The Civil War Battles – overview of key battles (Part 1)

Intro – Civil War Battles

The American Civil War raged from 1861-1865. Many Civil War battles were fought during war and an estimated 750,000 Americans died. This war still stands as the bloodiest war in American history and the turning point in American history. What decided this war was the battle that was fought to win it. While many American Civil War battles occurred over the course of war, some of those battles proved more impactful than others. In this article, we will look at the first half of the war, what is considered the “high watermark” of the Confederacy. We will analyze the major battles that took place. With each battle will be included a battle map to help you better understand what is being discussed. In addition to this, we will discuss the outcome of the battles, who won, and what the significance of those battles was.

American Civil War Battles Terms

Before we begin looking at Civil War battles, a quick note to the reader. If you are new to Civil War battles and studies, here is a quick guide to some of the terms used in this article:

  • A Major General is a two star general
  • A Brigadier General is a one star general
  • A route is an unorganized retreat
  • A flank is a manuveur in which an army goes around and attacks their enemy from behind
  • A fient is a show of force designed to distract an enemy from the real attack
  • An army is divided into a Corps
    • The number of Corps depend on the army being discussed

With that out of the way, let us dive into the major American Civil War battles of the first half of the war.

Battle of Fort Sumter

The opening shots of Civil War battles were fired at the Battle of Fort Sumter. The fort was situated in the Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. In 1861, the nation was focused on this harbor. South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December of 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln. South Carolina told the U.S. government to surrender the fort to their control. The commander of the fort during this crisis was Major Robert Anderson. He had his men stationed at Fort Moultrie.

Anderson’s Move

Anderson decided to move his troops from Moultrie to Sumter because it was a more defensible position. This enraged the Confederate leaders. Upon being inaugurated as the first and only Confederate president, Jefferson Davis sent P. G. T. Beauregard to take over the defenses around Fort Sumter. When Lincoln took office, he vowed to “hold, occupy, and possess” Union land in the South. Lincoln also learned that Anderson was low on supplies and that the men were in need of assistance. In response to this, Lincoln ordered a relief force to go to Sumter.

Civil War Battles Begin

This expedition that Lincoln ordered set out on April 6. Upon learning of this, Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to capture the fort and, if Anderson refused, “to reduce the fort.” On April 11, Anderson refused to relinquish the fort. On April 12, at 3:30 a.m., Anderson was informed that the Confederates would open fire in an hour. At 4:30 a.m., the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter. The fort was fired upon continuously, and on April 14, the Union force transferred control of the fort to the rebels. The Civil War had begun.

First Battle of Bull Run

After Fort Sumter fell and the Civil War began, the first engagement of the Civil War took place on July 21, 1861, near Manassas Junction and Bull Run Creek. Union General Irvin McDowell was in command of a 35,000-man Union army. These Union soldiers were situated near Centerville, Virginia. On July 18, these Union soldiers probed near Blackburn’s Ford and were repelled by rebels there under P.G.T. Beauregard (yes, that Beauregard). There were 22,000 Confederate soldiers under Beauregard opposing McDowell. Beauregard sent a telegram to Joseph E. Johnston, who was in the Shenandoah Valley with a force of 12,000.

Johnston was opposed by Robert Patterson and a Union army of 18,000. His task was to not let Johnston slip away, which is exactly what he did. Johnston’s force hopped on railcars and headed to reinforce Beauregard. This force began to arrive at Bull Run Creek on July 19.

The First Move

On July 21, at 2:00 a.m, Union forces began to move. Three brigades under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler were tasked with attacking the Confederate forces at the stone bridge. Tyler did not begin until 6:30 a.m. While Tyler and his force were moving, a brigade under Colonel Israel B. Richardson was tasked with making a demonstration, or show, designed to draw the Confederates’ attention. This faint was to take place at Blackburn’s and Mitchell’s Fords. However, neither of these moves was the main attack. The main assault would be a flanking move across Sudley Springs Ford.

