American Civil War: 1861–1865

Early Battles of the American Civil War

Major Battles of the Civil War, 1861-65

From the start of the war, the North engaged Confederate forces not only in eastern states but also farther west. Western battles took place in Arkansas and Tennessee, for instance, as the North sought to deny the South access to the Mississippi.

First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas)

The First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), fought outside of Washington, D.C., was an early victory for the Confederacy and a wake-up call to the Union that the war would not end quickly or easily.

The First Battle of Bull Run, waged on July 21, 1861, is recognized as the first major battle of the Civil War. The battle is also referred to as First Manassas. This is because of a difference in naming conventions between the Union and the Confederacy. The Union generally named battles for nearby bodies of water—in this instance a stream called Bull Run—while the Confederacy used the names of nearby cities and towns.

President Abraham Lincoln, responding to pressure to go on the offensive against the South, ordered Union troops led by General Irvin McDowell to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. However, McDowell and his troops never reached their final destination. Instead they were blocked by Confederate troops led by General P.G.T. Beauregard outside of Manassas in northern Virginia, approximately 25 miles from Washington, D.C.

Union and Confederate troops met in battle on a Sunday morning. Congress members, war journalists, and members of Washington society, including ladies toting picnic baskets, had come to watch the fighting, certain of a Union victory that would put a quick end to the war. For this reason, the ensuing battle would earn another name: the "picnic battle."

Despite a general lack of training and preparedness and the oppressive July heat, the Union troops managed to surprise their enemy. Under McDowell's direction, they crossed Bull Run, a nearby stream, and took the Confederates by surprise. However, the Union forces began to tire as the day wore on. Their fate was sealed when additional Confederate troops arrived by train to the town of Manassas.

McDowell and his men were forced to retreat. Many men ran from the battlefield after hearing the terrifying "rebel yell," a blood-curdling battle cry used by the Southern soldiers. Meanwhile the spectators who had gathered to watch the conflict were eyewitnesses to the rout and were caught up in the chaos of the Union retreat.

The First Battle of Bull Run was a decisive victory for the Confederacy, though both sides suffered comparable losses. Of the 32,230 Confederate soldiers at the battle, over 1,900 were killed or wounded, and 13 were either captured or went missing. Of the 28,450 Union soldiers, just under 1,600 were killed or wounded, while about 1,300 were captured or went missing.

The First Battle of Bull Run served as a wake-up call for the North. The war between the Union and the Confederacy would not be short, and it would not be easy. It also brought home the harsh, painful realities of war that challenged the enthusiasm of both sides. In response to the battle, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the creation of a half-million-man army and three-year enlistment terms. General George B. McClellan was also placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac, the Union forces located near Washington, D.C.

Battle of Hampton Roads and the Role of Ironclads

The Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8–March 9, 1862) was the most significant naval battle of the Civil War. It was fought between two ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack.

The Battle of Hampton Roads, also called the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, was the first battle fought between ironclads in the history of the world. An ironclad was a wooden warship of the period covered with protective iron plates. The Monitor was 172 feet long, and its decks were at water level. The Merrimack was a much larger ship. The 275-foot Northern frigate had been salvaged by the Confederacy and outfitted with iron armor. The Confederates sailed it under a new name, the Virginia.

On March 8, 1862, the Merrimack engaged in battle with three wooden Union ships near Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Confederate ironclad, under command of Commodore Franklin Buchanan, destroyed two wooden Union ships and ran a third ship aground.

The Monitor, captained by Lieutenant John Worden, sailed into the area late on March 8, and battle between the two ironclads began on the morning of March 9. Both Union and Confederate onlookers on the shore and on the decks of nearby ships watched as the two vessels fired at each other. The Monitor proved much faster than its Confederate adversary, but neither ship's crew was particularly adept at landing blows.

In the late morning, the Merrimack hit the Monitor and sent iron fragments through the air, some striking the eyes of Lieutenant Worden. The Monitor veered off into shallow waters. The crew of the Merrimack then briefly turned its attention to another Union ship before heading back to its navy yard in Norfolk, Virginia. The ship had begun to leak, was low on ammunition, and was struggling to maintain speed. The Union suffered 409 casualties, while the Confederacy suffered only 24.
In 1862 printmaking firm Currier & Ives documented the world's first battle between ironclad ships-the Monitor and the Merrimack-clashing at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-09944
Though neither side could claim decisive victory—both ships were damaged, but neither sunk—the Battle of Hampton Roads was significant for a number of reasons. It marked the end of naval warfare with wooden ships. It also gave the Confederacy false hope that they could end the Northern blockade of its ports. The Union, too, was encouraged by the success of the duel and felt favored by its outcome. Both sides experienced a considerable boost in morale.

The Monitor and the Merrimack had a second encounter on April 11, but they did not engage in battle. The crew of the Merrimack destroyed the ship a month later on May 9, 1862, during the evacuation of Norfolk, to prevent it from falling into Union hands. The Monitor endured until the end of the year before being lost in a storm on December 31.

Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas)

Though the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862) cost the Confederacy thousands of soldiers, it was still a clear victory for the rebel army and ultimately led to the reorganization of the Union forces.

The Second Battle of Bull Run, also called Second Manassas, took place August 28–30, 1862. It was fought near the same field as the First Battle of Bull Run. This time the clash occurred between Union Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia and Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, including forces led by General Stonewall Jackson. Robert E. Lee, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was a Confederate general and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia from June 1862 to April 1865.

On August 27, Jackson's men captured the Union supply depot at Manassas and destroyed it before making their way northwest of the town. The Confederates attacked Pope's forces on the Warrenton Turnpike on August 28 as the Union troops attempted to move west toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. The fighting lasted less than a day and was without a clear winner.

The next day, August 29, Pope launched a counterattack on Jackson's troops. Pope mistakenly assumed he had Jackson cornered. In reality, Jackson's men were able to forcefully repel the Union troops while reinforcements led by Confederate General James Longstreet made their way to the field.

The fighting continued on August 30. The Confederates redoubled their efforts to repel the Union troops, launching a synchronized mass assault—the single largest of the Civil War. Pope and his men retreated from the battlefield. Of the 55,000 Confederate troops at the battle, over 1,300 died and over 7,000 were wounded. Meanwhile, of the Union's 70,000 men, some 1,700 soldiers died, over 8,000 were wounded, and nearly 4,000 were captured or went missing.

The Second Battle of Bull Run had several implications for the future of the war. First, it led to the removal of John Pope from his position. Second, it made possible a subsequent rebel invasion of the North. Third, the outcome of the battle gave the Confederacy greater clout in its attempts to gain international support for its cause.

Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) marked the end of Lee's Northern Virginia campaign.

The Battle of Antietam, alternately called the Battle of Sharpsburg by the Confederacy, took place on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was the single bloodiest day of war in the history of the United States.

Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, the emboldened Confederate General Robert E. Lee was resolved to continue his offensive against the North. His Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland on September 3, 1862. Unfortunately for Lee, his plan of action, designated as Special Order 191, fell into Union hands. The plans revealed that Lee had split his forces between Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland.

Though armed with this knowledge, Union General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, waited nearly a day before taking action. This puzzling delay, perhaps because of McClellan's well-known natural caution and fear of falling into a trap, would prove costly for the general and his troops, which were stationed near Washington, D.C. McClellan and his force of over 85,000 men left the Union capital and headed west. They were met with Confederate resistance in the Blue Ridge Mountains, giving Lee time to prepare for a defensive battle near Sharpsburg, Virginia. Meanwhile, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson began moving his troops from the town of Harpers Ferry to the site of the impending battle.

On the morning of September 17, McClellan began his attack on Lee's much smaller force of about 38,000 men. Union General Joseph Hooker led the first charge to the Confederate left flank. Lee's forces struggled under the attack. Meanwhile, in the afternoon, Union General Ambrose Burnside's men successfully crossed Antietam Creek.

To the Union, it seemed as though the Confederate forces were about to crumble. Little did they know, however, that Confederate General A.P. Hill, leading a division of Stonewall Jackson's force from Harpers Ferry, was closing in. Hill's men joined the battle, catching Burnside by surprise. The Confederates drove the Union forces back across the creek.

As the sun began to set, both sides retreated to their respective camps to regroup overnight. Small-scale fighting occurred the next day. However, in the end, Lee and his troops began their retreat. McClellan chose not to pursue them.

Outcome of the Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of battle in American history and influenced the progress of the war.

The single bloodiest day during the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam resulted in an estimated 22,720 casualties. Of the 45,000 rebel soldiers entering the battle, the Confederacy lost 1,550 men, and another 7,750 were wounded. The Union troops fared even worse, with 2,100 deaths and 9,550 wounded of their over 85,000 men. This costly campaign was the first of two major battles fought on Union soil during the Civil War. The second of these would come in July of the next year at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during which one third of the troops involved became casualties.

The Battle of Antietam had notable consequences for both sides in the war. Though Union troops had successfully halted a Confederate invasion of the North, McClellan's initial hesitation to engage Lee and his decision to hold back roughly a third of his forces during the battle had cost countless lives. Furthermore, Lee had been permitted to retreat. McClellan was ultimately removed from his position. The outcome of the battle discouraged Great Britain from acknowledging the Confederacy as a legitimate country. The Battle of Antietam also spurred President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation on September 22 informing all rebelling states that if they did not return to the Union, their slaves would be emancipated.

Casualties in Early Battles of the Civil War

Total Number of Soldiers (Union | Confederate) Total Killed (Union | Confederate) Total Wounded (Union | Confederate) Total Captured or Missing (Union | Confederate)
First Battle of Bull Run 28,450 | 32,230 460 | 387 1,124 | 1,582 1,312 | 13
Battle of Hampton Roads 1,400 | 188 261 | 7 108 | 17 N/A
Second Battle of Bull Run 70,000 | 55,000 1,716 | 1,305 8,215 | 7,048 3,893 | unknown
Battle of Antietam 87,000 | 45,000 2,108 | 1,546 9,540 | 7,752 753 | 1,018