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16.2: The Military Conflict

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    As the South and the North prepared to do battle during the Civil War, both sides expected that the war would be short and that their side would win. These expectations derived from their faith in the cause: the right to secede from the Union and the necessity to preserve the Union. But they also stemmed from the unique advantages their side had.

    The United States held a clear advantage when it came to population and to industrial capacity. The total population in the northern states was around 22 million people, whereas the population in the southern states was around 9 million. Moreover, 1.3 million northerners worked in factories as opposed to only 110,000 southerners. Those northern factories produced nine times as many industrial goods as southern factories. The North also had a much better rail system than the South, both in terms of total amount of track and operating efficiency. Thus, when it came to supplying the growing military and moving troops around the country, the North had a significant advantage.

    The Confederate States, in spite of their disadvantages in terms of population and industrial capacity, still had several advantages to draw on. In order to win the war, the South merely needed to defend itself against a northern attack. While a daunting task, it was not impossible since the Confederacy controlled over 750,000 square miles of territory and defensive wars usually require less manpower. Moreover, the Confederate Army could draw on skilled military leaders, many of whom attended West Point. Additionally, many of the southern recruits regularly used fire arms and rode horses while many of the urban northern recruits did not. Thus, to win, the South simply needed to wait the North out, and, with the advantages they possessed, that seemed entirely possible.

    From 1861 to 1865, after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, over 350 military engagements were fought in the Civil War. The vast majority were fought in the southern states, with others fought in the territories as well as in the northern states. Of all of these engagements, the following few stand out as having particular importance.

    First Manassas or First Battle of Bull Run

    Date: July 21, 1861.

    Location: Prince William County, Virginia, along Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia

    Confederate commanders: Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston

    Union commander: Brigadier General Irvin McDowell

    Confederate Force: 32, 320

    Union Force: 28,450

    Confederate losses: 1,982

    Union losses: 2,896

    • A Confederate Victory

    For President Lincoln, allowing the secession issue to linger while the Confederates built up their military was unacceptable. He ordered his commanding general, Brigadier General McDowell, to advance south into Virginia. Brigadier General Beauregard had command of the Confederate forces near Manassas and had placed them along Bull Run, a small river in the area, and Brigadier General Joseph Johnston commanded additional Confederate forces further west.

    Screenshot (283).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): First Manassas | General Joseph E. Johnston was one of the Confederate commanders at First Manassas Author: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    McDowell hoped to flank Beauregard by coming around the left side of Beauregard’s army, forcing it out of position thus making it vulnerable to attack, and then, after defeating Beauregard, marching on to Richmond, which was the Confederate Capitol. Beauregard was aware of McDowell’s approach and devised his own strategy: he would attempt to flank McDowell, also on the left. This strategy left both armies attempting to turn the other. Although the Union forces were able to push the Confederates back early, the Confederate lines did not break. Colonel Thomas J. Jackson and his men were noted for holding their position, standing like a “stonewall.” The nickname stuck to Jackson ever after. McDowell knew Johnston was in the west and expected he would be engaged by other Union forces and so unable to come to the aide of Beauregard. McDowell was mistaken; Johnston was able to get his army on a train and arrived in the afternoon to reinforce Beauregard. Confederate Calvary Colonel James Ewell Brown, “Jeb” Stuart arrived and charged into troops from New York who fled the field in what quickly became a rout. Union troops panicked and turned back for Washington in a confused mass. Civilians from Washington had come to watch the battle, now they and their buggies were in the way of their retreating army. McDowell’s army was saved because Beauregard’s and Johnston’s armies were too tired and disorganized themselves to mount a pursuit. The Union Army reached Washington on April 22. McDowell lost his command.

    First Manassas is significant as the first real battle of the war and because it proved to both sides that the war would not be quickly won. Lincoln, relieving McDowell marked the beginning of his long search for a general who would win. The Confederacy was bolstered by the victory, but personality conflicts between Beauregard and most others, including President Jefferson Davis, kept the issue of the Confederate command unsettled.


    Date: April 6-7, 1862.

    Location: Pittsburg Landing, Hardin County, Tennessee

    Confederate commander: General Albert Sidney Johnston, General P.G.T Beauregard

    Union commander: Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General Don Carlos Buell

    Confederate Force: 44,968

    Union Force: 65,085

    Confederate losses: 10,669

    Union losses: 13,047

    • A Union Victory

    Major General Ulysses S. Grant was the commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee, and Major General Buell was the commander of the Union Army of the Ohio. Grant, who had been successful in pushing the Confederates out of Tennessee, intended to continue pressing forward into Confederate territory. He camped at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee to organize and await the arrival of Buell who planned to join Grant on the next part of the campaign.

