The American Civil War:
Dr. Gavin Hughes

'If the entire Union army comes across here, I will kill them all...'
- Attrb. General James Longstreet, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, (December 1862)


In April 1861, the South Carolina Militia shelled Fort Sumter and fired the first shots of the American Civil War. Four years later, in November 1865, the rogue C.S.S. Shenandoah, a Confederate raider which operated from Australia to the Cape of Good Hope sinking U.S. whaling ships, docked in Liverpool and finally surrendered. In between these two events, millions of men were mobilised, thousands killed and wounded and the very identity of America challenged. Yet, the war not only divided America political north and south, it’s complicated character also split its strategic conduct west to east. What follows is a brief introduction to the war in the eastern theatre with, hopefully, some useful suggestions on recreating some of the regiments which served there on your tabletop.

The first major battle of the war was at First Bull Run (a.k.a. First Manassas,19th July 1861), when the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond, was threatened by the Union army of General Erwin McDowell. Here, McDowell’s army was broken by Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginian Brigade who famously stood ‘like a stone wall’ against all Union assaults. McDowell was narrowly defeated, largely because his 38,000 troops were overwhelmingly raw recruits and unable to put his plan into operation. The result was a rout and, although it left the way open to Washington, the Confederate Generals Beauregarde and Johnston were ordered not to pursue. It was, perhaps, the greatest lost opportunity for the Confederacy in the entire war. Instead, the Union forces regrouped under McDowell’s replacement, General George McClellan, a capable organiser but infamously timorous in attack. Union fortunes turned again at Wilson’s Creek (10th August 1861), when the Union General Lyon died thwarting a Confederate incursion into Missouri, whilst at Cheat Mountain (Sept. 1861), West Virginia was secured for the U.S. by the defeat of C.S.A. forces under Robert E. Lee. A small Union force was then wiped out at Ball’s Bluff (21st October 1861) and the war in its first year seemed to balance out in a stalemate.

Although he had 180,000 men at his disposal, McClellan was reluctant to move against Richmond and the much smaller Confederate force of 50,000, under General Johnston, that blocked his way. Prompted by Lincoln, McClellan advanced so slowly on Richmond that his command was finally over-ruled by the President himself. In the meantime, General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson seemed to threaten the approaches to Washington and threw the capital into a panic. Due to extreme fears over its safety, Lincoln siphoned off vital troops from McClellan’s offensive to guard against Jackson’s 4,300 Confederates. Although Jackson was repelled at Kernstown (23rd March 1862), Lincoln was so worried that he drew off yet more vital troops to protect Washington from a Confederate assault. General Robert E. Lee, seeing the Union’s panic, asked President Davis to reinforce Jackson in order to bait Lincoln further. The ruse worked and in the brilliant ‘Valley Campaign’ in May and June, Jackson defeated Union forces in five consecutive battles (McDowell, Front Royal, First Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic). All the time, Lincoln took troops from the planned Union offensive to guard against a threat which was never truly there.

Consequently, General McClellan’s own ‘Peninsula Campaign’ was hindered before it began; but it was certainly not helped by McClellan’s own natural caution. When he arrived outside Richmond, he found ten-miles of entrenchments (manned by dummy guns) and delayed his assault until the siege artillery he requested arrived. Union forces then bombarded these entrenchments. However, General Joseph Johnston’s army had already withdrawn two days prior to McClellan’s attack and, when he eventually did advance, he was held up by the Confederate rearguard (under General Longstreet) at Williamsburg. Then McClellan’s left flank was savaged by Johnston at Seven Pines (1st June 1862) and only the hasty deployment of reinforcements saved the Union army from destruction. During this battle, General Johnston was badly wounded and command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia passed to Robert E. Lee. With the Union threat to Richmond still evident, General Lee sent a force of Confederate cavalry, under J.E.B. Stuart, to disrupt McClellan’s supplies and stores. It was the opening move in the Seven Days’ Battles, in which Lee’s first Confederate attack at Mechanicsville (26th June 1862) was thrown back. Indeed, all of Lee’s attacks (bar Gaine’s Mill) were repeatedly repulsed but, incredibly, even though Richmond lay wide open, McClellan kept withdrawing before the unvictorious Confederates. As a result, although the Confederacy had lost 20,000 men (to the Union’s 15,000), Lee’s efforts in the Seven Days’ Battles was considered a major Confederate achievement.

