Top Ten American Civil War Battles

The American Civil War, or, as many Americans name it, the Civil War, was a very important and bloody war in American history, costing over 600,000 lives and resulting in the 13th and 15th amendments. The War has some famous battles, including Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Antietam, as well as some not-so-famous ones like the Battle of Palmetto Ranch and the Battle of Battle of Harpers’ Ferry. These battles on the list were selected for the sole reason of their impact on America and its history.

Starting off this list is the battle that started out the whole war, the Battle of Fort Sumter. The Battle of Fort Sumter’s importance is the most obvious on this list, it started the war. Without the battle, there probably would have been an American Civil War, but not the Civil War we know today. The Battle began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate ships fired upon Fort Sumter, bombarding a fort already low on supplies, mainly food. By the next day, the cannonballs had broken through the 5-foot thick brick walls and the fort itself caught on fire, and the Union was forced to surrender at 2 PM on April 13, 1861. There was nobody killed-in-action, but there was one Union casualty after an accidental gunpowder explosion, and another was mortally wounded. The battle, in addition to starting the bloodiest war in American History1, provided the Confederacy with a gaping hole in the Union’s Atlantic blockade, an advantage that would be put to use later in the war.

Rounding off at number nine is the Battle of Appomattox Station; No, not the battle resulting in Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, the one before it. The Battle of Appomattox Station was fought on April 8, 1865, and was an important battle because it ensured Lee’s forces would surrender at the Appomattox Court House. The Confederates wanted supplies on an arriving train. Those supplies were food, medicines and medical tools, and ammunition. The battle was fought between Union General George Armstrong Custer, most famous for his defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn and starring in Night in the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. In this battle, however, Custer did win the battle. The battle was in fact a complete Union victory (the exact opposite of the Battle of Little Bighorn, where all 218 of his men were led to their deaths during the later Sioux Wars). The battle determined when the war would end, and where, in Virginia, specifically Appomattox County.

At number eight on the list is the Battle of Cold Harbor. This battle was a complete disaster for the Union. Why? Because Grant’s frontal assault ended up becoming a slaughter, and almost 2,000 Union soldiers died in this hopeless battle. The Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, remarked about the bloodbath, saying “This is not war, this is murder”, referring to just how bad the battle was. It wasn’t even a happy victory for Lee, not only because of guilt and grief but also (not as importantly) because this was Lee’s last major victory. For the remainder if the war Lee was on the defensive, retreating and retreating until his surrender at the Appomattox Court House. This disastrous battle was fought between May 31 and June 12, 1864, and ended in a Confederate victory. The battlefield today is mostly occupied by suburbs surrounding Richmond, except 300 acres of land, which is owned by the Richmond National Battlefield Park. In addition, Hanover County, Virginia, owns 50 acres of the battlefield site, which is preserved today.

Number seven is another Confederate victory involving Lee, however this time, it’s not as gruesome. The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, and is often called “Lee’s perfect battle”. The reasoning behind the name is in the battle itself. For one, the battle was a massive Confederate victory. And secondly, the battle saw Lee’s style of risky moves. Against a larger force, it would be best to have all your soldiers together, but instead, Lee divided his force into smaller regiments. This was an extremely risky move, especially against an army over twice Lee’s size, but Lee prevailed and won the battle. However, the battle came with loss, and Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson fell to friendly fire during the battle. For Lee, losing Jackson was like losing his right arm, and Lee was devastated by the loss of his friend. The importance of this battle was that it allowed Lee to push north with ease. Today the 790 acres left of the battlefield are mostly unchanged, except for the Chancellor Family house, which was rebuilt a wee bit smaller than the original home, but was destroyed by fire in 1927.

Ranking at number six is the Siege of Petersburg. Although technically the battle wasn’t a siege, due to Petersburg not being completely cut off from supplies, the name stuck, and that’s what it will be called in this essay. The siege of Petersburg was from June 9, 1864, all the way to March 25, 1865. The Siege of Petersburg was actually a series of battles in and around Petersburg, Virginia that resulted in a Union victory under Ulysses S. Grant, over Robert E. Lee. The battle earns its spot on the list because regardless if the Battle of Appomattox Court House ended in Lee’s surrender or not, the battle would ensure that Lee would keep retreating and retreating, and that the Union would take Virginia eventually. The Petersburg National Battlefield today attracts around 140,000 per year and occupies almost 3,000 acres.

Number five on this list goes to the Battle of Atlanta. The Battle of Atlanta was part of Roger Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, and was an overwhelming Union victory. The Battle saw Atlanta razed to the ground and was heavily covered in Northern newspapers, which allowed Lincoln to win a second term in office. If the battle had not either; a: been won, or b: even happened, then perhaps Lincoln would not have been elected a second term in office. If he hadn’t, a truce would have been signed with the Confederacy and the rest of history would change after that, by a lot. For one, the U.S. involvement in World War I wouldn’t be as large, and two, if the Central Powers won, then a second world war would be much different, if it even would happen. Following the war, Atlanta began rebuilding and rising to prominence again very quickly, and today it is the most populous city in Georgia.

