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Neither the North nor the South was prepared in 1861 to wage a war. With a population of 22 million, the North had a greater military potential. The South had a population of 9 million, but of that number, nearly 4 million were enslaved blacks whose loyalty to the Confederate cause could hardly be assumed. Although they initially relied on volunteers, necessity eventually forced both sides to resort to a military draft to raise an army. Before the war ended, the South had enlisted about 900,000 white males, and the Union had enrolled about 2 million men (including 186,000 blacks), nearly half of them towards the end of the war.

In addition, the North possessed clear material advantages—in money and credit, factories, food production, mineral resources, and transport—that proved decisive. The South's ability to fight was hampered by chronic shortages of food, clothing, medicine, and heavy artillery, as well as by war weariness and the unpredictability of its black labour force.

Even with its superior manpower and resources, however, the North did not achieve the quick victory it had expected. To raise, train, and equip a massive fighting force from inexperienced volunteers and to find efficient military leadership proved a formidable and time-consuming task. The South, with its stronger military tradition, had more men experienced in the use of arms and produced an able corps of officers, including Robert E. Lee. Only through trial and error did Lincoln find comparable military leaders, such as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.

The Confederacy enjoyed a certain advantage in conducting defensive operations on familiar terrain. If the South could keep its army in the field until the North lost the will to fight, the Confederacy would win the war. In contrast, the North needed to attack on a broad front and sustain long avenues of communication and supply.

Whereas the South merely had to defend itself, the North needed to destroy the South's capacity to make war and compel total surrender. The strategy for achieving this goal that was most popular with the Northern press, the public, and political leaders called for a direct overland march on Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. They believed that the fall of Richmond would demoralize the South and bring the war to a rapid close. Lincoln's military advisers, however, convinced him to implement the "Anaconda Plan". Devised by General Winfield Scott, it called for the establishment of a naval blockade around the Confederacy to prevent the importation of supplies from Europe, followed by an invasion of the Mississippi Valley to cut the Confederacy in half.

Confederate leaders also differed on the most effective strategy. Davis thought in terms of a defensive war that would wear down the North, attract foreign sympathy and support, and result in the acknowledgement of Southern independence. But the long, exposed frontier between the North and the South rendered such a strategy unrealistic. An alternate plan called for an offensive strike into the North before that section could mobilize its superior manpower and material goods. Those who advocated this strategy believed that the more prolonged the war, the less chance the South had of winning it.

The First Battle of Bull Run

The war began with both sides confident of an early victory. In May 1861, Union troops crossed the Potomac River, captured Alexandria, Virginia, and moved into northwestern Virginia. The major Confederate army, some 22,000 men under the command of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, was concentrated at Manassas Junction, Virginia, a key railway centre about 48 km (30 mi) southwest of Washington, D.C. Seeking to deliver a mortal blow to this army before reinforcements could reach it, General Irvin McDowell led a Union force of 30,000 towards Manassas. On July 21, in the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate troops, reinforced in time, won a resounding victory. The result was not strategically significant, but the setback forced a humiliated North to abandon hopes for a 90-day war and to raise a more substantial army. In contrast, the South left Bull Run with a sense of overconfidence that impeded proper preparation for the long conflict ahead.

McClellan's Appointment

After Bull Run, Lincoln replaced McDowell with General George B. McClellan as commander of the newly created Army of the Potomac. An able administrator and drillmaster, McClellan proceeded to reorganize the army for what he expected to be an overwhelming demonstration of Northern military superiority. Popular with his troops, the 34-year-old commander was also a conceited, arrogant man, contemptuous of the president and already suspect among Republicans because he vigorously opposed any tampering with the institution of slavery. Ultimately, his tendency to overestimate the enemy and his excessive caution wore out Lincoln's patience.

The Border States

Although a military stalemate prevailed for much of 1861, the North scored some critical successes in securing the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, where Unionist sentiment prevailed but where secessionists were also strong. Maryland's importance lay in its proximity to Washington and in Baltimore's position as a key railway link to the midwest. Kentucky and Missouri were important to Northern war strategy because they controlled the approaches to the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland river valleys, through which Union forces could bring the war into the Confederate heartland. To ensure Maryland's loyalty, Union troops occupied Baltimore and imposed martial law. Kentucky sought to remain neutral, but in September 1861, when Confederate troops crossed into the state, Kentuckians enlisted overwhelmingly in the Union cause. In Missouri, Union troops helped to secure the state, while driving the pro-Confederate governor into exile. In Virginia, the western counties repudiated the ordinance of secession, formed a provisional government, and in 1863 were admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia.