    Screenshot (284).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Shiloh | General Albert Sydney Johnston (left) was Confederate commander at Shiloh, while Major General Ulysses S. Grant (right) was the Union commander. Authors: Unknown, Mathew Brady Sources: Library of Congress, National Archives

    General Albert Sydney Johnston (no relation to Brigadier General Joseph Johnston) knew Grant was waiting for Buell and understood his best chance of defeating Grant was to attack before Buell arrived. Weather delayed Johnston’s plans, so he was unable to launch an attack until the morning of April 6. The Confederates caught the Union army by surprise and drove them back but were unable to completely break their lines. Union groups formed up in an area known as the Hornet’s Nest and refused to be moved. The Confederates opened up with artillery, and still the Union troops held their ground. Johnston, an experienced commander, stayed in the front lines of his army. He was shot in the leg behind his knee and ignored the wound. Unknown to Johnston, his artery had been severed. By the time he and his officers realized his wound was serious, it was too late. Johnston bled to death. Command of the Confederates fell to Beauregard as Johnston’s fears were realized: the Confederates were unable to break Grant’s lines before the arrival of Buell. Beauregard continued to attack until it was apparent that victory was not possible, and then he withdrew from the field.

    Screenshot (286).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Major General Don Carlos Buell | Buell helped Grant achieve a victory at Shiloh. Author: Mathew Brady Source: Library of Congress

    With over 23,000 total casualties, Shiloh saw the greatest loss of life of any battle in the war up to that point. The loss of Albert Sydney Johnston was a blow to the Confederacy. Although a Union victory, Northern newspapers did not sing Grant’s praises; rather, they lambasted him and accused him of being drunk as the public digested the horrible cost of war.

    Seven Days

    Date: June 25-July 1, 1862.

    Location: Virginia

    Confederate commanders: General Robert E. Lee

    Union commander: Major General George B. McClellan

    Confederate Force: 92,000

    Union Force: 104,000

    Confederate losses: 20,000

    Union losses: 15,000

    • A Confederate Victory

    The Seven Days refers to not one battle, but a group of six major battles conducted over a seven day period in 1862. McClellan planned to advance on Richmond, capture it, and end the war. Lee, in defending Richmond, became the aggressor and drove the Union Army down the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers and away from Richmond.

    McClellan’s original plan had been to land his army at Fort Monroe, Virginia, located at the end of the peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. He thought he could take the Confederates by surprise attacking them from the east, rather than coming down from Washington to the north. His advance slowed when he encountered Confederate defenses, and then ground to a halt after engaging Confederates in battle and having the weather take a turn for the worse. During one battle, the Confederate commander, General Joseph Johnston was wounded and relieved of command, which was then given to General Lee. While McClellan waited for better conditions, Lee planned his attack, organized his army, and continued to develop the defenses of Richmond.

    Screenshot (287).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Seven Days | During this week-long battle, General Robert E. Lee (left) was the Confederate commander and General George B. McClellan (right) was the Union commander. Authors: Julian Vannerson, Mathew Brady Sources: Library of Congress, National Archives

    On June 25, McClellan began once again to advance. The terrain in any weather would be formidable—heavy forest broke into large swamps with small rivers running throughout. McClellan planned to advance along the Williamsburg Road, an old and narrow road that ran from Richmond to Williamsburg. His goal was to draw close enough to Richmond to place his artillery batteries to threaten the city. He gained little ground and lost over 1,000 men before pulling back.

    Lee was already on the move with his own plan, going on the attack to the north of Richmond at Beaver Dam in what would be the second of the six battles. Lee had intended to attack McClellan’s right flank. Due to various organizational issues, including having Stonewall Jackson arrive late and one general attacking without orders, the battle did not go as Lee had planned; consequently, the Confederates suffered unnecessary casualties. Still, they forced the Union forces under Brigadier General Fitz John Porter to withdraw.

    On June 27, Lee pressed on against Porter who had taken up a defensive position at Gaines Mill. Early Confederate attacks were unsuccessful, and the Confederates suffered losses. Late in the day, the Confederates were able to break Porter’s lines, forcing a retreat. This battle, on the third of the seven days, led to McClellan’s full withdrawal from the Richmond area and retreat back down the Peninsula.

