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

The American Civil War may be one of the most crucial periods in American History. No matter what type of history you’re interested in, the Civil War probably has everything you’re looking for. One of the most probing and controversial discussions (at least between historians) is, what battles had the largest affect on the Civil War’s ultimate outcome? There is no one true answer, as wars aren’t fought linearly, but there were battles that, in hindsight, were very important to the ultimate surrender of the South.

The First Battle of Bull Run (1861)

This is an obvious selection for most important battle as it was the first major one of the war. Every war has a beginning, and while tensions were rising way before the first shot went off, this, the first battle of Bull Run, marked the true beginning of the American Civil War. Bull Run was the location of two major battles in the war, both instigated by the Confederacy and both routing victories for the South.

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
First Battle of Bull Run July 1861. National Park Service Historical Archives

It is also surprisingly deceptive because it was an embarrassing loss for the North, the eventual victors. Up until this official start to violent hostilities, the Union was very confident that they could put down any rebellion from the Southern states. While the death toll wasn’t as high in The First Battle of Bull Run as it would be in other major battles, it marked a new reality for the North, who from this point forward took the war much more seriously.

The outcome was inevitable once the rifles started firing. President Lincoln, realizing that war was no longer avoidable, increased the strength of the Union army by nearly 500,000 men. He also removed regulations limiting the length of service for all servicemen. The Federal government also passed several measures that helped bolster those numbers. It was the beginning of a national legislative agenda for freeing slaves from the South. The Confiscation Act of 1861 freed all slaves whose masters were taking part in the war.

In the end, while not the biggest nor the most explosive battle of the Civil War, it was the beginning of what proved to be years of violence that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. With this battle, the war was truly on from both sides, and it was only a matter of time before it became much more violent as the stakes became much higher.

5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War
The Battle of Antietam 1862. The Library of Congress

The Battle of Antietam (1862)

Another argument for importance goes to the Battle of Antietam, and there are many reasons why. The most convincing is that it set the stage for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The President did not want to announce the Proclamation until after a Union victory in a major battle. The battle of Antietam was just enough of a victory to suffice, which led to his initial Proclamation in September of 1862. The official Executive Order the freed all Southern slaves didn’t actually take effect until the beginning of the next year.

There are other important arguments for Antietam being important in the Civil War as well. It was the bloodiest of all the battles with nearly 24,000 men killed or wounded. Also, importantly, it marked the end of General Robert E. Lee’s first attempt to invade the North. At the time he wanted to entice Maryland, which was a still a slave holding state, to join the Confederacy. He failed, and, with the number of casualties, he decided not to continue any further invasions into Northern territory until the following year.

Interestingly, the battle (and the subsequent signing of the Emancipation Proclamation) prevented the British from interfering in the Civil War even further. They had plans to support the South by recognizing them as a legitimate government. By freeing the slaves, Lincoln prevented that action as the British people were vehemently anti-slavery.

For the South, Antietam marked the beginning of the end, even if they didn’t know it. They would have major victories in the war to come (after all, the war didn’t end for another two and half years), but the dominoes truly started to fall out of their favor in this battle. This is all surprising considering that from a strategic standpoint, this battle was a draw.

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.