In see what happened and why each

In 1863, three events proved to be turning points for the American Civil War: the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg. Learn about these Civil War turning points in this lesson.

Time for a Change

As 1863 dawned, U.S. citizens were losing hope. The previous December, Union forces had engaged in a frontal attack on Confederate lines entrenched at Fredericksburg, Va.

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It was suicide, and the surrender dashed hopes yet again of capturing Richmond anytime soon. The Emancipation Proclamation had emboldened Lincoln’s opponents, and even early supporters of the war were growing tired of the bad news. Lincoln himself was dissatisfied with the war’s progress and repeatedly changed commanders. In early 1863, ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker was put in charge of the Union army.

Many people hoped this was the change they needed to finally wrap up this horrible war.

General Hooker took charge of the Union army in 1863
General Joseph Hooker

We’re going to take a brief look at three key battles that took place in 1863. All of them, in their own ways, turned the tide of victory in favor of the Union.

Now I know that descriptions of battles can be complicated and confusing, but I think we can strip these down to the basics to see what happened and why each one was so important.

The Battle of Chancellorsville

The first was the Battle of Chancellorsville. The newly appointed Union commander, General Hooker, reorganized the infantry and formed a cavalry. He wanted to strike at Robert E. Lee’s army – numbering barely half of his own – while it was still entrenched near Fredericksburg. The Battle of Chancellorsville did turn out to be a decisive turning point in the Union’s favor, but not in the way Hooker expected.

General Hooker had divided the Union army into three parts and advanced, intending to trap Lee. Then, he stopped abruptly in the wilderness and set up a defensive position, daring Lee to attack him head on. Once Lee had moved forward into the face of a much larger force, then Hooker could move other troops in behind him. But General Lee decided not to take the bait. Instead, he and Stonewall Jackson conceived a risky plan.

They divided their already outnumbered army. Lee stayed in front with a small portion as a distraction, while Stonewall Jackson took most of the army around Hooker’s right side, deep in the wilderness. Just before sunset on May 2, 1863, Jackson attacked, throwing the unprepared Union army into chaos. Hooker was forced back the following morning.

Another defeat for the Union.

Battle of Chancellorsville Map
Chancellorsville Battle Map

The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered Lee’s greatest tactical victory; the much larger Union army was driven from the battlefield and suffered more than 18,000 casualties. But victory came at a heavy price for the South: Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot in the arm by one of his own men in the darkness of May 2. The arm was amputated successfully, but Jackson died of pneumonia a week later.

So even though it was a loss for the Union, Jackson’s death made the Battle of Chancellorsville a turning point in the war.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The next decisive battle in 1863 was a Union victory, but it was an accident – kind of. General Lee wanted to keep up the momentum following his victory at Chancellorsville. He believed that a successful invasion of a Northern city would turn popular opinion (and therefore politicians) against Lincoln and the Civil war, ending it for good. So Lee started to gather the Confederate forces in southern Pennsylvania, under strict orders not to engage the enemy until the entire army was in place.

While they waited, one of Lee’s commanders sent a brigade of soldiers east to a town called Gettysburg for supplies. They didn’t expect to run into the Union cavalry.President Lincoln had gotten wind of the planned invasion and sent the U.S. Army to cut off the invasion force.

The two sides surprised each other on July 1, starting the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate troops forced the Union soldiers back through town, and both generals immediately sent for reinforcements. By nightfall, they faced each other on parallel ridges outside the town. The armies pounded each other the following morning, but a series of leadership errors on both sides dragged the conflict out for yet another day. Lee might have been successful if he’d had a skilled leader like Stonewall Jackson. But he didn’t, and a less competent general ordered what is infamously known as Pickett’s Charge – a gutsy but suicidal march across a mile-wide open field, up a hill and into the face of a crouching Union artillery and infantry.

When the North opened fire, they killed more than half of the 13,000 charging Confederate soldiers in less than an hour. The Southern cavalry, which was to have attacked the rear of the Union line, had also been contained.

Battle of Gettysburg map
Gettysburg Battle Map

General Lee retreated, and the deadliest campaign of the war was finally over. More than 57,000 American men were dead, wounded or missing, including nearly a third of General Lee’s Southern officers.

Many historians agree that the Battle of Gettysburg was the most decisive turning point for the Union. Lee had lost thousands of troops and officers that he couldn’t replace, and he never again attempted an invasion of the North. The defeat also led to a sell-off of Confederate bonds, dealing a huge blow to the economy and morale of the Southern population. Later that year, Lincoln would dedicate the battlefield as a national cemetery, delivering his famous Gettysburg Address.

The Siege of Vicksburg

On the following day, which was the fourth of July, 1863, the Union finally gained control of the full length of the Mississippi River after a six-month struggle to seize the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was, by most estimations, unconquerable. The Confederate city faced a bend in the river high atop an un-scalable bluff controlling the Mississippi River.

It was protected by swamps to the rear, which an army couldn’t cross. But General Ulysses S. Grant was told in no uncertain terms that he needed to capture Vicksburg and control the entire river. Beginning in January that year, he conceived one plan after another, failing multiple times.

Finally, on April 16, the navy ran two gunships and several troop transports past the city. When they were closer to the shore, Confederate guns just shot over them. After a month of strategic moves and battles, Grant started the Siege of Vicksburg.

Confederate relief was unsuccessful, and by the end of June, Vicksburg had run out of supplies. They surrendered on the fourth of July, 1863.The Vicksburg campaign took months to complete, but its success opened the length of the Mississippi River and isolated Texas and the New Mexico territory from the rest of the Confederacy. It wasn’t the end of the war – that would take nearly two more years – but July 1863 was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Three key battles in 1863 turned the tide of victory in favor of the Union. First, a Confederate win at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May cost the South their second in command, Stonewall Jackson. General Lee decided to keep up the momentum of victory and launch an invasion of the North.

If successful, it might have extinguished the last of Lincoln’s popular support. But after three days of fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union finally forced Lee’s retreat on July 3. Because he suffered heavy casualties, including a third of his officers, and because he never again tried to invade the North, many historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg to be the turning point of the Civil War.

The next day – the fourth of July, 1863 – Union General Ulysses S. Grant finally captured the Mississippi River. After several attempts over several months, victory came after the Siege of Vicksburg.

These three battles in 1863 marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand the importance of the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg
  • Identify General Hooker, General Lee, General Grant and General Jackson

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