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Major American Civil War Battles: Timeline & Sites

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about major Civil War battles. We will identify their locations and dates, and highlight the central themes and developments associated with them.

America's Bloodiest War

Perhaps some of you have had the opportunity to visit an American Civil War battlefield. There are many across the United States, mainly along the East Coast, but some as far west as Texas and New Mexico. These sites are hallowed ground. The Civil War war was America's bloodiest war, leaving some 600,000-700,000 dead. It a conflict between the Northern states and Southern states that tore our country apart on so many levels. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous Gettysburg Address, the American people ''can never forget what they did here.''

While we can't examine every single battle of the Civil War, let's look at some of the major ones and identify why they were important.

Early War (1861-1862)

The American Civil War took place between 1861-1865. It broke out following the Election of 1860, in which Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. See, the South supported slavery, and when Lincoln (an anti-slavery Republican) was elected, the South decided to secede from the United States and form their own new nation, the Confederate States of America.

The South drew first blood. The first battle of the war was the Battle of Fort Sumter, which was a Confederate siege against the Union fort off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. It took place April 12-13, 1861. Union troops were forced to surrender the fort, resulting in a Confederate victory.

The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter.
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The South did surprisingly well in beginning states of the war. The first major land battle was the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place in July 1861 outside of Washington, D.C. Washingtonians were certain the war would be short-lived, and many even gathered to picnic and watch the battle unfold. They were astonished when Confederate troops under General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson achieved victory. It was at the First Battle of Bull Run that General Jackson earned the nickname ''Stonewall'' because he and his men held their position like a stone wall.

The Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862, off the coast of Virginia, was an important naval battle because it was the first time iron-clad ships battled one another. The Union USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) dueled, but were both unable to inflict significant damage upon the other due to their heavy armor. In the end, the battle was a draw, with the ships simply turning around and sailing away.

Iron-clad ships duel at the Battle of Hampton Roads.
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In April 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, 13,000 Union troops under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant were killed, while the Confederate Army suffered the loss of 10,000 men.

Late War (1863-1865)

The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 was the bloodiest battle of the entire war, resulting in about 50,000 total causalities. The battle was a major turning point of the war. Never again would Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army be able to threaten the North: the Confederate Army had lost the offensive. The Battle of Gettysburg prompted a visit from President Lincoln and the famous Gettysburg Address was given later that year.

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