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 / 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 (Cumberland, Congress, Minnesota) but when the Monitor arrived, the two ironclads fought to a stalemate; the Union thus maintained its blockade. The South deliberately destroyed the Virginia two months later, while the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in December 1862.
- Shiloh / Pittsburg Landing (April 6–7, 1862). This 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 led the attack, but Union troops 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 lost their lives.
- 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 West. 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 failure of the campaign.
- Second Bull Run / 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 Lincoln had replaced George McClellan with John Pope, who would supposedly be united with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Henry Halleck. 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. Halleck’s army was supposed to land at Aquia, but instead retreated to defend Washington, ceding all of Virginia to the Confederacy and marking a low point in the Union effort.
- Antietam / Sharpsburg (September 17, 1862). The bloodiest day of the Civil War: 12,000 Union men lost their lives, as did 10,000 Confederates. Robert E. Lee planned a northern invasion into Maryland, but a Union soldier discovered those battle plans wrapped around three cigars. Instead, Lee marched his army toward Sharpsburg Creek. Meanwhile, Jackson’s forces captured Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and rushed to reunite with Lee. George McClellan had a large enough force to capture the entire rebel army, but did not use all of his troops nor coordinate one solid attack. Antietam thus was actually a series of five skirmishes; in one of them, dubbed “The Bloody Lane,” 2,000 Union soldiers fell in a few minutes. As it was, Union forces drove the Confederates back across the Potomac.
- 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. With a superior position, Lee routed the Union army; 13,000 Northern troops fell there, while only 5,000 Confederates were killed. After the battle, Burnside’s troops were forced to make “The Mud March” up the Rappahannock, made foul by weather and dead and wounded bodies.
- Vicksburg Campaign (April 29 – July 4, 1863). This campaign was launched by Ulysses Grant to take control of the Mississippi River and cut off the western Confederate states from the east. Grant ordered regiments led by James McPherson, John McClernand, and William Tecumseh Sherman through bayous west of the Mississippi to Hard Times. They were up against rebel forces 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 advancement 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 southern Pennsylvania attack; 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. George Meade replaced Joseph Hooker as leader of the Union side; Southern forces drove Northerners through the town but could not secure key positions at Cemetery Ridge and Little and Big Round Tops. Low on supplies, on the 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 from annihilation. Well-developed railroad networks, however, allowed Ulysses 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 (May 5 – June 12, 1864). The first clash between Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee, this series of conflicts started with the Battle of the Wilderness (50 miles northwest of Richmond), where Southern leaders A. P. Hill and Richard Ewell held the line, and over 17,000 Northerners fell. At Spotsylvania Court House, George Meade assaulted Robert E. Lee’s men, but they repelled Meade at the “Bloody Angle.” The trenches in which much of the fighting took place were similar to those later seen in World War I. Advancing within ten miles of Richmond, Grant met Lee at Cold Harbor (June 3); he lost 7,000 men to Lee’s 1,500 and withdrew across the James River, but with the entire campaign he severely reduced Confederate strength in a war of attrition.
- Petersburg Campaign (June 1864 – April 1865). After Cold Harbor, Grant moved south to lay siege to this railroad hub, 25 miles from Richmond. 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 maintained the city, 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 Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House one week later, effectively ending the Civil War.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.