American Civil War: The Eastern Front - Washington and Richmond

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Despite all of the vastness of the United States in 1861, when conflict came the Federal and Confederate capitols were only 100 miles apart. This proximity ensured that the area of Northern Virginia that separated them was to become one of the most important theatres of conflict.

When the war began, it was the Federal capitol that was vulnerable. Washington had been built on the northern bank of the Potomac River, the northern border of Virginia, making the south bank of the river hostile territory. The surrounding state, Maryland, was of doubtful loyalty, and so the beginning of President Lincoln’s time in Washington was spent in a rather nervous atmosphere.

As a new state, the Confederacy had the luxury of being able to choose its own capitol. With that in mind, the choice of what quickly became a front line city would seem odd, even self defeating, but the decision can be explained. Virginia was crucial to the Confederacy. She had not joined the rebellion until after the fall of Fort Sumter, and on 27 April she invited the Confederacy to move its capital to Richmond. Eager to ensure the loyalty of such an important state, the Confederate government agreed. As the Confederacy took shape, many refused to believe that the Federal government would actually fight, or possibly even be able to fight.


The summer of 1861 saw the first critical battle of the war. Although Lincoln supported Winfield Scott’s Anaconda plan, there were compelling reasons to try something more dramatic immediately. A large part of the Union army had enlisted for three months in the first flush of enthusiasm, and would soon leave their units. Washington was now well defended, so there was little risk of the Confederates being able to seize the city. If the Federal army could capture Richmond, Virginia might be knocked out of the war, dramatically weakening the entire rebellion. Even it was not, the presence of a major Confederate army at Manassas only thirty miles from Washington was hardly acceptable.

The Confederate army at Manassas, commanded by General Beauregard, was 21,000 strong. The Union army under General McDowell was 30,000 strong, with 10,000 more reserves available. Unfortunately, McDowell was the first of many Union commanders who moved too slowly in Virginia. By the time he reached the Confederate position, another 12,000 Confederates were arriving from the Shenandoah Valley. On 21 July the two armies clashed in the first major battle of the war, known as either Bull Run or Manassas. After attacking unsuccessfully for most of the day, the untrained Union army collapsed and fled after one of the newly arrived Confederate units launched a counter attack.

The Union army returned to Washington with much more speed than they had left. Once within the fortifications of the capitol, the army regrouped and prepared for any Confederate attack. None came, perhaps wisely given the strength of the fortifications and the damage done to the Confederate army. However, one feature of the Confederate cause at the time (and ever since) has been a tendency to look for the great ‘missed chance’ that cost them the war.

Bull Run/ Manassas ended the serious fighting in Virginia for the year. It had many long lasting effects. In the South, it generated a dangerous belief in the superiority of the Confederate soldier which was to lead later Generals into some very rash decisions. In the North it generated a determination not to be beaten that manifested itself in the ease with which Lincoln was able to pass laws that would create a million man army.
Defeat at Bull Run cost McDowell his command. In his place was put General George McClellan, already a victorious commander in West Virginia. Regardless of his later flaws, McClellan turned out to be a very talented creator of armies. As later fighting was to show, the Army of the Potomac that he created was able to hold its own against Lee’s Army of North Virginia. McClellan was also hugely popular at every level in the army, something that was to help preserve him in his post after his limits as a battlefield commander had become glaringly obvious.


McClellan’s first flaw was his tendency to over exaggerate the size of any army he faced. During the second half of 1861 he had refused to move, claiming that he was outnumbered by the Confederate army across the Potomac, and that their defences at Manassas were too formidable to assault.

Eventually, McClellan revealed his grand plan for 1862. Rather than attack the Confederate fortifications north of Richmond, he take advantage of the Union’s control of Chesapeake Bay and its major rivers to ship his army around the Confederate defences. At first, he planned to land at Urbana, between the Rappahannock and York Rivers, but eventually the landing place was put further south, at Ft. Monroe, a Union held outpost at the end of the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. This would outflank the Confederate defences at Manassas, and place McClellan’s army in a position where it could capture Richmond, and possibly end the rebellion with one blow. Ironically, the Confederates had decided that those defences were too vulnerable, and before McClellan began his campaign they withdrew from the exposed position!

Unfortunately, McClellan continued to believe he faced massive Confederate armies. At Yorktown, a force of only 17,000 men delayed him from 5 April to 4 May, then withdrew before McClellan’s long overdue attack. The following day, the Confederates fought a skilful delaying action at Williamsburg, but they could not prevent McClellan’s Union army reaching within a few miles of Richmond.

