Major Civil War Battles

The first shots of the long-feared civil war were fired by the South on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The fort was named for a Revolutionary War hero, Thomas Sumter. The federal government had begun building it on a small island in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., in 1829. The nation was at peace, and construction lagged. The fort was still not finished when South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860. South Carolina claimed that secession entitled it to all government property within its boundaries. President James Buchanan refused to give up forts in seceded states but promised not to send reinforcements.

When the dispute began, Fort Sumter was unoccupied. But Major Robert Anderson soon moved his small force into Sumter from Fort Moultrie, a weaker position on the north side of the harbor. Fort Sumter was besieged until the outbreak of the war. On April 11 General Pierre Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces, demanded the surrender of the fort. Anderson refused. On April 12 the bombardment began. Faced with overwhelming odds, Anderson was forced to surrender on April 13. He sent the following dispatch to Washington:

"Having defended Fort Sumter for 34 hours, until the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed, the powder-magazine surrounded by flames, and no provisions but port remaining, I accepted the terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard, and marched out of the fort with colors flying and drums beating, saluting my flag with 50 guns."

Men of the North who had calmly been saying, "Let the South go," were now aroused to fever heat. Many enlisted in response to Lincoln's call for 75,000 men. The North gained much in unity of action by the loss of Fort Sumter; the South gained only the fort. When the Confederate forces abandoned Charleston in 1865, Fort Sumter again passed to the North but as a battered ruin of no military value. It became a national monument in 1948.

Battles of Bull Run (Manassas)

Two battles of the Civil War were fought in northern Virginia near a small river called Bull Run and a town called Manassas Junction. First Bull Run was the first major battle of the war. Both the North and the South thought it might be the last.

First Bull Run. The Union troops were commanded by Gen. Irvin McDowell; the Confederate army by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and Beauregard. The armies clashed on July 21, 1861.

The first Union attack seemed to be successful. The Confederate lines fell back. Only Gen. Thomas Jackson's brigade stood like a stone wall. The Confederates were reinforced and McDowell's army retreated. The retreat became an unorganized flight back to Washington, D.C.

First Bull Run had two far-reaching effects. The South rejoiced, but it also developed a false sense of security. The North was dazed. Lincoln and his generals realized that the war would be a long one.

Second Bull Run. After First Bull Run there was a lull in the fighting in northern Virginia. Then in the spring of 1862 a series of battles in the east led to the second battle of Bull Run. The Confederate commanders in Second Bull Run were Gens. Jackson and James Longstreet under the overall command of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The Union commander was Gen. John Pope.

The third (main) phase of Second Bull Run was fought on Aug. 29 to 30, 1862. Pope's army was drawn up along the Rappahannock to defend Washington. It faced Lee's two corps under Jackson and Longstreet. Pope advanced on Jackson, who pretended to retreat but held his ground until reinforced by Lee and Longstreet. The entire Confederate Army attacked the Union Army and forced it to retreat all the way back to Washington. The way was open for Lee to invade the North.

The Seven Days Battle (June 25-July 1, 1862)

A series of American Civil War battles in which a Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee drove back General George B. McClellan's Union forces and thwarted the Northern attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. McClellan was forced to retreat from a position 4 miles (6 km) east of the Confederate capital to a new base of operations at Harrison's Landing on the James River.

After the indecisive Battle of Oak Grove (June 25), Lee's attack on the Union right at Mechanicsville (June 26) was repulsed with great losses, but Lee and General "Stonewall" Jackson combined to defeat General Fitz-John Porter's V Corps in a bloody encounter at Gaines's Mill (June 27).In the battles of Peach Orchard and Savage's Station (June 29) and Frayser's Farm (Glendale; June 30), the retreating Union forces inflicted heavy casualties on the pursuing Confederates. Reaching the James River, and supported by Union gunboats, the Northern troops turned back Lee's final assaults at Malvern Hill (July 1). Lee later stated in his official report that "Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed.

McClellan's failure to capture Richmond, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Union's Army of the Potomac from the Yorktown Peninsula, signified the end of the Peninsular Campaign.