President Lincoln, now frustrated beyond measure at McClellan, appointed General Henry Halleck as General-in-Chief and ordered McClellan back to Washington to reinforce General Pope’s Army of Virginia. In the meantime, at Cedar Mountain (9th August 1862), Union forces under General Banks attacked Jackson’s Confederates, only to be beaten back. ‘Stonewall’ then force-marched his army fifty-five miles in two days, to assist Lee in attacking Pope before McClellan’s army could come to his aid. In another decoy action, Jackson captured Pope’s supplies in the rear and then launched an attack on Groveton, baiting the Union forces to attack him. Again the ruse worked and at Second Bull Run (30th-31st August 1862) Pope assaulted Jackson, only to be hit in the flank by Lee and Longstreet. The Union defeat led to Pope’s hasty withdrawal to Washington and only a desperate battle at Chantilly (31st August 1862) saved the Union Army of Virginia from complete destruction. At this point, direct Presidential interference again dictated the war’s strategy, this time from Jefferson Davis, who insisted that Lee advance and deliver a major Confederate victory. This led to the Antietam campaign, in which Lee and Jackson moved against McClellan who, predictably, refused to attack, even though Lee’s army was vulnerable. Instead, Lee concentrated his army at Sharpsburg and delivered a blow to Union forces at South Mountain (14th September 1862) whilst Jackson captured the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry. By the time McClellan had resolved to attack, the Confederates had consolidated their position and fortified it at Antietam creek. The resulting battle became known as the bloodiest of the war. McClellan sent General Ambrose Burnside’s corps across the creek, which they successfully secured but, without support (which McClellan refused to give), Lee’s counter-attack swept them back. However, the cost to the Confederacy made any further invasion in the north impossible and the Union could claim Antietam as a strategic victory. It did not, however, save McClellan from being removed. He was replaced by the amiable and well-liked Burnside, who resolved to advance on Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. The subsequent battle there (13th December 1862) against fortified Confederate earthworks, became a massacre (12,500 Union casualties in one day) with Union regiments sent wave after wave to their deaths. Unsurprisingly, Burnside was replaced only a few months later, following his equally disastrous crossing of the Rappahannock river.

His successor, General ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker, decided upon a pincer movement against Lee’s Northern Virginian army but, whilst he sent one wing (under Sedgewick) to deal with Fredericksburg, he was caught by Lee at Chancellorsville. Hooker’s right wing was then crushed by an attack by Jackson (2nd May 1863) and, even though Lee discovered the following day that Fredericksburg had fallen, Hooker failed to grasp the opportunity. Instead, Lee turned upon Sedgewick and, at Salem Church (4th May 1863) defeated him, forcing Hooker to retreat back across the Rappahannock. The Chancellorsville campaign left Confederate morale boyant, although ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had been killed (he was accidentally shot by his own troops) and they had lost over 12,000 men. In contrast, however, Hooker had taken 16,792 casualties, had lost an offensive and, worse still, the initiative and, by mid-1863, Lee’s Confederates were advancing confidently into the Shenandoah Valley. At Brandy Station (9th June 1863) the largest cavalry battle of the war occurred, when Federal cavalry under Pleasanton attempted to ambush J.E.B. Stuart. The result was inconclusive strategically but, importantly, Stuart’s losses were lighter and it was widely believed to be a Union defeat. The string of perceived failures was only exacerbated when, days later, the Federal army in the lower Shenandoah was destroyed at Second Winchester (13-14th June 1863). It allowed Lee to cross the Potomac and, in the face of a Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Hooker asked Halleck for permission to try another pincer attack. This was refused and Hooker resigned, only to be replaced by George Meade; giving the Army of the Potomac the embarassing statistic of five commanders in ten months.

