The Civil War Year By Year

The Civil War Transformed Into a Great National Struggle

When the Civil War began most Americans expected it to be a crisis that would come to a fast end. But when the Union and Confederate Armies began shooting in the summer of 1861, that perception quickly changed. The fighting escalated and the war became a very costly struggle lasting four years.

The war's progress consisted of strategic decisions, campaigns, battles, and occasional lulls, with each passing year seeming to have its own theme.

1861: The Civil War Began

Illustration of retreat at Bull Run in 1861
Depiction of Union retreat at the Battle of Bull Run. Liszt Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, southern states, outraged at the election of someone with known anti-slavery views, threatened to leave the Union. At the end of 1860 South Carolina was the first pro-slavery state to secede, and it was followed by others in early 1861.

President James Buchanan struggled with the secession crisis in his final months in office. As Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861 the crisis intensified and more pro-slavery states left the Union.

April 12: The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina.

May 24: Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of President Lincoln, was killed while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of Marshall House in Alexandria, West Virginia. His death galvanized public opinion, and he was considered a martyr to the Union cause.

July 21: The first major clash took place near Manassas, Virginia, at the Battle of Bull Run.

September 24: Balloonist Thaddeus Lowe ascended above Arlington Virginia and was able to see Confederate troops three miles away, proving the value of "aeronauts" in the war effort.

October 21: The Battle of Ball's Bluff, on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, was relatively minor, but it caused the U.S. Congress to form a special committee to monitor the conduct of the war.

1862: The War Expanded and Became Shockingly Violent

Lithograph of fighting at the Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam became legendary for its intense combat. Library of Congress

The year 1862 is when the Civil War became a very bloody conflict, as two particular battles, Shiloh in the spring and Antietam in the fall, shocked Americans by their enormous cost in lives.

April 6–7: The Battle of Shiloh was fought in Tennessee and produced massive casualties. On the Union side, 13,000 were killed or wounded, on the Confederate side, 10,000 killed or wounded. Accounts of the horrendous violence at Shiloh startled the nation.

March: Gen. George McClellan launched the Peninsula Campaign, an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond.

May 31–June 1: The battle of Seven Pines was fought in Henrico County, Virginia. The inconclusive conflict was the largest battle in the eastern front to date, involving 34,000 Union soldiers and 39,000 Confederates.

June 1: After his predecessor was wounded in Seven Pines, Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

June 25–July 1: Lee led his army during The Seven Days Battles, a series of conflicts in the vicinity of Richmond.

July: Ultimately McClellan's Peninsula Campaign faltered, and by mid-summer any hopes of capturing Richmond and ending the war quickly had faded.

August 29–30: The Battle of Second Bull Run was fought in the same place as the first battle of the Civil War the previous summer. It was a bitter defeat for the Union.

September: Robert E. Lee led his army across the Potomac and invaded Maryland, and the two armies met in the epic Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. The combined casualties of 23,000 killed and wounded made it known as America's bloodiest day. Lee was forced to withdraw back to Virginia, and the Union could claim victory.

September 19: Two days after the fighting at Antietam, photographer Alexander Gardner visited the battlefield and took photographs of soldiers killed during the battle. His Antietam photographs shocked the public when displayed in New York City the following month.

September 22: Antietam gave President Lincoln the military victory he desired and on this day, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, signalling the federal intention to end enslavement.

November 5: Following Antietam, President Lincoln removed Gen. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him four days later with Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

December 13: Burnside led his men at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The battle was a defeat for the Union, and the year ended on a bitter note in the North.

December 16: Journalist and poet Walt Whitman learned that his brother was among the wounded at Fredericksburg and he rushed to Washington DC to search the hospitals for him. He found his brother only slightly injured but was horrified by the conditions, particularly by piles of amputated limbs, a common sight at Civil War field hospitals. Whitman began volunteering in the hospitals in January 1863.

1863: The Epic Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863
The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Stock Montage/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The critical event of 1863 was the Battle of Gettysburg, when Robert E. Lee's second attempt at invading the North was turned back during a colossal battle lasting three days.

And near year's end Abraham Lincoln, in his legendary Gettysburg Address, would provide a concise moral reason for the war.

January 1: Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order freeing more than 3.5 million enslaved people in the Confederate States. While not a law, the proclamation was the first sign that the federal government believed enslavement was wrong and needed to end.

January 26: After Burnsides' failures, Lincoln replaced him in 1863 with Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac and raises morale greatly.

April 30–May 6: At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee outsmarted Hooker and dealt the federals another defeat.

June 30–July 3: Lee invaded the North again, leading to the epic Battle of Gettysburg. The fighting at Little Round Top on the second day became legendary. Casualties at Gettysburg were high on both sides, and the Confederates were again forced to retreat back into Virginia, making Gettysburg a major victory for the Union.

