12 Milestones of the American Civil War | History Hit

12 Milestones of the American Civil War

Greg Noonan

07 Dec 2020

The election of Abraham Lincoln to the White House in November 1860 inaugurated a civil war the like of which the United States had never seen.

As Americans from the North and South savaged each other in a welter of blood, disease and destruction that claimed more than 600,000 lives in the pursuit of ‘liberty’, the American nation was literally remade between 1861 and 1865. The slave-owning Confederacy was crushed and the federal government re-engineered for a new age – Americans still live with the legacy of both today.

Here are 12 key milestones from the civil war:

1. Lincoln’s election and Southern secession

The election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln inaugurated civil war. Long simmering tensions between the Northern and Southern states over tariffs, slavery and its expansion into the western territories coalesced in the 1860 election.

Led by firebrands in South Carolina, Southern states made good their threats and began seceding from the Union over the next few months. Although Confederate leaders claimed they just wanted to be “let alone” and to protect their “peculiar institution” of slavery, many were eager to give the interfering Yankees a bloody nose. Former Mississippi US senator and Mexican War veteran, Jefferson Davis, was sworn in as Confederate president in January 1861.

2. The Rebel attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, 12 April 1861

A battered Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour after its surrender to Confederate forces. Image credit: Library of Congress

After a lengthy stand-off in early 1861, Confederate gunners bombarded Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. Previous relief attempts by sea had failed.

Lincoln sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis but refused to yield federal property to armed rebels. His supplies almost exhausted, garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, hoisted the white flag three days later.

3. Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), 21 July 1861

The Stone House on the Manassas battlefield in 1861. During and after the battle, the house was used as a field hospital. Image credit: The Library of Congress

Triumphant rebels chased disorganised Union divisions under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell off the field near the rail junction at Manassas, 25 miles south-west of Washington.

The confusing fight of roughly 35,000 men per side was a near run thing; it was at this battle that Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson earned his famous nickname when at one point the Rebel lines looked like they would buckle.

4. Union capture of forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, February 1862

Private William Haberlin, Battery B Pennsylvania Light Artillery, in dress uniform for a studio portrait. Originally from Ireland, Haberlin was killed on 16 December 1864, at Nashville, Tennessee. Image credit: The Library of Congress

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant secured the North’s first great victory of the war with the capture of these two riverside Rebel forts 12 miles apart in Tennessee. Especially significant was Fort Donelson’s capture, which opened the Confederate interior to Federal attack. Although he had been an officer in the pre-war Union Army, Grant rose from obscurity in 1861 to become a national hero in a single stroke.

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5. Battle of Shiloh, 6-7 April 1862

Americans began to realise the true horror of war after the battle around Shiloh church in heavily-wooded south-western Tennessee. Confederate forces under acclaimed general, Albert Sidney Johnson, who bled out from a leg wound early in the fighting, attacked Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, and almost drove the Federals into the Tennessee River at Pittsburgh Landing.

Grant’s men were battered but unbeaten, and they were reinforced overnight. They took the fight to the Confederates the next day and forced them into retreat. Casualties amounted to a stunning 23,000: a number that shocked the nation.

6. Battle of Antietam, 17 September 1863

Shredded by Union fire, these Confederate artillerymen lie where they fell in a field near the whitewashed Dunker Church at Antietam, Maryland, September 1862. Image credit: The Library of Congress

Robert E. Lee’s bold march into Maryland was a strategic gambit designed to take the war to the North and gain international recognition for the Confederacy.

Things began to unravel when lost orders to Lee’s generals were discovered in a field by Union soldiers; after fighting a rear-guard action over South Mountain, Lee turned and offered battle near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, almost 70 miles from Washington.

The ensuing struggle saw bloodletting on a scale previously unknown – more than 20,000 men were wounded or killed, the highest number of American casualties ever recorded in a single day. The battle was a tactical victory for the Confederates but a strategic victory for the Union.

7. Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862

An artist’s impression of Lincoln and his cabinet discussing the Emancipation Proclamation, which came in to effect on 1 January 1863. Image credit: The Library of Congress

In the wake of the equivocal Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln announced that slaves held in the southern states would be “ … thenceforward, and forever, be free” from 1 January 1863. The war was thus transformed from a fight to preserve the Union of states into a crusade for freedom and liberty.

Slaves held in states loyal to the Union were excluded from the decree as Lincoln did not want to push border states such as Kentucky and Maryland into the Confederacy’s arms.

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8. Battle of Chancellorsville, 2 May 1863

Arguably Lee’s greatest victory of the war, a Confederate corps under Gen. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson swept through Union army lines in a vast flank march that caught new Union army commander, Major General Joe Hooker, by surprise.

Hooker was wounded during an artillery duel around the Chancellor home and was incapacitated.

The Union lines folded and ran from Jackson’s attack. He ordered a controversial withdrawal over the Rappahannock River when he realised his defensive lines had been broken.

The aggressive Jackson was accidentally shot in a volley of musketry from his own men while scouting Union positions later that night. He died of pneumonia 10 days later.

9. Gettysburg and Vicksburg, July 1863

Iconic image of three Confederate prisoners captured at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863. Image credit: The Library of Congress

Sometimes known as the high watermark of the Confederacy, the true import of the epic three-day fight at Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania was not realised until some months later.

Lee’s vanguard met the Army of the Potomac unexpectedly at the crossroads town from 1-3 July, the Confederates trying desperately to force the Yankees off the heights of Cemetery Ridge south of the town over the battle’s final two days.

Lee ordered Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps to attack Union lines after an unprecedented artillery barrage on 3 July – the bombardment was ineffective and the brave but ultimately futile infantry assault known as Pickett’s Charge was swept aside by the Federals.

Lincoln gave his now famous Gettysburg Address on the battlefield in November. Meanwhile, in the Western theatre, Grant forced the surrender of strategic Mississippi river town of Vicksburg on 3 July after months of manoeuvring and brutal siege warfare. Casualties amounted to 47,000 men.

10. Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea, 1864

A late-war photo of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, with his son Custis Lee (left) and Lee’s aide de camp, Walter Taylor. Lee was related to George Washington by marriage and his father ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee, was a flawed hero of the American Revolution. Image credit: The Library of Congress

As generals Grant and Lee went head-to-head in the wilds of Virginia in the Overland campaign, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman besieged and took Atlanta, occupying the city for more than two months. Sherman waged a harsh campaign against civilian and military targets in an effort to break the South’s will and ability to wage war.

Union forces infamously burned the prosperous rail hub in November and marched to Savannah on the coast before the year was out.

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11. Surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, 9 April 1865

This was the war’s endgame, when, after being forced to flee Richmond, Lee’s shrivelled Army of Northern Virginia was cornered near the small town of Appomattox Court House. There, in the front parlour of Wilmer McLean, Lee and Grant signed surrender papers that effectively ended hostilities. Grant allowed generous surrender terms to encourage Southern capitulation and foster national reunification.

12. Lincoln’s assassination, 15 April 1865

US President, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, a former Congressman and circuit lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, was murdered just a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, in April 1865. His weathered features speak to years of war-time stress. Image credit: The Library of Congress

A mere week after Robert E. Lee’s men surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln was shot in the head by actor and Southern sympathiser (some say a Southern agent), John Wilkes Booth, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Lincoln died early the next morning in a house across the street from the theatre.

Booth broke his ankle fleeing the theatre but managed to evade capture for 12 days despite a massive manhunt – he and his accomplices were cornered in a burning barn in Virginia as they tried to escape further south.

Greg Noonan