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The Civil War in the United States began in 1861, after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede and form the Confederate States of America; four more states soon joined them. The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, ended in Confederate surrender in 1865. The conflict was the costliest and deadliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and much of the South left in ruin.
WATCH: Civil War Journal on HISTORY Vault
Causes of the Civil War
In the mid-19th century, while the United States was experiencing an era of tremendous growth, a fundamental economic difference existed between the country’s northern and southern regions.
In the North, manufacturing and industry was well established, and agriculture was mostly limited to small-scale farms, while the South’s economy was based on a system of large-scale farming that depended on the labor of Black enslaved people to grow certain crops, especially cotton and tobacco.
Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North after the 1830s and northern opposition to slavery’s extension into the new western territories led many southerners to fear that the existence of slavery in America—and thus the backbone of their economy—was in danger.
In 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict. Pro- and anti-slavery forces struggled violently in “Bleeding Kansas,” while opposition to the act in the North led to the formation of the Republican Party, a new political entity based on the principle of opposing slavery’s extension into the western territories. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857) confirmed the legality of slavery in the territories, the abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 convinced more and more southerners that their northern neighbors were bent on the destruction of the “peculiar institution” that sustained them. Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 was the final straw, and within three months seven southern states–South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas–had seceded from the United States.
EXPLORE: Ulysses S. Grant: An Interactive Map of His Key Civil War Battles
Outbreak of the Civil War (1861)
Even as Lincoln took office in March 1861, Confederate forces threatened the federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12, after Lincoln ordered a fleet to resupply Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War. Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after less than two days of bombardment, leaving the fort in the hands of Confederate forces under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Four more southern states–Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee –joined the Confederacy after Fort Sumter. Border slave states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland did not secede, but there was much Confederate sympathy among their citizens.
Though on the surface the Civil War may have seemed a lopsided conflict, with the 23 states of the Union enjoying an enormous advantage in population, manufacturing (including arms production) and railroad construction, the Confederates had a strong military tradition, along with some of the best soldiers and commanders in the nation. They also had a cause they believed in: preserving their long-held traditions and institutions, chief among these being slavery.
In the First Battle of Bull Run (known in the South as First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, 35,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson forced a greater number of Union forces (or Federals) to retreat towards Washington, D.C., dashing any hopes of a quick Union victory and leading Lincoln to call for 500,000 more recruits. In fact, both sides’ initial call for troops had to be widened after it became clear that the war would not be a limited or short conflict.
The Civil War in Virginia (1862)
George B. McClellan–who replaced the aging General Winfield Scott as supreme commander of the Union Army after the first months of the war–was beloved by his troops, but his reluctance to advance frustrated Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, McClellan finally led his Army of the Potomac up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, capturing Yorktown on May 4. The combined forces of Robert E. Lee and Jackson successfully drove back McClellan’s army in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1), and a cautious McClellan called for yet more reinforcements in order to move against Richmond. Lincoln refused, and instead withdrew the Army of the Potomac to Washington. By mid-1862, McClellan had been replaced as Union general-in-chief by Henry W. Halleck, though he remained in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Lee then moved his troops northwards and split his men, sending Jackson to meet Pope’s forces near Manassas, while Lee himself moved separately with the second half of the army. On August 29, Union troops led by John Pope struck Jackson’s forces in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The next day, Lee hit the Federal left flank with a massive assault, driving Pope’s men back towards Washington. On the heels of his victory at Manassas, Lee began the first Confederate invasion of the North. Despite contradictory orders from Lincoln and Halleck, McClellan was able to reorganize his army and strike at Lee on September 14 in Maryland, driving the Confederates back to a defensive position along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg.
On September 17, the Army of the Potomac hit Lee’s forces (reinforced by Jackson’s) in what became the war’s bloodiest single day of fighting. Total casualties at the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) numbered 12,410 of some 69,000 troops on the Union side, and 13,724 of around 52,000 for the Confederates. The Union victory at Antietam would prove decisive, as it halted the Confederate advance in Maryland and forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. Still, McClellan’s failure to pursue his advantage earned him the scorn of Lincoln and Halleck, who removed him from command in favor of Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside’s assault on Lee’s troops near Fredericksburg on December 13 ended in heavy Union casualties and a Confederate victory; he was promptly replaced by Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, and both armies settled into winter quarters across the Rappahannock River from each other.
After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863-4)
Lincoln had used the occasion of the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863. He justified his decision as a wartime measure, and did not go so far as to free the enslaved people in the border states loyal to the Union. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side. Some 186,000 Black Civil War soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.
In the spring of 1863, Hooker’s plans for a Union offensive were thwarted by a surprise attack by the bulk of Lee’s forces on May 1, whereupon Hooker pulled his men back to Chancellorsville. The Confederates gained a costly victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville, suffering 13,000 casualties (around 22 percent of their troops); the Union lost 17,000 men (15 percent). Lee launched another invasion of the North in June, attacking Union forces commanded by General George Meade on July 1 near Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania. Over three days of fierce fighting, the Confederates were unable to push through the Union center, and suffered casualties of close to 60 percent.
Meade failed to counterattack, however, and Lee’s remaining forces were able to escape into Virginia, ending the last Confederate invasion of the North. Also in July 1863, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg (Mississippi) in the Siege of Vicksburg, a victory that would prove to be the turning point of the war in the western theater. After a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September, Lincoln expanded Grant’s command, and he led a reinforced Federal army (including two corps from the Army of the Potomac) to victory in the Battle of Chattanooga in late November.
Toward a Union Victory (1864-65)
In March 1864, Lincoln put Grant in supreme command of the Union armies, replacing Halleck. Leaving William Tecumseh Sherman in control in the West, Grant headed to Washington, where he led the Army of the Potomac towards Lee’s troops in northern Virginia. Despite heavy Union casualties in the Battle of the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania (both May 1864), at Cold Harbor (early June) and the key rail center of Petersburg (June), Grant pursued a strategy of attrition, putting Petersburg under siege for the next nine months.
Sherman outmaneuvered Confederate forces to take Atlanta by September, after which he and some 60,000 Union troops began the famous “March to the Sea,” devastating Georgia on the way to capturing Savannah on December 21. Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, fell to Sherman’s men by mid-February, and Jefferson Davis belatedly handed over the supreme command to Lee, with the Confederate war effort on its last legs. Sherman pressed on through North Carolina, capturing Fayetteville, Bentonville, Goldsboro and Raleigh by mid-April.
Meanwhile, exhausted by the Union siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s forces made a last attempt at resistance, attacking and captured the Federal-controlled Fort Stedman on March 25. An immediate counterattack reversed the victory, however, and on the night of April 2-3 Lee’s forces evacuated Richmond. For most of the next week, Grant and Meade pursued the Confederates along the Appomattox River, finally exhausting their possibilities for escape. Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the eve of victory, the Union lost its great leader: The actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14. Sherman received Johnston’s surrender at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 26, effectively ending the Civil War.
Civil War Casualties
The Civil War was America's bloodiest conflict. The unprecedented violence of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg shocked citizens and international observers alike. Nearly as many men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the whole of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands died of disease. Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty. Taken as a percentage of today's population, the toll would have risen as high as 6 million souls.
The human cost of the Civil War was beyond anybody's expectations. The young nation experienced bloodshed of a magnitude that has not been equaled since by any other American conflict.
Military Losses in American Wars
The numbers of Civil War dead were not equaled by the combined toll of other American conflicts until the War in Vietnam. Some believe the number is as high as 850,000. The American Battlefield Trust does not agree with this claim.
Civil War Battle Casualties
More American soldiers became casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg than in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 combined.
New military technology combined with old-fashioned tactical doctrine to produce a scale of battle casualties unprecedented in American history.
