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AHHS — Chapter 21

Chapter 21 – Fourteen Battles in Four Years of War, by Howard Ray White of N. C., S. I. S. H. 


Let me first explain what the WBTS meant to me as a 10-year-old boy in 1948 when my family lived at my grandfather’s farm near Murfreesboro, TN.  My brother and I slept in an upstairs room.  The Battle of Murfreesboro (Stone’s River) had been fought on this farm and others nearby as 1862 ended and 1863 began.  It was one of the war’s major battles.  In that upstairs room, 85 years before, a Federal surgeon had amputated arms and legs on scores of wounded soldiers, tossing body parts out the window into a wagon below, the blood soaking into the wooden floor.  We slept amid those bloodstains. A huge graveyard just down the road displayed 6,000 Federal tombstones as far as the eye could see.  Now the political nightmare called the WBTS became personal.  This boy had to understand the politics that had caused it.  Soon, as a voter, you will need to make political choices.  So understand America’s greatest tragedy to help you choose more wisely.

Examples of Relevant History

These four pages present brief histories of 14 major battles: Manassas, VA ( July 1861); Western Virginia (Oct. 1861); Forts Donelson and Henry, TN (February 1862); Pittsburg Landing and Island #10, TN (April 1862); New Orleans, LA (April 1862); Seven Days’ before Richmond, VA (June 1862); Sharpsburg, MD (Sept. 1862); Chancellorsville, VA (May 1863); Gettysburg, PA (July 1863); Vicksburg, MS (July 1863); Chattanooga, TN (Oct. 1863); Cold Harbor, VA (June 1864); Atlanta, GA (Aug. 1864), and Petersburg, VA (1865).

July 1861: Manassas Junction, northern Virginia.  By mid-July the Federal invasion force amassed just south of Washington, D. C. was the largest army ever gathered at one spot in American history, consisting of 40,000 well-armed men and the best field artillery the world had ever seen.  Commanded by Irvin McDowell of Ohio, it intended to fight all the way to Richmond and crush the Confederate Government.  Important Republican political leaders were gathering not far behind their army to enjoy a picnic and to witness the invasion’s historic launch.  At Manassas Junction, an important Virginia railroad hub, Confederates under Pierre Beauregard of Louisiana, prepared to meet the attack.  On the 17th Beauregard telegraphed Richmond, “The enemy has assailed my outposts in heavy force,” prompting President Davis to order Confederate troops then west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to cross over and reinforce Manassas.  Intense fighting erupted on the 21st; a Confederate defeat seemed likely.  But, Thomas Jackson’s tough troops had crossed over the Blue Ridge and arrived by noon.  Joe Johnston’s troops arrived by train from Winchester at mid-afternoon.  Now re-enforced, with Jackson’s men firing in support, many other Confederates charged forward like furies and drove the Federals from the field in disorganized panic.  Abandoning cannon, firearms and most everything, the Federals scampered back to Washington in disarray, struggling with Republican picnickers to get across congested bridges.  After a few miles of pursuit, Confederates pressed no farther.  President Davis arrived by railroad at the climax of the victory.  He and his generals agreed their orders were to defend Virginia, not invade Washington.  And many wounded needed attention.  This was where Thomas Jackson gained the name “Stonewall.”  His troop’s protective fire was an important part of the victory.

October 1861: Western Virginia.  The Virginia counties located in the Appalachian Mountains proved impossible to defend with available resources.  Steep ridges greatly impeded travel from the east; access to and from the Ohio River was much easier – from the north a simple ride down valley roads.  And many of the people were more tied economically to the north and west than to the east.  The Kanawha Valley was an industrial region (annual capacity of 1,500,000 bushels of salt; almost 2,000,000 gallons of coal oil; valuable niter deposits for making gunpowder, and more).  By early September, Federals controlled it, unopposed.  By October Confederates under Robert E. Lee had retreated to make a defensive stand at Sewell Mountain.  Rosecrans’ Federals chose not to attack since bad weather would prevent Confederates from wintering over in the mountains.  Lee ordered a retreat out of western Virginia as Federals organized a rigged voting process to allegedly justify the secession of 39 western Virginia counties.

February 1862: Forts Donelson and Henry, Tennessee.  The Federal defeat of Forts Donelson and Henry in February can be credited to James Eads of St. Louis, who had received a contract for 7 iron-clad river gunboats.  In one of the war’s greatest feats, Eads, an engineer and river wrecks salvager, completed his designs, hired crews and supplied the powerful craft in time to lead the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.  The gunboats were named Carondelet, Louisville, Pittsburg, St. Louis, Cairo, Mound City and Cincinnati.  The fall of the Confederate forts was a disaster, resulting in the capture and imprisonment at Chicago of 4,459 Confederates.  Indefensible, Nashville surrendered without a fight.  Tennessee lay exposed.

