10 Decisive American Civil War Battles You Never Hear About

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The 150 year anniversary of the American Civil War is almost finished. Surprisingly, as interested as Americans are in this period, there hasn’t been much fanfare or commemoration of events. Some historians say that interest in the war is decreasing steadily. Even the number of tourists at Gettysburg in 2013 was down from decades ago. If people are showing less interest in the known battles of the conflict, like Antietam, Fredericksburg and Vicksburg, then the public has completely forgotten the lesser-known engagements. These 10 battles are rarely in the public consciousness, but they had great impact during the war.

10. Battle of Pea Ridge, March 7-8, 1862

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If a person mentions the theaters of the Civil War, usually the states of Virginia and Tennessee come to mind. Rarely do you think of Missouri and Arkansas as strategic locations, but by early 1862 the Union and the Confederacy had been engaging in a seesaw fight for Missouri. Missouri, a slave state, was technically part of the Union, but it had strong secessionist sentiment. Whether Missouri would ultimately side with the Union or the Confederacy was unknown, so the two sides decided it over the border in Arkansas.

The Confederates under General Van Dorn proposed to destroy the Union Army of the Southwest by maneuvering around the Union right flank. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the maneuver led to the division of their own forces, and Union scouts detected them. The Confederates still had a numerical advantage and proceeded to attack both flanks. Initially the Confederates pushed back the Union Army, but Union cavalry attacked a subset of the Confederates and confusion spread through their ranks.

The lines settled by the evening, but the following day the Union unleashed a blistering artillery attack on the Confederates. That was followed by an attack first on the Confederate right, then on the center. Lacking supplies, the Confederates had to retreat. Although the Confederate army escaped, they could no longer maintain the offensive in the sector and the Union maintained control over Missouri.

9. Battle of Glorieta Pass, March 26-28, 1862

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The bloody struggle raged even further west. The Confederates wanted to move further into southwestern territory from Texas. Because the Union focus was on fighting the main Confederate armies in Virginia and Tennessee, there were scant Federal forces in the New Mexico territory. A small force of Confederates decided to make their move, marched to the end of Glorieta Pass, and encamped.

The Union forces followed the Confederates to the pass, but their initial assault was unsuccessful against counterattacking artillery fire. The Union commander Chivington decided to change strategy and divided his forces, a risky move. His split troops saddled both sides of the pass and poured a withering fire on the Confederates. The Confederates fled and tried to form a defensive line, but were outflanked again. Finally, Union cavalry charged the rear.

The battle wasn’t over yet. There was a pause in the fighting for the next day while both sides received reinforcements. On the third day both decided to attack, but the Union struck first. Tactically, the seesaw battle ended in a draw as both the Union and the Confederacy withdrew from the field. The Union, however, destroyed Confederate supplies, and thus the Confederate march into the southwest couldn’t continue. Although the battle was relatively bloodless compared to fighting back east, some historians have called the skirmish the “Gettysburg of the West.”

8. Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1, 1862

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General Lee had taken command of the Army of the Northern Virginia after Joseph E. Johnson’s injuries in a previous battle. The Union army, under McClellan, had been marching toward Richmond, hoping to put an end to the rebellion before it became even bloodier. However, a stalemate at Richmond’s gate had occurred during the previous six days of battle. One day the Union forces would win, but the next day Confederate forces would triumph. What happened on the last day of what would be known as the Seven Days battle would be some of the most embarrassing generalship from an otherwise brilliant commander.

Malvern Hill was not an impressive hill. However, those who held the defensive position along it were formidable. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the numerically superior Union army held the hill, and they were inviting the rebels to attack them. Lee believed that a successful artillery bombardment would weaken Union positions, allowing them to sweep the enemy off the hill. The artillery barely caused a dent in the Union lines, but for unknown reasons Lee decided to continue with the infantry attack. Repeated and disconnected attacks occurred across the open field, and their failure was never in doubt.

Luckily for Lee, McClellan decided to withdraw his army from outside of Richmond. But a year later at Gettysburg during Pickett’s March, Lee would try the same strategy with even more disastrous results.

7. Battle of Perryville, October 8, 1862

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President Lincoln was concerned about Kentucky throughout the Civil War. He’s quoted as saying, “I hope to have God on my side but I must have Kentucky.” Kentucky was a border state and a slave state, but largely loyal to the Union. It was also the birthplace of both Lincoln and his wife.

By autumn of 1862 Confederate forces under Braxton Bragg had reached the borders of Ohio. Although he was in retreat, he was still a threat to Union forces in Kentucky, as his presence strengthened a small but growing Confederate cause in the state. A Federal army under Don Carlos Buell therefore marched after Bragg. On October 7 some skirmishing took place, but the battle went into full swing the following day.

The Confederates struck the Union left, who had to fall back. The Federals tried to counterattack, but the pressure caused them to continue to lose ground. Eventually the Union line stabilized, and the Confederate advance stopped. It was now the Federals’ turn to pursue their enemy, as they received reinforcements later in the day. As the Union threatened the Confederate left, Bragg decided to pull his forces from the battlefield. Never again would the Confederates seriously threaten the Union hold on Kentucky.

6. Battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 1863

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The Army of Northern Virginia had just retreated after their defeat at Gettysburg, and the fall of Vicksburg effectively split the Confederacy in two. Away from those momentous actions, a battle was about to rage in the land of the native tribes of America. Because of the need for military labor back east, the Union neglected the Indian Territory. Subsequently, the Five Civilized Tribes allied with the nascent Confederacy. The Union, however, not only wanted this territory back, but also wanted to open the way to control Arkansas.

