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Fort Sumter in The Civil War
Apr 12, 1861 - Apr 13, 1861
When Abraham Lincoln denounced secession during his Inaugural Address and vowed to
hold all federal property in the South, everyone knew he was referring to Fort Sumter.
Most federal installations of significance had already been surrendered to Confederate
authorities. But Fort Sumter, sitting at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, remained in the
hands of the federal government. For the people of South Carolina, the first state to
secede, seizing the brick fortress was necessary to show they were serious. For Lincoln,
defending the fort was necessary to show he was equally resolved. 9
The 68 federal soldiers and their Kentucky-born commander, Major Robert Anderson,
manning Fort Sumter stood at the center of the unfolding drama. They knew that they
could not hold out long against the canon and southern militia being deployed along the
perimeter of the harbor. Even if the walls of the fort could sustain the barrage, their
supplies would not hold out against a siege. In fact, it was Lincoln’s very public
announcement on 6 April 1861 that he intended to re-supply the fort that sent the
Southern forces into action.
On 11 April, Confederate General Beauregard demanded that Fort Sumter be surrendered
immediately. When Anderson refused, the Southern canon opened fire. Edmund Ruffin,
a long-haired, long-time advocate of states’ rights and secession, was given the honor of
firing the first shot. For 34 hours, the Southern artillery blasted away. The federal troops
returned the fire. Yet incredibly no one was killed—America’s most deadly war began
with a bloodless battle.
At 2:30 p.m. on 13 April, Anderson surrendered the fort. The Confederates had removed
the most visible remaining sign of federal authority. More important, they had crossed
the line separating talk and action, separating negotiation and war; and President
Abraham Lincoln had joined them on the other side.
First Battle of Bull Run in The Civil War
Jul 21, 1861
General Winfield Scott wanted to wait. He didn’t think much of the flood of volunteers
that had rushed to enlist following Fort Sumter. They needed months of training before
they could be sent into battle. But the Northern public was anxious for action, anxious to
return the violence begun by the rebels in South Carolina. And a few successful
skirmishes in western Virginia had led them to think that the Union soldiers were ready.
George McClellan, with about 20,000 men, had won victories at small battles fought at
Philippi and Rich Mountain. And he had written enthusiastically of the way his troops
“annihilated” the Southern traitors.
As a result Scott was pressed to mount a major attack against the bulk of the Confederate
Army (about 20,000 men) stationed at Manassas Junction in Virginia along Bull Run
creek. Scott gave the assignment to General Irvin McDowell and an army of 35,000
Union troops.
As the Union army set off on the 25 mile march from Washington, D.C. to Manassas, it
looked terrific. The locally-raised militias sported a variety of locally-designed uniforms.
Most spectacular were the Zouave units with their yellow sashes and red hammer pants.
Running a close second was a kilted New York unit.
But inside the flashy uniforms were some pretty green troops and some inexperienced
officers. Not surprisingly, the blundering began even before the actual battle. Union
General Robert Patterson was sent to intercept Confederate forces under Joseph Johnston.
But Patterson fell for a fake attack by Johnston, allowing Johnston to sidestep the Union
army and deliver an additional 9000 troops to Beauregard at Manassas.
Union General McDowell therefore lost the numerical advantage he had expected. But
given the inexperience of his men and officers, superior numbers may not have made a
difference. Actually, the battle could have been an even bigger fiasco than it was—
Beauregard and McDowell had been classmates at West Point. The both studied the
same military theorists and, consequently, they both intended at Bull Run to overload
their right side and attack their enemy’s left flank. If properly executed, the two armies
may have spun one another around like multi-colored pinwheels.
But the armies and their officers were not really up to executing the plan. The Southern
advance against the Northern left stalled completely. The Northern attack did a bit better
and, although clumsily maneuvered, might have succeeded. But then a Virginia unit led
by Brigadier General Thomas Jackson rallied and stood “like a stonewall” turning back
the Northern attack.
Soon after, McDowell called off the Northern attack and ordered his troops back toward
Washington. But it was neither a quick nor organized retreat. The road was clogged with
picnickers and press who had come to watch the afternoon spectacle. No doubt
disappointed by the home team’s poor showing, they now returned to the capital to
analyze the debacle.
It was not hard to breakdown—the Northern army was unprepared and sloppily managed.
It would need to be trained before it risked another encounter. But the South’s
supporters could not have been all that pleased with their army’s performance either. A
few commanders, like Jackson, had argued that the Union army should be pursued. But
Beauregard recognized that his army had been more lucky than good—that it too needed
further training—and that he should be content with the victory already secured.
