America's Turning Point: Vicksburg and Gettysburg

In this second of five exclusive excerpts from his new historical work, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States, Conrad Black describes "one of the great turning points of world military history." Read the first excerpt, on D-Day, here.

The 1863 campaigns in the east began with the Union commander Lincoln named to replace Burnside after the Fredericksburg fiasco, General Joseph Hooker, attacking south against Lee's army and coming to grips with him at Chancellorsville, a few miles west of Fredericksburg, 50 miles southwest of Washington and north of Richmond.

Hooker had 130,000 men, many of them now battle-trained (even if not many of the battles had been successful). Lee had only about 60,000, but he sent Jackson on a brilliant flanking move on Hooker's right and, with perfect timing, pushed the main Union Army back. Both sides took about 11,000 casualties, including Jackson, killed by the fire of his own sentries, on May 2. Hooker withdrew and followed McClellan and Burnside out of command and was replaced by Major General George G. Meade.

While Union fortunes were discouraging, the Union was assembling a huge and well-trained and equipped army and Lincoln was changing generals after every defeat; he would come up with winners soon, because incoming Union commanders, as Scott had foreseen, now had a winning hand. One of the great turning points of world military history was almost at hand.

In the west, the South was holding the Confederacy together by blocking the North's southern drive down the Mississippi at Vicksburg, about 250 miles south of Memphis and 200 miles north-northwest of New Orleans. Vicksburg was a great fortress, defended with the usual tenacity of the Confederate Army. In a brilliant campaign from March to July 1863, Grant crossed the Mississippi into Louisiana, marched south of Vicksburg and brought his 20,000 men back north on Union ships on the river toward the back of Vicksburg, separating the two local Confederate armies, invested the city on May 22, and enforced a leak-proof siege of the fortress city.

In the east, Lee, playing for European recognition, trying to demoralize the North, and concerned at the ever-increasing size and capability of the armies facing him, and of Grant's progress in the west, invaded the North, moving into Pennsylvania 50 miles north of Antietam and 100 miles northwest of Washington. Lincoln called for 100,000 volunteers, and considerably more men came forward into the Union recruiting offices.

Meade followed Lee, and the two armies met at Gettysburg, starting on July 1, 1863, as the siege of Vicksburg came to a climax. In a very complicated, desperately fought three-day battle replete with unit-sized acts of conspicuous courage on both sides again and again, the Confederacy made its supreme play at Gettysburg in Longstreet's assault on the Little Round Top on July 3. This would have turned the battle, if successful, but was repulsed after prolonged and intense fighting at close quarters, especially in the famous charge of Cemetery Ridge, where the Union prevailed with massed artillery and musketry at point-blank range. (This charge was one of Lee's few serious mistakes, and Longstreet made the effort only after expressing private misgivings.)

Lee had no choice but to fall back on July 4, his retreat blocked by the swollen Potomac. Lincoln gave Meade a direct order to attack Lee with his back to the river, but Meade wavered. Lee escaped across the river in the succeeding days, but at the head of a defeated army.

Early on the morning of July 4, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, who bagged 30,000 Confederate prisoners. Apart from the prisoners, both sides had taken about 10,000 casualties around Vicksburg. In three days at Gettysburg, the two armies had taken, together, over 50,000 casualties, nearly 60 percent of them Confederates, and counting the prisoners, over 100,000 casualties in the two actions. General Abner Doubleday said of Gettysburg: "Each house, church, hovel, and barn is filled with the wounded of both armies. The ground is covered with the dead."

The American aptitude for war would not be questioned again for a very long time. Spokesmen for government and opposition in the British Parliament paid homage to the ferocity and courage of the combatants. No one except Lincoln and the senior officers of both armies had imagined that the decisive climax of the American constitutional project could be such a noble and terrible combat.

Excerpted from Flight of the Eagle. Copyright © 2013 Conrad Black Capital Corporation. Published by Signal, an imprint of the McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.