American Civil War

Edited by: Robert Guisepi



Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.


A Overview  The year opened poorly for the Northern military. In the West, their efforts to capture Vicksburg during the winter and spring were continually frustrated. In the East, the Union forces were defeated at Chancellorsville in early May. The North rebounded in June and July with a trio of successes: the Tullahoma campaign, which cleared major Confederate forces from Tennessee; the capture of Vicksburg, which together with the fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, gave the North control of the Mississippi River; and the Battle of Gettysburg, where Leeís last movement across the Potomac River ended in bloody repulse. Another success at Chattanooga in late November closed a most auspicous year of campaigning for the North. The Union also adopted a national conscription act in 1863, prompting wide opposition and considerable violence. The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, and soon thereafter the North began recruiting black soldiers on a large scale. Shortages of food and material goods became quite severe in the Confederacy, which experienced bread riots at several locations.

Beginning of the Vicksburg Campaign

In December 1862 Grant began to gather troops for a campaign directed at opening the Mississippi River to the Union and dividing the Confederacy in two. The key to the Confederate defenses was Vicksburg, the heavily fortified Mississippi city that commanded the river from its high bluffs. Grant first planned to march south from Memphis, Tennessee, while another army under William Tecumseh Sherman proceeded by water to Chickasaw Bluffs, just north of Vicksburg. Grantís advance was stopped on December 20, when Confederate General Earl Van Dorn cut in behind him and destroyed Grantís supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Shermanís advance continued, but a week later he was repulsed with heavy losses at the Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs. His report was short but accurate: "I reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted, and failed."

Before crossing the river, Grant had sent the federal cavalry commander Benjamin H. Grierson on a daring raid that Grant hoped would divert the attention of the Confederates from his own operations. Grierson and 1700 men left La Grange, Tennessee, on April 17, 1863. Sixteen days later, after covering 966 km (600 mi), he reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had destroyed miles of railroad, taken 500 prisoners, and eluded thousands of Confederate troops sent against him. He achieved this great feat with the loss of only 24 men.

At the same time that the western army was poised on the banks of the Mississippi, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were locked in battle. Hooker had spent three months strengthening the Army of the Potomac, restoring discipline, and building up supplies. When the warm winds of spring dried the roads, he had 134,000 well-equipped men ready for duty. In late April, leaving part of his army outside Fredericksburg, he moved 70,000 troops across the Rappahannock as a first step in a drive on Richmond. Lee, learning that Hooker had divided his force, also left part of his army in Fredericksburg. He sent another part under Stonewall Jackson against Hookerís right wing. On May 2, 1863, Jackson hit with such force that Hookerís whole line was driven back. The next day, Lee attacked Hookerís center with the remainder of the army. Hooker had reserves waiting to be called in, but he had been stunned by a shell that had struck headquarters and was unable to give the necessary orders. His line gave way. On May 5 Hooker retreated north of the Rappahannock. The Army of the Potomac had again failed to reach Richmond.

Union casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville were 17,300 against 12,750 Confederate casualties. However, the Union percentage lost was much lower, and Lee and his army suffered grievously because of the death of Stonewall Jackson, Leeís ablest subordinate.

Fall of Vicksburg

In the west Grant turned to new land and water tactics in cooperation with the Union river fleet commanded by Admiral David D. Porter. From January through March 1863, four attempts were made to bypass Vicksburg by cutting canals or changing the course of rivers. All failed.

In April Grant put his final plan into operation. He would march his army down the west side of the Mississippi to a point below Vicksburg. Porterís gunboats and barges would run past the Confederate artillery on the river, thus supplying the army and furnishing transports for ferrying the men to the east side of the river. The army would then march into Mississippi behind Vicksburg. It would either defeat the Confederates in open battle or drive them into the river stronghold, where they would be forced to surrender sooner or later. On the night of April 16, 1863, Porter ran through the fire from the shore batteries and lost only 1 of his 12 boats. A few nights later, 6 transports and 13 barges tried the same feat, and 5 transports and 6 barges came through. In spite of the losses, Grant had enough supplies and shipping to proceed with his plan.

Along the Mississippi, Grant moved out from his base on May 7 with 44,000 men. His first objective was Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of the state, held by 6000 Confederates. In a battle on May 12, the Confederates were defeated and withdrew northward.

