“Brilliant and Important Victories”

Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State


“Brilliant and Important Victories”: Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863 Union Diplomacy

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 turned the tide of the Civil War. The Army of the Potomac blunted the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania and General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful siege of Vicksburg ensured the restoration of the Mississippi River to Union control.

The victories also had profound implications for Union diplomacy. Since the war began over two years earlier, U.S. diplomats had worked assiduously to deter foreign recognition of and support for the rebellious Confederate States. By 1863, however, the mounting human toll sparked calls for humanitarian intervention to end the bloodshed.

From London, which served as the central focus of both Union and Confederate Civil War diplomacy, U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams explained to Secretary of State William H. Seward on July 3, 1863 that “the only effective answer” to such schemes “is success in the war.” Adams reported that, unfortunately for the Union, “precisely at this moment comes the intelligence of aggressive movements of the rebel army, which bear the look of power not met by corresponding ability to resist them.” Among Union sympathizers, “the growing hope is ... that a stroke may be effected which be so decisive as to” demonstrate the futility of the Confederate cause (London 446).

Owing to the slow pace of communication, Adams’s despatch to Seward crossed a series of instructions from Seward heading across the Atlantic reporting on the military situation in both the eastern and western theaters of the war. On June 22, Seward updated Adams on the continuing siege of Vicksburg, Lee’s movements in Virginia, and the elevation of General Hooker to lead the Army of the Potomac (Department 634). Adams received this message on July 9 (London 448). On June 29, Seward provided further news of Lee’s invasion of Maryland, Hooker’s replacement by General Meade, and the likelihood of a battle in Pennsylvania in the near future (Department 635). This message reached London on July 16 (London 452).

View an interactive timeline of all the communications described in this article.

After hearing of the Union victory at Gettysburg, Seward informed Adams on July 6 that the battle “was unquestionably the most sanguinary conflict of the war, and resulted in the withdrawal of the insurgents from the field.” He also mentioned the receipt of “encouraging despatches” from Vicksburg dating from late June (Department 644). Adams did not receive word of the Union victories until July 23 (London 456).

In the meantime, he worked to contain the damage done to the Union cause by the discouraging reports of late June. On July 9, Adams explained to Seward that “the latest accounts from America of the apathy of the population of the middle States in resisting the movements of General Lee are hailed as symptoms of the proximate surrender of the United States” (London 448).

Upon receiving Adams’s June 26 report (London 438) of a scheme to enlist France and Britain in a joint humanitarian intervention on July 11, Seward cited recent victories as evidence that the Union was winning the war and that outside help for the Confederacy would prolong the suffering. He explained that the proposed effort “was to be based upon the ground of the demonstrated failure of the armies of the Union; but while it was going on, those armies have achieved victories which here are regarded as warranting an expectation of a complete and rapid extinguishment of the insurrection. These brilliant and important victories, however, are as yet unknown in Europe” (Department 651). Seward continued to update Adams on the military situation, including information on the Union’s success at Vicksburg, in mid-July (Department 655 and Department telegram).

Word of the Union’s triumph reached London on July 23. Adams reported that, “so completely has the [British] public become convinced of the ... desperate condition of our affairs, and of the triumphal progress of General Lee, that the expectation was almost universal to hear of his taking possession of Washington.... The astonishment created by the announcement of the actual facts on Sunday may well be imagined to have been in corresponding proportion. I need not add that the disappointment amongst the English was quite in the same measure. Many of the newspapers at first refused to believe in the surrender of Vicksburg.” Despite this welcome news, Adams insisted “we have a mission to fulfill.” To counter British “hope that the disruption of the Union might be the inevitable consequence of the present contest, our aim obviously can be no other than to persevere to the end of a complete restoration” and “show, by our example ... the value of republican institutions.” Just as Lincoln would soon consecrate the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg to “a new birth of freedom” and “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” Adams believed that the “brilliant and important victories” of July 4, 1863 had helped “render the inducements to ultimate [foreign] inference by no means commensurate with the danger of attempting it” (London 456).