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Defeats in the East and West doomed the Confederacy. July 1863 would have been an excellent time to end the war.

A supreme irony of the American Civil War was that on—of all dates—the Fourth of July, 1863, the Confederacy, at the height of its power, suffered two enormous reverses from which it would never recover. But instead of using these twin calamities as an opportunity to sue for peace, the South forged ahead for two more years into wrack and ruin.

At Gettysburg, Pa., the 4th, the remnants of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began their on the evening of retreat after three days of battle, leaving behind nearly 5,000 dead, 6,000 missing or captured and a large number of its 13,000 wounded. Following the defeat of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s charge a day earlier, Lee had drawn up his army in expectation of an attack by Union Maj. Gen. George Meade. But Meade declined, and there was nothing for Lee to do but retreat. The losses were so severe he was never again able to take the offensive, and the following year Northern forces began to close in on the Army of Northern Virginia. Gettysburg became known as the “high tide” of the Confederacy.

On the same July day a thousand miles southwest of Gettysburg, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered his Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss., to Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant after a six-month battle and a two-month bombardment and siege that starved out the Rebel army and the inhabitants of the city. Vicksburg was the last Rebel bastion on the Mississippi River, and its loss cleaved the Confederacy in two, fatally crippling the South’s efforts in the war’s Western Theater.

The politicians in Richmond would admit none of this, however. Despite the grievous losses, they insisted the Confederacy must fight on to final victory. Early on, the South had its chances, but by July 4, 1863, it was too late. It would have been an excellent time to stop the war.

In the days leading up to these defeats, Confederate President Jefferson Davis became so anxious he had to be put to bed, and his physicians actually worried he was dying. When he at last arose to receive the battle reports, he found that not only had Vicksburg fallen and Lee lost at Gettysburg, but further dispatches arrived warning that the Union armies were taking full advantage of the situation, with Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans now moving against General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee, and Bragg in full retreat, and Federal troops suddenly landing in force on the barrier islands off the coast of Charleston, S.C. On the heels of this came news of the fall of Port Hudson, La., and worse, that Robert E. Lee wanted to resign.

A lesser man might have pulled the shade and returned to bed, but Jefferson Davis did no such thing. While acknowledging “we are in the darkest hour of our political existence,” Davis sought to put the best political face on it by insisting to his Cabinet that the loss of all that land in the West and the return of Lee’s army to Virginia meant the South now had that much less territory to defend.

If Jefferson Davis’ picture of the South’s prospects seemed rosy, it was not reflected in the thinking of many of his senior commanders. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon said, “The shock of Vicksburg was felt from one end of the Confederacy to the other,” while Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s “Old War Horse,” wrote afterward, “For myself, I felt that our last hope was gone, and that now it was only a question of time with us.”

It was indeed as bad as that, and worse. Worse because, fatally wounded as it was, the Confederate Army was still extremely dangerous, and leaders like Davis knew it. Their sense of reality had been clouded by the succession of feeble Northern generals who for two years had been bulldozed by Lee. There was dissent against the war in the North and cries for making peace. If the Confederacy could only hold on until the presidential election in November 1864, there was a good chance Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans would be turned out of Washington, and a new administration could be persuaded to let the South go its separate way.

What they did not count on was the likes of Ulysses Grant, whose military philosophy defied anything that had been seen so far in the war or, for the most part, in modern military history. Here was a general who rejected out of hand the notion that “he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day,” substituting instead the tactics of a pit bull which, once in close quarters with an opponent, will hang on till-death-do-us-part.

Grant’s willingness to sustain losses that would have been unthinkable in the early years of the conflict now seemed to present the North’s best chance of winning the war quickly, and Lincoln was not hesitant to say so (“I can’t spare this man—he fights”). Despite the bloody draft riots that paralyzed New York and Chicago in the summer of ’63, the Federal armies were growing stronger every day while the Confederacy grew weaker.

