Events of the American Civil War - Charleston Harbor to Chancellorsville Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Events of the American Civil War - Charleston Harbor to Chancellorsville

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The American Civil War began on 12 April, 1861 with the soldiers of the newly formed Confederacy of seceded states (the South) firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Both sides fought valiantly, but the Confederates prevailed. The war had begun as a group of states in the American south seceded from the Union (the North) over slavery and the election of Abraham Lincoln - who wanted to limit the expansion of slavery.

There were two sides to the conflict - the Union, the remnants of states in the north left over after most of the south seceded, and the Confederacy, made up of seceded southern states. The war made more great leaders, deaths and history than any other period in American history.

First Bull Run (Manassas)

By 21 June, 1861 Lincoln had to use the three month volunteers in the army or else they would have left without having served in any major combat. Therefore, Lincoln wanted to send the troops into combat before he sent them home. Many people thought this battle would decisively end the war in favour of the North. The Union commander of the forces, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell complained that his men weren't experienced or trained enough to go into a big battle. GT Beauregard commanded Confederate forces, and his men were in disorder.

The two armies planned to control the Manassas Railroad Junction, which was near Bull Run. The Union marched on a relatively small brigade under Colonel Nathan Evans, who stalled the Union while the rest of the army assembled. Most of the Confederates retreated when the army faced them. However, an assembly of Virginians under Brigadier General Thomas Jackson stood strong. An officer named Barnard Bee yelled 'Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!'. From that point on, General Jackson was known as 'Stonewall' Jackson.

The retreating soldiers did rally, largely because Jackson's presence meant that reinforcements were there. These troops attacked the Union's right flank while the original soldiers charged on the Union. The Confederates yelled a fox-hunter's call as loudly as they could. This would become known as the 'Rebel Yell'.

The Union troops became a disorderly mob, running back towards Washington DC as quickly as they could. None of the officers could get the units to respond. The road their retreat was on was clogged with fleeing picnickers and politicians, who had planned to watch the battle while eating their lunches.

After this battle, the first real battle of the Civil War1, it became apparent that this would not be a short war set in. The embarrassing defeat of the Union demoralised the north, but made the idea of a long war, and the recruitment of a large army, more acceptable to the country. The Congress also became more supportive of the war... after all some Congressmen had watched the battle and slowed the army's retreat with all of the picnickers.

Forts Henry and Donelson

While most of the drama and combat in the Civil war took place in the east, there were plenty of battles in the west. One of the most compelling and interesting of these was the battle of Fort Henry and Donelson.

In Tennessee, there were two major forts. Fort Henry guarded the Tennessee River. Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland River. These rivers were important, as they were connected to the Mississippi River, and taking control of the Mississippi was vital to the Anaconda Plan.

General Henry Halleck, whose command included Missouri and Kentucky, sent Ulysses S Grant to capture Fort Henry, but a group of gunboats took it when Grant didn't appear on time. Not much of a battle ensued, because the Confederates fled about 20 miles to Fort Donelson. Fort Henry was the Union's at that point.

General Grant took ten days to reach Fort Donelson. He forced the Confederates there to surrender unconditionally. His initials, US, came to mean 'Unconditional Surrender'2

This brought quite some attention upon Grant, and the Union people made a hero out of him. Abraham Lincoln took note of the good skills Grant possessed as a general. He would prove himself to be one of the very few competent Union Generals in the war.

Pea Ridge

Pea Ridge was the battle for Missouri; a slave state which had remained in the Union. It took place near the border of Arkansas and Missouri, around Pea Ridge and near Elkhorn Tavern. The Federal army was stationed south of the place.

Confederate General Earl Van Doren halved his army and sent them to outflank the Union army on 6 March, 1862. When the Union heard of this, they mobilised the next day and marched to attack the enemy. They managed to kill or capture three important officers, and in doing so kept the southerners from attacking further that day.

On 8 March, Union Major General Samuel Curtis pushed the Confederates back from Elkhorn Tavern, and they fled the field. For the rest of the war, Missouri lay (mostly) uncontested in Union hands.

Monitor and Merrimack

In the early stages of the Civil War, the Union had a major advantage over the Confederacy in naval warfare. However, the Confederacy managed to create a new kind of ship - the ironclad - and reign over the Union for about one day, until the Monitor and Merrimack faced off. For more information on this, see this entry.