The Peninsular Campaign

With his reorganized Army of the Potomac, McClellan was finally prepared to take the offensive in the spring of 1862. Rejecting the strategy of an overland march on Richmond, he moved his army of 100,000 men into the peninsula between the James and York rivers. From this point, southeast of Richmond, he advanced on the Confederate capital. In the Battle of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines (May 31-June 1), a Confederate attack was repulsed, and Lee was chosen to replace the wounded General Joseph E. Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. By June, McClellan's army approached Richmond. The cautious commander, however, overestimating Confederate strength, halted his march and waited for reinforcements. Meanwhile, General Stonewall Jackson moved his Confederate army up the Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Potomac. Although turned back, he succeeded in convincing the Northern high command that he posed a threat to Washington. In response, the government withheld from McClellan the reinforcements he felt necessary for an attack on Richmond.

Seeking to exploit McClellan's excessive caution, Lee, reinforced by Jackson's men, marched an army of 85,000 against the Union forces massed near Richmond. In the Seven Days' Battle (June 25-July 1), neither side was capable of delivering a mortal blow to the other. Nevertheless, McClellan, believing himself vastly outnumbered, ordered a retreat to the James River, thus dismally concluding his Peninsular campaign. A disappointed Lincoln named as his general in chief Major General Henry Halleck, who had had some recent successes in the West. McClellan retained command of the Army of the Potomac, but Lincoln brought from the West General John Pope to head a new army, consisting largely of troops that had been held back in northern Virginia to check Jackson.

Union Defeats in the East

Pope's tenure was short-lived. On August 30, in the Second Battle of Bull Run, the combined Confederate forces of Lee, Jackson, and General James Longstreet inflicted heavy casualties on Union troops and sent them reeling back to Washington, where Pope was relieved of his command. Following up on this victory, Lee in September 1862 startled the North by invading Maryland with some 50,000 troops. Not only did he expect this bold move to demoralize Northerners, he hoped a victory on Union soil would encourage foreign recognition of the Confederacy. McClellan, with 90,000 men, moved to check Lee's advance. On September 17, in the bloody Battle of Antietam, some 12,000 Northerners and 12,700 Southerners were killed or wounded. Lee was forced back to Virginia; Lincoln, angered that McClellan made no effort to cut off Lee's retreat, relieved the general of his command.

In late 1862, the Army of the Potomac resumed its offensive towards Richmond, this time under the command of General Ambrose E. Burnside. On December 13, he unwisely chose to challenge Lee's nearly impregnable defences around Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River. In still another disaster, Union forces suffered more than 10,000 killed or wounded and were forced to retreat to Washington. Burnside too was relieved of his command.

Grant's Initial Successes on the Mississippi

While a stalemate settled over the eastern front, Union military operations in the West proved far more successful. The objective was control of the Mississippi Valley, thereby splitting the Confederacy in half and cutting off the flow of men and supplies from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. Early in 1862, Grant, with the support of a fleet of ironclad ships, succeeded in capturing Fort Henry, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River. With the later capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, on the Cumberland River, along with about 16,000 Confederate troops, the way was clear to sweep down the Mississippi. Meanwhile, west of the river, Union troops defeated a Confederate force at Pea Ridge, Arkansas (March 6-8), consolidating Union control of Missouri.

Falling back from its position around Nashville, Tennessee, the Confederate army in northern Tennessee retreated south towards Mississippi, where it tried to establish a new line of defence. Grant halted his advance at Shiloh, Tennessee, and waited there to be reinforced by an army under General Don Carlos Buell. Hoping to destroy Grant's army before the reinforcements arrived, a Confederate force under Beauregard and General Albert S. Johnston staged a nearly successful surprise attack on April 6. With the arrival of Buell's men, however, the combined Union force repulsed the attack, and the Confederates retreated into Mississippi. On May 30, Corinth, Mississippi, a railway centre critical to Southern defences, fell, and by early June, Union troops had overrun most of west and east Tennessee and controlled the Mississippi as far south as Memphis, Tennessee.

