Eastern Theater of the American Civil War
This article presents an overview of major military and naval operations in the Eastern Theater of the
American Civil War.
Theater of operations
The Eastern Theater included the states of
Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and the coastal fortifications and seaports of North Carolina. (Operations in the interior of the Carolinasin 1865 are considered part of the Western Theater.)
The Eastern Theater included the campaigns that are generally most famous in the history of the war, if not for their strategic significance, but for their proximity to the large population centers, the major newspapers, and the capital cities of the opposing parties. The imaginations of both Northerners and Southerners were captured by the epic struggles between the Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac, under a series of less successful commanders. The bloodiest battle of the war (Gettysburg) and the bloodiest single day of the war (Antietam) were both fought in this theater. The capitals of Washington, D.C., and Richmond were both attacked or besieged. It has been argued that the Western Theater was more strategically important in defeating the Confederacy, but it is inconceivable that the civilian populations of both sides could have considered the war to be at an end without the resolution of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthousein 1865.
The theater was bounded by the
Appalachian Mountainsand the Atlantic Ocean. By far, the majority of battles occurred in the 100 miles between the cities of Washington and Richmond. This terrain favored the Confederate defenders because a series of rivers ran primarily west to east, making them obstacles rather than avenues of approach and lines of communication for the Union. This was quite different than the early years of the Western theater, and since the Union Army had to rely solely on the primitive road system of era for its primary transportation, it limited winter campaigning for both sides. The Union advantage was control of the sea and major rivers, which would allow an army that stayed close to the ocean to be reinforced and supplied.
The campaign classification established by the
United States National Park Service[U.S. National Park Service, [http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/bycampgn.htm#West "Civil War Battle Studies by Campaign"] ] is more fine-grained than the one used in this article. Some minor NPS campaigns have been omitted and some have been combined into larger categories. Only a few of the 160 battles the NPS classifies for this theater are described. Boxed text in the right margin show the NPS campaigns associated with each section.
Principal commanders of the Eastern Theater
Early operations (1861)
After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, both sides scrambled to create armies. President
Abraham Lincolnissued a call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion, which immediately caused the secessionof four additional states, including Virginia. The United States Armyhad only around 16,000 men, with more than half spread out in the West. The army was commanded by the elderly Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, veteran of the War of 1812and the Mexican-American War. On the Confederate side, only a handful of Federal officers and men resigned and joined the Confederacy; the formation of the Confederate States Armywas a matter initially undertaken by the individual states. (The decentralized nature of the Confederate defenses, encouraged by the states' distrust of a strong central government, was one of the disadvantages suffered by the South during the war.)
Some of the first hostilities occurred in western Virginia (now the state of
West Virginia). Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commanding the Department of the Ohio, ordered troops to march from Grafton and attack the Confederates under Col. George A. Porterfield. The skirmish on June 3, 1861, known as the Battle of Philippi, or the "Philippi Races", had little significance other than to raise public awareness of the young general. His victory at the Battle of Rich Mountainin July was instrumental in his promotion that fall to command the Army of the Potomac. As the campaign continued through a series of minor battles, General Robert E. Lee, who, despite his excellent reputation as a former U.S. Army colonel, had no combat command experience, gave a lackluster performance that earned him the derogatory nickname "Granny Lee". He was soon transferred to the Carolinasto construct fortifications.
The first significant battle of the war took place in eastern Virginia on June 10. Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, based at
Fort Monroe, sent converging columns from Hampton and Newport News against advanced Confederate outposts. At Big Bethel, near Fort Monroe, Colonel John B. Magruderwon the first Confederate victory.
First Bull Run
In early summer, the commander of Union field forces around Washington was Brig. Gen.
Irvin McDowell, who was an inexperienced combat officer, but he commanded volunteer soldiers with even less experience—many of whom had enlisted for only 90 days, a period soon to expire. McDowell was pressured by politicians and major newspapers in the North to take immediate action, exhorting him "On to Richmond!" His plan was to march with 35,000 men and attack the 20,000 Confederates under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregardat Manassas. The second major Confederate force in the area, 12,000 men under Gen. Joseph E. Johnstonin the Shenandoah Valley, was to be held in place by Maj. Gen. Robert Pattersonwith 18,000 men menacing Harpers Ferry, preventing the two Confederate armies from combining against McDowell.
