13 Most Famous Battles of the Civil War

In the American Civil War, which lasted from April 12, 1861, to May 26, 1865, the Union (also known as the “North”) and the Confederacy (also known as the “South”) were locked in many famous battles.

The main source of contention was a difference of opinion on whether slavery should be permitted to expand into western areas, leading to new slave states, or forbidden, leading to the eventual abolition of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery’s expansion, became president of the United States in 1860, bringing to a head decades of political struggle.

Also Read: Years of the Civil War

Seven slave states in the South seceded from the United States in 1861, forming the Confederacy and annexing federal territory and assets inside its borders.

By the end of his presidency, Jefferson Davis had led the Confederacy to at least partial control of 11 of the then-34 states. For four years, the South was the epicenter of the conflict.

There were 19 states involved in the American Civil War mostly Confederate:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Plus the District of Columbia and six territories:

  • Arizona Territory
  • Confederate Arizona
  • Colorado Territory
  • Dakota Territory
  • Indian Tejas
  • Utah Territory).

Some of the war’s most pivotal battles occurred in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Such conflicts would forever alter America’s reputation and place in history.

Famous Battles of the Civil War

1. Battle of Antietam

Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South, was fought on September 17, 1862, between Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac near Sharpsburg, Maryland and Antietam Creek during the American Civil War.

Also Read: Civil War Facts

The conflict occurred as a part of the Maryland Campaign, it was the first major army-level battle of the American Civil War to occur on Union territory located in the Eastern Theater.

In total, 22,717 Americans were killed, injured, or yet go missing from that day, making it one of the deadliest in the country’s history.

The engagement was a pivotal moment in the Union’s favor, despite the fact that the Union force lost more fatalities than the Confederates.

2. Battle of Gettysburg

Battle of Gettysburg

On July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate armies clashed near and within the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War.

Also Read: Battle of Gettysburg Facts

Lee’s invasion of the North was stopped when Union Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac counterattacked and ultimately defeated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The Union’s decisive victory in the battle, which coincided with the Siege of Vicksburg, is frequently cited as the turning point of the war. It was the bloodiest single day of fighting during the entire conflict.

Also Read: Bloodiest Battles in the Civil War

The major action, known as Pickett’s Charge, had 12,500 Confederate infantrymen charging the middle of the Union line atop Cemetery Ridge. Union rifle and artillery fire successfully repulsed the advance, inflicting heavy casualties on the charging Confederate force.

Lee was forced to lead his army on a long and difficult retreat back to Virginia. Over the course of the three days of fighting, between 46,000 and 51,000 troops died on both sides. This makes it the costliest combat in American history.

During the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication ceremony on November 19, President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, redefining the war’s purpose while paying tribute to the Union men who had died.

3. First Battle of Bull Run

First Battle of Bull Run

The American Civil War’s first significant conflict, named by the Union as the First Battle of Bull Run and by the Confederacy as the Battle of First Manassas, took place on July 22, 1861.

Taking place on July 21, 1861, the combat took place in Prince William County, Virginia, some 30 miles west-southwest of Washington, D.C. and just north of the city of Manassas.

Confederate reinforcements arrived by rail while the Union was still placing its forces. Both sides’ roughly 18,000 soldiers showed signs of weak training and leadership. A Confederate victory was followed by a disordered retreat by Union troops.

Also Read: Best Civil War Battlefields to Visit

The severe battle and heavy casualties suffered by both forces brought home the reality that this conflict would be far longer and bloodier than anyone had anticipated.

Many of the issues and shortcomings plaguing the war’s first year were on full display at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Neither commander could make efficient use of his entire force because of the disjointed nature of the deployment of his units, the direct nature of the attacks, the failure of the infantry to cover the artillery, the lack of tactical intelligence, and so on.

4. Battle of Shiloh

Battle of Shiloh

The American Civil War battle known as the Battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing) took place on April 6-7, 1862.

The region of southwestern Tennessee where the action occurred was a part of the Western Theater of World War Two. The battlefield is between Shiloh Church and Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

The Confederate Army of Mississippi was routed by a joint effort of two Union armies. Union forces were led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, while Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the Confederate forces.

Also Read: Union vs Confederate

The Union force suffered more casualties than the Confederate army, and Grant was chastised despite the victory. The leaders of both sides had their battlefield decisions questioned by people who weren’t there.

With approximately 24,000 losses, the action was one of the bloodiest of the whole Civil War and the costliest combat to that moment. The church after which the conflict is named really means “place of peace” in its translation.

5. Battle of Chancellorsville

Battle of Chancellorsville

An important conflict of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Battle of Chancellorsville was the showpiece of the Chancellorsville campaign.

In light of the decisive Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, the engagement is often referred to as Lee’s “ideal battle.” This is because Lee took the risk of splitting his army in the face of a considerably bigger opposing force.

Lee’s boldness and Hooker’s hesitancy led to victory, but significant casualties, notably that of Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, tempered the triumph.

Jackson’s left arm had to be amputated after he was accidentally struck by friendly fire. Eight days later, he succumbed to pneumonia, and Lee described losing him as though he had lost an arm.

Stoneman’s cavalry reached Union positions east of Richmond on May 7, signaling the end of the campaign. At Fredericksburg, both forces retook their former positions on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River.

After Jackson’s death, Lee reassembled his force and a month later, feeling confident after his win, launched the Gettysburg campaign.

6. Siege of Vicksburg

Siege of Vicksburg

The American Civil War’s Vicksburg campaign concluded with the siege of Vicksburg (May 18–July 4, 1863) as its final major military battle.

