The American Civil War is probably the defining event of American history, even more than the War of Independence. At stake was the continued existence of the country that had evolved from the one created by the original thirteen colonies to become a giant, straddling the entire continent from east to west, and the nature of that country – free or slave. Its battles and generals have left an indelible mark on American life, north and south, and it has maintained its fascination for millions despite the gap of almost a century and a half since the guns went quiet.
The first question facing anyone attempting to write a clear account of this conflict is how to organise their material. The shear scale of the war over four years and countless theatres of war could leave one overwhelmed. This author has decided to take advantage of one acknowledged weakness of both Union and Confederate plans: they tended to plan on a regional basis. It was rare for operations in one theatre to be planned so that they could directly influence events in another, and even when they were the distances between the theatres means that that influence was normally indirect. This article will take advantage of that tendency and will consider each major theatre of conflict separately, noting when they do overlap. We begin with a brief overview of each year’s events.
The most significant feature of the fighting in the first year of the war was that it proved that the Confederacy would not collapse under the first blow and that the Union was willing to fight. The first shots were fired in April, at Fort Sumter, a Federal position in Charleston Harbour. After the fall of Fort Sumter to the Confederacy, both sides went about the business of creating an army. The year was to see plenty of fighting, but only one really important battle. By the summer, Lincoln was under a great deal of pressure to use the newly created Union army to invade Virginia. If this first invasion had succeeded, then the Civil War might have been much shorter. As it was, after a hard fought battle (First Bull Run or First Manassas, 21 July), Confederate reinforcements decided the issue and the Union army fled the battlefield. The war would not be over in 1861.
The second year of the war saw the first major Union successes in the west. Grant’s winter campaign along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers saw the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and opened up large areas of the Confederacy to Union attack. A Confederate counterattack was defeated at Shiloh (6-7 April), leading to the Union occupation of most of western Tennessee. A Confederate counterattack in eastern Kentucky ended after it encountered a much larger Union force (Perryville, 8 October), although the final battle of the campaign (Stones River/ Murfreesboro, 31 December to 2 January 1863) damaged both armies enough to stop any active campaigning in the area for six months!
Along the Mississippi the Union also had a successful year. In the north, the Confederate stronghold at Island No. 10 was captured on 7 April, and Memphis, Tennessee fell on 6 June). In the south, New Orleans, the biggest city in the Confederacy, fell in April. Only the stretch of the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson remained in Confederate hands.
In the east, the Confederacy had the better of the years fighting. In the Shenandoah Valley, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson fought a classic campaign that saw him defeat or out manoeuvre a series of Union armies, and freed him to move his army to Richmond in time to help against the main Union attack of the year.
That attack was the Peninsular Campaign. General McClellan attempted to bypass the strong Confederate positions in northern Virginia by shipping his army to the peninsular east of Richmond, hoping to outflank the Confederate armies and capture their capitol. Unfortunately, this was a plan that required nerve and speed, not two of McClellan’s many qualities. During the Seven Days Battles (25 June-1 July), the Union won all but one of the individual battles, but McClellan still withdrew from the vicinity of Richmond.
As the Union withdrew its army from the Peninsular, General Robert E. Lee was able to win the first of his great triumphs. The Union army in northern Virginia was suddenly vulnerable to attack, as the slow Union withdrawal allowed Lee to shift some of his troops north from Richmond. At Second Bull Run/ Second Manassas (29-30 August), he engineered a major victory over a large part of the Union army.
This victory allowed Lee to launch his first invasion of the north, which he hoped would convince the Northern public that they could not hope to win. This invasion badly misfired. Soon after crossing into Maryland, with his army split, Lee was defeated at Antietam (17 September) and only McClellan’s poor handling of the battle saved the Confederate army from total destruction.
The year finished with a second triumph for Lee. The new Union commander, General Burnside, was not suited to command of an entire army, and came badly unstuck at Fredericksburg (13 December), after launching a frontal assault against strong Confederate positions.
Once again, Union armies won significant victories in the west. On the Mississippi, Vicksburg was the last Confederate link between east and west. After a series of failed attempts to get to the south of the town over the winter of 1862-3, General Grant launched his successful attack in the spring of 1863. After running his fleet past the guns of Vicksburg, he launched a campaign on the eastern bank of the Mississippi that defeated the Confederate forces gathering to help defend the city. After a formal siege, Vicksburg surrendered on 4 July. Five days later the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi (Port Hudson) also surrendered, and the Union had control of the entire river.
Further east, Union forces finally captured Chattanooga, Tennessee, but were badly defeated soon afterwards at Chickamauga (19-20 August), just over the border in Georgia. The defeated Union forces were besieged in Chattanooga until the end of November. General Grant, now commanding all Union forces in the western theatre, took personal command of the besieged troops. After a series of preparatory battles, the besieging Confederate army was defeated at Missionary Ridge (25 November), clearing the ground for Sherman’s attack on Atlanta in the following year.
In the east things did not go so well for the Union. Another new Union commander, Joe Hooker, turned out not to be up to the job. This time he at least had a plan, hoping to use his superior numbers to trap Lee, but did not have the ability or the nerve to carry it out. At Chancellorsville (2-5 May 1863), Lee inflicted another crushing defeat on a Union army, but was again unable to destroy that army.
