Defining Battles of the Civil War

Defining Battles of the Civil War

The United States Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, featured many major and minor engagements, and military actions. Among the most significant were the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Vicksburg Campaign.


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Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History


Battle of Vicksburg Blockade

Union Gen. Grant's defeat of Confederate Gen. Pemberton at the battle at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Portrayed here is Union Adm. Porter running the heavily defended Confederate blockade.

Painting courtesy of the Niday Picture Library
Union Gen. Grant's defeat of Confederate Gen. Pemberton at the battle at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Portrayed here is Union Adm. Porter running the heavily defended Confederate blockade.
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The United States Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history. During the four years it lasted, more than 50 major battles were fought. Below are five of the most significant battles, listed in chronological order.

First Bull Run (July 21, 1861)

The first Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the Civil War. It is also known as the first Battle of Manassas.

The Union Army under General Irvin McDonnell marched from Washington, D.C., to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Approximately 42 kilometers (25 miles) into the march, their path was blocked by the Confederate Army under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard.

At first, it seemed as if the Union Army would prevail, but as the battle raged throughout the morning, the Confederates held their ground. Once the Confederate Army received reinforcements early that afternoon, their counterattack defeated the Union troops. Union forces then retreated to Washington, D.C.

Combined casualties were few in comparison with other battles—around 4,800. However, as a result of the battle, the North first realized it was in for a long, bitter war.

Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862)

By February 1862, the Union Army had achieved victories in central Kentucky and Tennessee. The army planned to move south and capture an important Confederate east-west railway hub in northern Mississippi. To defend the hub, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston fortified the town of Corinth, Mississippi. The Union planned to unite two armies—under Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell—and then take Corinth.

Grant's army arrived first and set up camp in the town of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Shiloh Meeting House. Johnston planned to strike Grant's army before Buell arrived, and at dawn on April 6, Johnston's forces attacked. Grant's Union forces were surprised but remained in the field after a day of fierce fighting. Buell's forces finally arrived overnight, and the combined Union force attacked at dawn. During the fighting, General Johnston was fatally wounded. The defeated Confederate forces—now under the command of Beauregard—withdrew.

The battle resulted in combined casualties of more than 23,000 people.

Antietam (September 17, 1862)

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had decided to take the war to the North. He devised a plan to split his army and take supplies in Maryland, move into Pennsylvania, and threaten Washington, D.C. His plans accidentally fell into Union hands, and the Union Army marched to confront the forces he commanded at Antietam Creek, in northern Maryland. However, Union General McClellan waited 18 hours before moving his troops. This gave the Confederates time to bring reinforcements.

The day ended in a draw, with 23,000 men killed. However, the battle halted Lee's plans to invade the North for the time being. Nonetheless, President Abraham Lincoln was furious that McClellan had allowed Lee to escape.

Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863)

Although Antietam was a setback to Lee's plans, the Union failed to take advantage of the situation. Lincoln replaced McClellan, but his new generals lost decisively at Fredericksburg, Virginia (December 13, 1862), and Chancellorsville, Virginia (April 30–May 4, 1863). These Confederate victories encouraged Lee to renew his plan to invade the North.

Lee moved the Army of Northern Virginia north, and the new Union General, George Meade, shadowed him to protect Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. The forces met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of the first of July.

Despite early successes, the Confederate forces were not able to drive the Union Army off their position. The following day, as reinforcements arrived for both sides, Lee again failed to defeat the Union Army.

The third of July saw one last push from the Confederates. Lee ordered what has become known as the Pickett's Charge—an assault of some 15,000 Confederate troops—up Cemetery Ridge. Although the charge broke through Union lines, the Confederates were unable to hold on to their gains and retreated.

Lee prepared for the counterattack he expected the next day, but it never came. He withdrew his forces on the fourth of July, and the Union Army did not pursue. While Meade won the battle and stopped the invasion, he failed to destroy Lee's army and put an end to the rebellion.

Union casualties numbered around 23,000, while Confederate casualties numbered around 28,000.

Vicksburg (May 22–July 4, 1863)

Vicksburg, Mississippi, lies on the east bank of the Mississippi River about halfway between Memphis, Tennessee, to the north and New Orleans, Louisiana, to the south. Capturing it would give control of the entire Mississippi to the Union. However, the city, located on a bluff overlooking the river, was heavily defended with trenches, gun batteries, and a Confederate Army led by General John C. Pemberton.

In May, Union General Ulysses S. Grant led an army south on the west side of the Mississippi past Vicksburg, then crossed over and led his troops back north to lay siege to the city. By mid-June, the Confederates were running low on supplies. General Pemberton surrendered on the fourth of July.

The victories—a day apart—at Gettysburg and Vicksburg marked the turning point of the Civil War.

These are just some of the war's major battles. The Civil War killed hundreds of thousands and scarred the countryside. Today, many battlefield sites contain monuments and plaques and have been set aside as national parks.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

December 5, 2023

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