Map of battle of Williamsburg Map of Battle of Williamsburg

On 31 May, General Joe Johnston, the Confederate commander, launched an attack on McClellan (Battle of Seven Pines or Five Oaks), seven miles outside Richmond. The Federal troops fought off the attack, and badly wounded Johnston. He was replaced by General Robert Lee, who had been acting as President Davis’ military advisor. Lee decided to concentrate his forces, and launch a series of attacks on the Federal army with the aim of forcing it away from Richmond.

Lee planned to cut McClellan off from his base at the end of the Peninsular. McClellan’s army was split in two by the Chickahominy River, east of Richmond, with the larger part of the army to the south of the river. Lee planned to attack the smaller part, north of the Chickahominy, forcing McClellan to fight his way out. He strengthened the defences of Richmond to prevent a Federal attack, summoned Stonewall Jackson from the Shenandoah and prepared for his attack.

The resulting fighting became known as the Seven Days Battles (25 June-1 July). Things did not go according to Lee’s plans, but in the end he did achieve his main aim. His first problem was that Jackson took longer to arrive than expected. The first serious fighting (Battle of Mechanicsville, 26 June), took place before Jackson was in place, and was a clear Federal victory. The following day, more head on attacks on the northern flank of the Union army met with no more success (Battle of Gaines’s Mill), although eventually the outnumbered Federal forces were forced back across the Chickahominy.

Despite the clear successes won by his army, McClellan now decided to move south to the James River, moving away from Richmond. This movement was poorly handled, leaving most of the Union army strung out along a single road and potentially very vulnerable. However, Lee was still learning how to command a large army, and his attacks on 29 June (Battle of Savage Station) and 30 June (Glendale, Frayser’s Farm or White Oak Swamp) were spread out and not properly supported (as the multiple names would suggest). The Federal army was able to establish itself on the James River, supported by the navy.

Lee now demonstrated what has been seen as his fatal flaw – a dedication to the offensive. Having forced the Union army away from Richmond, he had achieved his first aim, but he really wanted a Napoleonic victory – the destruction of the enemy army. On 1 July, he launched one more attack on McClellan (Battle of Malvern Hill), which again failed to achieve anything substantial. Confederate losses over the Seven Days amounted to 20,141 (3,286 dead and 15,909 wounded), compared to Federal losses of 15,855 (1,734 dead and 8,066 wounded). The Confederacy could not afford to lose men quicker than the Union.

For the moment that problem would be hidden by Lee’s real successes. The new Federal General-in-Chief, General Halleck, visited McClellan soon after reaching Washington, and quickly decided that there was no chance of McClellan ever having enough men to attempt an attack on Richmond. Halleck made the decision to withdraw the army from the Peninsular, and try again from the Potomac. This decision did place the newly formed Federal Army of Virginia under General Pope in some danger. Once it was clear that McClellan was evacuating, Lee could send some of his men north to attack Pope.

At first, the force facing Pope was commanded by Stonewall Jackson. His performance was somewhat mixed. At Cedar Mountain (9 August) a much smaller Union army was able to hold Jackson’s force at bay. However, by now it was clear that the Federal army camped on the James was in retreat, and Lee was free to send more and more of his men to help Jackson, before eventually taking control himself in time for Second Bull Run.

Pope performed well over the next two weeks, managing to hold off every Confederate attempt to turn his line, while slowly receiving reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac. Despite McClellan’s usual slowness, the Federal armies appeared to have escaped from the danger they were in at the end of the Peninsular campaign.

Unfortunately for them, Lee was about to put in one of his most spectacular performances, just as Pope was about to make his biggest mistake. Lee was now approaching the area with ten divisions under Longstreet. As he came, he ordered Jackson to march west, then north, around Pope’s left wing, and seize his supply depot at Manassas Junction. Pope was convinced that Jackson was returning to the Shenandoah Valley and was suitably shocked when on 26 August he found that Jackson’s force had seized his supplies.

While Pope rushed back to deal with this new threat, Jackson hid his forces in the wooded hills around Manassas. Only when he was certain that Lee was within striking distance did he emerge from the woods to attack part of Pope’s army at Groveton (28 August), another battle where the Union soldiers showed that they were the equals of the Confederates (a lesson that many Confederate Generals were to take most of the rest of the war to learn).

They can be forgiven for neglecting that lesson, for over the next two days they were to win one of their most impressive victories at Second Bull Run or Manassas (29-30 August). For most of the two days of fighting, Pope was on the attack, attempting to destroy Jackson’s force and ignoring Longstreet, rapidly approaching his left flank. Just after 3.30 in the afternoon of 30 August, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack. When his attack hit, Longstreet’s men practically destroyed Pope’s weak left wing, and forced the entire Union army into flight.