Whilst Lee’s cavalry contingent, under Stuart, raided Maryland, the Confederate army of Northern Virginia prepared to tackle Meade’s force. The reckoning between the two finally came at Gettysburg (1st - 3rd July 1863), the most important battle of the war. It was a bruising and bloody encounter, with its legendary engagements synonymous with the war; Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, Round Top and Little Round Top. Lee’s desperation to destroy the Union army increased as the days’ fighting wore on and, against Longstreet’s advice, he continued the Confederate attacks, despite heavy losses. Eventually, however, it became clear that Lee would have to retreat and, as the remnants of his army did so, the Union counter-attacked only to be held at bay by Longstreet. Confederate losses stood at a horrific 28,063 out of the 75,000 committed to the battle; Meade had also suffered greatly, with 23,049 casualties out of 88,289 Union troops involved. As Lee limped away, the expected pursuit by Meade never came, only proving how costly the battle had been for both sides. The next major engagement came many months later, at Bristoe Station (14th October 1863), when Lee was repelled again, although a further attack by Meade at Mine Run (Nov.1863) was driven back.

In March 1864, Uysses S. Grant was appointed Federal General-in-Chief, replacing Halleck, and took personal command of General Meade’s Army of the Potomac. The Union strategy was to sit on their own lines of communication whilst severing Lee’s army from Richmond and any hope of reinforcement. The result was the battle of the Wilderness (5th-7th May) where Lee engaged Grant in the difficult terrain of the Virginian woodlands and bracken; initially with small skirmishes then, as Grant advanced in force, savage full-scale battles. The last day was spent with both sides amidst raging forest fires, in a grim task of trying to rescue their wounded before they burnt to death. Days later, Grant attempted to outflank Lee, who reformed his line into a massive ‘V’ shape - known as the ‘Bloody Angle’. Confederate hopes were further dashed when Sheridan’s Union cavalry raided Richmond and in the desperate battle of Yellow Tavern (11th May 1864), J.E.B. Stuart was killed and his cavalry corps shattered.

Yet, Lee still managed to fend off Grant’s attack on him at Spotsylvania (12th May 1864) and as the Union forces attempted to outmanouevre him, Lee demonstrated his true ability. In an exceptional series of battles, Lee defeated Grant’s attempts to destroy him at North Anna (23rd) and Haw’s Shop (28th), which led to Grant’s all-out assault on the Confederate positions at Cold Harbor (3rd-12th June). It was a very severe Union defeat, with Grant suffering 7,000 casualties in under an hour and a woeful 13,000 men during the whole Cold Harbor battle. The Confederates, in contrast, lost 3,000 men and was to be their last major victory in the east. Elsewhere, two smaller Union armies (Butler and Sigel) were beaten at New Market and Drewry’s Bluff (15th May) and General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry was badly mauled at Trevilian Station (11th-12th June 1864). Grant, however, managed to cross the James River and sent Butler to capture Petersburg; he failed and by the time Grant arrived, Lee was totally prepared. Additionally, the Confederate General Early struck deep into Maryland, defeating a Union army at Monocacy River (9th July 1864) and advanced directly on Washington. Grant was forced to reinforce the capital but Early withdrew instead, only to smash the Union Army of West Virginia at Kernstown and Winchester (24th-25th July 1864). At this, Grant’s resolve to take the war to the Confederacy only hardened further and Sheridan was ordered to wage a ruthless campaign in the Shenandoah valley (Aug.1864). He routed the Confederates at Third Winchester (19th Sept.1864) and defeated Early at Fisher’s Hill (22nd Sept.) but the destructive Union campaigns in Georgia and the Shenandoah were beginning to have an impact. This, in Grant’s infamous words, was to turn Virginia into ‘...a barren waste...’ but it also galvanised Confederate resistance and crystallised the bitterness of the war. By 1865, the Union’s ‘scorched earth’ policy had effectively shattered the Confederate economic and social structure. Consequently, it was a major contributory factor in forcing Lee and his army’s surrender at Appomatox.