On July 21, McDowell's
Army of Northeast Virginiaexecuted a complex turning movement against Beauregard's Confederate Army of the Potomac, beginning the First Battle of Bull Run(also known as First Manassas). Although the Union troops enjoyed an early advantage and drove the Confederates back, the battle advantage turned that afternoon. Col. Thomas J. Jackson inspired his Virginia brigade to withstand a strong Union attack, and he received his famous nickname, "Stonewall" Jackson. Timely reinforcements arrived by railroad from Johnston's army; Patterson had been ineffective in keeping them occupied. The inexperienced Union soldiers began to fall back, and it turned into a panicky retreat, with many running almost as far as Washington, D.C. Civilian and political observers, some of whom had treated the battle as festive entertainment, were caught up in the panic. The army returned safely to Washington; Beauregard's army was too tired and inexperienced to launch a pursuit. The Union defeat at First Bull Run shocked the North, and a new sense of grim determination swept the United States as military and civilians alike realized that they would need to invest significant money and manpower to win a protracted, bloody war.
George B. McClellan was summoned east in August to command the newly forming
Army of the Potomac, which would become the principal army of the Eastern Theater. As a former railroad executive, he possessed outstanding organizational skills well-suited to the tasks of training and administration. He was also strongly ambitious, and by November 1, he had maneuvered around Winfield Scott and was named general-in-chief of all the Union armies, despite the embarrassing defeat of an expedition he sent up the Potomac Riverat the Battle of Balls Bluffin October.
North Carolina coast (1861–65)
North Carolina was an important area to the Confederacy because of the vital seaport of Wilmington and because the
Outer Bankswere valuable bases for ships attempting to evade the Union blockade. Benjamin Butler sailed from Fort Monroe and captured the batteries at Hatteras Inlet in August 1861. In February 1862, Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnsideorganized an amphibious expedition, also from Fort Monroe, that captured Roanoke Island, a little-known but important Union strategic victory. The Goldsboro Expedition in late 1862 marched briefly inland from the coast to destroy railroad tracks and bridges.
The remainder of operations on the North Carolina coast began in late 1864, with Benjamin Butler's and
David D. Porter's failed attempt to capture Fort Fisher, which guarded the seaport of Wilmington. Union forces at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, led by Alfred H. Terry, Adelbert Ames, and Porter, in January 1865, were successful in defeating Gen. Braxton Bragg, and Wilmington fell in February. During this period, the Western Theater armies of Maj. Gen. William T. Shermanwere marching up the interior of the Carolinas, where they eventually forced the surrender of the last major Confederate field army, under Joseph E. Johnston, in late April 1865.
The Valley (1862)
In the spring of 1862, Confederate exuberance over First Bull Run declined quickly, following the early successes of the Union armies in the Western Theater, such as Fort Donelson and Shiloh. George B. McClellan's massive Army of the Potomac was approaching Richmond from the southeast in the
Peninsula Campaign, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's large corps was poised to hit Richmond from the north, and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks's army threatened the rich agricultural area of the Shenandoah Valley.
To the rescue of Southern morale came an eccentric former professor at VMI,
Stonewall Jackson, bearing his nickname earned at First Bull Run. His command included the Stonewall Brigadeand a variety of militia units insufficient for offensive operations. While Banks remain north of the Potomac River, Jackson's cavalry commander, Col. Turner Ashby, raided the Chesapeake and Ohio Canaland the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Banks reacted by crossing the Potomac in late February and moving south to protect the canal and railroad from Ashby. Jackson's command was operating as the left wing of
Joseph E. Johnston's army, and when Johnston moved from Manassas to Culpeper in March, Jackson's position at Winchester was isolated. On March 12, Banks continued his advance to the southwest ("up the Valley") and occupied Winchester. Jackson had withdrawn to Strasburg. Banks's orders, as part of McClellan's overall strategy, were to move farther south and drive Jackson from the Valley. After accomplishing this, he was to withdraw to a position nearer Washington. A strong advance force began the movement south from Winchester on March 17, about the same time that McClellan began his amphibious movement to the Virginia Peninsula.
Jackson's orders from Johnston were to avoid general combat because he was seriously outnumbered, but at the same time he was to keep Banks occupied enough to prevent the detachment of troops to reinforce McClellan on the Peninsula. Receiving incorrect intelligence, Banks concluded that Jackson had left the Valley, and he proceeded to move east, back to the vicinity of Washington. Jackson was dismayed at this movement because Banks was doing exactly what Jackson had been directed to prevent.
