The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history. It left more than 600,000 people dead and destroyed an entire nation’s way of life. The conflict is so important that it has been studied by historians for centuries, but some events have gone relatively unnoticed.
The “10 most important battles of the civil war” is a list of the top 10 most important battles in the American Civil War. The list includes some of the most significant events that led up to and during the war, and also includes battles such as Appomattox Court House, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, and others.
The Civil War was, without a question, the most significant event in American history. Between 1861 and 1865, the destiny of the new country hung in the balance – geographically, culturally, and existentially.
Despite its importance, the ordinary American has just a limited awareness of the conflict. Most of us are familiar with a few names: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson; we are aware that Lincoln delivered a pivotal address at Gettysburg; and we are aware of who won the war. However, our understanding of everything else is often shaky.
While you could spend your entire life studying the Civil War (over 60,000 books have been published about it!) and approaching it from a variety of political, social, and economic perspectives, every man should at the very least be familiar with the war’s key battles and campaigns.
Hundreds of additional key engagements took occur between the North and the South over the period of four years and throughout the whole country (there were critical encounters as far west as Arizona and New Mexico). There are nine encounters in particular that perhaps had the most influence on the war’s result and about which you should be well-versed.
While these battles do not tell the full tale of the Civil War, they do provide a comprehensive overview of its ebbs and flows, as well as what finally led to the Union’s triumph in April 1865.
When studying about the Civil War (and martial history in general) and the horrible statistics connected with its engagements, the first thing to remember is that “casualties” does not equal “deaths.” A “casualty” is a catch-all phrase for a variety of outcomes:
- harmed —to the point that they are unable to fight
- They can’t discover a corpse since it’s gone disappeared; Many people in this group are assumed deceased, although this hasn’t been verified scientifically.
- Many thousands of men on both sides suffered and died in military jails; this figure may possibly include surrendered troops who were returned home without their weaponry or horses.
- While these statistics were tallied independently, they were also included in the overall casualty totals.
Surprisingly, as time passes and historians delve deeper into archives and forgotten cemeteries, the number of Civil War fatalities continues to rise. In reality, the number increased by 20% in less than ten years, from 620,000 to 750,000.
To be sure, any casualty is a poor consequence, particularly considering the state of medicine at the time of the Civil War, which was still a few decades away from the discovery of germs. They aren’t merely grazing strikes to the arm; these are injuries from which someone may survive, but only just, and for a short time.
It’s also worth noting that, although hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in war and from combat wounds, many more died from sickness and accidents – roughly twice as many. The combat casualty figures provided below do not include such figures.
Every man should be aware of the following nine Civil War battles.
April 1861, Ft. Sumter
Charleston Harbor is located in the state of South Carolina. 0 people have died. 0 people have died.
Confederate artillery fired the first salvos of the Civil War at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861.
Southern states started seceding from the Union in reaction to Lincoln’s election in late 1860, and the newly established Confederacy captured most of the military locations inside its borders throughout the winter and early spring of 1861. However, a few Southern facilities, including as Ft. Sumter, an island fort guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, remained under federal authority. Despite the fact that the fort was not strategically significant, it became a symbolic flashpoint in the growing tensions between the North and the South.
Colonel Robert Anderson, in charge of the fort’s 85 troops, was resolved to hold out for as long as possible. But, when Lincoln’s supplies ran down, the Union had two choices, as most of his advisers viewed it. It could evacuate the fort, so legitimizing the Confederacy’s claim to it, which the North, understandably, did not want to do. It may also restock the fort with supplies and weapons and utilize it as a staging area for an assault operation. Lincoln disliked this proposal as well, since it would put the North in the position of aggressor; he preferred the South to initiate the war so that the United States could play the role of defenders of unity. So he devised a strategy to restock the fort only with food and drink.
Even that was too much for the South, who warned Col. Anderson that until he surrendered, he and his soldiers would be shot upon. The massive walls of the fort were soon being blasted by Confederate artillery. Before Col. Anderson was compelled to abandon the island, the North and South exchanged artillery fire for 34 hours. However, the North’s purpose had been achieved; the South had fired the opening guns, although under duress.
Nobody was killed in the first assault, but two Union soldiers were killed later, during the surrender ceremony, when some ammunition accidentally exploded. These were the war’s initial victims.
While not technically a “war,” the opening shots at Ft. Sumter profoundly altered the course of our country’s history.
The First Battle of Bull Run was fought in July 1861.