Even so, Lee was denied his Napoleonic triumph. His objective was always the total destruction of the enemy army. Here, Jackson let him down by failing to block Pope’s main escape route, while unlike at First Bull Run, this time the Union army didn’t rout, but retreated in good order. In their line of retreat were two more Corps from the army of the Potomac (The Second and Sixth). The Union army was simply too good and too strong to collapse in the way that Lee hoped.

The aftermath illustrated another problem that was to plague Lee – his victories were too costly. At Second Bull Run, the Confederate Armies lost 1,481 killed and 7,627 wounded, losses of nearly 20%. The Federal army lost more men, with 1,724 killed, 8,372 wounded and 5,985 missing (including a large number of men captured during the rout of the Federal left), losses of only just over 20%. Amongst them was Pope, who was relieved of his command and sent west.

Lee now moved on to the offensive. With his armies already in place around Manassas, he was in an ideal position to launch his first invasion of the north, into Maryland. With that move, the war moves out of the Virginia theatre, and into the Invasions of the North. However, Virginia was to see one more major battle in 1862.

Lee’s raid came to grief at Antietam (17 September). Soon after he had returned to Virginia, President Lincoln became to agitate for a counter attack. However, McClellan was still in command, and he was becoming increasingly unwilling to risk movement, let alone battle. On 26 October he at least crossed the Potomac, but moved so slowly that on 5 November he was relieved of command and replaced by General Burnside.

This was a poor decision. Even Burnside did not think it was wise, and he quickly demonstrated just how poor it was. His plan was to march south quickly, while Lee was resting in the Shenandoah Valley. However, when he reached Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River, his pontoon bridges were missing, and so he could not cross before Lee arrived and fortified a very strong position just back from the river. Astonishingly, Burnside came to the conclusion that as Lee would expect him to try and outflank this strong position, he would simply launch a frontal assault!

The ensuing Battle of Fredericksburg (13 December) had become notorious as a bloodbath, although the overall losses on the Union side were actually lower than at Second Bull Run, while the Confederates suffered some 5,309 losses themselves. However, it was Burnside’s near total lack of skill that stuck in the mind. His period in command quickly came to an end, and Lincoln had to find another commander for the Army of the Potomac.


His next choice was ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker. Hooker was very confident and very aggressive, but most of this turned out to be pure bluff. At first, he looked to be a most promising appointment. He restored the army’s confidence and then put together one of the best plans to be attempted by the Union armies in Virginia.

Taking advantage of his superior numbers, Hooker planned to split his army into three large units. One part of his army was to remain at Fredericksburg, in an attempt to pin Lee in place there. Another part was to move upstream to make what would look like his main flanking manoeuvre. Finally, one third of the army was to head further upstream on a wide flanking move that would hit the left and rear of Lee’s army.

Hooker’s bold plan began well. On 30 April, the main flanking force had already crossed all of the river barriers in its way, and had reached Chancellorsville.  Although Lee had not been fooled by the force at Fredericksburg, on 30 April his army was dangerously exposed to Hooker’s flanking attack.

On 1 May, Hooker had a chance to maul two divisions of Lee’s army, but instead he withdrew into the Wilderness, an area of scrubland around Chancellorsville, where his great advantage in numbers would count for less. Hooker’s judgement was clouded by his fear of a direct fight with Lee’s Confederates. Lee took advantage of his opponents’ worries and launched an attack that led to his most impressive victory (battle of Chancellorsville, 2-5 May). A large part of the Union army was forced into flight by another flanking manoeuvre. However, once again the Union army was able to re-form and hold most of its position. Only after the battle did Hooker decide to withdraw back across the Rappahannock River, conceding the battlefield to Lee.

Chancellorsville raised morale across the Confederacy and increased the already high morale of Lee’s army. However, impressive though it was, the Confederate cause suffered two blows at Chancellorsville. Despite all of Lee’s successes, his losses were just as high as Hookers (1665 killed and 9081 wounded for Lee compared to 1575 killed and 9594 wounded for Hooker). This passed relatively unnoticed at the time. However, one of the Confederate dead after Chancellorsville was Stonewall Jackson, dead of pneumonia after being shot by mistake by some of his own men.

The death of Jackson provides another of those ‘missed chances’ of the Confederate mythology. After Chancellorsville, Lee embarked on his great invasion of Pennsylvania, which was to end at Gettysburg. If he had had Jackson, the myth goes, the Lee would have won at Gettysburg, and the Confederacy would have survived.

Whatever the flaws of the Chancellorsville victory, it effectively ended any chances of any significant Federal campaign in the eastern theatre until the following year.