April 1862: Pittsburg Landing and Island #10, Tennessee.  Corinth, MS was the junction of the Mobile and Ohio and the Memphis and Charleston railroads and its defense was vital.  But not far away was the Tennessee River, which steamboats could access from the Ohio River.  By late March, Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston were concentrated into an army of 40,000 troops.  But, by this time Federals under Ulysses Grant had landed 40,000 troops at the Tennessee River port town of Pittsburg Landing and would soon be reinforced by 20,000 more.  On the morning of April 6 Johnston decided to attack before those reinforcements arrived.  The surprise attack drove many Federals back toward the river bank in panic, and many prisoners and weapons were captured, but the eventual arrival of reinforcements forced a Confederate retreat the next day.  Federals suffered 13,047 casualties, Confederates suffered 10,694.  It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on either American continent.  Johnston, the Confederate army’s most valuable leader, was killed leading a charge.  That same day Federals captured over 6,000 Confederates who had been defending the Mississippi River at Island Number 10.  James Eads’ gunboats, with larger, longer range artillery, had been decisive by blocking retreat, and would give the Federals a great advantage on the western rivers.

April 1862: New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Federal navy also held a major advantage over Confederates.  In 1814 Andrew Jackson’s army of Southern volunteers, mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky, had driven off a large British invasion force, saving New Orleans.  But this time efforts to defend against attack failed.  On April 24 the Federal invasion fleet gathered into formation and ran past the two Confederate forts, most surviving to reach the city.  Confederate forces under Mansfield Lovell burned the warehoused cotton and withdrew with their arms.  Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts accepted the surrender of Mayor John Monroe.

June 1862: Seven Days’ before Richmond, Virginia.  By June 23, a 105,000, well-equipped Federal army under George McClellan was in position to lay siege on Richmond.  Robert E. Lee, realizing a siege could not be withstood, gathered his top commanders and planned a fierce attack to drive the Federals away.  They knew a lot about the enemy since Jeb Stuart had led 1,200 Confederate cavalry in a “ride around” McClellan’s approaching Federals, viewing enemy strengths and capturing significant troops and war materiel.  The attack was to include Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates, who had been in the Valley, keeping Federals there occupied and defeated.  The bold attack was planned for 3 am, June 26.  Would Jackson’s men arrive in time to reinforce troops under A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill and James Longstreet?  Heroic and tough as they had persistently been, Jackson’s troops did not arrive until 11 am, long after the attack had begun.  Nevertheless, Confederates forced the Federals at Mechanicsville to retreat to Gaines’ Mill.  On the 27th, Confederates drove them back further.  On the 28th, Federals began withdrawing from around Richmond toward Savage’s Station.  On the 29th, Confederates drove them back to Frayser’s Farm.  On the 30th, they drove them back to Malvern Hill.  But there Federals were protected by artillery on the hill and on warships in the James River.  It looked like surviving Federals would make a total escape.  Should Confederates charge again considering the artillery they now faced?  Hard decision!  Although the victory was won and Richmond was saved, forcing a Federal surrender would help Peace Democrats defeat Republicans in Congressional elections only 4 months away, perhaps advancing peace talks.  General Lee made the decision: attack up Malvern Hill.  His troops charged forth.  The death toll was awful.  But the Lincoln Administration learned that Confederates were determined and fearless.  Richmond would be successfully defended for 34 more months.  Confederates captured 52 artillery pieces and 35,000 muskets, but suffered 20,141 casualties versus 15,849 for the Federals.

September 1862: Sharpsburg, Maryland.  Confederates under Robert E. Lee defeated Federals under John Pope in the second battle of Manassas Junction, again forcing Federals to abandon supplies and retreat to Washington, the 75,000-man army suffering 16,054 casualties.  As follow-up, with mid-term elections less than two months off, Lee advocated a counter-offensive into Federal territory in hopes of bruising Northern morale and encouraging votes for Peace Democrat candidates.  Davis agreed.  The invasion began with troops singing “My Maryland.”  Bad luck: a copy of Lee’s battle plan was lost and found by a Federal.   Lee’s effort climaxed near Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek.  At most 40,000 Confederates faced 87,000 Federals under McClellan.  Federals suffered 12,469 casualties, Confederates, 13,724, the latter retreating in order to Virginia.  Bad idea: Democrats elected the NY Governor and gained a few Congressional seats, but too few to matter.

