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

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Second Manassas and Sharpsburg

President Abraham Lincoln and General George Brinton McClellan

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (map)

The second battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run) on 28th to 30th Aug, fought over substantially the same ground as the war’s first battle, was the largest engagement of the Northern Virginia campaign of the eastern theatre of the Civil War which lasted from mid July to early September of 1862. In total the Union deployed the 78,000 troops of the newly formed Union  Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope, who were opposed by 50,000 men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee. The campaign is considered as a resounding Confederate victory.

The Army of Virginia had been established by Washington on 26th June 1862, the same day as Lee’s attack at Mechanicsville that began the Seven Days, with Gen John Pope appointed as its commander. Pope was a Mexican war veteran, who had also had a peacetime army career as a topographical engineer. At the outbreak of war he was assigned to the western theatre and despite a personality regarded as prickly and prone to bragging by his subordinates, he enjoyed the confidence of his commanding officer Gen Henry Halleck and led a number of successful actions. As commander of Union Army of the Mississippi, in Feb 1862, he was tasked with clearing Confederate obstacles from the river and as part of the campaign captured the rebel stronghold of New Madrid, Missouri in a surprise attack, then went on to capture the fortress of Island No. 10 on the Kentucky Bend of the great river, taking 12,000 prisoners and opening navigation of the river as far south as Memphis, Tennessee to the Union. For this success, Halleck promoted Pope to Maj Gen and placed him in command of one wing of his own army, then besieging Corinth, Mississippi, when Pope was summoned to Washington to be placed in command of the Army of Virginia.

After the embarrassing defeat of the Peninsula campaign, Lincoln had turned to Pope as a man more inclined to offensive intent than the over-cautious McClellan and tasked him with the defence of Washington and the Shenandoah Valley as well cutting the strategic Virginia Railroad connecting Gordonsville and Lynchburg in order to draw Lee out from the defences of Richmond. Campaigning in the Shenandoah had been in progress for 6 months, with the Confederate forces under the command of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a former mathematics professor. Despite his poor performance in the Seven Days, Jackson had enjoyed huge success in the Shenandoah, where his small force of 17,000 had defended the rich farmlands from three separate Union armies, each larger than his own, totalling  more than 53,000 men. At the battles of Kernstown, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic Jackson’s tiny force had consistently out-fought, out-marched and out-thought the Union forces, inflicting many casualties and stealing so many supplies from the enemy that the commander of the largest Union force, the hapless Gen Nathaniel Banks, was known to the rebel troops as “Quartermaster Banks”.

From an early point in the campaign, Pope showed that he had very different ideas on the prosecution of war from McClellan, believing that the consequences of rebellion should be brought home to civilians found to be aiding or sympathetic to the rebels. He ordered that any house from which shots were fired at Union troops be burned and its occupants taken as POW’s and that his officers be given licence to arrest any male civilian they considered “disloyal”. In addition he ordered that his army subsist from the land when in rebel areas, handing over worthless vouchers in payment, a system that rapidly degenerated into a licence for theft by his men. This caused outrage in the South where the press dubbed him “Miscreant Pope”.

Pope opened the campaign by concentrating his forces near Cedar Mountain, preparing to attack Gordonsville, while Jackson marched from the Valley and attempted to interdict him by occupying Culpepper Courthouse and Lee prepared to take the Army of Northern Virginia north from the defences of Richmond to confront Pope. On the 9th Aug at the battle of Cedar Mountain, 16,000 confederates under Jackson met and defeated 8,000 Union men under Banks, inflicting 2,400 casualties, but had to withdraw to Gordonsville after Pope brought up his main force. On Aug 13th, upon hearing that McClellan was evacuating his force from Harrison’s landing, Lee made his move and advanced to the Rappahannock river in the hope of confronting Pope before McClellan could reinforce him.

As Pope moved south along the Orange and Alexandria railroad to confront Lee, resulting in a series of inconclusive skirmishes around Rappahannock Station, Stonewall succeeded in getting behind Pope’s force and on 27th Aug captured and destroyed the gigantic Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, causing Pope to abruptly disengage and move north to confront him. The following day, the 28th Aug, one whole wing of Lee’s army under Gen James Longstreet, 28,000 strong, attacked the small Union of force of 5,000 guarding Thoroughfare Gap, scattering them and allowing Longstreet to reinforce Stonewall – with dire consequences for Pope as he had now allowed two significant portions of Lee’s army to unite against him.

