The American Civil War Timeline & Battlefields – 1854-1865
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act
1859 John Brown’s Raid in Harpers Valley
1861 Confederate States of America
1861 Battle of Fort Sumter
1861 First Battle of Bull Run or First Battle of Manassas
1862 Battle of Antietam
1862 Battle of Fredericksburg
1863 Battle of Gettysburg
1864 Sherman March to the Sea
1865 Robert E Lee Surrenders
1865 Abraham Lincoln Shot
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´. The Kansas-Nebraska Act infuriated many in the North who considered the Missouri Compromise to be a long-standing binding agreement. In the pro-slavery South it was strongly supported. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters rushed in to settle Kansas to affect the outcome of the first election held there after the law went into effect. Pro-slavery settlers carried the election but were charged with fraud by anti-slavery settlers, and the results were not accepted by them. The anti-slavery settlers held another election, however pro-slavery settlers refused to vote. This resulted in the establishment of two opposing legislatures within the Kansas territory. Violence soon erupted, with the anti-slavery forces led by John Brown. The territory earned the nickname “bleeding Kansas” as the death toll rose. President Franklin Pierce, in support of the pro-slavery settlers, sent in Federal troops to stop the violence and disperse the anti-slavery legislature. Another election was called. Once again pro-slavery supporters won and once again they were charged with election fraud. As a result, Congress did not recognize the constitution adopted by the pro-slavery settlers and Kansas was not allowed to become a state. Eventually, however, anti-slavery settlers outnumbered pro-slavery settlers and a new constitution was drawn up. On January 29, 1861, just before the start of the Civil War, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.
Major Historical Figures: Franklin Pierce, Stephen A. Douglas
John Brown was an American abolitionist, who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleeding Kansas and made his name in the unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. John Brown’s attempt in 1859 to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, electrified the nation. He was tried for treason against the state of Virginia, the murder of five pro-slavery Southerners, and inciting a slave insurrection and was subsequently hanged. Southerners alleged that his rebellion was the tip of the abolitionist iceberg and represented the wishes of the Republican Party. Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859 escalated tensions that, a year later, led to secession and the American Civil War. During the raid, he seized the armory; seven people (including a free African American) were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown’s men had fled or been killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Historians agree John Brown played a major role in starting the Civil War. His role and actions prior to the Civil War as an abolitionist, and the tactics he chose, still make him a controversial figure today. He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist. Later the song “John Brown’s Body” (the original title of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) became a Union marching song during the Civil War.
Major Historical Figures: John Brown, Robert E Lee, Israel Green, J.E.B. Stuart
Seven states declared their secession from the United States before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861:
1. South Carolina (December 20, 1860)
2. Mississippi (January 9, 1861)
3. Florida (January 10, 1861)
4. Alabama (January 11, 1861)
5. Georgia (January 19, 1861)
6. Louisiana (January 26, 1861)
7. Texas (February 1, 1861)
After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lincoln’s subsequent call for troops on April 15, four more states declared their secession:
1. Virginia (April 17, 1861; ratified by voters May 23, 1861)
2. Arkansas (May 6, 1861)
3. Tennessee (May 7, 1861; ratified by voters June 8, 1861)
4. North Carolina (May 20, 1861)
The border states of Kentucky and Missouri declared neutrality very early in the war. In Kentucky, the state gradually came to side with the north; however a second government (pro-Confederate) emerged in some southern counties.
In 1861, a Unionist legislature in Wheeling, Virginia seceded from Virginia, eventually claiming 50 counties for a new state. West Virginia joined the United States in 1863 with a constitution that gradually abolished slavery.
Four of the seceding states, the Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas, issued formal declarations of causes, each of which identified the threat to slaveholders’ rights as the cause of, or a major cause of, secession. Georgia also claimed a general Federal policy of favoring Northern over Southern economic interests. In what later became known as the Cornerstone Speech, C.S. Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the “cornerstone” of the new government “rest[ed] upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth”.
In his farewell speech to the United States Congress, Jefferson Davis, who became the president of the confederate states, made clear his view that the secession crisis had stemmed from the Republican Party’s failure “to recognize our domestic institutions which pre-existed the formation of the Union — our property which was guarded by the Constitution.”