Main Attack

While these faints were being launched by Union forces, 13,000 Union soldiers began to march around the Confederate lines in an attempt to flank the enemy or get behind them. While this move was taking place, Confederates under Brigadier General Nathaniel G. “Shanks” Evans were attacked at the stone bridge. Evans was alerted of the flanking maneuver and, in response, turned north to face the incoming column. When the Federal troops emerged at 10:00 a.m., they were fired upon by Evans’ men who were situated on Matthew’s Hill. Evans was then reinforced by brigades under Barnard Bee and Francis S. Bartow.

Henry House Hill

The Confederate forces held Matthew’s Hill until Union forces arrived and pushed the rebels back. It was at 11:15 a.m. that Johnston realized the real fight was taking place north of Blackburn’s Ford. In response, Beauregard and Johnston headed that way and organized the retreating Confederates on Henry Hill.

While the Union forces were smashing the Confederates on Matthew’s Hill, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson was stationing his men on Henry Hill. When the Confederates retreated from Matthew’s Hill, they rallied around Jackson and his men. When Barnard Bee saw Jackson and his men, he cried, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” Thus, the nickname “stonewall” was born.

Union Forces Routed

Just past noon on the 21, five Union brigades (about 10,000 men) attacked Henry Hill. Confederate soldiers repulsed these Federal attacks for over an hour. At 2 p.m., McDowell ordered two artillery batteries to Henry Hill. These cannons ended up being captured by the rebels and used against the Union. Fighting over the guns continued, and they changed hands several times. By 4:00 p.m., the Union force was exhausted. Soldiers began to retreat from Henry Hill across the stone bridge. Rebels pressed forward and hurried their retreat, turning it into a route. This ended in disaster for the Union and great victory for the South.

Battle of Shiloh

In the West during the Civil War, the Confederate “Army of the Mississippi” was situated at Corinth, Mississippi. The Confederate forces were under the command of Albert Sydney Johnston. P.G.T. Beauregard (there he is again) was second in command in the west. The total strength of this army was 40,000. They faced two Union armies, one Union army under Ulysses S. Grant and one Union army under Don Carlos Buell. There were also Federal troops in Missouri, bringing the total count to 90,000. Grant’s force had recently captured Fort Henry and Donelson and was now stationed at Pittsburg Landing, near the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Buell was ordered by Henry Halleck, who was in command of all Union forces in the west, to link up with Grant’s force. Knowing this, the Confederates decided to strike first.

Fighting Begins

On April 3, the Confederates began a slow move to attack the Union soldiers. This attack would not commence until April 6. Despite the slow speed and loud noise of the move, Grant was unaware of the attack. Around 6:00 a.m. on the 6th, Confederate forces smashed into the Union force near Shiloh Church. The rebels pushed the Union line back on the left and right. However, heavy fighting in the center continued in what would become known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” Here, brutal fighting occurred for hours; however, these were vital hours that the Union forces needed to regroup.

Albert Sydney Johnston Dies

During the day’s fighting, A.S. Johnston was shot and mortally wounded. With his death, command passed to Beauragaurd, who decided to halt the attack until morning, believing that all that was left was to sweep the Union from the field. However, during the night, reinforcements under Buell began to arrive and reinvigorated the Federal soldiers.

Confederates Defeated

The next day, the Union forces counterattacked and pushed the Confederate forces back to Corinth. This was the bloodiest battle in American history to that point. In fact, it was bloodier than all other battles combined. There were 13,000 Federal and 10,7000 Confederates casualties.

The Peninsular Campaign/Siege of Yorktown

After the disaster at Bull Run, McDowell was relieved of command of his Union forces, and command of the army was then shifted to George B. McClellan, one of the many interesting characters of the Civil War. “Little Mac,” as he was affectionately called by his men, set out to whip the Army of the Potomac into shape. However, McClellan began to show characteristics of inactivity. Finally, at the prodding of Washington, McClellan created a plan to defeat Johnston, who was still stationed at Manassas Junction. This plan involved loading his army into boats and traveling from Washington to Urbana on the Rappahannock River. From here, McClellan and his force would be between Richmond, the Confederate capital, and Johnston’s force.

Unfortunately for McClellan, Johnston moved from Manassas to the Rapidan River. McClellan then moved soldiers into Manassas and discovered the rebel force to be much smaller than he had previously estimated. In embarrassment, he changed his plan and decided to land his force at Fort Monroe between the York and James Rivers.