Two days later, Stonewall made an attempt to lure Pope into battle by attacking part of his army along the Warrenton Turnpike, about two miles to the west of the stone bridge over Bull Run, where the war’s first battle had been fought. As Pope brought up his main force, 62,000 strong, Longstreet approached from Thoroughfare Gap and brought the Confederate force to 50,000 setting the scene for the 2nd battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run). Jackson deployed along an unfinished railway embankment and prepared for the attack. Unaware of how close Longstreet was, Pope was convinced he had trapped Jackson and launched an assault against the embankment, with heavy losses on both sides. As Longstreet arrived early the afternoon, he threw his 25,000 men against the Union forces recovering from the morning assault against Jackson and sent them reeling back across the old 1st Manassas battlefield and over Bull Run where they established fresh defensive positions. The Union lost 10,000 casualties, against just 1,300 Confederate – a crushing Confederate victory.

Pope withdrew his force to the northeast, concentrating around Centreville, but by Aug 31st, he had lost his nerve and decided to withdraw his army to the defences of Washington until directly ordered by Halleck to attack. Lee however had plans of his own, and on 1st September sent Stonewall and 20,000 men against a force of 8,000 Union men at the battle of Chantilly inflicting 1,500 casualties – including the two Union divisional commanders Philip Kearney and Isaac Stevens who were both killed. This brought to a close the disastrous Northern Virginia campaign, with Pope withdrawing to the defences of Washington under virtual siege. The campaign had cost the Union 16,000 casualties out of 78,000 engaged against 9,000 Confederate out of about 50,000 engaged. Union morale plummeted further after the disaster , whilst Lee’s reputation as a military genius was cemented. Modern scholarship regards the Northern Virginia Campaign as Lee’s finest achievement. Pope was removed from command shortly afterwards, and spent the remainder of the war on the western frontier, out of harm’s way.

Whilst the Union armies failed in the field, Lincoln had political problems of his own. Although an avowed opponent of slavery, he was also a realist. His principal war aim was to re-establish the Union; a precipitous move against slavery might damage the southern economy, but would have dire consequences for his own side too – “I would do it, if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise” he said. Nonetheless, in June 1862, on the eve of the Seven Days, Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, outlawed slavery in the western territories, settling the principal issue that had triggered secession in the first place. Lincoln took a secret decision to emancipate all slaves in rebel held areas, believing that such a proclamation would extinguish any remaining support for the Confederacy in Europe, particularly Britain and France. He was persuaded however by his wily Secretary of State William Seward to avoid any public announcement until better news arrived from the battlefield. Unfortunately for Lincoln, there was worse to come. In the western theatre, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had re-invaded Kentucky and attempted to establish a pro-Confederate government at Lexington. Meanwhile Lee, emboldened by his recent success, went on the offensive.

On the 3rd Sept, two days after the Confederate victory at Chantilly , Robert E Lee notified President Davis in Richmond that he intended to invade Maryland and attempt to raise the state for the Confederacy, then capture the rail centre at Harrisburg. The following day 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, near Leesburg, into Maryland and headed for the town of Frederick. A Maryland woman watched Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they passed – “… the dirtiest men I ever saw … a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that our Northern men lacked.”; whilst another wrote “This body of men moved with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two men dressed alike, the officers hardly distinguishable from the privates … were these the men who had defeated again and again our splendid legions ?”.

Desperate to get the Army of the Potomac back into the field Lincoln reluctantly turned again to McClellan to take the lead, reasoning that if anyone could get the army back on  its feet again, it was him. The decision was highly controversial however and caused a split in Lincoln’s cabinet, the majority signing a petition opposing the decision; Lincoln, always the pragmatist, felt that he had no choice saying “we must use the tools that we have”.

Despite having only 55,000 men at his disposal, against 90,000 available to McClellan, Lee defied military convention, as he did many times in his career, and split his force by detaching Stonewall to attack the Union ammunition depot at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1858 Lee himself had captured the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown. Deploying 30,000 against just 13,000 defending the town, Jackson forced their surrender after a three day siege, the largest Union surrender of the war. Lee meanwhile had concentrated his remaining force at Hagerstown, 20 miles to the north.