The Capture of New Orleans and the Battle of Murfreesboro In a coordinated strategy, Union forces also moved up the Mississippi from the south. In April, a naval squadron commanded by Captain David G. Farragut penetrated Confederate defences at the mouth of the Mississippi and forced the surrender of New Orleans, Louisiana. On May 1 Union troops under General Benjamin F. Butler moved into the Confederacy's largest city and principal port. During the last months of 1862, Grant consolidated his position along the Mississippi. Buell, ordered to move on Chattanooga, Tennessee, clashed indecisively with Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg. In December, General William S. Rosecrans, who had replaced Buell, confronted Bragg's troops in a three-day battle on the Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, forcing them to retreat. Meanwhile, Grant prepared for an assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last remaining Confederate stronghold in the West, high on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Considered by the Confederates an impregnable fortress, Vicksburg resisted Union attacks, and Grant's army was bogged down in the rugged terrain guarding the north and east approaches to the city.


When he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker promised to reverse the long string of Union defeats in the East. In April, with an army of 130,000 men, he prepared to challenge Lee, whose army of 60,000 was massed in Virginia, near Fredericksburg. While holding Lee's attention at Fredericksburg, Hooker dispatched a force around the town to attack the Confederate flank. Hesitant to use his reserves at such a critical juncture, he chose to withdraw to a defensive position at Chancellorsville, Virginia. With little hesitation, the combined forces of Lee and Jackson fell on Hooker's army and, in a fierce three-day battle (May 2-4), inflicted such heavy casualties that Hooker was forced to retreat. Chancellorsville was also a costly battle for the South. Lee lost nearly one-fifth of his men, as well as his brilliant general, Stonewall Jackson.


Encouraged by the victory, Lee seized the initiative and moved his army into the North. Such an action, he hoped, would relieve the pressure on beleaguered Confederate forces in the West and induce a war-weary North to agree to a negotiated peace. In June, a Confederate army of 75,000 men marched through the Shenandoah Valley into southern Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac, numbering about 85,000 and now commanded by General George G. Meade, moved to check Lee's advance. These two massive armies converged on the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and on July 1 a battle began that many observers consider a turning point of the Civil War.

In manoeuvring for position, Union forces managed to occupy strategic high ground south of Gettysburg. Lee's army attacked the position at various points, only to be thrown back. On July 3, after an intensive artillery duel, Lee ordered General George E. Pickett to charge the centre of the Union lines at Cemetery Ridge. The attack failed. With his army suffering heavy casualties, Lee retreated, only to be blocked by the flooded Potomac River. Much to Lincoln's dismay, however, Meade failed to exploit his advantage, and Lee's shattered army was eventually able to retreat into northern Virginia. Yet again, Lee had sacrificed an enormous portion of his army in the ill-fated attack. Vicksburg

On the western front, in April 1863, Grant readied his forces for a renewed effort to capture Vicksburg. With the support of Union gunboats and supply ships, he placed his army on the river south of the city. In a series of bold manoeuvres that surprised the Southerners, Grant succeeded in dividing the Confederate defenders, and by mid-May he had reached Vicksburg. For 47 days, with many residents taking refuge in caves to escape the incessant bombardment, the siege was sustained. Finally, on July 4, the day after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate garrison surrendered. The Union army had realized its objective in the West—the Confederacy split into two parts.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga

Having secured the Mississippi, the Union high command decided to drive the Confederates out of east Tennessee, in preparation for sweep into Alabama and Georgia. In the fall of 1863, Rosecrans and an army of 55,000 men captured Chattanooga. Further advance, however, was checked when they faced a reinforced Confederate army of 70,000 men under Bragg's command. In the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20), the Union forces were badly beaten. Forced to retreat to Chattanooga, Rosecrans's army was besieged by Confederates entrenched on the heights commanding the supply lines to the city. Grant, now in full command of the Union forces in the West, replaced Rosecrans with George H. Thomas and headed for Chattanooga with part of his Army of the Tennessee. In the three-day Battle of Chattanooga (November 23-25), Union forces dislodged the Confederate defenders and forced them into a disorderly retreat.

