, so its immediate goal would be finding a source of those needed supplies, including warehouses, railway junctions and Union Army bases. 

union dead from battle with confederates gettysburg
“The Harvest of Death”: Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5 or July 6, 1863, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.

Lee would also have to ensure that Union Gen. George G. Meade’s forces would not be a significant threat to his movement toward Washington. In the immediate aftermath, Lee’s sole goal was to give Virginia farmers a break to plant crops in the summer. With Washington as a new target, the threat of an assault on the Union capital’s unfinished fortifications would have been a major cause for alarm in Congress and among the Northern public. 

The Confederacy would have hoped for Britain or another European power to intervene on their behalf, for border states like Maryland and Delaware to secede from the Union and join their side, capturing some key industrial centers. Most importantly, it would either force Lincoln’s capitulation or prolong the war with the perception that the South could last as long as it had to, again forcing Northern capitulation.

Either way, a Southern victory at Gettysburg would have changed the entire course of the war and the course of American history.