The battle of Shiloh encountered the fiercest fighting yet. This battle forced a change in tactics for every subsequent battle. Each army practiced an entirely different kind of war.

Following the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Confederate General Albert Johnston had to withdraw his forces to Corinth, Mississippi. His wish was to destroy the army of General Grant before it could be reinforced by forces from Ohio. On 2 April, 1862, Johnston began to march towards Grant. Grant had allowed his men to rest and furthermore to enjoy that rest. Grant's advisors and superiors said that the Confederate army wouldn't advance. Grant was planning to meet with the Army of the Ohio and mount an offensive in the south. He was preoccupied with planning this, and didn't even consider that Johnston might attack them. He didn't fortify his position at all.

Johnston and his men achieved almost total surprise. The Federals organised quickly enough, and resisted the Confederates stiffly. Grant's right fought around Shiloh Church (ironically, 'shiloh' is a Hebrew word meaning place of peace... it was anything but a place of peace during this battle), and fought vigorously. They gave some ground, but did not give in. The left flank was pounded, but held for a rather long time. Union men formed a final line slightly north, at Pittsburg Landing, on the river. They staved off a wave of attackers before the day ended. By the end of the first day, General Johnston was shot and replaced by General Beauregard.

On the second day, Grant was reinforced by Buell's Ohio army and a reserve division. With fresh forces, Grant was able to launch a counterattack. The Confederates fought back their enemy with heroism. However, Grant had more men and Beauregard was forced to order a retreat.

There were 23,746 men killed, missing or wounded on either side. Had the Confederates won, they would have been able to chase much of the army out of the south and control the vital railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi.

The Peninsular Campaign

One important piece of strategy for the Union was to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, in order to hurt the Confederacy's government and morale. Richmond was rather close to Washington, DC, almost in order to taunt it.

George McClellan was not a great general, but his Peninsular campaign was an inspired work. Based on the maps he had, his plan was ingenious. The idea was to march down the peninsula in between the James and York Rivers (having been transported there by the Union's navy) and to use the navy to defend the flanks of the army as it marched west towards Richmond.

However, some things happened. When the Confederacy slapped iron on the sides of the Merrimack, the navy that McClellan was planning to use in the James River was obsolete. However, he continued with his plan, and shipped some 120,000 men to the peninsula. When he had enough of his men, he aimed to destroy the defenses of the peninsula, namely the small Army of the Peninsula's lines. The leader of this army employed an old trick and made it seem, as best he could, that there were many more soldiers than there actually were.

As this happened, the navy refused to send ships to support McClellan and an entire corps was pulled from the campaign. Since he was weakened and he thought that the Confederate defences were stronger than he was, he decided to besiege the line. He waited long enough to lose the element of surprise, and General Johnston moved his army from Northern Virginia to meet McClellan in the Peninsula. Johnston, who knew the size of the Confederate Peninsula army, said that McClellan (known for being sometimes overcautious and not aggressive enough) was the only person who would have hesitated to attack.

As the siege was about to reach a climax, Johnston suddenly withdrew. McClellan tried to cut off Johnston, and General Sumner fought with Johnston in the battle of Williamsburg. After this, the main Confederate peninsula line was abandoned. Johnston managed to escape from McClellan's army back to Richmond.

As Lincoln grew tired McClellan's lack of action, he ordered an attack on Norfolk, the major naval port of the south, and leaving the James River clear for reinforcement. However, Lincoln held back on promised forces as he thought they may be needed for the defence of Washington, DC.

Heavy rain had made the Chickahominy River outside Richmond, nearly unpassable and McClellan had to wait. Johnston attacked McClellan's men outside of Seven Pines, and was seriously wounded. Robert E Lee assumed control of the Confederate forces. But the attacks were poorly coordinated and Lee was not able to salvage them.

The counteroffensive against McClellan's advance came on 25 June, 1862. It was actually a series of battles. It began with the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, and several very bloody encounters followed. The Union had to retreat from the strong counterassault. The last battle of the Seven Days battle came on 1 July. Richmond was safe from the Union's attack.

And thus, through a string of bad luck, bad reinforcements, bad intelligence and strong enemy leadership, McClellan's great Peninsula Campaign failed. It is possible that if Richmond were won (and it could have been), the Civil War would have ended. But it wasn't, so it didn't end.

