The rolling hills and forested ridges of Gettysburg, Pa., hold many stories about the clash of armies that occurred 150 years ago this week. But perhaps the most enduring is what would have happened if the South had won.
Would the direction of the war have shifted in favor of the Confederacy, or just prolonged its agony by a few more months? Would President Lincoln have been re-elected the following year, or would he have been turned out by a peace and accommodation movement led by Democrats?
Tens of thousands of visitors will be descending on Gettysburg National Park this week to commemorate the deadliest land battle in U.S. history, and remember the men who died there. At the same time, scholars of the Civil War continue to ponder the importance of this three-day fight that bloodied both sides, but led the Confederacy to retreat back to Virginia.
One historian believes the battle between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Union’s Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade truly was decisive
“If Lee had been victorious, the Army of the Potomac would have dissolved,” said Alan Guelzo, history professor at Gettysburg College and author the new book “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.” “There were a number of soldiers who wrote before the battle about how the army had reeled from defeat to defeat, and if it happened one more time they would desert.”
Guelzo firmly believes that the battle was decisive from a political standpoint as well. The Union army had lost at Chancellorsville weeks earlier, and Lincoln was facing trouble across the country. Not only did Lincoln have to manage the war, he also had to maintain support for his agenda of abolishing slavery. That wasn’t as popular as we may believe today.
After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862, the Republicans lost 36 members in the House of Representatives as well as the governorships of New York and New Jersey, Guelzo said. In the fall of 1863, the governorships of several states including Ohio and Pennsylvania were in danger of turning from Republican to Democrat. If that would have occurred, Guelzo believes they would have likely recalled their state militias from the Union army, leaving it weaker against the Confederates.
A loss at Gettysburg would have given the pro-peace Democrats the upper hand, he said.