Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Decades of conflict and controversy between the North and the South finally culminated in war in 1861. Longstanding economic, political, social, and constitutional differences had steadily divided the two areas during the antebellum period. By 1860, the North had grown increasingly industrial, and the South remained primarily agricultural. The Republican Party dominated the free states of the North and the West, and the slave states of the South were solidly Democratic. The majority of Northerners opposed the spread of slavery, and Southerners wholeheartedly pushed for its expansion. Northerners believed the national government, the Union of the states, was indivisible and not dissolvable, and Southerners subscribed to the doctrine of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession. Extremists on both sides exacerbated tensions in an already charged political environment until compromise became impossible.

Decades of conflict and controversy between the North and the South finally culminated in war in 1861. Longstanding economic, political, social, and constitutional differences had steadily divided the two areas during the antebellum period. By 1860, the North had grown increasingly industrial, and the South remained primarily agricultural. The Republican Party dominated the free states of the North and the West, and the slave states of the South were solidly Democratic. The majority of Northerners opposed the spread of slavery, and Southerners wholeheartedly pushed for its expansion. Northerners believed the national government, the Union of the states, was indivisible and not dissolvable, and Southerners subscribed to the doctrine of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession. Extremists on both sides exacerbated tensions in an already charged political environment until compromise became impossible.

Secession

The November, 1860, election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican antislavery candidate, precipitated the secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas by February 1, 1861. Representatives for these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, later that month, formed the Confederate States of America, and demanded that all federal property in the South be turned over to Confederate authorities.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of the</sc> C<sc>ivil</sc> W<sc>ar</sc>Oct. 16–18, 1859John Brown leads raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia).Nov. 6, 1860Abraham Lincoln’s election to the U.S. presidency triggers the secession of South Carolina.Dec. 20, 1860South Carolina secedes from the Union, followed by Virginia (Apr. 17), Arkansas (May 6), Tennessee (May 7), and North Carolina (May 20). West Virginia organizes its own government on June 11 and is admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri eventually join the Union after bitter contention.Apr. 12–14, 1861Battle of Fort Sumter: South Carolina’s Palmetto Guard, under command of General P. G. T. Beauregard, opens fire on Fort Sumter following President Lincoln’s announcement that he is sending reinforcements to that garrison. The Civil War begins.Apr. 15, 1861Lincoln calls for militiamen: Announcing that an “insurrection” exists, Lincoln calls for a volunteer militia of 75,000 men for three months’ service.Apr. 19, 1861Blockade of the South: Lincoln announces that the U.S. will blockade the Confederate shore along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The declaration tacitly acknowledges existence of a state of war, although the conflict is still officially considered an insurrection. Lincoln asks Robert E. Lee to head the Northern army; Lee, considering his first duty to be to his state, opts to lead the Virginia militia instead.July 21, 1861First Battle of Bull Run: Near Manassas Junction, Virginia, Union General Irvin McDowell and his green Union troops are routed by Southern forces under General Beauregard, reinforced by Joseph E. Johnston and Stonewall Jackson.Feb. 11–16, 1862Battle of Fort Donelson: In Tennessee, Confederate troops at Fort Donelson under General Nathan Bedford Forrest surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. Nashville falls on Feb. 25.Mar. 6–8, 1862Battle of Pea Ridge: Northern victory results in Union control of the bitterly divided state of Missouri.Mar. 9, 1862Battle of Monitor vs. Virginia: The South’s ship Virginia (a rebuilt version of the Merrimack) meets the North’s Monitor in the first battle of two ironclad vessels, revolutionizing naval warfare. The outcome of the battle is considered a draw.Mar. 17, 1862McClellan begins his peninsular campaign: Failing to move quickly enough for Lincoln, head of the Union forces George B. McClellan is relieved of general command and placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac. He ignores Lincoln’s orders to move directly against the Confederate capital at Richmond and launches his own campaign up the peninsula between the James and York rivers. Despite advancing within twenty miles of Richmond with superior forces, McClellan waits for reinforcements rather than attack while he has the advantage.Apr., 1862Confederate Conscription Act: Passed by the Confederacy, this draft law arouses controversy, especially because it exempts from the draft anyone who owns twenty or more slaves.Apr. 6–7, 1862Battle of Shiloh: In the northern Mississippi River theater, Union forces under Grant and Confederate forces under Albert S. Johnston, after a number of battles for control of the region, clash at Shiloh. The battle is a two-day slaughter that ultimately results in a Southern retreat and Northern exhaustion. Both sides sustain heavy losses totaling approximately 23,000. Johnston is killed.Apr. 28, 1862Fall of New Orleans: Commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron David G. Farragut destroys most of the Confederate fleet as he moves up the Mississippi River to bombard New Orleans. Union occupation of New Orleans is overseen by General Benjamin F. Butler, whose dictatorial methods arouse controversy.May 25, 1862Jackson forces Union retreat: Confederate General Stonewall Jackson pushes Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley back across the Potomac River and forces Northern states to send militia to defend Washington, D.C.May 31, 1862Battle of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines: McClellan’s army, now within five miles of Richmond but forced by flooding of the Chicahominy River to split into two groups, is attacked by General Joseph E. Johnston. Both sides sustain losses totaling approximately 14,000.June 25-July 1, 1862Seven Days’ Battles: Confederate general Robert E. Lee resolves to save Richmond, now under Union threat from McClellan. In a string of engagements, Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart assist Lee in driving back Union forces despite the North’s superior numbers. Casualties for both sides total approximately 25,000. Marks the end of McClellan’s peninsular campaign.July 17, 1862Confiscation Act: Congress passes legislation that frees slaves whose masters serve in the Confederate Army, but not slaves in the North. Has little practical emancipatory effect, but lays a legal foundation for the Emancipation Proclamation.Aug. 29–30, 1862Second Battle of Bull Run: Union commander Henry Halleck sends General John Pope to McClellan’s aid near Richmond. Lee, moving to prevent the joining of the two Union forces, sends Stonewall Jackson to attack Pope’s troops. The two forces meet at Bull Run, where the South succeeds in driving the North back to Washington, D.C.Sept. 13–15, 1862Battle of Harpers Ferry: Confederate victory; more than 12,000 total casualties.Sept. 17, 1862Battle of Antietam: Near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union troops under McClellan force a Confederate retreat (under Lee) across the Potomac River. With