10 Major Battles of the American Civil War

The American Civil War was an armed conflict between 23 Northern states representing the Union and 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. It began on April 12, 1861 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Though there were many important battles over the course of the Civil War, Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg is generally considered the point which decisively turned the war in their favor. The most famous Confederate general of the war is Robert E. Lee. He won numerous battles against far superior Union armies including the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Chancellorsville. The most renowned Union general is Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army of Tennessee to several famous victories including the critical Siege of Vicksburg. The last important battle of the American Civil War was the Battle of Appomattox Court House which resulted in Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant. It was followed by a series of surrenders by Confederate generals leading to the end of the war. Here are the 10 most important battles of the American Civil War.

#1 Battle of Fort Sumter

Battle of Fort Sumter
Battle of Fort Sumter

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the opening engagement of the American Civil War. It took place at the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. During the secession crisis, many threats were made to Federal Forts in the south. On 26th December 1860, after the secession of South Carolina, Major Robert Anderson, federal officer in command at the difficult to defend Fort Moultrie, moved his men along with their families to Fort Sumter. What followed was basically a siege of Fort Sumter, with supplies and communication controlled by Governor Francis Pickens. Negotiations continued for many days between Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Major Robert Anderson, the Sumter garrison commander. When the talks failed to resolve tensions, Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. Major Robert Anderson, surrendered the day after.

#2 First Battle of Bull Run

First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run

Remembered as the first major battle of the Civil War and also called the First Battle of Manassas, it was fought on the 21st of July 1861 at a small tributary of the Potomac River named Bull Run, near Manassas in Virginia. With the aim of decisive action, a federal force under the command of General Irwin McDowell marched from Washington DC on 16th July towards the Confederate capital of Richmond. Both the Union and Confederate forces consisted of a large number of volunteers not yet trained or skilled for military action. The battle was thus messy, unorganized and brutal. Initially, the larger union forces had an upper hand breaking the Confederate line and sending them into retreat. However, reinforcements arrived just in time under the southern commander General Thomas Jackson and checked the Union forces. This event earned the general the popular nickname “Stonewall” Jackson and helped the Confederates under General Pierre Beauregard launch a counter attack and claim victory. Surprisingly many civilians had marched along with the US army expecting a quick victory and wanting to see some action. They were in for a rude shock and as was the federal army, which would immediately begin to mobilize resources for a long war.

#3 Battle of Shiloh

Painting of Battle of Shiloh
Battle of Shiloh

Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, was the first major battle of the Western Theater of the American Civil War. In April of 1862, a Union Force under Major General Ulysses S. Grant called the Army of the Tennessee had moved deep into Tennessee. It had encamped at Pittsburgh Landing on the west bank of Tennessee River. On the morning of 6th of April, Confederate army under General Sidney Johnston launched a surprise attack on the encampment from their base in Corinth, Mississippi. They hoped of defeating Grant’s army before he was reinforced by Major General Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. The Confederates were dominant throughout the day driving the Union Army back by over two miles. It was perhaps the brave defense of the Union Post nicknamed the “Hornet’s Nest” by divisions of Brig. Gens. Benjamin Prentiss and William H. L. Wallace that allowed the Union army to stabilize. The arrival of reinforcements in the evening allowed the counter-attack on the 7th and the Union Army emerged victorious. 62,000 Union forces had engaged with 45,000 Confederates over two days leading to 23,000 combined casualties. Shiloh, which in Hebrew meant “place of peace”, had ironically witnessed the bloodiest battle in American history until that time.

#4 Battle of Antietam

Battle of Antietam depiction
Battle of Antietam

In June of 1862, the Confederate Army of North Virginia had come under the capable leadership of General Robert E Lee, who hatched up an ambitious plan to invade the northern state of Pennsylvania and the border state of Maryland, with the goal of severing the railway routes to Washington. Dividing his army, Lee devised a strategy to execute his plan but in an unexpected turn of events Union soldiers discovered Lee’s marching orders at an abandoned Confederate encampment in Maryland. Knowing the enemy plans, the Federal Army of the Potomac, under the command of General George McClellan, attacked Lee along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland on the 17th of September, 1862. Confederate forces were outnumbered and on the defensive but lack of decisiveness from General McClellan allowed the return of General Jackson and General A.P. Hill to bolster the Confederates. The battle that erupted was the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history with over 22,000 casualties. On the 18th, both sides remained in place, too bloodied to advance. On the 19th, the confederates retreated from the battlefield and slipped back across the Potomac into Virginia giving the Union a strategic win.

