Left: Sketch of Union General Grant discussing Vicksburg’s surrender with Confederate General Pemberton 150 years ago on July 3, 1863.
Right: Surrender discussion site today.
Public domain images from the National Park Service.
During the observance of the 150th anniversary of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg the question is again asked: “What if the Confederates had won?”.
Here’s my answer:
The most likely scenario after a Union defeat at Gettysburg is that the Union army retreated intact and in good order to its next planned line of defense at Pipe Creek, Maryland, 12 miles southeast of Gettysburg.
Vicksburg, Mississippi would still surrender on July 4, 1863.
Along with the city and its 30,000 defenders, the Confederacy lost control of the Mississippi River and was split in two. The eastern half was now cut off from desperately needed reinforcements and supplies from the Confederacy west of the Mississippi.
Even with a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, those losses were probably a mortal blow from which the Confederacy could not recover.
President Lincoln would have been used the victory at Vicksburg to offset a defeat at Gettysburg. He would still have held the Union together and kept it in the war until the army in the East recovered and resumed the offensive.
Alternate history “what if” scenarios
Credible alternate history scenarios are best when they are based as much as possible on the historic record.
Less credible are dramatic scenarios that deviate significantly from the historical record. Such a deviation would be a massive Confederate victory at Gettysburg that completely destroys the Union army, winning the battle, the war, and Confederate independence.
My alternative scenario assumes that the Confederates did just slightly better and the Union just slightly worse than both did at the actual battle.
The Union Army prior to Gettysburg: defeat and recovery
Prior to Gettysburg the Union army lost most battles in the East (but not in the West).
The Union’s retreat after its defeat at Second Battle of Manassas in late August, 1862 was its most disordered. The Union army recovered in two weeks. By mid-September it was able to stop the Confederates along Antietam Creek in Maryland. That allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
After suffering a horrible defeat with heavy casualties at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December, 1862, the Union army stayed in place, remained a serious threat, and resumed the offensive five months later at Chancellorsville, Virgina.
After again being defeated at Chancellorsville in May, 1863, the intact Union army withdrew in good order to strong defensive positions that continued to threaten the Confederacy. A few weeks later, when the Union detected the Confederates moving north, they immediately began a pursuit and caught the Confederates at Gettysburg.
The two armies after Gettysburg
A reasonable assumption is that the Confederates would have suffered the same losses to achieve victory as they did in defeat.
Along with losing up to 1/3 of its troops, the Confederates used almost all their ammunition. As they were at the end of a very long and tenuous supply line, restocking their ammunition so they could follow up their Gettysburg victory would have been very difficult.
The 2/3 of the surviving troops, almost all of whom had taken part in at least one day of fighting, were exhausted.
Many of their horses, critical to Civil War battles, had been lost and the survivors exhausted.
The Confederates could continue to feed themselves from what they could seize from the Pennsylvania farmers.
The Confederates ability to replace their Gettysburg losses was made almost impossible by the loss of another 30,000 Confederate troops captured at Vicksburg on July 4.
The Union army would also have lost 1/4 to 1/3 of its troops and a significant number of its horses.
In the historical battle of Gettysburg, the 13,000 troops of the Union Sixth Corps had not been engaged. In my alternate history scenario, the defeated Union army has a similar number of fresh troops to defend the rest of the army while it recovered.
The Union army’s retreat would have shortened its supply lines making it easier for the defeated Union army at Pipe Creek to be quickly resupplied.
The Union had thousands of troops from which to make up its losses, including up to 100,000 troops that had just won the siege of Vicksburg. Some of those troops had been sent to Vicksburg from the East. One of the units sent in June was the 20th Michigan Infantry Regiment which included Anson Croman, my 2nd great-grandfather-in-law.
The Union’s control of most of the major rivers, now including the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean combined with the best canals and railroads in the U.S. meant that the Union could quickly move troops from Vicksburg to the east.
My alternate history scenario continued
Without quick reinforcement and ammunition resupply, the Confederates would be unable to follow up their victory at Gettysburg.
When word reached the Confederate capitol at Richmond of the disastrous loss of Vicksburg the Confederate government most likely would have recalled its army from Pennsylvania.
On the south bank of Pipe Creek, the Union army would have seen the Confederates withdrawing. The Union army may not have recovered enough from its recent Gettysburg defeat to pursue the Confederates.
In the East President Lincoln has an intact and formidable army that survived a defeat. In the West he has a major victory.
While his job would be easier if he had two victories instead of one, he uses what he has to sustain Union morale, continue the war for almost two more years, and defeat the Confederacy.
Smithsonian magazine’s new Gettysburg battlefield map
Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg
Smithsonian magazine has published a new interactive Gettysburg map that combines an 1874 battlefield map with modern digital data and 3D graphics is available at Smithsonian.com
Among its features are illustrations of lines of sight at critical moments.
General Lee’s July 2, 1863 viewpoint from Seminary Ridge.
Screenshot from the Smithsonian’s “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg