American Civil War: 1861–1865

Union Victory in the American Civil War

Major Battles of the Civil War, 1861-65

The American Civil War was fought primarily in the South. General Sherman's 1864 march through Georgia, the Confederacy's largest state, crippled the Southern heartland and hastened the South's surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

Vicksburg Campaign

The Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, cut off Confederate access to the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in half.

Vicksburg Campaign, 1863

Confederate-held Vicksburg was a key target if the Union hoped to gain control of the Mississippi River. General Grant's strategy was to surround Vicksburg and cut off its supply routes. After a nearly two-month-long siege, Confederate troops surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863.
By 1862 Confederate control of the Mississippi River was waning. That year the Confederacy lost Forts Henry and Donelson and the cities of Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, to Union forces. By the end of the year, the Confederacy had a single stronghold left on the river: Vicksburg, Mississippi. If the Union could take Vicksburg, it would control the entire river and effectively divide the western and eastern Confederate states. The Vicksburg Campaign to capture the city was initiated in the spring of 1862.

Unfortunately for the Union, Vicksburg appeared nearly impossible to capture. It was easily defensible thanks to its location atop high bluffs and the surrounding swamplands. Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman made several failed attempts to attack the Confederate stronghold during early phases of the Vicksburg Campaign in 1862 and 1863. They first tried to take the city with ironclads before launching a land invasion and attempting to divert the river by building a canal.

Under General Grant, the Union forces took a new tack in the spring of 1863. North of Vicksburg, Grant ferried his 40,000 troops across the Mississippi River to its western bank. He then marched his troops down the river to about 30 miles south of Vicksburg. It was there, at the town of Bruinsburg, that Grant transported his men back across to the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.

From there, the Union forces marched northeast toward Vicksburg, capturing two Confederate towns along the way. As they neared the city, Grant and his men engaged Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's army, eliminating any chances of it reinforcing the troops stationed at Vicksburg.

At the same time, General John C. Pemberton, the commander of the Confederate troops in Vicksburg, had marched out of the city to join forces with Johnston. Pemberton's troops quickly retreated back to Vicksburg upon realizing the proximity of the Union army.

Grant and his men reached Vicksburg on May 18. The Union troops launched two failed assaults before settling into a siege of the city. Pemberton was forced to surrender Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, ceding control of the Mississippi River to the Union. Not only did the North now control this vital waterway, but it had effectively divided the Confederacy by cutting off Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas from the rest of the rebellious South. Held by the Union, the Mississippi became a nearly impassable boundary.

Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the last foray of Confederate troops into Union territory.
The Battle of Gettysburg, waged July 1–3, 1863, was one of the most pivotal events of the Civil War and marked the last Confederate invasion of the North. It also inspired one of the most famous presidential addresses in the history of the United States.
Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan captured the devastation of the Battle of Gettysburg in the days following the battle. In photographs such as these, citizens far from the fighting would see war not as Victorian romanticism painted it, but as it was.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B8184-7964-A
In June 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North with an army of 72,000 soldiers. His goal was twofold: to erode Union morale and to gain foreign recognition of the Confederacy. Little did Lee know neither goal would come to fruition.

In late June 1863, Lee's forces and the Army of the Potomac under the leadership of Union General George C. Meade prepared for battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The town, south of Harrisburg, was a strategic crossroads in Pennsylvania.

The battle began on the morning of July 1, ending with significant casualties for Lee and Meade. The second day of battle was characterized by a series of attacks and counterattacks as both sides jockeyed for control of various sites on and around the battlefield.

The final day of the battle proved to be the bloodiest and the most infamous. On July 3, three Confederate divisions (as many as 15,000 troops), one led by Major General George Edward Pickett, charged the Union troops holding Cemetery Ridge. In Pickett's Charge, as it became known, the Confederates managed to break through the Union forces but were quickly overwhelmed by enemy fire. Mowed down by Union artillery from three sides, the Confederates could not retreat quickly enough.

Outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg

After the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which recommitted the purpose of the North to giving the United States "a new birth of freedom."

General Lee and his troops began their long, slow retreat to Virginia the following day. Never again would Confederate troops invade the North. Some 94,000 Union and 72,000 Confederate soldiers fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Union suffered over 23,000 casualties, including over 3,100 deaths. The impact on the Confederacy was even greater. Lee's army suffered some 28,000 casualties, with close to 4,000 deaths.

While the Battle of Gettysburg is certainly a turning point in the Civil War, it was Abraham Lincoln's speech given at the site nearly six months later that cemented its status in American history. On November 11, 1863, the battlefield at Gettysburg was dedicated as a National Cemetery. A small crowd gathered to hear Edward Everett, a popular speaker, give a two-hour long speech before President Lincoln shared his own thoughts.

A mere 10 sentences long, Lincoln was mistaken when he said to the crowd, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …" The Gettysburg Address is among the most significant and influential speeches in American history. Lincoln's address reminded the crowd of the principles upon which the United States was founded, declaring that the men who had died in battle will not have died in vain. The Gettysburg Address recommitted the North to preserving the Union while accepting the moral responsibility of giving the country a "new birth of freedom."

Sherman's March to the Sea

Sherman's late-1864 March to the Sea was the Union Army's march through Georgia that entailed waging total war to break the spirit of Southern civilians and force surrender of the Confederacy.

The "March to the Sea" describes the devastating march of Union troops led by General William Tecumseh Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Sherman and 100,000 troops first invaded Georgia in May 1864. They were intent on capturing Atlanta, an important railroad and industrial hub for the Confederacy. The Union forces laid siege to the city and burned much of it to the ground before capturing it on September 2, 1864.

Sherman remained in Atlanta for two months before mobilizing 62,000 troops to undertake his 200-mile "March to the Sea." Sherman's goal was simple: to break the spirit of the Southern people. To do this, Sherman instructed his men to destroy anything and everything they encountered that made it possible for the Confederacy to keep fighting.

Sherman divided his troops into two forces that moved along two separate paths. The first was led by General Henry Slocum, the other by General Oliver Howard. The Union army left behind its supply lines, and the soldiers were instructed to live off the land, including crops and livestock they found on Southern farms.

Slocum's and Howard's men fanned out across the countryside and left a 50-mile-wide path of destruction. They ruined what crops they did not or could not consume. They destroyed roads, bridges, and rail lines. They set fire to barns, homes, and supplies. In short, they left the state of Georgia in ruins.
In 1868 engraver Felix Darley depicted the destruction inflicted by Sherman's forces as they moved from Atlanta to Savannah, liberating enslaved persons along the way.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09326
Within a month, Sherman had reached the Atlantic coast, capturing Savannah on December 21, 1864. The city, along with over 100 cannons and some 25,000 bales of cotton, were given to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.

Sherman's March to the Sea had a devastating effect on Georgia and the South. By bringing the war deep into the Confederacy, Sherman had eroded both the ability and willingness of the South to keep fighting. Furthermore, Fort Sumter, the site of the war's first shots, once again was under Union control.

Appomattox Court House

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the troops under his command to General Ulysses S. Grant, signaling the end of the Civil War.

On April 1, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the remainder of his Army of North Virginia left the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Lee and his men pushed west in hopes of joining with other Confederate troops in North Carolina. Union General Ulysses S. Grant pursued the Confederates, managing to capture nearly 8,000 of Lee's men on April 6.

Further diminished, Lee's troops continued on to Lynchburg, Virginia, before being cut off on April 8 by Union troops under Major General Philip H. Sheridan, just 25 miles away from the city, near the small community of Appomattox Court House. With his supplies captured and the path west blocked, Lee and his troops were at a standstill.

Early the next day, a small Confederate force arrived at Appomattox Court House and attacked Sheridan's troops. They soon realized, however, that they were no match for the Union’s much larger Army of the James, which stood before them. General Lee, understanding the inevitably of a Union victory, requested a ceasefire.

General Lee and General Grant met that afternoon at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, where Lee officially surrendered at 4:00 p.m. The Confederacy made a few feeble attempts to keep fighting; however, Lee's surrender was a clear indication that the Civil War was quickly coming to an end. The South had lost. Even so, the terms of the surrender were generous. All Confederate officers and soldiers would be pardoned and sent home. They would be allowed to keep their personal property, in particular their horses, which would be most useful during the late-spring planting season. Officers would be permitted to keep their sidearms, meaning pistols. The starving Confederate troops would be supplied with Union soldier rations.
Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan documented the McLean house in Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Oddly, McLean had retreated to this quiet township after his home along the Bull Run River was twice caught in the crossfire of war.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpb-01396
In 1861 President Lincoln set out to preserve the Union entrusted to him. Four years of war forged the loose union of states into a nation. At the heart of the war was the future of slavery. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation heralded the "new birth of freedom" envisioned in his Gettysburg Address. By war's end, the problem of slavery as a viable and acceptable socioeconomic and cultural system had been resolved. The cost of the war, however, was staggering. Not only was the South socially, economically, and culturally destroyed, but total estimates of the Union and Confederate dead vary from 620,000 to 850,000. In terms of human lives lost, the American Civil War remains the costliest single conflict in the nation's history.

Efforts to find suitable burial grounds for the dead included the seizing of Robert E. Lee's home in Arlington, Virginia. The land around the Arlington Mansion was appropriated as a National Military Cemetery in 1864. Today Arlington National Cemetery is the nation's largest and most hallowed cemetery for military veterans.