At the First Battle of Kernstown (March 23, 1862), the Federals stopped Jackson's advance and then counterattacked, turning his left flank and forcing him to retreat, his only defeat during the campaign. Although a tactical defeat for Jackson, it was a strategic victory for the Confederacy, forcing President Lincoln to keep Banks's forces in the Valley and McDowell's 30,000-man
corpsnear Fredericksburg, subtracting about 50,000 soldiers from McClellan's Peninsula invasion force.
Jackson, now reinforced to 17,000 men, decided to attack the Union forces piecemeal rather than waiting for them to combine and overwhelm him. While marching on a devious route to mask his intentions, he was attacked at the
Battle of McDowellon May 8 but was able to repulse the Union army after severe fighting. Banks sent a division to reinforce Irvin McDowell's forces at Fredericksburg, leaving Banks only 8,000 troops, which he relocated to a strong position at Strasburg, Virginia.
On May 21, Jackson marched his command east from New Market and proceeded northward. Their speed of forced marching was typical of the campaign and earned his infantrymen the nickname of "Jackson's foot cavalry". He sent his horse cavalry directly north to make Banks think that he was going to attack Strasburg, but his plan was to defeat the small outpost at Front Royal and quickly attack Banks's line of communication at Harpers Ferry.
On May 23, at the
Battle of Front Royal, Jackson's army surprised and overran the pickets of the 1,000-man Union garrison. Jackson’s victory forced Banks at Strasburg into a rapid retreat towards Winchester. Although Jackson attempted to pursue, his troops were exhausted and looted Union supply trains, slowing them down immensely. On May 25, at the First Battle of Winchester, Banks’s army was attacked by converging Confederate columns and was soundly defeated. They withdrew north across the Potomac River. Jackson attempted pursuit but was unsuccessful.
In Washington, President Lincoln and Secretary of War
Edwin M. Stantondecided that the defeat of Jackson was an immediate priority (even though Jackson's orders were solely to keep Union forces occupied away from Richmond). They ordered Irvin McDowell to send 20,000 men to Front Royal and Frémont to move to Harrisonburg. If both forces could converge at Strasburg, Jackson's only escape route up the Valley would be cut. The immediate repercussion of this move was to abort McDowell's coordinated attack with McClellan on Richmond.
On June 2, two columns of Union forces pursued Jackson. His army took up defensive positions in Cross Keys and Port Republic, where he was able to defeat Frémont and Shields, respectively, on June 8 and June 9.
Union forces were withdrawn from the Valley. Jackson joined Robert E. Lee on the Peninsula for the
Seven Days Battles(where he delivered an uncharacteristically lethargic performance, perhaps because of the strains of the Valley Campaign). He had accomplished his mission, withholding over 50,000 needed troops from McClellan. With the success of his Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson became the most celebrated soldier in the Confederacy (until he was eventually eclipsed by Lee) and lifted the morale of the public. In a classic military campaign of surprise and maneuver, he pressed his army to travel 646 miles (1,040 km) in 48 days of marching and won five significant victories with a force of about 17,000 against combined foes of 60,000.
Peninsula Campaign (1862)
George B. McClellanspent the winter of 1861–62 training his new Army of the Potomac and fighting off calls from President Lincoln to advance against the Confederates. Lincoln was particularly concerned about the army of General Joseph E. Johnstonat Centreville, just 30 miles (50 km) from Washington. McClellan overestimated Johnston's strength and shifted his objective from that army to the Confederate capital of Richmond. He proposed to move by water to Urbanna on the Rappahannock Riverand then overland to Richmond before Johnston could move to block him. Although Lincoln favored the overland approach because it would shield Washington from any attack while the operation was in progress, McClellan argued that the road conditions in Virginia were intolerable, that he had arranged adequate defenses for the capital, and that Johnston would certainly follow him if he moved on Richmond. This plan was discussed for three months in the capital until Lincoln approved McClellan's proposal in early March. By March 9, however, Johnston withdrew his army from Centreville to Culpeper, making McClellan's Urbanna plan impracticable. McClellan then proposed to sail to Fort Monroeand then up the Virginia Peninsula(the narrow strip of land between the James and York rivers) to Richmond. Lincoln reluctantly agreed.
Before departing for the Peninsula, McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac to Centreville on a "shakedown" march. He discovered there how weak Johnston's force and position had really been, and he faced mounting criticism. On March 11, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his position as general-in -chief of the Union armies so that he could devote his full attention to the difficult campaign ahead of him. Lincoln himself, with the assistance of Secretary of War Stanton and a War Board of officers, assumed command of the Union armies for the next four months. The Army of the Potomac began to embark for Fort Monroe on March 17. The departure was accompanied by a newfound sense of concern. The first combat of ironclad ships occurred on March 8 and March 9 as the CSS "Virginia" and the USS "Monitor" fought the inconclusive
Battle of Hampton Roads. The concern for the Army was that their transport ships would be attacked by this new weapon directly in their path. And the U.S. Navyfailed to assure McClellan that they could protect operations on either the James or the York, so his idea of amphibiously enveloping Yorktown was abandoned, and he ordered an advance up the Peninsula to begin April 4. On April 5, McClellan was informed that Lincoln had canceled the movement of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's corps to Fort Monroe, taking this action because McClellan had failed to leave the number of troops previously agreed upon at Washington, and because Jackson's Valley Campaign was causing concern. McClellan protested vociferously that he was being forced to lead a major campaign without his promised resources, but he moved ahead anyway.
Up the Peninsula
The Union forces advanced to Yorktown, and after a lengthy delay building up siege resources, McClellan defeated the Confederates in a skirmish, the Battle of Yorktown. During the campaign, the Union Army also seized
Hampton Roadsand occupied Norfolk. As the Union forces chased withdrawing Confederate forces up the Peninsula (northwest) in the direction of Richmond, the inconclusive single-day Battle of Williamsburgtook place at and around Fort Magruder, one mile (1.5 km) east of the old colonial capital.
By the end of May, the Union forces had successfully advanced to within several miles of Richmond, but progress was slow. McClellan had planned for massive siege operations and brought immense stores of equipment and siege mortars. Poor weather and inadequate roads kept his advance to a crawl. And McClellan was by nature a cautious general. He was nervous about attacking a force he believed was twice his in size. In fact, his imagination and his intelligence operations failed him; the proportions were roughly the reverse. During Confederate General
Joseph E. Johnston's slow retreat up the Peninsula, his forces practiced deceptive operations. In particular, the division under John B. Magruder, who was an amateur actor before the war, was able to fool McClellan by ostentatiously marching small numbers of troops past the same position multiple times, appearing to be a larger force.
As the Union Army drew towards the outer defenses of Richmond, it became divided by the
Chickahominy River, weakening its ability to move troops back and forth along the front. The Battle of Seven Pines(also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks) took place on May 31 – June 1, 1862, as the Confederates struck at the smaller Union force south of the river. The battle was tactically inconclusive, but there were two strategic effects. First, Johnston was wounded during the battle and was replaced by the more aggressive General Robert E. Lee, who would lead this Army of Northern Virginiato many victories in the war. Second, General McClellan chose to abandon his offensive operations to lay siege and await reinforcements he had requested from President Lincoln. He never regained his strategic momentum.
Lee used the month-long pause in McClellan's advance to fortify the defenses of Richmond. On the south side of the James River, defensive lines were built south to a point below Petersburg. The total length of the new defensive line was about 30 miles (50 km). To buy time to complete the new defensive line and prepare for an offensive, Lee repeated the tactic of making a small number of troops seem more numerous than they really were. McClellan was also unnerved by Confederate Brig. Gen.
J.E.B. Stuart's audacious (but otherwise militarily pointless) cavalry ride completely around the Union army (June 13–15).
The Shenandoah Valley was a crucial region for the Confederacy. It was one of the most important agricultural regions in Virginia and was a prime invasion route against the North. Grant hoped that an army from the Department of West Virginia under
Franz Sigelcould seize control of the Valley, moving "up the Valley" (southwest to the higher elevations) with 10,000 men to destroy the railroad center at Lynchburg. Sigel immediately suffered defeat at the Battle of New Marketand was soon replaced by David Hunter, who also failed in his mission.
Robert E. Lee, now besieged in Petersburg, was concerned about Hunter's advances and sent Jubal Early's corps to sweep Union forces from the Valley and, if possible, to menace Washington, D.C., hoping to compel Grant to dilute his forces around Petersburg. Early got off to a good start. He drove down the Valley without opposition, bypassed Harpers Ferry, crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. Grant dispatched a corps under Maj. Gen.
Horatio G. Wrightand other troops under George Crookto reinforce Washington and pursue Early.