1864 was the pivotal year of the war. Ironically, most Confederate hopes were now centred on the Union ballot box. Their best chance of survival was to prevent the Union from winning any significant victories before the election. This might have resulted in a victory for the opponents of the war, and a negotiated peace.

In the Virginia theatre, the Confederates finally faced a determined, able opponent. General Ulysses S. Grant had finally been appointed General in Chief. Acknowledging that the Army of the Potomac had the best chance to win the war quickly, he attached himself to that army, although General Meade retained command of the army itself. At the start of May, their army began to move.

What made Grant so dangerous to the Confederacy was that he had moved on from the idea of a Napoleonic victory that would destroy the enemy army in a single battle. While he began the year’s campaign with the intention of out manoeuvring Lee in order to force a surrender, he was already aware that the Confederate army could only be destroyed in battle if you were willing to fight battle after battle, continuing on regardless of the individual results, until the enemy army had suffered too many losses to continue.

This would be a slow and bloody process, but it did hold out the hope of eventual victory. First, Grant attempted his war of manoeuvre. His aim was to keep moving east until he could outflank Lee’s right, cutting between the Confederate army and their base at Richmond, and forcing a surrender. A second Union army, the Army of the James was to operate against Lee’s left, to the north of Richmond. One of Grant’s failing throughout 1864 was that he did not properly coordinate the actions of these two major armies, but instead tended to launch attacks by one or the other, allowing Lee to move his troops around to counter each attack in turn.

Grant opened his 1864 campaign by crossing the Rapidan River near Chancellorsville, entering the same wilderness of scrub timber that had seen Hooker defeated the previous year. Once again, Lee moved to attack, and the Battle of the Wilderness (4-8 May) saw the Confederate army display some of its old skills, winning a significant victory. However, when Grant drew away from the Wilderness, it was not to retreat, but instead to move on to the south, in another attempt to outflank Lee.

This was probably one of the most significant moments of the war. Previous Union commanders had withdrawn after suffering similar losses, but Grant knew that he could afford them, even if he didn’t want or enjoy them.

As the two armies moved south, both build elaborate trench systems to defend themselves against frontal assaults. These systems were eventually to become a 30 mile long front line around Richmond and Petersburg, but for the moment they were part of the battlefield. At Spotsylvania (10-12 May), the Union army proved that these lines could still be breached, but the breach was not held, and once again the Union army suffered heavy losses. Still Grant moved on, this time heading along the North Anna River towards Hanover Junction. Once again, Lee was able to stop him (battle of the North Anna River, 20-26 May), but Grant kept on coming, next towards Cold Harbor (31 May -3 June), another Confederate victory, and for once at a rate of lose that they could afford.

Having been blocked out of Richmond, Grant now decided to cross the James River and head further south, this time towards Petersburg, a crucial railway junction linking Richmond to the rest of the south. For once Lee was outwitted. Grant managed to get his forces across the river and heading towards the lightly defended town without Lee really noticing. Unfortunately, the Union army was by now severely weakened itself by nearly two months of constant fighting, and missed a great chance to capture Petersburg easily (Battle of Petersburg, 15-18 June). The Army of the Potomac now settled down for a regular siege around the eastern flank of Richmond and Petersburg, while the Army of the James faced the northern defences of Richmond.

Unfortunately, Grant was not yet willing to try attacking with both of his armies at once. This was to allow Lee to extend his resistance by shifting troops from one front to the other on the railways that were securely within his lines.

The Army of James, commanded by General Ben Butler, had its go at the end of September. On 29 September it broke into the New Market Line of fortifications north of Richmond, and captured Fort Harrison, a strong but poorly defended Confederate position. The Confederate line eventually held, although a counterattack ordered by Lee on 30 September (2nd Battle of Fort Harrison) failed to achieve anything other than to bleed the Army of Northern Virginia just a little more.

On the last day of September, just as Porter’s attacks were drawing to a halt, Grant started moving south again. Over the next few months the Federal army made slow but steady progress around the south of Petersburg, slowly pushing around to the south west of the city, and threatening to cut the railways. As the Confederate line expanded, it also thinned, but it was not yet ready to snap.


That snapping point, and the inevitable collapse that came with it had to wait until the spring of 1865. One of the key objectives of the fighting in the autumn of 1864 had been the capture of a crossing point over the Hatcher’s Run. This was finally achieved on 7 February after a battle with at least six names (Dabney’s Mill/ Armstrong’s Mill/ Vaughan Road/ Second Hatcher’s Run, Rowanty Creek or Second Boydton Road, reflecting the widespread nature of the fighting). It was clearly a matter of time before the Confederate line was stretched so thin that a Union breakthrough was inevitable.  

