The American Civil War: Military Campaigns--Early Phase (1861-63)

Figure 1.--Here we see a colorized CDV photigraoph from an unidentified Federal Camp. The photograph is undated, but we would guess was taken about 1862. Note the drummer boy with his drums. Civil War soldiers during the early phase of the War spent a great deal of time in camp. After considerable preparation the opposing forces would fight a major battle and then retire to their camps for an extended period, prepring for the next clash. Put your cursor on the image to see the rest of the group.

Secession was not an act of war. It was then up to the Federal Government to accept secession or use military force to supress the rebellion. Such an action would have surely caused the critical border sttes to also seceed. Lincoln wisely held back. It was the Confederacy tht lunched the War. Authorized by bPresident Davis, Confederate batteries at Fourt Sumter fired on Fort Sumter (April 186). These were the oopening shots of the Civil War. The first important battle occurred in the East just south of Washington, the Federal capital. It was fought only a few weeks after the Confederates fired on Firt Sumter launching the war. The Battle of Bull Run shocked the over-confident Federals. The casualties were akso shocking, but small relative as to what was to come. Both sides in the East retired to their camps and prepared for a larger decisive action. Engagements soon followed in the West. No one in either the North or South had any idea how long the War would last are the horrendous casulties that would result. The pace of war picked up in 1862. The early phase of the War can be divided into an Eastern and a Western campaign. The Federals gained ax series of victories in the West. The key theater of war was, however, in the East. And although much of the fighting was in Vurginia, Robert E. Lee's Army bof Northern Virginia, sucessfully defended the capital of Richmond from the larger and better equipped Federal Army of the Potomac. He achieved this in part by aggressive tactics that resulted in substabntiual casualties, casualties the Confederacy could not easilkyv replace.

Beginning of the War

Lincoln was elected president (November 1860). South Carolina immediately decided to seceed (December 1860). Oher Deep South states voted to seceed in rapid secesssion. Lincoln arrived in Washington and was inagurated (March 1861). Federal forts all over the South peacefully surrendered to Confederate authorities and turned over their arms. The soldiers who remained loyal were allowed to go north. The Federal force at Fort Sumter refused to surrender. Secession in itself was not an act of war. It was then up to the Federal Government to either accept secession or use military force to supress the rebellion. Such an action would have surely caused the critical border states to also seceed. Lincoln wisely held back. He did order Fort Sumter to be resupplied. It was thus the Confederacy that launched the War. Authorized by President Davis who apparently did not recognize the consequences of being the first to resort to military force, Confederate batteries at Charleston fired on Fort Sumter (April 1861). The Confederates opened fire to prevent the resupply of the Fort. President Lincoln had wisely allowed the Conderates to fire the first shots of the War. This helped to keep the border states in the Union. The War began with Washington guarded by only a small Federal force. Washington was well south of the Mason Dixon Line and suronded by slave states, Virginia which seceeded and Maryland which was posed to seceed. The Federal Government in Washingtom found itself cut off. Rail links and telegraph lines were cut. Confederate forces accross the Potomac seemed poised to seize Washington. Federal forces were rushed to thge capital in the nick of time. As a result, many of the important Civil War battles were fought to the south between Washington and Richmond.

