10 Moments That Shaped the Civil War
- February 4 — The Washington Peace Conference started in Washington, but failed to resolve the Secession Crisis.
- February 7 — The Confederate States of America was established.
- March 4 — Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States.
- April 12 — The war officially started with the Battle of Fort Sumter.
- April 15 — President Lincoln issued a Proclamation asking for volunteers.
- April 15 — Virginia seceded in response to Lincoln’s proclamation.
- April 23 — Robert E. Lee accepted command of the Provisional Army of Virginia.
- June 3 — Union forces won the Battle of Phillipi, which is considered the first battle in the Eastern Theater of the war.
- June 10 — The Battle of Big Bethel is considered to be the first major land engagement of the Civil War. Confederates won the battle.
- June 20 — Counties in Western Virginia seceded from Virginia, paving the way for West Virginia statehood.
1861, January — the Secession Crisis Continues
The Secession Crisis intensified when Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November 1860. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union
Afterward, President James Buchanan refused to surrender Federal forts and installations to states that seceded from the Union. Between December 1860 and March 4, 1861, the Southern States seized forts, arsenals, naval yards, customs houses, mints, post offices, and more Federal buildings and sites, including Fort Johnson in Charleston, South Carolina, Fort Pulaski and Fort Jackson in Savannah, Georgia, and the Federal arsenal at Apalachicola, Florida.
However, U.S. forces, led by Robert Anderson, refused to evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina responded by ordering the South Carolina militia to build artillery batteries around Charleston Harbor that could fire on the fort and prevent Union supply ships from reaching it.
On January 9, the South Carolina Militia fired on the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship sent by the Buchanan Administration to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Hit by two shells, the ship withdrew without delivering its cargo.
January 9 — Mississippi seceded from the Union.
January 10 — Florida seceded from the Union.
January 11 — Alabama seceded from the Union.
January 16 — Crittenden Compromise Defeated
On December 18, 1860, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden introduced a proposal in the U.S. Senate to save the Union. The Crittenden Compromise included 6 constitutional amendments and 4 Congressional resolutions. The Compromise recommended modifications to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the repeal of state-level “Personal Liberty Laws.”
At the urging of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, Radical Republican Senators opposed the Crittenden Compromise because it would have permitted the extension of slavery in future U.S. territories and states.
On January 16, the Senate voted 25-23 against the Crittenden Compromise and it was never seriously considered again.
January 19 — Georgia seceded from the Union.
January 21 — Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate.
January 26 — Louisiana seceded from the Union.
January 29 — Kansas was admitted to the Union as a Free State.
February 1 — The Texas convention approved secession.
February 4 — Washington Peace Conference
Delegates from 21 states met in Washington to propose 7 amendments to the Constitution, including protection for slavery in the South, but the plan failed to gain traction in Congress. Because many of the delegates are elderly men, critics referred to it as the “Old Gentleman’s Convention.”
February 4 — Montgomery Convention
Delegates from South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana met in Montgomery, Alabama in what is called the Montgomery Convention. The purpose is to organize a provisional government. Texas delegates arrive after the convention begins.
- February 4 — Howell Cobb of Georgia was chosen to preside over the meetings.
- February 5 — A Committee of Twelve was chosen to organize a provisional government. The committee was led by Christopher G. Memminger of South Carolina.
- February 7 — A Provisional Constitution was proposed.
- February 8 — The Provisional Constitution was adopted, establishing the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States.
- February 9 — The Provisional Congress selected a committee to draft a permanent Constitution. Robert Barnwell Rhett Sr. of South Carolina led the committee.
- February 9 — Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was selected as the Provisional President of the Confederacy. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia was selected to be Vice President.
- February 28 — The first draft of the Constitution was presented to the convention, opening the Confederate States Constitutional Convention.
- March 4 — The convention adopted the “Stars and Bars” as its flag.
- March 11 — The convention adopted the Constitution.
February 7 — The Confederate States of America is Established
The Confederate States of America was formed on February 7, under a Provisional Constitution. Two days later, Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer, was named President of the Provisional Government. Davis was officially sworn in on February 18.
