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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War


by William Marvel

Below are twenty-five of the most important land battles of the Civil War. Although the bloodiest encounters are included here, some of those that bore the greatest strategic or political fruits were relatively small affairs. All figures for the numbers of troops involved are approximate, as well as arguable. Casualty figures represent killed, wounded, and missing, and many are estimates, especially on the Confederate side.

1. MANASSAS, VIRGINIA, JULY 21, 1861. Union forces 32,000, casualties 2,708; Confederate forces 35,000, casualties 1,982. Also known as First Bull Run, this tactical Confederate victory left Southerners overconfident and stiffened Northern resolution.

2. WILSON'S CREEK, MISSOURI, AUGUST 10, 1861. Union forces 5,400, casualties 1,235; Confederate forces 12,000, casualties 1,184. Another tactical victory for the South, this engagement almost stopped Confederate momentum in a key border state.

3. GLORIETA, NEW MEXICO, MARCH 28, 1862. Union forces 1,300; Confederate forces 700; casualties just over 100 on each side. This desperate skirmish saved the Far West for the Union.

4. SHILOH, TENNESSEE, APRIL 6-7, 1862. Union forces 60,000, casualties 13,000; Confederate forces 40,000, casualties 10,700. Here the Confederacy missed an opportunity to destroy the major Federal army in the western theater.

5. SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES, VIRGINIA, JUNE 25-JULY 1, 1862. Union forces 100,000, casualties 15,849; Confederate forces 90,000, casualties 20,614. This series of battles drove the principal Union army away from the Confederate capital.

6. MANASSAS, VIRGINIA, AUGUST 29-30, 1862. Union forces 60,000, casualties 13,783; Confederate forces 50,000, casualties 8,681. In this, the second battle of Bull Run, Robert E. Lee's Confederates routed the second prong of the Federal effort against Richmond.

McClellan failed to destroy Lees isolated and weakened army, but he stopped the first invasion of the North and allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

7. ANTIETAM, MARYLAND, SEPTEMBER 17, 1862. Union forces 80,000, casualties 12,410; Confederate forces 40,000, casualties 10,318. In a battle known to the South as Sharpsburg, George McClellan failed to destroy Lee's isolated and weakened army, but he stopped the first invasion of the North and allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

8. PERRYVILLE, KENTUCKY, OCTOBER 8, 1862. Union forces 37,000, casualties 4,211; Confederate forces 16,000, casualties 3,396. This fierce little battle ended the Confederate invasion of Kentucky.

9. FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA, DECEMBER 11-15, 1862. Union forces 105,000, casualties 12,653; Confederate forces 80,000, casualties (est.) 5,000. Two assaults on either end of Lee's army both failed with heavy Union losses, and the defeat severely affected Northern morale.

10. STONES RIVER, TENNESSEE, DECEMBER 31, 1862-JANUARY 2, 1863. Union forces 44,000, casualties 12,906; Confederate forces 38,000, casualties 11,740. The repulse of this Confederate attack helped to improve the North's flagging will to fight.

11. CHANCELLORSVILLE, VIRGINIA, MAY 2-4, 1863. Union forces 90,000, casualties 16,792; Confederate forces 45,000, casualties 12,754. This classic defeat of the advancing Federal army paved the way for another invasion of the North.

12. GETTYSBURG, JULY 1-3, 1863. Union forces 90,000, casualties 23,190; Confederate forces 76,000, casualties 27,899. Here the Union Army of the Potomac won its first real victory over Lee's Confederates, ending the deepest invasion of Northern territory, but once again the crippled Southern army escaped back into Virginia.

13. SIEGE OF VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI, MAY 19-JULY 4, 1863. Union forces 45,000, casualties 8,765; Confederate forces 32,000, casualties 32,000 (mostly prisoners). The capture of an entire Confederate army spread gloom through the South and opened the Mississippi River to Federal navigation, splitting the Confederacy in two.

14. CHICKAMAUGA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 19-20, 1863. Union forces 58,000, casualties 16,179; Confederate forces 66,000, casualties 18,454. A rare concentration of superior Confederate forces drove the Union Army of the Tennessee out of Georgia and bottled it up in Chattanooga.

15. CHATTANOOGA, NOVEMBER 24-25, 1863. Union forces 61,000, casualties 5,824; Confederate forces 44,000, casualties 6,667. Ulysses Grant broke the siege of Chattanooga and sent the Confederates fleeing back into northern Georgia.

16. ATLANTA, GEORGIA, CAMPAIGN, MAY 6-SEPTEMBER 2, 1864. Union forces 99,000, casualties 35,000; Confederate forces 60,000, casualties (est.) 30,000. The capture of this important manufacturing and communications center helped President Lincoln win reelection.

17. WILDERNESS, VIRGINIA, MAY 5-6, 1864. Union forces 119,000, casualties 17,666; Confederate forces 65,000, casualties (est.) 11,000. Lee interrupted Grant's determined offensive but did not stop it despite furious resistance.