Eastern Campaign

The Federal forces using the Army of the Polomac made a great effort to drive on the Confederate capital at Richmond, but the superb tactics of Lee frustrated that effort through most of the War. A succession of vascilating or fool-hardy northern generals experiended devestaing defeats in the East, in the face of numerically weaker Confederate forces. The first battle was fought at Bull Run (July 1861). At the time, most people in the North and South thought to Wr would be decided by one or a small number of battles. Federal forces were sure of victory. The battle swayed back and forth. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson emerged as the deciding force. The battle turned into a Federal disaster. As the defeated Federal forces streamed back to Washington, the people were shocked at the view of a defeated army. The Civil war might have ended right there, except for the man watching his defeated army stream backl into Waskhington from a White House window. Lincoln's response was to call for the creation of a larger army. [Detzer] Bull Run was the only major engagement fought in the East during 1861. Both sides used the rest of the year to build up their forces. The pace of the War picked up the following year as Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Major battles were fought punctuated with long period of recovery and inaction. Lee's victories included: Seven Days (June-July 1862), Bull Run (August 1862), Fredericksburg (December 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1863). These were masterful battles which established Lee as one of the great military commanders of the War. Lee was an offensive-minded commander. While achieving these victories, they came at a considerable price, substantial losses even in victory. The losses were dreadful on both sides, but the Federal forces were better prepare to replace the losses than the Confederacy. The one Federal success in the Eastern theater was at Antitem (September 1862). Antitem was preceed by Lee's victory at Second Bull Run which led him to brlieve that he should invade the North and force an end to the War. This led to fighting at South Mountain (September 1862). The tactical actions at Fox, Turner, and Crampton's Gp proved to be the first victory of the Army of the Potomac over the Army of Northern Vurginia. [Jordan] The two armies then collied in full force at Antitem 3 days later. It was there that Federal forces under General McClellan managed to turn back Lee's first attempt to take the War to the North. It proved to be an horific killing field, the bloodiest day in American history. McClellan in fact was a disastrous commander turned back by Lee at the Seven Day's campaign and failing to take advantage of Lee's defeat at Antitem. McClellan while a poor commander did effectively build the Army of the Potomac into an effective fighting force, but was hesitant to use it. Lincoln becoming increasingly frustrated with McClellan . He called the Army of the Potomac 'McClellan's personal body guard' and told an aiud, that he 'would like to borrow the Army if General McClellan was not goung to use it.' It would be General Grant who would put it to effective use.

Western Campaign

Clashes in the west are less well known than the major battles of the eastern campaign. Federal forces in the West were more successful, due in part to the more effective leadership of Ulyses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Fightin in 1861 were relatively limited as the two sides began to amass and train their armies. The only major battle in 1861 was Bull Run in the east. There were important engagements such as at Fort Doneldson where Grant became known as Unconditional Surrender Grant. More importantly it helped hold the wetern border states in the Federal Union. The war began in earnest in 1862. The battle at Shiloh was the first of the great killing fields of the war. Shiloh was a nominal Federal victory, but the public was agast at the scale of the losses. Shiloh also had important consequences on how the War was to be fought. Finally with the fall of Vicksburg (1863) the Mississippi was secured and the Confederacy cut off from needed suplies west of the river.

Negotiated Peace

Even after fighting commenced there was still hope of a negotiated peace. This was primarily an option in the North where Democrats were not as committed to the War as Republicans. And this way of ending the War was even supported by some officers in the Federal Army. The most important was none other than General McClellan--the 'Young Napoleob. McClellelan commanded the Army of the Potomac, the strongest Federal Formation. McClellan despised Lincoln, considering him both ignorant and uncouth. He once kept the President waiting in his parlor while he slept upstairs. McClellan even had fantasies of a military coup and dictaorship. The ensuing political struggle provided the Confederacy its best chance of winning the War when General Robert E. Lee after his victory of Second Bull Run led the Army of Northern Virginia north into western Maryland (September 1862). The possibility of negotiaed peace ws, however, a chimera. Linclon held back from major changes addressing slavery in his first term, despite even though the Republicans had the votes in Congress. His idea was a gradual end to slavery, buying the slaves from their masters. A trial effort failed in Deleware. But there was no real enducement to the South. They wanted slavery preserved as an institution. And returning to the Union, even if slavery was preserved was not attractive because so many northeners believed it was evil. The Abolitionist Movement while still a minority hd essentiually poisoned the well. Most Northerners considered slavery an evil, including many who opposed the War and who had no regard for fro-Americans. Thus the Union no longer had an allure for the South, dominated by the plantation elite. Fighting in 1861 had been limited. This changed in 1862 when some of the most bloodiest battles in American history were fought (Fair Oaks, the Seven Days, Second Bull Run, and Shiloh). Americans in both the North and South were horrified with the casualties. Thus in summer 1962 after the year of prolonged fighting, Lincoln decided on a radical change in his war policy--Emancipation. [Slotkin] This would not only end the slavery, but under cut the power of the southern plantation clss. And McClellan's narrow victory at Abntitem gave Lincon the opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, much to McClellan's displeasure. The Proclamation ended all hopes of a negotiated peace if there ever had been one. After Antitem and and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civul War would be fought out on one bloody battlefield after another to its ultimate conclusion.


Detzer, David. Donneybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (Hasrcourt, 2004).

Jordan, Brian Matthew. Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain (2011), 384p.

Slotkin, Richard. The Long Road to Antietem: How the Civil War becamec a Revolution (2012), 496p.

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Created: 12:16 PM 2/22/2012
Last updated: 7:34 PM 7/10/2012