The Civil War was unimaginably bloody. Fought all over the country from the Mississippi to Pennsylvania and throughout the South, the battles of the Civil War were massive affairs involving tens of thousands of soldiers—and horrific casualties. At places like Antietam Creek, Gettysburg, Kennesaw Mountain, and Shiloh, troops on both sides were killed and wounded in staggering numbers. Many more died of disease, starvation and brutality in notorious prisoner of war camps like Andersonville. By the end of the war, over 600,000 people—about one out of every fifty Americans alive in 1860—lay dead.
One major factor in the severity of this war was the development of modern guns and artillery in the nineteenth century. The Enfield and Springfield rifles used by the infantry on both sides had far greater accuracy than previous smoothbore weapons of the Mexican-American War. In battles like the Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, commanders used tactics based on an eighteenth-century European model in which armies used massive amounts of ammunition and charged the enemy to fire at close range in order to compensate for unreliable weaponry. Traditional man-to-man combat tactics combined with advances in artillery—especially the development of grapeshot, a shell filled with small metal balls used for close range attacks—led to the deaths of thousands.
Northern war campaigns were deadly as well. President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander in the East during 1864 and 1865, resolved to destroy the Confederate army. During Grant's 1864 offensive in Virginia, hundreds of thousands of northern casualties did little to slow Grant's advance on Richmond, and later Petersburg. Grant was determined to mow down as many southern armies as he could, regardless of the cost. For this reason, he was nicknamed "The Butcher."
Many of the over 600,000 deaths during the Civil War were the result of poor medical care. The germ theory was still unknown at the time, and some battlefield aid stations were horrific. Surgeons didn't bother to clean instruments after amputating limbs, and often did not, or could not, use any anesthesia. Many patients infected by dirty knives, saws or bandages, died. With no way to stop nasty infections like gangrene, doctors routinely cut off arms and legs rather than let patients die. The surgeries, though, were often as deadly as the conditions they were meant to cure.
When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, SC on 14 April 1861, neither the North or the South had an official army. The largest military force on the continent was far to the West protecting the frontier. So President Lincoln immediately called for thousands of volunteers, and President Jefferson Davis did the same in the South. However, sensing quickly that the war might be longer than he at first anticipated, Lincoln convinced Congress to authorize the conscription of half a million additional volunteers in June. These troops, he planned, would serve three-year terms, far longer than the standard three-month term.
The armies met for the first time on 21 July 1861 forty miles west of Washington at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). Hoping for some excitement—and maybe to escape the blistering heat of a Washington summer—thousands of Washingtonians followed the army with picnic blankets to see the fun. What they witnessed was the rout of their army by a smaller Confederate force. General Thomas Jackson received the nickname "Stonewall" after his brigade of Virginians stood "like a stone wall" against repeated Union assaults. The ensuing retreat to Washington was chaotic, and Jackson complained that if he had had 10,000 men, he could have been in Washington in two days. Instead, both sides realized that the war would be long and drawn out.
The year 1862 was one of confusion and delay, at least for the Union. General George B. McClellan, Lincoln's choice for command of all Union armies, developed a complicated plan to attack Richmond not by land, but by sailing his 80,000-strong army down the Potomac River, through the Chesapeake, and up the peninsula created by the James and York Rivers towards Richmond. The so-called Peninsular Campaign was a disaster. Robert E. Lee, newly elevated to command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Joseph Johnston was injured, frustrated McClellan at every turn, and with the Battle of the Seven Days (June 25 to July 1), McClellan, cautious as always, decided to retreat. Lincoln was incensed and sacked McClellan, placing himself in the role of chief of the army. McClellan retreated back down the peninsula to Washington.
In the West, things were little better for the Union. In April, a surprise attack by a large Confederate force against Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee led to the two-day Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing). Grant tried to rally his troops but his army suffered 13,000 casualties, an appalling number. Combined with the 10,000 casualties on the Confederate side, more men were lost at Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined. Grant retreated up the Tennessee River, and Lincoln was pressured to fire him. But Grant had showed a trait hard to find in the northern armies: he was a fighting soldier. McClellan and McDowell before him were timid in the face of the enemy. Grant, a hard-drinking Ohioan was anything but timid, and his ferocious tactics would serve the Union well in years to come. Only a few days later, on April 24, David Farragut, commander of a Union naval squadron, attacked and captured New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy. From this early point, the South could no longer ship cotton down the Mississippi, and the Union blockade of southern ports began to show results.
Back in the East, Lee moved north and defeated the Union again at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The battlefield was a grisly sight for the soldiers with the year-old bodies of men killed at First Bull Run lying unburied. Lee took his army of 55,000 and marched north into Maryland, invading Union territory for the first time. McClellan, still in charge of the Army of the Potomac, followed him, and on 17 September 1862, the armies met at a small town named Sharpsburg, near Antietam Creek. The ensuing battle still ranks as the bloodiest day in American history: twenty-three thousand men were killed or wounded during the all-day battle, which ended Lee's advance into Maryland, but was something of a draw. McClellan refused to follow Lee as he retreated, finally exasperating Lincoln who relieved him of command.