The battle began with an artillery duel. The lines between the Federals and the Confederates held, while some of the Confederates tried to move around the Federal left. This led to fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but then an order by Union commander Blunt led to a reversal in the tide of battle. He ordered dismounted black and Union-loyal Indian troops to capture the Confederate artillery. Mishearing Union orders, the Confederates believed the Federals were retreating. They left their line to pursue the “retreating” Union army, but rapid fire from the Union forces cut them down, forcing the Confederates to retreat to salvage their artillery. Because the Union victory helped open up the Confederate west, some call it the “Gettysburg of the Trans-Mississippi.”

5. Battle of Olustee, February 20, 1864

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Florida was mostly a sideshow throughout the Civil War. It didn’t offer much strategically to either side. However, six months prior to the presidential election, a major battle occurred in the state. At this point, Republicans were still worried about whether Lincoln would be re-elected, as the Army of Potomac had done little to pursue Lee following Gettysburg and many were tired of the bloodshed. The Union wanted as many southern states returned to the fold as possible, as that meant loyal citizens would then be able to cast their ballots.

Believing that the area had little Confederate presence, the Union launched from Hilton Head, South Carolina and marched into Jacksonville. The Union army occupied a strong position in the city, but they then made a disastrous move — the Federals decided to go on the prowl and marched westwards. Ahead of them a Confederate army was forming, with troops from Georgia and South Carolina pouring in. The Union army was falling into a trap. As they pressed forward, Confederate troops began enveloping both Union flanks. Seymour, the Union commander, realized he was in trouble, and tried to escape by pushing further against the Confederate line. But it was too late, and the Union army fled in a rout, suffering a large percentage of casualties. The Union’s operations in Florida diminished, and Florida failed to return as a state before the election.

4. Battle of Monocacy, July 9, 1864

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It was the summer of 1864, and the Confederacy’s situation was grim. Union forces were marching through southern territory, and Ulysses S. Grant was besieging Robert E. Lee at Petersburg. Lee believed that some pressure on the Confederacy had to be relieved, so he decided to scare the Federal forces by threatening Washington, D.C.

Lee sent Jubal Early and his Corp up the Shenandoah Valley to invade D.C. Grant, in turn, decided to send a Corp to defend the capital. However, Grant’s Corp likely wouldn’t reach D.C. before Early did, so another force was needed to stop the advancing Confederates. Facing off against Early, who had just raided through parts of Maryland and northern Virginia, was a numerically disadvantaged Union army under Lew Wallace, the later-novelist of Ben-Hur. They repulsed several charges by the Confederates, but mounting casualties and low ammunition forced them to withdraw from the field. The Confederates won a tactical victory, but strategically the Union was successful as reinforcements reached the capital in time.

3. Battle of Fort Stevens, July 11, 1864

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Following Early’s defeat of Wallace, the Confederate army continued on with their objective of attacking D.C. If the Confederacy occupied the capital, Lincoln’s political credibility would crumble and he would likely lose the election to the Peace Democrats. However, there still weren’t enough reinforcements.

Until Federal soldiers arrived, federal workers, along with new recruits and injured veterans, were required to arm themselves and face down the invading Confederate army, whom were drunk with stolen wine. Because Fort Stevens was near the capital, President Lincoln traveled to observe the upcoming battle. A Confederate sharpshooter nearly hit him during the action, but he was unharmed. As Union reinforcements began to fill the capital’s defenses the action failed to progress beyond a skirmish, and the Confederates realized that the opportunity for capturing D.C. had passed. They flung some cannonballs in Washington, D.C.’s direction, but casualties, were comparatively light. The willingness of civilians to defend the capital showed that they were willing to see the war through, and the rescue of D.C. helped save Lincoln’s presidency.

2. Battle of Westport, October 23, 1864

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Although re-election of Lincoln was uncertain until the results started to come in, the situation of the Confederacy was disastrous. Military defeats, loss of territory and runaway inflation had all but sealed their fate. However, there was still some support among the secessionist population. The Confederacy wanted Thomas Reynolds installed as Missouri’s governor to legitimize the Confederate government, which would also weaken Lincoln’s re-election chances.

Confederate General Sterling Price initially targeted St. Louis, but its defenses were too formidable. He then thought of attacking Jefferson City, but the Union also reinforced those defenses. He therefore continued west toward Westport, but Union forces were in hot pursuit. Before Westport, he engaged in smaller skirmishes with Union forces which he largely won. At Westport itself, Union General Curtis positioned himself to fight Price. Initially the Confederates were successful, but Kansas militia reinforcements stalled the Confederate push. Decisively, a local farmer showed Curtis a hidden path that would allow them to flank the enemy. This maneuver allowed enough time for another Union force to join the battle, thus surrounding the Confederates on three sides. The Confederates were able to escape, but further losses not only led to the disintegration of Price’s army but also caused Republican electoral victories in Missouri and Kansas.

1. Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864

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The Confederate situation was desperate by the end of 1864. Voters had returned Lincoln to office with dramatic numbers. The Confederacy held little territory and had few men left to protect it. It was at this time that John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee decided to take action and move against Union-held Nashville.

Union commander George Thomas, who had delayed for two weeks in moving against Hood, decided to go on the offensive. His first move was against the Confederate right flank, which ended in stalemate. While holding the Confederate right, Thomas hoped to crush the other flank. This led to Hood’s retreat south for reorganization. The following day Thomas tried the same strategy, and against the exhausted Confederates it was ultimately successful. The resulting action almost bottled up all of Hood’s army, but his shattered remnants managed to escape. The Army of Tennessee, however, was over as an intact fighting force. Due to this battle and the equally disastrous Battle of Franklin, Hood resigned from the army and the Civil War was over in Tennessee.

Want to learn more about the Civil War?
We’ve ranked its worse generals, and we’ve also looked at some interesting facts about Gettysburg.

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