The initial armed confrontations of the US Civil War (1861-1865) were assumed by both sides to be sufficient to force the opposing side to back down. After a wave of seizures of Federal property across the Confederate states, South Carolina moved to take control of Fort Sumter, a Federal fort in Charleston Harbour. Outgoing President Buchannan had issued orders for Federal troops to avoid bloodshed and to peacefully hand over their installations to local Confederate forces. In contrast, following his inauguration, Lincoln reversed this policy. He ordered Fort Sumter’s commander to resist. The garrison withstood a short siege before being forced to surrender in April 1861. President Lincoln began mobilising an army to compel the Southern states to re-join the Union.
The First Battle of Bull Run / First Manassas in Virginia marked the first major military clash between the opposing armies. The Northern army was confident that they brush aside the Southern forces and seize the Confederate Capital of Richmond (located in Virginia). The Northern forces were defeated, partly because of superior general-ship on the part of the Southern forces. And partly because rapidity of the mobilisation had created an army that was poorly trained, lacked cohesion and proper leadership.
The war subsequently dragged on until 1865. Foiled in their first attempt to overwhelm the South at the First Battle of Bull Run by a single decisive stroke, the Union commenced a war of attrition. Confederate ports were blockaded by the US Navy in 1861, maintaining a strange-hold on the Confederacy’s international trade for the whole course of the war. The US Navy also successfully transported Union forces to seize some of these major ports, such as New Orleans. The US Army established its major field armies around Washington DC (‘the Army of the Potomac’) and in the mid-west (the ‘Army of the Cumberland’). For the next fourth years, these armies battled with opposing Confederate armies that attempted to block their respective invasions of the Confederacy from the north-east and the north-west.
Some notable campaigns and battles:
- Siege of Vicksburg (18 May – 4 May 1863) ended with the capture of the city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River by Union forces, the last Confederate redoubt on the Mississippi River. The capture of Vicksburg meant that Union forces controlled the entire length of the river, slicing the Confederacy in two.
- Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863) was brought about by a Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, the largest incursion by Confederate forces into the North. The Confederacy maintained that it was waging a defensive war and did not wish to invade the north. However, the continual devastation of Virginia by opposing armies compelled Robert E Lee (the commander of the Confederacy’s ‘Army of Northern Virginia’) to invade Pennsylvania in search of supplies. After three days of blood-letting, the opposing armies fought each other to a stand-still. Exhausted Southern troops withdrew on 4 July, while the equally exhausted Northern forces were unable to pursue.
The see-sawing campaigns continued into 1864 and 1865 with increasing territorial gains by the Union. By the last months of the war, the Confederate forces were exhausted and one by one each of the field armies were compelled to surrender. Most Confederate forces, such as the ‘Army of Northern Virginia’, surrendered during April 1865; Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was captured on 10 May. The last battle of the war occurred at Palmito Ranch in Texas (13 May) – an unnecessary battle as the war was virtually over. However, the local Union commander wanted to finish his war service with a victory, whilst the Confederate forces at Palmito Ranch had not heard of the general collapse of the Confederacy. In a bitter irony for the Confederacy, the last battle of the war was actually a Southern victory.
 Sowing confusion on modern attempts to understand the US Civil War, many Civil War battles are known by two names – the name assigned by the northern forces and the name assigned by the southern forces.