You Gotta Know These Civil War Battles and Campaigns
- Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861). Built on an island in 1829, the fort was one of three that the United States maintained in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In order to claim true independence from the Union, Jefferson Davis decided that the forts needed to be taken; a Confederate force under P. G. T. Beauregard ordered the small Union garrison, controlled by Major Robert Anderson, to surrender. Anderson refused, shots were fired, and the Union commander surrendered two days later with only one soldier killed. The Union made two unsuccessful attempts to recapture the fort with ironclad ships in 1863, but Confederate forces finally abandoned Sumter when they left Charleston in February 1865.
- First Bull Run (or First Manassas) (July 21, 1861). Fought at a creek near Manassas, Virginia (30 miles west of Washington, D.C.), this was the first major showdown of the war. P. G. T. Beauregard led an army against Union commander Irwin McDowell and received reinforcements from Joseph Johnston’s troops (whom Union General Robert Patterson failed to detain). The Confederacy routed the Union when Thomas Jackson’s brigade held the left line at Henry House Hill; this effort earned him the nickname “Stonewall.” Congressmen and reporters, who had expected to watch a Union victory, fled in panic back to D.C.
- Hampton Roads (March 9, 1862). A channel in southeastern Virginia was the site of the first major fight between two ironclad ships. The Confederates raised an old wooden boat, the Merrimack, and fit it with ten guns and iron armor plates. Renamed the Virginia, it was captained by Franklin Buchanan. The Union countered by constructing a large oval with a rotating gun, called the Monitor and piloted by John Worden. The Virginia tore through Union wooden ships (the Cumberland, Congress, and Minnesota) but when the Monitor arrived, the two ironclads fought to a stalemate; the Union thus maintained its naval blockade of the Confederacy. The South deliberately destroyed the Virginia two months later. The Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in December 1862.
- Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing) (April 6–7, 1862). This battle was named after a church in Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee (100 miles southwest of Nashville). Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston led a force north from Corinth, Mississippi. Ulysses S. Grant, who had just captured Fort Donelson, brought five Union divisions to face him. At first, the South’s surprise attack drove Union troops back, but Grant’s soldiers held the “Hornets’ Nest” for hours, killing Johnston in the process. P. G. T. Beauregard took over, but by the second day Northern Generals Don Carlos Buell and Lew Wallace (who wrote Ben-Hur) brought reinforcements, causing the Confederates to retreat. More than 13,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured at Shiloh.
- Peninsular Campaign (March–July 1862). Union commander George McClellan devised this plan to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia by sending 110,000 men up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Advised of Northern maneuvers, Southern commander Joseph Johnston detached a force to defend the peninsula. He also sent a small unit (led by Stonewall Jackson) that crushed Union reinforcements in the Shenandoah Valley. After Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines (June 1), Davis replaced him with Robert E. Lee. Lee concentrated his force north of the Chickahominy River; in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25 – July 1), the Confederates broke through Union defenses, leading to McClellan’s retreat down the James toward Harrison’s Landing, and the failure of the campaign.
- Second Bull Run (or Second Manassas) (August 29–30, 1862). This resounding victory by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson pushed Union forces back to Washington, D.C. President Abraham Lincoln gathered forces in northern Virginia under General John Pope, who would protect the capital until George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac returned from the Peninsula Campaign. Lee maneuvered Jackson’s troops behind those of Pope; Jackson detained Pope’s men at Manassas while Lee sent James Longstreet to crush Pope’s left flank. Pope’s and McClellan’s joint forces retreated to defend Washington, ceding all of Virginia to the Confederacy and marking a low point in the Union effort.
- Antietam (or Sharpsburg) (September 17, 1862). The bloodiest single day of the Civil War: 12,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate casualties. Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland, but a Union soldier discovered Lee’s battle plans wrapped around three discarded cigars. After the Battle of South Mountain (September 14), Lee’s forces retired toward Antietam Creek. Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson’s forces captured Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and rushed north to rejoin Lee’s main army. George McClellan had a substantial numerical superiority over Lee’s Confederates, but failed to effectively coordinate his army’s attacks. Antietam thus was actually a series of several distinct clashes, near the Dunker Church, along the Bloody Lane, and around Burnside’s Bridge. After the battle’s conclusion, Lee’s battered army retreated across the Potomac into Virginia; the Union victory allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862). At this site, about 50 miles south of Washington, Union commander Ambrose Burnside (who had replaced George McClellan) tried to take the initiative and cross the Rappahannock River in a march toward Richmond. He met Robert E. Lee’s forces, which were well entrenched on Marye’s Heights behind the town. Burnside’s army took heavy losses assaulting the heights, and fell back across the Rappahannock. A later attempt to flank the Confederate position was foiled by heavy rain during the so-called “Mud March” of January 1863.