July 13–16: The violence of the war spread into cities of the North when citizens angered over a draft rioted. The New York Draft Riots spanned a week in mid-July, with casualties in the hundreds.

September 19–20: The Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia was a defeat for the Union.

November 19: Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony for a cemetery at the battlefield.

November 23–25: The Battles for Chattanooga, Tennessee were victories for the Union, and put federal troops in good position to begin attacking toward Atlanta, Georgia in early 1864.

1864: Grant Moved to the Offensive

As 1864 began both sides in the deepening war believed they could win.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, placed in command of the Union armies, knew he had superior numbers and believed he could batter the Confederacy into submission.

On the Confederate side, Robert E. Lee resolved to fight a defensive war designed to inflict mass casualties on the federal troops. His hope was that the North would tire of the war, Lincoln would not be elected to a second term, and the Confederacy would manage to survive the war.

March 10: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who had distinguished himself leading Union troops at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, was brought to Washington and given command of the entire Union Army by President Lincoln.

May 5–6: The union is defeated at the Battle of the Wilderness, but Gen. Grant had his troops march, not retreating northward, but advancing to the south. Morale surged in the Union Army.

May 31–June 12: Grant's forces attacked entrenched Confederates at Cold Harbor, in Virginia. The federals sustained heavy casualties, in an assault Grant later said he regretted. Cold Harbor would be Robert E. Lee's last major victory of the war.

June 15: The Siege of Petersburg began, the longest military event of the civil war, which would last for more than nine months and incur 70,000 casualties.

July 5: Confederate General Jubal Early crossed the Potomac into Maryland, in an effort to threaten Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and distract Grant from his campaign in Virginia.

July 9: The Battle of Monocacy, in Maryland, ended Early's campaign and prevented a disaster for the Union.

Summer: Union General William Tecumseh Sherman drove on Atlanta, Georgia, while Grant's army focused on attacking Petersburg, Virginia, and ultimately the Confederate capital, Richmond.

October 19: Sheridan's Ride, a heroic race to the front at Cedar Creek by Gen. Philip Sheridan, took place, and Sheridan rallied and reorganized the demoralized troops on to victory against Jubal Early. Sheridan's 20-mile ride became the subject of a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read which played a part in the 1864 election campaign.

November 8: Abraham Lincoln was reelected to a second term, defeating Gen. George McClellan, whom Lincoln had relieved as commander of the Army of the Potomac two years earlier.

September 2: The Union Army entered and captured Atlanta.

November 15–December 16: Sherman conducted his March to the Sea, destroying railroads and anything else of military value along the way. Sherman's army reached Savannah in late December.

1865: The War Concluded and Lincoln Was Assassinated

It seemed obvious that 1865 would bring the end of the Civil War, though it was unclear at the beginning of the year exactly when fighting would end, and how the nation would be reunited. President Lincoln expressed interest early in the year in peace negotiations, but a meeting with Confederate representatives indicated that only a full military victory would bring an end to the fighting.

January 1: General Sherman turned his forces northward, and began to attack the Carolinas.

General Grant's forces continued the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, as the year began. The siege would continue throughout the winter and into the spring, ending April 2.

January 12: Maryland politician Francis Blair, an emissary of Abraham Lincoln, met with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond to discuss possible peace talks. Blair reported back to Lincoln, and Lincoln was receptive to meeting Confederate representatives at a later date.

February 3: President Lincoln met with Confederate representatives aboard a boat in the Potomac River to discuss possible peace terms at the Hampton Roads Conference. The talks stalled, as the Confederates wanted an armistice first and talk of reconciliation delayed until some later point.

February 17: The city of Columbia, South Carolina fell to Sherman's army.

March 4: President Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time. His Second Inaugural Address, delivered in front of the Capitol, is considered one of his greatest speeches.

At the end of March General Grant began a new push against the Confederate forces around Petersburg, Virginia.

April 1: The Confederate defeat at Five Forks sealed the fate of Lee's army.

April 2: Lee informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that he must leave the Confederate capital of Richmond.

April 3: Richmond surrendered.

April 4: President Lincoln, who had been visiting troops in the area, visited newly captured Richmond and was cheered by freed Black people.

April 9: Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and the nation rejoiced at the end of the war.

April 14: President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died early the next morning, with the tragic news traveling quickly by telegraph.

April 15–19: Lincoln was laid in state in the East Room of the White House, and a state funeral service was held.

April 21: A train carrying Lincoln's body departed Washington DC. It would pass over 150 communities in seven states, and 12 separate funerals would be held in major cities on its way to his burial plot in Springfield, IL.

April 26: John Wilkes Booth was located hiding in a barn in Virginia and was killed by federal troops.

May 3: Abraham Lincoln's funeral train reached his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. He was buried in Springfield the next day.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Civil War Year By Year." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 29). The Civil War Year By Year. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Civil War Year By Year." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).