North and South clash at the Battle of South Mountain

Year
1862
Month Day
September 14

General Robert E. Lee’s exhausted Confederate forces hold off the pursuing Yankees by closing two passes through Maryland’s South Mountain, allowing Lee time to gather his forces further west along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg.

After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, in late August 1862, Lee decided to invade Maryland to raise supplies; he also hoped a decisive win would earn the South foreign recognition. As he moved, he split his army into five sections while the hungry Rebels searched for supplies. A copy of the Confederate plans accidentally fell into Union hands when the orders were left in an abandoned campsite outside of Frederick, Maryland. McClellan now knew that Lee’s force was in pieces, but he was slow to react.

As Lee moved into western Maryland, he left detachments to guard Crampton’s Gap and Turner’s Gap through South Mountain. If McClellan had penetrated the passes, he would have found Lee’s army scattered and vulnerable. South Mountain, a 50-mile-long ridge, contained several passes, but Crampton’s Gap and Turner’s Gap were the most important. The National Road ran through Turner’s Gap to the north, and Crampton’s Gap connected western Maryland to Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The Union troops drove the Confederates away at Crampton’s Gap, but were initially unable to expel the Confederates from Turner’s Gap. However, the Rebels did retreat the next morning. Union losses for the day amounted to 2,300 dead and wounded, including the death of Major General Jesse Reno. The Confederates lost 2,700.

These engagements were a mere prelude to the Battle of Antietam. Although costly, they allowed Lee time to assemble his scattered bands at Sharpsburg.

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Siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, begins

Year
1863
Month Day
November 17

On November 17, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet places the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, under siege. After two weeks and one failed attack, he abandoned the siege and rejoined General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The Knoxville campaign began in November when Longstreet took 17,000 troops from Chattanooga and moved to secure eastern Tennessee for the Confederates. Longstreet’s corps was normally part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863, Longstreet took two of his divisions to shore up the Confederate effort in the West. He and his troops participated in the victory at Chickamauga in September and the siege of Chattanooga in October and November. Longstreet quarreled with Braxton Bragg, the Confederate commander in the West, and was given independent command of the Department of East Tennessee.

Longstreet took his troops and moved toward Knoxville. Facing him was General Ambrose Burnside and 5,000 Yankees. Burnside fought a delaying action at Campbell Station on November 16 before retreating into the Knoxville defenses. The next day, Longstreet pulled into position around the north side of the city, but could not cut off supplies to the Union troops. Longstreet waited for reinforcements to arrive, which they did on November 28. He attacked, but was repulsed with heavy loses. Longstreet continued the siege in order to draw troops away from Chattanooga. The ruse worked, and 25,000 Union troops were dispatched from Chattanooga to chase Longstreet’s force away.

Ultimately, Longstreet retreated back to Virginia. His Knoxville campaign was disappointing for the Confederates, who had hoped to secure eastern Tennessee. Longstreet rejoined Lee in the spring after his disappointing turn as head of an independent command.

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General Lee’s army beats Grant’s Union troops to Spotsylvania

Year
1864
Month Day
May 08

On May 8, 1864, Yankee troops arrive at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, to find the Rebels already there. After the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac marched south in the drive to take Richmond. Grant hoped to control the strategic crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House, so he could draw Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into open ground.

Spotsylvania was important for a number of reasons. The crossroads were situated between the Wilderness and Hanover Junction, where the two railroads that supplied Lee’s army met. The area also lay past Lee’s left flank, so if Grant beat him there he would not only have a head start toward Richmond, but also the clearest path. Lee would then be forced to attack Grant or race him to Richmond along poor roads.

Unbeknownst to Grant, Lee had received reports of Union cavalry movements to the south of the Wilderness battle lines. On the evening of May 7, Lee ordered James Longstreet’s corps, which was under the direction of Richard Anderson after Longstreet had been shot the previous day, to march at night to Spotsylvania. Anderson’s men marched the 11 miles entirely in the dark, and won the race to the crossroads, where they took refuge behind hastily constructed breastworks and waited. Now it would be up to Grant to force the Confederates from their position. The stage was set for one of the bloodiest engagements of the war.

READ MORE: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House 

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Union inmates begin arriving at deadly Andersonville prison


Year
1864
Month Day
February 27

On this day in 1864, the first Union inmates begin arriving at Andersonville prison, which was still under construction in southern Georgia. Andersonville became synonymous with death as nearly a quarter of its inmates died in captivity. Henry Wirz, who ran Andersonville, was executed after the war for the brutality and mistreatment committed under his command.

The prison, officially called Camp Sumter, became necessary after the prisoner exchange system between North and South collapsed in 1863 over disagreements about the handling of black soldiers. The stockade at Andersonville was hastily constructed using slave labor, and was located in the Georgia woods near a railroad but safely away from the front lines. Enclosing 16 acres of land, the prison was supposed to include wooden barracks but the inflated price of lumber delayed construction, and the Yankee soldiers imprisoned there lived under open skies, protected only by makeshift shanties called “shebangs,” constructed from scraps of wood and blankets. A stream initially provided fresh water, but within a few months human waste had contaminated the creek.

