*** the American Civil War -- war campaign

The American Civil War: Military Campaigns

Civil War campaigns
Figure 1.--This photograph of children watching some officers of the Federal cavalry at Sudley Ford, Bull Run, Virginia was taken in March, 1862. Bull Run or Manasass was the scene of two important early battles. This photograph is notable because it is one of the few Civil War photograpgs, other than studio portraits, that show children at the time. Notice how the children are wearing uniform items.

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, effective use of combined land-sea operations, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. 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 food hardy northern generals experiended devestaing defeats in the East, in the face of numerically weaker Confederate forces: Bull Run (1861), Seven Days (1862), Bull Run (1862), Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863). The one Federal success in the Eastern theater was at Antitem (1862). Federal forces under General McClellan managed to turn back Lee's first attempt to take the War to the North. Mclellan 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 Poltomac into an effective fighting force, but it was Grant who would put it to effective use. Federal forces in the West were more successful, due in part to the more effective leadership of Ulyses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. The public was agast at the scale of losses in such battles as Shiloh (1862). Finally with the fall of Vicksburg (1863) the Mississippi was secured and the Confederacy cut off from needed suplies west of the river. The Confederates were turned back at the largest battle of the War--Gettysburg (July 1863). At the same timde Vicksburg finally fell. Lincoln then turned the Army of the Potomac and the eastern camapign over to Grant who relentlessly took the War to Lee. Before after each battle during 1861-63 the Army of the Potomac would turn back or rest. Under Grant the Army moved south and continued moving south toward Richmond regardless of the battlefield outcome. Through a series of bitter battles in the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, Grant pressed south. Even after a costly defeat at Cold Harbor (1864), Grant pressed south. At this stage of the War, the South's only hope was that the Northern public would tire of the mounting losses. Lincoln was challenged in the 1864 election by one of his fired General's--George McClellan. Sentiment against the War was rising. There were draft riots in New York (1863). Lincoln for a time was despondent fearing that he would not be reelected. Then good news began to arrive. Lee retired to Richmond (June 1864). Grant neared Richmond and began a seige around Petersburg. Sherman took Atlanta (September 1864) and comenced his "March to the Sea" across the heartland of the Confederacy. Lincoln won reelection, beating Mcclellan in a landslide (November 1864). Lee held out at Perersburg against overwealing odds. Finally the Confederate lines cracked (April 1865) and Union Calvary trapped Lee's remaining forces at Appomatox where he surrendered a few days later. Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, but was arrested by Federal Cavalry (May 1865).

Modern Warfare

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war. There are a range of reasons for this. There are the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, effective use of combined land-sea operations, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery (rifeled artillery, repeating weapons, imprived ordinance, and iron-clad ships). The problm with this assessment is thatfor the most part tactics did not change. The primary weapon for the infantry was the smooth-bore musket and the infantry tactics were for th most part similar to the Napolonic Era. This explains the huge casualtics, improved weaponry, but unchanging tactics. One historian maintains that a better descriotion was the last Napoleonic War. 【Griffith】 It was the Federals with their industrial strength who most successfully employed these new technologies. The agricultural south with a smaller population was at a destinct disadvantage, especially when the War contrary to early expectations, did not prove to be a short, limited affair. The North was able to recruit and more importantly supply large aemies deep in the South by supplying it through their extensive and growing rail system. The Condederacy had an essentially agrarian army that had to live off the land. The Federals could recruit and supply large armies indefinitely over long distances. The tragedy for many of the men who fought the War was that while modern weaponry appeared on the battlefield, commanders clung to thec tactics appropriate for less leathal weponry.

Naval Operations

Naval operations were critical to the Federal victory. While naval operations are the least reported aspect of the War, they undoubtedly shortened the War and made posible the Federal victory. It is clear that by 1864 the Northern public was tiring of the war. If victory had not been achieved in 1865, a Democratic victory in the 1866 Congressional byelections forcing a negotiated peace almost certainly would have occurred. Unlike the Army, most of the Navy remained loyal to the Federal Government and Union. And unlike the Army, the U.S. Navy was a force in being, albeit small, that the United States could immeditely deploy. The early implementation of the Anaconda Plan blockade began the economic strangulation of the South. The Navy made possible the seizure of New Orleans, the first iportnt southern city to fall. And the Navy played a major role in seizing control of the Mississippi which split the Confederacy in two. The Condederacy as a result of seizing the Norfolk Navy Yards had a few ships, but much of its naval action was conducted by privateers, civilian mariners authorized to engage in military action. They preyed on Federal shipping. Lincoln wanted them tried for piracy which carried the death penalty. The privateer Savanah was taken byb the USS Perry (June 1861). They were tried for piracy. The trial, however, resulted in a mistrail. And the Confederacy threatened to hold Federal prisoners hostage if the Confederate sailors were executed. The naval war was notable for the first appearance of iron sides.

