Civil War

Battles of the Civil War: Battle of Hampton Roads

The Battle of Hampton Roads is significant because it did not take place on any roads. Instead, it took place in the waters of the James River near Chesapeake Bay. This battle, also known as the Battle of the Ironclads or the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack (Virginia) was a naval battle that was fought to break the northern blockade of the ports of Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia.

As war with the South became apparent, the U.S. Navy sunk its 40 gun frigate, USS Merrimack in the water of the Elizabeth River, thus keeping it from falling into the hands of the Confederate. The Confederacy raised the ship, added iron sheeting to the hull and renamed the vessel CSS Virginia.  Upon hearing of this new addition to the Confederate navy, the North commissioned its own ironclad, the USS Monitor. This new naval vessel stood just eighteen inches above the water line.

The two ironclads met on April 8, 1862. The Merrimack was successful in destroying the USS Congress and the USS Cumberland and minimal damage to the USS Minnesota, all Federal war ships. However, the Monitor and the Merrimack could not harm one another. On April 9th, the Merrimack again took aim against the Minnesota, but this time it was beaten back by the Monitor. The two vessels will cease conflict and the battle will be seen as a tie. However, naval history will never be the same, as both France and Great Britain will discontinue building wood-hull ships for combat.

Battles of the Civil War: Battle of Antietam

On September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam took place near Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland. This was the first battle of the Civil War to take place on northern soil. Maryland was actually slave state but had not taken action to secede from the Union; thus, it was still a part of the North.

Though outnumbered two to one, General Robert E. Lee would lead his 45,000 southern troops against the North’s 90,000 troops, hoping to take federal territory under his control. His army would face General George McClellan, one of the most cautious of the northern leaders, who had been unable to secure a victory for the North in quite some time. McClellan would become bolder in his actions at Antietam when Union spies discovered Lee’s battle plans wrapped around a bundle of cigars and found in an open field. The South would have been unable to recover from this disadvantage if not for General A.P. Hill, who arrived in time to come to the aid of General Lee and helped to repulse the Union army. 

The Battle of Antietam would be the bloodiest single day of the entire Civil War with more than 23,000 total casualties. However, it was an unclear victory for either side, with neither making a substantial advancement. However, President Abraham Lincoln, waiting for a victory, believed that keeping the South from taking federal land was enough of a victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation, which went into effect January 1, 1863, freed all slaves in federally-controlled states.


Battles of the Civil War: The First Battle of Bull Run

The first major land battle of the American Civil War took place on July 21, 1861. The conflict between the Union soldiers of the North and the Confederate soldiers of the South took place near a vital railroad junction near Manassas Junction in Virginia. The Confederate army understood that this battle was important, as the North was bound for to the new Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Thus, they took up command along the Bull Run River and prepared for battle.

At this time, many in the North believed that the war would be swiftly won and no serious preparation would be needed. Therefore, many onlookers with picnic baskets made the short twenty-five miles trip southwest of Washington, D. C. to the bluffs above the battlefield.

The North began the battle well with its 35,000 troops but the 20,000 Confederates fought back and began to scatter the Northern lines. What makes this battle unique is that while the South won the battle, they did not know what to do with their win. As the Union army retreated to Washington, D. C. on the heels of the picnickers, the South did not advance in their wake. On the battlefield, nearly 3,000 Union and nearly 2,000 Confederate soldiers died. The generals on both sides quickly realized that their armies were ill-prepared and that this war would not be swift nor bloodless.

Battle of Fredericksburg

After the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln replaced General McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside. Though McClellan was popular with the troops, Lincoln hoped that Burnside would be more aggressive in battle. On December 11 – 15, 1862, the largest concentration of troops, 200,000 in all, would face off against one another at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

General Burnside’s goal was to take Fredericksburg and then advance onward to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Burnside’s plan included using platoons to cross the Rappahannock River outside of town. However, heavy snow and miscommunication delayed the federal army. Thus, the southern troops, led by General Robert E. Lee, were not only able to secure the high ground of Marye’s Heights above the town of Fredericksburg, they were also able to receive additional troops from General Stonewall Jackson.