Johnston Moves

With Union soldiers concentrated on the tip of the Yorktown peninsula, Johnston was ordered to send troops to reinforce the Confederate force there under General Magruder. This put the Confederate force at Yorktown at 56,000 and the Federal force at Fort Monroe at 100,000. However, while nearly double the strength of the rebels, McClellan did not move swiftly. Instead, he settled for a siege of the famed site of General Cornwallis’ surrender during the American Revolution.

Confederates Retreat

On May 3, 1862, the Confederate force retreated to Williamsburg, Virginia. This siege lasted nearly a month despite the fact that the Union force held a nearly 2:1 advantage, leading many to consider this a defeat for the Union.

Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines)

After Johnston and his rebel force left Yorktown, they retreated to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Due to the Chickahominy River, McClellan was forced to divide his army into two. Johnston decided to go on the offensive to force the Union back to Washington. He planned to have Ambrose Powell Hill and Magruder’s divisions occupy the bulk of the Union forces north of the Chickahominy. The remainder of the rebels would attack Erasmus Keyes’s force.

Johnston wanted to attack Keyes with three different divisions, one on Nine Mile Road, one on Williamsburg Road, and one on Charles City Road. The main attack would be led by James Longstreet, who was to head from the Nine Mile Road and attack the Federals at Fair Oaks Station.

Johnston Fails

However, Johnston failed as a commander during this battle as he failed to communicate his plans with the leaders in Richmond and his battlefield orders were confusing. Longstreet also made a mistake as he went south instead of east. This cut off other Confederates from where they were supposed to be. He arrived at his location eight hours behind schedule. This led to an uncoordinated attack and left Hill unsupported.

Lee Takes Command

Hill attacked without help at 1:00 p.m. The rebels pushed the Union troops back a few miles but could not defeat their Northern opponents. Reinforcements arrived, and the Confederates retreated to Richmond. Johnston was wounded during the battle, giving command of the army to one of the most famous generals of the Civil War: Robert E. Lee. The result of the battle was inconclusive. The Federals suffered 5,000 casualties, and the rebels suffered 6,000.

The Seven Days Battle

After taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee began having his men build entrenchments. He then sent Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart went out to scout the Union force as he planned his offensive. Stuart began his raid on June 12. His force skirmished with Union soldiers and got behind the Union line. They rode around the entire Union force and returned to Lee on June 15.

The Battle of Mechanicsville

Then, on June 26, 1862, Lee made his move. He planned to strike the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac under Major General Fitz-John Porter. Lee planned to have a force of 25,000 men face off against and immobilize four Union corps (roughly between 60,000 to 80,000 men). Lee then planned to have Longstreet and Hill attack Porter’s V Corps. He also planned to have “Stonewall” Jackson return from his campaign in the Shenandoah Valley with 18,000 men and attack Porter’s flank. However, this plan failed as Longstreet and Hill failed to coordinate, and Hill was left out alone once again. However, while the attack failed, McClellan still believed he was outnumbered.

The Battle of Gains’ Mill

The following day, the Confederates repositioned to attack Porter once again. However, Jackson was over two hours late. Jackson reached the battle at 4:30 p.m. This, along with pressure from A.P. Hill, collapsed the Federal line. Porter and his V Corps were pushed back across the Chickahominy. While a victory for the rebels, they suffered 8,000 casualties against 4,000 for the Union. However, these Confederate victories convinced McClellan not to move on to Richmond and to find a new, safe base on the James River.

The Battle of Frayser’s Farm

As McClellan pulled his force back, on June 30, Jackson was sent to attack the retreating Federals. However, Jackson was delayed in crossing the Chickahominy. Then, he was defeated by Union soldiers across White Oak Swamp. Another Confederate column was sent to pursue the Federals along the Charles City Road. However, the artillery was unable to move due to the woods.

As a result, the column halted and missed the fighting on the 30th. A combined force under Hill and Longstreet was sent and clashed with Federals near Glendale at the Battle of Frayser’s Farm. Small land gains were made by the rebels; however, the battle had no real consequences. The Federals continued their retreat and took up positions on Malvern Hill.