    McClellan’s army was in full retreat by June 29, with Confederate forces in pursuit. The Confederates reached the Union rear guard and attacked at Savage’s Station but were unable to prevent the Union forces from continuing their retreat. Lee had expected Jackson to come in, but Jackson remained north of the Chickahominy and was unable to aide in stopping McClellan’s retreat. So determined was McClellan to escape Lee that he abandoned his wounded and supplies and retreated into White Oak Swamp.

    On June 30, the armies continued to encounter each other as McClellan’s main force retreated towards the James River. The main fighting occurred at Glendale with the Confederates attempting to split the Union force in half. Jackson was still in the north along the Chickahominy and engaged the Union rear guard there without much success. Throughout the Seven Days, both sides had suffered from poor execution of commands, resulting in failed plans and lost opportunities. Lee had hoped with his aggressive pursuit to be able to destroy the Union Army and possibly bring an early end to the war. Instead, the Union forces were able to continue their retreat to the James.

    Malvern Hill would prove to be the last of the Seven Days Battles. On July 1, Union forces occupied a strong defensive position on the hill, forcing the Confederates to attack. Well-placed Union artillery destroyed the Confederate artillery batteries before they could be brought into play. Despite the obvious advantages of the Union, Lee ordered his forces to attack. The Confederates suffered over 5,000 casualties in this one battle, more than in any other battle of the Seven Days. Still, rather than stay and try to regroup for another attempt on Richmond, McClellan chose to continue his retreat, withdrawing his army to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, where his army would be covered by Union gun boats as they made their way away from Richmond.

    After the Seven Days, Lee felt Richmond was secure enough to turn his attentions north to Maryland. Both sides in the war wanted to end it quickly, and Lee believed victory was possible for the Confederacy if he could have a successful campaign in Maryland and threaten Washington. Although McClellan’s decisions to retreat even when he held strong positions have been the subject of much debate, he continued to hold on to his command.


    Date: September 16-18, 1862.

    Location: Antietam Creek, Sharpsburg, Washington County, Maryland

    Confederate commanders: General Robert E. Lee

    Union commander: Major General George B. McClellan

    Confederate Force: 45,000

    Union Force: 87,000

    Confederate losses: 10,316

    Union losses: 12,401

    • A Draw

    Lee’s army took up a defensive position along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg where it was engaged by McClellan’s army on September 16. At dawn on September 17, Major General Joseph Hooker of the Union Army launched an attack on Lee’s left flank held by Stonewall Jackson, opening the battle for the day, the day known as the bloodiest in American history. Although outnumbered, Lee gambled and threw all of his army into the battle. Rather than holding back behind his defenses, Lee launched aggressive counterattacks against the superior Union forces. The fighting around Jackson’s position was an intense artillery battle that devastated both sides with Jackson holding firm. An area known as the Cornfield became a horrific killing ground as regiments marched in only to be cut down by a combination of artillery, bayonets, and vicious hand-to-hand combat. The Union forces advanced and almost broke Jackson’s line, only to be pushed back by Confederate reinforcements.

    Action continued in the center of the battle lines as the Union forces attacked the main part of Lee’s army. McClellan’s troops almost captured the center of the Confederates, but unlike Lee who had committed all of his force to the battle, McClellan held back and did not use his superior numbers to gain the victory. Because McClellan did not press the attack on all fronts, Lee was able to adjust to the threats from the Union forces by moving his troops as needed from one area to another. With nightfall, the fighting ended. Lee planned a retreat to Virginia, sending off his wounded and then the bulk of his army, while keeping units behind to cover the retreat on the 18th. McClellan did not press the attack, allowing Lee to slip away. Lincoln was angry as he needed a victory, and although Lee withdrew, this battle was far from a Union victory. Still, Lincoln declared it to be a victory and then issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

    September 17, 1862 saw more casualties in a single day of battle than any other in the entire war. With his vastly superior numbers, McClellan probably could have defeated Lee, but his cautious strategy, which conserved troops, prevented the possibility of victory, thus allowing the war to continue. McClellan’s failure to attack with all his force, to prevent Lee from crossing back into Virginia, and to then pursue Lee led to his dismissal by Lincoln later in the year.


    Date: May 18-July 4, 1863.