Although there were a bewildering number of regiments in the American Civil War, most followed a fairly generic pattern of dress and uniform and can be easily recreated for wargames. Union and Confederate regiments (at full strength) contained ten companies, each containing 1 Captain, 1 Lieutenant, 1 Second Lieutenant, 1 First Sergeant, 4 Sergeants, 8 Corporals, 2 Musicians, 1 waggoner and 88 privates. A typical eastern Federal regiment might be the 56th Pennsylvania, which fought at South Mountain, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station and Gettysburg. Also at Gettysburg, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine doggedly held on to Little Round Top and, largely through their tenacity and courage, saved both the position and Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Private Theodore Gerrish’s description of the battle reflected much of the character of the eastern theatre Union troops: "...stand firm ye boys from Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities!" [p486 O. Eisenschiml & R. Newman, The American Iliad- As Told by Those Who Lived It, New York 1947, Reprint 1991] Perhaps one of the most distinctive Union regiments was the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, also known as the ‘Bucktails’, who were commanded by Colonel Thomas Kane and so-called for their practice of placing a white bucktail in their kepis. They were also popularly referred to as the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (Kane Rifle Regiment or 1st Pennsylvania Rifles) and recruited largely from woodsmen, hunters and lumbermen. They were regarded as highly deadly marksmen and won particular fame from the Peninsula and gruelling battles of the eastern campaign to their last battle at Bethseda Curch in 1864.

The spirit of ‘Johnny Reb’ was also never clearer than during the campaigns in the eastern theatre and was typified by their guiding words at Bloody Angle: "We fought for this dirt, and we’re going to hold it." Confederate regiments were not always the ragged mis-uniformed grey and butternut clad ‘Rebs’ of popular imagination. For example, the Washington Light Infantry were well-equiped recruits, armed with Mississippi Rifles and with ‘WLI’ on their kepis, from the best Charleston families who served throughout South Carolina. In 1863 they were merged into the 25th South Carolina Infantry, remaining in the State until early 1864, when they were moved to Petersburg and the defence of Richmond. Other famous regiments were the First Texas at Antietam/Sharpsburg (where it lost just over 80% of its strength during the battle) whilst at Gettysburg, Garnett’s Virginian Brigade began the battle with 1,427 men; as one of the units committed to ‘Pickett’s charge’, 941 of them were killed or wounded in this single action. Perhaps the best example might be the First Tennessee Infantry, who fought their way through the war in the east from First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. The First Tennessee was also one of the regiments that surrendered with Lee at Appomatox Courthouse in April 1865.

Suggested Further Reading

Any of the Ospreys on the subject or...

  • Congdon, D. (Ed.), - Combat - the Civil War (1967, Reprint 1992)
  • Davis, W.C. - Fighting Men of the Civil War (London, 1999)
  • Davis, W.C. - Commanders of the Civil War (London, 1999)
  • Davis, W.C. - Battlefields of the Civil War (London, 1999)
  • Eicher, D.J. - Longest Night - a Military History of the Civil War (Pimlico, 2002)
  • Eisenschiml, O. & Newman,R. - American Iliad- As Told by Those Who Lived It (1947, Reprint 1991)
  • Henderson, Lt-Col. G.F.R. - Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (New York, 1994)
  • Katcher, P. - Civil War Uniforms - A Photo Guide (Arms & Armour, 1996)
  • Katcher, P. - Army of Robert E. Lee (Arms & Armour, 1994)

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