As Burnside crossed the Rappahannock River, he proceeded to destroy the town of Fredericksburg. He then made a fatal mistake, as he planned a frontal attack upon Marye’s Heights and the 8,000 rebel troops upon it. The results of the frontal assault would be significant, as the North suffering 12,000 casualties, compared to 8,000 rebel casualties.

The win at the Battle of Fredericksburg raised the morale of the Confederate troops. Though they had been outnumbered, the rebels had been able to overcome the well-supplied and well-trained federal forces.


Battle of Appomatox Court House

As the war continued into the spring of 1865, General Robert E. Lee found himself and his men cut off from needed supplies and in a dire position. Therefore, he abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond and retreated toward North Carolina, where he hoped to join additional troops and supplies.

However, the retreat was unsuccessful, as spring rains swelled rivers and made roads muddy for travel. Hunger from lack of supplies and horses starved and unsuitable for battle further weakened the Southern troops. These conditions thus allowed Union General Ulysses S. Grant to cut off and overtake Lee. When it became clear that surrender was inevitable, General Lee remarked that he would prefer to die a thousand deaths than give up.

Dressed in his full dress uniform the Confederate general met the Union general at Appomattox Court House, VA, in the home of Wilmer McLean. McLean had moved his family to this home from Manassas after the First Battle of Battle of Bull Run. Thus, many comment that the Civil War began in McLean’s front yard and ended in his front parlor.

Though dressed in his muddy field uniform, General Grant entered the formality of finding peace solemnly, and initiated the reuniting of the country with the terms of surrender. Grant allowed the Rebels to leave the battlefield with their personal belongings. This included their horses, needed once they returned to their farms. Officers would retain their side arms as a sign of respect for their rank. Finally, understanding that starvation was rampant among the Southern troops, rations would be given to all who surrendered before being released to travel home. To those in his own ranks who wanted to celebrate the end of the war with song and revere, General Grant reminded them that “The war is over. The Rebel are our countrymen again.” Grant understood that the celebration of the North was the sorrow of the South.

Battle of Chancellorsville

It is believed by many that General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory was the Battle of Chancellorsville. This is because the general broke one of the first principles of warfare: when outnumbered, never divide your forces.

The Battle of Chancellorsville took place between April 30 and May 6, 1863 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia near the town of Chancellorsville. It was here that Lee’s 57,000 troops met Union General Joseph Hooker and his 97,000 men. Outnumbered nearly 2:1, Lee understood that drastic measures were the only way for him to find victory on the battlefield.

Thus, General Lee sent Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to take his 30,000 men and attack Hooker’s week left flank. The results were just as Lee had hoped. Not only did it surprise Hooker, but also it brought chaos and confusion to the Union army. This in turn would lead to the retreat of Hooker and his men.

However, the battle was not without its losses. The Union would see 17,000 casualties while the Confederacy would see 13,000. One of those lost by the South was Lt. General Jackson, who succumbed to the wounds he suffered from “friendly fire” as he was patrolling his troops one night. General Lee would say that with the loss of Jackson he had “lost his right arm.”


Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg is significant because it was the second time in which Southern General Robert E. Lee invaded a northern state. It was his hope that by taking the war to the North and causing harm and destruction on northern soil would push “Copperheads,” Northerners who sought peace, to convince the U.S. government to negotiate an end to the war. The Confederate government also believed that a major victory in Union territory would lead the British and French governments to formally recognition the existence of the new nation.

The battle took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from July 1-4, 1863. For the first three days of the battle, General Lee and his generals would push back the Union army under Major General George Gordon Meade. On the fourth day, Confederate Brig. General George Pickett would lead a charge up a small hill known as Cemetery Ridge where the Union army was gathered. Known as “Pickett’s Charge,” this offensive move left nearly a third of Lee’s army dead on the battlefield. Lee was expecting a counter-attack by Meade when the Confederate army fell to take the hill and retreated. Meade did not follow the Confederate army as it continued back behind Southern lines. This mistake would allow Lee and his army to fight again for another two years.