- Vicksburg Campaign (April 29 – July 4, 1863). This campaign was launched by Ulysses S. Grant to take control of the Mississippi River and cut off the western Confederate states from the east. Grant ordered forces led by James McPherson, John McClernand, and William Tecumseh Sherman through bayous west of the Mississippi to Hard Times, Louisiana. They were up against Confederate defenders under Joseph Johnston and John Pemberton. Sherman and McPherson drove Johnston from Jackson, Mississippi on May 14, and the Union scored a victory at Champion’s Hill two days later, but could not drive the Southerners out of Vicksburg, so Grant laid siege to the town. Outnumbered 71,000 to 20,000 and on the brink of starvation, Pemberton finally surrendered his men; Johnston withdrew east.
- Chancellorsville (May 1–4, 1863). A victory for the South, but with great cost, as Stonewall Jackson lost his life. Lincoln called on “Fighting Joe” Hooker to command the Union army; Hooker took a force of 134,000 and provoked Robert E. Lee and Jackson’s 60,000 men into battle. Jackson moved around Hooker and counterattacked the Union flank on May 2. That night, while Jackson was on reconnaissance, his own men mistook him for a Northerner and shot him; he died of pneumonia eight days later. The following morning, a cannonball blast hit the Chancellor House, knocking Hooker unconscious; Union troops, led by John Sedgwick, then retreated. Casualties for the North outnumbered those of the South, 17,000 to 13,000.
- Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). This marked both the farthest northward advance by the Confederacy and the turning point that led to its defeat. Robert E. Lee, along with James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Richard Ewell, led the attack into southern Pennsylvania; J. E. B. Stuart was supposed to monitor Union movement with his cavalry, but strayed so far east of Gettysburg that his force did not return (exhausted) until the second day of battle. George Meade replaced Joseph Hooker as leader of the Union army; Southern forces drove Northerners through the town of Gettysburg but could not secure key positions at Cemetery Ridge and Little and Big Round Tops. Low on supplies, on the third and final day Lee ordered an attack on the center; George Pickett led his famous “charge” through open fields, where the Union mowed down one-third of his 15,000 men. The Confederates lost 20,000 and Lee retreated to Virginia.
- Chattanooga Campaign (September–November 1863). It began when Union General William Rosecrans forced Confederate commander Braxton Bragg out of the city on September 9. Ten days later, at Chickamauga (in Georgia), Bragg and James Longstreet turned the tables by whipping Rosecrans, forcing him into a siege position at Chattanooga. Only George Thomas (the “Rock of Chickamauga”) saved Rosecrans’s army from annihilation. Well-developed railroad networks, however, allowed Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Hooker, and William Tecumseh Sherman to bring reinforcements. On November 24 Hooker took Lookout Mountain in the southwest, in the “Battle Above the Clouds.” The next day, Thomas ran right over the Southern force at Missionary Ridge, securing Tennessee for the North.
- Wilderness Campaign (or Overland Campaign) (May 5 – June 12, 1864). The first clash between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, this series of conflicts started with the Battle of the Wilderness, fought in a dense forest 50 miles northwest of Richmond. At Spotsylvania Court House, George Meade assaulted Robert E. Lee’s men, but Lee’s troops were able to hold on near the “Bloody Angle.” Advancing within ten miles of Richmond, Grant met Lee at Cold Harbor (June 3); he lost 7,000 men to Lee’s 1,500. By the end of the campaign, Grant’s army approached the James River and Lee’s army had suffered severely from a “war of attrition.”
- Petersburg Campaign (June 1864 – April 1865). After Cold Harbor, Ulysses S. Grant moved south to lay siege to this railroad hub, 25 miles from Richmond. The trenches in which much of the fighting took place were similar to those later used in World War I. On July 30, Pennsylvania coal miners detonated four tons of powder in a tunnel underneath the Confederate line; this “Battle of the Crater” killed many defenders. Although the South held the city of Petersburg, its supplies ran thin in the winter of 1865. Grant finally destroyed the Confederate right flank at Five Forks (April 1–2), 14 miles southwest of Petersburg. This resounding defeat led to Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House one week later, effectively ending the Civil War.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.