Major Historical Figures: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, James Buchanan
The Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861) was the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, that started the American Civil War. Following declarations of secession by seven Southern states, South Carolina demanded that the U.S. army abandon Fort Sumter, which was refused. When the ultimatum deadline passed, an artillery barrage ensued, lasting until the fort was surrendered. Once the Confederates had fired, full-scale war quickly followed.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President. In his inaugural address, he argued that the purpose of the United States Constitution was “to form a more perfect union.” He also stated he had no intent to invade Southern states, nor did he intend to end slavery in states where it already was legal, but that he would use force to maintain possession of federal property. The South sent delegations to Washington D.C. and offered to pay for the federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with Confederate agents on the grounds that the Confederacy was not a legitimate government, and that making any treaty with it would be tantamount to recognition of it as a sovereign government. Six days after the South Carolina government ratified an order of secession, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson abandoned the indefensible Fort Moultrie and secretly relocated the 85 men under his command to Fort Sumter. Robert Anderson had been a protégé of Winfield Scott, the senior general in the U.S. Army at the time. Fort Sumter dominated the entrance to Charleston Harbor and was thought to be one of the strongest fortresses in the world. Under the cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, Anderson spiked the cannons at Fort Moultrie and moved his command to Fort Sumter. South Carolina authorities considered this a breach of faith and demanded that the fort be evacuated. At that time President James Buchanan was still in office, pending Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. Buchanan refused their demand. President Jefferson Davis, like his counterpart in Washington, D.C., preferred that his side not be seen as the aggressor.
In March, Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard took command of South Carolina forces in Charleston; on March 1, Davis had appointed him the first general officer in the armed forces of the new Confederacy, specifically to take command of the siege. Beauregard made repeated demands that the Union force either surrender or withdraw and took steps to ensure that no supplies from the city were available to the defenders, whose food was running low. By April 4, President Lincoln ordered merchant vessels escorted by the United States Navy to Charleston. On April 6, 1861, Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens that “an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, [except] in case of an attack on the fort.” In response, the Confederate cabinet, meeting in Montgomery, decided on April 9 to open fire on Fort Sumter in an attempt to force its surrender before the relief fleet arrived. Only Secretary of State Robert Toombs opposed this decision: he reportedly told Jefferson Davis the attack “will lose us every friend at the North. You will only strike a hornet’s nest. … Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death.” Further discussions after midnight proved futile.
At 3:20 a.m., April 12, 1861, the Confederates informed Anderson that they would open fire in one hour. At 4:30 a.m., a single mortar round fired from Fort Johnson exploded over Fort Sumter, marking the start of the bombardment from 43 guns and mortars at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the Floating Battery of Charleston Harbor and Cummings Point. The fort had been designed to hold out against a naval assault, and naval warships of the time did not mount guns capable of elevating to fire over the walls of the fort. Anderson agreed to a truce at 2:00 p.m., April 13, 1861. Terms for the garrison’s withdrawal were settled by that evening and the Union garrison surrendered the fort to Confederate personnel at 2:30 p.m., April 14. No one from either side was killed during the bombardment. Union troops were placed aboard a Confederate steamer where they spent the night and were transported the next morning to the Union steamer Baltic, resting outside the harbor bar. The soldiers along with the women and children were safely transported back to Union territory by the U.S. Navy squadron. Anderson carried the Fort Sumter Flag with him North, where it became a widely known symbol of the battle, and rallying point for supporters of the Union. With the scale of the rebellion apparently small so far, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. For months before that, several Northern governors had discreetly readied their state militias; they began to move forces the next day.
Major Historical Figures: Robert Anderson, P.G.T. Beauregard
The First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas, was fought on July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia. It was the first major land battle of the American Civil War. Just months after the start of the war at Fort Sumter, the Northern public clamored for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, which could bring an early end to the war. Yielding to this political pressure, unseasoned Union Army troops under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell advanced across Bull Run against the equally unseasoned Confederate Army under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard near Manassas Junction.
McDowell’s ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack against the Confederate left was not well executed by his inexperienced officers and men. Confederate reinforcements under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad and the course of the battle changed. A brigade of Virginians under a relatively unknown colonel from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, stood their ground and Jackson received his famous nickname, “Stonewall Jackson”. The Confederate Army of the Potomac under Beauregard was encamped near Manassas Junction, approximately 25 miles (40 km) from the United States capital. McDowell planned to attack this numerically inferior enemy army. Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson’s 18,000 men engaged Johnston’s force in the Shenandoah Valley, preventing them from reinforcing Beauregard.