McClellan meanwhile, who had assumed that Lee’s objective must be to swing around to the east and threaten Washington, and was pursuing with his usual excess of caution, was handed the most extraordinary piece of luck. On 13th of September, as Jackson was besieging Harper’s Ferry, the Union commander was handed a piece of paper, found by one of his men in a field near Frederick used by the Confederates as a camp a few days earlier. The paper was wrapped round three cigars, but when opened and read, turned out to be a copy of Lee’s battle plan. At a stroke, McClellan now knew where Lee was headed and that he had split his force into two. “Here is a paper .. “ he told his men “with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home …”. A similar enthusiastic message was sent to Lincoln promising that he would “send trophies”. Typically for McClellan however, he did nothing for a whole day before finally making his move.

On the 16th of September, Lee with 18,000 of his men, took up defensive positions along a three mile ridge, a few miles to the east of the small town of Sharpsburg, and overlooking a small stream called Antietam Creek. Writing after the war, Lee’s subordinate Gen James Longstreet recalled the day “ … the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees crowning the heights on the eastern bank of Antietam Creek. The number increased and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see …”. McClellan had brought his main force, 90,000 strong, against Lee’s tiny, divided army. “There was but a single item in our advantage” one of Lee’s aides remembered “ … but it was an important one. McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself …”.

Had McClellan hurled his force across the creek that day, the war would have ended there and then, but he did not attack until the following day, believing that he had a least 100,000 men opposing him, giving Lee the chance to order Jackson to force march through the night from Harper’s Ferry and also to call up further troops under Gen Ambrose Powell Hill stationed at Botelers Ford, who would arrive mid way through the following day, more than doubling Lee’s force.

The battle commenced the following morning with an attack against Stonewall’s corps, at the northern end of the Confederate line, with an assault by 9,000 men of Gen Joseph’s Hooker’s corps along the Hagerstown turnpike towards a plateau on which sat a small whitewashed German Baptist chapel named Dunker Church. Seeing the Confederates massed in a cornfield ahead of them, an artillery duel ensued followed by a ferocious hand-to-hand fight in the cornfield before Confederate reinforcements arrived and a back-and- forth duel ensued that lasted all morning and ended in a bloody stalemate. At midday action shifted to the centre of the Confederate line, where 2,500 rebels held a sunken lane against twice that number of Union troops, as another hand to hand fight developed and each side threw in reinforcements until another stalemate ensued.

The final action of the day occurred in the southern section of the battlefield, where Gen Ambrose Burnside and 12,500 men had been ordered to stage a diversionary attack across the creek to coincide with the morning assault in the north, but due to confused orders, Burnside started his attack late. Immediately in front of Burnside’s position was a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, beyond which a small force of Confederate sharpshooters and a few artillery pieces were hiding in woods on a hill overlooking the bridge. Burnside appears not to have known that the creek was only waist deep and could have been forded with ease, instead funnelling his men across the bridge, where the rebels picked them off at will, causing heavy casualties. Eventually, after three separate assaults, sheer weight of numbers told, and the bridge was crossed and the Confederates were pushed back into the town, until AP Hill’s force arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time and stemmed the Union advance. By 18:00 the fighting had died down and Lee’s battered force re-grouped for the final assault that must come the next day – but it never did. McClellan, still convinced that he was outnumbered paused himself and allowed Lee to escape to the south, back across the Potomac. Desperate pleas from Washington to pursue Lee’s broken army were ignored as they “would not be prudent”.

Sharpsburg had 22,800 casualties, not only the single bloodiest day in the civil war, but the single bloodiest day in all US history, before or since. Lincoln held McClellan solely responsible for a stalemate that should have been a decisive victory – despite the huge odds in his favour his excessive caution meant that fully one third of the Union force never fired a shot. Lincoln sacked McClellan, who took no further part in military operations for the remainder of the war. In 1864, he secured the Democrat nomination for the presidential election of that year to stand against him  – a battle which he also lost.

Although a disaster in many ways, Sharpsburg came to be regarded a turning point in the war. It wasn’t the victory that Lincoln was looking for, but it was as much as he was going to get; on 22nd September he issued the Emancipation Proclamation – finally ending any thought in the minds of the British or French governments of any intervention in the war in favour of the Confederacy.



Copyright ©2012 Savereo John