May 1863: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia.  You recall that it was at Pittsburg Landing that Confederates lost Albert Sidney Johnston.  Well, it was at Chancellorsville that they lost Stonewall Jackson.  Federals under Joe Hooker, a force of 133,868 men, advanced southward toward Richmond.  First stop Fredericksburg.  Hooker spit his army, leaving 64,000 behind and leading 70,000 westward to the vicinity of Mr. Chancellor’s house, where he set up headquarters.  Making an audacious decision, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson with 26,000 of his 60,000-man army to attack Hooker’s 70,000.  Jackson’s men caught Hookers’ men by surprise and overwhelmed the far larger army, which retreated back toward Fredericksburg.  There was more fighting at Fredericksburg before Federals withdrew toward Washington.  Again, a huge Federal offensive toward Richmond had failed.  Overall, Federal casualties were 17,287; Confederate were 12,764.  But Stonewall Jackson would soon to die of a bullet wound.  The loss would be greatly felt.

July 1863: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In Richmond on May 16, President Davis and his Cabinet debated seriously two military proposals.  Davis, of Mississippi, and John Reagan, of Texas, advocated sending 25,000 troops from Robert E. Lee’s army to help break the siege of Vicksburg.  The rest of the Cabinet supported Lee’s proposal to retain his entire army and use it to counterattack into Pennsylvania, hoping that would strengthen Peace Democrats in the northern states.  Lee was desperate.  A war of attrition would surely give eventual victory to Lincoln, who had an inexhaustible supply of draftees.  A bold stroke might force negotiations.  All but Reagan sided with Lee.  Davis felt he could not object.  Lee was going on the counterattack a second time.  On June 25, with Confederate cavalry already in Gettysburg and York, PA, Lee led his troops into Maryland.  From its post in northern Virginia the huge Federal army headed north to defend PA and Washington.  On July 1 Federals under Oliver Howard attempted to take the town but were driven out, taking the high ground upon Cemetery Ridge.  The main Federal army, under George Meade, arrived during the night and the Confederate advantage was lost.  There was a massive battle just outside Gettysburg on and around Cemetery Ridge.  Federals occupied the high ground.  There was bloody fighting on July 2 and if there was a winner it was the Confederate side.  But both armies held their ground.  Determined to strike a decisive blow, Lee ordered a frontal attack against the Federals for July 3.  After a massive artillery attack, Confederates under George Pickett, James Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble ran the one-mile gauntlet up the hillside.  It was deadly.  That night Lee’s Confederates began their retreat into Virginia, taking wounded as they could.  Meade’s Federals were slow to pursue.  Lee’s men returned to Virginia to fight another 22 months.  Rethinking that Cabinet debate in Richmond – Lee’s counterattack into Pennsylvania versus Davis’s proposal to send 25,000 of Lee’s men to help Vicksburg – you probably agree that neither should have been attempted.  Of 85,000 Federals engaged, casualties totaled 23,049; of 65,000 Confederates it was 20,451.  Peace Democrats got no boost.

July 1863: Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Mississippi.  It had been a long siege of these two last remaining impediments to total Federal control of the Mississippi River.  At Vicksburg artillery defended a narrow spot in the big river and John Pemberton commanded 31,000 troops in fortifications surrounding it.  Civilians and others dug caves into the banks to elude exploding artillery.  Beyond were far more Federals under Ulysses Grant.  The Siege of Vicksburg had begun on May 23, following an ill-advised frontal attack by 45,000 Federals, which had resulted in 3,199 casualties.  Further down the river, the Siege of fortified Port Hudson had begun two days earlier with up to 13,000 Federals under Nathaniel Banks surrounding 4,500 Confederates under Franklin Gardner.  Banks ordered frontal attacks on May 27 and on June 14, together resulting in 3,787 Federal casualties.  But by five weeks, troops at Port Hudson and citizens and troops in Vicksburg were suffering starvation.  At Vicksburg, Pemberton negotiated surrender terms with Grant which were unusually generous.  On July 4, his 29,000 soldiers were allowed to lay down their arms and walk out of Vicksburg with nothing more than a personal promise to not rejoin the fight until exchanged.  Officers were allowed to leave with their horse and side-arm with a promise of exchange for Federal officers imprisoned elsewhere.  Four days later Gardner surrendered Port Hudson; 405 officers were sent to Federal Prisons and troops and support crews, numbering 5,935 men, were allowed to go home if they promised to not rejoin the fight until exchanged.

