5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War

Matthew Weber - March 13, 2017

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
The Battle of Atlanta 1864. The Library of Congress

The Battle of Atlanta (1864)

By the end of 1864, the Civil War was winding down. Some historians, however, point to the Battle of Atlanta as one of the most pivotal battles that led to the end of the war. Why? There is evidence that suggests that if the South had held Atlanta when Sherman attacked in September of 1864, the war might have continued for years.

The rationale behind that argument is that Atlanta was the key to the South’s success in any of the battles it won. It was the keystone to all of their supply routes, and by taking that away, the North effectively prevented them from supplying their troops. With Atlanta being the transportation hub to the South, it also was a major hit to their economy which had already taken a beating.

Outside its effects on the rest of the Civil War, the battle itself was very interesting. From a strategic standpoint, it was middling in terms of losses for both sides when compared with other battles. Led by famous Major General William T. Sherman, the battle is often touted as a primer for battle mechanics and strategy. Sherman brought fear to some of the generals in the South, including Joseph E. Johnston, who had repeatedly fled Sherman’s forces, but was forced to engage in Atlanta.

From a political standpoint, the Battle of Atlanta is also very important. At the time, President Lincoln was running for a second term in office against George B. McClellan, a conservative Democrat who ran on a platform of peace with the South. After the routing of Atlanta, Lincoln was able to point towards a victorious end to the war. With that stance, and the publicity that the Battle of Atlanta received in the North, Lincoln won the election by a landslide (212 electoral votes to 21).

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
The Chattanooga Campaign 1863. Esquire

The Chattanooga Campaign (1863)

Instead of a single battle, The Chattanooga Campaign was a series of battles in late 1863. Historians don’t much agree with the argument that this was the turning point in the war. However, there is an argument to be made that it was an important series of battles, and the reason why is simple. Without it, The Battle of Atlanta would likely not have been as easily won. Chattanooga cut off the South’s access to much of the Eastern theater and limited them to the Atlantic Coast, opening the North’s access to the Deep South.

The argument is that it completely opened up the path for Sherman’s march to Atlanta. From a strategic standpoint in the Civil War, these battles were near the middle in terms of casualties on both sides. Grant’s victory over Braxton Bragg was the last battle of Tennessee, and led to the ability for the North to finally apply significant pressure on the Deep South, which was needed in order to go on to Atlanta.

If you’re a war historian, the Chattanooga Campaign really highlights the brilliance of Grant and Sherman’s military strategy. Grant used sleight of hand to win the final battle by attacking in one place in order to distract from another, which allowed Sherman’s army to avoid a stalemate. The strategies used on both sides is utterly fascinating. By this time in the Civil War, the North and South had generals that were well versed in using military strategy to win battles.

The Chattanooga Campaign may not be the most popular choice for important battles that decided the Civil War, but it is undeniable that it was very important. Without it, the North’s access to the Deep South would have been much more difficult, and might have led to a prolonged war effort in order to gain access to Atlanta and the rest of Georgia.

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
The Battle of Gettysburg 1863. Kent State University

The Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg (1863)

There may be no more famous Civil War battle than Gettysburg. Almost everyone knows at least something about it, if for no other reason that the site of the battle was later used for President Lincoln’s most famous address (you know the one that starts: “Four Score and Seven Years Ago”). The battle itself, along with the one that happened simultaneously at Vicksburg, is often argued as the most important battle during the entire war. The question is, why?

The answer to that question is complex. The two battles were both won decisively by the Union. The Battle of Vicksburg denied the Confederacy control of the Mississippi River, which in turn prevented them from getting supplies from Texas and Arkansas. In war, major battles usually are fought over strong points that are used for transportation of supplies. It comes down to denying your opponent the ability to supply themselves.

The Battle of Gettysburg, on the other hand, was important because it was the first major defeat of Robert E. Lee. It also marked the end of his second invasion of the North. As with the first invasion attempt, Lee failed with most of his objectives. After the loss at Gettysburg, Lee seemed to go on a defensive, as the North pressed their advantages. Lee would make no more offensive moves for the rest of the war.

From a historical perspective, the twin battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg are very popular choices for most important battles of the Civil War. The economic impact saw the coffers of the South suffer and those of the North expand. The morale of the South took a huge hit after the defeats, which gave the North yet another advantage as they pressed south. And while the war would go on for another two years, these two battles turned the tide for the North and led directly to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

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