Civil War Service by Population
Even with close to total conscription, the South could not match the North's numerical strength. Southerners stood a significantly greater chance of being killed, wounded, or captured.
Even with close to total conscription, the South could not match the North's numerical strength. Southerners also stood a significantly greater chance of being killed, wounded, or captured.
Confederate Military Deaths by State
This chart and the one below are based on research done by Provost Marshal General James Fry in 1866. His estimates were based on Confederate muster rolls--many of which were destroyed before he began his study--and many historians have disputed the results. The estimates for Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas have been updated to reflect more recent scholarship.
This chart and the one below are based on research done by Provost Marshal General James Fry in 1866. His estimates for Southern states were based on Confederate muster rolls--many of which were destroyed before he began his study--and many historians have disputed the results. The estimates for Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas have been updated to reflect more recent scholarship.
Union Military Deaths by State
Given the relatively complete preservation of Northern records, Fry's examination of Union deaths is far more accurate than his work in the South. Note the mortal threat that soldiers faced from disease.
Given the relatively complete preservation of Northern records, Fry's examination of Union deaths is far more accurate than his work in the South. Note the mortal threat that soldiers faced from disease.
There were an estimated 1.5 million casualties reported during the Civil War.
A "casualty" is a military person lost through death, wounds, injury, sickness, internment, capture, or through being missing in action. "Casualty" and "fatality" are not interchangeable terms--death is only one of the ways that a soldier can become a casualty. In practice, officers would usually be responsible for recording casualties that occurred within their commands. If a soldier was unable to perform basic duties due to one of the above conditions, the soldier would be considered a casualty. This means that one soldier could be marked as a casualty several times throughout the course of the war.
Most casualties and deaths in the Civil War were the result of non-combat-related disease. For every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died of disease. The primitive nature of Civil War medicine, both in its intellectual underpinnings and in its practice in the armies, meant that many wounds and illnesses were unnecessarily fatal.
Our modern conception of casualties includes those who have been psychologically damaged by warfare. This distinction did not exist during the Civil War. Soldiers suffering from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder were uncatalogued and uncared for.
The Battle of Gettysburg left approximately 7,000 corpses in the fields around the town. Family members had to come to the battlefield to find their loved ones in the carnage. (Library of Congress)
Approximately one in four soldiers that went to war never returned home. At the outset of the war, neither army had mechanisms in place to handle the amount of death that the nation was about to experience. There were no national cemeteries, no burial details, and no messengers of loss. The largest human catastrophe in American history, the Civil War forced the young nation to confront death and destruction in a way that has not been equaled before or since.
Recruitment was highly localized throughout the war. Regiments of approximately one thousand men, the building block of the armies, would often be raised from the population of a few adjacent counties. Soldiers went to war with their neighbors and their kin. The nature of recruitment meant that a battlefield disaster could wreak havoc on the home community.
The 26th North Carolina, hailing from seven counties in the western part of the state, suffered 714 casualties out of 800 men during the Battle of Gettysburg. The 24th Michigan squared off against the 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg and lost 362 out of 496 men. Nearly the entire student body of Ole Miss--135 out 139--enlisted in Company A of the 11th Mississippi. Company A, also known as the "University Greys" suffered 100% casualties in Pickett's Charge. Eighteen members of the Christian family of Christianburg, Virginia were killed during the war. It is estimated that one in three Southern households lost at least one family member.
One in thirteen surviving Civil War soldiers returned home missing one or more limbs. Pre-war jobs on farms or in factories became impossible or nearly so. This led to a rise in awareness of veterans' needs as well as increased responsibility and social power for women. For many, however, there was no solution. Tens of thousands of families slipped into destitution.
Compiling casualty figures for Civil War soldiers is a complex process. Indeed, it is so complex that even 150 years later no one has, and perhaps no one will, assemble a specific, accurate set of numbers, especially on the Confederate side.
A true accounting of the number of men in the armies can be approached through a review of three primary documents: enlistment rolls, muster rolls, and casualty lists. Following any of these investigative methods one will encounter countless flaws and inconsistencies--the records in question are little sheets of paper generated and compiled 150 years ago by human beings in one of the most stressful and confusing environments to ever exist. Enlistment stations were set up in towns and cities across the country, but for the most part only those stations in major northern cities can be relied upon to have preserved records. Confederate enlistment rolls are virtually non-existent.
The average Civil War soldier was 26 years old, weighing 143 pounds and standing 5'8" tall. (Library of Congress)
Muster rolls, generated every few months by commanding officers, list soldiers in their respective units as "present" or "absent." This gives a kind of snapshot of the unit's composition in a specific time and place. Overlooking the common misspelling of names and general lack of specificity concerning the condition of a "present" or "absent" soldier, muster rolls provide a valuable look into the past. Unfortunately, these little pieces of paper were usually transported by mule in the rear of a fighting army. Their preservation was adversely affected by rain, river crossings, clerical errors, and cavalry raids.
Casualty lists gives the number of men in a unit who were killed, wounded, or went missing in an engagement. However, combat threw armies into administrative chaos and the accounting done in the hours or days immediately following a battle often raises as many questions as it answers. For example: Who are the missing? Weren't many of these soldiers killed and not found? What, exactly, qualifies a wound and did armies account for this the same way? What became of wounded soldiers? Did they rejoin their unit did they return home did they die?
A wholly accurate count will almost certainly never be made. The effects of this devastating conflict are still felt today.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Civil War Timeline
November 6, 1860- Abraham Lincoln is elected sixteenth president of the United States, the first Republican president in the nation who represents a party that opposes the spread of slavery in the territories of the United States.
December 17, 1860- The first Secession Convention meets in Columbia, South Carolina.
December 20, 1860- South Carolina secedes from the Union.
January 1861 - Six additional southern states secede from the Union.
February 8-9, 1861 - The southern states that seceded create a government at Montgomery, Alabama, and the Confederate States of America are formed.
February 18, 1861- Jefferson Davis is appointed the first President of the Confederate States of America at Montgomery, Alabama, a position he will hold until elections can be arranged.
March 4, 1861- Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States in Washington, DC.
April 12, 1861 - Southern forces fire upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War has formally begun.
April 15, 1861- President Lincoln issues a public declaration that an insurrection exists and calls for 75,000 militia to stop the rebellion. As a result of this call for volunteers, four additional southern states secede from the Union in the following weeks. Lincoln will respond on May 3 with an additional call for 43,000+ volunteers to serve for three years, expanding the size of the Regular Army.
May 24, 1861- Union forces cross the Potomac River and occupy Arlington Heights, the home of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It is during the occupation of nearby Alexandria that Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, commander of the 11 th New York Infantry and a close friend of the Lincolns, is shot dead by the owner of the Marshall House just after removing a Confederate flag from its roof.
June 3, 1861- A skirmish near Philippi in western Virginia, is the first clash of Union and Confederate forces in the east.
June 10, 1861- Battle of Big Bethel, the first land battle of the war in Virginia.
June 20, 1861-At the culmination of the Wheeling Convention, the region that composed the northwestern counties of Virginia broke away from that state to form West Virginia, officially designated and accepted as the thirty fifth state of the Union on June 20, 1863.
July 21, 1861- The Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas), is fought near Manassas, Virginia. The Union Army under General Irwin McDowell initially succeeds in driving back Confederate forces under General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, but the arrival of troops under General Joseph E. Johnston initates a series of reverses that sends McDowell's army in a panicked retreat to the defenses of Washington. It is here that Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a professor at VMI, will receive everlasting fame as "Stonewall" Jackson.
July 1861-To thwart the Confederate threat in northern Virginia, a series of earthworks and forts are engineered to surround the City of Washington, adding to protection already offered by active posts such as Fort Washington on the Potomac River.
