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7 Important Civil War Battles

7 Important Civil War Battles

When Southern rebels bombarded Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861, it was the start of a war between the Union and the secessionist Confederate States of America that would stretch on for four bloody years.

The war took a brutal toll. According to statistics compiled by the National Park Service,110,100 men on the Union side lost their lives in combat and another 275,174 were wounded in action, while 94,000 Confederates were killed and another 194,026 were wounded. Still more soldiers died of disease, starvation and accidents, so that the total death toll may have been as high as 850,000, according to a 2011 analysis.

Today, when we think of the Civil War, the names of a few hallowed battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Shiloh, come to mind. But the conflict was far bigger and bloodier in scope. Union and Confederate forces met in more than 10,000 armed confrontations across the nation, ranging from small clashes to full-scale battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers, in locations from Vermont to Arizona.

“Evaluating the importance of a battle can be a tricky business,” explains Jim Campi, a spokesman for the American Battlefield Trust, an organization that works to preserve historic battles sites across the nation and highlight their importance. “Battles are best assessed by their overall impact on the larger conflict—did it extend the war, or bring it closer to its conclusion; did it achieve a strategic objective, eliminate an enemy force or enable a combatant to bring more force to bear at a decisive point?”

Here are seven battles that proved pivotal in the American Civil War.

First Bull Run

July 21, 1861: Union Gen. Irvin McDowell marched out of Washington, D.C. into Virginia, intent on seizing the Confederate capital of Richmond and putting an end to the war. But most of McDowell’s men were inexperienced, 90-day volunteers, who’d joined in expectation of a brief conflict and had little idea what was in store for them. They came up against a force commanded by Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard, which was defending a critical railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia. When McDowell’s forces attacked, the Confederates initially were driven back, but reinforcements soon arrived, including a brigade led by then-Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, who would earn the nickname “Stonewall” for his tenacity in holding ground.

In the war’s first major battle, Union forces were routed, with an estimated 2,896 killed, wounded, missing or captured. The victorious Confederates suffered 1,982 casualties of their own. As each side counted their dead, it became evident that the struggle ahead would be longer and more grisly than Americans had expected.

Fort Donelson

February 11-16, 1862: One of the first major Union victories was then-Brig. Gen Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Fort Donelson, located along the Cumberland River in Tennessee. The Confederates initially repulsed an attack by union gunboats, and planned a bold counterattack against the Union troops to clear a path for escape. The Confederates seemed on the verge of success when they halted and retreated to their fortifications. That gave Grant time to figure out a weak point in the Confederate line—and attack it.

Confederate generals Gideon Pillow and John B. Floyd fled, leaving behind 13,000 soldiers, who waved a white flag above their fortifications. When the rebels asked for terms of surrender, Grant replied that no terms “except unconditional and immediate surrender” would be acceptable. This earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.”

The victory, along with the capture of nearby Fort Henry, opened up the state of Tennessee to Union invasion, and helped turn Grant into a national hero.

EXPLORE: Ulysses S. Grant: An Interactive Map of His Key Civil War Battles


September 17, 1862: Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland in an attempt to knock the Union back on its heels. President Abraham Lincoln sent Maj. Gen. George McClellan and his Army of the Potomac to stop him.

The two forces initially collided at dawn in a cornfield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, where their movements were obscured by the tall corn stalks as they fired upon one another. The battle eventually shifted to a stone bridge along Antietam Creek, where Union troops had to storm a Confederate position three times before finally capturing it. An estimated 22,717 men on both sides were killed, wounded, captured or went missing.

Though the battle ended in a stalemate, the Union had stymied Lee’s invasion. That gave Lincoln enough confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which redefined the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union to one focused on ending slavery. Meanwhile, photographs by Alexander Gardner of bodies strewn on the battlefield, displayed in Matthew Brady’s gallery in New York, brought home to northerners the brutal cost of the war.

READ MORE: How Photographer Mathew Brady Highlighted Gruesome Realities of the Civil War


May 1-6, 1863: Lee achieved one of his greatest triumphs at Chancellorsville, Virginia, where he divided his forces and sent Lt. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to force his way through a rough forest to outflank units led by Union Gen. Joseph Hooker. After several days of fighting, the Union troops were forced to retreat. By the end, Hooker had suffered more than 17,000 casualties to Lee’s nearly 13,000.

It was a decisive victory for Lee and the South—but it came at a high cost. Among Lee’s casualties was Jackson, one of the most capable Confederate officers. Jackson was wounded by friendly fire and died four days after the battle.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Chancellorsville


May 18-July 4, 1863: Confederate President Jefferson Davis saw Vicksburg, Mississippi, a fortress port and railroad hub along the Mississippi River, as “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” That made it imperative for the Union to take what was known as the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

In mid-May, Grant sent his forces to attack the city several times, but they were unable to penetrate the Confederates’ defenses. That forced him to settle into a long siege, in which he bombarded Vicksburg with artillery and fire from Union gunboats, and forced Confederate defenders and the civilian population to endure hunger and illness. Many hid in man-made caves dug under the city.

In June, Grant tried one last assault, deploying miners to tunnel under the Confederate fortifications and plant explosives that carved out a 12-foot-deep crater. But the Union forces were unable to advance out of it and had to retreat. By July, Confederate Lt. John C. Pemberton and his 29,000 men couldn’t hold out any longer, and had to surrender to Grant.

The victory gave the Union control of the critical supply line of the entire Mississippi River. And the Confederacy was split.

READ MORE: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Help Win the Civil War


July 1-3, 1863: Lee again invaded the Union in the summer of 1863 in hopes that he could beat the Union on its own soil, threaten Washington, D.C., and force Lincoln to agree to a peace treaty.

With Virginia devastated by the war, he also desperately needed supplies for his soldiers. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was pursued by Union forces led by Maj. George Meade, who caught up with them in Pennsylvania and confronted the Confederates at Gettysburg, in what was one of the most fateful battles in history.

Initially, the Confederates drove Union troops from fields west and north of the town, but they failed on the second day to break the Union line. On July 3, Lee attacked the center of the Union forces at Cemetery Ridge, south of Gettysburg. After two hours of shelling, Confederate Gen. George Pickett led two brigades in an assault on the Union position. Pickett’s Charge, as it became known, turned into a disaster, with the Confederates suffering 60 percent casualties. Lee was forced to retreat and abandon his invasion.

The battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy, and losses were devastating on both sides. Union casualties numbered 23,000, while the Confederates lost some 28,000 men. The South’s hopes for foreign recognition of the Confederacy were erased. Demoralized, Lee offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis, but was refused.

The Battle of Gettysburg took on even more significance in November 1863, when President Lincoln traveled to the site and delivered the Gettysburg Address. In the famously short but powerful speech, Lincoln honored the sacrifice of the soldiers who died there and redefined the war as a struggle for the nation.

READ MORE: How the Battle of Gettysburg Turned the Tide of the Civil War


July 22, 1864: Near the end of the war, a trio of Union armies, led by Gen. William T. Sherman converged upon Atlanta, where they were met outside the city by a desperate Confederate counterattack that failed.

The Battle of Atlanta was the bloodiest part of Sherman’s March through Georgia, costing the Union 3,700 casualties, while the Confederates lost 5,500 men. Sherman’s forces continued their advance and finally surrounded the city, besieging it for the entire month of August.

Finally, on September 1, Confederate Lt. John Bell Hood, a veteran of Antietam and Gettysburg who had lost his leg at the Battle of Chickamauga, gave up and abandoned the city, allowing Sherman’s forces to enter.

The capture of Atlanta crippled the Confederate war effort. For Lincoln, who faced a difficult election in 1864 against one of his former generals, George B. McClellan, the victory provided a lift at the polls, helping him win and pursue the war to its conclusion.

WATCH: America: The Story of Us: Civil War on HISTORY Vault

VIDEO: Battery H Of The 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery At Gettysburg

Civil War Times Editor Dana Shoaf shares the story of how Battery H of the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery found itself in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg. .

Dan Bullock: The youngest American killed in the Vietnam War

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Vicksburg’s strategic location on the Mississippi River made it a critical win for both the Union and the Confederacy. The Confederate surrender there ensured Union control of the Mississippi River and cleaved the South in two.

How it ended

Union victory. After a 47-day siege, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s Confederate troops surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Together with the Union victory at Gettysburg just a day before, Vicksburg marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Union army.

In context

The Mississippi River was the primary conduit for supplies and communication through the south as well as a vital lifeline for goods going north. To Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vicksburg was the "nailhead that holds the South's two halves together." President Abraham Lincoln remarked, “Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” The Vicksburg Campaign began in 1862 and ended with the Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863. With the loss of Confederate general John C. Pemberton’s army after the siege at Vicksburg and a Union victory at Port Hudson five days later, the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River and the Confederacy was split in half. Grant’s victory led to his continued command in eastern Tennessee and his eventual appointment as general-in-chief of the Union armies.

In the spring of 1863, Grant marches the Army of the Tennessee down the west side of the Mississippi River. The troops must rendezvous with the Union navy, which will provide transport for the river crossing into Confederate territory. On the evening of April 16, Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter sneaks his Union fleet past the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg to meet up with Grant. As the boats round De Soto Point, they are spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm. Although each vessel is hit by Confederate fire. Porter's fleet successfully fights its way past the Confederate batteries and meets up with Grant.

On April 29, Union troops attempt to cross the Mississippi at Grand Gulf. The Union fleet bombards Confederate defenses for five hours, but Grant’s troops are repulsed. Grant moves farther south in search of a more favorable crossing point and eventually finds one in Bruinsburg. In the early morning hours of April 30, infantrymen of the Twenty-fourth and Forty-sixth Indiana Regiments step ashore on Mississippi soil. The two sides clash at Port Gibson and Raymond. By May 14, the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi, is in Union hands. On May 16, Grant encounters Pemberton’s army and they exchange fire at Champion Hill. They clash again on May 17 at the Big Black River. Both battles result in Union victories and force the Confederates to retreat to their fortifications at Vicksburg with the Federals in hot pursuit.

May 18. Looking for a quick victory and not wanting to give Pemberton time to settle his garrison, Grant orders an immediate assault. Of his three corps, only Maj. Gen William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps, stationed northeast of the city, is in a position to attack.

May 19. Sherman’s assault focuses on the Stockade Redan, named for a log stockade wall across the Graveyard Road connecting two gun positions. Here, the Twenty-seventh Louisiana Infantry, reinforced by Col. Francis Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade, mans the rifle pits. Sherman’s men move forward down the road at 2 p.m. and are immediately slowed by the ravines and obstructions in front of the redan. The combat is fierce and bloody outside the Confederate works. The Thirteenth United States Infantry plants its colors on the redan but can advance no further. Sherman’s men pull back. Undaunted by this failure, Grant makes a more thorough reconnaissance of the defenses prior to ordering another assault.

May 22. Early in the morning, Union artillery opens fire and for four hours bombards the city's defenses. At 10 a.m. the guns fall silent and Union infantry advances on a three-mile front. Sherman attacks again down the Graveyard Road, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s Corps move against the center along the Jackson Road, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand’s Corps attack to the south at the Second Texas Lunette and the Railroad Redoubt, where the Southern Railroad crosses the Confederate lines. Surrounded by a ditch 10 feet deep and walls 20 feet high, the redoubt offers enfilading fire for rifles and artillery. After intense hand-to-hand fighting, Federals breach the Railroad Redoubt, capturing a handful of prisoners. The victory, however, is the only Confederate position captured that day.

Grant’s unsuccessful attacks give him no choice but to invest Vicksburg in a siege. As weeks go by, Pemberton’s defenders suffer from shortened rations, exposure to the elements, and constant bombardment from Grant’s army and navy gunboats. Reduced in number by sickness and casualties, the garrison of Vicksburg is spread dangerously thin. Civilians are hard hit, with many forced to live in crudely dug caves due to the heavy shelling.

June 25. Following Grant’s orders to dig tunnels and set explosives under the Confederate works, Union sappers detonate a mine with 2,200 pounds of black powder, causing a huge explosion. After more than 20 hours of hand-to-hand fighting in the 12-foot deep crater left by the blast, Union regiments are unable to advance and withdraw back to their lines. The siege continues.

July 3–4. With the situation dire for the Confederates, Grant and Pemberton meet between their lines. Grant insists on an unconditional surrender, but Pemberton refuses. Later that night Grant reconsiders and offers to parole the Confederate defenders. On July 4, the 47-day siege of Vicksburg is over.