    Location: Vicksburg, Warren County, Mississippi

    Confederate commanders: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton

    Union commander: Major General Ulysses S. Grant

    Confederate Force: 33,000

    Union Force: 77,000

    Confederate losses: 9,091

    Union losses: 10,042

    • Union Victory

    Vicksburg held strategic importance for the war along the Mississippi. Situated on a bluff that overlooked the river at a point where the Mississippi is narrow, slow, and winding, whoever commanded Vicksburg would be able to control traffic on the river. Taking Vicksburg was essential to cutting the Confederacy in half, an important step for the Union to win the war.

    After Shiloh, Grant had continued to use his Army of the Tennessee to push back the Confederates in the West. Opposing Grant for much of the way was Pemberton and the Army of Vicksburg. Effectively using his superior numbers, Grant forced Pemberton down the Mississippi to Vicksburg, a Confederate stronghold on the river.

    Grant, along with occasional support from the Union Navy, tried several times to take Vicksburg without success and suffered casualties. Meanwhile the Union and Confederate armies continued to clash along the Mississippi. In May, Grant decided to lay siege to Vicksburg. Siege warfare, which was long, tedious, expensive, and without guarantee for success, was not considered to be the optimum choice for the day. While the defender is held in check, so too is the attacker, unable to leave and carry on with the war; instead his army is invested in taking a city, knowing that the advantage tends to be with the defender. Grant felt he had no other choice. A well-conducted siege could cause Vicksburg to fall with little loss of life, only a loss of time.

    Grant encamped his army, and then his troops began digging their way to Vicksburg, slowly constructing lines of trench works that allowed them to move ever closer to the Confederate battlements without exposing themselves unnecessarily to enemy fire. The Union forces surrounded the city, blockading it, and cutting off its supplies. Union sappers tunneled under the Confederate fortifications and blew them up, leaving holes in the defenses vulnerable to attack. Union artillery shelled the city, forcing the civilian population to seek shelter. Even so, what defeated Vicksburg was not the overwhelming Union forces in battle, but starvation from the blockade. The siege soon had the citizens of Vicksburg eating whatever they could find, including pets. Pemberton was forced to surrender. Confederate losses from battle were few, but Pemberton surrendered almost 30,000 men, a terrible blow to the Confederacy. Grant generously paroled the Confederates, allowing them to surrender their weapons and leave.

    The capture of Vicksburg gave Grant the advantage he sought in the Western Theatre of the war. Confederate forces there would never again mount a strong offensive. As for Grant, his victory helped him to gain the attention of Lincoln who was still looking for his one perfect general.

    Sidebar \(\PageIndex{1}\): Prisoners of War

    In the early days of the war, captured soldiers might well expect to be exchanged, that is returned to their own side as had happened at the surrender of Fort Sumter, rather than being kept as prisoners of war. As the war progressed attitudes among government officials changed and the exchanges stopped, leaving both sides with the problem of how to maintain the prisoners. For the South, the issue was not simply where to put the prisoners, but how to provide for them. As the war dragged on, the South had fewer and fewer resources for soldiers in the field and even less for prisoners of war. In the North, the reasons for the horrific neglect of prisoners are more difficult to determine.

    In both North and South prisoners struggled to survive the lack of adequate medical care, clothing, shelter and food as they were packed into over-crowded camps. Starvation was not unusual in many places. Diseases such as scurvy due to lack of proper nutrition were common. Prisoners suffered terribly in the winter, particularly in the Union camps along the coast such as Point Lookout in Maryland and Fort Delaware in Delaware as the chilly damp winds blew off the Atlantic into the prison camps where the prisoners had little to no bedding and blankets or clothes to keep warm in the tattered tents.

    The summers could be equally dreadful for prisoners such as those at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison in Georgia where there was often no shelter to be had from the scorching summer sun and no relief from the heat. A small creek ran through one corner of the camp, but it was a disease infested cesspool in the unsanitary camp. Andersonville’s mortality rate was estimated to be 29 percent. Prison camps in the North such as Elmira in New York also had high mortality rates, losing a quarter of its prisoners. An estimated 56,000 prisoners total died from both sides.


    Date: July 1-3, 1863.

    Location: Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania

    Confederate commander: General Robert E. Lee

    Union commander: Major General George Gordon Meade

    Confederate Force: 75,054

    Union Force: 83,289

    Confederate losses: 28,000

    Union losses: 23,000

    • A Union Victory

    Lee invaded Pennsylvania with a desire to take the war to the enemy and hopefully to speed the way to peace by bringing the war to an end sooner. George Gordon Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, was determined to protect Washington while having to pursue Lee. He managed to do both by keeping his army between the Confederates and the Capitol.