At this first battle at Bull Run, the South won bragging rights and a morale-boosting
victory. But the commanders on both sides learned that their armies were yet not ready
for the major battles that lay ahead. The Northern public was perhaps the most shocked
by the battle. Their army suffered almost 3000 casualties against en enemy that many did
not take seriously. For these picnickers, the war suddenly took on a far less festive
Vicksburg in The Civil War
May 22, 1863 - Jul 4, 1863
All through traffic on the Mississippi River was controlled by the Confederate fortress at
Vicksburg, Mississippi. Situated atop seemingly insurmountable cliffs, the fort and its
big guns determined whose men and supplies flowed down the critical water highway.
So well defended by nature and big guns was the fort that Union General Ulysses S.
Grant spent more time trying to figure out how to circumvent the fort than attack it.
Several schemes involving canals, dredges, and levees were explored; if a new ditch
could be dug, Vicksburg could be avoided and Northern military transports could work
their way down Ol’ Muddy. But none of these schemes panned out. Grant had no choice
but to take Vicksburg if he were to take the Mississippi. And perhaps where modern
technology had failed, ancient military tactics could succeed.
Grant began by marching his army down the western bank of the Mississippi well past
Vicksburg located on the eastern bank. To cross the river he had no other choice but to
order his transport boats to parallel his movement—that is, float past the fort and its
deadly accurate guns. Those ships that made it, ferried Grant and his men to the
Vicksburg side of the river about 25 miles south of the fort.
Next, Grant marched 50 miles east to Jackson, the state capital, to establish control over
the supplies that might be used to restock Vicksburg. For a time, the Confederate
commander at Vicksburg, John C. Pemberton, was confused by Grant’s movements and
distracted by some diversionary raids order by Grant. But soon enough, Pemberton
figured out what was up –Grant was planning to lay siege to his fortress. Caught in
something of a Catch-22—afraid to leave Vicksburg undefended but anxious to support
the small army engaged in delaying Grant’s progress, Pemberton sent out a small force to
help intercept the Union general. But his desperate gambit failed. Pemberton was forced
to retreat to the heavily barricaded city with Grant hot on his heels.
Grant, a hard charger by nature, initially tried to take the fort by storm, first on 19 May
and then again three days later. But after taking heavy casualties, he settled in for a long
siege. His 75,000 men easily contained the 30,000 men Pemberton had entrenched within
the city-fort. Grant’s troops also proved sufficient to fend off General Joe Johnston’s
desperate attempt to break Grant’s stranglehold by attacking from the east.
Without reinforcements and without supplies, Pemberton's army and the civilian
population of the city faced terrible hardships. To escape the barrage let loose by Union
gunboats hovering outside, locals hid in caves. To fend off starvation, they ate anything
they could find—by late June all the army’s mules had been stewed. Yet Grant’s grip
was relentless, his siege could not be broken. On 4 July 1863—four score and seven
years after the Declaration of Independence was read--Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg
to Grant. The North now controlled the Mississippi.
Gettysburg in The Civil War
Jul 1, 1863 - Jul 3, 1863
Lee’s first venture into the North had ended in failure. Unable to win at Antietam, he had
failed to crush Northerners’ will to fight and he had failed to convince Great Britain to
extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Therefore in June 1863, he decided to
try again. He would march north to Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac would have
to pursue. And when it did, Lee would choose the best ground to fight a major battle—
one designed to terrify the Northern public and impress British statesmen.
The first stage of Lee’s campaign went according to plan. He marched swiftly up the
Shenandoah Valley with the Union army under Joe Hooker paralleling his movements 30
miles to the east. Hooker had proposed attacking Richmond while Lee moved North—
but his plan was rejected in Washington. After getting whipped at Chancellorsville,
despite having the much larger army, he had little credibility or support. In fact, by the
end of June he had been replaced by General George Meade.
While the Union army may have lacked effective leadership, Lee suffered from poor
intelligence. The usually reliable J.E.B. Stuart had decided to ride all the way around the
Union army in order to gather troop information. Lee was accustomed to the daring
antics of his over-achieving Major General, but Stuart’s decision was costly. Stuart’s
ride took longer than either anticipated; for three critical days Lee heard nothing from
Stuart and was forced to march into enemy territory without really knowing where the
Union army was positioned.
Lee was therefore stunned to hear on 28 June that the Union army was closer than he
thought. His army was dispersed along a 40-mile arc—and he had only the most general
information about his enemy’s position and strength. This was not the way he planned it.
From the beginning, his goal had been to pick the ground on which to fight. Now short
on information, and hurried in his efforts to collect his army, events were moving outside
his control.
In fact, the decision to fight at Gettysburg was largely made by a small group of
Confederate soldiers who went into the town looking for shoes and saddles. They
bumped into a division of Northern cavalry and had to fight their way back to their lines.
