Civil War Timeline & Leading Events

1861 – On January 9, an unarmed merchant ship, Star of the West, arrives in Charleston Harbor with troops and supplies to reinforce Fort Sumter. The ship is fired upon and retreats. That same month, Mississippi, FloridaAlabama, Georgia, and Louisiana secede from the Union.

On January 16, the Senate refuses to consider the Crittenden Compromise, one of several failed attempts to ease tension between the North and South. The compromise contained six proposals for constitutional amendments, and four proposals for Congressional resolution including the re-application of the north/south boundary from the Missouri Compromise, stated that the federal government could not interfere with slavery where it already existed and could not interfere with the recovery of slaves from any part of the Union.

On January 29, 1861, Kansas becomes the 34th state, entering the Union as a free state.

February 1, 1861 – The Texas Legislature secedes from the Union.

February 8, 1861 – A provisional Constitution of the Confederacy adopted in Montgomery, Alabama.

February 9, 1861 – The Confederate States of America is formed with Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer, as president.

February 11, 1861 – President-elect Abraham Lincoln leaves SpringfieldIllinois, on his trip to Washington, D.C., arriving on Saturday, February 23.

February 18, 1861 – Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederacy.

March 4, 1861 – Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as 16th President of the United States of America.

March 6, 1861 – The Confederate Congress authorizes an army of volunteers.

he great fight at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, April 7, 1863, by Courier & Ives.

The great fight at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, April 7, 1863, by Courier & Ives.

April 12, 1861 – At 4:30 a.m. Confederates under General Pierre Beauregard open fire with 50 cannons upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Civil War begins.

April 13, 1861 – U.S. Major-General Anderson surrenders Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

April 15, 1861 – In Washington D.C., President Abraham Lincoln issues a proclamation announcing an “insurrection,” and calls for 75,000 troops to be raised from the militia from the Union States. Robert E. Lee, son of a Revolutionary War hero, and a 25 year distinguished veteran of the United States Army and former Superintendent of West Point is offered command of the Union Army. Lee declines.

“They do not know what they say. If it came to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins.” — Robert E. Lee

April 17, 1861 – Virginia secedes from the Union.

April 19, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln issues a Proclamation of Blockade against Southern ports. For the duration of the war, the blockade limits the ability of the rural South to stay well supplied in its war against the industrialized North.

Robert E. Lee

April 20, 1861 – Robert E. Lee resigns his commission in the United States Army. “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.” Robert E. Lee then goes to Richmond, Virginia, and accepts the command of the military and naval forces of Virginia, and accepts.

May 6, 1861 – Arkansas secedes from the Union.

May 20, 1861 – North Carolina secedes from the Union.

May 24, 1861 – Union troops cross the Potomac River from Washington and capture Alexandria, Virginia, and vicinity. Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth is killed by a local innkeeper and is the first officer to die in the war. He becomes a martyr for the North.

May 29, 1861 – Richmond, Virginia becomes the capital of the Confederacy.

June 1861 – Four Slave States Stay in the Union. Despite their acceptance of slavery, DelawareKentucky, Maryland, and Missouri did not join the Confederacy. Although divided in their loyalties, a combination of political maneuvering and Union military pressure kept these states from seceding. Because residents of the western counties of Virginia did not wish to secede along with the rest of the state, West Virginia Is created.

June 8, 1861 – Tennessee secedes from the Union.

July 1861 – Suddenly aware of the threat of a protracted war and the army’s need for organization and training, Lincoln replaces General McDowell with General George B. McClellan. To blockade the coast of the Confederacy effectively, the federal navy had to be improved. By July, the effort at improvement had made a difference and an effective blockade had begun. The South responded by Union vessels.

“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” — Benjamin Franklin

July 4, 1861 – Lincoln, in a speech to Congress, states the war is…”a People’s contest…a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men…” The Congress authorizes a call for 500,000 men.

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson

July 21, 1861 – The Union Army under General Irvin McDowell suffers a defeat at Bull Run, some 25 miles southwest of Washington. Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson earns the nickname “Stonewall,” as his brigade resists Union attacks. When Union troops are forced to fall back to Washington, President Lincoln realizes the war will be long. “It’s damned bad,” he comments.

July 27, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln appoints General George B. McClellan as Commander of the Department of the Potomac, replacing General Irvin McDowell.

September 11, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln revokes General John C. Fremont’s unauthorized military proclamation of emancipation in Missouri. Later, President Lincoln relieves General Frémont of his command and replaces him with General David Hunter.

Major General George B. McClellan

Major General George B. McClellan

November 1, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln appoints 34-year-old General George B. McClellan as General-in-Chief of all Union forces after the resignation of the aged Winfield Scott. Lincoln tells McClellan, “…the supreme command of the Army will entail a vast labor upon you.” McClellan responds, “I can do it all.”

November 1861 – Julia Ward Howe, inspired after seeing a review of General McClellan’s army in the Virginia countryside near Washington D.C., composes the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It is published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862.

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.”  — President Abraham Lincoln

November 7, 1861 – Captain Samuel F. Dupont’s warships silenced Confederate guns in Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard. This victory enabled General Thomas W. Sherman’s troops to occupy first Port Royal and then all the famous Sea Islands of South Carolina.

November 8, 1861 – The Union navy seizes Confederate commissioners to Great Britain and France — James A. Mason and John Slidell — from the British steamer Trent, inflaming tensions between the United States and Great Britain. This begins an international diplomatic crisis for President Lincoln. England, the leading world power, demands their release, threatening war. Lincoln eventually gives in and orders their release in December. “One war at a time,” Lincoln remarks.