October and November 1863: Chattanooga TN and Chickamauga GA.  Following the surrender of Nashville, Confederates under Braxton Bragg had held Murfreesboro until January 1, and held Tullahoma until June.  By July 7 they were in Chattanooga building defensive works.  They had been retreating down the railroad that ran from Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savannah, striving to prevent a Federal takeover.  But, on September 9 Federals under William Rosecrans forced Bragg’s Confederates to give up Chattanooga and retreat down the railroad into Georgia, where they set up their defense at Chickamauga Creek Valley.  The same day 11,000 Confederates under James Longstreet left their defensive lines north of Richmond and crowded into rail cars for a 900 mile, rickety journey to reinforce Bragg.  Many of them were on hand when, on September 19, Rosecrans’s Federals attacked the Confederates with great force.  This was the horrific Battle of Chickamauga, which resulted in a Federal withdrawal back into Chattanooga.  But Confederates had suffered great losses in their determined defense of the railroad line.  The 58,000 Federals engaged suffered 16,170 casualties; the 66,000 Confederates suffered 18,454.  Among the Confederate dead was Brig. General Ben Helm of Kentucky, Mary Lincoln’s sister’s husband.  Confederates advanced to Chattanooga and set up a siege around the city containing Rosecrans’s army, now reduced to 50,000 men.  Federals then sent 23,000 soldiers, 3,000 horses and mules, and ample artillery, weaponry and supplies from northern Virginia to Chattanooga over 1,233 miles of railroad.  It took only 12 days.  Federals also replaced Rosecrans with George Thomas, who was to report to Ulysses Grant.  Grant managed to get into Chattanooga on October 23 and laid plans for getting his reinforcements into attack position.  Federals were reinforced and the Battle of Chattanooga ensued on November 23.  The 56,000 Federals engaged suffered 5,824 casualties, the 46,000 Confederates suffered 6,667.  Confederates retreated southward toward Atlanta.  Bragg resigned, soon to be replaced by Joe Johnson..

June 1864: Cold Harbor, Virginia.  Of 14 battles presented here, none reeked more of politics than Cold Harbor.  Desperate to retain political control, Republicans rebranded themselves as the Union Party, selected Democrat stronghold Baltimore for their nominating convention and aimed to choose for VP former Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee.  But Republicans sought another re-election boost four days before the Convention was to open: a major victory at Cold Harbor, only 9 miles from Richmond.  Lee’s Confederates, 25,000 strong, were ready and protected behind earthworks.  Ulysses Grant, with a force of 50,000, ordered the charge.  It was a slaughter.  Federals were mowed down.  Don’t take a body count.  Don’t tell newspapermen.  For four days Grant allowed Federal wounded to suffer, unattended on the battlefield, crying out for “water,” many dying of non-fatal wounds.  The convention opened on June 6.  On June 7, Grant told Lee he wanted to gather his dead and wounded.  That day Republicans nominated the Lincoln-Johnson ticket.  Federal dead and wounded at Cold Harbor was about 13,000.  Since Grant had begun his advance toward Richmond on May 5, his troops had suffered 54,929 killed, wounded and missing, a number almost equaling Robert E. Lee’s total army.  Grant was called “The Butcher.”  Richmond remained free.

August 1864: Atlanta, Georgia.  Although Richmond remained unconquered, the conquest of Atlanta was to give Republicans a significant re-election boost.  By late August it was obvious to John Hood that his Confederates were unable to counter the encirclement of Atlanta by William Sherman’s large army.  He must give up Atlanta and save his army.  On September 1 Hood’s army evacuated to the south.  Sherman’s Federals moved into the city and ordered all African Americans to remain and all whites to evacuate with little more than the clothes on their backs.  He would be preparing a “March to the Sea” after the November elections.

April 1865: Petersburg, Virginia.  We now come to the climatic end: the conquest of Petersburg and nearby Richmond.  The effort to conquer Petersburg had begun 11 months earlier, on May 5, 1864, when 30,000 Federals under Benjamin Butler landed at City Point on the south bank of the James River, aiming to get to Richmond by way of Petersburg.  Reinforced two weeks later by Grant’s Cold Harbor troops, Federals repeatedly attacked, suffering 8,150 killed and wounded.  On June 18 Grant decided to lay siege and attempt to cut railroad connections.  It would be a long campaign.  Federal miners dug a 586-foot tunnel under the Confederate earthworks and detonated a huge explosion.  Federals rushed into the resulting crater, bogged down and suffered under intense Confederate fire, resulting in 4,000 killed and wounded, many being African American troops.  The siege continued into 1865.  On March 25 a surprise attack from the Fort Stedman section of the defensive works failed.  Finally, on April 1, at the Battle of Five Forks, Federals cut railroad access and Confederates retreated west, giving up Petersburg and Richmond.  Three days later Lincoln toured Richmond.            


War is Hell!

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Why were Confederates so difficult to conquer?

Recommended Reading

  • The Civil War, Day by Day, by E. B. and Barbara Long, pub. 1971.