Union casualties were 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing or captured; Confederate casualties were 387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing. Union forces and civilians alike feared that Confederate forces would advance on Washington, D.C. The Northern public was shocked at the unexpected loss of their army in a battle for which an easy victory was widely anticipated. Both sides quickly came to realize that the war would be longer and more brutal than they had thought. On July 22 President Lincoln signed a bill that provided for the enlistment of 500,000 men for up to three years of service. Beauregard was considered the hero of the battle and was promoted that day by President Davis to full general in the Confederate Army. Stonewall Jackson, arguably the most important tactical contributor to the victory, received no special recognition. Irvin McDowell bore the brunt of the blame for the Union defeat and was soon replaced by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who was named general-in-chief of all the Union armies. Battlefield confusion relating to battle flags, especially the similarity of the Confederacy’s “Stars and Bars” and the Union’s “Stars and Stripes”, led to the adoption of the Confederate Battle Flag, which eventually became the most popular symbol of the Confederacy and the South in general.
Major Historical Figures: Irvin McDowell, Joseph E. Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Thomas Jackson, Bernard Bee, Ambrose Burnside, William Sherman, J.E.B. Stuart
The Battle of Antietam or Battle of Sharpsburg was fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Antietam Creek, as part of the Maryland Campaign. It was the first major battle in the American Civil War to take place on Northern soil. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000 casualties.
After pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee into Maryland, Union Army Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan launched attacks against Lee’s army, in defensive positions behind Antietam Creek. At dawn on September 17, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank. Attacks and counterattacks swept across Miller’s cornfield and fighting swirled around the Dunker Church. Union assaults against the Sunken Road eventually pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. In the afternoon, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s corps entered the action, capturing a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and advancing against the Confederate right. At a crucial moment, Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s division arrived from Harpers Ferry and launched a surprise counterattack, driving back Burnside and ending the battle. Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, enabling Lee to fight the Federals to a standstill. During the night, both armies consolidated their lines. In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan throughout September 18, while removing his battered army south of the river.
Despite having superiority of numbers, McClellan’s attacks failed to achieve concentration of mass, allowing Lee to counter by shifting forces and moving interior lines to meet each challenge. Despite ample reserve forces that could have been deployed to exploit localized successes, McClellan failed to destroy Lee’s army. Nevertheless, Lee’s invasion of Maryland was ended, and he was able to withdraw his army back to Virginia without interference from the cautious McClellan. Although the battle was tactically inconclusive, it had unique significance as enough of a victory to give President Abraham Lincoln the confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation, which discouraged the British and French governments from potential plans for recognition of the Confederacy.
The battle was over by 5:30 p.m. Losses for the day were heavy on both sides. The Union had 12,401 casualties with 2,108 dead. Confederate casualties were 10,318 with 1,546 dead. This represented 25% of the Federal force and 31% of the Confederate. More Americans died on September 17, 1862, than on any other day in the nation’s military history
Major Historical Figures: George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Joseph Hooker, Edwin Sumner, Fitz John Porter, William B. Franklin, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph K. Mansfield
The battle was the result of an effort by the Union Army to regain the initiative in its struggle against Lee’s smaller but more aggressive army. Burnside was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac in November, replacing Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Although McClellan had stopped Lee at the Battle of Antietam in September, President Abraham Lincoln believed he lacked decisiveness, did not pursue and destroy Lee’s army in Maryland, and wasted excessive time reorganizing and re-equipping his army following major battles.
Burnside, in response to prodding from Lincoln and General-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, planned a late fall offensive; he communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on quick movement and deceit. He would concentrate his army in a visible fashion near Warrenton, feigning a movement on Culpeper Court House, Orange Court House, or Gordonsville. Then he would rapidly shift his army southeast and cross the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg, hoping that Robert E. Lee would sit still, unclear as to Burnside’s intentions, while the Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad from Fredericksburg. Burnside selected this plan because he was concerned that if he were to move directly south from Warrenton, he would be exposed to a flanking attack from Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, whose corps was at that time in the Shenandoah Valley south of Winchester. He also believed that the Orange and Alexandria Railroad would be an inadequate supply line. While Burnside began assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan. Lincoln eventually approved but cautioned him to move with great speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside anticipated.
The casualties sustained by each army showed clearly how disastrous the Union army’s tactics were, and Burnside was relieved of command a month later, following the humiliating failure of his “Mud March.” The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured/missing). Two Union generals were mortally wounded: Brig. Gens. George D. Bayard and Conrad F. Jackson. The Confederate army lost 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing), most of them in the early fighting on Jackson’s front. Confederate Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg and T. R. R. Cobb were both mortally wounded.
Major Historical Figures: Ambrose E. Burnside, Edwin V. Sumner, Joseph Hooker, William B. Franklin, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was the battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War and is often described as the war’s turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee’s invasion of the North.