Having disposed of the only force that could threaten his rear, Grant turned west. At Championís Hill, halfway between Jackson and Vicksburg, two of his corps commanders, James B. McPherson and McClernand, attacked John C. Pemberton, the commander of the Confederate Army defending Vicksburg. The battle, fought on May 16, was the most severe of the campaign. The Union troops were victorious, and Pemberton retreated. On the next day he made a stand at the Big Black River, was again defeated, and withdrew his army to prepared positions in Vicksburg. After two assaults in which he lost heavily, Grant decided that Vicksburg would have to be starved out. The siege lasted almost six weeks, until July 4, 1863, when Pemberton surrendered.

The Campaign of Vicksburg was of utmost importance to the cause of the Union. It took a Confederate army from the field (the captured Confederates were paroled) and freed Grantís army for other operations. It cut the Confederacy in two and opened a highway for trade between the Middle West and the outside world. In Lincolnís picturesque phrase, "the Father of Waters" would henceforth flow "unvexed to the sea."

Tullahoma Campaign

One reason for the success of Grantís campaign was that Confederate troops that might have been sent from Tennessee to relieve Pemberton were held there by the Army of the Cumberland. After Murfreesboro, Rosecrans kept his army in its camps until the middle of June, much to the dismay of the impatient authorities in Washington. Bragg, however, opposing Rosecrans with the Army of Tennessee, dared not weaken his forces. When Rosecrans did move, he undertook a series of maneuvers known as the Tullahoma campaign, which with very little fighting forced Bragg to retreat. In two weeks, Bragg moved about 200 km (about 125 mi) to the southeast and left Middle Tennessee defenseless.

While Grant slowly strangled Vicksburg and Rosecrans feinted Bragg halfway across Tennessee, Lee decided to march his troops north toward Pennsylvania. There were several reasons for this bold move. The Confederate government hoped that a decisive victory on Northern soil would win foreign recognition of the Confederacy. In addition, Lee argued that an invasion of the wealthiest urban area of the North would probably lessen the pressure on Confederate forces in Tennessee and at Vicksburg. Perhaps most important, the lush Cumberland Valley would yield food and clothing for Leeís ragged and hungry army.

On June 3, 1863, Lee began to move his Army of Northern Virginia across the Rappahannock. Hooker, who was aware of Leeís movements, shifted the Army of the Potomac northward, using it as a shield between Lee and the capital at Washington. Late in June, Hooker resigned his command, convinced that he had lost the confidence of the administration. On June 28, General George G. Meade replaced Hooker. Meade had been one of Hookerís corps commanders.

On July 1 advance units of the two armies stumbled into each other near the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 16 km (10 mi) north of the Maryland border. Both Lee and Meade realized that a battle was unavoidable. Fighting began that day. Union troops, after early reverses, managed to hold a strategic position on Cemetery Hill. The second day, July 2, saw confused fighting on both Union flanks. Generals Longstreet and John B. Hood assaulted high ground at the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top, but by night the Federals held key positions. The most dramatic action of the battle came on the third day, when General George E. Pickett led a gallant but hopeless charge against the Union center, "the bloody angle." Pickettís drive tried to charge across an open field at Cemetery Ridge, but concentrated Union fire stopped him. The battle was a decisive Union victory, but both armies suffered very heavy losses. Meadeís casualties numbered 23,000 and Leeís about 25,000. Lee began his retreat on July 4. To the great disappointment of President Lincoln, Meade did not pursue the Confederate army and make Lee stand and fight. By July 14 the Confederate commander had brought the remnant of his army back to the safety of Virginia. Gettysburg had been a severe defeat for the South, both in terms of men lost and the armyís morale. In November 1863 President Lincoln dedicated a national cemetery to those who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg. His speech, known as the Gettysburg Address, became famous as an expression of the democratic spirit and reconfirmed Lincolnís intention to reunite the country.

Discontent in the North

From many points of view, Gettysburg and Vicksburg were among the most important Union victories in more than two years of war. Strangely, they coincided with a violent outburst of disloyalty in the North. From the beginning of the conflict, Lincoln had resorted to measures that many Northerners opposed. His suspension of the writ of habeas corpus enabled him to hold critics of the government in prison indefinitely. The Emancipation Proclamation had angered many who were willing to fight for the Union but not for the abolition of slavery. The military draft, which bore hard on men too poor to pay for substitutes, stirred thousands to the brink of revolt. Many others were simply weary of a war to which they could see no end. They wanted peace at almost any price.

The Peace Democrats, often called Copperheads, did not support the Lincoln Administration or the war. One of the most persuasive was Clement L. Vallandigham, an Ohio Democrat who had served three terms in Congress. On May 5, 1863, military authorities arrested Vallandigham after he had made an extreme antiwar speech in Mount Vernon, Ohio. A military court sentenced him to prison, but Lincoln changed the penalty to banishment to the Confederacy. On June 1 publication of the Chicago Times, which was violently anti-Lincoln, was suspended. At the urging of prominent Chicagoans who were sincerely devoted to free speech and a free press, the President quickly lifted the suspension. Before Lincoln acted, however, Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York City, and other fiery opponents of the war inflamed the tempers of the thousands who attended a protest meeting at Cooper Union in that city.