American Civil War Timeline 1861

The battle that started the war. The Federal fort in Charleston Harbour was bombarded into surrender by the Confederates.

3 June 1861: Battle of Philippi (Philippi Races), Virginia

The first land battle of the Civil War, which gained its name for the speed of the Confederate retreat. There were only 17 casualties on either side!

10 June 1861: Battle of Big Bethal, Virginia

Defeat of a Federal attack on the fort at Big Bethal in Virginia.

12 July 1861: Battle of Rich Mountain, Virginia

Federal victory in West Virginia.

13 July: Skirmish at Corrick's Ford:

Action during the pursuit of the army defeated at Rich Mountain, in which the Confederate commander General Garnett becomes the first civil war general to be killed in action.

21 July 1861: First Battle of Bull Run/ Manassas, Virginia

Confederate victory over a Union army invading Virginia. Bull Run ensured that the Confederacy would survive past its first few months but also increased determination to fight on in the North.

22 July 1861

General McClellan appointed to command the army of the Potomac.

10 August 1861: Battle of Wilson&rsquos Creek, Missouri

Battle in Missouri that saw the death of the key Federal commander in the area.

The first of a series of battles that saw the Confederates loose control of most of the North Carolina coastline.

10 September 1861: Battle of Carnifex Ferry, West Virginia

Confederate forces in the south of West Virginia defeated by General Rosecrans

10-15 September 1861: Battle of Cheat Mountain, Virginia

A Confederate defeat in West Virginia, notable as the first battle commanded by General Lee.

21 October 1861: Battle of Ball&rsquos Bluff, Virginia

Defeat of a Union attempt to capture Leesbury (Virginia), forty miles up-river from Washington.

7 November 1861: Battle of Belmont, Missouri

An early battle in the career of U.S. Grant. An attempt to create a diversion in the Mississippi campaign, most significant for the battlefield experience it gave Grant.

7 November 1861: Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina

Important Union naval victory against the land fortifications of Port Royal. The victory gave the Union control of the coastal islands of South Carolina.

The American Civil War: Animated Battle Map

American Battlefield’s dramatic overview of the Civil War from before the Election of 1860 to the ratification of the Civil War Amendments. This video briefly covers the major battles and events.

My Rating: 12+ (violence reenacted, photographs of dead bodies)

Notes: The star of the show is the use of archival films, photographs, political cartoons, reenactments and animated maps

The First Battle of Bull Run (1861)

This is an obvious selection for most important battle as it was the first major one of the war. Every war has a beginning, and while tensions were rising way before the first shot went off, this, the first battle of Bull Run, marked the true beginning of the American Civil War. Bull Run was the location of two major battles in the war, both instigated by the Confederacy and both routing victories for the South.

First Battle of Bull Run July 1861. National Park Service Historical Archives

It is also surprisingly deceptive because it was an embarrassing loss for the North, the eventual victors. Up until this official start to violent hostilities, the Union was very confident that they could put down any rebellion from the Southern states. While the death toll wasn&rsquot as high in The First Battle of Bull Run as it would be in other major battles, it marked a new reality for the North, who from this point forward took the war much more seriously.

The outcome was inevitable once the rifles started firing. President Lincoln, realizing that war was no longer avoidable, increased the strength of the Union army by nearly 500,000 men. He also removed regulations limiting the length of service for all servicemen. The Federal government also passed several measures that helped bolster those numbers. It was the beginning of a national legislative agenda for freeing slaves from the South. The Confiscation Act of 1861 freed all slaves whose masters were taking part in the war.

In the end, while not the biggest nor the most explosive battle of the Civil War, it was the beginning of what proved to be years of violence that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. With this battle, the war was truly on from both sides, and it was only a matter of time before it became much more violent as the stakes became much higher.

7 Important Civil War Battles - HISTORY

Civil War Years, 1863, T-Shirts and Souvenirs from the official merchandise of America's Best History.

ABH Travel Tip

National Park Service sites are made available for your enjoyment of the history and recreation opportunities there. Please take time to keep your parks clean and respect the historic treasures there.

Photo above: Statue of John Burns on McPherson Ridge, Gettysburg, the only citizen to fight in the battle. John Burns would personally meet Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863.

Civil War Timeline - Major Battles

For four years from 1861-1865, battles were waged around the landscape of the United States, pitting brother against brother in a Civil War that would change the history of the USA forever. Over 720,000 of our citizens would perish in the battle for state's rights and slavery. Major battles were fought from Pennsylvania to Florida, from Virginia to New Mexico, and in the end, there would be one nation, under God, and indivisible, that last trait in jeopardy through the first half of the 1860's. The battles listed below are considered Class A/B (Decisive/Major) battles by the American Battle Protection Program of the NPS.

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January 1, 1863 - Second Battle of Galveston - Class B. Strength: Union 6 gunboats, unknown infantry Confederates 2 gunboats, unknown infantry. Casualties: Union 400 captured Confederates 143 killed/wounded. Union commander William B. Renshaw blows up a stranded ship USS Westfield Union soldiers on shore thought fleet had surrendered and laid down their arms. Galveston remained the only major port in Confederate hands at the end of the war.

April 30 - May 6, 1863 - Battle of Chancellorsville - Class A.
Strength: Union 134,000, Confederates 60,000.
Casualties (Killed/Wounded/Missing/Captured): Union 17,287, Confederates 13,303.
Perfect battle plan by General Robert E. Lee with risky split force move triumphs over General Joe Hooker's Union troops, but victory comes at high cost, with loss of General Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire.

May 1, 1863 - Battle of Port Gibson - Class B.
Strength: Union 2 corps Confederates 4 brigades.
Casualties: Union 861 Confederates 787.
Union victory at Port Gibson south of Vicksburg turned the flanks of the Confederate force, causing their retreat into Bayou Pierre, leaving several hundred prisoners behind.

May 3, 1863 - Second Battle of Fredericksburg - Class B.
Strength: Union 27,100 Confederates 12,000.
Casualties: Union 1,100 Confederates 700.
Union Generals Sedgwick and Gibbon attack the center of Marye's Heights, but are repulsed by Barksdale's brigade. Second attack against the flank and center pushes the Confederate force off the hill and back to Lee's Hill.