The final collapse of Lee’s army was actually triggered by his own actions. Facing the prospect of a third Federal army (Sherman’s army, now in North Carolina), hitting him in the rear, Lee decided to attempt to shorten his line. He then hoped to be able to send some men to help defeat Sherman, allowing the troops engaged in the Carolinas to join him at Richmond. It was decided to attack Fort Stedman, a Federal strongpoint due east of Petersburg. If things went well, the Federal lines might be split in two, preventing Grant from taking the offensive while he restored his line. Even if that did not happen, Lee hoped that the attack would give him a chance to extract his army from the increasingly futile defence of Petersburg and Richmond without running the risk of a devastating Federal pursuit.

On 25 March, the attack was launched. Fort Stedman was captured after a surprise attack launched in the early morning, but the Federal forces in the area were simply too strong for the breach in their lines to be held. Fort Stedman was Lee’s last real offensive. His army had been so depleted by the attack that even the hope of an orderly retreat to join Johnston in North Carolina was effectively closed. Nevertheless, Lee continued to plan for such a move.

Meanwhile, Grant had finally decided to attack with all of his forces. He now had three armies, for Sheridan had joined him with the army that had finally cleared out the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan was immediately sent into the battle south of Petersburg, with most of the Federal cavalry as well as two army corps. His aim was to cut the last major supply route into Richmond, the Southside Railway.

The key to this would be the Five Forks Crossroad. Lee sent his last real reserves to the crossroads, with orders to hold it long enough for the rest of the army to retreat along the railway. On 1 April (Battle of Five Forks), Sheridan’s force smashed into the Confederate positions, sweeping them away and capturing the railway.

When the news reached Grant, he finally ordered all of his armies into the assault. At 4.30am on 2 April, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James finally began to roll back the Confederate lines all around Richmond and Petersburg. Lee’s army was finally beginning to collapse. Less than six hours after the attacks were launched (10.00am), Lee telegraphed Richmond to tell them to evacuate that day. On 2 April, Richmond was evacuated, and on the following day Federal troops marched into the Confederate capitol. Before the day was out, President Lincoln himself had visited both cities (having realised that the end was probably close, he had travelled from Washington to join the army).

With the last rail link south cut, Lee was now forced to begin his march to North Carolina by moving west, along the north bank of the Appomattox River to find a railway (The Richmond and Danville) heading south west that might allow him to slip past Grant’s army. This was futile. Sheridan was moving faster than Lee, and on 5 April his army reached the Richmond and Danville railway to the south of Lee. While Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia trudged ever further westwards, heading towards Lynchburg, now desperate to find supplies, let alone a route south, the Federal armies snapped at its heals. On 6 April at Sayler’s Creek Custer’s cavalry cut off about one third of the army. Sheridan acted quickly to prevent Custer from being brushed aside, and as a result managed to capture that third of Lee’s command.

Finally, on 8 April Custer’s cavalry, raiding Confederate supplies, found Lee’s army, camped to their east. Custer had cut Lee’s route to Lynchburg. Sheridan marched his infantry towards Custer’s position, where on 9 April Lee’s army launched its last attack, pushing back the Union cavalry before being forced to pull back by the Union infantry.

Lee now finally realised that more resistance was pointless. Two days earlier, Grant had opened communications through the lines, and requested surrender. Now, on 9 April, Lee and Grant met at Appomattox Court House, in a house owned by a man who had moved from the Bull Run area to avoid the war! The two men agreed terms for the surrender of Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia, and the fighting was over, at least in one theatre.

On 12 April, the remaining soldiers marched out to stack their arms. As they approached the Federal soldiers, their former enemies raised their muskets to the carry position, a signal of respect. The now ex-confederate troops responded in kind, and the hard work of reconciliation between North and South had begun.

Over the next few weeks, the remaining Confederate armies also surrendered – with Lee’s army gone, there were little point in continuing. Lee performed one last duty for the South. When some of his men suggested that the army should disperse and fight a guerrilla war, Lee dismissed the idea because of the amount of suffering it would cause in areas relatively untouched by the war. Just as Grant’s terms were to become the model for later Confederate surrenders, Lee’s attitude must have influenced many potential guerrillas.

Next: The Shenandoah Valley

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A Great Civil WarA Great Civil War, Russel F. Wiegley, Indiana University Press, 2004, 648 pages. This is a superb account of the civil war years. Weigley has produced a book that combines a good understanding of the military aspects of the war with a clear grasp of the wider issues at stake. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: The Eastern Front - Washington and Richmond ,

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