The Civil War, also sometimes called the War Between the States, has probably done as much to shape modern America as the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, the Revolutionary War and Independence itself. By its end, the country’s political and social landscape was changed forever, at a terrible cost in human life.
While any list of its most important battles is subjective by definition, and some battles had outcomes as important outside the battlefield (if not more so) as on it, these 10 battles undoubtedly impacted the outcome of the American Civil War.
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The Battle of First Bull Run
First Bull Run (also known as First Manassas to Southerners) occurred in Virginia on July 21, 1861. Northerners came in droves to watch what they expected would be the Confederacy’s destruction, even bringing picnic baskets. Of course, a single battle would not stamp out secession—what Northerners didn't expect was defeat.
Union troops were in fact soundly defeated, with many retreating as far as Washington D.C. (some 30 miles) in despair. After the South took the first major battlefield victory of the war, General Thomas Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall” from Confederate General Barnard Bee, who told troops to look at Jackson standing there “like a stone wall.” More importantly, however, the North finally realized that the war, far from being decided in a day, would likely be long, drawn-out and bloody.
The Battle of Seven Pines
The Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks and the Battle of Fair Oaks Station) marked the end of the Union's Peninsula Campaign. Fought from May 31 to June 1, 1862, it was the closest Union troops had gotten to Richmond, the Confederate capital. The largest battle in the East to that point (with casualties outnumbered only by the Battle of Shiloh), Seven Pines's importance lay in its aftermath.
Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded and replaced by Major-General G.W. Smith. After Smith proved unimpressive, the Confederate leadership immediately replaced him with General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s skill in command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia doubtless lengthened the war considerably. Originally nicknamed “Granny Lee” for his caution and willingness to fight defensively, Lee was widely accepted as one of the most able commanders on either side after his switch to aggression over defense.
The Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg to many Southerners) ended the Confederacy’s first invasion. Like the Battle of Seven Pines, its outcome was tactically inconclusive but strategically very important. Often described as the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with some 27,000 combined casualties, Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862, between Lee’s Confederate forces and General Robert McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
In the short term, Lee’s invasion was halted and his army was forced to withdraw. In the long term, it was a huge missed opportunity—the North could have destroyed Lee’s retreating army and perhaps even ended the war that day. The ineptness of Union General Ambrose Burnside and timidity of McClellan (who seldom needed excuses to avoid combat, but usually had one) allowed Lee’s army to escape destruction.
President Abraham Lincoln quickly removed McClellan from command, to McClellan’s lasting fury. Replacement Ambrose Burnside, while well-meaning, proved no match for commanders like Lee and Jackson. In the wake of positive press about the turning tide of war, Lincoln also finally felt secure enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Battle of Chancellorsville
A week-long conflict, Chancellorsville was fought between April 30 and May 6, 1863. Like the battles of Antietam and Seven Pines, its importance lies in what happened afterward. A major Union defeat, Chancellorsville is sometimes regarded as Lee’s “perfect battle”. By Chancellorsville, Burnside had lost command of the Army of the Potomac to General Joseph Hooker, who proved no more able to best Lee than Burnside or McClellan.
However, Chancellorsville is also remembered for a friendly fire incident that cost the Confederates one of their most gifted commanders: Stonewall Jackson. The skilled commander had won multiple key battles in the Shenandoah Valley, and played a crucial role in the victory at Chancellorsville. But on May 2, while scouting in the dark, Jackson was mistaken for the enemy and shot by his own Confederate picket line. Jackson lost his arm and died eight days later, on May 10, of pneumonia. As Lee put it on hearing of Jackson’s injury: “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”
The Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg
Two battles in early July of 1863 marked a watershed moment during the war. Fought between July 1 and 3, Gettysburg ended with huge casualties for the Confederacy. On July 4, the South received another blow with the fall of Vicksburg, which had been under siege since May 18. Gaining Vicksburg was crucial for the North: Combined with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, the Mississippi River was largely under Union control. All told, it was perhaps the most catastrophic few days for the Confederacy until Appomattox.
Gettysburg was especially disastrous for the Confederacy because of Pickett’s Charge. The charge, also called Longstreet’s Assault, resulted in thousands of Confederate casualties—and to add insult to injury, was done on Lee’s orders. General George Pickett spent the rest of his life detesting Lee, who he blamed for his brigade’s near-destruction. Gettysburg also halted the second Confederate invasion; many consider these four days to be the turning point for the Union’s eventual victory.
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The Battle of Monocacy
A rather overlooked battle fought in Maryland on July 9, 1864, Monocacy is sometimes credited with halting a Confederate advance on Washington, D.C. General Jubal Early aimed to attack Washington and draw Union troops away from Richmond and Petersburg, but was halted by around 3,000 Union troops led by General Lew Wallace.
Though defeated, Wallace’s troops successfully stalled the Confederates until fresh troops could man Washington’s defenses. By the time Early reached the outskirts of Washington the defensive works were filled by 14,000 troops from the Army of the Potomac. Vastly outnumbered, Early could only withdraw.
The Battle of Cedar Creek
Fought on October 19, 1864, Cedar Creek was one of the final nails in the Confederates' casket. Union troops finally took the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson’s troops had once reigned supreme. It started well for the South as Jubal Early’s troops attacked Union camps, driving out thousands of troops. But soon Confederates lost momentum while plundering Union supplies, and Union General Philip Sheridan rallied the troops, returning them to battle.
By the end of the day, the Shenandoah, former Confederate heartland, belonged to the Union. And because the Shenandoah was a major food source, the already desperate shortages for Southerners, both military and civilian, became even worse.
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The Battle of Franklin
Fought at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864, the Battle of Franklin was another Confederate disaster. The aggressive, tenacious and reckless Lieutenant General John Bell Hood saw his army effectively destroyed, in part because Hood insisted on leading thirteen charges against Union troops.
Writer and historian Shelby Foote suggested that Hood was trying to discipline his troops by leading so aggressively. 14 Confederate generals and 55 regimental commanders were killed, wounded, missing or captured amid some 10,000 Confederate casualties—approximately four times those of the Union army. The result was a Union victory and a severe blow to already plunging Confederate morale.
The Battle of Five Forks
By April 1, 1865 it was becoming clear that the Confederacy was on its last legs. Atlanta had fallen, Fort Sumter was retaken and Sherman’s “March to the Sea” had cut a swathe through the Confederacy and earned the lasting hatred of those who suffered it. Defeat at Five Forks more or less caused the fall of both Petersburg and finally Richmond itself, which had been besieged by Union forces and could no longer be defended.
Five Forks led directly to fighting at Appomattox, where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia finally met its end. Faced with overwhelming opposition, hugely outnumbered, starving and without hope of resupply or rescue from a Confederacy that existed only on paper, Lee’s only realistic choice was surrender at Appomattox Court House—a choice that meant the Civil War was over.
Featured painting "Hancock at Gettysburg" by Thure de Thulstrup: Wikimedia Commons