Many historians believe that the Battle of Gettysburg was the “turning point” of the Civil War that led to the defeat of the South. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate army would never again invade the North and would never make an offensive move towards a Union army.


Battle of Vicksburg

The town of Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, which took place between May 18 through July 4, 1863. Located on the Mississippi River on a high bluff, this “Gibraltar of the West” was a strategic point in protecting the Confederate supplies as they traveled up and down the river.

The Confederates, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, used its lofty position to keep the Union army at bay. However, it was Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant who determined that to succeed in capturing this important water port was to place it under siege and starve the army and its citizens into capitulation. Grant’s plans and strategy were so effective that they are still studied today.

The advantage of having the high ground would allow the Confederacy’s 34,000 soldiers to withstand the onslaught of the Union’s 75,000 troops. However, as the weeks went by without the addition of further supplies, the constant shelling, hunger, and fatigue took its toll.

Lt. Gen. Pemberton would ask for terms of surrender that included the surrender of nearly 30,000 men. Maj. Gen. Grant would accept these terms and not require the trade of as many Union prisoners. This exchange he would later regret.

The destruction of Vicksburg by the time of the surrender on July 4, 1863, would be so complete that the town received the nickname of “Chimneyville”.

Fall of Atlanta, Sherman’s March to Sea

The Fall of Atlanta began as Major General William Tecumseh Sherman realized that the city of Atlanta, Georgia, was a strategic railroad head and supply center for the South. Thus, he began his takeover of the city of July 22, 1864. At this time, Confederate Lt. General John Bell Hood defended Atlanta. Hood did his best to keep Sherman from reaching the city, but to no avail. Sherman completed his takeover of the city by September 2, 1864. He then began to destroy the town’s railroad lines, munitions, factories, and warehouse. He also deported thousands of the city’s residents, sending them away from their homes.

On November 15, 1864, Sherman, using his “total war” strategy, began his 285 mile March to the Sea. The Union general understood that if he could destroy the morale of Southerners in the very heartland of the South, he could diminish the South’s willingness to fight. Therefore, Sherman marched his troops without supplies. His men would live entirely off the land and the people that they encountered. The troops would raid homes and barns along the way to feed themselves as they destroyed railroad lines and burned farmland on their way to port city of Savannah. Sherman and his troops would arrive in Savannah on December 21, 1864. In a letter to President Lincoln, the Union general would give the city of Savannah and its 25,000 bales of cotton to the Commander-in-Chief as an early Christmas gift.

Though Sherman’s “total war” policy was harsh, it did not include murder or personal harm to civilians, as the Union army continued its march on through the Carolinas, continuing to leave destruction in its wake.

Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh was a two-day event that occurred on April 6 and 7, 1862. The battle was located in southwestern Tennessee near the town of Pittsburgh Landing, and was named for a small church that was located in the midst of the battlefield.

As Union troops began to move further west, this battle become the first of the “War of the West” campaign. General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the northern forces and was taken by surprise on April 6th by Confederate troops, led by General Albert Sydney Johnston.

During the early hours of the battle, mortally wounded General Johnston was replaced with General P.G.T. Beauregard. Unaware that the Union had received addition forces, Beauregard sent his men into a heavily outnumbered situation and his forces had to retreat after massive casualties.

By the end of the second day, April 7th, the Confederates withdrew from battle. As a result of the fighting over the two days, both sides experienced the most casualties of the war to that point. The Union lost more than 13,000 men, while the Confederate lost nearly 11,000 soldiers.

The Battle of Shiloh underscored the fact that the Confederacy was unable to defend its western territory. General Grant, though reviled in the North for being caught unprepared for the battle, continued to receive the support of President Abraham Lincoln.