During the four years of fighting in the American Civil War, the Armies of the United States and the Confederacy suffered 1.7 million casualties (killed or wounded) in combat. Shockingly, nearly 17 percent of these casualties occurred in just ten horrifying battles. Read below for a list of the ten bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
10. The Battle of Fredericksburg
Date: December 11—15, 1862
Location: Fredericksburg, VA
Union Casualties: 12,653 (1,284 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 4,201 (408 killed)
On December 11, 1862 Union engineers began to push pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock river outside of the city of Fredericksburg in the Confederate state of Virginia. Union artillery had largely destroyed the old city of Fredericksburg, but the ensuing Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13 was a Union disaster. Unon General Ambrose Burnside’s hopes to get around Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s right flank (held by Stonewall Jackson) came to nothing because of poor execution, although the Union forces very nearly broke through.
On the Confederate side, perhaps the greatest result of the campaign was that it sealed Lee’s position as the great military idol of the Confederacy.
The Federal commander resorted to unimaginative frontal assaults against a very strong Confederate position on Marye’s Heights. The Union lost heavily and gained nothing tactically or strategically as the result of this battle. The army returned to its pre-battle lines, and the Northern public expressed great indignation about the battle and the Republican direction of the war. The series of seemingly pointless frontal assaults against well-positioned Confederates made the defeat at Fredericksburg all the more bitter, and the infamous “Mud March” in January ended Burnside’s brief tenure at army headquarters. The aftermath of Fredericksburg marked a low point for the Army of the Potomac.
9. Battle of Stone’s River
Date: December 31, 1862—January 2, 1863
Location: Murfreesboro, TN
Union Casualties: 12,906 (1,677 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 11,739 (1,294 killed)
In late December, just after Christmas, Union General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland marched toward Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which lay a short distance southeast of Nashville near Murfreesboro. The Confederate cavalry harassed his advance. Rosecrans nevertheless made rapid progress in this unusual (for the Civil War) winter campaign.
After a day of tense inaction, fighting on January 2 favored the Union. Bragg ordered desperate frontal assaults that were easily repulsed. Bragg decided to retreat deeper into southeast Tennessee on January 3–4, 1863.
Stones River or Murfreesboro was a bloody, but essentially indecisive, military contest. Casualties for the Union and Confederacy made up the highest combined percentage for any major battle of the war. The two armies settled into winter quarters and left the strategic situation in middle Tennessee similar to what it was before the battle.
8. Second Battle of Bull Run
Date: August 28–30, 1862
Location: Manassas, VA
Union Casualties: 14,462 (1,747 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 11,739 (1,294 killed)
The Second Battle of Bull Run followed Union Commander Geroge B. McClellan’s retreat from Richmond after the failed Seven Days battles that ended the Peninsular Campaign against Richmond.
The initial confrontation pitted Lee against a separate army headed by Union General John Pope, who brought a harsher type of war to Virginia. He threatened to execute guerrillas, arrest citizens who harbored irregulars, and drive from their homes civilians in Union lines who refused to take the oath of allegiance. He also vowed to take whatever his army needed from civilians, thus earning the enmity of white Southerners in Virginia. Pope planned a campaign toward the rail junction at Gordonsville that would sever Lee’s rail connections to the Shenandoah Valley via the Orange and Alexandria and the Virginia Central Railroads.
Lee reacted to Pope’s movements by first reorganizing his army into two “wings”, then dividing and then reuniting it again. Conferedate General James Longstreet’s wing of Lee’s army kept an eye on McClellan below Richmond. Stonewall Jackson’s wing marched to meet Pope along the Rappahannock river.
The reunited Army of Northern Virginia defeated Pope’s army at Second Manassas (August 28–30). Jackson’s wing flanked the Federals, destroyed their main supply base at Manassas Junction, and engaged them on the old Manassas (Bull Run) battlefield. Longstreet’s wing arrived on the battlefield opposite Pope’s left flank. Pope didn’t realize that these CSA forces had arrived to face him. The Confederates delivered a decisive attack on August 30 that drove the Federals from the field. The Union troops withdrew in good order back to the defenses of Washington, D.C. Pope was removed from command and posted to Minnesota to fight the Sioux; McClellan was reinstated by Lincoln as the field commander.
7. Battle of Chancellorsville
Date: April 30 – May 6, 1863
Location: Chancellorsville, VA
Union Casualties: 17,287 (1,606 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 13,303 (1,665 killed)
After the terrible loss at Fredericksburg, some of Burnside’s subordinates, including Joseph Hooker, lobbied with Congress for a change of command. Lincoln replaced Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker initially showed great promise as commander of the Army of the Potomac. He brought a combination of talent and extreme ambition to his post. He displayed formidable organizational skills, reinvigorated the Army of the Potomac, and planned a brilliant offensive that got off to a promising start in late April. Correcting Burnside’s shortcomings in many areas, Hooker improved delivery of supplies and medical care.