Andersonville was built to hold 10,000 men, but within six months more than three times that number were incarcerated there. The creek banks eroded to create a swamp, which occupied a significant portion of the compound. Rations were inadequate, and at times half of the population was reported ill. Some guards brutalized the inmates and there was violence between factions of prisoners.

Andersonville was the worst among many terrible Civil War prisons, both Union and Confederate. Wirz paid the price for the inhumanity of Andersonville; he was executed in the aftermath of the Civil War.

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Rebels strike Union at the Battle of Mechanicsville

Year
1862
Month Day
June 26

At the Battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia strikes Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, beginning the Seven Days’ Battles. Although the Confederates sustained heavy losses and did not succeed in decisively defeating the Yankees, the battle had unnerved McClellan. During the next week, Lee drove him from the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, back to his base on the James River.

This was Lee’s first battle as commander of the army. On June 1, 1862, he had replaced Joseph Johnston, who was severely wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks. McClellan’s offensive had stalled just five miles from Richmond, and his army remained there until late June. During that time, General J.E.B. Stuart and his Rebel cavalry made a spectacular ride around McClellan’s force, bringing back information that indicated that McClellan’s right flank was “in the air,” or unprotected by natural barriers. Lee informed his commanders on June 23 of his intention to attack the flank, occupied by Fitz John Porter’s V corps, which was separated from the rest of the Union army by the Chickahominy River. This was a bold move–because it meant leaving a skeleton force to face the rest of McClellan’s army south of the Chickahominy—and an early indication of Lee’s audacious style.

But the attack did not go as planned. McClellan, alerted to the vulnerability of his flanks by Stuart’s ride two weeks prior, had shored up his left, and moved Porter’s men to high ground with a deep creek in front of them. Lee’s plan had called for several smaller forces to overwhelm Porter’s men, but it required precise timing. When the assault came, the coordination did not materialize. A major problem, among others, was General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps, which was slow to move into place. Jackson was just back from his brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, but he showed none of his previous vigor and speed at Mechanicsville.

Lee planned to bring about 55,000 troops against Porter, but the mistakes made by Jackson and others meant there were only about 11,000. Lee lost 1,475 men; Union losses were only 361. But Lee had stunned McClellan, who then began to fall back away from Richmond. Lee continued to hammer on McClellan for the next week, and the Yankees retreated to the James River. McClellan did not threaten Richmond again, and he eventually sailed his army back to Washington, D.C.

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Union begins tunneling toward Rebels at Petersburg

Year
1864
Month Day
June 25

Pennsylvania troops begin digging a tunnel toward the Rebels at Petersburg, Virginia, in order to blow a hole in the Confederate lines and break the stalemate.

The great campaign between Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac ground to a halt in mid-June. Having battered each other for a month and a half, the armies came to a standstill at Petersburg, just south of Richmond. Here, they settled into trenches for a long siege of the Confederate rail center.

The men of the 48th Pennsylvania sought to break the stalemate with an ambitious project. The brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the plan called for the men of his regiment–mostly miners from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region–to construct a tunnel to the Confederate line, fill it with powder, and blow a gap in the fortifications.

On June 24, the plan received the approval of the regiment’s corps commander, Ambrose Burnside, and the digging commenced the following day. Burnside’s superiors, Generals Grant and George Meade, expressed little enthusiasm for the project but allowed it to proceed. For five weeks the miners dug the 500-foot long shaft, completing about 40 feet per day.

On July 30, a huge cache of gunpowder was ignited. The plan worked, and a huge gap was blown in the Rebel line. But poor planning by Union officers squandered the opportunity, and the Confederates closed the gap before the Federals could exploit the opening. The Battle of the Crater, as it became known, was an unusual event in an otherwise uneventful summer along the Petersburg line.

READ MORE: 6 Southern Unionist Strongholds During the Civil War

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Legal Tender Act passed to help finance the Civil War


Year
1862
Month Day
February 25

On February 25, 1862, the U.S. Congress passes the Legal Tender Act, authorizing the use of paper notes to pay the government’s bills. This ended the long-standing policy of using only gold or silver in transactions, and it allowed the government to finance the enormously costly Civil War long after its gold and silver reserves were depleted.

Soon after the war began, the federal government began to run low on specie. Several proposals involving the use of bonds were suggested. Finally, Congress began printing money, which the Confederate government had been doing since the beginning of the war. The Legal Tender Act allowed the government to print $150 million in paper money that was not backed by a similar amount of gold and silver. Many bankers and financial experts predicted doom for the economy, as they believed there would be little confidence in the scheme. There were also misgivings in Congress, as many legislators worried about a complete collapse of the nation’s financial infrastructure.

The paper notes, called greenbacks, worked much better than expected. The government was able to pay its bills and, by increasing the money in circulation, the wheels of Northern commerce were greased. The greenbacks were legal tender, which meant that creditors had to accept them at face value. In 1862, Congress also passed an income tax and steep excise taxes, both of which cooled the inflationary pressures created by the greenbacks.