August 10, 1861- Battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri. The Union Army under General Nathaniel Lyon, attack Confederate troops and state militia southwest of Springfield, Missouri, and after a disastrous day that included the death of Lyon, are thrown back. The Confederate victory emphasizes the strong southern presence west of the Mississippi River.
August 28-29, 1861- Fort Hatteras at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, falls to Union naval forces. This begins the first Union efforts to close southern ports along the Carolina coast.
September 20, 1861- Lexington, Missouri falls to Confederate forces under Sterling Price.
October 21, 1861- Battle of Ball's Bluff, Virginia. Colonel Edward D. Baker, senator from Oregon and a friend of President Lincoln, led troops across the Potomac River only to be forced back to the river's edge where he was killed. The ensuing Union withdrawal turned into a rout with many soldiers drowning while trying to re-cross the icy waters of the Potomac River.
January 19, 1862- Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. The Union victory weakened the Confederate hold on the state.
February 6, 1862- Surrender of Fort Henry, Tennessee. The loss of this southern fort on the Tennessee River opened the door to Union control of the river.
February 8, 1862- Battle of Roanoke Island, North Carolina. A Confederate defeat, the battle resulted in Union occupation of eastern North Carolina and control of Pamlico Sound, to be used as Northern base for further operations against the southern coast.
February 16, 1862- Surrender of Fort Donelson, Tennessee . This primary southern fort on the Cumberland River left the river in Union hands. It was here that Union General Ulysses S. Grant gained his nickname "Unconditional Surrender".
February 22, 1862- Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America.
March 7-8, 1862- Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), Arkansas. The Union victory loosened the Confederate hold on Missouri and disrupted southern control of a portion of the Mississippi River.
March 9, 1862- The naval battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (the old USS "Merrimack"), the first "ironclads", is fought in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
April 6-7, 1862- The Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), the first major battle in Tennessee. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, a veteran of the Texas War of Independence and the War with Mexico considered to be one of the finest officers the South has, is killed on the first day of fighting. The Union victory further secures the career of Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
April 24-25, 1862 - A Union fleet of gunships under Admiral David Farragut passes Confederate forts guarding the mouth of the Mississippi River. On April 25, the fleet arrived at New Orleans where they demanded the surrender of the city. Within two days the forts fall into Union hands and the mouth of the great river is under Union control.
May 25, 1862 - First Battle of Winchester, Virginia. After two weeks of maneuvering and battles at Cross Keys and Front Royal, General "Stonewall" Jackson attacks Union forces at Winchester and successfully drives them from the city. The victory is the culmination of his 1862 Valley Campaign.
May 31-June 1, 1862- The Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, Virginia. General Joseph Johnston, commander of the Confederate army in Virginia is wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee who renames his command the "Army of Northern Virginia".
June 6, 1862- Battle of Memphis, Tennessee. A Union flotilla under Commodore Charles Davis successfully defeats a Confederate river force on the Mississippi River near the city and Memphis surrenders. The Mississippi River is now in Union control except for its course west of Mississippi where the city of Vicksburg stands as the last southern stronghold on the great river.
June 25-July 1, 1862- The Seven Days' Battles before Richmond . General Lee's army attacks the "Army of the Potomac" under General George McClellan in a succession of battles beginning at Mechanicsville on June 26 and ending at Malvern Hill on July 1.
August 30-31, 1862- The Battle of Second Bull Run (or Second Manassas) is fought on the same ground where one year before, the Union army was defeated and sent reeling in retreat to Washington. Likewise, the result of this battle is a Union defeat.
September 17, 1862- The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg), Maryland, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. The result of the battle ends General Lee's first invasion of the North. Following the Union victory, President Lincoln will introduce the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that freed every slave in the Confederate States.
December 13, 1862- The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia . The Army of the Potomac, under General Ambrose Burnside, is soundly defeated by Lee's forces after a risky river crossing and sacking of the city.
December 31-January 3, 1863- Battle of Stones River, Tennessee. Fought between the Union Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans and the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, the costly Union victory frees middle Tennessee from Confederate control and boosts northern morale.
January 1, 1863- The Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect. Applauded by many abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, there are others who feel it does not go far enough to totally abolish slavery.
March 3, 1863- Conscription, or the drafting of soldiers into military service, begins in the North. It had begun in the South the year before.
April 1863 - Union forces in the east begin a new campaign in Virginia to flank Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. In the west, a Union army has begun a campaign to surround and take Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
May 1-4, 1863 - The Battle of Chancellorsville , Virginia. General Lee's greatest victory is marred by the mortal wounding of "Stonewall" Jackson, who dies on May 10. Soon after, Lee asks Jefferson Davis for permission to invade the North and take the war out of Virginia.
May 18, 1863 - Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi begins. Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant attack Confederate defenses outside the city on May 19-22. If Vicksburg falls, the Mississippi River will be completely controlled by the Union.
June 9, 1863 - The Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia. Union cavalry forces cross the Rapidan River to attack General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry and discover that Lee's men are moving west toward the Shenandoah Valley. The largest cavalry battle of the Civil War, it also marks the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. Meanwhile, the Union assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi has become a siege of the city where soldiers and civilians alike suffer from constant bombardment.
June 14-15, 1863 - Battle of Second Winchester,Virginia. Confederate troops under General Richard Ewell defeat Union troops under General Robert Milroy, clearing the Shenandoah Valley of Union forces.
June 28, 1863 - The Gettysburg Campaign continues. Confederates pass through York and reach the bridge over the Susquehanna River at Columbia, but Union militia set fire to the bridge, denying access to the east shore. Southern cavalry skirmishes with Union militia near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
July 1-3 - The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The bloodiest battle of the Civil War dashes Robert E. Lee's hopes for a successful invasion of the North.
July 4 - Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrenders to the Union Army under Grant. The capture of Vicksburg gives the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, a vital supply line for the Confederate states in the west. At Gettysburg, Lee begins his retreat to Virginia.
July 10-11, 1863 - Union naval and land forces attack Confederate defenses near Charleston, South Carolina. Among the Union troops is the 54 th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, the first African American regiment of volunteers to see combat.
July 13, 1863 - Draft Riots begin in New York City and elsewhere as disgruntled workers and laborers, seething over the draft system that seemingly favors the rich, attack the draft office and African American churches. The riots continue through July 16.
July 13-14, 1863 - Near Falling Waters, Maryland, Union troops skirmish with Lee's rearguard. That night the Army of Northern Virginia crosses the Potomac River and the Gettysburg Campaign ends.
July 18, 1863 - Second Assault on Battery Wagner, South Carolina. Leading the Union infantry charge is the 54 th Massachusetts Colored Infantry commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who is killed and buried with the dead of his regiment.
August 21, 1863 - Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas. In a murderous daylight raid, Confederate and Missouri guerillas under William Clarke Quantrill storm into Lawrence and destroy most of the town. Approximately 150 men and boys are murdered by Quantrill's men.
September 9, 1863 - Chattanooga, Tennessee, is occupied by Union forces under General William Rosecrans whose Army of the Cumberland will soon invade northern Georgia.
September 19 -20, 1863 - The Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia. The Union Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans is defeated and nearly routed by the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by General Braxton Bragg. Rosecrans' army retreats to the supply base at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
September –November 1863 - The Siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Confederate forces under Braxton Bragg surround the occupied city. General Ulysses S. Grant is assigned to command the troops there and begins immediate plans to relieve the besieged Union army.
October 5, 1863 - Outside of Charleston Harbor, the Confederate David, a partially submerged, steam powered vessel, attacked the New Ironsides, part of the Union fleet blockading the harbor, with a torpedo. Both ships survived the attack, though the commander of the David and one of his crew were captured.