On the next day, 1 July 1863, a sort of preliminary contest ensued as neither army had
arrived in full strength. The fighting began with two Confederate infantry divisions
attacking the Union cavalry. Through the morning, the fighting occurred to the west of
the town; by afternoon, the arrival of more troops had extended the action to the town’s
north. For the most part, the Southerners got the best of the engagements—Union
casualties were higher and, in general, they were forced to fall back. At one point, Union
soldiers ran frantically through the streets of the town with the rebels in hot pursuit. But
also, for the most part, these Union forces fell back to high, easily defended ground. By
the end of the day they commanded a two-mile horseshoe that ran from Culp’s Hill along
Cemetery Ridge to the Roundtops.
Lee had not chosen this ground and the Union defensive position was stronger. Lee’s
trusted advisor told him to withdraw to better ground. But Lee was impressed by his
troops’ performance on the first day. And so he decided to take his stand here and attack
the Union lines the next day.
On 2 July Lee began his attack by hitting the North’s left flank at the Peach Orchard,
Little Roundtop, and Devil’s Den. Only the fortuitous re-positioning of a small Maine
regiment prevented the rebel forces from sweeping around the Union flank and crashing
the backside of the North’s lines. Confederate troops also almost broke through to
Cemetery Ridge; they reached the cemetery gates before being driven back. The day’s
fighting ended with yet another Confederate attack, this time against the North’s right
flank on Culp’s Hill. It too was repelled by Union troops.
The following day, Lee decided to pull Union troops from the center with an attack on
the right flank atop Culp’s Hill, and then hit the center with the bulk of his army. But a
Union attack on the forces gathering for Lee’s flanking action forced these troops into
combat earlier than Lee wanted.
Despite this failure, Lee stuck with his plan. He launched a ferocious artillery barrage
aimed at softening the Union center; then he ordered Major General George Pickett to
lead 15,000 men across almost a mile of open fields while Union artillery and rifle fire
tore them to shreds. One unit managed to reach the Union lines. But the attack was
really doomed from the start.
Lee knew it was over. The next day he led his beaten troops back toward Virginia. He
had lost almost 28,000 men—roughly a third of his army. Perhaps more important, his
own confidence was shaken. He wrote Confederate president Jefferson Davis offering to
resign his position—Davis would hear nothing of it. But Lee, his army, and the
Confederate cause would never be the same. Sensing the end, Lincoln ordered Union
troops to pursue the shattered Confederate forces.
Sherman's March to the Sea and Carolina
Campaign in The Civil War
May 7, 1864 - Dec 2, 1864
In the spring of 1864, while Grant relentlessly pursued Lee through Virginia, Union
General William Tecumseh Sherman left Chattanooga, Tennessee with his sights set on
Atlanta. His army of 100,000 was still high from its victories in southern Tennessee the
previous winter. But immediately, they ran into resistance from Joseph Johnston and his
smaller but expertly led forces. Knowing that he could not prevail in a head-to-head
encounter, Johnston hit-and-ran, harassed and peppered Sherman’s army as it plowed
through Georgia.
Johnston’s tactics were shaped by the military realities—but he also had a keen
understanding of politics. He realized that Lincoln’s re-election was doubtful, and that
barring some major Northern victory, the Democratic candidate, George McClellan, who
favored negotiations with the South, might win. Johnston’s goal, therefore, was to avoid
a disaster—stay in the field, slow Sherman’s march, and prevent the Union general and
the American president from gaining a large victory.
But ironically, the general understood politics better than the politician. Confederate
president Jefferson Davis wanted to see more dramatic military results, and therefore he
replaced the judicious Johnston with the more hot-blooded John Bell Hood on 18 July.
Hood immediately attacked Sherman’s army—on 20 July at Peachtree Creek and on 22
July just outside Atlanta. The action was exactly what Davis wanted. But the cost was
enormous—in these two actions alone Hood lost 13,000 men. Moreover, they barely
delayed the inevitable. Sherman gained control over all of railroad lines funneling food
and supplies to the beleaguered city; finally convincing even Hood that there was no
hope. The Confederate general abandoned the city, boosting Northern morale and
reassuring Lincoln’s re-election.
Sherman’s work, however, was far from finished. On 16 November, he set fire to Atlanta
and set off on the second leg of his destructive Georgia journey. Instructing his 60,000
men to pack light and live off the land, he cut a 60 miles groove through the rebel state
destroying everything in his path. Hood offered little resistance. He had come around to
Johnston’s way of thinking. Instead of attacking the unstoppable Sherman, he
concentrated on disrupting his communications and supplies lines back to Tennessee. It
was really all that Hood could do. But it did not make much of a difference. Sherman’s
army took all that it needed from the farms and factories it encountered as it marched.
When it reached Savannah in December, Northern ships provided all that Sherman’s
Georgia hosts could not.
