The American Civil War pitted Americans against Americans. The war between the Union and the Confederate States of America resulted in the death of more than 620,000 Americans and left millions more injured. The two sides fought over issues of slavery and states’ rights. It was a bloody conflict with heavy destruction throughout the nation. The northern victory preserved the United States as a nation and ended the practice of slavery.
Civil War Timeline (1788-1865)
The Constitution maintained the right to own slaves, conferring one-fifth person status on slaves and offering no rights of citizenship to them. It set up the war to come.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's international best seller, Uncle Tom's Cabin, exposes the evils of slavery.
The Supreme Court decides the Dred Scott case in a decision stating that as a slave Scott has no rights which white man were bound to respect.
John Brown tries to amass arms to lead a slave insurrection by attacking the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Brown is hanged for murder and treason at Charles Town, Virginia.
South Carolina legislature decides to secede from the Union following Lincoln's election.
Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas follow South Carolina's lead and secede from the Union.
Delegates from six seceded states meet in Montgomery, Alabama where they form the Confederate States of America and elect Jefferson Davis president.
South Carolina troops bombard Fort Sumter until it surrenders. This is the official beginning of the Civil War.
Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to enlist for three months of service.
Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina secede from the Union.
Virginia's Robert E. Lee rejects Lincoln's request to command the Union Army.
Following Virginia's secession, Union troops cross the Potomac River and capture Alexandria. Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a Lincoln family friend, is killed by a local innkeeper after Ellsworth removed his Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall Hotel. The flag was so large it could be seen from the White House. Ellsworth was the first officer to die in the war and became a martyr for the North.
3,000 Union troops engage 600 Confederate soldiers in the first land battle of the war. It was a short skirmish that left no dead, but it was important for George B. McClellan's role in becoming commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler assumed command of the Department of Virginia at Fort Monroe. It was a key location on the Chesapeake Bay that would allow Union troops to resupply easily. When three slaves escaped and took refuge at Fort Monroe, Butler ignored Lincoln's order to follow the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and return them to their owners. Instead he declared them "Contraband of War" and kept them within the Fort. This redefinition of escaped slaves as "Contraband" became known as a euphemism for runaway slave. It was the first step toward Emancipation.
McClellan's forces meet General Robert S. Garnett's forces at Rich Mountain. The Union troops won despite being outnumbered 300 to 46.
Union and Confederate forces battle near Manassas Junction in Virginia. A Union force of 35,000 met a Confederate force of 20,000 at Bull Run. After a long day of fighting, the Rebel Army was able to break through the line and flank the Union soldiers, causing them to retreat toward Washington. It was a Confederate victory that rallied the South and scared the North. It was a clear sign the war would not be quickly decided. It also earned Thomas J. Jackson the nickname "Stonewall Jackson" and saw the rise of the Rebel Yell.
General Grant leads Union forces into a Confederate camp at Belmont. Grant gained no ground and lost 120 with another 487 wounded (Rebel losses were 105 and 536 wounded), but declared Union victory anyway.
The Union Navy seizes Confederate commissioners on their way to Britain and France while on a British steamer called Trent. This act caused diplomatic issues between the US and Britain.
The Union wanted to secure control of the rivers and supply lines west of the Appalachians. Brigadier General Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote attack Fort Henry in Tennessee. After a brief bombardment, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman surrendered, not letting the Union know he had already snuck his troops to Fort Donelson. Ten days later, Union forces took Fort Donelson, allowing the Union to move into Tennessee.
The Union knew the Mississippi River was a major artery for the South and launched a campaign to take control of the river from Tennessee to Louisiana. They launched a series of attacks at various points on the river and on its tributaries, such as the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. These included the battles at Fort McHenry, Fort Donelson, Pittsburg Landing, Shiloh and more. It was one of the major fronts of the war.
Ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia clash at Hampton Roads. The battle was a draw, but highlighted the strength of steel in shipbuilding.
The campaign was a Union offensive to take the Confederate capital of Richmond. The campaign began when Major General George B. McClellan moved his troops by boat to Fort Monroe on the Atlantic coast. But McClellan waited until May to move on Richmond because he had overestimated the size of the enemy's army and was hesitant to approach. The campaign lasted until the Union suffered several defeats, including the Battle of Seven Pines.
McClellan ordered Union troops to secure the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. The Valley provided too much cover for invasions into the North and served as a large source of food for the Confederacy, which is why the region saw many engagements during the war. The Confederacy sent "Stonewall" Jackson in with 17,000 troops to meet the threat and he prevailed.
The only Confederate force in McClellan's way on his Peninsula Campaign was Major General John B. Magruder's two small divisions at Yorktown who used deception to keep the Union troops at bay. Magruder knew McClellan was a cautious general, so he paraded his troops and staged theatrical movements to make his army of 11,000 appear much larger. McClellan ordered a siege that lasted two weeks until he launched a bombardment on May 4th, but by then the Confederate Army had snuck off to Williamsburg.