October 9 -22, 1863 - Bristoe Station Campaign. In a feint toward Washington, Lee's Army of the Northern Virginia marches into northern Virginia in an attempt to flank the Army of the Potomac, under General Meade. Lee successfully outmaneuvers Meade though fails to bring him to battle or catch him in the open. An engagement at Bristoe Station, Virginia, on October 14 gives the campaign its name.
November 19, 1863 - Dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg. President Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address.
November 23 -25, 1863 - The Battle for Chattanooga. Union forces break the Confederate siege of the city in successive attacks. The most notable event is the storming of Lookout Mountain on November 24 and Battle of Missionary Ridge the following day. The decisive Union victory sends the Confederate Army south into Georgia where General Bragg reorganizes his forces before resigning from command on November 30.
November 26 -December 1, 1863- The Mine Run Campaign. Meade's Army of the Potomac marches against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rapidan River, east of Orange Court House. Lee reacts and throws up a line of defenses along the banks of Mine Run Creek. After several days of probing the defenses, Meade withdraws north of the Rapidan and goes into winter quarters.
November 27 to December 3, 1863 - Siege of Knoxville, Tennessee. Confederate troops under General James Longstreet lay siege to the city of Knoxville held by Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside. Longstreet finally attacks on November 30 but is repulsed with heavy losses. The arrival of Union reinforcements forces him to withdraw to Greeneville, Tennessee, where his corps will spend the winter.
December 8, 1863 - Lincoln Issues his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which would pardon those who participated in the "existing rebellion" if they take an oath to the Union.
February 9, 1864 - Escape from Libby Prison, Richmond. After weeks of digging, 109 Union officers made their escape from the notorious Libby Prison, the largest and most sensational escape of the war. Though 48 of the escapees were later captured and two drowned, 59 were able to make their way into Union lines.
February 27, 1864- In Georgia, Camp Sumter Prison Camp opens. Universally referred to as Andersonville Prison Camp, it will become notorious for overcrowded conditions and a high death rate among its inmates.
February 14-20, 1864 - Union Capture and Occupation of Meridian, Mississippi. Union forces under William T. Sherman enter the city of Meridian, Mississippi after a successful month of campaigning through the central part of the state. The capture of this important southern town, well known for its industry and storage capabilities, severely hampers the efforts of Confederate commanders to sustain their armies in the deep south, Georgia and west of the Mississippi River.
February 17, 1864 - First Successful Submarine Attack of the Civil War. The CSS H.L. Hunley, a seven-man submergible craft, attacked the USS Houstonic outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Struck by the submarine's torpedo, the Housatonic broke apart and sank, taking all but five of her crew with her. Likewise, the Hunley was also lost and never heard from again until discovered in 1995 at the spot where it sank after the attack.
March 2, 1864 - Ulysses S. Grant is appointed lieutenant general, a rank revived at the request of President Lincoln. Grant assumes command of all Union Armies in the field the following day.
March 10, 1864 - The Red River Campaign begins. As part of an overall Union strategy to strike deep into various parts of the Confederacy, a combined force of army and navy commands under General Nathaniel Banks begins a campaign on the Red River in Louisiana.
April 8, 1864 - Battle of Sabine Crossroads or Mansfield, Louisiana, the first major battle of the Red River Campaign in Louisiana.
April 9, 1864 - Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. The Union Army under Banks defeats the attempt by Confederate forces under General Richard Taylor to drive them out of Louisiana. Unfortunately, the result of the campaign would be less than desired as it drew to a close in the first week of May with Confederates still in firm control of most of the state.
April 12, 1864 - Capture of Fort Pillow, Tennessee. After a rapid raid through central and western Tennessee, Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, located on the Mississippi River. Among those garrisoning the fort were African American troops, many of whom were murdered by Forrest's angered troopers after they had surrendered. The affair was investigated and though charges of an atrocity were denied by Confederate authorities, the events at Fort Pillow cast a pall over Forrest's reputation and remained an emotional issue throughout the remainder of the war and after.
May 4-5, 1864- Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia , the opening battle of the "Overland Campaign" or "Wilderness Campaign". General Ulysses S. Grant, accompanying the Army of the Potomac under General Meade, issued orders for the campaign to begin on May 3. Lee responded by attacking the Union column in the dense woods and underbrush of an area known as the Wilderness, west of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
May 7, 1864- Beginning of the Atlanta Campaign. With three Union armies under his command, General William T. Sherman marched south from Tennessee into Georgia against the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Joseph Johnston, the objective being the city of Atlanta.
May 8-21, 1864- Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia . Lee successfully stalls Grant's drive toward Richmond.
May 11, 1864 - Battle of Yellow Tavern. Six miles north of Richmond, Confederate cavalry under General J.E.B. Stuart blocked a force of Union cavalry under General Philip Sheridan. General Stuart was mortally wounded during the encounter.
May 14-15, 1864 - Battle of Resaca, Georgia. General Sherman's armies are blocked at Resaca by General Johnston's Army of Tennessee. After two days of maneuvering and intense fighting, Johnston withdraws. Sherman will advance but take precautions against ordering any further massed assaults where high casualties may occur.
June 1-3, 1864 - Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Relentless and bloody Union attacks fail to dislodge Lee's army from its strong line of defensive works northeast of Richmond.
June 8, 1864 - Abraham Lincoln is nominated by his party for a second term as president.
June 10, 1864- Battle of Brice's Crossroads, Mississippi- In spite of being outnumbered almost two to one, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacks and routs the Union command under General Samuel Sturgis.
June 15-18, 1864- Assault on Petersburg, Virginia. After withdrawing from the lines at Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River and with troops from the Army of the James attacked the outer defenses of Petersburg, the primary junction for several southern railroads. After four days of bloody attacks, Grant accepts that only a siege can systematically isolate the city and cut off Confederate supplies to the capital of Richmond.
June 19, 1864 - The USS Kearsarge sinks the Confederate raider CSS Alabama near Cherbourg, France.
June 27, 1864 - Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. After weeks of maneuvering and battles, Sherman's Army of the Cumberland and Army of the Tennessee smash headlong into Johnston's carefully planned defenses at Big and Little Kennesaw. Johnston remains on this line until July 2, when he retreats at the threat being flanked by Sherman's mobile force.
July 9, 1864 - Battle of Monocacy, Maryland. In an attempt to draw Union troops away from the ongoing siege of Petersburg and Richmond, a Confederate force under Jubal Early quietly moved north into Maryland. Early had made excellent progress until he reached Frederick, Maryland, where a force of 6,000 Federal troops under General Lew Wallace, was arrayed to delay his advance. Though the battle was a Union defeat, it was also touted as "the battle that saved Washington" for it succeeded in holding back Early's march until troops could be sent to the capital's defense.
July 11-12, 1864- Attack on the Defenses of Washington. Jubal Early's troops arrive on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and trade cannon fire with a token Union force remaining in the forts around the city. President Lincoln observes the skirmishing from Fort Stevens as reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac arrive and quickly fill in the works. Early withdraws that evening.
July 14-15, 1864- Battles near Tupelo, Mississippi. The Union defeat of Nathan Bedford Forrest secured the supply lines to Sherman's armies operating against Atlanta, Georgia.
July 17, 1864 - General John Bell Hood replaces General Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee. This change in command signals a new Confederate strategy to thwart Sherman's campaign, though the end result will be disastrous for the southern cause.
July 20, 1864 - Battle of Peachtree Creek, Georgia, the first major battle around the city of Atlanta. General Hood sends his army out of the city's defenses to attack the approaching Federal troops under George Thomas. After several hours of fierce fighting, Hood withdrew back to his own defensive works.
July 21, 1864 - The Battle of Atlanta. Hood's second effort to throw back Union forces under Sherman brings him heavy casualties with no positive results. General James McPherson, commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee, is killed during the fighting.