over 26,000 casualties, the day is the war’s bloodiest yet.Sept. 23, 1862Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln releases the Emancipation Proclamation to the newspapers. The proclamation states that slaves whose masters are Confederates as of Jan. 1, 1863, will be free as of that date. The announcement adds a second objective to the Union war: liberation of the slaves. In effect, few Southern slaves see immediate emancipation, although Union troops increase by the addition of African Americans to their ranks.Oct. 3–4, 1862Battle of Corinth: Union troops resist the Confederate offensive and hold the Mississippi city of Corinth.Dec. 13, 1862Battle of Fredericksburg: Exasperated by McClellan’s delays and refusals to attack, Lincoln replaces him with Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside attacks Confederates at Fredericksburg, Virginia, but sustains severe losses and a defeat. Lincoln replaces Burnside with Joseph Hooker.Dec. 31, 1862Battle of Murfreesboro: Confederate general Braxton Bragg is forced to withdraw from Tennessee by Union general William S. Rosecrans.Mar. 3, 1863Conscription Act: Congress passes the first federal draft law. The creation of a national military incites controversy regarding individual and states’ rights.May 1–4, 1863Battle of Chancellorsville: Lee, holding position below the Rappahannock River since Fredericksburg, is attacked by Hooker. Lee divides his contingent in two, sending Stonewall Jackson through the dense area called the Wilderness to strike one flank of the Union. Results in a Union retreat but costs the South nearly 13,000 casualties—including the death of Stonewall Jackson.May 18-July 4, 1863Siege of Vicksburg: Union general Ulysses S. Grant takes Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River, from the command of Confederate general J. C. Pemberton after a grueling six-week siege. Secures the Mississippi River for the North.July 1–3, 1863Battle of Gettysburg: Union forces under General George G. Meade rout Confederates under Lee; each side sustains heavy casualties. The casualties are the worst yet, but the battle is a turning point: After a string of Southern victories, the North now has the upper hand.July 13–15, 1863In New York City draft riots result in 128 killed—mostly blacks at the hands of Irish American immigrants.Sept. 19–20, 1863Battle of Chickamauga: Union generals William Rosecrans and George Thomas engage Confederate generals Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet; Both sides suffer heavy casualties. Union troops retreat to Chattanooga, where they are besieged by the Confederate army.Nov. 19, 1863Gettysburg Address: Lincoln delivers one of the briefest and most memorable speeches in history at the dedication of Gettysburg Cemetery in honor of the Gettysburg dead.Nov. 23–25, 1863Battle of Chattanooga: Now in command of the western armies, Grant joins forces with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker, and George Thomas to push Confederate general Braxton Bragg south from Tennessee. Bragg is driven off Lookout Mountain but entrenches his troops on Missionary Ridge; Union forces under Thomas then storm the ridge and rout the Southern forces. This victory in the Mississippi region drives a wedge into the South, splitting the Confederacy.Dec. 8, 1863Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan: Lincoln announces a plan for Reconstruction based on amnesty for Confederates who take a loyalty oath and recognition of Southern states in which 10 percent of the population has taken the oath and in which the state government has accepted emancipation of the slaves. Radical Reconstruction, instituted in 1867, will prove much more painful for the South.May 5–7, 1864Battle of the Wilderness: In the thickly overgrown area near the site of the Chancellorsville battle one year before, the first confrontation in an unrelenting month of warfare pits Lee against Grant. The battle is a tactical draw and each side sustains heavy losses as well; casualties total more than 28,000. Wounded soldiers left in the Wilderness are burned alive in a fire fueled by dead leaves and other debris.May 8–20, 1864Battle of Spotsylvania Court House: The battles end in a draw, but both sides suffer heavy casualties.June 3–12, 1864Battle of Cold Harbor: Grant, pushing toward Richmond, suffers substantial casualties and is accused of coldly sending his men into one of the most murderous engagements of the war.June 15, 1864-Apr. 3, 1865Siege of Petersburg: After a protracted siege, Union troops seize Petersburg.June 27, 1864Battle of Kennesaw Mountain: In Georgia, Joseph E. Johnston defeats Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who has been in charge of the Union’s western war while Grant is at Petersburg. Sherman will rally to move toward Atlanta.July 20-Sept. 2, 1864Battle of Atlanta: After engaging Confederate general John Bell Hood in July outside Atlanta, Sherman forces the South to evacuate the city. This Union victory breaks the North’s despondency over the stagnating siege of Petersburg and helps Lincoln win reelection against unfavorable odds. Sherman will completely destroy Atlanta before leaving it on his march towards Savannah.Nov. 15, 1864-Apr. 18, 1865Sherman’s March to the Sea: On the principle that defeat of the South requires defeat of civilian supplies and infrastructure as well as troops, Sherman ruthlessly and methodically destroys everything in his path—animals, crops, buildings, equipment—as he moves toward Savannah on Georgia’s Atlantic coast.Dec. 9–21, 1864Battle of Savannah: Sherman eventually seizes Savannah, Georgia’s largest city and a significant port. Sherman then continues his trail of destruction into the Carolinas.Dec. 15–16, 1864Battle of Nashville: Union forces under Generals John M. Schofield and George H. Thomas destroy Confederate general John Bell Hood’s forces and secure Tennessee for the North.Apr. 9, 1865Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse: The Confederacy’s surrender formally ends the Civil War.

