The 10 Key Battles of the American Civil War | History Hit

The 10 Key Battles of the American Civil War

Shannon Callahan

23 Dec 2021
A US Army Centre of Military History painting entitled 'First at Vicksburg'.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Between 1861 and 1865, the United States of America was engaged in a brutal civil war that would ultimately leave an estimated 750,000 people dead. At the start of the conflict, the Confederate Army won key battles, but the Union Army would recover and beat back the southern soldiers, ultimately winning the war.

Here are 10 key battles of the American Civil War.

1. Battle of Fort Sumter (12 – 13 April 1861)

The Battle of Fort Sumter marked the start of the American Civil War. Fort Sumter, located in Charleston, South Carolina, was under the charge of Union Major Robert Anderson when the state seceded from the Union in 1860.

On 9 April 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered General Pierre G. T. Beauregard to attack Fort Sumter, and on April 12, Beauregard’s troops opened fire, marking the start of the Civil War. Outnumbered, and with supplies that would not last 3 days, Anderson surrendered the next day.

A photograph of the evacuation of Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

2. First Battle of Bull Run / the First Battle of Manassas (21 July 1861)

Union General Irvin McDowell marched his troops from Washington DC towards the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, on 21 July 1861, intent on bringing a swift end to the war. However, his soldiers were not yet trained, resulting in an unorganised and messy battle when they met Confederate troops near Manassas, Virginia.

The larger Union forces, though inexperienced, were initially able to force a Confederate retreat, but reinforcements arrived for the southern army, and General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson launched a successful counterattack, leading to a Confederate victory in what is considered the first major battle of the war.

3. Battle of Shiloh (6 – 7 April 1862)

The Union army, under the command of Ulysses S. Grant, moved deep into Tennessee, along the west bank of the Tennessee River. On the morning of 6 April, the Confederate army launched a surprise attack in the hopes of defeating Grant’s army before more reinforcements arrived, initially driving them back over 2 miles.

However, the Union Army was able to stabilise due to the brave defense of the ‘Hornet’s Nest’ – divisions under the command of Benjamin Prentiss and William H. L. Wallace – and when Union aid arrived in the evening, a counterattack was launched with the Union emerging victorious.

4. Battle of Antietam (17 September 1862)

General Robert E. Lee had been installed as the leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, and his immediate goal was to reach 2 northern states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, to sever railway routes to Washington DC. Union soldiers, under the leadership of General George McClellan, discovered these plans and were able to attack Lee along Antietam Creek, Maryland.

A powerful battle ensued, and the next day, both sides were too battered to continue fighting. On the 19th, the Confederates retreated from the battlefield, technically giving the Union a win in the single bloodiest day of fighting with 22,717 combined casualties.

A burial crew of Union soldiers after the Battle of Antietam, 1862.

Image Credit: Public Domain

5. Battle of Chancellorsville (30 April – 6 May 1863)

Facing a Union army of 132,000 men under the command of General Joseph T. Hooker, Robert E. Lee chose to divide his army on the battlefield in Virginia, despite already having half as many troops. On 1 May, Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson to lead a flanking march, which surprised Hooker and forced them into defensive positions.

The following day, he divided his army again, with Jackson leading 28,000 troops on a march against Hooker’s weaker right flank, destroying half of Hooker’s line. Intense fighting continued until 6 May, when Hooker retreated, facing 17,000 casualties to Lee’s 12,800. Though this battle is remembered as a great tactical victory for the Confederate Army, the leadership of Stonewall Jackson was lost, as he died from wounds sustained by friendly fire.

6. Battle of Vicksburg (18 May – 4 July 1863)

Lasting 6 weeks, the Confederate Army of Mississippi was under siege along the Mississippi River by Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of Tennessee. Grant surrounded the southern army, outnumbering them 2 to 1.

Several attempts to overtake the Confederates were met with heavy casualties, so on 25 May 1863, Grant decided to attack the city. Ultimately, the southerners surrendered on 4 July. This battle is marked as one of two crucial turning points of the Civil War, as the Union was able to interrupt critical Confederate supply lines in Vicksburg.

7. Battle of Gettysburg (1 – 3 July 1863)

Under the command of newly appointed General George Meade, the Union Army met with Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1-3 July 1863 in the rural town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lee wanted to get the Union army out of battle-worn Virginia, draw troops away from Vicksburg, and gain recognition of the Confederacy from Britain and France.

However, after 3 days of fighting, Lee’s troops failed to break the Union line and suffered great casualties, making this the bloodiest battle in US history. It is considered a key turning point in the American Civil War.

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8. Battle of Chickamauga (18 – 20 September 1863)

In early September 1863, the Union army had taken over nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, a key railroad centre. Determined to regain control, Confederate commander Braxton Bragg met William Rosecrans’ Union army at Chickamauga Creek, with the bulk of the fighting taking place on 19 September 1863.

Initially, the southerners could not break the northern line. However, on the morning of 20 September, Rosecrans was convinced there was a gap in his line and moved troops: there was not.

As a result, an actual gap was created, allowing for a direct Confederate assault. The Union troops scrambled, withdrawing to Chattanooga by nightfall. The Battle of Chickamauga resulted in the second most casualties in the war after Gettysburg.

9. Battle of Atlanta (22 July 1864)

The Battle of Atlanta occurred just outside of the city limits on 22 July 1864. Union soldiers, led by William T. Sherman, attacked Confederate soldiers under the command of John Bell Hood, resulting in a Union victory. Significantly, this victory allowed Sherman to continue his siege upon the city of Atlanta, which lasted the entirety of August.

On 1 September, the city was evacuated, and Sherman’s forces destroyed most of the infrastructure and buildings. The Union troops would continue through Georgia in what is known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, demolishing everything in their path to disrupt the southern economy. Lincoln’s re-election effort was bolstered by this victory, as it was seen to cripple the Confederacy and bring Lincoln closer to ending the war.

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10. Battle of Appomattox Station and Courthouse (9 April 1865)

On 8 April 1865, the battle-worn Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was met by Union soldiers in Appomattox County, Virginia, where supply trains awaited the southerners. Under the leadership of Phillip Sheridan, Union soldiers were able to quickly disperse the Confederate artillery and gain control of the supplies and rations.

Lee hoped to retreat to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he could await his infantry. Instead, his line of retreat was blocked by Union soldiers, so Lee attempted to attack rather than surrender. On 9 April 1865, early fighting ensued, and Union infantry arrived. Lee surrendered, triggering a wave of surrenders across the Confederacy and making this the last major battle of the American Civil War.

Tags: Abraham Lincoln General Robert Lee Ulysses S. Grant

Shannon Callahan