Back-to-School Primer #3: The 19 Major Events of the American Civil War
This is our third post in our “Back-to-School” series. Our first post focused on the key events of the American Revolution, and our second post featured the major events leading up to the American Civil War. This post focuses on the major events of the Civil War, and it draws from our timeline of over 600 events of the war that we have on Timelines.com.
Fort Sumter was the scene of the first battle of the American Civil War. The fort sat (and is there today) on an island in the middle of the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. South Carolina had seceded from the Union in 1860, but despite this, Fort Sumter was still part of the Union and continued to fly the Union flag. When the Fort Sumter was resupplied on April 12th, Confederate troops began shelling it from the mainland. The bombardment lasted for 34 straight hours, until the Union defenders surrendered. Surprisingly, no soldiers on either side were killed by enemy fire.
The First Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the war. It occurred near Manassas, Virginia. Union forces from Washington, DC totaling 28,450, under the command of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, attempted to surprise 32,230 Confederate troops. After initial success, the inexperienced Union troops were stopped by Confederate reinforcements, and they were forced to retreat back to Washington. The Union suffered nearly 3,000 casualties (versus 1,750 for the Confederates), convincing President Lincoln and his administration that the war would be longer and harder than originally anticipated. Incidentally, a relatively unknown Confederate colonel, Thomas J. Jackson, earned his famous nickname “Stonewall” during this battle for rallying his troops and convincing them to stand their ground against the attacking Union forces.
The Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee were the first important strategic Union victories of the war, as they resulted in forcing the Confederates out of Kentucky and provided a path for the Union to advance through Tennessee. The Confederate’s Fort Henry fell in early February when Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant‘s troops and seven gunboats from the Union began shelling the fort. The Confederate troops evacuated Fort Henry and moved to Fort Donelson 10 miles away, and Grant’s troops pursued them. On February 16, after attempting unsuccessfully to break out of the fort through Grant’s lines, the Confederates surrendered unconditionally. Union casualties totaled 2,331 while the Confederacy suffered more than 15,000. The Union could now advance north through Tennessee, using the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers to ferry supplies and soldiers. Grant was promoted to major general for this victory and earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.”
The Battle of Hampton Roads (Virginia) was the most famous and well-known naval battle of the Civil War. It was also the first battle between two ironclad ships, the Monitor on the Union side and the Merrimack (also know as the Virginia) on the Confederate side. The battle raged over 2 days (March 8 – 9), with the Confederacy attempting unsuccessfully to break a Union blockade at the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay; the blockade had cutoff Norfolk and Richmond from international trade. Though it ended inconclusively and the two ships never tangled with each other again, the battle received worldwide attention, and it changed the way warships were built. In fact, the new design of ship was called the monitor, and it featured a small number of large guns that could fire in all directions and a hull with a built-in ram.
The Capture of New Orleans by Union forces was a major turning point in the war. New Orleans was the Confederacy’s largest city, and, given its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, a strategic location with a large and economically important port.
The Battle of Antietam was the first battle of the war to take place on Northern soil. It was the the bloodiest day in the American Civil War, with a total of over 23,000 casualties including more than 4,800 killed. (In fact, more Americans were killed on this day than on any other day in American military history). Though the battle was fought to a draw, it stopped Lee’s advance into the North and caused France and Britain to hold off on recognizing the Confederacy as a nation. Furthermore, it gave Abraham Lincoln the chance to announce the Emancipation Proclamation later in the month, which would free all slaves in the South starting in January 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order that Abraham Lincoln issued in late 1862 that was signed on January 1, 1863. It proclaimed the freedom of the 3.1 million slaves in the Confederate States of America, even though the Union had no power over these states. The Emancipation Proclamation marked the transition from a war to preserve the Union, where fighting was restricted to the battlefield, to a total war, seeking to destroy the Old South and using any means possible to achieve it. It enraged the Confederacy and emphasized the divided nature of the Union.