By the end of 1863, the war had turned in the Union's favour. After his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee was unable to sustain any further offensive operations in the North. The Union army in the West had divided the Confederacy, and its success at Chattanooga made it possible to bring the war into Alabama and Georgia.

Grant's Plan for Victory

Confident he had finally found the right person, in early 1864 Lincoln appointed Grant commander in chief of all Union forces. Having already demonstrated his military prowess in the West, Grant moved to exploit the Northern superiority in manpower and materials to wear down the enemy. At the same time, he designed a strategy that would tighten the stranglehold around the Confederacy. The Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant and Meade, would engage Lee in northern Virginia and move on Richmond. An army commanded by Sherman would march south from Chattanooga into Georgia and capture Atlanta. Still another army under General Philip Sheridan would operate in the Shenandoah Valley and deprive Lee's forces of supplies and food from that region.

The Wilderness Campaign In late March, the Army of the Potomac, numbering 115,000 men, began its march. When it reached a desolate area near Chancellorsville, known as the Wilderness, the Union forces encountered Lee's army of 62,000 men. In a two-day battle (May 5-6), fought largely in a thick, almost impenetrable forest, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Unlike his predecessors, though, Grant continued his march, determined to keep the pressure on the enemy. The two armies clashed again at Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-12), in Virginia, with both sides sustaining heavy losses and neither able to score a decisive victory. After Lee repulsed him at Cold Harbor, Virginia, just north of Richmond, Grant chose to bypass the Confederate capital. He crossed the James River and advanced on Petersburg, Virginia, a railway centre critical to Richmond's supply line. This attempt to isolate Richmond failed when a reinforced Confederate army successfully maintained its position around Petersburg. On June 20, Grant laid siege to the city, but the defenders held out for another nine months. Several attempts to breach the defences, as in the Battle of the Crater, were beaten back, and Grant's offensive operations in Virginia were brought to a temporary halt.

The Capture of Atlanta

In the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan's army engaged Confederate forces commanded by General Jubal A. Early and forced them to retreat from the region. With even more devastating success, in the summer of 1864, Sherman's army of 90,000 advanced towards Atlanta, Georgia. Several attempts to turn them back, including a battle at Kennesaw Mountain, ultimately failed. Sherman cut Atlanta's principal supply line, and on September 1 Confederate troops abandoned the city. The war-weary North, frustrated by the continuing stalemate in Virginia, enthusiastically greeted the victories of Sheridan and Sherman, no doubt helping to ensure Lincoln's reelection in November.

After losing Atlanta, the Confederate army under the command of General John Bell Hood tried to undermine Sherman's extended supply line, boldly moving into Tennessee on the assumption that Sherman would be forced to follow them to protect Chattanooga. Instead, Sherman dispatched part of his forces to counter Hood and readied his army for a march across Georgia to Savannah and the sea. On November 30, Hood battled a Union force under General John M. Schofield at Franklin, Tennessee; his troops sustained heavy losses in several unsuccessful charges against the Union lines. Subsequently, in the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16), a Union force commanded by Thomas scored a decisive victory over Hood, crushing Confederate resistance in the West.

The Defeat of the South

On November 15, Sherman began his march to the sea. Leaving Atlanta in flames, his army of 60,000 men moved virtually unopposed through Georgia on a 96-km (60-mi) front. Living off the land as they advanced, the Union troops systematically destroyed anything that might help sustain the Confederate war effort. Savannah fell shortly before Christmas, and Sherman's army continued northwards into the Carolinas, meeting little opposition. In April 1865, Mobile, Selma, and Montgomery in Alabama fell to Union forces. At the same time, Sheridan prepared to join Grant for a conclusive assault on Lee's army.

In Virginia, Grant, in April 1865, finally succeeded in seizing the railway line supplying Richmond. Forced as a consequence to abandon both Petersburg and Richmond, Lee retreated westward, hoping to join with the Confederate army of Joseph Johnston in North Carolina. Grant blocked his way, and on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at the small settlement of Appomattox Court House in southwestern Virginia. With Lee's surrender, the remaining Confederate armies quickly collapsed.