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The Turning Point

July 2024
2min read

One of the haunting riddles of the American Civil War is the question of identifying its real turning point. It began as a simple struggle between two sections, and it became enormously complex, involving a lasting change in American society; as it changed, it ceased to be a war in which the Southern Confederacy could win its independence by one decisive stroke of arms and became one in which Confederate success depended on a dogged tenacity that would finally induce a war-weary North to give up the contest. To the end, the war remained one which the North could always lose, but somewhere along the line it became one which the South of its own efforts could no longer win. When and where did this change occur?

The natural place to seek an answer, of course, is in the mind of the soldier who knew most about it, General Robert E. Lee. This man of keen military intelligence never deceived himself in the least degree, and he obviously knew, long before the end, that the power to force a decision had passed out of his hands. But he kept his own counsel, then and thereafter.

On the painful retreat to Appomattox, Lee did say that he had never believed the Confederacy could win without help from Europe, but he did not enlarge on the remark and it is possible to suspect that it meant less than it seems to mean. To destroy the Army of the Potomac in one blow would of course have brought European recognition, but that recognition would have been a by-product of climactic victory rather than a cause. Once it had been possible to hope for such a victory; finally it was not; and although Lee must have known when the change came, he never told anyone about it. He just kept on fighting.

Clifford Dowdey, the able student of the history of Lee’s great Army of Northern Virginia, considers the riddle in a thoughtful new book entitled The Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee , and suggests that the one great moment of Confederate opportunity came earlier than is generally supposed—not at Antietam and not at Gettysburg, but in the tangled, bloody series of battles fought in front of Richmond at the end of June, 1862, the battles that are referred to now simply as the Seven Days.

Actually, the Seven Days were six, running from June 26 through July i. There was a skirmish on June 25 and a smaller one on July 2, and nobody really counted either one. The reverberating battle is remembered as “The Seven Days” and it might as well be accepted that way. An extra day’s violence somehow got inserted.

During these seven days Lee won a prodigious victory, repulsing the powerful offensive of the Federal General George B. McClellan and compelling McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to retreat to a cheerless camp at Harrison’s Landing, on the James River, thirty miles downstream from the Confederate capital. The victory had far-reaching consequences—it may well have kept the war going two years beyond its natural course—and it was so startling that McClellan soon persuaded himself that simply by escaping destruction he had accomplished something remarkable; but it left Lee disappointed. This one time he had thought that he could sweep the opposing army clear off the board, and he probably was right. It could have happened. The trouble was that neither Lee nor his army was quite ready for it.

Lee’s objective in the Seven Days, in short, was vastly different than it was at Antietam and Gettysburg; which is to say that it was unlimited. Both of his invasions of the North actually had rather limited aims. They were planned as moves that would take the war for a time out of Virginia, throw the Federals on the defensive, open the opportunity for successful maneuvers, and, just possibly, lead to an important victory on Northern soil. But in the Seven Days Lee went all out. Here there was a chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac root and branch, and from the moment of its inception Lee’s strategic plan tried to exploit that chance to the uttermost. The chance never quite returned. To win the war with one blow was impossible once this chance was gone.

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