18. SPOTSYLVANIA, VIRGINIA, MAY 9-21, 1864. Union forces 105,000, casualties 18,399; Confederate forces 54,000, casualties (est.) 10,000. Again Lee stalled Grant, inflicting severe casualties but suffering commensurate losses.

Here Lee diverted Grant from Richmond one more time, stunning the Union army and discouraging it from attacking entrenchments.

19. COLD HARBOR, VIRGINIA, JUNE 2-4, 1864. Union forces 100,000, casualties 7,000; Confederate forces 58,000, casualties (est.) 1,500. Here Lee diverted Grant from Richmond one more time, stunning the Union army and discouraging it from attacking entrenchments.

20. SIEGE OF PETERSBURG AND RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, JUNE 15, 1864-APRIL 2, 1865. Union forces 104,000 (monthly average), casualties 55,000; Confederate forces 63,000 (average), casualties (est.) 30,000. While the Confederate army prolonged the war by holding out so long, the outcome was virtually assured from the moment the siege began.

21. CEDAR CREEK, VIRGINIA, OCTOBER 19, 1864. Union forces 40,000, casualties 5,665; Confederate forces 18,000, casualties (est.) 2,600. What began as a Federal rout turned into a spectacular victory that ended effective Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley.

22. NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, DECEMBER 15-16, 1864. Union forces 50,000, casualties 3,061; Confederate forces 30,000; casualties (est.) 6,000. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was driven from the field and all but destroyed by a Federal counterattack.

23. SAVANNAH CAMPAIGN, NOVEMBER 15-DECEMBER 22, 1864. Union forces 65,000, casualties 1338; Confederate forces 12,000, casualties (est.) 600. William Sherman cut a broad swath across Georgia in his March to the Sea, depleting civilian resources and morale while hopelessly outnumbered Confederates offered faint resistance.

24. BENTONVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA, MARCH 19-21, 1865. Union forces 48,000, casualties 1,527; Confederate forces 18,000, casualties (est.) 2,300. Accumulated fragments of the Confederacy's western and southern armies made one last bold attack on Sherman's advancing host, but overpowering Federal reinforcements forced a retreat.

25. APPOMATTOX, VIRGINIA, APRIL 8-9, 1865. Union forces 80,000, casualties (est.) 300; Confederate forces 30,000, casualties 30,000 (mostly prisoners). With the surrender here of its most powerful and prestigious army, the Confederacy's doom was assured.

(click on image for a PDF version)
(George Skoch)

McDowell began his advance into Virginia on July 16, intending to turn aside Beauregard at Manassas and march on Richmond. Taking the Confederate capital, it was thought, would put the Confederacy out of action. But at Manassas he was stopped by intimidating defenses erected at all of the usable fords across a small creek called Bull Run. Three days later, when he finally crossed and launched his attack, he discovered too late that Johnston had used the railroad, brought his forces from the Shenandoah to join Beauregard, and now the Confederates' numbers equaled his own. In a day-long battle marked by ineptitude, confusion, panic, and bravery on both sides, the Southerners put McDowell to rout but were themselves so disorganized that they could not pursue the fleeing Yankees into Washington, as President Davis desired. Still, the Confederacy had another great victory and gained heroes in the offing, especially Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, whose staunch stand in the heat of the fight led to his immortal nickname "Stonewall."



Fortune turned its face from the Union in the West, too. In August at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, Confederates pushed a smaller Federal army off the field and occupied most of Missouri as far north as the Missouri River, and three months later an attempt to secure a lodgment on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River at Belmont also forced the Yankees to retire. Still, the commander of the withdrawing bluecoats learned some valuable lessons that he would later put to good use when this obscure brigadier was better known as Ulysses S. Grant.

The impact of these unremitting defeats upon the North revealed one of the most remarkable attributes of the people of the states north of the Ohio and the Potomac. Depression certainly swept through the old Union. But almost everywhere that feeling gave way to indignation at the South for bringing this on—so they felt—and a determination to teach the Rebels a lesson. The unsuccessful generals must be ousted and new ones found. Instead of retreating from meeting the enemy in battle again, the people of the North demanded renewed offensives and redoubled efforts to crush the rebellion. No Americans in the nation's history to date had so felt the sting of defeat, and the Yankees wanted revenge for the insult to Old Glory and a chance to rub the Confederates' faces in the mire of failure.


From 1861 until the end of the war, this resolve of the North to stay with the fight, come what may, distinguished its efforts just as much as the incredible will to resist of the South. The Union would see many more defeats before it was done, many of them worse than the humiliation at Bull Run. Northern dinner tables would see depressingly greater and greater numbers of vacant chairs for the men and boys who went to war and never came home.