On July 13, 1863, in spite of the signs of trouble, federal authorities tried to put the draft into effect in New York City. A mob, made up mostly of foreign-born laborers, chiefly Irish-Americans, who could not pay for substitutes, attacked the draft headquarters and burned and pillaged residences, stores, hotels, and saloons. For four days the mob fought off police, firemen, and the local militia. During that time, property worth $1.5 million was destroyed, and many people lost their lives. A number of the victims of the mob were blacks. The government rushed in troops from the Army of the Potomac and restored order. A month later, drawings for the draft took place without disorder. There were disturbances in other parts of the country, but they did not compare with those of New York City.

Prison Camps

After two years each side had taken thousands of prisoners. In the beginning most prisoners were exchanged and returned to their armies after a few months, but after 1863 far fewer exchanges were taking place. One reason for decreasing exchanges was the Southís treatment of Northern black soldiers. The South regarded black soldiers as runaway slaves and refused to treat them as legitimate prisoners of war. Confederate policy was to execute or enslave them. Although the South did not systematically carry out this order, the North was reluctant to continue prisoner exchanges. In April 1864 Grant stopped almost all exchanges because the South, with fewer soldiers, had more to lose. The North and its superior manpower could better withstand the loss of its troops.

The treatment of prisoners has been the subject of heated argument. Union prisoners suffered greatly in such Confederate camps as Andersonville Prison in Georgia, and Confederate prisoners suffered in such Union prisons as Camp Douglas, Illinois. In both sections the death rate among prisoners was appalling. Prison conditions, rather than willful mistreatment, caused most of the deaths. Poorly clothed Southern soldiers could not stand the harsh Northern winters. Northern soldiers suffered from the intense heat of Southern summers. Even when the supply of food was sufficient, the food was of poor quality. In general, prisoners received the same rations as the troops who guarded them. However, the fact that deplorable sanitary conditions resulted from ignorance and overcrowding, rather than from malice, did not make their effect less deadly.

Medical Care  
Disease killed far more men in both armies than did bullets. Quartermasters knew little about balanced nutrition and very often could not have obtained the proper food anyway. Most of the time the men did their own cooking, usually in frying pans. Dysentery was common and was frequently fatal. Surgeons used no antiseptics and operated in the field with their arms bloodstained to the elbows. Medical knowledge was so inadequate that the sick or wounded soldier sent to a hospital was as likely to find it a step to the grave as a way to recovery.

In the North a voluntary organization, called the United States Sanitary Commission, did much to care for the sick and wounded and to provide small comforts for men in the field. The commission recruited both male and female nurses and sent delicacies and extra clothing to hospitals. Another voluntary organization, the United States Christian Commission, distributed Bibles, reading matter, and stationery. In addition, individuals often helped the war effort with their time or money. One was Clara Barton who organized efforts to provide food and medical supplies, and nursed wounded soldiers. The South had no general relief and aid organizations, but many local groups did what they could to make the life of the Confederate soldier more tolerable.


After the draft riots, the summer of 1863 slipped by in quiet except for the nameless skirmishes and minor engagements that took place somewhere almost every day. Early in September, Union General Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland began a campaign against Chattanooga, Tennessee, an important rail center and supply point where Bragg had concentrated his troops. Rosecrans split his forces so that they came toward Chattanooga from different directions.

Knowing that Rosecrans had divided his forces, Bragg decided to give up Chattanooga, withdraw to the south, and attack Rosecransís forces piecemeal as they came out of the mountain passes to the west and north. At the last minute the federal commander realized the danger and frantically drew together his scattered troops.

On September 19 the two armies clashed along West Chickamauga Creek, a few miles south of Chattanooga. On the afternoon of the next day, Rosecrans, believing that he had been disastrously defeated, left the field for Chattanooga, where he planned to make a final stand. However, General George H. Thomas, the commander of the Federal 14th Corps, stood his ground, saved the day, and won the nickname by which he was ever after known, "Rock of Chickamauga."

On the Confederate side, Bragg refused to deliver the final blow that might have won the battle decisively for the Confederacy, despite urges from Longstreet and Nathan B. Forrest. The Union troops, or what was left of them, retreated toward Chattanooga in good order.

