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Civil War Turning Points: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Vicksburg

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Three battles in 1863 were turning points in the Civil War. Learn how the battles at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg during the third year of the war and explore the decisions of generals on both sides. Updated: 08/19/2021

Time for a Change

As 1863 dawned, U.S. citizens were losing hope. The previous December, Union forces had engaged in a frontal attack on Confederate lines entrenched at Fredericksburg, Va. It was suicide, and the surrender dashed hopes yet again of capturing Richmond anytime soon. The Emancipation Proclamation had emboldened Lincoln's opponents, and even early supporters of the war were growing tired of the bad news. Lincoln himself was dissatisfied with the war's progress and repeatedly changed commanders. In early 1863, 'Fighting Joe' Hooker was put in charge of the Union army. Many people hoped this was the change they needed to finally wrap up this horrible war.

General Hooker took charge of the Union army in 1863
General Joseph Hooker

We're going to take a brief look at three key battles that took place in 1863. All of them, in their own ways, turned the tide of victory in favor of the Union. Now I know that descriptions of battles can be complicated and confusing, but I think we can strip these down to the basics to see what happened and why each one was so important.

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  • 0:05 Time for a Change
  • 1:09 The Battle of Chancellorsville
  • 3:03 The Battle of Gettysburg
  • 5:39 The Siege of Vicksburg
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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The Battle of Chancellorsville

The first was the Battle of Chancellorsville. The newly appointed Union commander, General Hooker, reorganized the infantry and formed a cavalry. He wanted to strike at Robert E. Lee's army - numbering barely half of his own - while it was still entrenched near Fredericksburg. The Battle of Chancellorsville did turn out to be a decisive turning point in the Union's favor, but not in the way Hooker expected.

General Hooker had divided the Union army into three parts and advanced, intending to trap Lee. Then, he stopped abruptly in the wilderness and set up a defensive position, daring Lee to attack him head on. Once Lee had moved forward into the face of a much larger force, then Hooker could move other troops in behind him. But General Lee decided not to take the bait. Instead, he and Stonewall Jackson conceived a risky plan. They divided their already outnumbered army. Lee stayed in front with a small portion as a distraction, while Stonewall Jackson took most of the army around Hooker's right side, deep in the wilderness. Just before sunset on May 2, 1863, Jackson attacked, throwing the unprepared Union army into chaos. Hooker was forced back the following morning. Another defeat for the Union.

Battle of Chancellorsville Map
Chancellorsville Battle Map

The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered Lee's greatest tactical victory; the much larger Union army was driven from the battlefield and suffered more than 18,000 casualties. But victory came at a heavy price for the South: Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot in the arm by one of his own men in the darkness of May 2. The arm was amputated successfully, but Jackson died of pneumonia a week later. So even though it was a loss for the Union, Jackson's death made the Battle of Chancellorsville a turning point in the war.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The next decisive battle in 1863 was a Union victory, but it was an accident - kind of. General Lee wanted to keep up the momentum following his victory at Chancellorsville. He believed that a successful invasion of a Northern city would turn popular opinion (and therefore politicians) against Lincoln and the Civil war, ending it for good. So Lee started to gather the Confederate forces in southern Pennsylvania, under strict orders not to engage the enemy until the entire army was in place. While they waited, one of Lee's commanders sent a brigade of soldiers east to a town called Gettysburg for supplies. They didn't expect to run into the Union cavalry.

President Lincoln had gotten wind of the planned invasion and sent the U.S. Army to cut off the invasion force. The two sides surprised each other on July 1, starting the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate troops forced the Union soldiers back through town, and both generals immediately sent for reinforcements. By nightfall, they faced each other on parallel ridges outside the town. The armies pounded each other the following morning, but a series of leadership errors on both sides dragged the conflict out for yet another day. Lee might have been successful if he'd had a skilled leader like Stonewall Jackson. But he didn't, and a less competent general ordered what is infamously known as Pickett's Charge - a gutsy but suicidal march across a mile-wide open field, up a hill and into the face of a crouching Union artillery and infantry. When the North opened fire, they killed more than half of the 13,000 charging Confederate soldiers in less than an hour. The Southern cavalry, which was to have attacked the rear of the Union line, had also been contained.

Battle of Gettysburg map
Gettysburg Battle Map

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