    This famous battle began almost by accident as units from both armies were maneuvering to their intended positions when they ran into each other on July 1. Each side, realizing they had stumbled upon the enemy, formed and prepared to fight. What began with a chance encounter soon developed into a full-blown battle with 30,000 Confederates facing 20,000 Union soldiers. The Confederates won the day, driving the Union forces back. The Union Army then formed up in defensive positions as more units from both armies arrived in the area.

    Screenshot (288).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Major General George Gordon Meade | Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, helped to prevent Confederate forces from moving the battleground to the northern states. Author: Mathew Brady Source: Library of Congress

    By the morning of the second day, the bulk of each army was now in the area, and the Union had taken up the naturally defensive position along the crest of hills below Gettysburg. The Union had the advantage, forcing Lee to either attack or withdraw. Lee chose to position his army around the Union positions and attack, first on one flank and then the other in classic style. His attacks on the Union flanks ultimately failed, and the Union troops continued to hold their ground. A well-known military strategy was to try each of the opponent’s flanks and, if those attacks failed, go up the middle.

    On July 3, having failed to turn either flank of the Union forces, Lee ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to go up the middle, attacking the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Major General George Pickett was given the honor of leading the attack which has ever since borne the name of “Pickett’s Charge.” The attack, being a classic military maneuver could not have been a surprise to Meade. The only things Meade did not know were who would lead the attack and when the attack would be launched.

    As it turned out, Meade was not alone in wondering when the attack would begin. Lee had wanted to begin in the morning and to coordinate the attack with other offensive maneuvers he had planned. Instead there was a delay of several hours before the brigades involved in the attack were ready to go. Some blame Longstreet, who was known to be unenthusiastic about the plan. Finally, around 2:00 p.m., approximately 12,500 Confederate men began the march across the open fields towards the Union lines. Difficult to imagine today, the Confederate line was almost a mile wide as the men marched across the field. Facing artillery and gun fire, the Confederates marched in order until they were close enough to the Union lines to actually charge. Some of the Union forces retreated, creating gaps in their lines. Others stood their ground and engaged in fierce fighting. The Confederates faced several artillery batteries which continued to fire even as the Confederates were directly in front of the guns. The Confederates reached the Union lines but were thrown back. The point at which they breached the Union lines has been referred to as the “High Watermark of the Confederacy.” Half the men who made Pickett’s Charge were wounded or killed in the action, helping to give Gettysburg the highest casualty rate of the war. The survivors of the charge made their way back to the Confederate lines. On July 4, as Grant was declaring victory in Vicksburg, the Confederate and Union armies at Gettysburg collected their 50,000 dead from the field. Lee and his army retreated back to Virginia. Gettysburg marked the last time Lee would attempt to invade the North.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Gettysburg | This photograph of the dead at Gettysburg after the battle captures the grim realities of the war. Author: Timothy H. O’Sullivan Source: Library of Congress


    Date: November 23-25, 1863.

    Location: Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee

    Confederate commander: General Braxton Bragg

    Union commander: Major General Ulysses S. Grant

    Confederate Force: 44,010

    Union Force: 56,359

    Confederate losses: 6,670

    Union losses: 5, 815

    • A Union Victory

    Chattanooga’s location gave it a strategic importance in the Civil War. Union Major General William Rosencrans took the city from Confederate General Braxton Bragg in early September; Bragg was determined to recapture the city and the Union army stationed within it. The two armies had fought a few engagements before coming together at the Battle of Chickamauga where Rosencrans’s army made a major mistake, allowing Bragg to win the battle and forcing Rosencrans to retreat back to Chattanooga. Bragg laid siege to the city and cut off its supplies. Rosencrans suffered from his defeat at Chickamauga, which was particularly brutal, and the subsequent siege at Chattanooga and became unable to command.

    Screenshot (290).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): General Braxton Bragg | This photograph captures Bragg, who served as the Confederate commander at Chattanooga. Author: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    Bragg had problems of his own, as several of his subordinates disagreed with him so strongly that President Jefferson Davis had to travel to Chattanooga to settle matters personally. Davis decided in favor of Bragg, and left him with the task of retaking Chattanooga. Grant arrived and took over command of the Union forces from Rosencrans. Grant was able to establish a new supply line for the almost starving army of Rosencrans. The arrival of Major General William T. Sherman in November sparked a new offensive on the part of Union forces against the Confederates. The Union forces were successful in driving Bragg off and securing Chattanooga for their own use.

