Defining Events of the American Civil War

April 12, 1861

Fort Sumter

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the opening engagement of the American Civil War. It took place at the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

During the secession crisis, many threats were made to Federal Forts in the south. On December 26, 1860, after the secession of South Carolina, Major Robert Anderson, federal officer in command at the difficult-to-defend Fort Moultrie, moved his men along with their families to Fort Sumter. What followed was basically a siege of Fort Sumter, with supplies and communication controlled by Governor Francis Pickens.

Negotiations continued for many days between Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Major Robert Anderson, the Sumter garrison commander. When the talks failed to resolve tensions, Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. Major Anderson surrendered the following day.

July 21, 1861

First Bull Run / First Manassas

Following President Abraham Lincoln's orders, 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 land 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.

August 10, 1861

Wilson's Creek / Oak Hills

The first major battle of the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the American Civil War was fought on August 10, 1861, near Springfield, Missouri. Missouri was officially a neutral state, but its governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, supported the South and secretly collaborated with Confederate troops.

In August, Confederates under Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and Missouri State Guard troops under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price approached Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's Army of the West, camped at Springfield. On August 10, Lyon, in two columns commanded by himself and Col. Franz Sigel, attacked the Confederates on Wilson's Creek about 10 miles southwest of Springfield. Confederate cavalry received the first blow and retreated from the high ground. Confederate infantry attacked the Union forces three times during the day but failed to break through. Eventually, Sigel's column was driven back to Springfield, allowing the Confederates to consolidate their forces against Lyon's main column. When Lyon was killed and General Thomas William Sweeny wounded, Major Samuel D. Sturgis assumed command of the Union forces. When Sturgis realized that his men were exhausted and lacking ammunition, he ordered a retreat to Springfield. The battle was reckoned as a Confederate victory, but the Confederates were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue the retreating Union forces.

Although the state remained in the Union for the remainder of the war, the battle effectively gave the Confederates control of southwestern Missouri. The victory at Wilson's Creek also allowed Price to lead the Missouri State Guard north in a campaign culminating at the siege of Lexington, Missouri.

February 11 - 16, 1862

Fort Donelson

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, giving 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.

April 6 - 7, 1862

Shiloh / Pittsburg Landing

By February of 1862, the Union Army had achieved victories in central Kentucky and Tennessee. The army planned to move south and capture an important Confederate east-west railway hub in northern Mississippi. To defend the hub, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston fortified the town of Corinth, Mississippi. The Union planned to unite two armies—under Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell—and then take Corinth.

Grant's army arrived first and set up a camp in the town of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Shiloh Meeting House. Johnston planned to strike Grant's army before Buell arrived, and at dawn on the sixth of April, Johnston's forces attacked. Grant's Union forces were surprised, but remained in the field after a day of fierce fighting. Buell's forces finally arrived overnight, and the combined Union force attacked at dawn. Beauregard—the new Confederate general after Johnston was mortally wounded—withdrew.

The battle resulted in combined casualties of more than 23,000 people, and allowed Union forces to advance into the Mississippi River Valley.

May 31 - June 1, 1862

Seven Pines

The Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks and the Battle of Fair Oaks Station) marked the end of the Union's Peninsula Campaign. It was the closest Union troops had gotten to Richmond, the Confederate capital. The largest battle in the East to that point (with casualties outnumbered only by the Battle of Shiloh), Seven Pines's importance lay in its aftermath.

Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded and replaced by Major-General G.W. Smith. After Smith proved unimpressive, the Confederate leadership immediately replaced him with General Robert E. Lee. Lee's skill in command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia doubtless lengthened the war considerably. Originally nicknamed "Granny Lee" for his caution and willingness to fight defensively, Lee was widely accepted as one of the most able commanders on either side after his switch to aggression over defense.

September 17, 1862

Antietam / Sharpsburg

Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland in an attempt to knock the Union back on its heels. He devised a plan to split his army and take supplies to Maryland, move into Pennsylvania, and threaten Washington, D.C. However, when his plans fell into Union hands, 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.

Dec 11 - 15, 1862


This battle in the Eastern Theater of the war, between the Union Army of the Potomac commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee, included futile frontal attacks by the Union army on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders along the Sunken Wall on the heights behind the city. It is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the war, with Union casualties more than twice as heavy as those suffered by the Confederates. A visitor to the battlefield described the battle to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as a "butchery."