The Battle for Malvern Hill

Then, on July 1, the Confederates attacked the Union army at Malvern Hil. Lee began the attack by bombarding the Union position with artillery. The firing began at 1 p.m. and continued for hours. At 6 p.m., Confederates under Magruder and Hill attacked the Union force. This was disastrous for the rebels; however, McClellan still had his men retreat to Harrison’s Landing.

McClellan escaped with his force back to the James, and while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lost one-fourth of their army in the sevens days, McClellan became convinced that he could not take Richmond. McClellan lost his self-confidence. Lincoln offered him reinforcements of 50,000 men; however, this was not enough for Little Mac. The army was then recalled to Washington.

Battle of Antietam

Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, which went very similar to the first battle, Robert E. Lee began his first invasion of the North. McClellan planned to meet Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, Maryland. McClellan sent in his First Corps under Major General Joseph Hooker to begin the fight in the north end of the field, near the North Wood and Miller’s Farm.

The Attack Begins

This attack began at dawn and was initially successful but was later repulsed after John Bell Hood counterattacked. Next, the XII Corps under Major General Joseph Mansfield attacked Miller’s cornfield. With these two attacks taking place, the Union pushed the Confederates back and reached the Dunker Church. Then a third Union attack took place under Major General Edwin V. Sumer and his II Corps.

Dunker Church and the Bloody Lane

This fighting occurred at the Dunker Church and the bloody lane. This saw some of the fiercest fightings of the war. Union troops were able to push the rebels back but had they been reinforced; they might have crushed Robert E. Lee. However, as was typical with McClellan, he was cautious and refused to send reserves in. Then, the second half of the battle occurred on the south side of the field.

Burnside Bridge

Here, the enemies were separated by Antietam Creek. Major General Ambrose Burnside began his attack and focused it on the stone bridge there. The Confederates that opposed Burnside were situated on a bluff, and Ambrose threw in half-hearted attempts. This led to a small number of rebels repelling an entire Union corps. By 1:00 p.m., the Union soldiers were able to capture the bridge and even take the bluff beyond it. However, Burnside delayed, and instead of crushing the rebels, A.P. Hill arrived just in time to push the Federals back.


The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American history. 10,000-14,000 Confederates were casualties, and 12,400 Union soldiers were casualties. Lee retreated, and his first invasion of the North ended. This was a tactical victory for the Union as they held the field; however, McClellan failed to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia when he had the chance to.

Battle of Fredericksburg

Following Antietam, McClellan was removed as commander of the Army of the Potomac for his performance during his Civil War battles. He was replaced by Ambrose E. Burnside. Ambrose launched his offensive which culminated on December 13, 1862, at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Burnside Moves

Burnside planned to get his 120,000 men across the Rappahannock River and onto the high ground beyond the river before Lee. There were only 500 Confederates defending Fredericksburg on November 17. With no bridges, Burnside planned to use pontoon bridges to get across the Rappahannock. However, the pontoons arrived much later than planned, which gave Lee crucial time to arrive at Fredericksburg.

The Attack

Burnside decided to launch a two-pronged attack against the rebels at Fredericksburg. One prong would attack Jackson’s corps, and the other would attack Marye’s Heights. The attack on Marye’s Heights was a massacre. The Confederates fired artillery and then rifles by the Confederates hidden in a sunken road defended by a stone wall. 10,000 men were killed attempting to take the heights, with none getting within 100 feet of the wall.

A Union Disaster

The attack to the south was piece-meal and saw some success before being pushed back. 12,000 Federals were casualties during the battle and 5,000 Confederates. This was a crushing victory for the Confederates and a disaster for the Union.

Battle of Chancellorsville

Following the disaster at Fredericksburg and another disaster when Burnside attempted to move the army, but rains and mud ruined the plan, Burnside was replaced by Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker rebuilt the army and morale and began planning an offensive. He planned a flanking maneuver to force Lee out of Fredericksburg. He began moving his army on April 26.

Hooker’s Plan

Hooker began to build up his force at Chancellorsville, hoping that the Wilderness would screen his movements. However, J.E.B. Stuart kept Robert E. Lee informed, and Lee decided to send a feint attack at Fredericksburg and send the rest of his force to Chancellorsvle to confront Hooker. On May 1, the Federals ran into rebel skirmishers. Hooker called his force back and decided to wait for Lee to attack. Lee was outnumbered by nearly 2:1; however, Lee still decided to divide his army and send Jackson with 25,000 men on a long flanking maneuver around Hooker’s right flank. Jackson began his move on May 2. Hooker learned of this move and believed it was a retreat.