February 18 — U.S. Brigadier General David E. Twiggs surrendered U.S. military posts in the Department of Texas to the State of Texas and effectively surrendered one-fourth of the United States Army, which was stationed in Texas. Twiggs tells authorities in Washington he acted under threat of force but his actions were viewed as treasonous.
February 23 — President-elect Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C.
February 23 — The people of Texas voted to approve secession.
February 28 — The U.S. Congress organized the Colorado Territory.
March 1 — U.S. Secretary of War Joseph Holt ordered General Twiggs dismissed from the Army “for his treachery to the flag of his country.” Twiggs responded by joining the Confederate Army.
March 2 — Congress organized the Nevada Territory.
March 3 — Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan
General Winfield Scott proposed 4 options for dealing with the Secession Crisis. One option suggested blockading ports “of which this Government has lost the command.” When the details of Scott’s plan leaked to the press, newspaper editors were critical. They felt it would take too long to restore the Union. They called it the “Anaconda Plan.”
March 4 — Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. In his inaugural address, he said:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
March 21 — Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, delivered his “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Georgia.
April 12 — Fort Sumter
South Carolina — On April 10, 1861, Brigadier General P.G.T Beauregard, in charge of Confederate forces in Charleston, asked Union garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, to surrender Fort Sumter. Anderson refused.
On April 12, Confederate batteries bombarded the fort, and it was unable to fight back effectively. The next day, Anderson surrendered the fort, and the garrison left on April 14.
During the bombardment, there were no casualties, but one Union artilleryman died, and 3 were wounded when a cannon exploded during a salute on April 14.
April 15 — Lincoln Calls for Volunteers
President Lincoln issued a proclamation, asking for 75,000 volunteers from the Northern states to “repossess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union.” The term of enlistment was for 3 months.
April 17 — Virginia Secedes
In response to Lincoln’s proclamation, Virginia seceded from the Union by repealing its ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Virginia Ordinance of Secession stated: “Now, therefore, we the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain…That said Constitution of the United States of America is no longer binding on any of the Citizens of this State.”
April 18 — Blair Offers Command to Lee
Presidential Advisor Francis P. Blair offered Robert E. Lee the role of Major General, in command of the Union Army. According to some sources, Lee said: “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
April 19 — President Lincoln issued a proclamation, authorizing the blockade of Southern ports. The Union blockade of ports in the Gulf states started, but many ships still moved in and out of the ports. The blockade was based on General Scott’s Anaconda Plan.
April 19 — Baltimore Riot
Baltimore — As troops traveled through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C., divided sympathies between pro-North and pro-South citizens in Maryland led to a riot between the 6th Massachusetts Infantry and an agitated crowd. The incident led to military rule in Baltimore.
April 20 — Virginia forces seized the Navy Yard at Norfolk.
April 20 — Robert E. Lee Resigns
Virginia — Lee turned down the offer to lead the Union Army, refusing to take up arms against his home state, Virginia. Lee submitted his resignation to General Winfield Scott, which said:
“I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any Commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has Cost me to separate myself from a Service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors & the most Cordial friendships from any Comrades. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for kindness & Consideration & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry with me, to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind Consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the Continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me.”
April 23 — Virginia chose Lee to lead the Provisional Army of Virginia and he accepted the offer.
April 27 — President Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the United States.
April 27 — General Orders No. 12 issued by the U.S. War Department established the First Army of the Shenandoah.
More States Secede From the Union
As a result of Lincoln’s call for volunteers, more states seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.
- May 6 — Arkansas
- May 7 — Tennessee
- May 21 — North Carolina
May 3 — Lincoln asked for another 42,000 volunteers to serve for three years, expanding the size of the Regular Army.
May 13 — The United Kingdom Issues Declaration of Neutrality
United Kingdom — Queen Victoria and the United Kingdom proclaimed neutrality, saying “And whereas we, being at peace with the Government. of the United States, have declared our Royal determination to maintain a strict and impartial neutrality in the contest between the said contending parties.”
May 18 — Sewell’s Point
Virginia — Two Union gunboats, including the USS Monticello, clashed with Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point while trying to enforce the Union naval blockade at Hampton Roads. Both sides inflicted minimal damage on each other.
May 20 — Kentucky declared neutrality.
