Just four score and 78 years after the country declared independence, 11 southern US states seceded from the Union to protect the institution of slavery, plunging the nation into a Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost to disease, famine, and some of the 19th century’s most legendary battles. And that’s just the stuff you’ve probably heard about. In a war this big, plenty went down that would blow your mind. Let’s take a look at just a few of the insane, unbelievable events that actually happened during the American Civil War.
10. The “Battle Above the Clouds”
The “Battle Above the Clouds” was named for being the only battle in the American Civil War fought with airplanes. Okay, not really. Otherwise known as the Battle of Lookout Mountain, it was fought high enough on the slopes of that mountain that the events were obscured from observers on the ground below, giving the confrontation its strange nickname.
This pivotal engagement was fought on November 24, 1863, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. After the Union’s setback at Chickamauga, Confederate forces had used the heights of Lookout Mountain to surveil and bombard besieged Union positions in Chattanooga. Union General Ulysses S. Grant, fresh off a massive triumph at Vicksburg earlier that year, soon arrived to lift the siege and hurl the Confederates back over to the defensive. One of his first acts upon arriving was ordering Major General Joseph Hooker to reclaim the hill. Union soldiers battled through dense fog and defeated the defenders, setting the stage for further victories in the region. The Battle of Chattanooga was one of Grant’s last victories before he was promoted to command all Union armies.
9. The Siege of Fort Pulaski
Fort Pulaski, strategically positioned near the mouth of the Savannah River in Georgia, was believed to be invincible by both defending Confederates and attacking Union forces. Built with thick masonry walls, it was assumed that no artillery of the day could breach its defenses. But the Civil War would put that assumption to the test. In April 1862, Union forces under General Quincy A. Gillmore aimed their new rifled cannons at the fort, and within just 30 hours, they had done the unthinkable: they punctured the walls and forced a Confederate surrender.
This siege was a watershed moment in military engineering. The effectiveness of rifled artillery against traditional fortifications signaled the end for masonry forts. Future fortifications would need to account for this dramatic shift in firepower, changing the face of military defense structures forever. Along with industrialization, ironclad warships, and the novel use of telegraphs and railroads, rifled artillery proved to be one of the major game-changing innovations brought about by the American Civil War.
8. The Copperhead Movement
While most narratives of the Civil War paint a picture of a united North against the Confederate South, it wasn’t so clear-cut. Enter the Copperheads, a vocal faction of Northern Democrats (then the conservative party) who were staunchly against the war and favored a negotiated peace with the Confederates. Their name “Copperhead” is derived from the venomous snake, hinting at their dangerous and stealthy nature; it was a term of derision used by their liberal Republican opponents.
The Copperheads, especially influential in the Midwest, criticized President Abraham Lincoln’s handling of the war and resisted the draft. They believed the war was detrimental to civil liberties, especially given Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and other wartime measures. Figures like Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham became standard-bearers for the movement. Though the Copperheads never gained enough traction to halt the Union war effort, their existence and influence underscored the profound divisions and challenges Lincoln faced on the home front while also waging war against the Confederacy.
7. The Battle of Palmito Ranch
Just when the dust of the Civil War seemed to be settling, the Battle of Palmito Ranch erupted near Brownsville, Texas, in May 1865, a full month after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. While Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia is widely seen as the practical end of the war, this skirmish is recognized as the last battle of the Civil War.
Confederate forces, led by Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford, squared off against a detachment of Union troops. Despite the widespread knowledge that the war was essentially over, fighting flared up, resulting in one last Confederate victory. It didn’t mean anything, of course, as the Confederacy had collapsed. It was just one last defiant effort to lash out against a victorious Union before the rebellion was snuffed out forever. The battle is often viewed as a puzzling and tragic footnote, where lives were lost even after the primary conflict had concluded. Its occurrence highlights the challenges of communication in that era and the localized nature of some hostilities, persisting even in the face of national reconciliation.
6. The Battle of Honey Springs
Native Americans and African Americans are in a dead heat for the title of “most mistreated by the American government.” But sadly, they found themselves at each other’s throats during the American Civil War, at the Battle of Honey Springs. In July 1863, after facing defeat at Cabin Creek, Confederate Colonel Stand Watie pulled back to safeguard the Honey Springs supply depot, joining forces with Brigadier General Douglas Cooper. Union Major General James Blunt, seizing the momentum, pursued Watie with a composite force that included units like the 2nd Colorado Infantry, 1st Kansas (Colored) Infantry, various cavalry, and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Regiments of Indian Home Guard.
As dawn broke on July 17, Blunt cautiously neared Cooper’s line beyond Elk Creek. Cooper commanded an ensemble of Native American mounted rifles from the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, and three Texas cavalry regiments. After initiating with an artillery barrage and braving scorching heat, Blunt pressed his troops forward. A chaotic moment arose when the 2nd Indian Home Guards mistakenly crossed the 1st Kansas (Colored) Infantry’s frontline. As Union officers scrambled to rectify this, Confederates perceived it as a retreat and pushed forward, only to be met with a formidable stand from the 1st Kansas, leading to their eventual retreat. While Blunt pursued Cooper for a short while, he ultimately returned to Fort Gibson, having firmly established Union dominion over the Indian Territory.
