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
Capture of the Gosport Navy Yard geve the Confederates control of the largest drydock in America, as well as significant armaments and support facilities. Wikimedia

8. The bloodless victory at Norfolk was a major boon for the Confederacy

McCauley ordered the ships at Gosport and in the Elizabeth River scuttled and burned. USS Cumberland escaped the destruction, towed to safety by the steam tug Pawnee. Other ships, including USS United States, one of the original six frigates of the US Navy, and USS Merrimack, were burned and sunk. The Confederates salvaged Merrimack, and used its hull to construct CSS Virginia, the first ironclad ship to see combat action. Ironically, less than a year later, Virginia sank Cumberland by ramming during the Battle of Hampton Roads. Most of the Union vessels were denied to the Virginians by McCauley’s actions, but they still recovered a treasure trove of military equipment which survived the hastily executed destruction of the shipyard. Nearly 1,200 heavy guns and naval rifles fell into the hands of the Confederacy. They were distributed throughout the South in harbor and inland fortifications.

The Confederacy also gained the drydock, mooring facilities, forges, ropewalks, hundreds of square feet of canvas, timber, cannon balls and shells, mortar shells, and other material used in the making of war. The Confederates did not hold Norfolk long, Union forces regained the area in 1862. They found the departing Confederates had again burned the yard, and had left behind little of value for the Union forces. The yard was rebuilt, renamed as Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Throughout the rest of the war, materiel seized by the Confederacy played a role in the fighting, making it one of the biggest windfalls of the American Civil War. The Confederates gained the materiel and one of the best shipyards in the world, a victory achieved without firing a shot. McCauley retired in December, 1861 with the honorary rank of Commodore.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Illustrations from Harper’s Weekly in the summer of 1863, including a sketch of the action at Milliken’s Bend. Wikimedia

9. The Battle of Milliken’s Bend was among the first to include African American troops

Part of Ulysses S. Grant’s operations against Vicksburg in 1863, the Battle of Milliken’s Bend is all but forgotten. Nonetheless, it was one of the first combat operations of the Union Army in which newly recruited “Colored” troops, as they were then called, engaged the enemy. Erroneously believing that Grant’s supply lines were run along the Mississippi River at Milliken’s Bend, in Louisiana, a brigade of Texas troops was dispatched to the site to disrupt his supplies. The Texas brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Henry McCulloch attacked on June 7, 1863. By the time of the attack, the Confederates were aware that Grant’s primary supply line no longer ran through Milliken’s Bend. Nonetheless, they attacked in the hopes of claiming the position and using it to route food and other supplies into besieged Vicksburg.

Milliken’s Bend at the time was one of several posts in the area used for the purpose of training newly recruited African American soldiers. Many of them were formerly enslaved. None of them had combat experience, and only rudimentary training in the use of firearms. Their officers were White, and plans to use them in front-line combat duties were yet to be formalized. Alongside the Black regiments at Milliken’s Bend were the 23rd Iowa Infantry and two US Navy gunboats in the Mississippi River, about 1,100 troops in total. They were attacked by approximately 1,500 Confederates, most of whom were veterans of combat. The attack began in the dark, about three in the morning of June 7, and quickly devolved into bloody hand-to-hand combat. Poorly trained in the use of the bayonet, the African troops gradually gave way before the onslaught.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
A National Park Service map of the Milliken’s Bend battlefield, parts of which became submerged when the river changed its course. NPS

10. The fighting at Milliken’s Bend saw one of the highest casualty rates of the war

Despite lack of training and little experience, the performance of the Black troops at Milliken’s Bend proved their worth in combat. Initially overwhelmed by a sudden attack in the dead of night, they only grudgingly gave way to their assailants. When they did, the Confederates exposed themselves to the cannon fire of the Navy gunboats, which quickly broke up their formations and drove them back. Despite efforts by their officers to reform them and regain the initiative, the Texans refused to launch another assault. Brigadier McCulloch requested reinforcements. By mid-morning another gunboat arrived, and its heavy guns discouraged the Confederates further. The Texans withdrew, beginning before noon. There was no pursuit. Casualties among the Union troops had been too high.

Of the 1,100 Union soldiers engaged, 652 were killed, wounded, or captured. Most of the latter were Black troops, taken by the Confederates and returned to slavery. A disproportionately high number of the killed and wounded was also borne by the Black units. One, the 9th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, lost 68% of its roster as casualties. In fact, all of the casualties except for 65 men of the 23rd Iowa came from the Black Regiments. Even Confederate Brigadier McCulloch noted the performance of the Black regiments, commenting upon their “considerable obstinacy”. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote to President Lincoln, “…The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken’s Bend…” The battle itself was of little strategic significance, but it changed Union leadership’s philosophy over the training of Black troops.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
An illustration of the Battle of Island Mound which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in March, 1863. Wikimedia

11. The Skirmish at Island Mound saw Black Kansas militia in action for the first time

During the summer of 1862, Union Captain James M. Williams resigned his commission in the cavalry and accepted a commission in the Kansas State Militia. By August, he had recruited a regiment of former slaves and some Black free men, mustering it as the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment. The Union army had not yet decided on whether to recruit African American units, and the 1st Kansas trained as militia at Fort Scott, Kansas through the rest of the summer. Kansas provided its new militia regiment with Prussian and Austrian made muskets, equipped with bayonets, and trained the men in their use. In October, 1862, the unit deployed against Missouri guerillas and State Militia, the first known use of African American combat troops during the Civil War.

The success of the 1st Kansas unit at the Skirmish at Island Mound, October 27-29, 1862, was widely noted, though the battle was a small affair and no regular troops of either side engaged. The Kansans suffered 19 casualties, with 8 killed and eleven wounded. The number of guerillas killed and wounded is unknown, though some estimated around 40 at the time. A correspondent for The New York Times accompanied the Kansas regiment into the battle, and widely praised the performance of the Black troops. Impressed with the reports of their performance, the Union decided to recruit Black regiments in 1863. In December, 1864, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers entered into the Union Army, redesignated as the 79th United States Colored Troops.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
General Philip Kearney’s ill-fated charge at the Battle of Chantilly, 1863. Wikimedia

12. The Battle of Chantilly opened the door for Lee’s first invasion of Maryland in 1862

Following his disastrous defeat at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, Union General John Pope wanted to withdraw his shattered Army of Virginia into the defenses surrounding Washington. Robert E. Lee allowed his enemy to withdraw as far as Centerville, Virginia, where Pope received orders from Washington to attack Lee’s army, which remained on the field around Manassas. Pope was reinforced with additional troops drawn from the Union forces on the Virginia Peninsula below Richmond. Union General in Chief Henry Halleck believed with the additional troops, Lee’s nearly exhausted army could be dealt a punishing blow. Pope did not agree, hesitated, and then learned of a flanking movement by Stonewall Jackson’s troops. If successful, Jackson’s maneuver would put Pope between Jackson and Lee. Jackson would also be between Pope and the safety of the Washington defenses.

Pope countermanded his orders, issued in obedience to Washington, to prepare for an attack. Instead, he ordered a general retreat of his forces to Washington. He did order infantry and cavalry units forward, with supporting artillery, to block the roads being used by Lee and Jackson to entrap him. On September 1, 1862, two days after his defeat at Bull Run, Pope began his retreat. Meanwhile the forces he sent forward encountered Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia near Chantilly Plantation at a place known as Ox Hill. The area swarmed with Confederate and Union Cavalry, which engaged each other in skirmishing throughout the morning. By mid-afternoon, the Union divisions ordered forward by Pope arrived on the battlefield. Along with them arrived a heavy thunderstorm, soaking the cartridges carried by the infantry, and rendering their muskets useless.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Union General John Pope, fired by Lincoln after his disastrous Northern Virginia Campaign in 1862. Wikimedia

13. The Union was badly outnumbered at the Battle of Chantilly

Pope’s forward thrust, which some charitably refer to as a reconnaissance in force, meant the Union troops arriving at Chantilly were outnumbered by more than three-to-one. Jackson’s entire Corps of approximately 20,000 men when including Stuart’s supporting cavalry opposed about 6,000 Union troops. Nonetheless, the Union advanced against Jackson’s center. Much of the fighting was via bayonet and hand-to-hand, the sudden and heavy rains having wetted the gunpowder. Fighting ebbed and flowed across the open fields where the armies confronted each other. The Union attacked, drove back the Confederates, who used fresh troops to counterattack, driving the Union men back. Around 5 PM the commander of the Union troops, Brigadier General Isaac Stevens, fell dead, demoralizing the troops under his command.