Burnside's plan was to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in mid-November and race to the Confederate capital of Richmond before Lee's army could stop him. Bureaucratic delays prevented Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges in time and Lee moved his army to block the crossings. When the Union army was finally able to build its bridges and cross under fire, direct combat within the city commenced. Union troops prepared to assault Confederate defensive positions south of the city and on a strongly fortified ridge just west of the city known as Marye's Heights.

On December 13, the Left Grand Division of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin was able to pierce the first defensive line of Confederate Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson to the south, but was eventually repulsed. Burnside ordered the Right and Center Grand Divisions of major generals Edwin V. Sumner and Joseph Hooker to launch multiple frontal assaults against Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's position on Marye's Heights; all were repulsed with heavy losses. On December 15, Burnside withdrew his army, ending another failed Union campaign in the Eastern Theater.

Jan 1, 1863

Emancipation Proclamation

Made possible by the Union victory at Antietam and issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order of President Lincoln that emancipated all slaves in the states still in rebellion against the Federal government. It did not apply to slaves in border states that had remained loyal to the Union including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Though the proclamation was not applicable until Confederate territory was retaken by Union forces, the order shifted the goal of war from simply reunifying the Union to eliminating slavery.

May 1 - 6, 1863


A major Union defeat, Chancellorsville is sometimes regarded as Lee's "perfect battle." By this time, Union General Burnside had lost command of the Army of the Potomac to Gen. Joseph Hooker, who proved no more able to best Lee than Burnside or McClellan. Lee divided his forces and sent Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to pierce through a rough forest to outflank units led by Hooker. After several days of fighting, the Union troops were forced to retreat.

Like the battles of Antietam and Seven Pines, however, the importance of this week-long battle lies in what happened afterward. Stonewall Jackson had won multiple key battles in the Shenandoah Valley, and played a crucial role in the victory at Chancellorsville. But on May 2, while scouting in the dark, Jackson was mistaken for the enemy and shot by his own Confederate picket line. Jackson lost his arm and died eight days later, on May 10, of pneumonia. As Lee put it on hearing of Jackson's injury: "He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right."

July 1 - 3, 1863


Although Antietam was a setback to Lee's plans, the Union failed to capitalize on it. Lincoln replaced McClellan, but his new generals' decisive losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville encouraged Lee to renew his plan to invade the North, threaten Washington, D.C., and force Lincoln to agree to a peace treaty.

As Lee moved the Army of Northern Virginia north, the new Union General, George Meade, shadowed him to protect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. The forces met at the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of the first of July. 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.

Lee prepared for the counterattack he expected the next day, but it never came. Though Meade failed to pursue Lee and end the rebellion, the battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy. Losses were devastating on both sides: 23,000 Union casualties and 28,000 for the Confederates. The South's hopes for foreign recognition of the Confederacy were erased. Demoralized, Lee offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis, but was refused.

May 22 - July 4, 1863

Siege of Vicksburg

Vicksburg, Mississippi, lies on the east bank of the Mississippi River, about halfway between Memphis, Tennessee, to the north and New Orleans, Louisiana, to the south. Confederate President Jefferson Davis considered the city, a fortress port and railroad hub, to be "the nail head that holds the South's two halves together." Capturing it would give control of the entire Mississippi to the Union. But the city, located on a bluff overlooking the river, was heavily defended, with trenches, gun batteries, and a Confederate Army led by General John C. Pemberton.

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. Gen. 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; split the Confederacy in two; and ensured that European powers did not recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, withholding much-needed support.

Nov 19, 1863

Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address, as it came to be known, was a speech given by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863 when visiting the dedication of a Cemetery in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the famously short but powerful speech, Lincoln honored the sacrifice of the soldiers who died there, and in doing so redefined the war as a struggle for the nation.

May 31 - June 12, 1864

Cold Harbor

Fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864, the Battle of Cold Harbor was the last major victory by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The battle was bloody and ended with massive Union casualties.

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. Gen. 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.

Aug 2 - 23, 1864

Mobile Bay

On August 5, 1864, a Union fleet commanded by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut and assisted by a contingent of soldiers attacked a smaller Confederate fleet led by Admiral Franklin Buchanan and three forts that guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay. Farragut's order of "Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" became famous in paraphrase, as "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

The battle was marked by Farragut's seemingly rash but ultimately successful run through a minefield that had just claimed one of his ironclad monitors, enabling his fleet to get beyond the range of the shore-based guns. This was followed by a reduction of the Confederate fleet to a single vessel, ironclad CSS Tennessee.