Second Bull Run

After the Peninsular Campaign's failure, Lincoln relieved McClellan of most of his command, and tried out John Pope. The government decided that all of the major armies should come together and form one enormous force. McClellan and Burnside's armies were to unite under Pope and his men.

However, Robert E Lee was too good a general to let this happen. He had his two lieutenants, General Jackon and General Longstreet, divide up the forces. He wanted to draw Pope into combat in order to keep a huge army from forming. Jackson's troops were sent to attack a Federal column at Warrenton Turnpike. Pope believed he had gained the upper hand after a long-ish battle, and hit him with most of his army.

Pope either ignored Longstreet's troops or didn't notice them. He sent waves of soldiers to dispatch the Confederates, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. The next day, with Longstreet long ignored by the Union forces, he charged his half of the army in a huge counterattack against Pope. It crushed the US left flank, and they were forced to retreat before Lee crushed them. Lee pursued them, but they ran for Washington DC, and its defences were too strong for the Confederate army.

However, they made their way into Maryland, which led to the battle of Antietam.


Following the battle of Bull Run, Lee saw an opportunity to move the war into the Union's land. He did this this for several reasons. First, he needed supplies, and they were in the north. Second, he felt that if the European powers saw the CSA win a strong victory in the north, they would help their cause. Third, he wanted to make the state of Maryland secede from the Union. And fourth, they wanted to pressure the north into peace talks.

This was the first major Confederate advance on the North. Lee sent Generals Longstreet and Jackson into Maryland separately. Jackson was to capture Harpers Ferry and then reunite with Longstreet.

Meanwhile, a soldier in George McClellan's Army of the Potomac found the plan of Lee, and McClellan moved to cut Lee off. He found Lee without Jackson's army, and Lee attempted to hold him off as long as he could. He was heavily outnumbered, but was able to create a standstill around Antietam Creek, near the town of Sharpsburg on 15 September. The next day, Jackson's men arrived to help.

The day after this, on 17 September, the battle really began. Jackson's forces faced a difficult battle, and they were pummeled by heavy artillery fire. The Union and Confederate men jealously contested their ground. Jackson was hit with heavy casualties all over. Along a sunken road (now known as 'Bloody Lane') several Union divisions tried to push their enemies back. General Burnside's northern soldiers fought to cross a bridge over Antietam creek, which he finally did cross at about one in the afternoon.

Burnside's troops were threatening Lee's retreat route, but a division led by General AP Hill arrived, having been left behind at Harper's Ferry. Hill drove Burnside back, and after this the day - the bloodiest day during the Civil War - ended. Lee withdrew his troops the next day into Virginia. About 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing as a result of the battle.

Though no side could really claim a victory in the battle, it was a strategic victory for the North. It allowed Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and the Confederate retreat caused Great Britain to stay neutral for a while.

The Emancipation Proclamation

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to issue an order freeing slaves in the rebelling territories. The result would be to satisfy certain Republicans who wanted the institution gone and to hurt southern economic power. In addition, freed slaves would be able to serve in the Union army. He wouldn't free slaves in slave states that stayed with the Union, because he feared it might cause them to join the Confederacy. His cabinet advised him against this, fearing it would allow antislavery countries to support the Confederacy, but he intended to do it.

However, his Secretary of State insisted that Lincoln wait until the Union army won a major victory to issue his proclamation. He did just this, and Lincoln saw an opportunity following the Battle of Antietam. He issued it in a preliminary statement on 22 September, and the real statement was issued on 1 January, 1863. Of course, this didn't free any slaves immediately, because there was no way for Lincoln to enforce the proclamation in the south when he issued it.

This made a new Union goal for the war, not only to preserve the Union but to get rid of slavery in the United States.


Following McClellan's repeated failures and lapses of judgment, Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside. Shortly after being given his command, Burnside devised a strategy to attack Richmond through Fredericksburg. His enormous army of 115,000 men ran to Fredericksburg, but were unable to reach it, being on the wrong side of the Rappahannock River. When he arrived at the river, Burnside was opposed on the other side by only a few thousand men, and could have taken the town easily. However, he decided to wait for a set of pontoons to arrive to make a bridge. He wanted to take the town as one army, instead of sending one or two divisions to take the town by an alternate route. He didn't expect the Confederates to be on the move.