    Bragg lost not only Chattanooga but ultimately his command as well. President Davis called on Bragg to leave the field and instead serve as Davis’s military advisor in 1864. With Chattanooga in hand, Sherman had a strong position with access to the Tennessee River and rail lines useful for transporting supplies and troops. The city would become the launch point for Sherman’s March to the Sea.

    Atlanta Campaign

    Date: May 7-September 2, 1864.

    Location: North Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia

    Confederate commanders: General Joseph E. Johnston, Lieutenant General John Bell Hood

    Union commander: Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

    Confederate Force: 60,000

    Union Force: 100,000

    Confederate losses: 34,979

    Union losses: 31,687

    • A Union Victory

    After securing a base at Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sherman prepared for an assault on Georgia while Grant transferred his attentions to Virginia where he would face Lee. Sherman’s mission was to demoralize the South, capture Atlanta, and drive another wedge between areas of the Confederacy, just as Grant had done at Vicksburg.

    From Chattanooga, Sherman crossed into North Georgia where he faced Johnston. Sherman had the superior force; Johnston had the advantage of strong defensive positions. From May 7 into July, they fought a series of ten battles, Sherman attacking, Johnston holding, then Sherman flanking Johnston forcing Johnston to fall back to a new position further south towards Atlanta. Johnston was never able to mount a counter attack that would halt Sherman’s progress, but he was slowly reducing Sherman’s forces by inflicting casualties during the long retreat.

    Screenshot (291).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Major General William Tecumseh Sherman | During the Atlanta Campaign and later in the March to the Sea, Sherman led the Union forces in Georgia. Author: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    In July, with Sherman rapidly approaching the outskirts of Atlanta, President Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood. Hood was seen as a more aggressive general, and Davis hoped that he could do something other than manage a fighting retreat. Hood assumed command with no time to organize or prepare his army to his liking and carried on with Johnston’s plans to attack the Union forces at Peachtree Creek on July 20. Sherman had divided his army into three branches to attack Atlanta from the north and the east, forcing the Confederates to stretch their defenses. Although the attack went relatively well, Hood was not able to commit enough troops to the attack to carry the day as he was forced by the Union strategy to spread his own forces to other areas. In the end, the Union was able to repulse the Confederate attack and resume their drive towards Atlanta. Atlanta, however, was not without its own defenses. A major railway hub for the South, Atlanta had been well fortified against Union attacks. Sherman’s attempts to take Atlanta from the north and east both failed.

    Sherman then redeployed his forces to the west, determined to cut Hood’s supply lines and take Atlanta. The month of August was spent with both armies maneuvering around the Atlanta area: Sherman trying to find a way into Atlanta, Hood trying to disrupt Sherman’s plans, and cavalry from both sides raiding behind the lines, destroying supplies and the railroads that brought them. Although disruptive, the cavalry raids did not do enough permanent damage since the railroads could be repaired. Sherman needed to permanently cut the supplies going to Hood and Atlanta.

    Sherman moved the majority of his army out of its entrenched positions around Atlanta and concentrated them near Jonesborough on August 31 where they would be able to cut the two railroads still feeding Atlanta—the Macon & Western and the Atlanta & West Point. Hood moved to protect the vital lines, but misjudged the size of the Union force, resulting in a defeat for the Confederates. Sherman was able to cut the supply lines, but was unable to smash the Confederates, who fell back. Hood, understanding that Atlanta was now lost as the supply lines were cut with no chance of repair and there was no hope of any Confederate forces coming to their relief, felt the best he could do for his army and the people of Atlanta was to evacuate the city on September 1.

    Hood was able to save his army, much to the disappointment of Sherman who had hoped to destroy it. By evacuating so soon after the last supply lines were cut, Hood saved the people of Atlanta, who had already suffered greatly in the war, from enduring the horrors of a siege. Hood ordered the military supplies that he could not carry away to be burned and military structures to be destroyed so as not to leave anything that might be of use to the enemy. Sherman took Atlanta on September 2, while Hood and his army moved back towards Tennessee. The capture of Atlanta was welcome news in the North, increasing Lincoln’s popularity just two months before the presidential election of 1864.

    After capturing Atlanta, Sherman went after Hood, who hoped to draw Sherman away from Atlanta, but Sherman did not cooperate and turned back to Atlanta to prepare for what would be his most famous action in the war, Sherman’s March to the Sea. Sherman remained convinced that to defeat the Confederacy quickly, it was necessary to demoralize the Confederates. His famous march was intended to do just that.