Early Phase (1861-63)

Secession was not an act of war. It was then up to the Federal Government yo accept secession or use mikitary 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 camaign. 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 Vurginis, 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.

Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation, one of the key documents in American history, was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (October 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the borer states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural.

Gettysburg (July 1863)

Lee and Davis agreed that some action was needed to save the Conderacy. Vicksburg was seen as a kee, but Lee did not want to weaken his army to send units west. The decission was taken to strike north. Lee had at his command the strongest army he had ever commanded, although still badly outnumbered. He was seeking a battle with he Army of the Potomac that he hoped could deliver a knockout blow. Meade had just been given command of the Fderal army. A few days after Vicksburg fell, Lee's Army of Nothern Virginia Confederates clashed headlong with the Army of the Potomac in the the largest battle of the War--Gettysburg. The resulting battle was the largest ever fought on American soil. It was Lee's second invasion of the North and the South's last real chance to win militarily. The two armies camme together at a sleepy crossroads town in southeatern Pennsylvania. Lee developed a plan to strike at the Fedeal flanks which he persued aggressively on the second day. He was almost successful. Federal troops commanded by an ardent unionist and abolistionist, Colonel Josuah Chamberlin when his Maine brigade exausted thir amunition ordered a rare bayonet charge and finally broke the Alabama unit aving the Federal left. Longstreet's Corps was so mauled on he Confederate right that he could not continue on the third day. Lee was convinced that Meade must have weakened his center to support his flanks. Lee thus against Longstreet's advice ordered a cannonade of the Federal center followed by a charge over open ground by Picket's Division. "Picket's Charge" is often seen as the high tide of the Confederacy. Picketd Division was decimated. Lee was forced to retire back accross the Potomac, but Meade refused to persue him. 【Trudeau】 Lincoln was angered at this decission and finally turned to U.S. Grant. Lee's losses at Gettyburg were inrreplaceable, but he did succeed in keeping the war out of Virginia for nearly a year.

Gettysburg Address (November 1863)

A few months later, Lincoln traveled to Gettyburg to participate in the ceremonies there to dedicate the military cemetary. His speech, little regarded at the time, eloquentedly stated the Federal cause. Many consider it to be the greatest speech ever delivered in the English language. It was not at the time generally considered to be an important speech at the time. One of the few was Edward Everett, the renoouned orator who gave the major orration dedicating the cemetary. "... Mr. Lincoln perhaps said more to the purpose in his brief speech than I in my long one". 【MacVeagh】 What Lincoln did was to eloquently make the case for democratic government. This of course it taken for granted today. But at the time American was the only republic of any consequence. Britain was becoming more democratic, but was still ruled by a poweful monarch. The rest of the world, however, was goverened by kings, emperors, and tsars, many of whom ruled with absolute or near absolute authority. The world was watching while the sole democratic republic tore itself apart in civil war. Lincoln's address was a rising endorsement of democracy ending with the soaring acclamation that government "of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth." Implicit in this statement was the preservation of the Union. And not mention, but by this time an important part of the struggle--emancipation.

Civilian Discontent (1863-64)

As the War coninued in full fury, civilians were increasingl affected. The North had to institute a draft as volunteers proved harder to find. This led to the New York draft riots. The reaction to the draft might have been more severe had the Emancipation Proclamation not opened the way to the formation of African-American regiments. Civilians in the South were even more severly affected. Industry in the North boomed creating jobs and prosperity for farmers. The Southern econony was devastated by the Anaconda Plan as well as the loss of both slaves (runaways and liberated by Federal advances) and the terrrible casualties. This resulted in the Richmond bread riots. Civilian discontent was a matter of some imprtance. After Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia failed a Gettysburg, the Confederacy had no hope of winning the War on the battlefield. Its only hope was a defensive war to hold Richmond and Atlanta and bleed the Federal armies, hoping that Northern voters woukld vote Lincoln and the Reoublicans out in the 1864 election. And General McClellan, the Democratic nominee, campaigned on making peace with the South.

The Frontier

The Civil War was mostly fought east of the Mississppi River with important engagements along the Mississippi itself. When Civil War historians speak of the Western campaigns they are speaking of battles for the most part fought west of the Apalachins, but east or along the Mississippi. Although not often discussed, there were engagements west of the Mississippi on the Frontier. The Confederates formed the First Regiment, Texas Mounted Riflemen (spring 1861). It was the first Texas unit and involved 1-year enlistments. The ten companies of the regiment occupied the old U.S. Army forts and conducted expeditions into Indian areas in northwest Texas. The primary concern was Comanche raids. They were replaced with the Frontier Regiment, later designated as the 46th Texas Cavalry. The Fedral Army formed the Army of the Frontier that operated in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. It fought in several minor engagements, mostly in Arkansas, the Indian Territory, and Kansas. The U.S. Army discontinued it, but many of its regiments were formed into the District of the Frontier (June 1863). California was the big prize in the West. And although there were secesionist voices, California which joined the Union as a free state, played an important role in holding the Frontier for the Union. California units helped defeat small Confederate units trying to seize the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona) where they hoped to extend slavery and cotton culture. Confederate Texas had to contend with the Comanche. The Federals were faced with the Dakota rising in Minnesota. The Dakota for several decades were ill-treated by the Federal Goverment and the aggressive advance of settlers. Dakota warriors rise up (August 1862) in what is known as the Dakota War. There were murderous attacks on settlers. After 6 weeks, the rising was put down by Federal forces rushed to the area. 【Berg】