May 3, 1863 - Battle of Salem Church - Class B.
Strength: Union 23,000 Confederates 10,000.
Casualties: Union 4,611 Confederates 4,935.
Sedgwick, leaving Gibbon behind in Fredericksburg, moves out to join Hooker in Chancellorsville. General Robert E. Lee sends troops to engage, eventually driving the Union back to Fredericksburg, off Marye's Heights, and across the Rappahannock River.

May 12, 1863 - Battle of Raymond - Class B.
Strength: Union 12,000 Confederates 4,400.
Casualties: Union 446 Confederates 820.
Surprised by reinforcements of the Union, the Confederate defeat led to Federal troops reaching the Southern Railroad and preventing supplies from reaching Vicksburg, tightening the siege.

May 14, 1863 - Battle of Jackson, Mississippi - Class B.
Strength: Union 2 corps Confederates 6,000.
Casualties: Union 286 Confederates 850.
Battle meant to defend the troops of Confederate General Johnston as they retreated from Jackson, allowing Union control and ability to cut supply and railroad lines to Vicksburg.

May 16, 1863 - Battle of Champion Hill - Class A.
Strength: Union 32,000 Confederates 22,000 soldiers.
Casualties: Union 2,457 Confederates 3,840.
Three divisions of General Pemberton's Confederate force engage the Union twenty miles from Vicksburg, resulting in a decisive Union victory leading into the Vicksburg siege.

May 17, 1863 - Battle of Big Black River Bridge - Class B.
Strength: Union 3 divisions Confederates 5,000.
Casualties: Union 276 Confederates 1,751, including 1,700 captured.
Retreating from their defeat at Champion Hill, Pemberton defends the east bank of the river, but can not withstand a charge. After crossing the river, Pemberton orders the bridge burned and the Confederate force escapes to Vicksburg.

May 18 - July 4, 1863 - Siege of Vicksburg - Class A.
Strength: Union 77,000 Confederates 33,000.
Casualties: Union 4,835 Confederates 3,202 (killed, wounded, missing), 29,495 (captured).
After driving Pemberton's force from Champion Hill back into Vicksburg, U.S. Grant attempted two major assaults on May 19 and 22, which were repulsed with heavy casualties. A siege ensued for forty days with no reinforcements or supplies, the Confederates surrendered on July 4, one day after the Battle of Gettysburg. The Mississippi River would now be in control of the Union Army for the remainder of the war.

June 9, 1863 - Battle of Brandy Station - Class B.
Strength: Union 11,000 Confederates 9,500.
Casualties: Union 907 Confederates 523.
In the largest predominantly cavalry battle of the war, Union cavalry under Pleasonton attack J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry in inconclusive battle and fail to discover Lee's infantry near Culpeper. Despite that failure, draw in battle proved the effectiveness of the Union cavalry for the first time.

June 13-15, 1863 - Second Battle of Winchester - Class B.
Strength: Union 7,000 Confederates 12,500.
Casualties: Union 4,443, including 4,000 missing or captured Confederates 269.
After the Battle of Brandy Station, Robert E. Lee ordered General Ewell to clear the Shenandoah Valley to precipitate his invasion of Pennsylvania. Ewell attacked the various forts surrounding Winchester, defeating the Union garrison and capturing the city.

July 1-3, 1863 - Gettysburg - Class A.
Strength: Union 104,256 Confederates 71-75,000.
Casualties: Union 23,049 Confederates 23-28,000.
General Robert E. Lee's push into northern territory ends in the largest battle of the war with over fifty thousand casulaties. The ill-fated decision on the Third Day to attack the center of the Union line with Pickett's Charge ends in Confederate defeat and their High Water of the Confederacy would not again venture as deep into northern territory.

May 21 to July 9, 1863 - Siege of Port Hudson - Class A.
Strength: Union 30-40,000 Confederates 7,500.
Casualties: Union 5-10,000 Confederates 1,000 with 6,500 captured.
South of Vicksburg in Louisiana, Union General Banks was ordered to attack Port Hudson and then aid Grant in Vicksburg. His initial assaults failed, resulting in a forty-eight day siege. Both Union and Confederate soldiers suffered heavily from the fighting and disease. With the fall of Vicksburg and a lack of food and supplies, the Confederates surrendered, giving complete control of the Mississippi to the Union.

July 4, 1863 - Battle of Helena - Class B. Strength: Union 4,129 Confederates 7,646. Casualties: Union 239 Confederates 1,649. In an attempt to relieve pressure on Vicksburg, Confederate forces under General Holmes attack the fortifications of the Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. Miscommunication and confusing orders wasted some initial success, and the Confederates would issue a general retreat, securing eastern Arkansas for the Union.

July 17, 1863 - Battle of Honey Springs - Class B.
Strength: Union 3,000 Confederates 6,000.
Casualties: Union 79-200 Confederates 180-500.
In the largest battle in the Indian territory of Oklahoma, the Union victory of General Blunt led to the capture of Fort Smith and the Arkansas River Valley to the Mississippi. Engagement unique in that more Native and African-American soldiers took part than white soldiers.

July 18, 1863 - Second Battle of Fort Wagner - Class B.
Strength: Union 5,000, 6 ironclads Confederates 1,800.
Casualties: Union 1,515 Confederates 174.
Second attempt by the Union, including the 54th Massachusetts black regiment, to take South Carolina Fort Wagner fails when charges on the sixty yard wide approach in the dusk to night battle are reproached by the Confederate defenses.

August 17 - September 9, 1863 - Second Battle of Fort Sumter - Class B.
Strength: Union 413 Confederates 320.
Casualties: Union 117 Confederates 9.
Union General Gilmore bombard the fort and deploy a naval landing party, but are repulsed by P.G.T. Beauregard's men. Confederates remain in control of the fort. During this same period of time, the Union continued to attack Fort Wagner, which succumbed to the attacks.

September 8, 1863 - Second Battle of Sabine Pass - Class B.
Strength: Union 5,000, 4 gunboats, 18 transports Confederates 36 infantry.
Casualties: Union 200 killed/wounded/captured Confederates 0.
Ambitious amphibious assault, largest in U.S. history, planned against well-fortified Confederate location, Fort Sabine/Griffin, with little knowledge of river, ends in overwhelming defeat due to accurate gun barrage from the Confederate fort against the ships.