Union Army of the Tennessee headed by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant successfully crossed the Mississippi River and pushed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s Confederate Army of Mississippi into the defensive lines encircling Vicksburg, Mississippi.

When added to the day before, when General Robert E. Lee was defeated at Gettysburg by Major General George Meade, some historians consider the Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863 to be the turning point of the war.

It separated the Trans-Mississippi Department (consisting of Arkansas, Texas, and a portion of Louisiana) from the remainder of the Confederate States and effectively divided the Confederacy in half for the duration of the war. Victory at Vicksburg was seen by Lincoln as “the key to the war.”

7. Battle of the Wilderness

Battle of the Wilderness

From May 5 to 7, 1864, American Civil War soldiers engaged in the bloody Battle of the Wilderness. It was the opening engagement of the 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The battle took place in a woodland location about 20 miles (32 km) west of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Nearly 29,000 soldiers were killed or wounded across both forces, signaling Grant’s intention to wage a campaign of attrition against Lee’s force and, ultimately, Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital. Grant’s withdrawal and subsequent offensive left the engagement strategically indecisive.

8. Battle of Chickamauga

Battle of Chickamauga

The Union’s Chickamauga Campaign in southeastern Tennessee and northwest Georgia came to a close with the bloody Battle of Chickamauga on September 19 and 20, 1863.

It was the war’s first major engagement in Georgia, the Union’s worst Western Theater loss, and the second worst combat overall after Gettysburg.

Chickamauga Creek was the site of a Civil War engagement between Union forces led by Major General William Rosecrans and Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg.

Southeast of the battleground and the park in northwest Georgia is a meandering section of the West Chickamauga Creek.

9. Second Battle of Bull Run

Second Battle of Bull Run

During the American Civil War, over the weekend of August 28-30, 1862, Prince William County, Virginia, played host to the Second Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of Second Manassas.

It was fought on the same ground as the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, but it was much larger in scale and numbers. It was the culmination of the Northern Virginia Campaign fought by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia.

Like the first battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861) it was a decisive tactical triumph for the Confederates and another shock to Union morale.

Out of a total of 62,000 involved, the Union suffered roughly 14,000 fatalities and 17,000 injuries; the Confederacy suffered about 1,000 fatalities and 7,000 injuries.

Lee’s confidence was restored by this victory, and he proceeded to launch the Maryland Campaign shortly after.

10. Battle of Cold Harbor

Battle of Cold Harbor

From May 31 to June 12, 1864, the American Civil War battle known as Cold Harbor was fought in Mechanicsville, Virginia. The battle’s decisive day was June 3.

Known as one of the deadliest and most one-sided fights in American history, it was fought as part of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign.

The Union army lost thousands of men in a futile frontal attack on the well-defended positions of the Confederate army led by Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Although some of Lee’s forces won the Battle of the Crater the following month during the Siege of Petersburg, this did not constitute a general engagement between the armies, making the Battle of Cold Harbor the final and most conclusive victory earned by Lee’s army during the war.

For a total of between 10,000 and 13,000 casualties across twelve days, the Union army attempted and ultimately failed in a hopeless attack. Since the beginning of May, more than 52,000 Union soldiers and sailors were killed in action, compared to 33,000 for Lee.

Grant’s larger army concluded the campaign with fewer casualties than Lee’s, despite both sides suffering heavy losses.

11. Battle of Fort Sumter

Battle of Fort Sumter

South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter outside Charleston, South Carolina, during the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861). At its conclusion, the United States Army surrendered, setting off the Civil War in the United States.

Northern and Southern citizens alike expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the fight by voicing their approval for additional military action.

Upon hearing of Lincoln’s quick request for 75,000 volunteers to quash the revolt, four more Southern states declared independence and joined the Confederacy.

As the opening conflict of the American Civil War, this battle is often cited as the starting point of the conflict.

12. Battle of Atlanta

Battle of Atlanta

It was on July 22, 1864, just to the southeast of Atlanta, Georgia, that the American Civil War battle known as the Battle of Atlanta was fought.

Union forces under by William Tecumseh Sherman continued their summer drive to conquer the strategic rail and supply hub of Atlanta, and they did so with devastating success, defeating Confederate forces led by John Bell Hood and taking the city in a lopsided victory.

During the conflict, Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson fell in battle, making him the second-highest-ranking Union officer to perish in the conflict.

Despite its name, this fight happened around halfway through the campaign, and Atlanta did not fall until September 2, 1864, following a Union siege and multiple attempts to seize railways and supply lines leading to the city.

Following their conquest of the city, Sherman ordered his men to march south and southeast toward Milledgeville, the state seat, and eventually Savannah.

The political repercussions of Atlanta’s fall were particularly remarkable. Union commander George B. McClellan, a Democrat, ran against President Lincoln in 1864 on a ticket asking for an armistice with the Confederacy.

Lincoln was re-elected by a wide margin because of the high morale in the North brought on the news of the fall of Atlanta and Hood’s destruction of military buildings on his way out.

13. Battle of Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg

In the American Civil War’s Eastern Theater, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia during December 11-15, 1862.

The fighting on December 13 was between the Union Army of the Potomac led by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by Gen. Robert E. Lee. The Union army launched fruitless frontal attacks against the entrenched Confederate defenders along the Sunken Wall on the heights behind the city.

Since the Union suffered more than twice as many casualties as the Confederacy, this fight is often cited as an example of the lopsided nature of the conflict. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was told by a visitor that the conflict was a “butchery.”