Grand Army of the Republic
Figure 2.--One might have thought early in the War that President Lincoln would at the conclusion preside over a victory parade to review the Grand Army of the Republic with Willie and Tad at his side. Sadly neither Willie or the President survived the War. That review did take place down Pennsylvamia Avenue (May 22-23, 1865). There were two children in the presidential box. I think they may have been the children of General Grant (Ellen and Jesse) who is the stand with him. They would ave been about 7-9 years old. Both look to be wearing matching Glengary caps.

Grant Given Command (March 1864)

Lincoln after Vicksburg and Gettysburg turned command of all Federal forces, inluding the Army of the Potomac, over to U.S. Grant who had achieved important Federal victories in the West. The Federals has fought for 3 years without an overall commander. Some in Congrss felt that an overall commander was neither necessary or advisable. Others did not think that Grant was the appropriate choice. Lincoln ws concinced that an overall commander was needed and that Grant was the man for the job. Congress resurrected the rank of lieutenant general (February 26, 1864). This was a rank held previously only by George Washington. Grant was awarded his commission personally by President Lincoln at a White House ceremony (March 9, 1864). Lincoln was afterwards heard to say, "I don't know General Grant's plans, and I don't want to know them. Thank God, I've got a general at last!" Grant relentlessly took the War to Lee in the East and other Confederate commanders in the West. Grant's plan was to launch a simultaneous offensive by all ll the Federal Armies. He wriote to Major General Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, "So far as practicable all the armies are to move together, and towards one common center. Banks has been instructed ... to concentrate all the forces he can, not less than 25,000 men, to move on Mobile. .... Sherman will move at the same time you do, or two or three days in advance, Johnston's army being his objective point, and the heart of Georgia his ultimate aim. .... Sigel cannot spare troops from his army to reinforce either of the great armies, but he can aid them by moving directly to his front [up the Shenandoah Valley] .... Butler can reduce his garrison so as to take 23,000 men into the field to his front. .... Butler will seize City Point and operate against Richmond from the south side of the [James] river. His movement will be simultaneous with yours. Lee's army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." [Grant's orders, early-April 1864.] This set in motion the final show down between Lee and Grant as they faced off with each other for the first time.

Final Year (1864-65)

Lt.Gen U.S. Grant, two months after receiving his command as the overall Federal Commander, began the destruction of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Wildreness north of Richmond. For most of the War, Lee and Grant fought on widely separate battlefields. The final conclusive last year would pit Grant and Lee in a series of bloody battles. The difference ws that Kee in earlier battkes had spent much of the available southern manpower. On the other hand, the Federal forces were not only larger and better armed, but a much more effective fighting force. Until Grant was given command, Federal commanders after each battle would turn back or rest the Army of the Potomac. Under Grant the Army of the Potomac continued south pursuing Lee regardless of losses incurred. There were nonlonger months-long respites between battles. Along with Grant came black soldiers recruited after the Empancipatuion Proclamation. They would give the Federal forces an important boost in fighting strength. Blacks would eventually make up 10 percent of Federal forces. Although it now seems so preordanined, even in the last year of the War, The Federal victory was still not asured. 【Frey】 Atlanta and Richmond still held out. The Northern public was tiring of the War and the dreadful losses. It looked like President Lincoln would lose the presidential election to General McClellan who wanted to make peace with the South.


America in 1865 was two different nations. The South surrendered, but in their hearts the Confederacy was their country. The South and the men who fouught for the Confederacy paid an enormous price. This only changed in time. Leaders like Robert E. Lee played an important in the transition back to a united nations. Hatred of the North in thE south smoldered for generations. In the North ill fillings toward the South passed realtively quickly. But even in the South many ardent secesionists made there peace with the North. By 1900 American can be said to be a single nationa again. Some even moved north and prospered. Roger Pryor was a Confederate Congressman and general. After being relased from a prisonor of war camp he became a successful lawyer in New York, befriened by Sherman and Grant as well as Mark Twain and Grover Cleveland. He died in 1919 an ardent Union man. 【Waugh】


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Created: November 10, 2002
Last updated: 1:21 PM 8/29/2023