Northern casualties were estimated at 16,000 men and Southern at 20,00_

Perryville

(Oct. 8, 1862), in the American Civil War, engagement of Union and Confederate troops as General Braxton Bragg was leading the Confederates in an advance on Louisville, Ky., from Chattanooga, Tenn. Union troops, under General Don Carlos Buell, were marching from Louisville when they unexpectedly encountered the Confederate army. A bloody but indecisive battle ensued at Perryville, near Danville, Ky. Bragg's forces, though, held the field and continued to control the area until forced to withdraw three months later following the Battle of Stones River._

 

First Battles of the Ironclads

On the afternoon of March 8, 1862, five vessels of the United States Navy lay at anchor in Hampton Roads. Suddenly a queer object came across the water toward the United States vessel Cumberland from the Confederate stronghold in Norfolk, Va. It was a reconstructed United States ship, the Merrimack (renamed the Virginia). The vessel had been sunk when the Norfolk navy yard was abandoned at the beginning of the war. The Confederates had raised the vessel, cut off the sides, and covered what was left with iron plates. This was one of the earliest practical applications of armor to a warship.

The strange object steered straight for the Cumberland. It was met by heavy fire, but, when it reached the Cumberland, its iron beak cut through the side of the wooden vessel "as a knife goes through cheese." The Merrimack next set fire to the Congress with red-hot shot from its guns. Then the vessel steamed away to prepare for its next victory.

By the next morning, however, the situation was entirely changed. When the Merrimack started toward the Minnesota, preparing to dispose of it as quickly as the two victims of the previous day, there suddenly appeared in the ironclad's path an odd object, about one fourth the Merrimack's size and resembling a "cheese-box on a raft." This was the famous Monitor, a Union ironclad designed by John Ericsson, a Swedish engineer.

The fight between the two ships began at once and lasted for nearly four hours. The Monitor was more easily handled than the Merrimack, but its shots could not do much harm to the other's iron sides. On the other hand, the Monitor's single revolving turret offered a hopeless target for its opponent. Thousands of people stood on the shore and breathlessly watched the combat. The distance between the vessels varied from half a mile to a few yards. The Monitor's commander was wounded, and the Merrimack, badly damaged, steamed back to Norfolk.

This fight between the Merrimack and Monitor was one of the most important naval battles ever fought, for it made all the old navies useless. All countries had to discard their wooden vessels and to begin building ironclads. During the Civil War the Union was able to build more iron ships faster than the Confederacy could.

Battle of Shiloh

On Sunday morning, April 6, 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sat enjoying a leisurely breakfast below Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, while his army cooked breakfast in the camps grouped about Shiloh church not far away. Nobody expected trouble from the retreating Confederate forces under Gen. Albert S. Johnston that were supposed to be camped at Corinth 20 miles away. Grant had not kept cavalry watching the Confederates, nor had he posted outposts sufficiently far in front.

Suddenly the crack of rifles and roar of battle broke the calm. When Grant reached his troops, his situation looked disastrous. The Confederates in full force had burst from covering woods and were driving the desperately resisting bands of Union soldiers from their camps. All day the battle raged with terrific losses. Practically no control could be exercised by either commander over his raw troops. By night the Union troops had been driven almost to the river.

The situation changed overnight. Gen. D.C. Buell arrived with 25,000 Union troops, and Johnston of the Confederates died of a wound he had suffered while leading a charge. His successor, General Beauregard, was driven from the field the next day and retired to Corinth. The Union armies of some 70,000 lost about 13,000 killed and wounded. The Confederate loss was 10,000 out of some 40,000.

Shiloh was the second great battle of the war and the most bitterly fought engagement of the whole struggle. Bitter criticism was heaped upon Grant for his heavy losses. But President Lincoln refused to remove him, and Grant soon justified the president's faith. The Confederates, on the other hand, lost almost as heavily and missed their chance to break up the Union advance in the west.