September 10, 1863 - Battle of Bayou Fourche - Class B.
Strength: Union 12,000 Confederates 7,700.
Casualties: Union 72 Confederates 64.
General Steele captures Little Rock after cavalry battle at the bayou forces Confederate troops back toward the town, which fell that afternoon.

September 19-20, 1863 - Chickamauga - Class A.
Strength: Union 60,000 Confederates 65,000.
Casualties: Union 16,170 Confederates 18,454.
Union troops headed into Georgia after forcing the Confederates out of Chattanooga Confederate troops under General Bragg wanted to force the Union out of Georgia and recapture Chattanooga. After several days of fighting, the Union returned to Chattanooga, defeated, with Bragg's Army now commanding the heights surrounding the city. This was the second most costly battle in the war per casualties after Gettysburg.

October 14, 1863 - Battle of Bristoe Station - Class B.
Strength: Union 8,383 Confederates 17,218.
Casualties: Union 540 Confederates 1,380.
Confederate attack by A.P. Hill's Third Corps is repelled by General Warren's Second Corps. Although a Union victory, Warren would retreat to Centreville and Confederate troops would destroy the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.

October 28-29, 1863 - Battle of Wauhatchie - Class B.
Strength: Union 2 corps Confederates 36 infantry.
Casualties: Union 420 Confederates 408.
Night battle against Brown's Ferry, which provided a supply line for the Union to Chattanooga, is defeated by two corps of Union troops under Generals Hooker and Geary. The supply line, known as the Cracker Line, would hold, leading the way to the Battle of Chattanooga one month later.

November 7, 1863 - Second Battle of Rappahannock Station - Class B.
Strength: Union 2,000 Confederates 2,000.
Casualties: Union 419 Confederates 1,670, including 1,600 captured.
General Early's troops secured the bridgehead defenses through the day, withstanding constant shelling from Sedgewick's artillery. General Lee, thinking the artillery shelling was a feint, was surprised at dusk when a sudden infantry assault secured the bridge, capturing one thousand six hundred men.

November 23-25, 1863 - Chattanooga - Class A. Strength: Union 72,500 Confederates 49,000. Casualties: Union 5,824 Confederates 8,684. Besieged by Confederate troops since the Battle of Chickamauga, U.S. Grant relieved pressure on the siege by opening the Cracker Line for supplies and reinforcements. With a series of attacks on points at Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, the Union prevailed, eliminating Confederate control in Tennessee and setting the stage for Sherman's March to Atlanta in 1864.

November 27 - December 2, 1863 - Battle of Mine Run - Class B.
Strength: Union 81,000 Confederates 48,000.
Casualties: Union 1,272 Confederates 680.
Meade's attempt at a quick strike battle was thwarted by traffic jams, allowing Lee's Second Corps to interdict the Union at Payne's Farm. During the night, Lee built fortifications along the river while Meade planned an artillery assault, then attack the next day. After the artillery barrage, Meade changed his mind, thinking the defenses too strong, and retired to winter quarters at Brandy Station.

November 27, 1863 - Battle of Ringgold Gap - Class B.
Strength: Union 16,000 Confederates 4,200.
Casualties: Union 509 Confederates 221.
The Confederate Army of the Tennessee retreats after defeat at the Battle of Chattanooga with General Cleburne's troops defending the gap with great success against the Union pursuit. Battle allowed safe passage for the majority of the Confederate force Grant decides to call off the pursuit and return to Chattanooga.

November 29, 1863 - Battle of Fort Sanders - Class B.
Strength: Union 440 Confederates 3,000.
Casualties: Union 13 Confederates 813, including 226 captured.
Dawn assault by James Longstreet against tough defenses is repulsed due to poor planning and execution. On December 4, Longstreet would leave Knoxville, ending the campaign to take the city.

Note: Image above: The Battle of Chickamauga painting by Kurz and Allison, 1890. Courtesy Library of Congress. Casualty and troop strength numbers from Wikipedia Commons.


In the Eastern theater, the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, attacked the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker planned to moved most of his army around to the Confederates's rear before Lee could react and force Lee to retreat but the Union army was slowed and then stopped by a small Confederate force, which was reinforced by the rest of the Confederate army. Lee then sent a flanking column led by Thomas J. Jackson around Hooker's left, which attacked a few hours before sunset on May 2 this attack and further Confederate attacks the following day forced Hooker to retreat on May 6. During the battle, Jackson was wounded by friendly fire and died several days later. [1] Lee reorganized his army following the campaign and launched an invasion of Union territory in June, moving through the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania Hooker was relieved of command on June 29, due to continuous disputes with the government over the garrison of Harpers Ferry, and replaced by Major General George Meade. During the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1 to July 3, Meade successfully held off Lee's attacks while inflicting heavy casualties in return. Lee was forced to retreat back to Virginia Meade followed in close pursuit but was unable to find an opportunity to completely crush the Confederate army. [2] In October, Lee attempted to isolate and destroy Meade during the Bristoe Campaign but failed in an attack on Union positions at the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14. Pressed by Union authorities, Meade also tried to attack Lee's positions along the Mine Run however, Lee was able to establish a fortified defensive line across the Union line of advance. Meade judged the Confederate position too strong to attack and retreated. [3]

In the Western Theater, simultaneous Union offensives from northern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana resulted in the sieges of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, both along the Mississippi River. Ulysses S. Grant started the Vicksburg campaign near the end of April when he crossed the Mississippi River near Bruinsburg Landing, south of Grand Gulf. He then marched inland and captured the Mississippi state capital of Jackson before turning east to Vicksburg this isolated the Confederate garrison from Confederate supplies and reinforcements. After a six-week siege, the Confederate garrison surrendered on July 4, followed by the surrender of Port Hudson on July 9 this resulted in the complete Union control of the Mississippi River and made Grant a hero in the North. [4] In central Tennessee, the Union Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General William S. Rosecrans maneuvered the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, towards Chattanooga, Tennessee during the Tullahoma Campaign from late June to early July. In early September, Rosecrans launched another offensive which resulted in the capture of Chattanooga, an important Confederate rail center however, a few weeks later Bragg, reinforced with James Longstreet's corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, attacked Rosecrans near the Chickamauga Creek and routed much of the Union army, forcing it to retreat back to Chattanooga. Stubborn resistance from the troops of George H. Thomas prevented the Confederates from launching an immediate pursuit. [5] Bragg settled his army into a siege of Chattanooga, almost completely cutting off all supplies to the Union army. Soon, dissension and arguments began to create tension in the Confederate army's high command this resulted in Longstreet being sent to eastern Tennessee and a reorganization of the army in an attempt by Bragg to rid the army of his critics. Grant, promoted to command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, took command of the Union forces near the city, which was reinforced by the Army of the Tennessee and a detachment from the Army of the Potomac. During the three days from November 23 to the 26, Grant launched a series of attacks on the Confederate positions and was able to drive off Bragg's army. A rear guard action by Patrick Cleaburne at Ringgold Gap halted the Union pursuit long enough for Bragg to reach safety. A few weeks after the battle, Bragg was relieved of command by his own request. [6]