#5 Second Battle of Bull Run

Second Battle of Bull Run
Second Battle of Bull Run

Also called the Second Battle of Manassas, the Second Battle of Bull Run was fought over a year after the First Battle of Bull Run on the same ground. It took place between 28th and 30th August, 1862. In short, the battle was a fast moving Confederate offensive against a larger enemy inferior in leadership and morale. As the Union Army of Virginia under Major General John Pope waited for General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to launch a combined offensive, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to strike first. On the 28th of August, Lee divided his army and ordered the attack of Federal supply base in Manassas. Stonewall Jackson seized and burned the depot and established a hidden position in the woods. On the next day John Pope’s army clashed with Jackson’s men who managed to hold ground despite casualties. Lee arrived on the 30th with his remaining army and John Pope was forced to withdraw back to Washington.

#6 Battle of Chancellorsville

Battle of Chancellorsville
Battle of Chancellorsville

Fought between April 30 and May 6th of 1863 near the village of Chancellorsville in Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville was a major engagement of the American Civil War. The battle is remembered for the mortal injury to Stonewall Jackson and the great strategic victory for Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Facing an army of 132,000 men under General Joseph Hooker, Lee made a daring move by dividing his army against an enemy more than twice his size. On the 1st of May, Jackson led a flanking march to the surprise of Hooker. The next day Lee divided his army yet again with Jackson leading his 28,000 men in a secretive march of 12 miles against Hooker’s weak right flank. The attack that started in the afternoon destroyed half of Hooker’s line. Intense fighting ensued for a few more days and on May 6, Hooker crossed the Rappahannock, having 17,278 casualties to Lee’s 12,826. Lee had won a famous battle but had lost his ‘right hand’ in Stonewall Jackson.

#7 Battle of Gettysburg

Battle of Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg

Described by many historians as the turning point of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought between the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General George Meade and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. In the summer of 1863, the vital strategic city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River was under siege by the Union forces. In the hope of building pressure on the Union and drawing out General Grant from Vicksburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North again, this time marching to Pennsylvania. Using the Shenandoah Valley as cover, Major General Joseph Hooker of the Union moved his army in pursuit. Hooker however soon lost favor with President Lincoln and was replaced just three days before the battle by Major General George Meade. Fighting began on the morning of 1st July, 1863 in the town of Gettysburg and continued over the course of three days. The battle is remembered for the full assault of close to 15,000 Confederate infantry men against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Now famously known as Pickett’s Charge, this failed attack by Lee is cited as the primary reason for the Confederate defeat. Lee’s army conceded the field on the 4th of July and staggered back to Virginia. Another Northern invasion had failed. There were close to 50,000 casualties over three days, the costliest in US history.

#8 Siege of Vicksburg

Battle of Vicksburg Painting
Battle of Vicksburg

The siege of Vicksburg refers to the 6 week long siege of the fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi river. In the summer of 1863 the Union Army of Tennessee under Major General Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Mississippi River driving the Confederate Army of Mississippi into defensive lines surrounding the fortress city of Vicksburg. In a series of maneuvers Grant had surrounded the Confederates under Lieutenant General John Pemberton outnumbering them 2 to 1. After two quick assaults on May 19th and 22nd were repulsed with heavy casualties Grant decided to besiege the city on May 25th, 1863. The Confederates held on for over 40 days and finally surrendered unconditionally on 4th of July. The fall of Vicksburg established Grant as a brilliant commander, ultimately leading to his appointment as General-in-Chief of the Union armies. Vicksburg was a crucial fortress city which linked the eastern and western parts of the Confederacy and its capture is considered one of the turning points of the Civil War.

#9 Battle of Atlanta

Battle of Atlanta
Battle of Atlanta

The Battle of Atlanta was fought on July 22, 1864 just outside the city of Atlanta. The battle was especially noteworthy for its political impact and re-election of Abraham Lincoln as President. With the aim of seizing the important rail and supply of Atlanta, 34,000 Union forces commanded by William T Sherman attacked the Confederates forces numbering 40,000 under General John Bell Wood. The battle led to a Union victory with 3600 casualties as opposed to 8500 of the enemy. The victory was followed by evacuation of the city and Sherman burning most of the buildings and infrastructure in the city to destroy the morale of the southerners.

#10 Battle of Appomattox Station and Court House

Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee
Union General Ulysses S Grant (left) and Confederate General Robert E Lee (right)

On 8th of April, 1865, a dwindling Confederate Army of North Virginia arrived at Appomattox county where supply trains awaited them at Appomattox station. Not long after the arrival of some Confederate artillery, Federal Cavalry under General Phillip Sheridan dispersed the artillery and gained control of the vital ration and supplies. The Union Army led by Grant was 120,000 men strong. It was closely following on Lee’s Confederate army of only 30,000. Lee was hopeful that his men could get to Lynchburg while fending off the Union cavalry before any infantry showed up. As his line of retreat was blocked, Lee’s only options were to attack or surrender and he decided to attack. After early fighting on the 9th of April 1865 Lee received reports of Union infantry arriving and decided to surrender to Grant since there was no reason to keep retreating. The Battle of Appomattox Station and Court House was the last major battle of the American Civil War. Robert E Lee’ surrender was followed by a series of surrenders by Confederate generals leading to the end of the war.

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