A Historical Timeline of the Civil War
The Civil War is one of the bloodiest and most significant wars in American history. After years of fighting for independence, America found itself fighting a similar war. This war, however, was not against foreign oppression: it was against itself. Fought between the newly-seceded Confederate States and the Union, the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, with a total death toll estimated at about 618,000. The largest battle of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg which is considered by many the changing point of the war. This timeline outlines almost every significant event throughout the war, from South Carolina's secession to the Confederacy's surrender.
November, 1860: On November 6, 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States with barely over one-third of the national vote. While he had won a vast majority of votes in some states, many Southerners were uncomfortable with Lincoln’s support of anti-slavery. Agriculture- especially the harvest of cotton- was heavily dependent on slave labor, and the very thought of abolishing slavery didn’t sit too well with the Southern states.
December, 1860: A little less than two months after Lincoln’s election, Southern unease grew to a point where South Carolina declared secession from the United States on December 20, 1860.
January - February, 1861: The secession of South Carolina sparked conventions in other southern states, resulting in the secessions of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Delegates from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, declaring Jefferson Davis as President, and the formation of the Confederate States of America. The south also seized federal forts in their states, including Fort Sumter.
March, 1861: On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. The event was highly secured, due to fears of capture and assassination.
April, 1861: Lincoln planned on sending supplies to Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In an attempt to avoid hostilities, he made the South aware that a supply ship was en route. South Carolina feared that it was a plot to take back the state, and as a result, ordered the fort’s commander Robert Anderson to surrender. Anderson offered to surrender after his supplies had been exhausted, but South Carolina refused to accept, and fired upon the fort on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter was surrendered to South Carolina, marking the first battle of the Civil War. After the battle, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Tennessee joined the Confederacy, with Virginia’s Richmond becoming the Confederate capitol. Robert E. Lee also resigns from his position in the Union army, later becoming a leading force in the Confederate army.
June, 1861: Many Virginians supported the Union, and as a result, Union-sympathizing West Virginia was formed.
July, 1861: The Union’s citizens started to fear the Confederacy’s rising power, and as a result, pressed Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief at the time, to attack stationed Confederate troops at Manassas Junction, Virginia. The undertrained Union Army, led by General Irvin McDowell, attacked on July 21. Their attack, however, was unsuccessful, resulting in a Union retreat. This conflict became known as the First Battle of Bull Run. Since the Union’s lack of organization resulted in their defeat, General McDowell was replaced with General George B. McClellan.
Both the Union and the Confederacy began to make improvements to their military, as the Union wanted to blockade the Confederacy’s coastline. The federal navy improved and grew to a point where it created a very effective blockade, and as a result, the Confederacy built smaller, yet faster, ships to outmaneuver the Union navy.
November, 1861: On November 1, Winfield Scott is replaced by George McClellan as the General-in-Chief of the Union army. On the 7th, Union warships commanded by Captain Samuel F. Dupont overwhelmed Confederate forts Walker and Beauregard. This enabled the capture of Port Royal, and eventually, South Carolina’s Sea Islands. On the 8th, the Union army captured two Confederate ships heading towards England. England demanded that the ships be let go, threatening war if the Union refused to comply. Fearing a larger war, Lincoln lets the ships go. Numerous other battles are fought throughout the month.
January, 1862: On January 17, Lincoln called for a unification of the Union Army to attack the Confederacy by both land and sea on February 22: George Washington’s birthday. McClellan, however, ignores the order.
February, 1862: Union General Ulysses S. Grant captures Fort Henry on the 6th, followed by Fort Donelson on the 16th.
March, 1862: On the 8th, Lincoln takes full control of the Union army after becoming impatient with McClellan’s refusal to advance. Confederate Ironclad Merrimac successfully sinks two wooden Union ships, and then battles Union Ironclad Monitor. While both ships survive, wooden ships become obsolete in naval warfare, and gradually begin to be replaced by iron-sided ships.
April 6-7, 1862: The Confederate army attacks Grant’s unprepared Union army stationed in Shiloh on the Tennessee River by surprise. The Union army is victorious, proving Grant’s strength as a leader.
April 24, 1862: 17 Union ships led by Flag Officer David Farragut sail up the Mississippi River, capturing New Orleans- the South’s most powerful port- in the process. General McClellan begins his Peninsular Campaign.
May, 1862: McClellan and his troops had occupied Yorktown, Virginia by May 4. Confederate forces prevent McClellan’s army to reach the main portion of the Confederate army, and as a result, await reinforcements. Later in the month, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson forces Union forces to retreat across the Potomac, and back towards Washington, DC.
June, 1862: The Confederate Army attacks federal troops at Seven Pines. While the Union was victorious, their victory was aided primarily from last-minute reinforcements. Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnson was wounded in the battle, and as a result, Robert E. Lee is appointed command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
June 26 – July 2, 1862: Union and Confederate forces clash in a series of battles over the course of June 26 and July 2, known as the Seven Days’ Battle. The armies fought at Mechanicsville from June 26-27, Gaines’s Mill on June 27, Savage’s Station on June 29, Frayser’s Farm on June 30, and Malvern Hill on July 1. On July 2, the Confederates retreated, bringing an end to the Peninsular Campaign.