He also developed a strategic plan that shifted the bulk of his army to an advantageous position behind the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg by the end of April. Lincoln wanted him to focus on Lee’s army, not on Richmond. Hooker planned a cavalry raid toward Richmond, demonstrating with a large force in Lee’s front and swinging the bulk of his army around Lee’s left flank and in behind his positions.
This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. It’s available for audio and video download here.
But Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson countered Hooker’s moves with a dazzling response that seemed to drain all energy and daring from the Federal commander. Having seized the initiative, the badly outnumbered Confederates won a remarkable victory that sent the Union army reeling back across the Rappahannock River in early May.
Hooker’s planning and splendid early movements reach a shattering climax in the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 1–4. Hooker abandoned his offensive intentions when Lee (after dividing his forces) attacked on May 1 instead of retreating toward Richmond. On May 2, Lee split his army again as “Stonewall” Jackson marched around Hooker’s right flank and delivered a crushing attack against the XI Corps. Jackson was fatally wounded by his own men while returning from nighttime reconnaissance. On May 3–4, Confederate attacks against two parts of Hooker’s army persuaded the Union commander to retreat back across the Rappahannock.
6. The Battle of Shiloh
Date: April 6–7, 1862
Location: Hardin County, TN
Union Casualties: 13,047 (1,754 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 10,699 (1,728 killed)
Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing) unfolded as a chaotic battle that set a new standard for slaughter and ended in Union victory. The Confederate advance from Corinth was slow and poorly masked, and the timetable for the attack was too optimistic, so Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard counseled Southern Commander Albert Sidney Johnston to call off the attack.
Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant’s army was surprised by the Confederate attacks on April 6, 1862. The Confederates drove Grant’s army back to the banks of the Tennessee River in the morning fighting. The fighting was savage; the center of the Union line managed to hold out in a spot that came to be known as “the Hornet’s Nest.” The delay in the Confederate advance enabled Union General Don Carlos Buell to come up to supporting distance across the Tennessee River. Thousands of green soldiers on each side failed to fight well.
Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, A. S. Johnston, and other senior officers also made a number of mistakes: Grant and Sherman were sloppy in taking precautions against a Confederate attack. Johnston mismanaged the Confederate attacks on April 6 and failed to seize Pittsburg Landing. Johnston was wounded while on the Confederate right and died at about 2:30 p.m. Command devolved on Beauregard, who called off the attacks in the evening.
Grant’s resolve and Buell’s reinforcements eventually won the day for the Union. On 7 April, Beauregard, unsupported and with no reinforcements from Confederate General Van Dorn, was unable to stop Union counterattacks. Grant’s forces regained the ground lost the day before, and Beauregard abandoned the field. Casualties at Shiloh exceeded those suffered by Americans in all previous wars combined. The carnage shocked people in both the North and the South.
5. The Battle of Antietam
Date: September 17, 1862
Location: Sharpsburg, MD
Union Casualties: 12,410 (2,108 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 10,316 (1,567 killed)
Following his victory at Second Manassas, and after dispatching Stonewall Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry, a Federal arsenal, Lee reunited and concentrated his nearly 35,000-man army near Sharpsburg, Maryland (along Antietam Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River). One division (A. P. Hill’s) remained in Harpers Ferry to guard 12,000 Union prisoners. Union General George B. McClellan, with nearly 70,000 men, launched heavy assaults in three sectors of the battlefield. His goal was to grind Lee down and cut him off from the Potomac River, his line of retreat. The Union assaults were not coordinated, however. A. P. Hill’s Light Division made a forced march from Harpers Ferry and arrived in time to turn the tide of the battle.
Lee barely held his position on September 17 and remained on the field for another day before retreating across the Potomac. The battle resulted in nearly 23,000 casualties, making this the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. Photographs from the battlefield caused a sensation.
4. Battle of the Wilderness
Date: May 5–7, 1864
Location: Spotsylvania County, VA
Union Casualties: 17,666 (2,246 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 11,033 (1,477 killed)
The Battle of the Wilderness was the first major battle in what came to be called the Overland Campaign, which proved to be the most severe fighting of the entire war, as Grant steadily pushed Lee towards Richmond in a bid to destroy Lee’s army and capture the Confederate capital city. Lee attacked Grant on May 5 as the Union army marched south through the area of scrub forest known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Grant counterattacked along the Plank Road and Turnpike. There was a gap between the two wings of Lee’s army. James Longstreet’s First Corps had not reached the battlefield. The first day ended with Lee’s army in a vulnerable position.
