Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Overview

  Confederate POW’s at Gettysburg

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Western Theatre of the Civil War  (map)

Some would say that the independence of the USA in 1776 with the institution of slavery still in place made later conflict inevitable; indeed Samuel Johnson once asked of the American colonists “why is it that the loudest cries for liberty come from those who drive negroes ?”. But whilst slavery was undoubtedly the issue that lit the fuse, the causes of the war (known also as the War Between the States) were more fundamental than that.  Just as in Britain at the time, where the USA was known as “the Republic in the West”, industrialisation was altering the economic and political landscape as well as the physical one. The conflict was reflection of a process already underway in countries like Britain and France, that of the emerging class of self made entrepreneur created by the industrial revolution – the holders of technological and financial equity – coming into political conflict with an older elite with their wealth based on agriculture and land. Rather like the English civil war of the seventeenth century, which is frequently represented as a struggle for popular democracy against despotic monarchy. In reality it was the interests of the most wealthy part of the country, the southeast of England vying for power with the Monarchy, versus the rest of the land. For the Americans, it was a newly industrialised north desperate to modernise, versus an agricultural south wedded to the past. As the economic and political balance shifted towards the North, it became more and more difficult to justify the South’s “peculiar institution”, although the fact remained that in 1861 the bulk (about 75%) of the USA’s foreign currency earnings still came from Southern agricultural produce, especially cotton and tobacco.

The election of the first president from the newly formed Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a noted supporter of abolition, proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the slave states, and in early 1861, seven of them seceded – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – to form the Confederate States of America. It president was Jefferson Davis, former Secretary of War in the 1850’s, with its capital at Mobile, Alabama – later moved to Richmond, Virginia.

The conflict began, at the lone federal outpost on the island of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, in April of that year; a small garrison of Union troops deliberately left there by Lincoln, safe in the knowledge that when the inevitable war came, the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic would report that it was the South that fired first. The South duly obliged, in the form of firebrand political activist Edmund Ruffin, an advocate of States Rights, Secession and Slavery, who lit the fuse on the first canon shot on Fort Sumter. In the days that followed, four more States seceded –Arkansas, North Carolina and the jewel in the crown – Virginia; also, after a referendum, Tennessee. Crucially, the fertile agricultural Commonwealth of Kentucky declared itself neutral.

The war was fought on three fronts. A naval blockade choked off all shipping, and thus all trade to the Confederacy plus there were amphibious attacks against the major ports, plus offensives were launched on land in both the eastern and western theatres. After the fall of the port of New Orleans in 1862, cotton exports from Southern plantations had fallen by 95% – causing not only the collapse of the Southern economy but mass unemployment in Britain, where 350,000 Lancashire mill workers were put on the dole causing riots and calls for the Royal Navy to break the blockade.

There were three theatres on land. In the east the two capitals were just 100 miles apart with two huge armies in between glowering at each other – the Army of Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. As can be seen from the table, showing the top ten battles by number of combatants, most of the war’s major battles were fought in the east and mostly resulted in an uneasy stalemate, the Seven Days, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Coldharbor, Spotsylvania, Sharpsburg and Gettysburg all occurred there. In the western theatre, a different war was fought, with wide open spaces crossed by mountains ranges , rivers and railways. This theatre centred on the struggle for control of Kentucky and Tennessee, and culminated in the siege of Atlanta in 1864. Chickamauga and Shiloh were the largest battles of this theatre. Finally, in the Mississippi valley a series of campaigns where fought for control of the river, including battles with iron clad gunboats and paddle steamers on the river itself. This theatre culminated with the fall of the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi river on 4th July 1863, the day after Gettysburg.

Nobody really knows how many men served in the American Civil War as records are incomplete, particularly on the Confederate side, and many men enlisted more than once to collect the bounty; a popular scam of time was to enlist in a town, collect the money, then move on to the next town to enlist again. This was later replaced by a substitute system whereby a rich man could pay someone else to carry out his service; the future presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland both paid substitutes to avoid conscription, as did Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and the fathers of future presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

What is more important than those enlisted however, is the total number who served – which comes to about 3 million – 2 million on the Union side and 1 million for the Confederates. Of that 3m, 600,000 would be casualties by the war’s end, 75% of them from disease. Civil War infantry were issued with bayonets and the cavalry with sabres, but they were rarely used. Most wounds were from gunshots – this was an infantry war, fought with percussion-cap, muzzle – loading rifles firing lead minie balls. In a typical civil war battle the two sides closed to 50 yards and popped away at each other until one side gave up. Cavalry were mostly used as the forerunners of mechanised infantry – they tended to fight mounted or dismounted with pistols and carbines, although by 1863, Union cavalry began to be issued with Spencer repeating rifles.

At the outset of war, the US army was tiny, barely 30,000 men all told, most of whom were deployed in the far west beyond the Mississippi river, defending against Native American incursions and guarding the communication routes to far-off California on the Pacific coast. The USA had not fought a foreign enemy since the Mexican war in the 1840’s and what little military experience it’s few officers possessed was learned there; although graduation through the military academy at West Point was a part of many a gentleman’s education. When war came most of the small army defected to the south, leaving the Union with the task of recruiting and equipping an army virtually from scratch.

There were something between 8,000 and 10,000 separate recorded incidents of hostilities in the conflict, but the majority of these were militarily insignificant. Of the battlefield engagements – from a skirmish involving a few hundred right up to a full scale battle involving many thousands – there were about 370. These range from the battle of Barbourville, Kentucky in Sept 1862 – an operation by 800 Rebels to destroy a training camp defended by 300 Union militia, up to the Seven Days – a complex series of interconnected battles where 92,000 Confederates led by Robert E Lee in his first major operation threw back the 104,000 man Union Army of the Potomac attempting to lay siege to the Rebel capital. Fully 35% of the battlefield engagements occurred in Virginia, with another 21% in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.

Two sets of historical records exist for the civil war – the Union records name the battles after the nearest body of water or river, the Confederates by the nearest populated place. Thus the first major battle of the war – the 1st battle of Bull Run, is known to Confederate historians as the 1st battle of Manassas; Since the first civil war author I read was Shelby Foote, Confederate nomenclature is adopted in this piece, with the Union name in brackets afterwards where appropriate.


Copyright ©2012 Savereo John