Location: In the Virginia countryside, south of Washington, D.C. Union: 2,708 deaths; Confederate: 1,982 deaths 481 for the Union, 387 for the Confederacy
More than three months after the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, the action at Bull Run Creek was the first genuine conflict of the Civil War. Both armies used that time to build up their soldiers and train as much as they could. At this time, the United States had no formal military; state militias were the norm, and volunteers had to be gathered from throughout the country. On both sides, this meant that everyone was inexperienced. “You are green, it is true, but they are green as well,” Lincoln famously observed to one of the Union’s brigadier generals. “You’re all the same shade of green.”
Despite their lack of expertise, Union officials were convinced that this conflict would put an end to the Southern revolt and the whole catastrophe. Spectators even traveled from Washington to line the slopes around the battlefield in the hopes of seeing a clean Union victory.
Instead, anarchy reigned supreme. In a blundering conflict, 36,000 inadequately trained troops — around 18,000 on each side — clashed. They didn’t know what to do, and their generals were useless, so what was meant to be a minor, gentlemanly brawl escalated into a full-fledged war. Though the battle was a stalemate in terms of deaths, the South’s ability to fight back and hold their own won them a significant moral victory. The Union was chafed and sent back to D.C. to lick their wounds, with the terrifying understanding that this would be a much longer war than anticipated.
This is the fight that gave Thomas Jackson the moniker “Stonewall.” He would continue to harass the North for another two years, until the Battle of Chancellorsville.
April 1862, Shiloh
Location: Just north of the Mississippi border in southwest Tennessee. Union casualties: 13,047; Confederate casualties: 10,699 There were 1,754 Union deaths and 1,728 Confederate deaths.
Although blood was poured in skirmishes following Bull Run, there were no significant conflicts for the next nine months. Shiloh, which occurred nearly exactly one year after the war began, was the point at which the battle between the states devolved into hell and the country began to see the appalling casualty figures that would dominate headlines for the following three years.
Upstart commander Ulysses S. Grant had a string of successes in Tennessee and was making his way south into Mississippi in the early months of 1862. Corinth, a significant rail and supply hub just over the border, was a major rail and supply center. The Union would gain control of most of the Western theater of the war if they could conquer it. Take note: the control of supply and production hubs is at the heart of many of these big wars.
Grant was waiting for reinforcements (another 15,000 soldiers) before going forward with his 40,000 troops, which he hoped would overwhelm confederate commander Albert Johnston’s 44,000 forces. However, before those reinforcements arrived, Johnston launched a surprise assault on April 6 as the sun rose. Union soldiers were forced to retire a few miles and suffered tremendous casualties, but the lines were not completely broken, thanks to Grant’s leadership. Even while Corinth remained in Confederate hands, the Union won the fight the following day when reinforcements arrived, Grant counterattacked, and the Confederates fled from the battlefield – a decisive triumph for the Union. Grant’s soldiers were not fully driven out of the area, allowing him to recover and launch a campaign (a series of battles aimed at achieving a greater objective) against Vicksburg; more on that later.
Despite the win, the Northern press concentrated on Grant’s men being caught off guard on the 6th; it was at this point that suspicions concerning his inebriation gained traction. Unfairly, his reputation deteriorated, and he would have to fight hard to reclaim it (which he, of course, ultimately did).
Shiloh was the deadliest combat the United States had ever fought, a tragic record that would be broken a number of times in the years to come. As previously said, this was when the startling numbers of fatalities and deaths occurred, which stunned the world at the moment but would shortly become the norm.
September 1862, Antietam
Western Maryland is located around 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Union casualties: 12.410; Confederate casualties: 10,316. Deaths: Confederate: 1,567 | Union: 2,108
The single deadliest day of battle in American history occurred on September 17, 1862, when approximately 23,000 people died in only 12 hours.
Going into the autumn of 1862, the North had a lot riding on it. The Confederacy enjoyed a string of momentum-building triumphs, and Lincoln’s popularity was waning. With a midterm election on the horizon, his party’s future was in jeopardy. He also had the Emancipation Proclamation ready to go, but he needed to deliver it at the correct moment; doing so while the Confederates were in the lead would seem to be a desperate last-ditch effort. He had no choice but to keep waiting, waiting, waiting…
Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee was scouting the Confederacy’s northern territories for a suitable time to launch an assault on Union country. This chance presented itself at Sharpsburg, Maryland, some 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
George McClellan, the Union commander, had a few advantages. The first was a near-miracle: two Union privates unearthed Lee’s battle plans wrapped around a few cigars and sent them up the chain of command to McClellan by chance. Second, he had twice as many men as Lee, despite the fact that he erroneously thought Lee outnumbered him.
