Student Question

What were the seven major battles of the Civil War?

Quick answer:

The progress of the US Civil War can be charted through the fighting of several major battles that defined the conflict: First Bull Run, Fort Donelson, Pittsburg Landing, the Seven Days, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first important land engagement of the Civil War occurred at First Bull Run, approximately 30 miles from Washington DC. Virginia had modernized and improved its state militia since the John Brown Raid, and its forces proved essential for the surprising Confederate victory over the Union army.

Early in the war, Confederate success and momentum in the East was balanced against setbacks in the Western theater. While in the East, a revolving door of generals earned, then quickly lost President Lincoln’s favor, Ulysses S. Grant provided steady aggressive leadership in the Mississippi Valley region. Early in 1862, forces led by Grant seized Forts Henry and Donelson which guarded strategic rivers in western Kentucky. It was here that Grant’s stern demands made him celebrated in the North and hated in the South as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

By April, Grant confidently moved his forces southward along the Mississippi. Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on Grant’s position near the town of Pittsburg Landing. Over three days they fought to dislodge Grant, whose lines bent but refused to break. After the death of Confederate commander Albert Sydney Johnston, the attacking Confederates lost some momentum. The death toll was at this point unmatched in US military history with nearly 25,000 dead from both sides.

The year 1862 also saw General George McClellan attempt his great strategic move against the Confederate capital at Richmond. He quickly moved the Army of the Potomac by ship to the mouth of the James River and from that point proceeded with glacial slowness. The battles of the Seven Days illustrated the military genius of Robert E. Lee matched against the shortcomings of McClellan. Lee moved quickly and decisively while McClellan fretted over potential losses and relied on inaccurate intelligence reports that typically magnified the size of forces in front of him by three times. When it became clear that McClellan lost momentum and Lee moved toward DC, Lincoln recalled the army from its outposts near Richmond.

After victory at the gates of his capital, Lee confidently moved north. He desired to win a victory on Union soil to boost Confederate chances of international recognition, just as the Continental Army had in the Revolution at Saratoga. At Antietam in western Maryland he engaged McClellan who had the great fortune to acquire a set of Lee’s battle plans carelessly lost in a field. After the battlefield win, McClellan remained in place while Lee struggled to move his battered army across the rain swollen Potomac. In Lincoln’s estimation, McClellan could have ended the war there by capturing Lee’s army. When he failed to move, Lincoln reassigned him and selected another commander. The victory gave Lincoln enough confidence to release the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in Confederate controlled regions.

The first half of 1863 saw more frustrations in the East and success in the West. Lincoln cycled through a number of non entities. One such commander, “Fighting “ Joe Hooker attempted an enveloping move to trap Lee’s forces at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, which broke down when Lee skillfully counterattacked. Failures here and elsewhere proved to Lincoln that he needed a permanent solution to what most considered the main theater of the war.

July 4th, 1863 was the military turning point of the war. Confederate forces drove deep into Union territory at Gettysburg while Grant moved his troops into position to surround and reduce Vicksburg, the last Confederate held position on the Mississippi after the fall of New Orleans and other strongholds. After Confederates persisted in the siege long past a chance for victory, Grant decided that he would only accept their surrender on July 4th.

Meanwhile, Lee’s army had marched into south-central Pennsylvania and blundered into Meade’s Federal forces outside of Gettysburg. Desperate for a victory as the Confederacy had already started to fall apart on the home front, Lee attacked Meade’s strongly held positions. Meade had the benefit of using information learned through the Army’s new military intelligence service while Lee relied on cavalry that abandoned him at this crucial juncture. Meade’s forces repulsed all efforts to envelop and dislodge them, but the Union repeated the failure of Antietam by not following up on Lee’s battered forces.

For this reason, Lincoln appointed Grant to lead all Union forces in the field, a move that ushered the Union Army into the industrial age of war where nations won through attrition rather than brilliant Napoleonic moves.

From this point until ultimate Union victory, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan relentlessly attacked Confederate forces in the field, but also their storehouses of food and supplies. The last possible battle that would ensure Confederate victory was lost in November 1864, not on the battlefield, but at the ballot box where Abraham Lincoln handily won re-election.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial