Civil War timeline: 1861-1865

Slavery first came to America in 1619, when Dutch traders brought captured Africans to Virginia’s Jamestown colony. Always a divisive factor in American politics, by the mid-19th century, controversy over slavery reached the boiling point.

The American Civil War was an outgrowth of a disagreement among states regarding the legitimacy of slavery in the U.S. territories. The Supreme Court seemingly decided the issue in the landmark Dred Scott case of 1857, which ruled the federal government could not regulate slavery in these territories.

In 1858, however, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the question of slavery in the United States while vying for election to the Senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln made his position clear in a speech at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in which he warned in a Biblical reference, “A house divided against itself [over slavery] cannot stand.” He concluded, “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

These prophetic words came to fruition following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, which led to South Carolina’s secession from the Union and eruption of a war between the states over a four-year period, 1861 to 1865. The outcome was uncertain until the following timeline, derived from the Civil War Almanac, John S. Bowman, ed., reached its conclusion:

• January 1861 — Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed South Carolina’s lead in secession.

• February 1861 — Confederate States of America established, with Jefferson Davis as president. Texas joined the seceded states.

• April/May 1861 — Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, S.C. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee joined their sister states, thereby bringing the total number separated to 11. Four southern slave states, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, remained in the Union.

• July 1861 — Confederates routed the Union army in a battle at Manassas, Va. The North began a blockade of Southern ports to intercept goods and armaments arriving from abroad.

• April 1862 — The Union gained a costly victory at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.

• July 1862 — Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, and defeated the Union forces under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan on the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers.

• September 1862 — Following the bloodiest single day of the Civil War on the 17th, Lee’s army retreated allowing the Union Army of the Potomac to claim victory at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md.

• December 1862 — The Union army suffered a crushing and demoralizing defeat at Fredericksburg, Va.

• January 1863 — President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in rebellious territory, and allowed blacks to join the army and fight for their freedom.

• May 1863 — Lee was victorious against great odds at Chancellorsville, Va.

• July 1863 — Lee suffered his first major defeat at Gettysburg; a critical victory for the Union army.

• November 1863 — Lincoln delivered the time-honored Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a cemetery for the Union dead.

• May 1864 — After Lincoln appointed Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant general-in-chief of the Union army, Grant began the Overland Campaign that included the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna and Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg.

• July 1864 — Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces captured Atlanta, Ga.

• November 1864 — Lincoln was re-elected to a second term. Sherman began his March to the Sea that led to the capture of Savannah, Ga.

• April 1865 — Grant captured Richmond and pursued Lee’s army to Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman in North Carolina.

• June 1865 — The last remaining Rebel troops under Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi Department surrendered in Galveston, Texas. Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek tribes that fought on the side of the Confederacy signed peace treaties with the United States.

Although the conflict came to an end officially in 1865, the effects linger in the hearts and minds of many Americans — especially descendants of those who fought in the war. The publication of an estimated 70,000 books dealing with the Civil War testifies to the magnitude of our nation’s most traumatic period.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (available at Bethany Beach Books). It is a History & Military Book Club selection, and rated five stars on Contact him at, or visit his website