5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War


The American Civil War may be one of the most crucial periods in American History. No matter what type of history you’re interested in, the Civil War probably has everything you’re looking for. One of the most probing and controversial discussions (at least between historians) is, what battles had the largest affect on the Civil War’s ultimate outcome? There is no one true answer, as wars aren’t fought linearly, but there were battles that, in hindsight, were very important to the ultimate surrender of the South.

First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run July 1861. National Park Service Historical Archives

The First Battle of Bull Run (1861)

This is an obvious selection for most important battle as it was the first major one of the war. Every war has a beginning, and while tensions were rising way before the first shot went off, this, the first battle of Bull Run, marked the true beginning of the American Civil War. Bull Run was the location of two major battles in the war, both instigated by the Confederacy and both routing victories for the South.

It is also surprisingly deceptive because it was an embarrassing loss for the North, the eventual victors. Up until this official start to violent hostilities, the Union was very confident that they could put down any rebellion from the Southern states. While the death toll wasn’t as high in The First Battle of Bull Run as it would be in other major battles, it marked a new reality for the North, who from this point forward took the war much more seriously.

The outcome was inevitable once the rifles started firing. President Lincoln, realizing that war was no longer avoidable, increased the strength of the Union army by nearly 500,000 men. He also removed regulations limiting the length of service for all servicemen. The Federal government also passed several measures that helped bolster those numbers. It was the beginning of a national legislative agenda for freeing slaves from the South. The Confiscation Act of 1861 freed all slaves whose masters were taking part in the war.

In the end, while not the biggest nor the most explosive battle of the Civil War, it was the beginning of what proved to be years of violence that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. With this battle, the war was truly on from both sides, and it was only a matter of time before it became much more violent as the stakes became much higher.

  • Stonewall

    This article is not only ridiculously biased, but full of misinformation as well. Aside from the selection of battles, which is subjective, there are several misrepresentations and outright falsehoods presented. The first thing that presents itself is the terminology. “The American Civil War” is a misnomer. Civil war as defined by Webster is “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country” As individual seceded sovereign states or as a Confederacy of those states, they were no longer part of the union. The author also uses the yankee names for battles ie: Bull Run instead of Manassas without mention of the Southern names.
    In the first paragraph, you find the first inaccuracy. “there were battles that, in hindsight, were very important to the ultimate surrender of the South.” There was no formal surrender of the Confederate states government. Most armies in the field surrendered, however the government simply disbanded. Johnson later made a proclamation saying the war was over, but that was it.
    “Bull Run was the location of two major battles in the war, both instigated by the Confederacy” By calling up state militia’s and citizens to defend against the invading federal army we somehow “instigated” these battles? Absurd.
    “President Lincoln, realizing that war was no longer avoidable,” Yes, by instigating an attack at Sumter, raising an invading army and then sending it to Virginia to be soundly whipped at Manassas I’m sure he realized that war was no longer avoidable. War was his intention all along.
    “It was the beginning of a national legislative agenda for freeing slaves from the South.” That’s odd considering that slavery was still 100% legal by federal law throughout the war. They offered to protect slavery by making a constitutional amendment, which passed Congress was signed by Buchannan and endorsed by lincoln, but failed to be ratified because the Southern states seceded anyway. The north was not fighting for abolition of slavery nor was the South fighting for its perpetuation. The referenced Confiscation Act considered slaves as captured property and when one union general ordered these slaves be freed, the order was countermanded by lincoln.
    “The official Executive Order that freed all Southern slaves didn’t actually take effect until the beginning of the next year.” The E.P. did not free a single slave anywhere. He had no authority to make laws for another country, and chose not to free slaves where he did have the authority to do so. The E.P. had a few different aims, namely discouraging foreign intervention, inciting slave revolt, and making it legal for contraband slaves to join the federal army.
    “At the time he wanted to entice Maryland, which was a still a slave holding state, to join the Confederacy.” Maryland is presented as a loyal union state. The author leaves out the part where Maryland was occupied by the federals after the Pratt St. Riot. They arrested and imprisoned without trial, the members of their legislature who were considering secession and seized control of the state government.
    “By freeing the slaves, Lincoln prevented that action as the British people were vehemently anti-slavery.” lincoln didn’t free any slaves. The second 13th Amendment wasn’t ratified until after his death in 1865. The British people being anti-slavery is a bit of a stretch considering they were one of the main slave trading countries from the 1600’s to the 1800’s and had only emancipated their slaves in 1838, which they did peacefully, and compensated the owners.

    “If you’re a war historian, the Chattanooga Campaign really highlights the brilliance of Grant and Sherman’s military strategy.” Grant and Sherman were not brilliant. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you have more men than the other guy, unlike McClellan. What it highlights is the ineptitude of Bragg who was one of the worst commanders in the South. The federal armies went through a litany of generals before they found grant and sherman who were willing to sacrifice as many men as it took and were willing to wage war on civilians.

    “Led by famous Major General William T. Sherman, the battle is often touted as a primer for battle mechanics and strategy. Sherman brought fear to some of the generals in the South, including Joseph E. Johnston, who had repeatedly fled Sherman’s forces, but was forced to engage in Atlanta” Sherman was undoubtedly infamous, but not because of his military prowess. Sherman, Sheridan and their ilk were war criminals who waged war on defenseless women and children, white and black in the name of the union. Joe Johnston was an accomplished and able commander who had served in the war with Mexico. His withdrawal strategy in the Atlanta campaign wasn’t because he was scared, any more than Lee’s similar strategy in Virginia. They were forced back by overwhelming numbers, not for any lack of courage or valor in defense of their homes.
    This author certainly has a lot to learn about the war. By highlighting these inaccuracies perhaps it will encourage others to research the matter further to draw their own conclusions.

  • William Frisbee

    I believe included should be the Battle of Cedar Run. The Battle of Cedar Mountain, also known as Slaughter’s Mountain or Cedar Run, took place on August 9, 1862, in Culpeper County, Virginia. It was an awakening. The Battle of Cedar Mountain was the first serious clash between the Army of Northern Virginia and Maj. Gen. John Pope’s new Army of Virginia. The close-run Confederate victory at Cedar Mountain was the springboard for the 1862 Northern Virginia campaign that brought the fighting back to the fields of Manassas in August of 1862.

    • Matthew Weber

      There were several others that could have made the list, but the assignment was for only 5. I probably could have named 20 total or more that had major affects on the outcome of the war. Unfortunately I had to narrow it down.

  • Jennifer Pearce

    “Lee failed with most of his objectives” ?

  • John Stones

    Typical yankee propaganda! Lee and the South won nearly 2/3s of the battles and it had little to do with slavery. Lincoln just used that as a wartime ploy to keep the European powers from entering the War on the side of the Confederacy!