- Historic Sites
A LEADING CIVIL WAR HISTORIAN CHANGES ONE SMALL HAPPENSTANCE—WHICH IN TURN CHANGES EVERYTHING
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
About 3:00 P.M. Stuart reported to Lee that the Union right was uncovered. Lee immediately ordered Hill to take his division south around Round Top and attack the Union flank in the wheat field. Undetected by the Union cavalry that was massed more than a mile to the north, Hill’s six thousand men burst from the woods and boulders of Devil’s Den screaming the Rebel yell. Many of them wore blue uniforms captured at Harpers Ferry, which increased the surprise and confusion among Union troops of XII Corps. Like a row of falling dominoes, the exhausted and decimated Union brigades collapsed. With perfect timing the rest of Jackson’s corps counterattacked, smashing the fragments of Union regiments that had rallied to resist Hill. As the fighting rolled in echelon toward the north, Longstreet’s corps joined the counterattack at 4:30 P.M.
McClellan had kept his favorite V Corps in reserve. Steadied by Brig. Gen. George Stykes’s division of regulars, they held back the yelling Rebels for a brief time. But as the sun dipped below the South Mountain range, V Corps also broke. In a desperate attempt to rally them, McClellan rode to the front. “Soldiers!” he shouted. “Stand fast! I will lead you!” As he drew his sword, a minié ball smashed into his skull and toppled him dead from his horse. Word of McClellan’s death spread like lightning through the thinned and scattered ranks of Yankee units that were still fighting. The last remnants of resistance winked out. Thousands of dejected bluecoats surrendered; thousands more melted away into the dusk. The Army of the Potomac ceased to exist as a fighting force.
News of the Battle of Gettysburg resounded through the land and across the Atlantic. “My God! My God!” exclaimed Lincoln in the White House. “What will the country say?” It said plenty, all of it bad. Even staunch patriots and Lincoln supporters like Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune , gave up hope. “An armistice is bound to come during the year ’63,” he wrote. “The Rebs can’t be conquered by the present machinery.” Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts, which had suffered 75 percent casualties at Gettysburg, wrote in November that “the army is tired with its hard and terrible experience … I’ve pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence.”
In Kentucky, Union and Confederate forces had clashed in the indecisive Battle of Perryville on the same day (October 8) as the Battle of Gettysburg. Encouraged by the news from Pennsylvania, the Confederate commanders Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith decided to continue their Kentucky campaign. Having already occupied Lexington and Frankfort, they began a drive toward the prize of Louisville as the Union Army under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, discouraged by the reports of McClellan’s defeat and death, fell back listlessly. In Pennsylvania, after a pause for consolidation of his supply lines, Lee began an advance toward Baltimore. Newly emboldened pro-Confederate Marylanders openly affirmed their allegiance. Although reserve troops manning the formidable defenses ringing Washington dissuaded Lee from attacking the capital, there was no Union field army capable of resisting Lee’s movements.
Hesitant to goad last-ditch resistance by attacking a major city, however, Lee paused to await the outcome of Northern congressional elections on November 4. The voters sent a loud and clear message that they wished to end the war, even on terms of Confederate independence. Democrats won control of the next House of Representatives, and the peace wing established a firm hold on the party.
At almost the moment the election results became known, the British minister to the United States, Lord Lyons, presented Secretary of State Seward with an offer signed by the governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary to mediate an end to the war on the basis of separation. “We will not admit the division of the Union at any price,” Seward responded. “There is no possible compromise.” Very well, responded Lyons. In that case Her Majesty’s government will recognize the independence of the Confederate States of America. Other European governments will do the same. “This is not a matter of principle or preference,” Lyons told Seward, “but of fact.”
Despite Seward’s bluster, he was a practical statesman. He was also a student of history. He knew that American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 had brought French diplomatic recognition of the fledgling United States, followed by French assistance and intervention that proved crucial to the achievement of American independence. Would history repeat itself? Would British and French recognition of the Confederacy be followed by military assistance and intervention—against the blockade, for example? As they pondered these questions and absorbed the results of the congressional elections, while Confederate armies stood poised for attack outside Baltimore and Louisville, Lincoln and Seward concluded that they had no choice.