July 1862: General McClellan is replaced by Major-General Henry Halleck as General-in-Chief of the Union Army.
August 1862: Union General John Pope was defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run, which lasted from August 29-30. The defeat, however, was blamed on General Fitz-John Porter, as he didn’t bring his troops into battle soon enough.
September 15, 1862: General McClellan defeats General Robert E. Lee at both Crampton’s Gap and South Mountain, but doesn’t act quick enough to save Harper’s Ferry.
September 17, 1862: The Battle of Antietam is fought, resulting in the bloodiest battle in the entire Civil War. There is no clear winner, but General McClellan is often considered the victor, as General Lee and his army retreat back to Virginia. Along with this, the battle managed to convince Britain and France to reserve their recognition of the Confederacy as a separate country. On September 22, Lincoln announced his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which would free all slaves in rebelling states on January 1, 1863.
November, 1862: McClellan is replaced by Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside on November 7.
December, 1862: Burnside’s forces are defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside is later replaced by General Joseph Hooker.
January, 1863: Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves- even those in rebel states- free in the eyes of the federal government.
March, 1863: Due to Union recruitment problems, the First Conscription Act is passed, making all men between the ages of 25 and 45 liable to be recruited into the military. Recruitment could be avoided by paying a fee to the federal government, which was looked upon as unfair to the poor.
April 27, 1863: Union General Hooker crosses the Rappahannock River to attack General Lee’s army. Lee’s army, however, split, and attacked the Union army by surprise from three different locations. The Union retreated back across the river, giving the Confederacy a victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
May, 1863: The Union Army solidified their control over the Mississippi River after General Grant’s victory at the Battle of Vicksburg, and the capture of Port Hudson, Louisiana soon thereafter.
June-July, 1863: The Gettysburg Campaign wages, resulting in Union Victory. The Battle of Gettysburg was a serious defeat for the Confederate Army, also resulting in no hope of formal recognition by foreign governments.
September, 1863: Union and Confederate forces clash at the Battle of Chickamauga, with Union forces eventually retreating into Chattanooga.
November 19, 1863: Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address.
November, 1863: Union forces push back against the Confederate army at the Battle of Chattanooga. The Union was victorious after the Chattanooga Campaign, attaining undisputed control over Tennessee.
January – April, 1864: Fighting remains at a standstill during this period.
May, 1864: General Grant becomes commander of the Union army, and plans to fight against Lee’s forces in Virginia until their ultimate destruction. Both armies fought over a course of three days during the Wilderness Campaign, and while the Confederate army lost more men, Lee had no replacements. Later in the month, the Battle of Spotsylvania took place, with Grant and Lee’s armies fighting for five days.
June, 1864: The Battle of Cold Harbor takes place, with the Union army suffering a significant loss of men. Lee’s army, however, was seriously wounded as a result of Grant’s constant attacks. The Battle of Cold Harbor marked the last of Lee’s victories.
June, 1864: Grant attempts to seize Petersburg, and the Union is victorious.
July, 1864: Confederate soldiers led by General Jubal Early are marched into Maryland to assist Lee’s downsized army. The soldiers get within five miles of Washington DC, but are driven back by Union troops.
August, 1864: Union General William T. Sherman captures Atlanta, Georgia at the Battle of Atlanta, restoring a great deal of Northern confidence.
November, 1864: General Sherman marched his soldiers to sea, creating a path 300 miles long and 60 miles wide, destroying railroads, towns, factories and other structures. Eventually, Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta, making it so that Sherman could accumulate supplies and let his men rest. Later in the month, Abraham Lincoln is re-elected.
December, 1864: Fort McAllister was taken by General Sherman on December 13, taking Savannah only 8 days later. On December 15, Confederate General Hood attempted to take Nashville, but was driven off by the Union army.
January, 1865: Union General Alfred H. Terry captures Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Confederate morale severely diminishes, with unhappy troops abandoning their positions. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approves the armament of slaves out of desperation, but it never happens.
February, 1865: General Sherman continues his destructive march, leading his troops from Georgia into South Carolina. Sherman and his troops destroy nearly everything in their path. War-weary Confederate President Davis proposes a peace conference to Lincoln, under the condition that the Confederacy is formally recognized as an independent country. Lincoln refuses the offer.
March, 1865: On March 25, General Lee attacks Grant’s troops, but loses the battle. He tries again in early April, only to be defeated once again. Lee evacuates Richmond on April 2, and retreats north.
April 7-9, 1865: General Lee and his remaining troops are surrounded, and are called to surrender. Grant and Lee meet at Appomattox Courthouse, where Lee agrees to surrender.
April 14, 1865: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an actor from Maryland obsessed with taking revenge for the fall of the Confederacy.
May 10, 1865: Confederate President Jefferson Davis is captured in Georgia.