After his success at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North—the Gettysburg Campaign. He intended to move the focus of the summer campaign from war-ravaged northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved just three days before the battle and replaced by Meade.
The two armies began to collide at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division, which was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great losses to the Confederate army. Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were casualties in the three-day battle. That November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.
The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), while Confederate casualties were 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing). Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured. The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225.
Major Historical Figures: George G. Meade, Robert E. Lee, Joseph Hooker, James Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, A.P. Hill, J.E.B. Stuart, J. Johnston Pettigrew, Henry Heth, John Buford, John F. Reynolds, Abner Doubleday, William Dorsey Pender, Winfield S. Hancock, George Pickett, John Bell Hood, Lafayette McLaws, Joshua L. Chamberlain, George Armstrong Custer, Lewis A. Armistead
Sherman’s March to the Sea is the name commonly given to the Savannah Campaign conducted across Georgia during November-December 1864 by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army in the American Civil War. The campaign began with Sherman’s troops leaving the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia on November 15 and ended with the capture of the port of Savannah on December 21. It inflicted significant damage, particularly to industry and infrastructure (as per the doctrine of total war), and also to civilian property. A military historian wrote that Sherman “defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s potential and psychology to wage war.”
Major Historical Figures: William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood, George H. Thomas
On April 2nd, the word reached Richmond that lines in Petersburg had broken. Richmond would have to be evacuated. The next day Lincoln was able to visit Richmond. On April 7th Lee’s surrounded (and hungry) army was forced to surrender.
The end came quickly, when the lines at Petersburg broke, it forced both Petersburg and Richmond fell.. Jefferson Davis was in church, when he received a message- he turned white, Lee had informed him that Richmond would have to be evacuated.
The next day President Lincoln who had been visiting Grant was able to tour Petersburg. He stated to Admiral David Porter: “Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone, I want to see Richmond”. Porter obliged and took Lincoln upriver to Richmond the next day. There guarded initially by 10 sailors he made his way through the streets to Jefferson Davis office. He was thronged by Blacks one old lady is said to have shouted: “I know I am alive for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.”
Meanwhile Grant and the army pursued Lee. On April 6th near a stream called Saylers Creek, 6,000 confederates were captured. Finally on the morning of April 9th Lee and his hungry men found themselves surrounded by five times the number of Union soldiers. Lee had no choice- At a ceremony at Appomattox Court House he surrendered the army of Northern Virginia, thus effectively bringing to an end the most horrible war in American history.
Major Historical Figures: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E Lee
On the evening of April 14, 1865, while attending a special performance of the comedy, “Our American Cousin,” President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Accompanying him at Ford’s Theater that night were his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a twenty-eight year-old officer named Major Henry R. Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancee, Clara Harris. After the play was in progress, a figure with a drawn derringer pistol stepped into the presidential box, aimed, and fired. The president slumped forward.
The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dropped the pistol and waved a dagger. Rathbone lunged at him, and though slashed in the arm, forced the killer to the railing. Booth leapt from the balcony and caught the spur of his left boot on a flag draped over the rail, and shattered a bone in his leg on landing. Though injured, he rushed out the back door, and disappeared into the night on horseback.
A doctor in the audience immediately went upstairs to the box. The bullet had entered through Lincoln’s left ear and lodged behind his right eye. He was paralyzed and barely breathing. He was carried across Tenth Street, to a boarding-house opposite the theater, but the doctors’ best efforts failed. Nine hours later, at 7:22 AM on April 15th, Lincoln died.
At almost the same moment Booth fired the fatal shot, his accomplice, Lewis Paine, attacked Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Seward lay in bed, recovering from a carriage accident. Paine entered the mansion, claiming to have a delivery of medicine from the Secretary’s doctor. Seward’s son, Frederick, was brutally beaten while trying to keep Paine from his father’s door. Paine slashed the Secretary’s throat twice, then fought his way past Seward’s son Augustus, an attending hospital corps veteran, and a State Department messenger.
Paine escaped into the night, believing his deed complete. However, a metal surgical collar saved Seward from certain death. The Secretary lived another seven years, during which he retained his seat with the Johnson administration, and purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.
There were at least four conspirators in addition to Booth involved in the mayhem. Booth was shot and captured while hiding in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died later the same day, April 26, 1865. Four co-conspirators, Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt, were hanged at the gallows of the Old Penitentiary, on the site of present-day Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865.
Major Historical Figures: Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Henry R. Rathbone, Mary Todd Lincoln, Lewis Paine, William Henry Seward