July 30, 1864 - The Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia. After a month of tunneling by soldiers of the 48 th Pennsylvania Infantry, a massive mine was exploded under a Confederate fort in the Petersburg siege lines. The infantry charge that followed was poorly coordinated and by day's end, Confederate counterattacks had driven out the Union troops and the siege lines remained unchanged.
August 5, 1864 - Battle of Mobile Bay. A Union fleet under Admiral David Farragut steamed into Mobile Bay outside the city of Mobile, Alabama, defended by two strong forts and a small southern flotilla, including the formidable ironclad CSS Tennessee. Farragut's ships defeated the Confederate ships and bypassed the forts, capturing the important southern port.
August 18-19, 1864 - Battles on the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg, Virginia. Union attempts to capture this important railroad into Petersburg were stopped by Confederate counterattacks. Despite southern efforts, the Union remained in firm possession of their gains and the railroad.
August 25, 1864 - Battle of Ream's Station, near Petersburg, Virginia. A surprise Confederate counterattack briefly stopped Union destruction of the Weldon Railroad near Ream's Station, though failed to release the Union grip on this important supply line into Petersburg.
August 31- September 1, 1864 - Battle of Jonesborough, Georgia. The final southern counterattack against Union troops outside the city of Atlanta fails.
September 1, 1864 - Fall of Atlanta, Georgia. Confederate troops under General Hood evacuate the city of Atlanta. General Sherman's army occupies the city and its defenses the following day.
September 19, 1864 - Third Battle of Winchester, Virginia. Union forces under General Philip Sheridan attacked the Confederate army under Jubal Early near the city of Winchester and drove them southward, up the Shenandoah Valley.
September 22, 1864 - Battle of Fisher's Hill, Virginia. The Union Army of the Shenandoah under General Philip Sheridan attacked Jubal Early's Confederates near Fisher's Hill, overpowering the southerners and again forcing them to flee the battlefield. Union officers and officials in Washington believe this to be the final battle in the Shenandoah Valley.
September 29-30, 1864 - Battle of Fort Harrison near Richmond, Virginia. In a sweeping assault, the Confederate stronghold known as Fort Harrison falls to the Army of the James. Confederate efforts to retake the fort fail.
October 19, 1864 - The Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia. In an early morning surprise attack, Jubal Early's Confederates successfully attack and drive troops of the Army of the Shenandoah from their camps on the banks of Cedar Creek south of Middletown, Virginia. Hearing the fight from his headquarters at Winchester, General Philip Sheridan rides southward, rallying dispirited troops who return to the battlefield. By day's end, Early's forces are put to flight. Despite several attempts to disrupt the Union advance in the coming weeks, the battle for control of the Shenandoah Valley is over.
November 8, 1864 - Abraham Lincoln is reelected president of the United States.
November 16, 1864 - General Sherman's Army of Georgia begins the "March to the Sea"
November 30, 1864- Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. After a month of raiding Sherman's supply lines and attacking Union outposts, John Bell Hood's army confronts Union troops from General John Schofield's command, who they had encountered the day before near Spring Hill, Tennessee. A massive frontal assault on the well entrenched Federal line meets with disaster. Despite some taking of outside works and defenses, the toll for Hood's forces is too heavy including the loss of six of his generals. Union troops retreat in the direction of Nashville.
December 10, 1864- Harassed only by scattered Georgia militia, Sherman's Army of Georgia arrives at Savannah, Georgia, completing the famous "March to the Sea". At Savannah, his troops will take Fort McAllister and force Confederate defenders to evacuate the city.
December 15-16, 1864 - The Battle of Nashville, Tennessee. The Confederate Army under John Bell Hood is thoroughly defeated and the threat to Tennessee ends.
January 15, 1865 - Assault and capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina. Union occupation of this fort at the mouth of the Cape Fear River closes access to Wilmington, the last southern seaport on the east coast that was open to blockade runners and commercial shipping.
February 1, 1865 - Sherman's Army leaves Savannah to march through the Carolinas.
February 17, 1865 - Sherman's Army captures Columbia, South Carolina while Confederate defenders evacuate Charleston, South Carolina.
February 22, 1865 - Wilmington, NC, falls to Union troops, closing the last important southern port on the east coast. On this same day, Joseph E. Johnston is restored to command the nearly shattered Army of the Tennessee, vice John B. Hood who resigned a month earlier.
March 4, 1865 - President Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated for his second term as president in Washington, DC.
March 11, 1865 - Sherman's Army occupies Fayetteville, North Carolina.
March 16 and 19-21, 1865 - The Battles of Averasborough and Bentonville, North Carolina. Sherman's army is stalled in its drive northward from Fayetteville but succeeds in passing around the Confederate forces toward its object of Raleigh.
March 25, 1865 - Attack on Fort Stedman, Petersburg, Virginia. Touted as "Lee's last offensive", Confederate troops under General John B. Gordon attack and briefly capture the Union fort in the Petersburg siege lines in an attempt to thwart Union plans for a late March assault. By day's end, the southerners have been thrown out and the lines remain unchanged.
April 1, 1865 - The Battle of Five Forks, Virginia. The Confederate defeat at Five Forks initiates General Lee's decision to abandon the Petersburg-Richmond siege lines.
April 2, 1865 - The Fall of Petersburg and Richmond. General Lee abandons both cities and moves his army west in hopes of joining Confederate forces under General Johnston in North Carolina.
April 3, 1865 - Union troops occupy Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.
April 6, 1865 - The Battle of Sailor's Creek, Virginia. A portion of Lee's Army- almost one-third of it- is cornered along the banks of Sailor's (or "Saylor's") Creek and annihilated.
April 9, 1865 - Battle of Appomattox Court House and Surrender, Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After an early morning attempt to break through Union forces blocking the route west to Danville, Virginia, Lee seeks an audience with General Grant to discuss terms. That afternoon in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, Lee signs the document of surrender. On April 12, the Army of Northern Virginia formally surrenders and is disbanded.
April 14, 1865 - President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC. On the same day, Fort Sumter, South Carolina is re-occupied by Union troops.
April 26, 1865 - General Joseph Johnston signs the surrender document for the Confederate Army of the Tennessee and miscellaneous southern troops attached to his command at Bennett's Place near Durham, North Carolina.
May 4, 1865 - General Richard Taylor surrenders Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana.
May 10, 1865 - Confederate President Jefferson Davis is captured near Irwinville, Georgia.
May 12, 1865 - The final battle of the Civil War takes place at Palmito Ranch, Texas. It is a Confederate victory.
May 23, 1865- The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in Washington, DC
May 24, 1865- The Grand Review of General Sherman's Army in Washington, DC
May 26, 1865- General Simon Bolivar Buckner enters into terms for surrender of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, which are agreed to on June 2, 1865.The Civil War officially ends.
Trigger Events of the Civil War
Slavery arrived in North America along side the Spanish and English colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries, with an estimated 645,000 Africans imported during the more than 250 years the institution was legal. But slavery never existed without controversy. The British colony of Georgia actually banned slavery from 1735 to 1750, although it remained legal in the other 12 colonies. After the American Revolution, northern states one by one passed emancipation laws, and the sectional divide began to open as the South became increasingly committed to slavery. Once called a “necessary evil” by Thomas Jefferson, proponents of slavery increasingly switched their rhetoric to one that described slavery as a benevolent Christian institution that benefited all parties involved: slaves, slave owners, and non-slave holding whites. The number of slaves compared to number of free blacks varied greatly from state to state in the southern states. In 1860, for example, both Virginia and Mississippi had in excess of 400,000 slaves, but the Virginia population also included more than 58,000 free blacks, as opposed to only 773 in Mississippi. In 1860, South Carolina was the only state to have a majority slave population, yet in all southern states slavery served as the foundation for their socioeconomic and political order.