    Screenshot (292).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Atlanta after Sherman | This photograph captures the city’s rail depot in ruins. Author: George N. Barnard Source: Library of Congress

    Sherman’s March to the Sea

    On November 14, having gathered his army, Sherman ordered Atlanta to be evacuated and burned. The pleas of the civilians there could not convince him to change his mind as this was part of his plan to destroy the Confederate will to fight. He cut the telegraph lines to Washington, set fire to the city, and headed to Savannah. His army was divided into two columns which stayed several miles apart. As they traveled, they destroyed railroads and raided and burned plantations and farms. Slaves who were freed as the army passed soon began gathering behind the columns, following them towards Savannah. The Confederates offered little resistance, Hood had taken the only large military force in the state and headed for Tennessee, leaving the Georgians essentially defenseless. Local militia and one cavalry unit under Major General Joseph Wheeler were all that was left. On November 22, at Griswoldville, near Macon, 650 militiamen were killed in a one-sided battle. The Union lost just 62 soldiers. On November 23, the state capitol at Milledgeville fell. Sherman then continued on towards Savannah.

    One exceptionally dark mark of Sherman’s march is known as Ebenezer Creek. One of Sherman’s officers, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, who was no relation to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, took a controversial and tragic action. Although close to Savannah, the Union columns were still being pursued by Wheeler’s cavalry. Wheeler could do little but harass the vastly superior Union force. Wheeler had a few thousand men, while the Union columns had over 60,000; nevertheless, Wheeler followed the Union army and took shots whenever the opportunity arose to do so.

    Davis used Wheeler’s pursuit as an excuse to rid the Union forces of the slaves that followed them. Sherman previously had encouraged the slaves to turn back, as he had no supplies to spare, but he had not forced them to move away from his army. Davis was in charge of the pontoon bridge being used on December 9 by the Union to cross Ebenezer Creek. A pontoon bridge is a temporary bridge made of floating sections tied together. It can be put in place and removed fairly quickly, allowing an army to cross a difficult body of water. As it was winter, Ebenezer Creek was cold. It was also deep and well over 100 feet wide. Accounts differ as to how many slaves were present, with the estimated numbers ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. What observers agreed upon was what happened to them. Davis ordered the last of the troops crossing the bridge to halt and prevent the slaves from stepping onto the bridge. Then he had the bridge cut loose, thereby stranding the slaves on the far side. Wheeler’s cavalry arrived soon after. The slaves, comprising men, women and children, panicked to see the Confederates bearing down on them, so many jumped into the creek to escape, only to drown in the freezing waters. Of those who did not jump, many were shot or cut down with swords. The fate of the rest is uncertain. While this tragedy took place, Davis and his soldiers marched away. Sherman defended Davis’s actions, and no one was reprimanded for the incident which was called a military necessity.

    On December 20, realizing that resisting Sherman would lead to the destruction of Savannah, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee withdrew his troops from the city and headed to South Carolina. This action enabled Savannah’s mayor, Richard Arnold to surrender the city on December 22 and thereby preserve it. Sherman sent a message to Lincoln saying Savannah was his Christmas present. Sherman’s famous march ended at Savannah. He continued to fight on, turning his army north to Charleston, still with the intent to demoralize the Confederacy.

    the War

    While Sherman marched to the sea, Grant and Lee continued the fight in Virginia. Lee knew that a long war was an advantage to the Union as the Confederacy did not have the resources to continue indefinitely. Marching across his home state, he witnessed first-hand the suffering the war brought to the people. The Confederate army was without food, many of the men going days with little or no nutrition. Disease ran rampant in the poorly equipped camps, and the quest for food became so desperate for the southerners that many resorted to going through horse dung, searching for undigested kernels of corn. For almost seven months, from late summer 1864 to the winter of 1865, the coldest winter in memory, Lee’s army lived in a series of trenches, thirty-seven miles long, stretching east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg, as Grant repeatedly hurled his army at Lee’s troops.

    Realizing the desperate plight of his troops, Lee traveled to Richmond in winter 1865 to plead before the Confederate Congress for additional aid. However, he was met by a legislature which, the general confided to his son, Custis, “don’t seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco while my army is starving.” His requests were turned down. The standoff near Richmond between Lee and Grant continued as did starvation, disease, a plummeting morale, and general feeling of despair. General Lee said of the circumstances in 1864 and 1865 that he could live with privation and general hardship, but to sacrifice his men when the fight seemed futile and destined to end badly for the South, was beyond his endurance. In late winter Lee had fewer than 35,000 men present for duty. He believed that Grant had more than 150,000. If Grant’s army were reinforced with General William T. Sherman’s army from the south and General Philip Sheridan’s from the west, Lee feared the Union commander would lead an army of 280,000, a number, it turned out, that was not far off the mark.

