In just over the span of four years, the US Civil war proved one of the deadliest engagements ever for the United States. The war escalated quickly with numerous battles and skirmishes, including a few pivotal battles that rallied support, morale, and decisive victories or military significance on both sides. It also was the harbinger of significant losses to both Confederate and Union armies.
By the numbers, Confederate forces killed more than 365,000 Union soldiers and sustained losses of more than 290,000 among their own ranks. More than 50,000 civilians died, and 80,000 slaves died as a result of the fighting or disease.
Union forces outnumbered Confederate soldiers on many battlefields and throughout the war they had nearly double the strength with more than 2.2 million soldiers compared to about 1 million Confederate soldiers.
Still, there were significant battles fought on both sides that would define the North and the South as the war progressed.
The battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, was the greatest loss of life on both sides of the Civil War in a single battle. Lee, confident after his successes at Chancellorsville, was set on a decisive defeat of the Union Army as part of a northern invasion. The battle would prove otherwise. Union forces outnumbered the Confederate Army by 25 percent. Confederate forces suffered 28,063 casualties and Union forces suffered 23,049 killed, wounded, or captured – nearly a third of all troops engaged in the battle. It is considered the most costly battle in US history, both in loss of life and loss of generals. The battle was crippling on both sides, and to the nation as a somber significance of how costly the war had become and the magnitude of the casualties on both sides. While the Union declared victory of the battle, it is still debated by some historians.
The siege of Vicksburg was a decisive Union victory that lead to significant casualties to the Confederate Army and the final surrender of 29,495 soldiers. The Confederate Army was outnumbered more than 2-to-1. The battle started on May 18, 1863 and eventually ended in Pemberton’s surrender on July 4th, the day after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. The siege started with a series of failed attacks by Union forces over difficult terrain. Attempts to disrupt Union supply lines failed and allowed them to continue the siege. The eventual lack of supplies and food in Vicksburg finally resulted in extreme malnutrition, and significant spread of disease among the ranks amid a constant barrage of cannon fire. In addition, the people of Vicksburg were forced to live in holes dug out in hillsides because of damages caused by Union artillery.
The battle of Shiloh was one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War, with a victory to the Union Army that allowed for a succession of battles in the Mississippi valley and eventually the siege of Vicksburg soon after. The battle took place on April 6-7, 1862 with Confederate forces outnumbered by nearly 30 percent. Confederate forces lead by Johnston and Beauregard put up a fight that resulted in more Union soldiers killed, wounded or captured compared to their own losses despite outdated weaponry and little combat experience. Johnston died during the battle and his death has been deemed the turning point of the Confederate Army’s fate. The Union Army lead by Grant and Buell managed to dominate the battlefield and force a Confederate retreat. Of 40,335 Confederate soldiers, 10,699 were killed, wounded, or captured. Of an estimated 63,000 Union soldiers, 13,047 were killed, wounded, or captured.
The battle of Chancellorsville between April 3-May 6, 1863, is also known as “Lee’s perfect battle” for the effectiveness of the Confederate maneuvers and skilled shooters among the ranks - all in the face of a much larger opponent. Chancellorsville was the largest deployment of Union forces outside of the Battle of Gettysburg with 133,868 men on the battlefield compared to less than half of that on the Confederate side. Lee’s 60,298 men caused significant damage despite the odds. In the end 17,287 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured compared to 12,764 Confederate soldiers. Lee prevailed and even though it was the greatest number of confederate casualties to that point than in any other battle, Chancellorsville gave a boost of confidence to Confederate forces at the potential for their success despite the mounting odds against them.
The first battle of Bull Run, or Manassas as referred to by the Confederate Army, was the first land battle of the Civil War on July 21, 1861. It was deemed a Confederate victory and set the stage for battles to come. With nearly equal forces of 35,732 Union soldiers and about 34,000 Confederate soldiers, and only about 18,000 committed on either side. The heat of midsummer weather, combined with haphazard tactics and unskilled soldiers proved a burden to both sides. The Union was driven back by late afternoon and eventually retreated, leaving weaponry behind and allowing hundreds to be captured as civilian onlookers picnicked nearby and watched the battle unfold. By the end of the day, 2,708 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing and the Confederate Army suffered 1,982 killed, wounded or missing.
The first shots fired in the Civil War were over water as a naval battle at Fort Sumter. Union forces were out-gunned and out-manned by nearly 8-to-1, with only 85 soldiers at the ready. While numbers on either side were small, the battle was significant, having lit the powder keg that would drive battles between the north and south for the next four years. Though no lives were lost as part of the exchange, the battle drove a wedge between the rebellion forces and their Union counterparts. It triggered the initial call by President Abraham Lincoln for 75,000 Union conscripts for the north and the hope for a fledgling confederacy in the south as additional states seceded the Union to help in the effort.
The battle of Fredericksburg, fought between Dec. 11-15, 1862, is touted as one of the greatest battles of the Confederate Army. It is also the largest show of force on the confederate side prior to Gettysburg. Even with 78,513 men against 122,029 Union soldiers, the Confederate Army caused more than double the losses to Union forces with 12,653 men killed, wounded, or captured compared to 5,377 killed, wounded, or captured on the Confederate side. Armies on both sides remained ready for battle until the 14th when a truce was called the next morning to allow the Union army to tend to their wounded. On the last night of the battle, a rare sighting of an Aurora Borealis, presumably caused by a solar flare, was observed over the battlefield. The next morning Union forces retreated. It was a crushing defeat for the Union, as they were in desperate need of a victory to garner support of the public in the north.
The most significant defeat of Confederate forces outside of Gettysburg was at Chickamauga on Sept. 18-20, 1863. It involved the highest number of confederate losses with 18,454 killed, wounded, or captured. Union losses were 16,170 men killed, wounded or captured. Overall, it was the second highest casualty count for both sides apart from Gettysburg. Forces on both sides were nearly equal, with 65,000 Confederate soldiers outnumbering Union soldiers by just 5,000 men. It was also the first engagement in Georgia and even though Confederate losses were significant, the army emerged victorious as a result of a few key maneuvers that allowed them to breach the Union line and eventually force a retreat.
The Third Battle of Petersburg was the last major battle of the Civil war on April 2, 1865. After years of battles fought by outnumbered Confederate armies, the Fall of Petersburg was the breaking point. Once again, Union soldiers outnumbered the Confederacy more than 3-to-1 with 63,000 engaged compared to Lee’s 20,000 men. Several pivotal battles ensued over the course of a 292-day campaign leading up to this moment that would be the final major battle of the war. Confederate forces held up in Petersburg were stretched too thin to continue the fight and suffered more than 5,000 casualties. Union casualties amounted to 3,936 men. Eventually, retreats and a few small battles lead to the final surrender by Robert E. Lee one week later.
The greatest Union casualties caused by Confederate forces outside of Gettysburg were on a lesser known battlefield at Spotsylvania on May 8-21, 1864. Confederate forces lead by Lee were outnumbered 2-to-1. Grant’s advances continued to be fruitless and ineffective. The series of carefully orchestrated movements on both parts made the victory status a draw, as both sides contested victory. However, the casualties suffered by Union forces under Grant and Meade reached 18,399 killed, wounded, or captured. Confederate forces suffered 12,687 among the dead, wounded or captured. It was the costliest battle of the campaign for the Union since the start of the war.