Lee heard of Burnside's advance and ordered his divided armies (he had split it into commands for Longstreet and Jackson again) towards Fredericksburg. The town was evacuated, and some southern soldiers were positioned around it. However, the bulk of the army, the corps led by Longstreet, was positioned on the hills directly behind the city. Jackson and his men were positioned on the right of Longstreet. While Burnside was pretty much not doing anything, Lee was entrenching his soldiers in the hills behind the city.

The Union began to construct the pontoon bridges, but a brigade firing on the unarmed Engineer regiments made it impossible. Burnside ordered a heavy bombardment of the city to get rid of the Confederate threat. The first element of Burnside's army crossed the river on 11 December. They quickly controlled the town, and looted it. His plan was to overwhelm Longstreet's men with superior numbers, then outmanoeuvre Jackson's men later. Few men agreed that this plan would work out that way, though.

Burnside sent several brigades to their death to attack the nearly impenetrable Confederate line at Marye's Heights. For a few days, waves and waves of Union soldiers were unsuccessful at getting through Longstreet's lines. Not one Union man went over the wall protecting the Confederates. On 15 December, Burnside decided to withdraw his men, after this embarrassing defeat.

The Federal morale dropped considerably after this defeat, while the Confederacy's morale was higher than ever. There were 13,000 Union casualties, and only 5,000 on the other side. This victory gave Lee a feeling as if he and the Army of Northern Virginia were almost invincible, and the Southern public basically agreed.


In January, Major General Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside as the leader of the army of the Potomac. Hooker's appointment was popular amongst the men, and restored some of the morale lost after Fredericksburg. Hooker reorganised the army, and created a cavalry corps.

He devised a trap for Lee, who had Jackson's men still in Marye's Heights beyond Fredericksburg - Longstreet was in Suffolk. Hooker sent his cavalry to end communications between Lee and Richmond. He kept a substantial number of men in Fredericksburg so that Lee couldn't leave his hills. Another force was sent to come at Lee's army from the west. This formed a trap around Lee, and left no retreat, at least not an easy one.

Meanwhile, Hooker sent his main army to advance on Lee's position, uniting at Chancellorsville - which was the name of a single tavern at the intersection of several roads. Lee didn't retreat, as Hooker thought he would - it was rather daring, as the Confederates were outnumbered by about a two to one ratio. Lee began to advance on Hooker's position in the woods. Hooker was left without any cavalry, because the attempts to cut off communication failed at first. He didn't know when Lee would attack.

Lee sent part of his 60,000 men to guard Fredericksburg and the other part to attack Hooker. They met on 1 May, and Hooker pulled back to Chancellorsville. This was in the middle of an area of heavy woods, and Hooker hoped that bringing the Confederates into the woods would disorganize them.

However, rather than sending his men into the thick woods, Lee sent most of the attacking men under General Jackson to attack Federal camps. Only two divisions were left to stop Hooker. Jackson's men attacked the right flank of the army, which was unprepared and sitting in its camp. The attack went from early morning of 2 May until dark, when the attack was halted as the Confederate lines were very confused. While planning the next day's offensive, General Jackson rode out ahead of his lines and was shot by his own men. Jackson was wounded, and his left arm was amputated. He died shortly after. Lee lost his most trusted commander and later said that though Jackson lost his left arm, he (Lee) lost his right.

On 3 May, JEB Stuart, who took control of Jackson's men, attempted to push through US lines to reunite with Lee. The Union men fought with valour to defend their lines, but Hooker ordered them to retreat towards Chancellorsville. Lee was about to start a final push and attack Chancellorsville, but he was distracted by a group of Union men who had broken the lines at Fredericksburg. By the time he returned to attack Hooker, he had withdrawn his troops and retreated.

Chancellorsville is widely considered to be Lee's finest work of leadership. Though he lost his trusted lieutenant Jackson by pneumonia on 10 May, he hit Hooker with 17,000 casualties and received only 14,000.

Further Reading

1Fort Sumter can hardly be considered a battle.2Grant's initials at birth had been HUG, but he didn't like them. By a mistake, his name was written as USG on an appointment to West Point Military Academy, and he never corrected the mistake.

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