1820 | The Missouri Compromise
This 1856 map shows the line (outlined in red) established by the Missouri Compromise. (Library of Congress)
In the growth years following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Congress was compelled to establish a policy to guide the expansion of slavery into the new western territory. Missouri’s application for statehood as a slave state sparked a bitter national debate. In addition to the deeper moral issue posed by the growth of slavery, the addition of pro-slavery Missouri legislators would give the pro-slavery faction a Congressional majority.
Ultimately, Congress reached a series of agreements that became known as the Missouri Compromise. Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state, preserving the Congressional balance. A line was also drawn through the unincorporated western territories along the 36°30' parallel, dividing north and south as free and slave.
Thomas Jefferson, upon hearing of this deal, “considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”
1831 | Nat Turner’s Rebellion
Nat Turner interpreted two solar eclipses as instructions from God to begin his rebellion. (Library of Congress)
In August of 1831, a slave named Nat Turner incited an uprising that spread through several plantations in southern Virginia. Turner and approximately seventy cohorts killed around sixty white people. The deployment of militia infantry and artillery suppressed the rebellion after two days of terror.
Fifty-five slaves, including Turner, were tried and executed for their role in the insurrection. Nearly two hundred more were lynched by frenzied mobs. Although small-scale slave uprisings were fairly common in the American South, Nat Turner’s rebellion was the bloodiest.
Virginia lawmakers reacted to the crisis by rolling back what few civil rights slaves and free black people possessed at the time. Education was prohibited and the right to assemble was severely limited.
1846 - 1850 | The Wilmot Proviso
The Wilmot Proviso was a piece of legislation proposed by David Wilmot (D-FS-R PA) at the close of the Mexican-American War. If passed, the Proviso would have outlawed slavery in territory acquired by the United States as a result of the war, which included most of the Southwest and extended all the way to California.
Wilmot spent two years fighting for his plan. He offered it as a rider on existing bills, introduced it to Congress on its own, and even tried to attach it to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. All attempts failed. Nevertheless, the intensity of the debate surrounding the Proviso prompted the first serious discussions of secession.
1850 | The Compromise of 1850
With national relations soured by the debate over the Wilmot Proviso, senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas managed to broker a shaky accord with the Compromise of 1850. The compromise admitted California as a free state and did not regulate slavery in the remainder of the Mexican cession all while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which compelled Northerners to seize and return escaped slaves to the South.
While the agreement succeeded in postponing outright hostilities between the North and South, it did little to address, and in some ways even reinforced, the structural disparity that divided the United States. The new Fugitive Slave Act, by forcing non-slaveholders to participate in the institution, also led to increased polarization among centrist citizens.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional exploration of slave life was a cultural sensation. Northerners felt as if their eyes had been opened to the horrors of slavery, while Southerners protested that Stowe’s work was slanderous.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second-best-selling book in America in the 19th century, second only to the Bible. Its popularity brought the issue of slavery to life for those few who remained unmoved after decades of legislative conflict and widened the division between North and South.
1854 - 1859 | Bleeding Kansas
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established Kansas and Nebraska as territories and set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas” by its adoption of popular sovereignty. Under popular sovereignty, it is the residents of the territories who decide by popular referendum if the state is to be a free or enslaved. Settlers from the North and the South poured into Kansas, hoping to swell the numbers on their side of the debate. Passions were enflamed and violence raged. In the fall of 1855, abolitionist John Brown came to Kansas to fight the forces of slavery. In response to the sacking of Lawrence by border ruffians from Missouri whose sole victim was an abolitionist printing press, Brown and his supporters killed five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre in Kansas in May, 1856. Violence existed in the territory as early as 1855 but the Sack of Lawrence and the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre launched a guerilla war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Although the violence was often sporadic and unorganized, mass feelings of terror existed in the territory. Although President Buchanan tried to calm the violence by supporting the Lecompton Constition, his relentless support for this consitution created a political crisis among the Democratic Party and only further aggravated sectional tensions. The violence subsided in 1859, the warring parties forged a fragile peace, but not before more than 50 settlers had been killed.
1857 | Dred Scott v. Sanford
Chief Justice Roger Taney proclaimed blacks "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." (Library of Congress)
Dred Scott was a Virginia slave who tried to sue for his freedom in court. The case eventually rose to the level of the Supreme Court, where the justices found that, as a slave, Dred Scott was a piece of property that had none of the legal rights or recognitions afforded to a human being.
The Dred Scott Decision threatened to entirely recast the political landscape that had thus far managed to prevent civil war. The classification of slaves as mere property made the federal government’s authority to regulate the institution much more ambiguous.
Southerners renewed their challenges to the agreed-upon territorial limitations on slavery and polarization intensified.
1858 | Lincoln-Douglas Debates
In 1858, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas faced a challenge for his seat from a relatively unknown one term former congressmen and “prairie lawyer” Abraham Lincoln. In the campaign that followed Lincoln and Douglas engaged in seven public debates across the state of Illinois where they debated the most controversial issue of the antebellum era: slavery. Although Douglas won the senate race, these debates propelled Lincoln to the national spotlight and enabled his nomination for president in 1860. In contrast, these debates further alienated Douglas from the southern wing of the Democratic Party and the arguments Douglas made in these debates come back to haunt him in 1860 destroying his presidential chances.
John Brown's stature grew in the months and years following his death. (Kansas Historical Society)
Abolitionist John Brown supported violent action against the South to end slavery and played a major role in starting the Civil War. After the Pottawatomie Massacre during Bleeding Kansas, Brown returned to the North and plotted a far more threatening act. In October 1859, he and 19 supporters, armed with “Beecher’s Bibles,” led a raid on the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to capture and confiscate the arms located there, distribute them among local slaves and begin armed insurrection. A small force of U.S. Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee, put down the uprising. There were casualties on both sides seven people were killed and at least 10 more were injured before Brown and seven of his remaining men were captured. On October 27, Brown was tried for treason against the state of Virginia, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 2.
1860 | Abraham Lincoln’s Election
Abraham Lincoln was elected by a considerable margin in 1860 despite not being included on many Southern ballots. As a Republican, his party’s anti-slavery outlook struck fear into many Southerners.
On December 20, 1860, a little over a month after the polls closed, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more states followed by the spring of 1861.
1861 | The Battle of Fort Sumter
Abraham Lincoln's skillful strategy forced the South to fire the first shot of the Civil War at the Battle of Fort Sumter. (Library of Congress)
With secession, several federal forts, including Fort Sumter in South Carolina, suddenly became outposts in a foreign land. Abraham Lincoln made the decision to send fresh supplies to the beleaguered garrisons.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate warships turned back the supply convoy to Fort Sumter and opened a 34-hour bombardment on the stronghold. The garrison surrendered on April 14.
The Civil War was now underway. On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join the Northern army. Unwilling to contribute troops, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee dissolved their ties to the federal government.
The Battle of Bull Run
The Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, was the first major engagement of the Civil War. In the summer of 1861, Confederate troops were massing in Virginia, and Union troops marched southward to fight them.
Many Americans, both in the North and in the South, believed that the conflict over secession might be settled with one decisive battle. And there were soldiers as well as spectators who wanted to see the war before it ended.
When the two armies met near Manassas, Virginia on a Sunday afternoon both sides committed a number of errors. And in the end, the Confederates managed to rally and defeat the northerners. A chaotic retreat back toward Washington, D.C. was humiliating.
After the Battle of Bull Run, people began to realize that the Civil War would probably not end soon and the fighting would not be easy.
The French and Indian War and The Seven Years' War
What began as the French and Indian War in 1754 between the British and French armies escalated into what many see as the first global war. Both sides garnered support from Indigenous tribes, including members of the Iroquois Confederacy for the British and the Wabanaki Confederacy for the French.