A surprise attack by the Confederate Army on Grant's army didn't go as planned. Although initially successful, the Confederates were not able to hold their line and Grant's troops forced them into retreat. Both sides had heavy losses that totaled more than 23,000 casualties. The carnage shocked the nation.
With heavy losses and hopes of a quick resolution gone, the South resorts to a draft to maintain their troops.
Union Admiral David G. Farragut sailed his fleet of 24 gunboats, 19 mortar boats and 15,000 soldiers past Forts Jackson and St. Phillip in a daring maneuver. The South did not expect an attack from the Gulf of Mexico and had not prepared for it. Farragut took the city, which was a huge blow to the Confederacy.
After the defeat at Shiloh, the Confederate Army retreated to Corinth and called for reinforcements. They managed to pull together a force of 70,000 to face off with Union General Henry W. Halleck's 100,000 troops. Unfortunately of those 70,000, nearly 20,000 were wounded or ill. Halleck set up siege conditions around Corinth that lasted a month. Union forces only moved to attack after hearing increased train activity around Corinth and fearing Confederate reinforcements, but it was another Confederate deception. General Beauregard had been moving his troops out of Corinth, but had his troops cheer loudly every time a train arrived as if welcoming reinforcements. Halleck moved in and took Corinth, but the Confederate Army was gone.
Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson tried to overwhelm two Union units south of the Chickahominy River, but the strategy was flawed and they sustained heavy losses. Reinforcements arrived and the Union force took control. Johnston was critically wounded. The Confederate troops regrouped and attacked again. Both sides declared victory.
At the end of the Battle of Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army from the wounded Joseph E. Johnston.
This was a series of battles during which General Robert E. Lee proved he deserved command by driving General McClellan into retreat and saving Richmond. He was joined in his campaign by "Stonewall" Jackson, which increased the troops to 90,000. It was the largest Confederate force in the war at the time. The Seven Days' Campaign included the battles at Mechanicsville, Gaine's Mill, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. Lee sustained 20,000 casualties, including those killed, wounded and missing. Grant had 15,000.
Horace Greeley publishes "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" in the New York Tribune. The article was a call to Lincoln to free slaves in the Union.
General Lee sends half his army to Virginia to attack the federal supply base in Manassas. Lee's army arrived the following day forcing General Pope's army to withdraw. The South prevailed again.
Lee's invasion of the North began in hopes of regaining the Shenandoah Valley. Lee divided his army into three columns or approximately 23,000 troops each. They were to march on Harpers Ferry and capture or destroy the Union garrison, then reassemble at Boonsboro, Maryland. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson led the charge. He aimed cannons at the town leaving little room to hide. Some of the Union Army retreated over a pontoon bridge toward Sharpsburg, an area the Confederates had not covered. The rest surrendered. Jackson captured 12,700 troops that day, but accidentally killed the Garrison commander with a stray shell that exploded minutes after the white flags had been raised.
While Jackson captured Harpers Ferry, Lee moved on western Maryland. Unfortunately Lee's plan was leaked to McClellan, who moved his troops to South Mountain to intercept. The Union Army secured control of all three passes on the mountain, changing Lee's direction and setting the stage for Antietam.
The bloodiest day in American history. After 12 hours of battle, an estimated 3,650 were dead and another 19,300 wounded or missing. Despite having an advantage, McClellan allowed Lee's army to retreat without further action. This battle ended the Confederate Army's advance into the North and shaped America's history. Having secured a victory, President Lincoln finally felt it was time to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus for any individual deemed guilty of aiding or abetting the Confederacy, resisting military draft or discouraging volunteer enlistments. Five years later, the Supreme Court deemed this action unconstitutional saying only Congress can suspend the writ.
The Confederate Congress passes a bill exempting any individual who owned 20 or more slaves from serving in the Confederate Army.
Lincoln was displeased McClellan did not pursue Lee following the Battle of Antietam, thinking he could have ended the war with more aggressive tactics. Lincoln relieves McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac.
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside takes command of the Army of the Potomac and plans to move the army toward Richmond, hoping to beat Lee's army to the Rappahannock River and block him. Lee entrenched his army at Fredericksburg. After building bridges across the river, Burnside attacks Prospect Hill and Marye's Heights, taking on immense casualties. On December 15th, Burnside called off the attacks and retreated. He was relieved of command by the end of January.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg and 35,000 troops attack Union forces of 42,000. The Union Army retreats to a defensive position where they held the Confederate Army and forced a Southern retreat with artillery fire. This battle (also called the Battle of Murfreesboro) ended with approximately 23,000 casualties for both sides and a Union victory.
Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation that frees all slaves, even those in seceded states.
