Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - November 24, 2021

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Kearsarge (foreground) battled Alabama before a large audience of spectators, ashore and afloat. Wikimedia

16. Semmes informed his Union counterpart of his intention to fight

Alabama arrived in Cherbourg, France, on June 11, 1864, badly in need of refitting and repairs. Three days later, USS Kearsarge arrived, trapping the Confederates in the French port. Unwilling to sit out the rest of the war in a neutral port, Semmes sent a message to Kearsarge’s commander, Captain John Winslow. Semmes informed him of his intent to come out and fight, including times upon which he hoped to sail. Accordingly, Winslow waited just outside the territorial limit. In Cherbourg, word of the coming naval battle spread quickly, and citizens staked out areas from which to watch the combat. Painter Edouard Manet went out on a yacht to paint the battle. Englishman John Lancaster accompanied Alabama in his private yacht, determined to observe the fighting. Alabama sortied to meet Kearsarge on June 19, opening fire first. Kearsarge proved a formidable adversary.

The Union sloop of war proved faster, better handled, and capable of more accurate, devastating fire. It also benefited from the iron chain cladding which partially armored the ship’s hull, protecting its boilers and machinery. Alabama was reduced to a sinking wreck. Nineteen of its crew were killed or wounded. Kearsarge rescued just over 100 of its crew, but Semmes and about 40 others eluded capture by boarding Lancaster’s yacht and thus escaping to England. Semmes eventually made it back to the Confederacy via Cuba and commanded the James River squadron. He later accompanied General Joseph Johnston’s army as a brigadier, surrendering with it in 1865. Following the war, legal claims against Great Britain for building Alabama and other commerce raiders continued for years. Eventually, the British paid the United States $15.5 million in reparations for the damage the raiders’ caused.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
General George McClellan (center, hand on stump) sang his own praises in his reports to Washington, and was lauded by Northern newspapers. Wikimedia

17. The Battle of Philippi and Rich Mountain made George McClellan a national hero

In the late spring of 1861, George McClellan, who had been working as a railroad executive since 1857, returned to service with the United States Army. Commissioned as a major general in May, McClellan assumed command of the Department of Ohio, with his headquarters initially at Cincinnati. Aware of several of the western counties of Virginia’s desire to remain in the Union, McClellan began assigning troops there in June. He positioned his units to both secure the vital bridges of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and to influence the anti-secessionists in the region. On June 3, 1861, units under McClellan’s ostensible command (he was not present at the battle) engaged the Confederates at the Battle of Philippi, in what is now West Virginia. It presented the first Union victory of the war in an organized land battle.

On July 11, McClellan personally commanded the Union troops at the Battle of Rich Mountain. As with the Battle of Philippi, it was little more than a skirmish. But it was another Union victory and McClellan, once described as a man who could strut while sitting down, made sure his role was known in the east. Though McClellan was just 34 years of age, he was recommended to President Lincoln to command the main Union Army of the Potomac. McClellan proved instrumental in building, equipping, and training the Army of the Potomac. He also proved hesitant to use it; overly cautious and desirous of superiority in all things prior to engaging the enemy. Lincoln eventually fired him, rehired him, and fired him again, the latter time permanently. The Battles of Philippi and Rich Mountain thus had an outsized influence on the rest of the Civil War.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Major General Philip Sheridan commanded the Union cavalry during the Overland Campaign of 1864. Wikimedia

18. Sheridan’s raid on Richmond in 1864 led to the death of Jeb Stuart

During the Overland Campaign of 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia slugged it out on a bloody trail through Virginia. By then the cavalry attachment to the Army of the Potomac (which was commanded by George Meade but accompanied by overall Union commander Ulysses S. Grant) included more than 12,000 men. The plodding pace of the Overland Campaign inspired cavalry commander General Philip Sheridan to detach the entire Union Cavalry, about 12,000 men, and send it behind Lee’s lines at Spotsylvania, to threaten Richmond and to destroy supply depots. Meade, to whom Sheridan reported, declined. Sheridan then approached Grant directly, in contravention of military protocol. Though Meade protested that such a mission would deny him cavalry screening and support, Grant overrode him.