The fourth most important battle of the American Civil War on this list is the Battle of Perryville. The battle was fought on October 8, 1862, and resulted in a Union victory at a great cost of over 1,000 men dying in battle. The battle solidified Union control of Kentucky, one of the most important states for the Union and the Confederacy. Kentucky supplied crops such as wheat, corn, tobacco, flax, and hemp. The South valued Kentucky because its northern border, the Ohio River, provided a defensible border for the South, which it never had. During the battle, the Union lost over 1,000 men but after the battle the Confederate general, Braxton Bragg, retreated to Tennessee. The Confederacy never invaded Kentucky again. Today portions of the battlefield compose the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site. President Abraham Lincoln also remarked on Kentucky’s strategic importance when he wrote, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. … We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital.”

At number three on this list is the Battle of Antietam. The Battle of Antietam deserves this spot on the list, not because of its military and tactical importance, which didn’t amount to as much as some other battles on this list, especially the next one, but because of its influence on Abraham Lincoln. The battle’s bloodiness was not what affected Lincoln, however2, but the hopeful Union victory, inspired Abraham Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation, which was a war strategy released on January 1, 1863, declared all slaves in Confederate-held territories to be free. This prompted many slaves to pack their bags and leave for the north to join the Union Army. The Antietam National Battlefield is one of the most well-preserved Civil War battlefields in America, with the whole battlefield in-tact, plus there aren’t many obstructing buildings in the sky that can be seen in the area.

At number two is the Siege of Vicksburg. The Siege of Vicksburg was fought between May 18 and July 4 of 1863. The Confederate fort at Vicksburg initially repulsed Union attacks led by General Ulysses S. Grant, so Grant decided to wait the siege out. Grant waited a month and a half until, on July 4, Independence Day in America, the Confederates at Vicksburg surrendered after running out of supplies. Five days later Port Hudson surrendered, and with those two victories, the Union had full control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two. Arkansas, Texas, the Arizona Territory, and most of Louisiana (the Mississippi cuts through Louisiana) were cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. The battle is remembered as Ulysses S. Grant’s crowning achievement and seen by some historians as the turning point in the war. Today the Vicksburg National Military Park occupies over 1,000 acres.

Before we reach number one, let’s review the list. At number 10 we have the Battle of Fort Sumter, which started the whole war. Number nine is the Battle of Appomattox Station, which ensured the later surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. At number eight is the Battle of Cold Harbor, the disastrous slaughterhouse. At number seven is “Lee’s perfect battle” at Chancellorsville, which allowed Robert E. Lee to advance northward with little resistance. Number six is the Siege if Petersburg, which kept Lee retreating until his surrender within the next three weeks. At number five is the Battle of Atlanta which allowed for Lincoln’s landslide re-election, boosted Union morale, and resulted in the destruction of Atlanta. Number four, the Battle of Perryville, secured Kentucky for the Union. At number three is the Battle of Antietam, which inspired President Lincoln to write the emancipation proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territory and resulting in the creation of black regiments. And at number two is the Siege of Vicksburg and the capture of Port Hudson, which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.

At number one we have, not too surprisingly, the Battle of Gettysburg. Why? Because if not for the Union victory at Gettysburg, the war would most likely end in a Confederate victory, and the world, and the U.S., would be much different today. The Battle of Gettysburg lasted from July 1 to July 3, 1863. The first day’s fighting seemed as if the Confederates would win the battle, but that was before the rest of Union General Meade’s army arrived. Fierce fighting continued on the next day and no side gained any advantage. Then, on the third and final day, Robert E. Lee decided to do one of those risky moves again, and sent in a force to charge at the Union Army. This was called Pickett’s Charge, named after one of the leading Generals in the charge, and it failed. The Union Army sliced through the Confederate Army, and won the battle. Today, Gettysburg is the most well-known battle of the war and receives the most visitors per year, just over 1 million or so. Much of the original battlefield has been wiped away by Gettysburg’s development, and development still threatens the Battlefield today.

In conclusion, the American Civil War had a huge impact on America today, the loss of one of these battles, and America would be different. Each battle on this list had an impact on the war or America. Some battles, like Shiloh and Chickamauga, simply didn’t make the list because they didn’t have as much impact on America as some other battles did. That’s the point here, just because a good amount of people died in a battle doesn’t make it automatically affect the course of that war, what does matter, is what is gained, and what is lost, as a result of that battle. That is what changes the course of a war.

1: By American Casualties

2: The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day of the war, with over 22,000 casualties on both sides.