Congress passes the Conscription Act that states all able-bodied men between the ages of 20 and 45 years must serve three enlistment terms in US military service.
The Union Army had an estimated 125,000 deserters. Lincoln tried to lure them back by issuing a general amnesty on the charge of desertion for those who reported back to duty.
When Union Admiral Samuel F. DuPont tried to take Charleston with an ironclad vessel, he failed to penetrate the harbor's land defenses. It was a clear victory of land defense over naval warfare.
When Major General Joseph Hooker crossed the Rappahannock River following the battle of Fredericksburg, he ended up flanking Lee's army where they were weakest. Lee engaged anyway, thinking he had better cover. Hooker surrendered the assault. Late that night, Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson flanked the Union Army. The Confederate Army was victorious, but Jackson was mortally wounded. Defeating Hooker with a quarter of the troops was considered one of Lee's greatest military feats though the cost was high. There were more than 30,000 casualties, including approximately 3,400 dead.
Three weeks prior to the Battle of Vicksburg, Grant's army marches 180 miles through Mississippi and were victorious in five battles. They surround Vicksburg, but when his attack fails, he lays a siege upon the town.
Vicksburg was a gateway to the Mississippi River. Union forces waged a campaign from June 1862 to July 1863 to gain control of the city, strategically situated halfway between Memphis and New Orleans. Grant's victory was a blow to the South.
Jeb Stuart leads the Confederate cavalry in a clash with Union mounts in an all day battle at Brandy Station. With nearly 9,000 mounted soldiers on each side, this was the largest cavalry engagement on American soil. While Stuart wins the battle, this marks the turning point in Union cavalry prowess in the eastern theater.
Deemed the most important battle of the war. Following victory in Chancellorsville, Lee marched his army into Pennsylvania. They met the Union Army of the Potomac, led by General George G. Meade, at Gettysburg. Lee ordered a small group of 15,000 troops to attack Cemetery Ridge in what became known as "Pickett's Charge." While initially successful, the Union Army rallied and the Confederate Army took heavy losses. Lee was forced to withdraw. Meade allows him to retreat across the Potomac. There were 51,000 casualties in Gettysburg.
The siege at Vicksburg ends as Confederates surrender to Grant. The North finally had control of the Mississippi River.
Protesting the draft and Conscription Act, nearly 50,000 riot in New York. Most rioters were of Irish descent. They set fires to government buildings and fought battles in the streets against Union troops. The biggest cause of the riot was the provision that allowed people to buy their way out of conscription. Many took their grievances out on black workers.
Following Lincoln's lead, Jefferson Davis offers amnesty to all Confederate deserters.
After the Battle of Chattanooga, Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee called for reinforcements so they could counterattack Union forces on the banks of the Chickamauga Creek. There were heavy losses on both sides, but Bragg's army prevailed and the attack was considered a great tactical victory. Although the Union Army retreated and safely reached Chattanooga where they were met by Grant's army.
Confederate William C. Quantrill leads a guerrilla raid on the Union town of Lawrence, Kansas. In nearly four hours, the second largest town (population approximately 3,000) in Kansas was destroyed. At least 150 men and boys were killed, although some bodies were burned so the count could have been higher.
Lincoln dedicates the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg in his most famous address, reiterating the ideal the nation was built on: that all men are created equal.
For three days, Union troops battled the Confederates at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in Tennessee in what was known as the Battles for Chattanooga. Generals Hooker and Sherman pushed the Confederacy back to Georgia, ending the railway siege of Chattanooga. This allowed Sherman to march on Atlanta and Savannah.
Lincoln bestows the commission of lieutenant general on Ulysses S. Grant and gives him command over the Union armies. That rank had not been used since General George Washington's death in 1799.
Fort Pillow was built by the Confederates in 1861 and named after General Gideon Johnson Pillow. It was part of the Mississippi River defense that fell to Union forces in 1862. In 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's calvary took aim at Fort Pillow, now a garrison of 600 men, nearly half of whom were black. The Union garrison surrendered and expected to be taken as prisoners of war, but Forrest's men refused to treat the black soldiers as prisoners and killed them and others present. The North was outraged by the 431 deaths and refused to participate in prisoner exchanges after that.
This is the first battle in Grant's ongoing offensive against Lee's armies in Northern Virginia. It was known as the Overland Campaign and fought in a wooded area known as the Wilderness. The battle was a draw, but Grant did not retreat, continuing to engage Lee for another month before moving on to Spotsylvania.
The Confederate and Union Armies clash in a two-week battle following a long and indecisive Wilderness campaign. Lee's army was trying to halt Grant's southern advance. The battle included 20-hours of hand-to-hand combat that became known as the "Bloody Angle." By the end of the 12 days, the Union forces had 18,000 casualties and the Confederates had 12,000. On May 21, Grant pulled his troops and ordered them to march on Richmond.