Another legal tender act passed in 1863, and by war’s end nearly a half-billion dollars in greenbacks had been issued. The Legal Tender Act laid the foundation for the creation of a permanent currency in the decades after the Civil War.

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Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), Arkansas


Year
1862
Month Day
March 07

On March 7, 1862, Union forces under General Samuel Curtis clash with the army of General Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Pea Ridge (also called the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern),in northwest Arkansas. The following day, the battle ended in defeat for the Confederates.

Pea Ridge was part of a larger campaign for control of Missouri. Seven months earlier, the Confederates defeated a Union force at Wilson’s Creek, some 70 miles northeast of Pea Ridge. General Henry Halleck, the Federal commander in Missouri, now organized an expedition to drive the Confederates from southwestern Missouri. In February 1862, Yankee General Samuel Curtis led the 12,000-man army toward Springfield, Missouri. Confederate General Sterling Price retreated from the city with 8,000 troops in the face of the Union advance. Price withdrew into Arkansas, and Curtis followed him.

Price hooked up with another Rebel force led by General Ben McCulloch, and their combined army was placed under the leadership of General Earl Van Dorn, recently appointed commander of Confederates forces in the trans-Mississippi area. Van Dorn joined Price and McCulloch on March 2, 1862, and ordered an advance on Curtis’ army. Curtis received word of the approaching Confederates and concentrated his force around Elkhorn Tavern. Van Dorn sent part of his army on a march around the Yankees. On March 7, McCulloch slammed into the rear of the Union force, but Curtis anticipated the move and turned his men towards the attack. McCulloch was killed during the battle, and the Confederate attack withered. Meanwhile, the other part of Van Dorn’s army attacked the front of Curtis’ command. Through bitter fighting the Union troops held their ground.

Curtis, suspecting that the Confederates were low on ammunition, attacked the divided Rebel army the following morning. Van Dorn realized he was in danger and ordered a retreat, ending the battle. The Yankees suffered some 1,380 men killed, wounded, or captured out of 10,000 engaged; the Confederates suffered a loss of about 2,000 out of 14,000 engaged. The Union won a decisive victory that also helped them clear the upper Mississippi Valley region on the way to securing control of the Mississippi River by mid-1863.

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Union and Confederate forces clash at Battle of Darbytown Road

Year
1864
Month Day
October 07

A Confederate attempt to regain ground that had been lost around Richmond, Virginia, is thwarted when Union troops turn back General Robert E. Lee’s assault at the Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads. 

In the summer of 1864, the campaign between Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant ground to a halt at Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond. The two great armies settled into trenches for a siege, and the lines soon extended all the way back to Richmond. Grant periodically attacked portions of the Rebel defenses but was not successful. On September 29, Union forces captured part of Richmond’s outer defense at the Battle of New Market Heights. AlthoughRichmond was still safely in Confederate hands, Lee was concerned about the new position of the Yankee troops.

Lee sent two divisions under generals Charles Field and Robert Hoke to move around the end of the Union line. Lee hoped that the Federal flank could be turned and the Confederates could regain the defensive works lost the week before. On the morning of October 7, the Confederates moved down Darbytown Road and around the Union right flank and attacked 1,700 cavalrymen. The assault sent the Yankees into a quick retreat. The Confederates captured eight cannons and drove the Union troops into the breastworks of General Alfred Terry. Alerted to the advancing Confederates, Terry summoned reinforcements to his position. 

By the time the Confederates worked their way through the thick foliage, they faced a strong Union force. Lee ordered an attack anyway. Brigades advanced one at a time, and the Yankee artillery tore the lines apart. By the afternoon, the Confederates withdrew to their original position. They lost 700 men while the Yankees lost only 400, and no ground was gained. Lee did not make another attempt to regain the ground and focused instead on setting up defenses closer to Richmond.

READ MORE: Petersburg Campaign 

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Hundreds of Union soldiers killed in Fort Pillow Massacre

Year
1864
Month Day
April 12

During the American Civil War, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate raiders attack the isolated Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, overlooking the Mississippi River. The fort, an important part of the Confederate river defense system, was captured by federal forces in 1862. Of the 500-strong Union garrison defending the fort, more than half the soldiers were African Americans.

After an initial bombardment, General Forrest asked for the garrison’s surrender. The Union commander refused, and Forrest’s 1,500 cavalry troopers easily stormed and captured the fort, suffering only moderate casualties. However, the extremely high proportion of Union casualties—231 killed and more than 100 seriously wounded—raised questions about the Confederates’ conduct after the battle. Union survivors’ accounts, later supported by a federal investigation, concluded that African American troops were massacred by Forrest’s men after surrendering. Southern accounts disputed these findings, and controversy over the battle continues today.

The enlistment of African Americans into the Union army began after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and by the war’s end 180,000 African Americans had fought in the Union army and 10,000 in the navy.

READ MORE: Fort Pillow Massacre: Facts, Deaths & Significance

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