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The Civil War Year By Year

The Civil War Transformed Into a Great National Struggle

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When the Civil War began most Americans expected it to be a crisis that would come to a fast end. But when the Union and Confederate Armies began shooting in the summer of 1861, that perception quickly changed. The fighting escalated and the war became a very costly struggle lasting four years.

The war's progress consisted of strategic decisions, campaigns, battles, and occasional lulls, with each passing year seeming to have its own theme.

1861: The Civil War Began

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, southern states, outraged at the election of someone with known anti-slavery views, threatened to leave the Union. At the end of 1860 South Carolina was the first slave state to secede, and it was followed by others in early 1861.

President James Buchanan struggled with the secession crisis in his final months in office. As Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861 the crisis intensified and more slave states left the Union.

  • The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina.
  • The killing of Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln, in late May 1861 galvanized public opinion. He was considered a martyr to the Union cause.
  • The first major clash took place July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, at the Battle of Bull Run.
  • Balloonist Thaddeus Lowe ascended above Arlington Virginia on September 24, 1861 and was able to see Confederate troops three miles away, proving the value of "aeronauts" in the war effort.
  • The Battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861, on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, was relatively minor, but it caused the U.S. Congress to form a special committee to monitor the conduct of the war.

1862: The War Expanded and Became Shockingly Violent

The Year 1862 is when the Civil War became a very bloody conflict, as two particular battles, Shiloh in the spring and Antietam in the fall, shocked Americans by their enormous cost in lives.

  • The Battle of Shiloh, on April 6-7, 1862, was fought in Tennessee and produced massive casualties. On the Union side, 13,000 were killed or wounded, on the Confederate side 10,000 killed or wounded. Accounts of the horrendous violence at Shiloh startled the nation.
  • Gen. George McClellan launched the Peninsula Campaign, an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, in March 1862. A series of battles were fought, including Seven Pines on May 31 - June 1, 1862.
  • Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, and led it during the battle known as The Seven Days. From June 25 to July 1 the two armies fought in the vicinity of Richmond.
  • Ultimately McClellan's campaign faltered, and by mid-summer any hopes of capturing Richmond and ending the war had faded.
  • The Battle of Second Bull Run was fought on August 29-30, 1862 in the same place as the first battle of the Civil War the previous summer. It was a bitter defeat for the Union.
  • Robert E. Lee led his army across the Potomac and invaded Maryland in September 1862, and the two armies met in the epic Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. The combined casualties of 23,000 killed and wounded made it known as America's bloodiest day. Lee was forced to withdraw back to Virginia, and the Union could claim victory.
  • Two days after the fighting at Antietam, photographer Alexander Gardner visited the battlefield and took photographs of soldiers killed during the battle. His Antietam photographs shocked the public when displayed in New York City the following month.
  • Antietam gave President Lincoln the military victory he desired before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Following Antietam, President Lincoln removed Gen. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. On December 13, 1862, Burnside led his men at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in Virginia. The battle was a defeat for the Union, and the year ended on a bitter note in the North.
  • In December 1862 journalist and poet Walt Whitman visited the front in Virginia, and was horrified by piles of amputated limbs, a common sight at Civil War field hospitals.

1863: The Epic Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863
Stock Montage/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The critical event of 1863 was the Battle of Gettysburg, when Robert E. Lee's second attempt at invading the North was turned back during a colossal battle lasting three days.

And near year's end Abraham Lincoln, in his legendary Gettysburg Address, would provide a concise moral reason for the war.

  • After Burnsides's failures, Lincoln replaced him in 1863 with Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker.
  • Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac and raises morale greatly.
  • At the Battle of Chancellorsville on the first four days of May, Robert E. Lee outsmarted Hooker and dealt the federals another defeat.
  • Lee invaded the North again, leading to the epic Battle of Gettysburg on the first three days of July. Casualties were high on both sides, and the Confederates were again forced to retreat back into Virginia, making Gettysburg a major victory for the Union.
  • The violence of the war spread into cities of the North when citizens angered over a draft rioted. The New York Draft Riots spanned a week in mid-July, with casualties in the hundreds.
  • The Battle of Chickamauga, in Georgia, on September 19-20, 1863, was a defeat for the Union.
  • On November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony for a cemetery at the battlefield.
  • Battles for Chattanooga, Tennessee in late November 1863 were victories for the Union, and put federal troops in good position to begin attacking toward Atlanta, Georgia in early 1864.