Lee now returned to his plan of 1862 – a invasion of the north. This time he entered Pennsylvania, hoping to win another Chancellorsville, but on Northern soil. His hope was that a major Confederate victory in the north would convince the northern public that the Confederacy could not be conquered. Unlike in 1862, this time Lee got his battle with his army in one piece, but like in 1862 he could not achieve that victory. Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863) was one of the most important battles of the war in the east, ending Lee’s hopes of invading the North and beginning the process of attrition that was to eventually destroy his army.
The North finally found a general who could take on Lee. U.S. Grant was moved from the west to become Commanding General of the Union armies. He concentrated his personal attention on the campaign in Virginia, while his friend William T. Sherman was sent to invade Georgia, and Sheridan was detached to devastate the Shenandoah Valley.
Grant and Sherman both began their main campaign in May. Sherman’s mission was to move south from Chattanooga to attack the Confederate army of the Tennessee under Joseph Johnston and capture Atlanta, Georgia, one of the Confederacy’s remaining major cities. Johnston fought a skilful campaign, denying Sherman the chance to destroy his army, surrendering land for time. It took Sherman over two months to reach Atlanta. Johnston was now replaced by John Hood, who after attempting to defeat Sherman in battle was forced to fall back into the defences of Atlanta.
Finally, at the end of August, Sherman’s men managed to cut the last railroad into Atlanta, and Hood was forced to abandon the city. Sherman’s men entered Atlanta on 2 September.
Having captured the city, Sherman’s army spent a frustrating two months defending their narrow rail link north against attacks by Hood. During this period, Sherman came to believe that his next move should be to abandon his supply line and march east to the coast, living off the land. This would bring the war to areas of the Confederacy otherwise untouched. Hood helped Sherman win approval for his plan by moving north on an invasion of Tennessee, where his army was virtually destroyed.
On 15 November, Sherman left Atlanta on his famous march to the sea. As he marched through Georgia, his men left a trail of devastation across the state as they seized or destroyed anything of military value to the Confederacy. They reached Savannah, Georgia, on the Atlantic coast, just before Christmas.
A similar campaign of devastation was also carried out in the Shenandoah Valley, which up till now had been a source of great strength to the Confederacy. In August, General Sheridan was put in charge of the Union forces in the valley, with instructions to turn the valley into a ‘desert’, denying its supplies to Lee around Richmond. The outnumbered Confederate forces in the Valley were not able to repeat ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s successes of 1862, and by the end of the year the Shenandoah Valley had ceased to be of any value to the Confederacy.
While Sheridan and Sherman were winning obvious successes, Grant was involved in the much slower process of destroying Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He began his campaign in May hoping to out-manoeuvre Lee and force his surrender, but if that did not happen, he was willing to keep fighting on around Richmond until Lee’s army was physically destroyed.
Lee was too skilful and his army too experienced for Grant to achieve his preferred aim. In a series of battles (The Wilderness, 4-8 May, Spotsylvania, 10-12 May and Cold Harbor, 31 May-3 June, amongst them), Grant made repeated attempts to outflank Lee, and was repeatedly prevented from doing so. Finally, on 15-18 June the Union army missed a chance to capture Petersburg and cut Richmond off from the rest of the south. Grant’s armies settled down for a formal siege.
The true significance of this fighting was that Grant kept on coming. The first battle, at the Wilderness in May, had been close to a Confederate victory, and was the sort of battle that might have caused other Union generals to abandon their plans. Grant was not one of those generals. He knew that Lee could not afford the sort of casualties he was suffering, and that if Grant kept on coming then the Army of Northern Virginia would eventually be worn away.
The last year of the war saw significant action in two areas. On 1 February Sherman’s men began their march north through South Carolina. The state capital at Columbus fell on 17 February. After devastating a swathe of South Carolina, Sherman’s army entered North Carolina, where they faced the only real battles of the campaign (Averasboro, 16 March and Bentonville, 19 March). By now, Sherman’s men had reached so far north that on 25 March their commander was able to leave them to meet with Grant and plan for their involvement in the last campaign of the war.
Around Richmond and Petersburg it now became apparent that Grant’s armies had done their job in 1864. Lee started the year knowing that he no longer had the strength to maintain the siege unless he did something dramatic to alter the situation. He planned to launch one more attack on the Union lines, then take advantage of the ensuing confusion to pull his army out of Richmond and Petersburg. He would take it south, join the forces opposing Sherman, defeat his army and return to defeat Grant with the newly combined army.
On 25 March, Lee launched his attack, against Fort Stedman. After some early success, the Confederate attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Grant now finally planned for an attack along the entire line. In preparation he sent Sheridan to capture the last railroad into Petersburg. At Five Forks (1 April), the Confederate defenders of this key position was swept away.
At 10.00am on 2 April, Grant launched his final attack on the Richmond and Petersburg defences. Six hours later, Lee told President Davis to evacuate Richmond, and on the next day Federal troops entered the city (as did President Lincoln, who was close by in expectation of the moment).
Lee managed to extract some of his army from the trap, but his only was to march west in the hope of finding a railroad still in Confederate hands that he could use to move south. There were none. On 9 April 1865, Grant and Lee met at Appomattox Court House and agreed surrender terms for the Army of North Virginia.
With Lee gone, the rest of the Confederacy soon followed. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina surrendered on 26 April, Edmund Kirby Smith in the trans-Mississippi on 26 May. The final Confederate general to surrender was Stand Watie, one month later. The Civil War was finally over, just over four years after the first guns had been fired at Fort Sumter.