During the fighting Union General Philip Kearney arrived with his division, which he immediately committed to the fighting. The battle became a confused melee, and Kearney found himself behind the Confederate lines, isolated from his troops. He was killed in the fighting, the second Union general to die at Chantilly. That night, both sides encamped on the battlefield, often within just yards of each other. Gradually through the night the Union troops withdrew, following Pope into the safety offered by the Washington defenses. Pope was relieved of his duties, and his troops merged into the Army of the Potomac. The defeat at Chantilly in 1862, one of a series of defeats in the Eastern Theater that year, allowed Robert E. Lee to advance his troops into Maryland. The invasion culminated in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest singled day battle in American history, just over two weeks later.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Confederate Major General Sterling Price. Wikimedia

14. The Battle of Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge) gave the Union control of most of Southern Missouri

Missouri did not secede from the Union during the Civil War, though it remained a slave state and its sympathy divided. During the war it was never fully pacified by Union troops. Its neighbor Arkansas did secede, and hoped to use troops from its ranks to support the slave sympathizers in Missouri at the beginning of the war. In March, 1862, Union forces from Missouri moved into northern Arkansas. By March 7 they occupied positions near Leetown. Over half of the more than 10,000 Union troops were recently arrived German immigrants, and commands in German were common in the camps, on the march, and in battle. They were opposed by the Confederate troops under Major General Earl Van Dorn. Among his subcommanders was Major General Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guard. The Confederates outnumbered the Union, with about 16,000 men.

The battle was fought near Elkhorn Tavern, along a series of bluffs known as Pea Ridge. It is often referred to as the Battle of Pea Ridge as a result. The Confederate troops included Cherokee units from the Indian Territory, as well as Choctaw and Creek units, though the latter two were not engaged in the fighting. The remainder of the Confederate Army was comprised mainly of units from Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. The Union Army was built of troops from Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. With troops from Missouri on both sides of the battle, it was truly a case of neighbor against neighbor, relatives against their own families, brother against brother. The two-day battle saw the Union prevail against the numerically superior Confederates, seizing control of most of Missouri and Arkansas. Bloody guerrilla warfare continued throughout the region in its wake.

Forgotten Battles of the American Civil War
Captain Raphael Semmes leans nonchalantly against a gun, his First Lieutenant a respectful distance behind him, aboard CSS Alabama. US Navy

15. CSS Alabama and USS Kearsarge fought outside Cherbourg, France

CSS Alabama is the most famous of the Confederate commerce raiders built by Great Britain during the Civil War. Contrary to popular belief, Alabama was not built as a blockade runner, and in its short but active career it never entered a port of the Confederacy. It entered few ports at all. Its Captain, Raphael Semmes, formerly of the United States Navy, met the ship in the Azores, where he commissioned it into the Confederate States Navy in August, 1862. Alabama then began its career as a commerce raider, bent on capturing, burning, or sinking as many ships flying the United States flag as it could. Ironically, years before the war Semmes condemned the us of commerce raiders as an effort of war. In 1851 Semmes urged “all civilized nations…to suppress the practice altogether”. He may have disapproved of commerce raiding, but he proved exceedingly good at it.

Under his command, Alabama completed seven commerce raiding cruises between August 1862 and December, 1863. The ship took prizes or destroyed Union shipping in the North and South Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, along the coast of South Africa, in the Indian Ocean, and in the South Pacific. Out of 657 days, 534 were spent at sea, an incredible record for a warship of that period. The ship destroyed 65 Union ships, raising insurance rates in American ports to frightening levels. Shippers clamored for the US Navy to destroy Alabama. USS Kearsarge pursued Alabama in the Atlantic in vain until spring of 1864, when the ship ran aground off Oostende, Netherlands. Repaired in a Dutch drydock, Kearsarge returned to sea to find Alabama refitting in Cherbourg, France. The stage was set for one of the few naval actions fought on the open seas during the Civil War.

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 in 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 the 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 storge 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, 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

“CSS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge: The Greatest High Seas Duel of the Civil War”. Don Hollway, Warfare History Network. 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

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