Siege of Chattanooga

Rosecrans soon discovered that his army was under siege. The Confederates held his supply routes. His men went on short rations and, in the cool days of fall, suffered for lack of firewood. When Rosecrans informed the authorities in Washington that he would be forced to give up Chattanooga, he was relieved of duty. Grant, who had been appointed on October 16 to the command of all the Union armies on the western front, hurried to Chattanooga. In less than a week he opened new supply routes. Soon the Union troops were reclothed, well fed, and supplied with enough ammunition to take the offensive.

Fall of Chattanooga

Confederate troops under Bragg had occupied two strong positions: Lookout Mountain, south of the town, and Missionary Ridge, a steep 8-km (5-mi) long height that flanked Chattanooga and the Tennessee River on the southeast. In three days, November 23 to November 25, Grantís troops performed the seemingly impossible feat of dislodging the Confederates from both positions. The taking of Missionary Ridge on November 25 was especially spectacular. The Union troops had been ordered to take only the first Confederate line near the base of the hills, but they swept upward without orders and overwhelmed the defenders. During the night, Bragg withdrew toward Dalton, Georgia. On November 30, Jefferson Davis accepted Braggís resignation. Soon afterward, command of the Army of Tennessee went to Joseph E. Johnston.

Grant Becomes Union Commander

With the onset of winter, military operations practically stopped. In Washington, Lincoln came to a decision. In two and a half years of war, he had seen one Union commander rise above all others. Grant had made mistakes. At Shiloh he had been caught off guard. At Vicksburg he had ordered assaults that had cost many lives to no purpose. However, he fought, without complaining, with the men and resources the War Department could give him, and he won. On March 9, 1864, Grant was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, a grade that Congress had recently revived for his benefit. Three days later, Lincoln placed him in command of all the Union armies, and Grant came east to fight.

Britain Abandons the South

Meanwhile, the Union had won a major diplomatic battle. Since the beginning of the war, the Confederacy had had a naval officer, James D. Bulloch, in Britain to buy or contract for cruisers to raid Northern commerce. In 1861 and 1862, Bulloch had managed to acquire and equip several ships. In 1862 he contracted through third parties with the British shipbuilding firm of Laird Brothers for two rams, or ironclads, which he believed would be able to sweep Northern commerce from the seas and destroy the trade from the Atlantic seaports of the Union.

Charles Francis Adams, the Union minister to Britain, knew very well that the rams were intended for Confederate service. Time after time, Adams warned the British government of the destination of the rams and demanded that their delivery be prevented. He could get no promise. The British government, however, had decided to prevent departure of the vessels and, on October 9, 1863, seized the ships. Bulloch sadly reported to the Confederate secretary of the navy: "No amount of discretion or management on my part can effect the release of the ships." Thereafter the Confederacy could no longer hope for aid from Europe.


A Overview  The year 1864 began optimistically for the North, which expected Grant, its new general-in-chief, to bring victory. However, the bloody Overland Campaign in Virginia during May and June, which featured clashes at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, depressed Northern morale, as did the failure of General Sherman to capture Atlanta. A swift strike through the Shenandoah Valley brought a small Confederate army to the outskirts of Washington in early July, which further alarmed the North. By August, Northern morale had reached its lowest point of the war, and there were expectations that Lincoln would be defeated in his bid for reelection in November. As Grant and Lee settled into a siege along the Petersburg-Richmond lines, Union victories at Mobile Bay in late August, at Atlanta in early September, and in the Shenandoah Valley in September and October raised Northern morale and ensured Lincolnís reelection. Lincolnís political triumph in turn guaranteed that the North would continue to prosecute the war vigorously. The year ended with Union victories at Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, in November and December, and Shermanís destructive march across the interior of Georgia. Hopes for Confederate success had virtually ended, the Northern blockade was tightening, and civilian and military morale in the South sagged badly.

For 1864 Grant planned an aggressive campaign. In the spring, when the roads had dried, the Army of the Potomac, still under Meadeís direct command, moved against Lee in Virginia. Union General Benjamin F. Butlerís Army of the James would advance from Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, on the James River. Sherman, now in full command in the West, would take the offensive against Johnstonís army and Atlanta. For these moves the Union armies could muster 235,000 men. The Confederates had no more than 150,000 to oppose them.

B The Wilderness  On May 4 the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River in Virginia and camped in the Wilderness, a region of tangled woods and underbrush south of the old battlefields of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. The next day the federal troops engaged Leeís Army of Northern Virginia. A two-day battle followed. Maneuvering was next to impossible, and much of the time the men of the two armies could barely see one another. The losses, however, were heavy: about 18,000 on the Union side and about 11,000 for the Confederates.

Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

When such losses had been inflicted on the Army of the Potomac in the past, its commanders had either halted or retreated. Now a new man was giving orders. Advance, Grant said, and strike Lee on his right flank. From May 8 to May 18, fighting swirled around the hamlet of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. The Union lost more than 17,000 men without decisive results.Grant again ordered an advance around Leeís right flank. This time, Lee shifted his army to meet the Union drive head on. At Cold Harbor, Virginia, north of the Chickahominy River and within sight of Richmond, Grant called for a frontal advance. On June 3 the federal troops suffered 7000 casualties during one day of the Battle of Cold Harbor, as the Union troops struggled against the entrenched Confederates, who lost fewer than 1500. For the next ten days the two armies were inactive, camped within sight of each other.


Grant then decided to cross the James River, circle around Leeís army and the Confederate capital to Petersburg, and fall suddenly on Richmond from the south before Lee could come to its defense. The plan was skillfully put into operation and almost succeeded. Just in time, however, the Confederates became aware of Grantís movements. Beauregard, with a numerically inferior force, managed to stop Grantís advance at Petersburg. Heavy fighting took place from June 15 to June 18, when Lee arrived from Richmond with his main army. Unable to take Petersburg by direct assault, Grant prepared to starve the city into surrender. Before the siege ended almost a year later, the entire Confederacy was on the verge of collapse.

Sinking of the Alabama

Grantís failure to take Richmond in a smashing attack spread gloom in the North. An important Union naval victory was won at the same time, but news of it was slow in coming.

The Confederate cruiser Alabama, since its commissioning in May 1862, had sunk or captured more than $6.5 million worth of Union merchant ships and cargoes. On June 11, 1864, the Alabama entered the harbor at Cherbourg, France, to land prisoners and be repaired. Three days later the USS Kearsarge, which had been tracking the raider, came into port to pick up the Alabamaís prisoners. Ordered to withdraw beyond the territorial limits, Captain John A. Winslow of the Kearsarge waited for his prey. Captain Raphael Semmes of the Alabama sent out word that as soon as he had taken on coal he would come out and fight. The duel began on the morning of June 19 and ended less than two hours later, when the Alabama, mortally wounded, slipped stern first into the sea. The Kearsarge had destroyed the Confederacyís greatest single menace to Northern commerce.

The Florida, second among the great Confederate raiders, was captured in violation of international law in the harbor at Bahia (now Salvador), Brazil, in October 1864. The Shenandoah, which had been taking prize vessels, chiefly whalers, in the Pacific, did not learn that the war was over until August 2, 1865. It succeeded in making its way to Liverpool, England, in November 1865, and there its captain turned it over to the English authorities.

Sherman Moves Into Georgia

While the Kearsarge was establishing Union supremacy at sea, a great Union land victory was developing. In March 1864, when Grant became general-in-chief, Sherman was appointed supreme commander in the West. Soon Sherman started south with 105,000 Union troops of the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of Tennessee, and the Army of the Ohio. At Dalton, in northern Georgia, Johnston had posted the Confederate Army of Tennessee in a strong position. Sherman sent his troops around the Confederate left flank. On May 12 Johnston dropped back to Resaca, Georgia, 24 km (15 mi) farther south, and took another strong position. Again Sherman moved around Johnstonís left flank. Again Johnston retreated, this time to Allatoona, Georgia. In a month, Sherman advanced 129 km (80 mi). There had been continuous fighting but no large battles and no heavy casualties.


On June 27 Sherman, whose patience was worn out by Johnstonís evasive tactics, decided to attack the Confederate lines on Kennesaw Mountain. In a few hours, Sherman learned the lesson that Cold Harbor had taught Grant. The Union troops were repulsed with a loss of 2000 killed and wounded. Johnston had about 500 casualties.

After Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman resorted again to flanking movements. Johnston continued to retreat, thus keeping his army intact and ready to deliver a stinging blow should he catch Sherman off guard. By early July, Johnston had drawn back to the outskirts of Atlanta. Sherman shifted his troops into a crescent, confronting Johnston on the northwest, west, and southwest.

On July 17 Jefferson Davis, who disliked Johnston and had little faith in his ability, relieved him and appointed General John B. Hood in his place. Hood, who was brave but rash, could be counted on to use tactics different from those of his predecessor. On July 20 and on July 22, Hood sent his men from their trenches to strike at Shermanís lines. Both attacks were repulsed. On July 28 Hood tried again, with the same result. By this time, in the fighting around Atlanta, the Federals had lost 9000 men; the Confederates, with smaller forces, had lost 10,000 killed, wounded, and captured.

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