    And so Lee came up with a new tactic: if the defense of Richmond were given up Lee’s troops could then march southward, join General Joseph Johnston’s army coming east from Tennessee, and perhaps stop Sherman’s destructive move through the South. Lee did indeed evacuate Richmond on April 2, but by that time, sensing that the end was near, he was no longer willing to subject his men to continuing hardship. Grant had hoped to catch Lee at Petersburg, having extended his lines to surround the Confederate army, only to find that Lee and his army had slipped away in the night. Lee headed west to Lynchburg, another Confederate supply point with Grant in pursuit. As Lee retreated towards Lynchburg, his army and Grant’s continued to clash notably on April 6 at Sailor’s Creek and again on April 8 at Appomattox Station and finally on April 9 at Appomattox Court House.

    Grant wrote to Lee on April 7, suggesting to Lee that to continue would be futile and so Lee should surrender. Lee replied asking for what terms Grant would offer and an exchange of letters ensued. Lee met with Grant at the McLean house in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, just one week later on April 9, and surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia. In his farewell address to his troops, Lee stressed that the Confederates had been beaten by superior forces and not undermined by internal failings: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to over whelming numbers and resources."

    News of Lee’s surrender was slow in reaching the South; unlike in the North where a vast array of telegraphs and newspapers quickly provided their readers with the news, southern telegraph lines had largely been destroyed and its newspapers were pretty much nonexistent. Lee’s surrender did not end the war, as there were still other Confederate armies in the field in other states. In an apparent “Appomattox Spirit,” southern generals followed Lee’s lead and surrendered their armies to their northern counterparts. Significant Confederate resistance ended with the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston’s army on April 26, 1865. The last Confederate general to surrender his army was General Stand Watie, a Cherokee, in June 1865. As the Confederate army began to surrender, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, left an undefended Richmond the first week in April, traveling south by rail and horse and buggy. On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia and was charged with treason and imprisoned.

    Screenshot (293).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): The Confederate Surrender | On April 9, 1861, Lee surrendered to Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Author: Hal Jesperson Source: Wikimedia Commons

    As southerners assessed the course and meaning of the conflict that had devastated their region, Gary Gallagher observes, “few believed the war had proved secession illegal. Armed might alone, rather than constitutional authority, lay behind the North’s ability to label former Confederates as traitors.” Elizabeth Pendleton Hardin commented about her departure from Eatonton, Georgia: “We had been there two years and a half, watching with unfaltering hope our struggle for independence and life, and now that our hopes had come to naught, we returned to our homes with sad hearts, feeling we had left the brightest part of our lives behind.” Not all southerners looked favorably on the Confederacy nor were they unhappy to see it end. Mary Chesnut reported in her Diary from Dixie, that she had overheard a citizen of North Carolina declare, “Now they will have no Negroes to lord it over. They can swell and peacock about and tyrannize now over only a small parcel of women and children, those only who are their very own family.” The war had ended, and as Lee looked back on it in the late 1860s, he commented, “We lost nearly everything but honor, and that should be religiously guarded.”


    In the beginning of the war, people on both sides thought it would end quickly. The Union misjudged the anger in the Confederacy, while the Confederates misjudged the Union’s determination not to allow the secession to go forward. The shots fired at Fort Sumter began the war, but the first real battle was First Manassas. At First Manassas, both sides realized that war was uglier than they imagined and that this war would not be over quickly. The North had greater resources in terms of men and supplies than the South. If the South had any real chance of winning, it would have been to end the war quickly. Great suffering was experienced by the civilians as well as the soldiers of the Confederacy as Union forces moved into Confederate territory.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The battle with the most over-all casualties was ___________ and the battle with the most casualties on a single day was __________________.


    Gettysburg; Antietam

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The general who devastated Georgia with his march to the sea was ____________________.



    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The only two land battles fought outside of Confederate territory were? ______________ and _________________.


    Antietam; Gettysburg

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Grant captured Vicksburg with an effective use of what tactic?


    A Siege

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Maneuvering around the side of an army, rather than attacking directly from the front is called?


    A Flanking Maneuver

    This page titled 16.2: The Military Conflict is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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