Grant resumed heavy assaults on May 6. Lee’s army almost broke on A. P. Hill’s end of the line and Lee risked his life to rally his troops. Longstreet arrived just in time to repair the line. Confederate flank attacks gained success on both ends of Grant’s line, but Longstreet was badly wounded, accidentally shot by his own troops. This was a great loss to the Army of Northern Virginia. The second day’s fighting ended with the lines essentially where they had been at dawn. Fires in the woods killed many of the wounded men, who couldn’t be rescued by their comrades.
3. Battle of Chickamauga
Date: September 18–20, 1863
Location: Catoosa County, GA
Union Casualties: 16,170 (1,657 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 18,454 (2,312 killed)
The Battle of Chickamauga gave Confederate General Braxton Bragg a striking tactical victory. Union General Rosecrans concentrated his army just south of Chattanooga in the valley of Chickamauga Creek by September 18. Bragg’s reinforced Army of Tennessee, which with its almost 70,000 men outnumbered Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland, attacked on September 19 and 20. Bragg wanted to cut Rosecrans off from Chattanooga. Then Bragg planned to trap and envelop Rosecrans. Fighting started on the September 19 as it had at Gettysburg, with a cavalry and infantry skirmish that escalated into a general engagement. There was no decisive result after the first day.
Confederate assaults on September 20, although not developing as planned, shattered part of the Union line; the breakthrough was spearheaded by Longstreet’s forces. After Rosecrans and about one-third of the Union army fled the field, George H. Thomas conducted a tenacious defense on Snodgrass Hill on the Union left and withdrew in good order. Although it was a tactical victory, Chickamauga failed to convey any long-term advantage to the Confederates.
2. Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse
Date: May 8–21, 1864
Location: Spotsylvania County, VA
Union Casualties: 18,399 (2,725 killed)
Confederate Casualties: 12,687 (1,515 killed)
After the horrifying fighting at The Battle of the Wilderness, Grant pressed southward rather than retreating. Union troops cheered him when they realized they would continue the campaign; the Confederates were surprised by Grant’s move to their right flank. The armies collided again in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 8–21. Poor Union movement allowed Lee’s army to set up a defense at Spotsylvania just in time to block Grant’s advance.
The Confederates erected field breastworks; part of their line was an exposed salient dubbed the “Mule Shoe.” Grant mounted assaults on May 8–9 that Lee’s troops easily repulsed, but a Union attack under Emory Upton broke through the west face of the “Mule Shoe” salient on May 10. Lack of reinforcements and coordination limited Union success; Grant determined to launch an assault against the “Mule Shoe.”
Grant attacked the “Mule Shoe” with 20,000 troops on May 12. The Federals enjoyed initial success, but the Confederates counterattacked and stabilized the line. Hideous fighting ensued for twenty hours at the northwest arc of the “Mule Shoe,” later called the “Bloody Angle.” Lee constructed a new line at the base of the salient and occupied it on the morning of May 13. Various engagements between May 13 and May 21 yielded no decisive result, and the armies proceeded south after Spotsylvania, having reached no clear decision.
1. Battle of Gettysburg
Date: July 1–3, 1863
Location: Gettysburg, PA
Union Casualties: 23,049(3,155 killed)
Confederate Casualties: estimated 25,000
The armies made contact near Gettysburg on June 30 and fought the largest battle of the war on July 1–3, 1863. The first day was a striking Confederate success, despite the fact that Lee’s forces were not concentrated or coordinated. Two Union infantry corps were badly mauled. The Federals just managed to hang on to high ground south of Gettysburg. Meade himself arrived on the field that night; more troops from both sides also arrived.
Lee continued the tactical offensive on the second day (July 2). He has been much criticized for this decision. Despite poor execution, Lee’s attacks pushed the Union defenders to the limit on both ends of Meade’s line. Lee mounted a last major tactical offensive known as Pickett’s Charge on the third day. But this charge against the Union center was not his first plan. It failed completely, and nearly one-half of the attackers became casualties.
Overall, casualties in the battle were enormous. At least 25,000 Confederates fell, representing nearly one-third of the army. One-third (12 out of 53) of Lee’s generals were killed, wounded, or captured. More than 20,000 Federals fell; Meade’s subordinate command also suffered heavy losses.
From the lecture series The American Civil War
Taught by Professor Gary W. Gallagher, The University of Virginia