It started as British colonies pushed west in North America. This brought them into the French-controlled territory and a great battle in the wilderness of the Allegheny Mountains ensued.
Within two years, the conflicts made it to Europe and what is known as the Seven Years' War began. Before its end in 1763, the battles between French and English territories extended to Africa, India, and the Pacific as well.
The Election of Abraham Lincoln
The politics of the day were as stormy as the anti-slavery campaigns. All of the issues of the young nation were dividing the political parties and reshaping the established two-party system of Whigs and Democrats.
The Democratic party was divided between factions in the North and South. At the same time, the conflicts surrounding Kansas and the Compromise of 1850 transformed the Whig party into the Republican party (established in 1854). In the North, this new party was seen as both anti-slavery and for the advancement of the American economy. This included the support of industry and encouraging homesteading while advancing educational opportunities. In the South, Republicans were seen as little more than divisive.
The presidential election of 1860 would be the deciding point for the Union. Abraham Lincoln represented the new Republican Party and Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat, was seen as his biggest rival. The Southern Democrats put John C. Breckenridge on the ballot. John C. Bell represented the Constitutional Union Party, a group of conservative Whigs hoping to avoid secession.
The country's divisions were clear on Election Day. Lincoln won the North, Breckenridge the South, and Bell the border states. Douglas won only Missouri and a portion of New Jersey. It was enough for Lincoln to win the popular vote, as well as 180 electoral votes.
Even though things were already near a boiling point after Lincoln was elected, South Carolina issued its "Declaration of the Causes of Secession" on December 24, 1860. They believed that Lincoln was anti-slavery and in favor of Northern interests.
President James Buchanan's administration did little to quell the tension or stop what would become known as "Secession Winter." Between Election Day and Lincoln's inauguration in March, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
In the process, the South took control of federal installations, including forts in the region, which would give them a foundation for war. One of the most shocking events occurred when one-quarter of the nation's army surrendered in Texas under the command of General David E. Twigg. Not a single shot was fired in that exchange, but the stage was set for the bloodiest war in American history.
Civil War - Causes, Dates and Battles - HISTORY
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January 19, 1862 - Battle of Mill Springs - Class B. Strength: Union 4,400 Confederates 5,900. Casualties: Union 246 (Killed/Wounded/Missing) Confederates 529. Confederate offensive into eastern Kentucky was thwarted after two attacks by General Crittenden's southern troops. Two Union counterattacks pushed a retreating Confederate force back to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Mill Springs was the first major Union victory of the war.
February 6, 1862 - Fort Henry - Class B.
Strength: Union 15,000, 7 ships Confederates 3,000-3,400.
Casualties: Union 40 Confederates 79.
U.S. Grant's approaching troops and Andrew Foote's Union ships gain control of the Tennessee River after bombardment. Confederate commander surrendered the fort after ordering the majority of his men to escape to Fort Donelson.
February 7-8, 1862 - Battle of Roanoke Island - Class B.
Strength: Union 10,000 Confederates 3,000.
Casualties: Union 264 Confederates 2,643, including 2,500 captured.
Opening phase of the Burnside expedition of gunboats and soldiers into North Carolina sees the surrender of four forts that protected Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island would remain in Union control for the remainder of the war.
February 11-16, 1862 - Battle of Fort Donelson - Class A.
Strength: Union 24,531 Confederates 16,171.
Casualties (Killed/Wounded/Missing/Captured): Union 2,691 Confederates 13,846, including 12,392 captured/missing.
Union forces, under the command of obscure General U.S. Grant, captured the fort near the Kentucky/Tennessee border, under the terms "unconditional surrender."
February 20-21, 1862 - Battle of Valverde - Class B.
Strength: Union 3,000 Confederates 2,590.
Casualties: Union 432 Confederates 187.
New Mexico territory battle on Confederate quest to capture Santa Fe, then take California. General Sibley, approaching Fort Craig, battles the Union at Valverde, eventually forcing the Union soldiers back to Fort Craig. Sibley abandons the idea of taking the fort and moves toward Santa Fe.
February 28-April 8, 1862 - Battle of New Madrid - Class A.
Strength: Union 6 gunboats, 7 mortar rafts Confederates 7,000 soldiers.
Casualties: Union 78 Confederates 7,030, including 7,000 captured.
Missouri battle, also known as the Battle of Island Ten, began with a siege on the town of New Madrid, then Island Ten on the Mississippi River. The Confederate forces surrendered, giving Union control of the river to Fort Pillow.
March 6-8, 1862 - Pea Ridge, Arkansas - Class A.
Strength: Union 10,500 Confederates 16,500.
Casualties: Union 1,384 Confederates 2,000.
Union positioned itself in Arkansas, but Southern forces, which outnumbered the Federals would attempt to reopen the gateway to Missouri in a three day battle. Despite the unusual advantage in manpower for the Confederates, Union forces prevailed and Missouri would not be threatened again by the South during the rest of the War.
March 8-9, 1862 - Monitor vs. Merrimac - Class B.
Strength: Union 1 ironclad, 5 wooden frigates Confederates 1 ironclad, 2 wooden warships, 1 gunboat, 2 tenders.
Casualties: Union 369 Confederates 95.
The Union ironclad Monitor fights battle against the Confederate ironclad Virginia (Merrimac) off the coast of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Most consider this action a draw.
March 14, 1862 - Battle of New Bern - Class B.
Strength: Union 13 infantry regiments, 14 gunboats Confederates 6 infantry regiments, 1 cavalry regiment.
Casualties: Union 471 Confederates 578.
Battle of the Burnside expedition against raw Confederate force that saw general retreat when center of the line was penetrated. New Bern remained under Union control for remainder of the war.
March 23, 1862 - First Battle of Kernstown - Class B.
Strength: Union 6,352-9,000 Confederates 2,990-4,000.
Casualties: Union 590 Confederates 718.
First battle of Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign meant to tie down Federal forces in the valley and prevent reinforcements to the Peninsula Campaign and Richmond. Mistakes in Jackson's intelligence led to a Union victory, although the battle was effective in tieing up Union resources.
March 26-28, 1862 - Battle of Glorieta Pass - Class A.
Strength: Union 1,300 Confederates 1,000.
Casualties: Union 147 Confederates 222.
The decisive battle of the New Mexico campaign to eradicate claims by the South on Confederate Arizona (southern Arizona and New Mexico). It was, at first, thought to be a Confedeate victory until a final Union raid of the Southern supply wagons left the entire mission in jeopardy. After a retreat back to Santa Fe, the Confederates would move back to Texas two weeks later, thus giving control of New Mexico and supply routes to the Union.
April 6-7, 1862 - Shiloh - Class A. Strength: Union 63,000 Confederates 40,335. Casualties: Union 13,047 Confederates 10,699. Surprise attack by Confederates under Johnston and Beauregard gain ground on U.S. Grant's Union forces, but failure to force the attack during the evening of the first day allowed reinforcements to counterattack the next day and reverse Confederate gains.
April 5 - May 4, 1862 - Battle of Yorktown - Class B.
Strength: Union - 121,500 Confederates - 35,000.
Casualties: Union 182 Confederates 300.
McClellan encounters small Confederate force at Yorktown on way to Peninsula Campaign and engages in a siege. Inconclusive result as the Confederates retreated to Williamsburg, but held up the Union pursuit of Richmond for weeks. Battle held near site of American Revolution 1781 battle.
April 10-11, 1862 - Fort Pulaski - Class B.
Strength: Union - 10,000, 15 warships, 36 transports Confederates - 385, 3 warships, 2 transports.
Casualties: Union 1 killed, several wounded Confederates Several killed, 363 captured.
One hundred and twelve day siege of Georgia fort leads to two day battle and thirty hour bombardment. Confederate surrender effectively closed Savannah as a port and rifled guns against Third System masonry fort proved that those forts were now obsolete.