In the Trans-Mississippi Theater, only small battles and skirmishes took place. On January 1, Confederate forces led by Major General John B. Magruder recaptured the port city of Galveston, the only port city which the Confederates were able to recapture during the war. In order to cut off the Trans-Mississippi supply lines to Port Hudson, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks moved up the Bayou Teche in Louisiana during April. For the remainder of the summer, Confederate commander Major General Richard Taylor attempted to cut off Banks' supply lines to New Orleans but failed. In September, Union forces tried to invade eastern Texas to counteract the French invasion of Mexico but were defeated at Sabine Pass, losing two gunboats and 350 men while the Confederates suffered no casualties. [7]

What are the best Major Civil War Battlefields?

1. Gettysburg Battlefield

Gettysburg National Military Park in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is brimming with approximately 1,328 monuments, markers and memorials relating to the American Civil War.

In fact, Gettysburg was just a small town until the summer of 1863, when it became the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the war between General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army and General George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac.

The Battle of Gettysburg raged from 1 to 3 July 1863, resulting in over 51,000 casualties and victory for Meade and the Unionists. It marked a significant turning point in the war, followed twenty one months later by Lee’s surrender.

Visitors can follow the route of Battle of Gettysburg, from Seminary Ridge and Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Ridge and Devils Den as well as visiting David Wills’ house, a museum about the town.

The National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center is a good place to start as it contains a wide range of Civil War related information as well as a plethora of guided tours and exhibitions. The Soldiers’ National Cemetery also offers a draw, being the location of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. This site features as one of our Top Ten US tourist Attractions.

2. Richmond National Battlefield Park

Richmond National Battlefield Park in Virginia is a collection of several historic battlefields, representing some of the fiercest fighting in the American Civil War, including the Seven Days’ Battles.

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, meaning that, between 1861 and 1865 Richmond and its surroundings were at the centre of a bloody tug of war between the Union and Confederate armies.

Richmond National Battlefield Park spans 1900 acres of Civil War sites, including famous battle sites such as Cold Harbor, Drewry’s Bluff and Gaines Mill, as well as the Chimborazo Medical Museum, which commemorates the work done at Chimborazo Hospital. This was one of the largest hospitals of its time, treating over 76,000 Confederates during the war.

With such an array of Civil War sites, it is worth starting your visit to Richmond National Battlefield Park at the Civil War Visitor Center at the Tredegar Iron Works. Not only is this the place to find park ranger guided tours of the battlefields, but the centre also includes an expansive military exhibit.

3. Antietam Battlefield

Antietam Battlefield was where, on 17 September 1862, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia met Major General George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac in what became the most brutal battle of the American Civil War. In fact, the Battle of Antietam remains the USA’s bloodiest single day of battle to date.

Part of the Maryland Campaign and the Confederate Army’s first incursion into the North, the Battle at Antietam raged for twelve hours and ended with a Confederate withdrawal, though only after a long, inconclusive, mutually destructive day's fighting. The total cost to both sides was estimated to be upwards of 23,000 casualties.

However, although not a conclusive victory for the Union, it did provide enough political cover to allow President Lincoln to move forward with his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Antietam Battlefield National Park commemorates this battle and is a goldmine of information about the War. With so many activities and tours, one could spend days there. However, those with limited time can visit the Antietam Battlefield visitors centre to see their exhibits, enjoy a battlefield talk by one of the Park Rangers or embark on an 8½ mile self guided tour of the Antietam Battlefield by car, bicycle or on foot.

The Antietam Battlefield tour has eleven stops and audio/CD guides are available at the park’s bookstore. There are also audiovisual experiences, one of which is introductory and runs for half an hour and the second an award-winning hour long recreation of the battle.

4. Vicksburg Battlefield

Vicksburg Battlefield was the site of one of the most important Union victories of the American Civil War and, together with the Battle of Gettysburg, marked a pivotal moment during the conflict.

With its strategically vital location near the Mississippi River, wealth of resources, access to Richmond and ability to split the south, President Abraham Lincoln considered Vicksburg to be “the key” to winning the war. Thus, Lincoln launched the Vicksburg Campaign to seize the town from the Confederates and, in 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army of the Tennessee towards the fateful battlefield.

Vicksburg was heavily defended and, only after two failed attempts on 19 and 22 May 1863, did Grant’s Union army manage to penetrate them. Grant changed his tactics from those of force to instigating a siege, cutting the Confederate troops at Vicksburg off from their communication and supply routes and preparing the way for an attack.

Then, from May 26, the Federal troops undertook a campaign to undermine the Confederate defences by tunnelling underneath them and destroying them with explosives. Two mines were indeed detonated in June together with several clashes and ongoing gunfire.

Finally, on 3 July, Confederate General Pemberton rode to meet Grant, displaying white flags. Initially unable to agree terms, the final Confederate surrender was signed the next day on 4 July 1863. The Union had gained their key to the South.

Today, Vicksburg Battlefield is a National Historic Park, which houses over a thousand monuments commemorating the siege of Vicksburg and its surrounding events together with a restored Federal navy boat, the USS Cairo, with its accompanying museum and a National Cemetery.

There are various activities at Vicksburg Battlefield, including an in-car tour of the site and a visitor centre with several exhibits. Nearby are related sites including the batteries at Louisiana Circle and Navy Circle as well as South Fort.

5. Shiloh Battlefield

Shiloh Battlefield in Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and Mississippi was the site of a Union victory in April 1862 during the American Civil War.

Known as the Battle of Shiloh and also as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, this clash saw the Confederates, led by General Albert Sidney Johnston mount an initially successful surprise attack on the Union army of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, only to be defeated the next day. Johnston was killed during the battle.