As the war dragged on and on with seemingly no end in sight, resolution did flag for many. The initial surge of volunteering that sustained President Lincoln's repeated calls for more troops in 1861 and 1862 began to dwindle. The government had to resort to paying bounties to encourage men to enlist, and by 1863 the War Department began to institute a draft to fill vacancies in its regiments. Although in fact the draft itself took relatively few men into the service, the potential social stigma of being drafted did encourage many to volunteer who might not otherwise have done so. But it also outraged the more conservative element in the North who saw it as an infringement of rights, a sign of Lincoln's tyranny. In New York in July 1863 draft riots broke out that quickly turned into general rioting among rowdies and poor immigrants, and for a brief time authorities suspended the draft, but it soon was reinstated. Commanders in the army noticed a definite decrease in the quality of the men coming into the ranks by 1864. The men with real zeal and motivation had all volunteered by then and were being replaced by the draftees and bounty men, who were less likely to risk themselves and more likely to desert. Still, by various means, the Union was able to keep supplying the voracious appetite of the armies for manpower right to the end.


In the end, more than 1,700,000 men wore the Union blue, and part of what put such massive numbers in the field and sustained them there was the resolve of the civilians at home. To be sure, the Union stood terribly divided on the issue of this war, what brought it about, and how—or even if—it should be prosecuted. While Republicans stood solidly behind the war effort, the old Democratic Party split between "War Democrats," who backed Lincoln for the most part and put the restoration of the Union above all else, and "Peace Democrats," who believed it unconstitutional for Lincoln to wage a war against the South to coerce it back into the Union. While few of these men actually wanted to see Confederate independence, they all felt that a forced maintenance of the whole Union was not worth the cost in lives and treasure. They favored negotiations giving the South constitutional guarantees on the slavery issue to lure it back into the fold, and many believed that if simply ignored, the seceded states would in time come back of their own accord. The voices of dissent with Lincoln's administration grew louder and louder, especially after every Union defeat. The most ardent anti-Lincoln Democrats came to be called "Copperheads," after the poisonous snake, and they feared that Republican war aims were not just restoration of the Union but destruction of the South so that it could never raise a serious political opposition again. To be sure, some of the most radical Republicans did envision this, as a punishment for Southern rebellion, but Lincoln and the mainstream of his party sought only reconciliation.



Although they never seriously threatened Union policy, the Copperheads became especially strong in the Midwest, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and in those states mounted the greatest protests. They exaggerated rumors of their own power, while fringe groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle generated outlandish stories of a hundred thousand or more members anxious to take arms for the Confederacy itself. In the fear and uncertainty generated by the war and the woeful impact that such critics could have on public opinion and morale in their regions, the Union clamped down on leading Copperheads, arresting many for treasonous activity, while employing spies and infiltrators to attempt to disrupt the efforts of others.


Almost as much as its opposition to the war itself, this opposition felt outrage in late 1862 when Lincoln announced his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Neither Lincoln nor the Union began the war with emancipation in mind. Had the Southern states laid down their arms and acknowledged themselves once more citizens of the United States, it is probable that Lincoln would not have interfered with slavery. Certainly he more than once said that such would be his policy. But as the war lasted into a second year, and Union fortunes continued to look poor, more and more Lincoln began to seek some great new weapon to use against the Confederacy.

Abolition of slavery always lay at the heart of a few Republicans' credo, and increasingly others came to their side, not so much out of moral feeling as because this presented an excellent club with which to beat the enemy. Declaring emancipation in those states in rebellion—where, ironically, Lincoln was not in a position to enforce it at the moment—might encourage slaves there to run away from their masters or else rise up in an insurrection of their own. In either case, the loss of their labor would injure the Confederate war effort because the manpower needs of the Southern armies were so great that relatively few able-bodied white men stayed at home, and slaves performed a major share of the planting and other civilian effort that supported the war. When Lincoln issued his first proclamation in September 1862, some thought it a bargaining tool—that he would rescind it if the Confederates gave up their resistance in return. But when he issued a second and final version on New Year's Day 1863, people realized that he was in earnest. Lincoln himself, who began the war willing to save the Union with or without slavery, had now come to see Union and emancipation as inseparable.


To his Democratic opposition in the North, emancipation was anathema. It violated their notion of constitutional property rights just as much as it did that of the Confederates. Moreover, it transformed the war—already unpopular with them—from a fight to save the Union to a war to free the slaves, something in which they felt no interest at all. They redoubled their attacks on the administration and gained much support from more moderate people all across the Union, people who shared the view that they should fight only for the one cause, and not for abolition. By the summer of 1864, with the military situation stagnant even though Federal armies held the upper hand, Lincoln saw this dissatisfaction grow to the point that those weary of the war, combined with his Democratic opposition, appeared to be strong enough to defeat his bid for reelection. At the Republican convention that year Lincoln won renomination, but only after considerable maneuvering by other would-be candidates failed. Still, as the fall approached, he feared, perhaps even believed, that he would be defeated. Beating Lincoln would offer a last chance for the Peace Democrats and those opposed to emancipation to thwart his policies. They put their hopes in General George B. McClellan, who himself shared the fear that Lincoln sought subjugation of the South rather than reconciliation and believed that no one had the right to interfere with slavery. When Lincoln beat the Democrat McClellan handily in November, effective opposition ceased, and the president and his party were free to press on toward the victory that had eluded them for so long.

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