Tennessee did not then retire, but engaged the entire Northern fleet. Tennessee's armor enabled her to inflict more injury than she received, but she could not overcome the imbalance in numbers. She was eventually reduced to a motionless hulk and surrendered, ending the battle. With no Navy to support them, the three forts also surrendered within days. Complete control of lower Mobile Bay thus passed to the Union forces.

Mobile had been the last important port on the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River remaining in Confederate possession, so its closure was the final step in completing the blockade in that region.

October 19, 1864

Cedar Creek

Cedar Creek was one of the final nails in the Confederates' casket. Union troops finally took the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson's troops had once reigned supreme. It started well for the South as Jubal Early's troops attacked Union camps, driving out thousands of soldiers. But soon Confederates lost momentum while plundering Union supplies, and Union General Philip Sheridan rallied his troops, returning them to battle.

By the end of the day, the Shenandoah, former Confederate heartland, belonged to the Union. And because the Shenandoah was a major food source, the already desperate shortages for Southerners, both military and civilian, became even worse.

Nov 15 - Dec 21, 1864

Sherman's March to the Sea

The March to the Sea was the campaign of total war waged by General William Tecumseh Sherman following the capture and burning of Atlanta. From November 15 to December 21, Sherman and his forces marched through Georgia, destroying everything in their path to disrupt the southern economy and transportation networks. After the capture of Savannah, Sherman and his forces rested and then continued their march up the coast through the Carolinas, ending when Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston on April 26, 1865.

March 19 – 21, 1865


Fought as part of the Western Theater of the American Civil War, Bentonville was the last battle between the armies of Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.

As the right wing of Sherman's army under command of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard marched toward Goldsboro, the left wing under command of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum encountered the entrenched men of Johnston's army. On the first day of the battle, the Confederates attacked the XIV Corps and routed two divisions, but the rest of Sherman's army defended its positions successfully. The next day, as Sherman sent reinforcements to the battlefield and expected Johnston to withdraw, only minor sporadic fighting occurred.

On the third day, as skirmishing continued, the division of Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower followed a path into the Confederate rear and attacked. The Confederates were able to repulse the attack as Sherman ordered Mower back to connect with his own corps. Johnston elected to withdraw from the battlefield that night.

As a result of the overwhelming Union strength and the heavy casualties his army suffered in the battle, Johnston surrendered to Sherman little more than a month later at Bennett Place, near Durham Station. Coupled with Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9, Johnston's surrender represented the effective end of the war.

April 1, 1865

Five Forks

By April 1, 1865 it was becoming clear that the Confederacy was on its last legs. Atlanta had fallen, Fort Sumter was retaken and Sherman's "March to the Sea" had cut a swath through the Confederacy and earned the lasting hatred of those who suffered it. Defeat at Five Forks more or less caused the fall of both Petersburg and finally Richmond itself, which had been besieged by Union forces and could no longer be defended.

Five Forks led directly to fighting at Appomattox, where Lee's Army of Northern Virginia finally met its end. Faced with overwhelming opposition, hugely outnumbered, starving and without hope of resupply or rescue from a Confederacy that existed only on paper, Lee's only realistic choice was surrender.

April 9, 1865

Appomattox Court House

Fought on April 9, 1865, the final battle between the forces of General Ulysses Grant and General Robert E. Lee was the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Lee had spent the previous year defending Richmond but decided at this point to try and move south to link up with other Confederate forces. He was forced to retreat to Appomattox Court House by Union forces, and in the end had no choice but to surrender.

The documents signalling surrender were signed on April 9, and an official ceremony was held on April 12 disbanding the Army of Nothern Virginia that Lee had commanded. The effect of this was to end the war in Virginia and to trigger a wave of surrenders across remaining Confederate territory. The surrender at Appomattox Court House marked the end of the Civil War.

Grant was generous in his terms; he allowed for the surrendering Confederates to keep their sidearms and horses, imprisioned no one, and supplied Lee's army with food rations. Furthermore Grant forbade his own forces from celebrating their victory over the Confederates.