The Battle of Shiloh, which raged from 6 to 7 April 1862, was an attempt by both sides to secure strategic crossroads in the area, resulting in a total of 23,746 casualties.

Today, Shiloh Battlefield is part of the National Parks network and offers visitors a range of tours and exhibits to explore the area’s history.

In addition to viewing Shiloh Battlefield itself, visitors can see Shiloh National Cemetery and the Corinth Interpretative Centre. Corinth was also a crucial strategic point in the American Civil War, often known as the “linchpin” of Union control over the area. Several attempts would be made by the Confederates to seize Corinth, but the Union Army successfully defended their base.

6. Chancellorsville Battlefield

Chancellorsville Battlefield in Virginia was the site of a major Confederate victory during the American Civil War and part of the wider Chancellorsville Campaign, an attempt by the Unionists to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Fought between 30 April and 6 May 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville saw the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee defeat Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac despite all the odds being stacked in favour of the Unionists. Lee’s army was not only half the size of Hooker’s but was also in a state of disarray when the Chancellorsville Campaign began.

Yet, with the help of a risky plan by General Lee combined with Unionist miscommunication, badly managed Unionist corps and Hooker’s inexperience in command, the Confederates achieved victory. However, with over a quarter of Lee’s forces killed or wounded in the battle and the loss of his most important generals, including Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, this was something of a pyrrhic victory.

Today, visitors can explore Chancellorsville Battlefield within the wider remit of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Chancellorsville Battlefield offers numerous tours ranging from driving and walking tours to audio and virtual tours.

There is also a twenty minute video at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center as well as exhibitions and literature. The site also has a monument to Stonewall Jackson.

7. Fort Donelson Battlefield

Fort Donelson Battlefield was the site of a fierce and pivotal battle fought from 11 to 16 February 1862 as part of the American Civil War. The two parties involved were the Unionists commanded by the then Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederates, led by Brigadier General John B. Floyd.

The Battle of Fort Donelson was preceded by the capture of Fort Henry in western Tennessee by Grant a few days earlier. Viewing this victory as a chance to invade the South, Grant moved his forces towards Fort Donelson on 12 February.

The Battle
After a number of probing attacks and a naval gunship battle won by the Confederates, the Unionists started gaining momentum, due in large part to the reinforcements amassed by Grant. By 16 February, the Confederates had suffered major losses and Confederate Brigadier General Buckner asked Grant for terms to end the fighting. Grant’s now famous response was “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” And thus Buckner surrendered.

The Battle of Fort Donelson marked a significant win for the Unionists, breaking the South and forcing the Confederates to relinquish southern Kentucky as well as much of West and Middle Tennessee. Grant was promoted to the rank of major general and nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. His army would later be known as the Army of Tennessee.

Visiting Fort Donelson
Visitors to Fort Donelson Battlefield can learn more about the battle, its participants and its effects though a six mile self-guided tour as well as visiting the Fort Donelson cemetery.

It’s best to start at the Fort Donelson Battlefield visitor centre, which houses a number of exhibits and offers a short introductory film, giving an insight into the battle and a starting off point from which to plan your day.

8. Chickamauga Battlefield

Chickamauga Battlefield forms part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and is a major landmark in US history.

In the fall of 1863, General William S. Rosecrans' Union army fought General Braxton Bragg's Confederates for control of Chattanooga, a key rail centre and what was considered the gateway to the South. Nearby Chickamauga became the scene of the first battle for Chattanooga and in which the Confederates emerged victorious.

In fact, this was the last major victory for the South in the Civil War.

The 5,500 acre Chickamauga Battlefield is filled with historical tablets and monuments related to the American Civil War. Visitors can tour Chickamauga Battlefield by a seven-mile self-guiding auto tour as well while hiking and horse trails are also available.

Military enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to see the Fuller Gun Collection with over 300 examples of military long arms.

9. Cold Harbor

The Battle of Cold Harbor was part of the overland campaign of 1864 during the American Civil War.

It was here in Cold Harbor that, between 31 May and 12 June 1864, the Army of the Potomac led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant battled General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

With over 12,000 casualties to the Union army, the battle of Cold Harbor would be one of Lee’s final victories, prompting Grant to change his strategy.

Cold Harbor now forms part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, Virginia where visitors can find a myriad of Civil War related sites, tours and exhibits. Walking tours of Cold Harbor ranging from one to three miles start at the Visitors Centre in Mechanicsville which also houses a series of exhibits such as an electric map program for Cold Harbor and Gaines Mill.

10. Fredericksburg Battlefield

Fredericksburg Battlefield in Virginia was the site of the Battle of Fredericksburg, a major clash between the Unionists led by General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee during the American Civil War. It took place between 11 and 15 December 1862 near the heart of the Confederate capital in Richmond.

Burnside, who had been newly appointed to replace General McClellan, had planned to launch a surprise attack on the Confederates, but was severely compromised by a series of administrative errors. Most heinous of these was the slow arrival of floating bridges which the Union troops needed in order to cross the Rappahannock River. The delay in receiving those bridges lost the Union Army of the Potomac its element of surprise and allowed the Confederates plenty of time to amass their troops in the area.

The result was a series of frantic attempts by the Unionists to regain their advantage. Several attempts were made to cross the river and gain ground, but each was deflected by the Confederates. Both sides fought fiercely, but in the end the Battle of Fredericksburg resulted in a decisive Confederate victory, with 12,653 Union casualties to 5,377 Confederate casualties.

Visitors to Fredericksburg Battlefield are presented with an incredible number of tours including walking, guided, driving, audio and even virtual tours. From the Sunken Road, which acted as a natural trench and the original stone wall to Telegraph Hill or “Lee Hill” and its many monuments, Fredericksburg Battlefield offers an in-depth insight into both the battle itself and the war as a whole.

As part of the larger Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Fredericksburg Battlefield is surrounded by history. Those planning to visit Fredericksburg Battlefield can expect to spend at least half a day there. The audio tour alone lasts three hours. Having said this, the official National Parks website has suggestions for shorter and longer trips and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Centre does offer a good overview of the battle.

It is also worth noting that visitors can learn about the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, which took place in Marye's Heights on 3 May 1863 as part of the Chancellorsville Campaign.