The North’s refusal to relinquish several forts within the Confederacy led to the outbreak of hostilities in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The war began when Southern artillery units attacked and captured Fort Sumter (April 12–14, 1861).

Following the surrender of Fort Sumter, Lincoln declared a naval blockade of Southern ports and called 75,000 militiamen into national service. Quotas were assigned to all the states still in the Union, including the slave states of the Upper South. Compelled to decide whether to use force to bring the seven seceded states back into the Union or to support their sister slave states, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded in April and May and joined what became the eleven-state Confederacy. Lincoln, fearing further defections, labored effectively to keep the four northern-most slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—in the Union, thereby adding to the North’s great numerical superiority. Although the Union had more men, more industry, more resources, and more of almost everything needed to wage war, the Confederacy attracted many of the best officers in the prewar regular army. As a result, the South early on enjoyed an advantage in military leadership.

The Fighting Begins

Both sides expected the war to be a brief, relatively painless, and successful affair; however, despite these expectations, only one major battle was fought in 1861. Near Manassas Junction southwest of Washington, D.C., Union forces under Irvin McDowell attacked Confederates along Bull Run (July 21, 1861). The armies, though small and inexperienced, fought valiantly, but the late-afternoon arrival of reinforcements allowed the Confederates to rout McDowell and send his army fleeing back to the nation’s capital. Lincoln, who always suspected the war would be a long, hard-fought struggle, soon thereafter called for 500,000 volunteers to serve for up to three years. The Confederacy also sought long-term volunteers, but as the wild enthusiasm for war waned, each of the rival governments would eventually be forced to resort to conscription. Lincoln replaced McDowell with George B. McClellan who would command the rapidly assembling army around Washington, the Army of the Potomac. Despite repeated pleas and orders from his commander in chief, McClellan refused to advance until he, and he alone, was ready. That would not be until March, 1862.

The raising of the Confederate flag over Fort Sumter signaled the start of the Civil War. (To avoid confusion on battlefields, the design of the Confederate flag was later changed from the Stars and Bars to the more familiar “Southern Cross” battle flags.) (National Archives)

From the moment he was inaugurated president in March, 1861, until shortly before he was assassinated in April, 1865, Abraham Lincoln struggled to keep the Union together. He died a martyr to his cause but has been ever afterward remembered as the savior of the Union. (Library of Congress)

No major battles occurred in the western theater during 1861, but Union forces were active in the critical border states, especially in Kentucky. Occupation of northern Kentucky in late 1861 allowed the Union forces the following year to assail the center of the long Confederate defensive line that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Cumberland Gap. Ulysses S. Grant, recognizing the strategic value of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, seized control of these crucial waterways with his February capture of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and Fort Donelson (February 11–16, 1862). He pushed southward along the Tennessee until struck unexpectedly by Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston near Pittsburg Landing. The ensuing two-day Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862) ended as a tactical draw; however, the battered Confederates were forced to retreat. The unprecedented casualties at Shiloh shocked all Americans. Almost 25,000 American soldiers fell, making it the most severe, costliest battle in U.S. history to that point. Shiloh merely hinted of things to come.

The Union concentrated its western forces, took the rail center of Corinth, Mississippi (October 3–4, 1862), and began eying Vicksburg. Then, action in the west shifted to eastern Tennessee where Braxton Bragg and his Southern army were moving northward into Kentucky. The North hurriedly dispatched Don Carlos Buell to Louisville to meet the Confederate threat. At Perryville (October 8, 1862), Bragg and Buell clashed in a strange conflict that saw only small portions of the two armies actually engaged because of an “acoustic shadow.” A drawn battle, Perryville turned into a strategic defeat after Bragg retreated back into Tennessee. When Buell refused to pursue, Lincoln replaced him with William S. Rosecrans. Near Murfreesboro along Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863), Rosecrans and Bragg fought a vicious three-day battle that earned the distinction of having the highest combined casualty rate of the war, with 32 percent of the combatants killed, wounded, or missing. Although Stones River ended inconclusively, Bragg withdrew toward Chattanooga.

Union general Ulysses S. Grant at his Cold Harbor camp in June, 1864. (National Archives)

McClellan’s Offensive

Back in the east, 1862 began auspiciously but ended miserably. McClellan’s long-anticipated offensive on Richmond began in March when he landed his army at the base of the peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. By mid-May, he had advanced to within five miles of the Confederate capital. Recognizing that McClellan’s plans to employ his artillery and engineering skills to capture Richmond would probably succeed, Joseph Eggleston Johnston attacked McClellan at Seven Pines or Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862). He made no headway and was severely wounded, but Johnston’s aggressiveness disturbed McClellan—especially in conjunction with Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant spring campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, which prevented troops originally assigned to McClellan from reaching him at Richmond.

Always guilty of overestimating the strength of his opponent and unwilling to commit his forces fully when engaged, McClellan never took the offensive around Richmond. Robert E. Lee, the fortuitous choice to replace Johnston, attacked in late June, initiating the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862). Despite his numerical superiority, the Union commander steadily retreated across the peninsula until he assumed an impregnable position around Harrison’s Landing on the James. Stalemate developed.