Lee returned to Virginia followed, at last, by new Union commander Ambrose Burnside, who led his troops into a disaster at Fredericksburg on December 13. With the Confederates entrenched on Marye's Heights, the Union Army was ordered to attack an astonishing fourteen separate times. Over 12,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded, and some Confederate soldiers stopped shooting as the dogged northern units came at them again and again as they sheltered behind the famous Sunken Road. Their astonishing bravery was not matched by their general's skill, and Burnside's tenure was quick to end. In the North, morale plummeted, while in the South, there were hopes that the Union might just give up.
With the arrival of winter, the fighting slowed. Both sides took stock of 1862, and the assessment was that the South, with its limited manpower and small economy but brilliant generals, was defeating the North. The election of 1862 had been a great setback for Lincoln's Republican Party, which lost a number of congressional seats, and the value of Union "greenback" paper currency fell dramatically. Responding to the mood of his people, and understanding that the northern cause was suffering due to military setbacks, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863. The war became much more than a conflict about rebellious states. It was now a war about slavery.
After a year and a half of warfare, nothing had been decided. In Washington, Lincoln ordered Grant to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate strongpoint on the Mississippi River. In the East, General "Fighting" Joe Hooker again set off for Richmond and engaged Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May. Despite facing a larger force, Lee divided his army so he could attack two separate Union forces. This daring and unorthodox strategy paid off and Lee crushed Hooker during the three-day battle. Over 30,000 casualties mounted on both sides, but Lee was able to use his victory to invade Pennsylvania. The South suffered a grievous loss, however, when Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot and killed by his own soldiers during the battle. Lee lamented the loss of Jackson, claiming that he had "lost his right arm."
The Civil War was a charnel house of high-ranking officers, and the losses of generals and colonels was much harder on the South, which counted on brilliant leadership to make up for deficiencies in other areas. In the North, the same trend dominated, but northern generalship was so bad that the effect of the deaths of numerous high-ranking officers was to provide opportunities for younger, more talented officers. In the South, Jackson was irreplaceable, and his leadership was to be sorely missed in the coming months.
Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania was a turning point in the war. Many in Washington and throughout the North were clamoring for peace before the entire war was lost and Washington captured. In the West, James Longstreet and other Confederate leaders were making life difficult for the Union armies of Tennessee and the Cumberland. As Lee made his way north, General George Meade was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac and ordered to stay between Washington and Lee's army. On July 1, a detachment of Confederate soldiers entered the town of Gettysburg searching for supplies, especially shoes, which were always in short supply. A unit of Meade's army met them there and a skirmish broke out. Reinforcements were called in and, although planned by no one, over the next three days, the fate of the United States was to be decided.
Of all the many battles in American history, none was quite as important or has been quite as extensively studied as Gettysburg. Here lay the fate of nations, and during three incomparably bloody days, men fought and died in thickets, in fields, in the Bloody Stream, and a hellish ditch known as Devil's Den. They fought hand to hand, with bayonets, fists and even teeth. Units ran straight uphill into enemy fire to capture a strategic hill, only to be thrown off by an equally brave charge from the enemy. Smoke obscured everything, until on the third day, out of the smoke and trees, 12,000 Confederate soldiers, in a great charge, walked across a field of death into the waiting guns of the northern army. Pickett's Charge, as it came to be known, was Lee's greatest folly, and as the men of General George Pickett's division walked slowly across the 3/4 mile of empty fields, the hopes of the Confederacy marched with them. Only 5,000 ever made it back to the Confederate lines, and Lee was forced to turn and flee.
On July 4, after three days of fighting, telegrams arrived in Washington to announce a great victory. Casualties were appalling; 23,000 men were killed, captured or missing on the Union side, and 28,000 casualties from Confederate lines. But Lee was stopped, and the South would never again invade the North. At the same time, General Grant managed to capture Vicksburg by landing an army below it and encircling the city. A lengthy siege left the town in ruins, and the starving inhabitants surrendered on July 4, cutting the Confederacy in two as the Union now controlled the entire length of the Mississippi. In the North, it was an Independence Day to remember. In the South, it was the beginning of the end.
Even with the twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war was far from over. In September, the Confederate army under General Braxton Bragg won a smashing victory over a larger Union force at Chickamauga outside the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Union Army under William Rosecrans found itself trapped and under siege in Chattanooga, a vitally important railroad junction. For over two months the northern soldiers suffered under the guns of the South until Ulysses S. Grant came up with his Army of Tennessee and broke the siege on November 23. During the battle, the Union troops avenged their defeat at Chickamauga and stormed the heights of Missionary Ridge yelling "Chickamauga! Chickamauga!" With Chattanooga now firmly in Union hands, the road to Atlanta and the Deep South was open. For the Confederacy, the strategic situation looked bleak as winter set in, slowing the war for several months.