Its high point had been reached at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg, though no one on either side had any sure way of knowing it. Such was their blind hatred of the North that for Davis and those surrounding him there was nothing left but to hope for the best and fight it out till the last dog died. And that would not be a long time in coming, for after Vicksburg Lincoln brought Grant east to face the hitherto indomitable Robert E. Lee.

In both tone and substance, Lincoln’s yearend message to Congress was conciliatory toward the South and, like his Emancipation Proclamation the year before, it contained both the carrot and the stick. He realized the Confederates were suffering, and tried an appeal to their sense of reason. The carrot was contained in a document titled “A Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” which offered a full presidential pardon to all soldiers and employees of the Confederacy who would lay down their arms, take the Loyalty Oath and accept the Emancipation Proclamation. The stick, by implication, was that otherwise all bets were off, although no deadline was specified.

The Southerners, however, were treated to a demonstration of things to come less than two months later, when the North sent William Tecumseh Sherman on a rampage across the state of Mississippi. Ostensibly planned as a mission to destroy Confederate supplies, the operation soon turned into little more than a punitive raid, during which Sherman abandoned whatever allegiance he might have felt toward the Sermon on the Mount. With a force of 15,000 men the ham-fisted Ohioan cut a swath of devastation 10 miles wide and 150 miles long, in which he refined and perfected the pyromaniac urges he would later unleash in Georgia and the Carolinas during his famous March to the Sea. Little or no property was spared, public or private; looting and burning were the order of the day. When Sherman was finished, little was left among the smoking ruins from Vicksburg to Meridian but a bewildered and miserable population of women, children and old men—living testimony to the terrible consequences of rejecting the president’s amnesty program.

Even so, if Lincoln’s magnanimous gesture had any chance of success, it was likely doomed in the fine print, which excluded from pardon all officials of the Confederate government, army generals, former U.S. congressmen and federal judges, and high-ranking naval officers—in other words, everybody in a position to actually bring the war to a close. Thus, what Lincoln saw as an act of reconciliation might have worked in the reverse. A corollary to Samuel Johnson’s superb observation that “The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully,” might easily read, “Few things cause a man to struggle on than the notion of a noose around his neck.”

For their part, the Rebel leaders weren’t about to be reconciliated, let alone reconstructed, as Jefferson Davis’ own message to the Confederate Congress—which happened to be delivered the same day as Lincoln’s—made abundantly clear. After admitting that “Grave reverses” had befallen the Southern armies, Davis went on to denounce Lincoln as “a despot,” and the Yankee armies as “criminals” and “savages” while reiterating the Confederate mantra that an “impassable gulf” divided the two sections of the country.

The Confederate legislators, finding themselves likewise unpardonable, fully concurred with the president and in a joint resolution declared Lincoln’s offer nothing more than a sham to provoke desertions within the Rebel armies. Their decree informed Southern citizens that the Lincoln amnesty proposal was “only to delude and betray,” and would ultimately lead to “your subjugation, destruction of your political and social fabric” and, in the end, “public degradation and ruin.” In short, the document concluded, “It is better to be conquered by any other nation than the United States.”

And the Fourth Estate, while not formally excluded from the amnesty, weighed in with even stronger denunciations of Lincoln’s gesture than those of either the president or Congress, probably on the assumption that, should the South concede, their heads would likely be among the first to roll.

Thus was the reaction of the Confederate leadership to the tragic summer that saw the whole complexion of the war turn against them. Defeat at Gettysburg was one thing, but if Vicksburg had held firm, there might have been hope. The brilliant Lee with his unimpeachable Army of Northern Virginia might yet again have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. But the loss of Vicksburg was simply too great to overcome, and there was now no way to redeem it, or the Mississippi River Valley.

Soberer men might have looked to their maps and reflected on these things, but from Jeff Davis on down, the Southern leadership appeared seduced by the poisonous cocktail of hatred, pride, arrogance and fear. Still, anybody with a brain ought to have seen it: The Confederate treasury was nearly bankrupt— $600 million in debt—and so awash in paper money that a barrel of flour cost four months’ wages for the average earner. Whereas before the twin disasters of the Fourth of July, Confederate diplomats abroad had been received at least cordially—even if the results were not satisfactory; now their British and French counterparts became coolly civil, and sometimes not even that.