In the Second Battles of Cold Harbor Grant and Lee again engage and Grant is victorious. The idea of destroying Lee so close to Richmond, Grant prepared for an attack, but his reinforcements didn't arrive on time so the attack was postponed a day, which allowed Lee's army to entrench. Grant attacked anyway and suffered heavy losses.
General William T. Sherman launched an attack on Confederate General Joseph Johnston's army at Kennesaw Mountain. This was part of Sherman's 100-mile advance to Atlanta. Johnston's army was losing ground but was trying to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. Sherman's advance was stalled for the battle.
The USS Kearsarge engages the CSS Alabama off the coast of France and sinks it. The Alabama was an impressive ship that raided Union vessels for three years during the war, capturing 66 ships in all.
In June, Lee charged Jubal Early with an independent campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. Early's troops, known as the Army of the Valley, drove the Union Army out of the Valley following the Battle of Lynchburg and into Maryland. Just outside Washington DC, Early considered attacking the city, but Union forces pushed him back into Virginia. Early settled for firing on the northern defenses of the city, scaring the North.
General Sherman faces the Confederate Army under the commands of General Johnston and Hood in northern Georgia. Sherman's goal was to take Atlanta to cut Confederate supply lines. He ordered Atlanta's military resources, munitions, clothings mills and railway yards be burned. Atlanta surrendered on September 2, 1864, giving Lincoln a much-needed victory before re-election.
Union Admiral David G. Farragut sailed his flotilla to capture one of the last major Confederate ports.
General Grant sent General Philip H. Sheridan to definitively take the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan's aggressive campaign earned him a reputation. In the campaign, Sherman won three major battles–the 3rd Battle of Winchester, the Battle of Fishers Hill and the Battle of Cedar Creek.
Sherman's victory at Cedar Creek negated the Confederate threat in the Shenandoah Valley.
Lincoln is reelected as President, with Andrew Johnson as his Vice President.
Sherman leaves Atlanta and begins his "march to the sea," moving his 60,000 troops toward Savannah 285 miles away. The march was designed to frighten and demoralize the South to bring about an end to the war.
Also known as Hood's Campaign, this was a Confederate offensive that covered northern Georgia, Alabama and middle Tennessee. It was conducted by General John Bell Hood who had replaced General Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee. It was a failed campaign that destroyed the Tennessee Army.
Confederate naval artillery bombard the Union fleet at Fort Fisher. The Union Army tries a land assault, but through miscommunication and arguments fails. The Union forces retreat instead.
Savannah was fortified and defended by 10,000 Confederate troops who flood the surrounding fields, cutting off most paths into the city. But after ten days waiting for an attack by Sherman, General William Hardee abandons the city to Sherman, who in turn offers it to Lincoln as a Christmas present.
Following a defeat in Winchester, General Jubal Early took up a strong defensive position at Fisher's Hill. The Union forces led by General Crook flanked Early, pushing him south to Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro. This left the Valley open to Crook who began an operation that focused on burning barns and mills from Staunton to Strasburg. It became known as "the Burning."
Congress abolishes slavery throughout the United States.
Sherman's army ransacks Columbia and burns it as they leave.
An accident at the train depot on February 18th sets off an explosion that kills a few hundred residents and destroyed nearby homes. The next day Union forces arrive and Alderman George Williams hands them a note from Mayor Charles MacBeth stating the Confederates had left and that Williams was charged with handing over the city to the Union.
In the aftermath of significant losses, the Confederate Congress passed a bill that allowed slaves to serve as soldiers and be armed. Several thousand slaves were enlisted in the cause, a small fraction of the black Union troops.
This the start of the final campaign in the war. It lasts six weeks.
Grant and Lee face off for the last time at Petersburg, an important rail center just south of Richmond. The battle lasts until April 9 when Lee surrenders and goes home.
With the fall of Petersburg, the Confederates evacuate Richmond. Union troops take over the capital of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis flees and Abraham Lincoln arrives.
Robert E. Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox, bringing four years of war to an end. Lee asked for the terms of surrender and Grant wrote them out. All officers and men were pardoned and would be sent home. All property would go with them, including their horses and side arms for officers. The Union Army also fed the starving Confederate troops.
John Wilkes Booth shoots and kills President Lincoln at Ford's Theater. On the same night, Secretary of State William H. Seward is stabbed in his home.
Andrew Johnson is inaugurated as President.
General Joseph E. Johnston surrenders to William T. Sherman at Bennett Place in North Carolina.
John Wilkes Booth is fatally shot in a barn in Virginia.
Jefferson Davis is captured near Irwinville, Georgia and taken prisoner.
The final terms of surrender were presented to General E. Kirby Smith of New Orleans. He accepted on June 2, formally ending the Civil War.
All eight conspirators are convicted of the crime, with four sentenced to death.