Seven Days in History

Confederate infantry attacking Union artillery during the Battle of Malvern Hill Library of Congress

Proving his skeptics wrong, Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army at Richmond and after the Seven Days Battles pushed back Union forces and ensured his reputation as a brilliant commander.

On June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee replaced a wounded Joseph E. Johnston as the commander of the Confederate army defending Richmond. This change of leadership occurred as George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac, which numbered more than 100,000 men, approached the climax of their grand offensive against the Southern capital. Although Lee later achieved a towering reputation, news of his appointment provoked widespread concern across the Confederacy. A North Carolina woman gave voice to a common evaluation of Lee: "I do not much like him, he 'falls back' too much . His nick name last summer was 'old-stick-in-the-mud' . There is mud enough now in and about our lines, but pray God he may not fulfill the whole of his name."

Robert E. Lee Library of Congress

The next five weeks proved Lee's doubters wrong. No general exhibited more daring than the new Southern commander, who believed the Confederacy could counter Northern numbers only by seizing and holding the initiative. He spent June preparing for a supreme effort against McClellan. When "Stonewall" Jackson's command from the Shenandoah Valley and other reinforcements arrived, Lee's army, at nearly 90,000 strong, would be the largest Confederate force even placed in the field. By the last week of June, the Army of the Potomac lay astride the Chickahominy River, two-thirds of its strength south of the river and one-third north of it. Lee hoped to crush the portion north of the river then turn against the rest. Confederates repulsed a strong Union reconnaissance against their left on June 25, opening what became known as the Seven Days Battles and setting the stage for Lee's offensive.

Heavy fighting began on June 26 at the Battle of Mechanicsville and continued for the next five days. Lee consistently acted as the aggressor but never managed to land a decisive blow. At Mechanicsville, he expected Jackson to strike Union General Fitz John Porter's right flank. The hero of the Valley failed to appear in time, however, and A. P. Hill's Confederate division launched a futile frontal assault about mid-afternoon. Porter retreated to a strong position at Gaines's Mill, where Lee renewed his offensive on the 27th. Once again Jackson stumbled, as more than 50,000 Confederates mounted savage attacks along a wide front. Late in the day, Porter's lines gave way, and he withdrew across the Chickahominy to join the rest of McClellan's army. Jackson's poor performance, usually attributed to exhaustion verging on numbness, joined poor staff work and other factors in allowing Porter's exposed portion of McClellan's army to escape.

In the wake of Gaines's Mill, McClellan changed his base from the Pamunkey River to the James River, where Northern naval power could support the Army of the Potomac. Lee followed the retreating McClellan, who insisted the Rebels badly outnumbered his army, seeking to inflict a crippling blow as the Federals retreated southward across the Peninsula. After heavy skirmishing on June 28, the Confederates mounted ineffectual attacks on the 29th at Savage's Station and far heavier ones at Glendale (also known as Frayser's Farm) on the 30th. Stonewall Jackson played virtually no role in these actions, as time and again the Confederates failed to act in concert. By July 1, McClellan stood at Malvern Hill, a splendid defensive position overlooking the James. Lee resorted to unimaginative frontal assaults that afternoon. Whether driven by vexation at lost opportunities or his natural combativeness, he had made one of his poorest tactical decisions. Southern division commander Daniel Harvey Hill famously said of the action on July 1, "It was not war, it was murder." As evening fell, more than 5,000 Confederate casualties littered the slopes of Malvern Hill. Some of McClellan's officers urged a counterattack against the obviously battered enemy however, "Little Mac" retreated down the James to Harrison's Landing, where he awaited Lee's next move and issued endless requests for more men and supplies.

Casualties for the Seven Days were enormous. Lee's losses exceeded 20,000 killed, wounded, and missing, while McClellan's surpassed 16,000. Gaines's Mill, where combined losses exceeded 15,000, marked the point of greatest slaughter. Thousands of dead and maimed soldiers brought the reality of war to Richmond's residents. One woman wrote, "death held a carnival in our city. The weather was excessively hot. It was midsummer, gangrene and erysipelas attacked the wounded, and those who might have been cured of their wounds were cut down by these diseases."

Hand-to-hand fighting erupted as the Reserves rushed to reclaim captured cannons on the front line. Courtesy Don Troiani, Historical Art Prints

The campaign's importance extended far beyond setting a new standard of carnage in Virginia. Lee had seized the initiative, dramatically altering the strategic picture by dictating the action to a compliant McClellan. Lee's first effort in field command lacked tactical polish but nevertheless generated immense dividends. The Seven Days Battles saved Richmond and inspirited a Confederate people buffeted by dismal military news from other theaters. The victory also caused Lee's reputation to shoot upward, beginning the process by which he and his army would emerge, by the late spring of 1863 at the latest, as the principal national rallying point for the Confederate people. One of the Richmond newspapers captured this element of the campaign's aftermath when it commented that "the brilliancy of Lee's genius" manifested at the Seven Days had "established his reputation forever, and . entitled himself to the lasting gratitude of his country."

On the Union side, the campaign dampened expectations of victory that had mounted steadily as United States armies in Tennessee and along the Mississippi River won a string of successes. McClellan's failure also exacerbated political divisions in the United States, clearing the way for Republicans to implement policies that would strike at slavery and other Rebel property. The end of the rebellion had seemed to be in sight when McClellan prepared to march up the Peninsula after Malvern Hill, only the most obtuse observers failed to see that the war would continue in a more comprehensive manner. "We have been and are in a depressed, dismal, . state of anxiety and irritability" wrote a perceptive New Yorker after McClellan's retreat. "The cause of the country does not seem to be thriving just now."

Confederate infantry attacking Union artillery during the Battle of Malvern Hill Library of Congress

The campaign also underscored the degree to which events in the Virginia theater dominated perceptions about the war's progress. Despite enormous Northern achievement in the western campaigns, most people North and South, as well as observers in Britain and France, interpreted the Seven Days as evidence that the Confederacy was winning the war. Lincoln wrote about this phenomenon in early August, complaining that "it seems unreasonable that a series of successes, extending through half-a-year, and clearing more than a hundred thousand square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt us so much." Lincoln did not exaggerate the impact of McClellan's failure. Taken overall, the ramifications were such that the Richmond campaign must be reckoned one of the turning points of the war.

Watch the video: Battle of Shiloh 1862 - American Civil War DOCUMENTARY (January 2022).