Disappointed by McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness and inactivity, Lincoln began assembling another army in Northern Virginia to march overland against Richmond. He appointed John Pope to command the scattered forces in the region as well as units being withdrawn from McClellan. Lee, in mid-August, gambling that McClellan would not attack, marched northward to meet Pope’s growing threat, and at Second Bull Run (August 29–30, 1862) he decisively defeated the inept Pope. Hoping to capitalize on his summer success, Lee invaded Maryland the following week; however, when the two armies fought near Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek (September 17, 1862), Lee faced disaster. Had the recently restored-to-command McClellan moved more quickly, had he fully utilized his two-toone advantage in a coordinated assault, or had he renewed his attack the next day, he probably would have destroyed Lee’s army. He did not, and thus Antietam ended as a draw, allowing Lee to retreat into Virginia.

General Robert E. Lee in a photograph made by Mathew Brady shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. (National Archives)

The Momentum Shifts

The impact of Antietam cannot be overemphasized. This day of unprecedented carnage cost the two armies more than 26,000 casualties. The blunting of Lee’s invasion also doused European enthusiasm for entering the war on the South’s side, but even more important, the draw at Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity he had been seeking to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His broadening of the war from a political struggle to restore the Union into a moral crusade to free the slaves virtually eliminated the possibility of foreign intervention or recognition. Still, 1862 ended tragically for the North when Ambrose E. Burnside, McClellan’s successor, futilely sacrificed his army at Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862). This devastating defeat sent morale in the army and the North plummeting to its lowest level of the war.

Union plans in the west in 1863 centered on Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Chattanooga in eastern Tennessee. Grant, who began operations against Vicksburg in October, 1862, made several unsuccessful attempts to take the river fortress, but in the spring of 1863, he conducted an unconventional campaign to capture Vicksburg (May 18-July 4, 1863). Severing his lines of supply and communication and fighting south and east of Vicksburg, Grant successfully drove the Confederates back into the city where he laid siege to the garrison. A six-week siege—perhaps the most grueling of the war—ended on Independence Day when the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg. With the fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, five days later, the Union conquered the Mississippi River line, dividing the Confederacy by cutting off the trans-Mississippi west.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which exposed the horrors of slavery and helped arouse the wrath of the North against the South. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he reportedly said to her, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” (National Archives)

Major Sites in the Civil War, 1861–1865

In eastern Tennessee, Rosecrans, though often slow to advance, conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver during the summer of 1863. He first forced Bragg to abandon a strong position near Tullahoma and then, amazingly, compelled the Confederates to retreat from Chattanooga without a fight in early September. The two armies finally came to blows in northwestern Georgia at Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). A Confederate breakthrough on the second day threatened to destroy the Union army, but a resolute holding action by the George H. Thomas allowed most of Rosecrans’s men to escape to Chattanooga. Bragg pursued and laid siege to the city as effectively as possible given the terrain and the size of his army.

In October, following his appointment to overall command in the west, Grant relieved Rosecrans and assumed personal control at Chattanooga. He reopened supply lines and assembled a large army to break the siege. During the battles for Chattanooga (November 23–25, 1863), elements from three Union armies—Tennessee, Mississippi, and Potomac—combined to drive Bragg’s forces away from the gateway city and into winter quarters in Georgia. The Union controlled all Tennessee.

The Army of the Potomac

In the east in 1863, Joseph Hooker reorganized and revitalized the Army of the Potomac and moved against Lee in late April. His excellent plan to compel Lee to fall back or to give battle under unfavorable conditions disintegrated when Hooker lost his nerve near Chancellorsville (May 1–4, 1863). He surrendered the initiative to the bold Confederate and retreated, humiliated in defeat. Having just bested an army twice as large as his, Lee decided, despite the death of Stonewall Jackson, that he must again invade the North. Recognizing that Confederate military manpower was at its peak in the spring of 1863 and that the fighting had to be taken out of war-ravaged Virginia, Lee marched into Pennsylvania, hoping a decisive victory on Northern soil would attract foreign intervention or break the North’s will to fight.