Despite his advantages, McClellan was defeated in combat. He didn’t send in all of his forces, and the two sides battled to a brutal stalemate over the course of a single day. To McClellan’s credit, his forces forced Lee to retire, thereby ending his first excursion into Union territory. But it was his failure to pursue Lee’s withdrawing soldiers that got him fired by Lincoln; Washington authorities believed that if McClellan had gone on the offensive at that time, the Army of Northern Virginia might have been defeated for good.
All things considered, the Union did win, although barely and at great cost. Lee was driven out of Northern territory, allowing Lincoln to claim a public relations success and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
July 1863, Gettysburg
South-central Pennsylvania is located directly over the Maryland state line. Union casualties: 23,049; Confederate casualties: 28,063 3,155 Union soldiers died, while 3,903 Confederate soldiers died.
If there is one battle on this list that you are familiar with, it is Gettysburg. It is often regarded as the most crucial battle of the war since it not only resulted in the greatest number of losses but also kept Lee out of the North for good.
Despite his loss at Antietam the year before, Robert E. Lee continued to fight. He triumphed at Fredericksburg in December 1862 (an uncommon winter combat), and at Chancellorsville in May 1863. (it was there, however, that Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire). Lee was feeling strong in his army after this streak of tremendous wins — with inferior troops, no less — and intended to make another drive into Union territory. A Confederate victory would further undermine Northern support for the war; many people — known as “Copperheads” — were urging the federal government to negotiate with the South and repair the country’s shattered infrastructure. A Union triumph would also send a message to the rest of the world, notably the onlooking British and French governments, that the Confederacy was a government worth supporting. The stakes were at an all-time high.
As a result, Lee and his 75,000 soldiers marched north into Pennsylvania, trailed by newly appointed Union leader George Meade and his 100,000+ troops. The sheer number of troops participating is mind-boggling, and the density of corpses on the battlefield is inconceivable in comparison to our current notion of wars waged by tiny attack force teams, drones, and long-range snipers.
On July 1, the two mammoth armies entered a three-day crucible marked by Union troops’ valiant and courageous combat and Confederate officials’ severe tactical blunders. Nearly 50,000 total casualties were recorded by the conclusion of the day on July 3, the greatest of any engagement in US history. Lee ordered his devastated force to retire back into Virginia on July 4th, Independence Day!
Foreign nations solidly supported the USA rather than the CSA in the aftermath, and the tide of the war shifted from the South to the North, thanks to Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg (coming up next). General Lee even offered Confederate President Jefferson Davis his resignation; he was turned down, but the damage had already been done.
Lincoln made a short 272-word statement at the dedication of Gettysburg’s National Cemetery in November 1863, which would go down in history as one of the greatest speeches of all time.
Vicksburg’s Siege — July 1863
Western Mississippi, roughly 40 miles west of Jackson, the state capital. Union: 4,910 | Confederate: 3,202 (an additional 29,500 surrendered, which are officially included in most casualty figures for this conflict) 806 Union deaths, 805 Confederate deaths
While Lee was slaughtering Union forces in Virginia and pushing into Pennsylvania, Ulysses Grant was making his way towards Vicksburg, Mississippi, slowly but steadily. The town was located on the Mississippi River’s bluffs, and its capture would effectively cut off the Confederate supply line as well as divide Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the CSA. Following his victory at Shiloh the previous year, Grant attempted to seize Vicksburg, but was rejected for the winter.
When spring 1863 rolled along, he was again on the march with a series of marches and engagements. Grant marched his army 180 miles in early May, winning a number of lesser battles with the support of the Union navy’s ironclad warships. With his significantly greater force of 70,000 soldiers, Grant ultimately encircled Vicksburg’s 30,000 troops. It was a war of attrition from then on. The Southerners held out for almost seven weeks as the Northerners battled off Confederate rescue efforts. Finally, supplies, food, and morale ran out in late June and early July, and Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton surrendered on July 4 (again!). The CSA was divided into two halves.
Grant’s reputation in the North, and, more crucially, with Lincoln, was reinforced by the seizure of Vicksburg, and therefore the Mississippi. Things were looking good for the United States of America after the triumph at Gettysburg.
Determining fights becomes more difficult from here. As Grant assumes additional leadership responsibilities, he completely adopts the bulldog philosophy: he intends to fight until the Confederates either surrender or run out of soldiers. However, there are a few more significant events and campaigns to come.
May-June 1864: Grant’s Overland Campaign
Eastern Virginia is about halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Casualties: 54,926 Union troops | 33,600 Confederate troops Deaths: 7,621 Union soldiers | 4,206 Confederate soldiers
It was now time for Grant and Lee to meet after Grant was elevated to commander of the whole Union army. Grant seized command of the ill-fated Army of the Potomac after arriving in Washington and immediately went on the attack. Richmond, the Confederate States of America’s capital, was the target.