Of the territory the Southern Confederacy laid claim to in 1861, nearly half was now gone—all of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland and Oklahoma; most of Mississippi and Arkansas; and parts of North Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama. Their armies in the field were now outnumbered at least two-to-one, which might have been considered fair odds in the old days, but the old days were gone and Lincoln had just put out a call for a new draft of 500,000 men—more than were serving in all Confederate armies combined.

Clearly, the handwriting was on the wall, and yet the prevailing powers in the Richmond government refused to face these facts, or at least refused to accept them. Margaret Mitchell in her Civil War novel hit the nail square on the head when she created Scarlett O’Hara, whose defining philosophy was, “I won’t think about that! I just won’t think about it! Tomorrow will be another day!”

It would take a phalanx of modern psychiatrists to unravel the peculiar psychology that infected the Southern leaders—or perhaps not even that; to paraphrase Freud’s opinion of the Irish, the Southerners seemed to be “a race of people for whom psychoanalysis would be of no use whatsoever.” One thing for sure is that these were not impressionable 18-year-old girls like Scarlett O’Hara, but for the most part mature, well-educated men, many of whom did in fact see the handwriting and yet, like Longstreet, kept their conclusions to themselves. But in most cases these people simply ignored facts that they knew to be true, and therein lay the tragedy.

At least 620,000 Americans died fighting in the Civil War, and millions more were wounded and disfigured—as many as one-half of them in battles fought after the Fourth of July, 1863. Between then and the end of the war, by far the worst of the destruction occurred: the burning of Atlanta, Phil Sheridan’s ruthless campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman’s Meridian Raid and March to the Sea, the burning of Columbia, S.C., and other places.

By war’s end, the South was utterly and dismally prostrated, its infrastructure of railroads and communications wrecked, much of its commercial and private property destroyed, its fields fallow and its livestock decimated. With the South’s agricultural economy in ruins, the huge population of former slaves—nearly 4 million of them— became wretched, for the system of housing, feeding and clothing them was broken. Even if it had been possible to employ them, there was little money to do it, for in the intervening years of the war the textile mills of England and France had found other sources of cotton or switched to other fibers.

The disenfranchisement of former Confederate soldiers and officials left an enormous leadership vacuum that was filled in many cases by incompetents and malfeasants or, under the harsh terms of Reconstruction, left up to the occupying Union army, which was there mainly to keep order.

It would have been smarter if Jefferson Davis, above all others, had looked reality in the eye in the days following the Fourth of July, 1863. What would have stared back at him was the inescapable truth that, as a practical matter, there was by then no way the Southern Confederacy could win the Civil War militarily. Politics was the sole remaining hope—the possibility, however remote, that the Republican administration would be defeated in next year’s elections and, remoter still, that whatever new administration came to power would see fit to agree to split the country into two separate nations.

A large part of the problem with the Confederate leaders was that they simply did not trust Lincoln and the Yankees. After all, hadn’t Lincoln promised from the beginning that he had no intention of “disturbing slavery in the states where it existed,” and then turned around with the Emancipation Proclamation? Once they laid down their arms, the Confederates reasoned—Davis and the Congress chief among them—what was to keep the Northern monster from descending wolf-like upon them?

There were, to be sure, those who proposed to do just that. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, for one, advocated breaking the seceded states into military districts to be ruled “indefinitely,” by a single Republican “czar” in Washington, who could do with them as he pleased without concern of opposition, political or otherwise, including the resettlement of the population. Sherman, for another, thought along similar lines, proposing that any Southerner—man, woman or child—who did not readily accept Federal authority would be “banished” from the country and “become a denizen of the land,” whatever that meant, but it rather sounded like a way of describing wild animals. He even used for illustration the British policy of forcibly repopulating Northern Ireland with Scottish settlers.

Contributing heavily to the tragedy was that the Southern leadership would not, or could not, understand that Abraham Lincoln was the best friend they had among those holding the power in the U.S. government. Instead, they had demonized him to such a degree that whatever he said or did was instantly taken as yet another example of his mendacity.