The Battle of Gettysburg is often regarded as the primary turning point of the war. Despite being stopped from invading the North at the Battle of Antietam, Robert E. Lee decided to invade again. Over the course of three days of fierce fighting, Union Major General George Meade beat back Lee’s advances, effectively halting his advance and damaging Lee’s air of invincibility. In addition to stopping the invasion, the victory by the Union squelched all remaining hopes of European recognition of the Confederacy as an independent country. The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the war, with a total of over 46,000 casualties – nearly 8,000 of which were killed.
Union General Grant won several victories around Vicksburg, Mississippi, the fortified city considered essential to the Union’s plans to regain control of the Mississippi River. On May 22, Grant began a siege of Vicksburg. After six weeks, Confederate General John Pemberton surrendered, giving up the city and 30,000 men. The capture of Port Hudson, Louisiana, shortly thereafter placed the entire Mississippi River in Union hands. The Confederacy was split in two.
On November 23-25, Union forces pushed Confederate troops away from Chattanooga. The victory set the stage for General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
May – June 1864 – Grant’s Wildness Campaign
Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to commander of the Union’s armies, and planned to fight Lee’s forces in Virginia until they were destroyed. Though Lee inflicted more casualties on Grant’s armies in battles in Wilderness, Spotslvania and Cold Harbor (at Cold Harbor, Grant lost over 7,000 men in 20 minutes), Grant could replace his losses with reinforcements and Lee could not. Cold Harbor was Lee’s last decisive victory of the war.
Union General Sherman departed Chattanooga with the goal of capturing Atlanta. He was soon met by Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Skillful strategy enabled Johnston to hold off Sherman’s force — almost twice the size of Johnston’s. However, Johnston’s tactics caused his superiors to replace him with General John Bell Hood, who was soon defeated. Hood surrendered Atlanta, Georgia, on September 1; Sherman occupied the city the next day. The fall of Atlanta greatly boosted Northern morale (and Lincoln’s re-election bid).
General Sherman continued his march through Georgia to the sea. In the course of the march, he cut himself off from his source of supplies, planning for his troops to live off the land. He employed a “Scorched Earth” policy, and his men cut a path 300 miles in length and 60 miles wide as they passed through Georgia, destroying factories, bridges, railroads, and public buildings.
After marching through Georgia for a month, Sherman stormed Fort McAllister on December 13, 1864, and captured Savannah itself eight days later.
The Republican party nominated President Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate, and Andrew Johnson for vice-president. The Democratic party chose General George B. McClellan for president, and George Pendleton for vice-president. At one point, widespread war-weariness in the North made a victory for Lincoln seem doubtful. In addition, Lincoln’s veto of the Wade-Davis Bill — requiring the majority of the electorate in each Confederate state to swear past and future loyalty to the Union before the state could officially be restored — lost him the support of Radical Republicans who thought Lincoln too lenient. However, Sherman’s victory in Atlanta boosted Lincoln’s popularity and helped him win re-election by a wide margin.
Union General Sherman moved from Georgia through South Carolina, destroying almost everything in his path. Furthermore, transportation problems and successful blockades caused severe shortages of food and supplies in the South and starving soldiers began to desert Lee’s forces. The Confederacy was near its end.
On March 25, General Lee attacked General Grant’s forces near Petersburg, but was defeated — attacking and losing again on April 1. On April 2, Lee evacuated Richmond, the Confederate capital, and headed west to join with other forces.
After evacuating Richmond, General Lee’s troops were soon surrounded, and on April 7, Grant called upon Lee to surrender. On April 9, the two commanders met at Appomattox Courthouse, and agreed on the terms of surrender. Lee’s men were sent home on parole — soldiers with their horses, and officers with their side arms. All other equipment was surrendered.
On April 14, as President Lincoln was watching a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor from Maryland obsessed with avenging the Confederate defeat. Lincoln died the next morning. Booth escaped to Virginia. Eleven days later, cornered in a burning barn, Booth was fatally shot by a Union soldier. Nine other people were involved in the assassination; four were hanged, four imprisoned, and one acquitted.