Sheridan detached, taking 12,000 men and over thirty guns around Lee’s flank and southward towards Richmond. Sheridan had persuaded Grant by pointing out Lee would have to respond by committing his own cavalry, still under J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart. Stuart could muster less than 5,000 men to respond, and their weapons were inferior to the repeating rifles carried by the Union. On May 9, 1864, Sheridan’s advanced units reach the Confederate storage depots at Beaver Dam. There they destroyed railroad cars, warehouses, and locomotives, as well as telegraph lines, but most of the military supplies had been evacuated by the Confederates. They also freed hundreds of Union prisoners of war, though the Southerners had simply left them behind, rather than continue to bear the burden of feeding and guarding them. Meanwhile, Stuart interposed his command between Sheridan’s and Richmond.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
The Battle of Yellow Tavern led to the death of Jeb Stuart, and to the end of the effectiveness of the Confederate Cavalry. Wikimedia

19. The Battle of Yellow Tavern

Around noon on May 11, Stuart and Sheridan’s commands clashed near an abandoned inn six miles from Richmond. The Confederates were outnumbered by 3 to 1 and hopelessly outgunned. The rate of fire from the repeating rifles carried by the Union cavalrymen could simply not be matched by the Confederates. Still, they fought fiercely, often dismounted, repelling Union attacks and countercharging when the opportunity appeared. After about three hours of fighting around Yellow, Tavern Stuart was wounded by a retreating Union soldier. His men carried him to the rear, where he was transferred by ambulance to Richmond, where he died the following day. Sheridan defeated Stuart’s cavalry and killed its leader, but it failed to further threaten Richmond. He continued to the south and east following the battle, joining General Benjamin Butler’s command along the Chickahominy River.

After resupplying from Butler’s stocks, Sheridan led his massive cavalry formation back to Grant’s position, rejoining the Army of the Potomac on May 24. Another massive cavalry raid took place to Trevilian Station in June. Sheridan’s goals were to destroy portions of the Virginia Railroad and establish a linkup with Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley. Following a two-day battle with Confederate cavalry under Wade Hampton, Sheridan withdrew, his goals unrealized. Throughout the Overland Campaign, despite numerous raids and actions against the enemy, only the Battle of Yellow Tavern is considered a clear-cut Union victory. Despite shortages of men, horses, fodder, weapons, and food, the Confederate cavalry continued to be a threat to Union operations until the withdrawal from Richmond-Petersburg in April 1865.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
The Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah effected most of its captures long after the Confederacy had collapsed. US Navy

20. The CSS Shenandoah fired the last shot of the Civil War

When the Confederacy collapsed in the spring of 1865, CSS Shenandoah was several months into a commerce raiding voyage. It proved to be one of the most successful of the war. Although its commander, Lieutenant James Waddell became aware of the end of the Confederacy in May, he opted to continue his raiding throughout the summer, capturing and burning primarily American whaling ships near the Aleutian Islands. As it became evident Shenandoah needed a refit, Waddell considered his options. Return to an American port was likely to lead to charges of piracy since his logs clearly indicated he knew the war was over when he made several of his captures. In August 1865, Waddell steered his ship around Cape Horn and returned to Liverpool, England, requesting parole for himself and his crew from British authorities. The British complied, despite vigorous American protests.

In November 1865, the British turned the ship over to the American government, which sold it to a Liverpool merchant. Eventually, it became the property of the Sultan of Zanzibar. As animosity towards former Confederates waned in America, most of its officers and crew returned to the United States. Captain Waddell, who presided over the last surrender of a Confederate force during the Civil War, returned to America in 1870. After serving in a merchant service for some time, he retired from the sea and became an official in the state of Maryland, charged with enforcing oystering regulations in the waters of the state. During its career, Shenandoah captured, sank, or burned 38 American ships, none of them warships of the Union Navy. Most of them were destroyed after Waddell learned of the surrender of the Confederate Armies and the capture of Jefferson Davis.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Cameron County, TX | May 12-13, 1865”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“The Battle of Tebbs Bend, July 4, 1863”. Joe Brent, Tebbs Bend – Green River Bridge Battlefield Association. Online

“Chancellorsville”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Aldie – June 17, 1863”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“The Battle of Middleburg and the fight at Goose Creek Bridge”. Dan Welsh, National Park Service. July 20, 2020. Online

“Battle of Upperville | Goose Creek Historic Park. Article, NOVA Parks. Online

“Gosport Navy Yard is Captured”. John V. Quarstein, Mariner’s Blog. The Mariner’s Museum and Park. May 7, 2020. Online

“Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“Battle of Island Mound”. Terry Beckenbaugh, Civil War on the Western Border. The Kansas City Public Library. Online

“Chantilly | Ox Hill”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Elkhorn Tavern”. Article, Pea Ridge National Military Park. National Park Service. Online

“CSS Alabama wreck site – A Confederate Shipwreck in France”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“George B. McClellan”. Biography, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Sheridan’s Richmond Raid”. Article, The American Civil War. Online

“Lost Battlefield: The Battlefield of Yellow Tavern, Virginia”. Daniel T. Davis, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Shenandoah 1864 – 1865”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online