Battle of Antietam

For weeks the tide of the Civil War ran in favor of the Confederacy. The morale of the North had been lowered by Gen. George B. McClellan's disastrous Peninsular Campaign in Virginia in 1862. As a result President Lincoln was forced to postpone issuing his Emancipation Proclamation for fear of seeming to appeal to blacks for aid in a losing cause. When he laid aside the proclamation, he vowed he would give it to the world after the first Union victory.

Instead of victory came more setbacks. General Lee crossed the Potomac, carrying the war into the North and striking terror into the hearts of the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Finally, on Sept. 17, 1862, his troops met the numerically superior forces of McClellan at the little creek of Antietam in Maryland. All day long the battle raged. The loss of men on each side was about 11,000.

No decisive results were obtained from the fierce conflict of that day. On the next day, however, Lee felt that it was wiser to withdraw from the field. Thus the victory seemed to be left with McClellan. Lee had not obtained the aid from the people of Maryland that he had expected, and so he recrossed the Potomac into Virginia. McClellan made no attempt for a while to follow him, and so little military advantage was gained. Nevertheless the people of the North were encouraged, and Lincoln had the opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. For these two reasons the battle of Antietam was one of the important battles of the Civil War.

Battle of Fredericksburg

One of the costliest defeats suffered by the Union forces in the war was at the battle of Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862. At that time Lee had retreated from the North as a result of his defeat at Antietam. With about 78,000 men he had established himself on the high bluffs of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg.

The Army of the Potomac, led by Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, held the north bank of the river at Falmouth. There were about 120,000 men under his command. With many difficulties he transported them across the river on pontoon bridges to attack the strongly entrenched Confederates.

After six assaults with great losses, Burnside was persuaded by his officers not to renew the attack. Two nights later, under the cover of a storm on December 15, the discouraged remainder of the Union army was brought back to Falmouth.

The Union army had lost 12,653 men, while the Confederate loss was 5,309 men. As a result of his tragic defeat, Burnside was replaced a week later by Gen. Joseph (Fighting Joe) Hooker.

The gloom that this disaster brought to the people in the North was changed to rejoicing a few weeks later. Then news came of the Union victory in the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River, Tenn., fought from December 31 to January 2.

At Murfreesboro the Confederate forces under Gen. Braxton Bragg were repulsed by the Union army under Gen. William S. Rosecrans. This victory opened the way for the Union advance to Chattanooga and finally to "Atlanta and the sea."

Campaign for Vicksburg

A primary objective of the Union forces in the Civil War was to cut the Confederacy in two by winning control of the Mississippi River. To do this it was necessary to take the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Miss. As long as Vicksburg was held by the South, Union vessels could not operate freely on the river. The city also served as an important transportation point for the Confederacy. Supplies, arms, and men from the southwestern states were assembled at Vicksburg and then transported eastward by rail.

On Jan. 29, 1863, General Grant was put in command of the Army of the West, with orders to capture Vicksburg. It was a difficult assignment because the city, located east of the Mississippi, was on a high bluff overlooking a hairpin bend in the river. All earlier attacks against Vicksburg had failed. Grant now set his men to work with pick and shovel rather than with guns. They tried to dig a canal across the neck of land opposite the city and thus bypass Vicksburg by turning the river from its old bed. Despite their most strenuous efforts Grant's troops failed to change the course of the river. Another way to reach the city had to be found. Grant saw that Vicksburg could be approached only from the south and east.

The west bank of the Mississippi became dry enough for the men to travel over, but how were they to recross to the east bank after getting below the city? This could be done in only one way: The Union fleet would have to face the Confederate batteries and go down the stream as the men marched along the west shore. One dark night the attempt was made. The Confederates learned of the plan and sent troops across the river in skiffs. They set fire to houses on the shore so that Confederate gunners might have light to see the Union ships. Nevertheless all but one of the Union's vessels ran by the batteries in safety and transported Grant's men to the eastern bank.

This was all accomplished by the end of April 1863. Now began the task of pushing the Confederate troops back into the city. Seven times Grant met and defeated them before he reached Vicksburg. Failing to take the town by storm, he settled down to starve it into surrender. For seven weeks the town held out.