Jackson’s Flanking Manuveur

Near 5:00 p.m., Jackson’s force came out of the thick brush of the Wilderness and caught the XI Corps by surprise. The Union force was pushed back until nighttime halted the rebel advance. That night as Jackson was scouting the battlefield, he was accidentally shot by friendly fire. He would later contract pneumonia and die. On May 3, Hooker pulled his force back and created a defensive arc. By midday, the armies learned that Sedgewick’s corps had overwhelmed the Confederates at Fredericksburg and were now heading to Chancellorsville. Lee then took his force to meet Sedgewick.

Salem Church

They clashed on May 4 at Salem Church, and the next day Sedgewick retreated. Hooker also decided to retreat the same night. The battle saw 16,800 Union casualties and 13,000 Confederate casualties. This was a Confederate victory and what many consider Lee’s greatest of his Civil War battles.

Battle of Gettysburg

July 1, 1863

Following Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee began a second invasion of the North. This invasion culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg. George G. Meade was also promoted and given command of the Army of the Potomac. On June 30, 1863, two brigades of Federal cavalry under Major General John Bufford saw rebel forces approaching. Burford decided this was a spot worth defending. On July 1, A.P. Hill, now a corps commander following Jackson’s death, attacked Buford’s dismounted cavalry. Fighting raged for two hours until John Reynolds’s corps arrived to reinforce Buford; Reynold would die that day. Fighting continued for another hour until the Confederates pulled back.

Ewell’s corps then arrived, and Lee sent them into the fight. This corps smashed into the Federals and pushed them back to Cemetery Hill. Ewell chose not to press the attack, which many consider a major mistake, allowing the Federals to entrench on the high ground.

July 2, 1863

The next day, the two reinforced armies clashed again. Lee planned an attack on the south end of the Federal “fish hook.” Lee ordered Longstreet to attack Little and Big Roundtop. However, Longstreet delayed the attack, likely because he believed that the Confederates should disengage and fight the Federals on the ground of their choosing. When the Confederates began their attack, they found Major General Dan Sickles out of position on the Emmitsburg Road. This created a salient, or bulge in the line, which the Confederates attacked. The fighting began at “Devil’s Den.” They pushed the Federals back to Little Round Top.

Here, the 20th Maine made their famous stand and pushed the Confederates back. At 5 p.m., Longstreet sent in McLaws’s division, who pushed the Union troops back through the Peach Orchard to the wheatfield. The Confederate advance stalled at Plum Run. Next, Anderson attacked in the middle of the Union line next and pushed the Federals off the hill briefly before Hancock repulsed the attack. Ewell attacked next on the north end of the “fish hook” at Culp’s Hill. Ewell initially pushed the Federals back. However, like Anderson, he was repulsed. The day saw nearly 20,000 casualties.

July 3, 1863

On the final day of fighting, one of the most notorious attacks of the war occurred. Believing that the previous days of fighting had weakened the Federal line in the middle, Lee focused his attention on this point in the line. Lee decided to send in a combined force under George Pickett and Johnson Pettigrew. This force numbered 12,500. Before these men marched straight at the Federal line, there would be a massive artillery barrage to weaken the line. This began at 1 p.m., and an hour later, the Union force slowed down their returning fire, making the Confederates believe the barrage had been successful. The Confederate charge began at about 3 p.m., and a slaughter ensued. The Federal artillery opened fire on the exposed line, and Union troops behind a stone wall opened fire as well. Some Confederates did manage to reach the Union line but were defeated.

Of the 12,500 men sent to the Federal line, 7,500 did not return. Only 800 of Pickett’s 5,000 men survived. The next day Lee retreated, and his second invasion of the North ended. The battle saw 23,000 Federal casualties and 28,000 Confederate and resulted in a Union victory.

Summary of Civil War Battles

These are the major battles of the Civil War that occurred between 1861-1863. In the next article, we will continue our examination of the major battles of the Civil War and see the battles that took place from 1863-1865. We will also discuss the end of the Civil War.

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