It is unfortunate that the Confederates did not adopt the English model as their diplomatic paradigm, for however shrewd and shifty the Brits’ diplomacy had become over the centuries, it was above all else rational. The deliberate approach of that most rational of nations was always to ask at some point, “But what is best for Great Britain?” and if compromise was best, then compromise it was. Hence after Yorktown they conceded the sovereignty of the United States, and did likewise in the War of 1812.

ln the end, the Southerners were fooled by their own party line—mistrust, blind hatred and too much blood spilled by now to quit. But what if they had attempted a diplomatic approach following Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and sought an audience with Lincoln?

First, their bargaining position was infinitely better than it would be afterward. The war had become so bloody and the casualties so horrendous that Lincoln himself, some months before the election of 1864, drew up an extraordinary document in which he stated: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.” The despondent president then showed the document to each of his Cabinet members and had them sign the back of it as witnesses, and put it away for future use, if necessary.

Equally as extraordinary, Lincoln drafted yet another secret document in his “own peculiar style,” so he said, proposing that a “peace commission” be appointed to see on which terms the Confederates would agree to a restoration of the Union. Though nothing came of it, clearly this showed that the president was receptive to any honest and reasonable solution that would bring the country back together.

It is not likely, however, that what Lincoln had in mind was simply a cessation of hostilities and return to business as usual. The slavery issue was extremely tricky for him and any approach to the Richmond government would have been in the nature of a “feeler.” But with an election looming he didn’t have to be reminded that there were four slaveholding states still in the Union whose vote would turn on every perceived nuance in regard to the subject. How the president would have handled the question of slavery if the “peace commission” had gone forward is anybody’s guess, but at least it would have gotten the two sides talking.

Suppose that in the summer of 1863 Jefferson Davis had convened a “peace commission” to approach Abraham Lincoln on the subject of restoration? Who might have composed such a body is almost as interesting as the notion itself. Robert E. Lee, for instance, would have carried great weight, being highly, if begrudgingly, respected in the North. On the other hand, soldiers often don’t make good diplomats—or for that matter, good politicians—as Grant himself proved in years to come.

In any case, it is almost a certainty that if the Confederates had shown a willingness to rejoin the Union after the fall of Vicksburg they would have received a far better deal than what they got, which was just a step or so above becoming Sherman’s “denizens of the land.” Slavery of course would have been abolished, but a great many Southerners—Jefferson Davis foremost among them—knew the institution was eventually doomed, with or without war; their main concern would have been what to do with all the freed slaves, and second, how to account or compensate for the financial loss of what they referred to as “property.”

Considering that the value of the slaves in the Confederate states was approximately $6 billion total, while the financial cost of the war to the federal government was running approximately $6 billion per year, the rational solution ought to have been apparent. Compensating the Southerners would have been worth it at twice the cost.

Lincoln’s concerns at seeing the nation restored necessarily would have included secure agreements from the Confederate leadership, as well as agreements state-by-state, that henceforth the South would abide by the laws of the land as enacted by the U.S. Congress—to which it could send representatives, as in the old days. Dissolution of the Rebel government and disarmament of its military would of course be part of this equation, although given Southern mistrust, it would doubtless have presented another tricky subject.

To speculate on the particulars of any such peace accord is beyond the scope of this hypothetical essay, but it is by no means idle conjecture that if the Confederacy had sought to make peace after the fall of Vicksburg, then tens of thousands of lives would have been spared, and place names such as Chickamauga, Atlanta, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor would not conjure up the images of death and terrible suffering that they did then, and do today.

If cooler and more reasonable heads had prevailed in the Confederacy after the misfortunes at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Union would have been restored and slavery abolished; the Southern armies could have retired from the field with honor, and with the Southern economy more or less intact— instead of the bankruptcy and ruin for nearly 100 years that attended its ultimate surrender. That this solution was not in the stars remains a pity.


Adapted by Winston Groom from his book, Vicksburg 1863 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.