A Confederate woman who was shut up in the city gave this description of life during that time: "So constantly dropped the shells around the city that the inhabitants made preparations to live under the ground during the siege. We seized the opportunity one evening, when the gunners were probably at their supper, for we had a few moments of quiet, to take possession of our cave. Our dining, breakfasting, and supper hours were quite irregular. When the shells were falling fast, the servants came in for safety, and our meals waited; again they would fall slowly . . . and out would start the cooks to do their work."

Supplies ran low and were rationed. Horses and mules were killed for meat. Men died of disease and starvation. When Gen. John Pemberton finally asked what terms would be given them, Grant replied: "Unconditional surrender." Pemberton was forced to accept these hard terms on July 4, 1863. Vicksburg had fallen; the Confederacy was divided.

Battle of Chancellorsville

Before the Union finally took over Vicksburg, the South won one of its greatest victories in the Civil War in May 1863 at Chancellorsville, Va. General Lee achieved perhaps his most brilliant success in this battle. At the start of the battle, Lee had about 60,000 men in a region east of Chancellorsville and south of Fredericksburg.

The newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Hooker, had moved his forces during April to an area north of Chancellorsville and west of Fredericksburg. By April 30 the Union army of about 130,000 men was well entrenched. Hooker sent a detachment under Gen. John Sedgwick to attack Fredericksburg. He then prepared to advance and engage Lee's army in a major battle.

Lee's cavalry leaders had told him of the movements of Hooker's troops, including some actions that were meant to be deceptive. Quickly Lee decided to attack.

On the morning of May 1 he sent a division under Gen. Jubal Early to pin down Sedgwick's forces at Fredericksburg. With the remainder of his army Lee marched west to meet Hooker's advancing troops. By midafternoon the armies were in combat. Under heavy Confederate pressure the Union soldiers slowly withdrew to their strongly fortified defensive positions. Fighting came to a halt at nightfall.

During the night Lee decided to attempt an encircling movement. He ordered Stonewall Jackson to lead 30,000 men around the southern flank of the Union army. General Jackson began the long march after midnight. In the morning the Confederates were seen by the Federals guarding the southern flank of the Union army. The Federals attacked but did not seriously hamper Jackson's march.

Jackson moved west, then north. He entered the tangled forest called The Wilderness, and soon his forces were in the rear of the Union army. Jackson then turned eastward and attacked. His Confederates drove into the Union lines, which faltered and fell back. When the Federals reached their defenses near Chancellorsville, they held their ground.

During the night Jackson rode ahead of his lines to scout the situation around United States Ford. On returning he was mistaken for a Federal officer and was fired upon by a Confederate sentry. The wound proved to be mortal. He died eight days later.

On the morning of May 3 the Confederates seized Hazel Grove, a hill near Chancellorsville. They mounted 50 cannons on it. Fire from this artillery killed large numbers of Union men. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day, and losses were heavy on both sides. Hooker himself was a casualty of the day. A cannon shell wrecked the porch of the two-story brick house that was Hooker's headquarters. A falling pillar struck Hooker on the head. When the general regained consciousness he was dazed and in pain, yet refused to turn over full authority to the officer next in command. This decision has been blamed for much of the uncertainty and confusion that led to the defeat of the huge Union army.

At Fredericksburg Sedgwick defeated Early and routed his troops. Sedgwick then marched westward to join the battle around Chancellorsville. He attacked Lee's rear guard, which was larger than he had expected. When darkness stopped the fighting on all fronts, Sedgwick had trenches dug and other defenses prepared.

In the afternoon of May 4 Lee attacked Sedgwick's well-entrenched corps. Its lines held firm for the most part, and Lee made little progress. Federal forces repelled attempts to take United States Ford and other key points. Sedgwick maintained his position throughout the day.

There were only unimportant skirmishes on May 5. That night Hooker decided on a total withdrawal. Early on May 6 the first Federal units began crossing the Rappahannock at United States Ford. By the evening of May 6 most of the Union army was safely across the river. Lee, with his badly battered army, did not attempt to pursue the Federals. Meanwhile Sedgwick's detachment succeeded in crossing at Scott's Ford.

