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The Civil War was the most important event in American history. That’s because it decided what kind of nation America would be and whether or not the promise of universal liberty would be fulfilled. And what decided the outcome of the Civil War was its battles. Hosted by history professors James Early and Scott Rank, this podcast explores the ten most important battles in the Civil War. It features every major conflict, from the initial shots fired at the Battle of First Bull Run to the end of the war at Appomattox Court House. Key battles include Shiloh, the Seven Days Battle, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, and the Overland Campaign. James and Scott explore additional topics such as emancipation, the naval wars of the Civil War, and weapons technology. Plus they get deep into the biographical backgrounds of the Union and Confederate generals (Grant, Sherman, McClellan, Thomas, Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, and Longstreet).
Scroll down to listen to the episodes in this podcast series. You will also find detailed notes of each battle, along with maps, if you click on the links that read “Click Here For More Information.”
Introduction to Key Battles in the Civil War
The Civil War pitted brother against brother and divided a nation. It also featured the most epic—and deadliest—battles in American history. From Shiloh to Vicksburg to Gettsburg, these battles resulted in higher casualty rates than any other armed conflict the United States has ever faced.
But beyond that the Civil War did more to define and change the United States than any other event. It determine what kind of nation the United State would be.
This is the first episode in a multi-part series on the ten most important battles of the Civil War. Scott Rank is joined by history professor James Early to get into the military history of the Civil War, whose effects are still being felt in the United States and the rest of the world today.
Civil War Episode 1: Background to the Civil War
The origins of the Civil War go back decades, even before the United States became an independent nation The federal union had always been precarious, ever since the framing of the Constitution, with the institution of slavery led to two distinct cultures and societies. In this episode, Scott and James discuss the main social and political issues that sparked the Civil War.
Civil War Episode 2: Battle of First Bull Run
Abraham Lincoln believed that the Civil War would be over in a few months, with the Union Army marching on Richmond by late 1861. The Union and the Confederate armies hastily assembled armies and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell led his unseasoned Union Army across Bull Run against the equally inexperienced Confederate Army of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. The Confederates won a surprise victory, particularly due to the efforts of Stonewall Jackson, and routed the Union. Both sides dug in their heels for a long war ahead.
Civil War Episode 3: Border States and the War in the West
In the summer of 1861, four slave states had still not seceded. If even two or three joined the Confederacy, the Union would be in big trouble. Lincoln was determined to keep all four in (Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri). We will look at these developments, along with the The War in the West, April 1861 – April 1862, where many famous Civil War figures emerge, such as Ulysses S. Grant.
Maps For This Episode
Civil War Episode 4: The Battle of Shiloh
The Battle of Shiloh was a battle in the Western Theater fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee. On the first morning, 40,000 Confederate troops struck Union Soldiers at Pittsburg Landing. They were under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant. The Confederate Army of Mississippi, under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, launched a surprise attack on Grant’s army from its base in Corinth, Mississippi. Johnston was mortally wounded during the fighting; Beauregard took command of the army and decided against pressing the attack late in the evening. Overnight, Grant was reinforced by one of his divisions stationed further north and was joined by three divisions. The Union forces began an counterattack the next morning which reversed the Confederate gains of the previous day.
Civil War Episode 5: The 1862 Peninsula Campaign
In early 1862 the Union Army launched a major operation in southeastern Virginia, the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theater. Lincoln replaced McDowell with George B. McClellan as commander. He reorganized the army, whipped it into shape, and also renamed it the Army of the Potomac. The goal was to roll over the Confederacy. The Rebels were not about to let that happen.
Map For This Episode
Civil War Episode 6: The Seven Days Battle
Union General George B. McClellan, who led 100,000 men and moved as fast as an iceberg, attempted to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond in a series of six different battles along the Virginia Peninsula from June 25 to July 1, 1862). Confederate General Robert E. Lee drove back McClellan’s Union forces from a position 4 miles (6 km) east of the Confederate capital to a new base of operations at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
Map For This Episode
Civil War Episode 7: The Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam—an 1862 clash between Robert E. lee’s Army of Northern Virginian and George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac—was the deadliest one-day battle in American history, with a total of 22,717 dead, wounded or missing. It came after Lee thwarted McClellan’s plans to lay siege to the Confederate capitol of Richmond and tried to seize the momentum by crossing north into Maryland.