1864: Grant Moved to the Offensive

As 1864 began both sides in the deepening war believed they could win.

General Ulysses S. Grant, placed in command of the Union armies, knew he had superior numbers and believed he could batter the Confederacy into submission.

On the Confederate side, Robert E. Lee resolved to fight a defensive war designed to inflict mass casualties on the federal troops. His hope was that the North would tire of the war, Lincoln would not be elected to a second term, and the Confederacy would manage to survive the war.

  • In March 1864 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who had distinguished himself leading Union troops at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, was brought to Washington and given command of the entire Union Army by President Lincoln.
  • After a defeat at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-6, 1864, Gen. Grant had his troops march, but instead of retreating northward, they advanced to the south. Morale surged in the Union Army.
  • In early June Grant's forces attacked entrenched Confederates at Cold Harbor, in Virginia. The federals sustained heavy casualties, in an assault Grant later said he regretted. Cold Harbor would be Robert E. Lee's last major victory of the war.
  • In July 1864 Confederate General Jubal Early crossed the Potomac into Maryland, in an effort to threaten Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and distract Grant from his campaign in Virginia. The Battle of Monocacy, in Maryland, on July 9, 1864, ended Early's campaign and prevented a disaster for the Union.
  • During the summer of 1864 Union General William Tecumseh Sherman drove on Atlanta, Georgia, while Grant's army focused on attacking Petersburg, Virginia, and ultimately the Confederate capital, Richmond.
  • Abraham Lincoln was reelected to a second term on November 8, 1864, defeating Gen. George McClellan, whom Lincoln had relieved as commander of the Army of the Potomac two years earlier.
  • The Union Army entered Atlanta on September 2, 1864. Following the capture of Atlanta, Sherman began his March to the Sea, destroying railroads and anything else of military value along the way. Sherman's army reached Savannah in late December.

1865: The War Concluded and Lincoln Was Assassinated

It seemed obvious that 1865 would bring the end of the Civil War, though it was unclear at the beginning of the year exactly when fighting would end, and how the nation would be reunited. President Lincoln expressed interest early in the year in peace negotiations, but a meeting with Confederate representatives indicated that only a full military victory would bring an end to the fighting.
  • General Grant's forces continued the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, as the year began. The siege would continue throughout the winter and into the spring.
  • In January, a Maryland politician, Francis Blair, met with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond to discuss possible peace talks. Blair reported back to Lincoln, and Lincoln was receptive to meeting Confederate representatives at a later date.
  • On February 3, 1865 President Lincoln met with Confederate representatives aboard a boat in the Potomac River to discuss possible peace terms. The talks stalled, as the Confederates wanted an armistice first and talk of reconciliation delayed until some later point.
  • General Sherman turned his forces northward, and began to attack the Carolinas. On February 17, 1865, the city of Columbia, South Carolina fell to Sherman's army.
  • On March 4, 1865, President Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time. His Second Inaugural Address, delivered in front of the Capitol, is considered one of his greatest speeches.
  • At the end of March General Grant began a new push against the Confederate forces around Petersburg, Virginia.
  • A Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1, 1865 sealed the fate of Lee's army.
  • April 2, 1865: Lee informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that he must leave the Confederate capital of Richmond.
  • April 3, 1865: Richmond surrendered. The next day President Lincoln, who had been visiting troops in the area, visited the captured city and was cheered by free blacks.
  • April 9, 1865: Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
  • The nation rejoiced at the end of the war. But on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died early the next morning, with the tragic news traveling quickly by telegraph.
  • A long funeral, which visited a number of northern cities, was held for Abraham Lincoln.
  • On April 26, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was located hiding in a barn in Virginia and was killed by federal troops.
  • On May 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln's funeral train reached his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. He was buried in Springfield the next day.

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