The two major eastern armies met at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and fought the bloodiest battle of the entire war. More than 51,000 fell during the three days of combat. Following the repulse of a charge led by George E. Pickett, Lee retired to Virginia, painfully aware that his 28,000 casualties had broken the offensive backbone of his army, confining him to the strategic defensive in the future. Indeed, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga—all decisive Union victories—eliminated the Confederacy’s chance of winning the war on the battlefield. Independence was not impossible because the North might still abandon its effort to restore the Union, but by the end of 1863, the Northern military held the upper hand.

Grant Takes Command

As the war entered its fourth year in the spring of 1864, Lincoln appointed a new general in chief. In Grant, Lincoln finally found a man who shared his strategic views, who would use all his resources to accomplish his goals, and who would drive the Union to victory. In early May, Grant initiated five separate offensives, the two largest and most important being the Army of the Potomac’s advance against the Army of Northern Virginia and William T. Sherman’s move against Johnston in Georgia. The Overland Campaign in Virginia (May 4-June 12, 1864) began in early May.

Although Grant attempted a campaign of maneuver, Lee’s skillful countering of all Grant’s flanking moves in the month and a half that followed turned their combat into a brutal slugging match that saw the hardest-fought, longest-sustained fighting of the war. Both armies suffered terrible losses in this war of attrition; however, the North could replace its casualties, the South could not. At each battle—the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–20, 1864), the North Anna River (May 23–26, 1864), Totopotomy Creek (May 26–31, 1864), and Cold Harbor (June 1–3, 1864)—Lee stopped Grant momentarily, but the two armies moved steadily closer to Richmond.

The Union attempt in mid-June to slip south of the James River and seize Petersburg, twenty miles south of the capital, would have succeeded had not Union commanders’ mistakes and lack of aggressiveness enabled the Confederates to rush troops to the threatened area and stave off disaster. With room to maneuver gone, the armies constructed extensive trench networks around Richmond and Petersburg (June 15, 1864-April 3, 1865) and a ten-month siege followed.

Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign

While fighting slowed in Virginia, Sherman matched wits with Johnston in the Atlanta campaign (July 20-September 2, 1864). Sherman, advancing from Chattanooga in early May, repeatedly tried to outflank the Confederates, but Johnston thwarted each move. Casualties in this cat-and-mouse game of maneuver were light compared to the Virginia slugfest; however, the two western armies moved ever closer to Atlanta.

In mid-July, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, believing that Johnston would not fight, removed him from command. John Bell Hood, Johnston’s successor, assumed the offensive but could not defeat Sherman, and on September 1, he evacuated Atlanta. The Union occupation of the city the next day provided Lincoln with a powerful boost in his bid for reelection.

A strange situation developed after the fall of Atlanta. Although badly outnumbered, Hood launched a desperate invasion of Tennessee in an effort to draw Union forces out of Atlanta and divert Sherman from his plan to march to the sea. Hood’s offensive ended disastrously at Nashville (December 15–16, 1864), where his army was effectively destroyed. Sherman, on the other hand, brought a new psychological dimension to the war when he cut a sixty-mile-wide swath of destruction through the defenseless region between Atlanta and Savannah. He believed that his wholesale, unhindered devastation of the area’s resources and the Confederacy’s inability to protect the Southern heartland would seriously damage, if not destroy, Southerners’ will to resist. After capturing Savannah (December 9–21, 1864) in late December, Sherman’s army rested and refitted and then marched northward into the Carolinas toward Grant in Virginia.

Confederate president Jefferson Davis in a photograph taken by Mathew Brady before the Civil War began. (National Archives)

The Union Victory

The four years of blood-letting ended in the spring of 1865. Grant finally turned Lee’s flank west of Petersburg on April 1, cutting the Confederate army’s last major railroad supply line. Heavy Union attacks the next day all along a more than forty-mile front necessitated Lee’s hurried evacuation of Petersburg and the Confederate capital. What ensued was a weeklong chase that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant. Other Confederate armies would surrender in North Carolina on April 26, in Alabama on May 4, and in the trans-Mississippi west on May 26. The war was over.

The Union victory vindicated Northerners’ interpretation of the Constitution, ended Southerners’ dreams of independence, and ensured emancipation of all slaves. The war preserved the Union, but reconstructing the nation would be a difficult, divisive process.

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