Battle of Monocacy(July 9, 1864), Early defeated a smaller force under Lew Wallacenear Frederick, Maryland, but this battle delayed his progress enough to allow time for reinforcing the defenses of Washington. Early attacked a fort on the northwest defensive perimeter of Washington (Fort Stevens (July 11–12) without success and withdrew back to Virginia. He successfully fought a series of minor battles in the Valley through early August and prevented Wright's corps from returning to Grant at Petersburg. He also burned the city of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Grant knew that Washington remained vulnerable if Early was still on the loose. He found a new commander aggressive enough to defeat Early:
Philip Sheridan, the cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac, who was given command of all forces in the area, calling them the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan initially started slowly, primarily because the impending presidential election of 1864 demanded a cautious approach, avoiding any disaster that might lead to the defeat of Abraham Lincoln.
Sheridan began moving aggressively in September. He defeated Early in the Third Battle of Winchester and the
Battle of Fisher's Hill. With Early damaged and pinned down, the Valley lay open to the Union. Adding Sherman's capture of Atlanta, Lincoln's re-election seemed assured. Sheridan pulled back slowly down the Valley and conducted a scorched earthcampaign that presaged Sherman's March to the Seain November. The goal was to deny the Confederacy the means of feeding its armies in Virginia, and Sheridan's army burned crops, barns, mills, and factories.
The campaign was effectively concluded at the
Battle of Cedar Creek(October 19, 1864). In a brilliant surprise attack, Early routed two thirds of the Union army, but his troops were hungry and exhausted and fell out of their ranks to pillage the Union camp; Sheridan managed to rally his troops and defeat Early decisively. Sheridan returned to assist Grant at Petersburg. Most of the men of Early's corps rejoined Lee at Petersburg in December, while Early remained to command a skeleton force until he was relieved of command in March 1865.
In January 1865, Robert E. Lee became the general-in-chief of all Confederate armies, but this move came too late to help the Southern cause.
As the siege of Petersburg continued, Grant attempted to break or encircle the Confederate forces in multiple attacks moving from east to west. By March, the siege had taken an enormous toll on both armies, and Lee decided to pull out of Petersburg. Maj. Gen.
John B. Gordonthen devised a plan to have the army attack Fort Stedman on the eastern end of the Union Lines, forcing the Union forces to shorten their lines. Although initially a success, his outnumbered corps was forced back.
Sheridan returned from the Valley and was tasked with flanking the Confederate Army, which forced Lee to send forces under Maj. Gen.
George Pickettto defend the flank. Grant then deployed a corps to cut off Pickett's forces, who were forced to withdraw to Five Forks on March 31. In the following days, the Union continued to press the attack, flanking Pickett's forces and destroying the Confederate left.
After the victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered an assault along the entire Confederate line, called the Third Battle of Petersburg, resulting in dramatic breakthroughs. In the following days, Lee pulled his forces out from Petersburg and Richmond and headed west to Danville, the destination of the fleeing Confederate government, and then south to meet up with General
Joseph E. Johnstonin North Carolina. The capital city of Richmond surrendered on the morning of April 3.
The campaign became a race between Lee and Sheridan, with Lee attempting to obtain supplies for his retreat and Sheridan attempting to cut him off. At Sayler's Creek on April 6, nearly a quarter of the Confederate Army (about 8,000 men, the heart of two corps) was cut off and forced to surrender. Many of the Confederate supply trains were also captured. In Lee's final stand on April 9, John B. Gordon's depleted corps attempted to break the Union lines and reach the supplies in Lynchburg. They pushed back Sheridan's cavalry briefly but found themselves faced with the full Union V Corps. They were surrounded on three sides, and Lee surrendered his army to Grant at
Appomattox Court House.
There were further minor battles and further surrenders of Confederate armies, but Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865 marked the effective end of the Civil War. The premier army of the Confederacy and its greatest general had been defeated and were offered generous and honorable terms of surrender. Lee, rejecting advice from some of his staff, wanted to ensure that his army did not melt away into the countryside to continue the war as guerrillas, helping immeasurably to heal the divisions of the country.
* Eicher, David J., "The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War", Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
* Esposito, Vincent J., [http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/american_civil_war/index.htm "West Point Atlas of American Wars"] , Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
* Fuller, Maj. Gen. J. F. C., "The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant", Da Capo Press, 1929, ISBN 0-306-80450-6.
* Hattaway, Herman, and Jones, Archer, "How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War", University of Illinois Press, 1983, ISBN 0-252-00918-5.
* Kennedy, Frances H., Ed., "The Civil War Battlefield Guide", 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
* [http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/american%20civil%20war/acw%20pages/acw01.html "West Point Atlas" map of principal Civil War campaigns]
* [http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/misc/civilwar/civilwar.htm National Park Service Civil War at a Glance]
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