Key Civil War Battles and Campaigns

When it came to the ground war during the Civil War, part of the North’s strategy included capturing the city of New Orleans and gaining control of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Starting in 1862, largely under the leadership of Grant, the Union Army began taking Tennessee and slowly moving up and down the Mississippi River, cutting the South in half just as Gen. Winfield Scott had suggested.

On the Confederate side, Lee twice took the war to the North, but both times he was forced to return to Southern territory when he was opposed by larger armies and faced uncertain supply lines. Starting in late 1863, the North began grinding down Lee’s army in Virginia while another Union Army under Gen. William T. Sherman marched diagonally across Georgia and then up into the Carolinas, destroying everything in its path.

“We have devoured the land,” Sherman wrote to his wife. “All the people retreat before us, and desolation is behind.”
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Here are ten of the key battles or campaigns of the war:

  • Fort Sumter: After the first Southern states seceded, they began seizing federal forts and shipyards inside their borders. Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of the fort in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, agreed to surrender as soon as the food ran out.

    But Southern forces wouldn’t wait, and at dawn on April 12, 1861, they fired the first shots of the Civil War. Anderson surrendered when he ran out of ammunition, and the only casualties were two Union soldiers killed when a cannon exploded. But the fact that the South fired first helped recruiting efforts in the North.

  • Bull Run: The first large fight of the war took place near Manassas Junction, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. Despite the fact that it was a brutally hot day, hundreds of residents from nearby Washington, D.C., came out to picnic and watch the fight, thinking it might be the highlight of what many expected to be a 90-day war.

    Neither army was trained or prepared, and for most of the day utter confusion reigned. Then Confederate forces got the upper hand, and Union forces panicked and ran. The rebel army was too tired to chase them.

  • Shiloh: Grant’s army was caught napping on April 6, 1862, near this Tennessee church, and was on the brink of being routed when Grant launched a counterattack the next day that pushed the Confederate Army back. The battle solidified the Union Army’s dominance in the West.

  • Antietam: Lee’s first push into Northern territory took place near Antietam Creek in Maryland on September 17, 1862. The battle was fought in a narrow field between the creek and the Potomac River. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with 22,000 killed or wounded.

    Lee was forced to return across the Potomac, providing Lincoln the “victory” he’d been waiting for to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.

  • Chancellorsville: The Union Army, under Gen. Joseph Hooker, tried to surround Lee’s forces in Virginia from May 1–3, 1863. But Lee took a brilliant gamble, divided his smaller army, and attacked first. It was a complete Confederate victory, but a costly one.

    Lee’s top general, Thomas Jackson, who was nicknamed Stonewall for his courage and tenacity, was mistakenly shot by his own troops during a reconnaissance after dark. He died of pneumonia a week later, creating a leadership hole the South was never quite able to fill.

  • Gettysburg: Lee again pushed into Northern territory in early June 1863, this time into Pennsylvania. In a massive battle (a total of more than 50,000 casualties) from July 1 to July 3, Lee’s army hurled itself at Union forces led by Gen. George Meade.

    But the South’s effort failed, and Lee was once again forced to withdraw. Considered one of the most important battles in world history, Gettysburg is also regarded by many as the most pivotal fight in the Civil War.

  • Vicksburg: This Mississippi town was a major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Coordinating with Union naval forces moving up from New Orleans, Grant masterfully moved his outnumbered army around the city and laid siege to it. Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863, giving the North control of the Mississippi River.

  • Chickamauga and Chattanooga: These confrontations, which ran from August to November 1863, led to Sherman’s march across Georgia. At Chickamauga, Union Gen. George H. Thomas withstood a furious attack and saved the Union Army from a rout. After the Union Army was surrounded at Chattanooga, Grant led a rescue effort and drove off the Confederate forces.

  • The Wilderness: This was a series of battles in Virginia starting in May 1864 in which Grant used his superior numbers to wear down Lee’s army. The carnage was terrible, and Grant’s critics accused him of being a butcher.

    But the strategy worked. Lee’s army couldn’t break off to try to stop Sherman’s march through the heart of the South. By March 1865, the Union forces outnumbered the Confederacy’s two to one.

  • Appomattox Courthouse: This wasn’t a battle, but it was the site in Virginia where on April 12, 1865, Lee formally surrendered to Grant. The Southern Army was exhausted, outnumbered, and half-starved. Grant generously fed the defeated Southerners and allowed them to go home, taking their horses and mules with them.

    Although some units fought on for a few more weeks, the Civil War, for all intents and purposes, was finally over.

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