The year 1864 dawned with a new determination in the North. Nearly three years of warfare had failed to defeat the South, and now patience was running out. Lincoln decided in March that the time for half-measures was past. He appointed Grant commander of all Union armies, and put him in direct charge of the Army of the Potomac. William Tecumsah Sherman, another general with a fighting reputation, was placed at the head of the Union Army in the West. On May 4, a coordinated assault by both armies began, aiming for the complete destruction of the South.
Grant was a soldiers' soldier, and he began what would be called the Overland Campaign by smashing into Lee's army at a place called the Wilderness. The Wilderness became the site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the war, and this area of woods, marsh and rough terrain became the grave of thousands. During the second day of the battle, the woods themselves caught on fire, burning to death injured men from both sides. Despite heavy casualties, Grant pressed on down the rail line for Richmond, meeting Lee again at Spotsylvania. Again, Grant's larger army pounded Lee's men. Casualties were high on both sides, but Grant and Lincoln had agreed that whatever the price, Richmond must be taken. Replacements flowed from the northern states to fill the holes in the lines; on the other hand, few men came to aid the devastated South, for the region had already been depleted of its white men.
After years of timid generals and missed opportunities, Grant's approach wasn't elegant and it wasn't pretty, but it was effective... until Cold Harbor. In yet another flanking movement to the East, Grant's men encountered Lee's at Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 1. Three days later, more than 13,000 Union soldiers were lost, while Lee lost only 2,500. While in theory the nearly inexhaustible manpower reserves of the North could make up the difference, public opinion was shocked and appalled by the carnage. Grant was also horrified, writing years later in his memoirs that Cold Harbor was a terribly mistake. The battle took place only ten miles from Richmond but with the losses at Cold Harbor and an entrenched Confederate army between him and Richmond, Grant moved southward towards the city of Petersburg. Failing to capture it on June 15, he began encircling the city, leading to a nine-month siege. Grant had learned his lesson at Cold Harbor, and decided that he had had enough of attacking fortified positions.
During the siege there were several large battles, including the Battle of the Crater on July 30, in which a huge mine was exploded under the Confederate line. Though it managed to blow a hole in the defenses, poor planning and execution by the Union troops assigned to the attack ended up with the Confederates firing into the Crater filled with Union soldiers. In the so-called "turkey shoot" that followed, 5,300 Union troops were killed or wounded. The siege went on for another eight months.
In the West, Sherman began the campaign by attacking south from Chattanooga towards Atlanta, which he took in September after Joe Johnston's delaying campaign had frustrated him for most of the summer. On September 2, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln declaring, "Atlanta is ours and fairly won." Coming close to the 1864 election, this was welcomed news in Washington where the failure of Grant's thrust towards Richmond had lowered morale considerably. After nearly two months in Atlanta, Sherman ordered it burned and began his famous March to the Sea on November 15. A column of Union troops sixty miles wide carved a path of destruction, burning farms, livestock, plantations and anything else they found. They lived off the land meaning that the army had no supplies of its own but ate what it found. Sherman's march, one of the more famous episodes of the war, fit with his view that "all war is hell," meaning that there was no point in sparing the enemy population the horrors of the war. By the time Sherman reached Savannah on December 21, he had brought the war home to Georgia in a lasting way.
Sherman was not done in Savannah. He turned his army north and marched through South Carolina, the first state to secede in 1860. He ordered his army to destroy everything it encountered, and he burned the city of Charleston to the ground. By the end of the war, Sherman and his men were approaching a link up with Grant's men outside Petersburg, with only Johnston's army in North Carolina between them.
For all intents and purposes, the war was over by the beginning of 1865. However, a peace conference held in February between Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, and Lincoln was unsuccessful. Jefferson Davis insisted on fighting to the bitter end. More men had to die. The main fighting took place at the end of March near Petersburg where Lee ordered a final attack on Grant's line. But with many of his men sick and dying of starvation and disease, Lee's campaign failed, and on April 3, Grant broke through the line and moved quickly to capture Richmond. With the Confederate capital in Union hands and the Army of Northern Virginia limping to the West, the end was at hand.
On April 9, at a small village called Appomattox Court House a few miles west of Richmond, Grant met Lee in Wilmer McLean's house. Lee wore his best Gray uniform, his stars shining on his shoulders as he contemplated surrendering his army and all he had fought for. Grant wore a private's uniform, dirty and torn from wear, with only his general's stars to denote his rank. The two men chatted aimlessly for a while before Lee brought the subject back to the task at hand. Grant offered generous terms: the Confederate Army was to be disbanded and all property turned over to the United States Government. He expressly noted that this did not include the officers' personal guns, an honorable gesture that won him respect and admiration from all sides. He also agreed that any member of the Confederate Army who took an oath not to fight against the government again could return to their homes and be left alone, escaping all treason trials. Lee accepted the terms.
Still, the war was not complete. Johnston's army in North Carolina remained in the field, but by May, his army was captured and effective resistance ended. In the end, the war had been terribly costly. The South had lost 280,000 men, and the North counted 320,000 casualties of its own. Lincoln and the North had won the war and kept the Union together. But it all came at a terrible price.