Civil War Episode 8: Sidetrack Episode on Emancipation
The entire point of the Civil War was to end slavery, right? Not exactly, and definitely not at the beginning of the War. The North went to war strictly to save the Union and had little interest in abolishing slavery in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only came about due to a complex convergence of political, social, and cultural interests, which we will address in this episode.
Civil War Episode 9: The Battle of Fredericksburg
Following McClellan’s disastrous Union loss at Antietam, Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside, who planned to march to the city of Fredericksburg, getting there before Lee and possibly marching all the way to Richmond. But once they confronted the Confederacy at the battle of Fredericksburg the Federals made 14 total charges that were all repulsed. One Federal general wrote “It was a great slaughter pen. They may as well have tried to take Hell.”
Map For This Episode
Civil War Episode 10: The Battle of Chancellorsville
The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered Robert E. Lee’s masterpiece. His reputation as a military genius was sealed by fighting an incredibly successful offensive battle despite being outnumbered 2-to-1 and launching attacks on multiple fronts.
After another humiliating Union defeat at Fredericksburg, On January 26, Lincoln replaced Gen. Ambrose Burnside with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, with 120,000 troops. Hooker’s plan was to send his cavalry on a raid behind Lee to cut off Lee’s communication with Richmond. He would leave 40,000 troops in front of Lee near Fredericksburg, and Hooker himself would march up the Rappahannock River and try to go around Lee’s left. If he didn’t defeat Lee at that time, he would at least force Lee to retreat. But Lee managed to achieve victory despite splitting up his forces into vastly inferior numbers and fighting the Union on multiple fronts. The outcome was 17,000 Federal casualties to 13,000 Confederates
Map For This Episode
Civil War Episode 11: The Western Campaign and the Siege of Vicksburg
In the next two episodes Scott and James will discuss the Siege of Vicksburg. In the summer of 1863, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee came to Vicksburg, located on a high bluff converged on Vicksburg, a Mississippi town on the same river. Union occupation of the town was critical to control of the strategic river. If it fell then the Confederacy would completely lose access to critical supply lines in Texas and Mexico.
Grant’s six-week campaign began in June. His army came to Vicksburg, which was defended by Confederate General John C. Pemberton’s men, who built a series of trenches, forts, and artillery lunettes surrounding the city. Grant’s army surrounded Pemberton and outnumbered him two to one. Trapped for six weeks, the residents of Vicksburg were forced to dig caves and eat rats to survive. But, due to Pemberton’s diligence and resourceful mind, they continued to trust his command despite dire circumstances.
Civil War Episode 12: The Fall of Vicksburg
Welcome to the second part in our episodes on the Vicksburg Campaign, one of the most consequential Civil War battles in the Western theatre and what many historians consider to be the turning point of the war.
Grant’s Vicksburg campaign is considered one of the most brilliant of the war. With the loss of Pemberton’s army at Vicksburg and later Union victory at Port Hudson five days later, the Union now controlled the entire Mississippi River. The Confederacy was now split in half. Grant’s reputation soared, which led to him being appointed as General-in-Chief of the Union armies
Civil War Episode 13: The Battle of Gettysburg
The 1863 Battle of Gettysburg stopped Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North. It was the deadliest battle of the Civil War, with over 50,000 casualties during the three day battle, a scale of suffering never seen before or since in America. The Union won victory and had new life injected into its war effort. The Confederacy saw its best chance at striking a deadly blow against the North and demoralizing them slip away.
Civil War Episode 14: The Battle of Chickamauga
The Battle of Chickamauga marked the end of Union Maj. Gen. William Rosencran’s offensive into southwestern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia and the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theatre. More died here than in any other battle, save Gettysburg. After the battle Union forces retired to Chattanooga while Confederates besieged the city by occupying the surrounding heights.
Civil War Episode 15: Chattanooga
Following Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, Union forces retreated to the railroad junction of Chattanooga, Tennessee. From November 23-25, 1863, Union troops routed the Confederates at the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionaries Ridge; the victories forces the Confederate troops back into Georgia, ending the siege of Chattanooga and creating the groundwork for Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and March to the Sea in 1864.
Civil War Episode 16: The Battle of Atlanta
In the fall of 1864, the Union Army now had full momentum against the Confederacy, pushing deeper into the South than ever before. General Sherman overwhelmed forces led by John Bell Hood. With the fall of Atlanta, Lincoln nearly assured his re-election in 1864.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Civil War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Civil War.