5. Robert Smalls
Born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls‘ life took a turn of audacity during the Civil War. In 1862, he famously commandeered the Confederate ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston Harbor. In the dead of night, with the ship’s white crew ashore, Smalls and fellow enslaved crewmen sailed the vessel past Confederate defenses. Using his intimate knowledge of the ship and its operations, Smalls mimicked the captain’s signals at Confederate checkpoints, successfully navigating through the heavily fortified harbor.
Reaching Union naval blockade ships, Smalls surrendered the Planter and provided invaluable intelligence about Confederate defenses. This heroic act not only secured freedom for Smalls and his ship’s crew but also elevated him to national prominence. Smalls’ tale didn’t end there. After the war, he transitioned into politics, serving as a US Congressman representing South Carolina. Beyond his political career, Smalls’ story remains a powerful testament to the human spirit’s thirst for freedom and the risks some are willing to take to achieve it. It all begs the question: how in God’s name is this not an HBO miniseries yet?
4. The Charge of the 1st Minnesota Regiment
The legendary downhill bayonet charge of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, gets huge fanfare from Civil War buffs, and for good reason. But it wasn’t the only awe-inspiring moment of heroism from defending Union troops that blunted the Confederate onslaught that day. The valiant charge of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment deserves at least as much respect. On July 2, as Confederate forces threatened to break the Union’s center on Cemetery Ridge, the 1st Minnesota was called upon by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to buy time for reinforcements to shore up the line. With approximately 262 men, they were given suicidal orders to charge into a full brigade of around 1,600 Confederate soldiers.
The Minnesotans knew the odds but charged without hesitation, giving Union reinforcements the crucial minutes they needed. Their gallant stand resulted in significant casualties—around 82% of the regiment fell in those mere minutes, either killed, wounded, or captured. Though they paid a heavy price, their sacrifice effectively stymied the Confederate advance, allowing Union forces to regroup and eventually win the battle.
3. Battle of Franklin
Most Civil War buffs know about the Confederate failure of Pickett’s Charge during 1863’s Battle of Gettysburg, as well as similar Union failures at Fredericksburg (1862) and Cold Harbor (1864). But there’s actually another failed mass infantry assault that dwarfs those three in scale, yet gets little attention. Enter the Battle of Franklin, fought on November 30, 1864, when Confederate General John Bell Hood aimed to reclaim the city of Nashville from Union control. First, however, he aimed to crush Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield at Franklin.
Hood launched one of the largest and most desperate infantry assaults of the war. Over 20,000 Confederates surged across two miles of open ground, leading to ferocious hand to hand combat. Ultimately, the Union line held, and the Confederates were repulsed with simply devastating consequences. They suffered approximately 6,000 casualties, including the loss of six generals who were killed, another five wounded, and one captured. The Union forces, in contrast, had about 2,000 casualties. This disastrous assault at Franklin crippled Hood’s army and set the stage for its final defeat at the Battle of Nashville, two weeks later.
2. A Confederate Colony in Brazil
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the South was left in ruin. For some Southerners, the idea of living under the hated Union was simply unbearable. Seeking a fresh start and driven by various motives, including economic hardships and reluctance to live in a reunified country without slavery, several thousand Confederates made the decision to leave the US altogether. Brazil, with its vast tracts of fertile land and a government offering incentives for colonization, became a favored destination.
The Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, eager to cultivate cotton (and aware of the agricultural prowess of the Southern farmers), offered potential settlers land grants. From the mid-1860s to the early 1870s, thousands of Confederates moved to Brazil, settling mainly in the regions of São Paulo and Paraná. These Confederate expatriates established communities, most famously the town of Americana in São Paulo.
The cultural influence of these American settlers can still be seen today. The “Festa Confederada,” or Confederate Party, is an annual event in Americana, celebrating the heritage and culture of these Confederate immigrants. Participants often dress in antebellum attire, and the Confederate flag is prominently displayed, albeit more as a symbol of heritage than of political sentiment.
1. Newton Knight Secedes From the Confederacy
Newton Knight was a Mississippi farmer who became an infamous Southern Unionist during the Civil War. Disturbed by the Confederacy’s “Twenty Negro Law” (which allowed wealthy landowners with twenty slaves or more to avoid military service) and disheartened by the devastation of the war, Knight deserted the Confederate army in 1862. His belief was clear: the war was a rich man’s cause but a poor man’s fight.
Back in his home county of Jones in Mississippi, Knight assembled a band of like-minded deserters and runaway slaves. Together, they formed a formidable guerrilla force that fought Confederate forces and challenged the Confederacy’s grip on the region. By 1864, this resistance was so potent that Jones County was effectively out of Confederate control. The rebels even went so far as to declare their independence, referring to their territory as the “Free State of Jones.“
After the war, Knight’s defiance continued. He became an advocate for the rights of freedmen and clashed with the Ku Klux Klan. He also openly lived with a former slave named Rachel, and the two had several children. Knight’s mixed-race descendants became a unique community in Mississippi, blurring the rigid racial lines of the South.