May 21 — Montgomery Convention Ends
Alabama — The Montgomery Convention ended. During the proceedings, the delegates voted to move the capital of the Confederacy from Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia. Richmond was the Confederacy’s second-largest and most industrialized city.
May 24 — Federal Forces Occupy Arlington Heights
Virginia — U.S. forces crossed the Potomac River and occupied Arlington Heights, the home of Robert E. Lee. During the occupation of nearby Alexandria, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, commander of the 11th New York Infantry and a close friend of the Lincolns, was shot and killed by the owner of the Marshall House after removing a Confederate flag from its roof. Ellsworth was the first US officer killed in the war.
May 27 — The War Department created the Department of Northeastern Virginia, which included part of Virginia east of the Allegheny Mountains and north of the James River, except for an area 60 miles around Fort Monroe. Brigadier-General Irvin McDowell was placed in command of the new department, which was a precursor to the Department of the Potomac.
May 29 — Aquia Creek
Virginia — During the Union Blockade of Chesapeake Bay, three Union naval vessels shelled Confederate batteries near the mouth of Aquia Creek, guarding the northern terminus of the Richmond railroad. Confederates worried about a troop landing, but it failed to happen. The bombardment had inconclusive results, but the batteries were later removed.
June 1 — Battle of Fairfax Court House. Inconclusive.
June 1 — Battle of Arlington Mills. Inconclusive.
June 3 — Philippi
Western Virginia — Colonel Thomas A. Morris, in temporary command of Union forces in Western Virginia, organized a two-pronged advance with Ebenezer Dumont and Benjamin Franklin Kelley against a small Confederate group in Philippi led by George A. Porterfield. Kelley took back roads from near Grafton on June 2, while Dumont moved south from Webster. They both reached Philippi before dawn on the 3rd. The surprise attack led to the Confederate troops retreating to Huttonsville. Despite its small scale, this marked the first significant land action in the Eastern Theater and the Western Virginia Campaign.
June 3 — Stephen Douglas Dies
Illinois — Stephen Douglas was once a fierce political rival of Lincoln and supported him after he was elected President. After Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers, he met with Douglas in the White House and recruited him to travel through the Midwest to rally support for the war. Following stops in Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois, Douglas falls ill.
During his last public speech on May 1, 1861, in Chicago, Douglas said: “The conspiracy is now known; armies have been raised, war is levied to accomplish it. There are only two sides to the question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots or traitors.”
Suffering from his illness, his condition worsened in May. After lingering near death for several weeks, he died at Chicago’s Tremont House at 9:10 p.m. on Monday, June 3, 1861.
July 4 — Congress authorized raising an additional 500,000 men for the war effort.
June 10 — Big Bethel
Virginia — In Virginia’s first land battle, Major General Benjamin F. Butler sent columns from Hampton and Newport News to confront Confederate outposts at Little and Big Bethel. Confederates left Little Bethel and retreated to their defenses behind Brick Kiln Creek near Big Bethel Church. Federals, led by Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce, pursued and launched a frontal attack on the road but were pushed back. The 5th New York Zouaves tried to flank the Confederate left but were also repulsed, resulting in the death of Colonel Theodore Winthrop, one of the first Union officers to be killed in the war. The Union forces, in disarray, withdrew to Hampton and Newport News.
June 17 — Battle of Vienna. Confederate victory.
June 17 — Boonville
Missouri — Claiborne Jackson, the pro-Southern Governor of Missouri, aimed to make the state part of the Confederacy. Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon moved to suppress Jackson’s Missouri State Guard, led by Sterling Price. Upon reaching the state capital, Jefferson City, Lyon discovered that Jackson and Price had retreated to Boonville. Lyon embarked on steamboats, transported his troops below Boonville, marched to the town, and engaged the Confederates. In a brief battle led by Colonel John S. Marmaduke, Lyon dispersed the Confederates and occupied Boonville. This early victory secured Union control of the Missouri River and thwarted efforts to align Missouri with the Confederacy.
June 20 — Western Virginia Secedes from Virginia
Western Virginia — At the end of the Wheeling Convention on June 20, 1861, the northwestern counties of Virginia broke away from that state to form West Virginia. West Virginia was officially designated and accepted as the 35th state of the Union on June 20, 1863.