In January, Sherman hit the road yet again. This time he headed due north, taking his
unique brand of total war into the seedbed of secession, South Carolina. He captured the
state capital Columbia on 17 February and burned it. Then he marched into North
Carolina with plans of joining Grant in Virginia. His 90,000 troops would no doubt tip
the scales in the long siege of Petersburg.
Recognizing that the combined Union armies would be fatal to the Confederate cause,
Lee ordered Joe Johnston to make one last ditch attempt to slow Sherman’s advance.
Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was broken, but he managed to scrape together about
21,000 men for the effort. Yet even half Sherman’s army was enough to turn back
Johnston’s comparatively small force. At Bentonville, on 19 March, Johnston attacked
the eastern wing of Sherman’s army led by Major General Henry Slocum. And for a few
hours, the smaller rebel force did fairly well. Slocum, believing that he was facing only a
small regiment of cavalry, did not initially call for support. But soon enough he realized
his error and overpowering numbers were delivered to the field.
Johnston withdrew his forces on the battle’s third day and Sherman allowed him to retreat
in peace. He knew that the war was all but over. And in fact, a few hundred miles to the
north, Petersburg was about to fall and with it the South’s final hopes.
Antietam in The Civil War
Sep 17, 1862
Now it was the South’s turn to take the offensive. After Union General McClellan failed
to take Richmond, Confederate officials plotted to recapture lost territory in the West and
threaten Washington D.C. by a campaign in the East. Lee marched into Maryland where
he hoped to achieve two things—seize the railroads feeding Washington D.C., thereby
isolating the city, and rally pro-Southern inhabitants of the border state. After Maryland,
Lee intended to march into Pennsylvania. Suspecting that the Northerners’ pain
threshold was low, he planned to take the war to them and force pressure on Lincoln to
abandon the conflict.
Lee’s march through Maryland advanced quickly. But as he approached the
Pennsylvania border he decided that he needed to pause to secure his line of
communication with Virginia. He therefore split off a portion of his army (some 11,000
men) to take Harper’s Ferry. It was a safe move, given all that Lee knew about his overly
cautious opponent. McClellan, who had recently brought his army back from the James
River, would probably never find out that Lee’s forces were divided—and even if he did,
he would be slow to react.
But for a brief moment, McClellan’s stars aligned. A Southern courier lost a copy of
Lee’s marching orders; Union soldiers found them wrapped around a couple of cigars.
And with this intelligence, even the slow-moving McClellan was able to catch a large a
portion Lee’s army camped near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
McClellan was able to bring a huge numerical advantage against the divided Southern
force (75,000 to 40,000). But still, he began the attack by cautiously probing the
Confederate lines. Then after mounting a small diversionary attack on Lee’s right, he
concentrated his forces for a massive attack on Lee’s left flank. But Lee sniffed out
McClellan’s plan, and proved far more effective than the Northern general in shifting his
outmanned army to meet the brunt of the Union advance.
The fighting was horrific—the single day’s carnage was unprecedented. By evening
more than 5000 had been killed and another 20,000 wounded. At one point, Union troops
had managed to break through the Confederates’ first line of defense that paralleled a
sunken road—Bloody Lane it was labeled. But reluctant to commit his reserves,
McClellan was unable turn this breakthrough into a more complete victory. And the day
ended with neither side gaining a significant advantage.
Lee expected McClellan to resume the attack the next morning; when he didn’t, Lee
began moving his army out, southward toward Virginia.
The battle thus ended more or less in a draw with a slight advantage to the North. But the
overall ambiguity of the results far better served the North than the South.
Great Britain had been debating whether to recognize the Confederacy. Its huge textile
industries were dependent on the South’s cotton, and Confederate diplomats had
skillfully worked this dependence toward British recognition of their government.
Recognition would lead to access to British industries—guns, munitions, and other
needed supplies. And if Britain traded with the South, it would protect this trade with its
massive navy. In short, British recognition would level the industrial and naval playing
But the ambiguous results at Antietam put a halt to these discussions. A British cabinet
meeting set to finalize British plans was cancelled once word of Lee’s withdrawal from
Maryland was received in London.
Moreover, for the North, Antietam gave Lincoln the “victory” he needed to issue his
Emancipation Proclamation. For some time he had wanted to announce the ultimatum
that would give Southern states 100 days to abandon their rebellion or risk losing their
slaves. Without some sort of victory, this announcement would look desperate or, even
worse, comical. But Antietam gave Lincoln’s threat more credibility. Consequently, just
six days after the battle, Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation, which declared that
slaves would be freed on January 1, 1863 in those states still in rebellion.
Antietam changed the course and the meaning of the war. The fate of the Confederacy
and the cause for which the North fought, turned on a lost message and some unsmoked