April 18-28, 1862 - Battles of Fort Jackson and St. Philip - Class A.
Strength: Union - West Gulf Blockade Squadron Confederates - 2 forts and River Defense Fleet.
Casualties: Union 229 Confederates 782.
Union Navy attacked the two Confederate forts that protected New Orleans from the south, then ran past them to attack and occupy New Orleans. During the battle to pass the forts, Union lost one gunboat while the Confederates lost twelve. New Orleans fell to Union forces.
April 29 - May 30, 1862 - Siege of Corinth, 1st Battle of Corinth - Class A.
Strength: Union 120,000 Confederates 65,000.
Casualties: Union 1,000 Confederates 1,000.
Strategic junction of two rail lines became goal of Union Army under Henry Halleck, who thought of the junction as important as Richmond, with an ability to attack Vicksburg or Chattanooga after its capture. Confederate General Beauregard engaged a hoax of continued attack after the month long seige, but retreated instead.
May 5, 1862 - Battle of Williamsburg - Class B.
Strength: Union - 40,768 Confederates - 31,823.
Casualties: Union 2,283 Confederates 1,682.
First pitched battle of the Peninsula campaign saw the division of General Hooker assault Fort Magruder, but was pushed back. Counterattacks by Confederate forces were thwarted, leaving the battle with an inconclusive result. Southern soldiers withdrew during the evening toward Richmond.
May 15, 1862 - Battle of Drewry's Bluff - Class B.
Strength: Union - 3 ironclads, 2 gunboats Confederates - 1 fort and 1 shore battery.
Casualties: Union 24 Confederates 15.
Union boats tested Richmond defenses up the James River, but were unsuccessful, turning back in the first foray of the amphibious forces during McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.
May 25, 1862 - First Battle of Winchester - Class A.
Strength: Union 6,500 Confederates 16,000.
Casualties: Union 2,019 Confederates 400.
During the Shenandoah Valley campaign, Stonewall Jackson won a victory at Winchester after capture of the garrison at Front Royal, taking the right flank of the Union Army under General Banks, who was retreating from Strasburg, and pushing it across the Potomac.
May 31 - June 1, 1862 - Battle of Fair Oaks - Class B.
Strength: Union - 34,000 Confederates - 39,000.
Casualties: Union 5,031 Confederates 6,134.
Culmination of Union offensive against Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign and second largest battle of the war til this time saw Confederate forces under General Johnston attack along the Chickahominy River, driving the Union back. Union reinforcements halted a second attack and the battle proved inconclusive.
June 6, 1862 - Battle of Memphis - Class B.
Strength: Union - 5 ironclads, 2 rams Confederates - 8 rams.
Casualties: Union 1 Confederates 180.
Two hour battle resulted in crushing defeat of the Confederates and surrender of the city in a Mississippi naval battle north of Memphis.
June 8, 1862 - Battle of Cross Keys - Class B.
Strength: Union 11,500 Confederates 5,800.
Casualties: Union 664 Confederates 287.
Culmination of Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign when combined with the battle of Port Republic one day later forces Union army to retreat, allowing Stonewall Jackson to reinforce Gneral Lee on the Peninsula.
June 9, 1862 - Battle of Port Republic - Class B.
Strength: Union 3,500 Confederates 6,000.
Casualties: Union 1,002 Confederates 816.
Pitched battle ended in a Confederate victory, pushing a Union retreat toward Harrisonburg and allowing Stonewall Jackson to reinforce Gneral Lee on the Peninsula in the Seven Days Battles.
June 16, 1862 - First Battle of James Island - Class B.
Strength: Union 6,600 Confederates 2,000.
Casualties: Union 685 Confederates 204.
Union Army under General Hunter attempts to capture Charleston by land, debarking south of the city on James Island and attacking Fort Lamar at Secessionville. The fort held.
June 26, 1862 - Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Seven Days Battles) - Class B.
Strength: Union 6,600 Confederates 2,000.
Casualties: Union 685 Confederates 204.
General Robert E. Lee proceeds with the Seven Days battles with an offensive against McClellan, but the troops of Stonewall Jackson do not arrive on time and his attempt to turn the right flank fails. Although the battle objectives would fail for the Confederates, McClellan began to withdraw south toward Gaines Mill and lose the initiative of the Peninsula Campaign.
June 27, 1862 - Gaines Mill (Seven Days Battles) - Class A.
Strength: Union 34,214 Confederates 57,018.
Casualties: Union 6,837 Confederates 7,993.
Third battle of Lee's offensive against McClellan in the Peninsula campaign continues against the right flank on the north side of the Chickahominy River. At dusk, the Confederates broke the Union line, leading to victory.
June 30, 1862 - Battle of Glendale (Seven Days Battles) - Class B.
Strength: Union 40,000 Confederates 45,000.
Casualties: Union 3,797 Confederates 3,673.
Confederates converge on the retreating Federal force, but Union counterattacks save the line of retreat toward Malvern Hill.
Note: Photo above: Currier and Ives 1862 print of General Grant leading a charge in the 2nd day of the Battle of Shiloh. Image courtesy Library of Congress. Casualty and troop strength numbers from Wikipedia Commons via various sources.
The most compelling aspect of the Civil War are the battles that were fought. Brief and exceptionally violent, especially by today's standards, the battles of the American Civil War stand out in our history for the bravery of the men involved and the number of casualties inflicted.
It is difficult to understand how men could march towards each other, often facing certain death at the hands of their foe.
The Civil War was no longer a battle of the swift, or the fittest. Advances in technology had ushered an age of modern and efficient warfare which all but eliminated the chivalry of ages past. The accounts of the battles here are brief, providing information on the forces involved and the outcome.
The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion contains the reports of the soldiers involved. A reading of the several reports from each battle provide insight into what each commander witnessed and his own perspective on the battle. Taken together, these reports provide the reader with an overview of what transpired. Understanding that the author often wished to praise his men, or cover his own faults, it is still the best picture of events we have.
On April 10, 1861, knowing that resupplies were on their way from the North to the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, provisional Confederate forces in Charleston demanded the fort’s surrender. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused. On April 12, the Confederates opened fire with cannons. At 2:30 p.m. the following day, Major Anderson surrendered.
War had begun. Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee, refusing to fight against other Southern states and feeling that Lincoln had exceeded his presidential authority, reversed themselves and voted in favor of session. The last one, Tennessee, did not depart until June 8, nearly a week after the first land battle had been fought at Philippi in Western Virginia. (The western section of Virginia rejected the session vote and broke away, ultimately forming a new, Union-loyal state, West Virginia. Other mountainous regions of the South, such as East Tennessee, also favored such a course but were too far from the support of Federal forces to attempt it.)
The numbers of people who died during the Civil War are only estimates. In 2011, American historian J. David Hacker reported research he had conducted comparing male and female survival rates in U.S. censuses between 1850 and 1880. Based on that, he has credibly argued that the traditional statistic of 620,000 deaths is an underestimate of actual Civil War deaths by approximately 20%. Hacker believes, and his assertions have been supported by other historians, that the most probable number of deaths attributable to the Civil War is 750,000, and that the number may have been as much as 850,000. Hacker found that 10% of white men of military age died between 1860 and 1870—one in ten in the United States.
That number includes not just battle casualties but also people who died from their injuries, as well as mortality from diseases, malnutrition, and exposure from the large numbers of Black and white refugees from the South, and even for those civilians who did not become refugees. The 620,000 statistic was revised upward several times after the original numbers estimated during post-war Reconstruction. In particular, Confederate losses were greater than reported, in part because General Lee's commanders were pressured to under-report.
The Civil War was devastating for the United States. Despite the pinpoint accuracy of some of the numbers listed below, they are almost certainly too low.