The Union actually lost more casualties than the South due to severe combat in the Wilderness (named for its thick second-growth forests), Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Grant, unlike other Army commanders, did not retire to Washington after each fight. Instead, he continued south towards Richmond. He was well aware that the North had more soldiers and resources, and despite the harsh realities of the situation, he was ready to sacrifice men in order to win. His goal was to take the Confederate capital, and he wasn’t going home until he achieved it.
The campaign would come to a close at Petersburg, Virginia, south of Richmond, which served as a vital supply center for the Confederate army and the capital. Grant’s army sat down at Petersburg for a 9-month fight of attrition (known as the Siege of Petersburg), starving the South of troops and supplies in a succession of lesser clashes and engagements. In a moment, I’ll tell you how it ended.
The Atlanta Campaign, which lasted from May to September 1864, was led by Sherman.
From Chattanooga, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia Union casualties: 31,687; Confederate casualties: 34,979. 4,423 Union deaths, 3,044 Confederate deaths
Grant’s previous role as commander of the Union’s Western armies was taken by William Tecumseh Sherman while Grant was battling Lee and heading towards Richmond. Lincoln desperately needed a convincing Union victory after the stalemates and significant losses of soldiers during Grant’s Overland Campaign. After all, 1864 was an election year, and the incumbent’s prospects were bleak. The people had had enough of reading the ever-increasing casualty lists in the press; peacemaking was preferred to additional costly casualties. But Lincoln was adamant about not negotiating and was counting on Sherman to deliver.
Atlanta was the general’s target. After winning Tennessee for the Union at Chattanooga, Northern soldiers were ordered to march 100 miles southeast to conquer the Deep South’s railroad and industrial core. Sherman’s troops suffered tremendous casualties against Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood, similar to Grant’s Overland Campaign against Lee. Sherman, like Grant, continued striking regardless of losses, forcing Johnston’s forces to flee and retreat and retreat again towards Atlanta throughout the course of the scorching summer months. After Sherman cut off Hood’s supply lines on September 1st, the Confederate commander opted to flee Atlanta, setting fire to military stores and facilities as he went.
Union soldiers marched into Atlanta on September 2nd, the mayor surrendered, and Sherman wrote Lincoln the now-famous message, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” With those six lines, Lincoln won his 1864 election win; when paired with Lee’s failure to hold off Grant in the same time frame, the Confederacy was doomed.
Sherman’s march to the sea and across the Carolinas would commence from there. His 60,000+ soldiers moved hundreds of miles with minimal opposition, pillaging and burning every city and town they came across, disrupting supply lines — and Southern morale — until the war was practically over in April 1865.
Appomattox Courthouse — April 1865
Central Virginia is the location of this event. Union casualties: 260; Confederate casualties: 440. Deaths: (There are no exact figures for the number of people that died at Appomattox, although it’s most likely a few dozen or less)
Robert E. Lee’s shrinking army was the Confederacy’s final chance after its total loss in the Deep South. Lee had to flee after nine months of fighting Grant’s men at Petersburg and Richmond, surrendering the capitol to the Union army. He traveled west into the heart of Virginia with his band of fewer than 30,000 men, seeking to reunite with other Confederates in the region. Lee would need more soldiers to defeat Grant’s 60,000-strong force.
However, near the little community of Appomattox Court House, the Union cut him off (the name of the town itself; it was not an actual courthouse). After a disastrous last-ditch attempt to break through the Union line on April 9th, Lee knew he was severely outmanned and couldn’t continue fighting.
Lee surrendered 27,000 soldiers to Ulysses S. Grant in the parlor of a private residence later that day. While that one event did not bring the war to a close, it did precipitate the surrender of additional Confederate armies, and by June, the bloodiest four years in American history had come to an end.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the 10 most important battles of the Civil War?
A: The most important battle in the Civil War is the Battle of Antietam, which happened on September 17th 1862. It was a pivotal victory for the Union Army led by general George McClellan over Confederate General Robert E. Lees army under General James Longstreet
What were the 7 most important battles of the Civil War?
A: There are a lot of different opinions on which battles were the most important, but heres some of them in no particular order. 1. First Battle at Bull Run 2. Battle of Gettysburg 3. Atlanta Campaign 4. Appomattox Court House 5-7 Battles around Washington, D.C
What are the 6 most important battles of the Civil War?
A: The most important battles of the Civil War include those that led to Lincolns election in 1860 and continued until his death in 1866. Some key battles are Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox Court House.
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