Union losses in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to some 17,000 men, or about 13 percent of the total force. The Confederates lost about 13,000 men, or more than 21 percent of the Army of Northern Virginia, and in Stonewall Jackson they lost an irreplaceable leader. The South's victory was its costliest as well as one of its greatest.

Battle of Chattanooga

The North won three of the most important battles of the Civil War in 1863. Two of these Union victories occurred in early July in Gettysburg, Pa., and, after a long siege, in Vicksburg, Miss. In the fall the third crucial engagement was staged in the area around Chattanooga, Tenn.

The campaign began on Sept. 19, 1863. General Rosecrans' Union army at Chickamauga, Ga., was routed by General Bragg's Confederates. Rosecrans fell back to Chattanooga. Bragg occupied Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. Confederate troops then cut off the Union army from its supply base at Bridgeport, Ala., downstream on the Tennessee River.

To aid the trapped Federals the government sent reinforcements to Chattanooga--General Sherman with an army from Vicksburg and General Hooker with 15,000 men from Virginia. General Grant was put in supreme command. He immediately replaced Rosecrans with Gen. George H. Thomas.

On October 27 and 28 Grant's command cleared the Tennessee River of Confederates west of Lookout Mountain. This reopened the road to Bridgeport. East of the city Union troops seized Orchard Knob on November 23. The next day Grant sent Hooker to attack Lookout Mountain. This seemed foolhardy because the mountain sides were steep and choked with vegetation. In addition, a thick fog had gathered, giving the conflict the name "battle above the clouds."

Hooker attacked vigorously. He had about 9,000 men against a defending force of less than 2,000. By afternoon the lower slopes had been taken. Bragg then abandoned Lookout Mountain to meet a new threat on his right flank--Sherman was attacking Gen. William J. Hardee at the north end of Missionary Ridge.

Sherman was stopped and Hooker prevented from joining in the attack on Gen. John C. Breckinridge. By the afternoon of November 25 the Union offensive had stalled completely. To help Sherman's attack from the north, Grant ordered Thomas to capture a line of rifle pits at the western foot of the ridge. Thomas' men won their objective. Then, instead of halting as ordered, they continued the attack up to the top of the ridge. The surprised Union generals could only follow, and the equally surprised Confederates on the crest broke ranks and fled. Soon Bragg's entire army was in headlong flight to the south. This victory gave the North control of the railroads centered in Chattanooga. The South now had only one east-west route--through Atlanta. During the series of battles the Union army, which consisted of some 56,000 men, suffered 5,815 casualties. The Confederates, with about 41,000 men, lost 6,687 killed, wounded, or missing.

Spotsylvania

(May 8-19, 1864), Union failure to smash or outflank Confederate forces defending Richmond, Va., during the American Civil War. Following the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved his left flank forward, engaging the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. The battle raged for about a week and a half, and on May 20 Grant continued his march southeastward in a flanking movement toward the Confederate capital. His casualties were 18,000; Lee's, 11,000.

Cold Harbor

Two engagements of the American Civil War at Cold Harbor, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital.

The first battle (June 27, 1862), sometimes called the Battle of Gaines's Mill, was part of the Seven Days' Battles (June 25-July 1) which ended the Peninsular Campaign (April 4-July 1), the large-scale Union effort to take Richmond. After fighting at Mechanicsville and Beaver Dam Creek, General George B. McClellan ordered Union troops to high ground between Gaines's Mill and Cold Harbor.When Confederate General Robert E. Lee attacked on June 27, the Union troops were driven back in disorder and withdrew to the south side of the Chickahominy River.

The second Battle of Cold Harbor (June 3-12, 1864) is considered one of the worst Northern defeats in the Civil War, though its subsequent effect was negligible. Following the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-19), Union General Ulysses S. Grant advanced southward toward Richmond in a series of flanking movements. Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee at Cold Harbor entrenched themselves in defensive positions behind earthworks. From these, Union assaults were repulsed with heavy losses. Because of Grant's vast numbers (more than 100,000 men), his losses of about 7,000 (compared with fewer than 1,500 for Lee) did not deter him from continuing to Petersburg later that month in his drive toward Richmond.