Seeing more major Civil War battles than any other state, Virginia was a prominent part of the Confederate States of America. In the winter of 1860–1861, Americans were forced to make decisions about their nation’s future. States in the lower South began seceding from the Union in December, 1860; but, Virginia, with the most diversified economy and the largest population of the slave states, remained part of the Union. However, that would change after President Abraham Lincoln, on April 15, 1861, called for for troops from all states still in the Union in response to the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Two days later, on April 17th, the Virginia convention voted to secede, pending ratification of the decision by the voters.
At this time, Virginia stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River and Virginia citizens didn’t all agree with secession. In the western part of the state, some Virginians never accepted secession and instead began a process that resulted in the creation of the new state of West Virginia.
Virginians ratified the articles of secession on May 23. The following day, the Union army moved into northern Virginia and captured Alexandria without a fight.
With the entry of Virginia into the Confederacy, a decision was made in May to move the Confederate capitol from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. Due to Richmond’s size, industrial capacity, and location, the city was deemed strategically vital to the Confederacy’s survival. The White House of the Confederacy, located a few blocks north of the State Capital, was home to the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Most of the battles in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War took place in Virginia because the Confederacy had to defend its national capital at Richmond. Union forces made several failed attempts to capture Richmond and the remarkable success of General Robert E. Lee in defending the Confederate capitol was a central theme of Civil War history.
From the first big battle at Manassas/Bull Run in 1861 to the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox in 1865, Virginia stayed in the headlines throughout the Civil War. More than 2,000 “military events” were recorded in Virginia during the war, more than any other state. By the time General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, much of the state had been ravaged by war. No part of the state escaped, with battles fought deep in the mountains to the Atlantic coast.
Virginia Battles: (Battle summary information courtesy the American Battlefield Protection Program. Summaries were researched and written by Dale E. Floyd and David W. Lowe, staff members of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission and historians with the National Park Service.)
Blockade of the Chesapeake Bay (May-June 1861)
From the beginning of the Civil War, Chesapeake Bay was one of the most important water bodies in America. The capitals of both the Confederacy and the United States sat next to Bay rivers: Richmond, Virginia, is on the James River, and Washington, D.C., is on the Potomac River. Because of its close distance to both capitals, the Bay and its rivers played an important role in many Civil War battles. Huge armies prowled around Maryland and Virginia throughout the entire war. Access to the Bay meant the ability to receive shipped goods, quickly transport troops from one point to another, and threaten the enemy with strikes deep into their territory.
Sewell’s Point (May 18-19, 1861)- Occurring near Norfolk City, two Federal gunboats, the USS Monticello and the USS Thomas Freeborn, exchanged cannon fire with Confederate batteries on Sewell’s Point. The Union attack was supporting a blockade of the southeastern Virginia ports at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay and had previously captured several ships which attempted to pass the blockade. USS Monticello’s bombardment of the Sewell’s Point battery was one of the earliest Union Navy actions against Confederate forces during the Civil War. The result of the battle was inconclusive, but, it ended in an estimated 10 casualties.
Aquia Creek (May 29-June 1, 1861) – Taking place in Stafford County, three Union naval vessels under the leadership of Commander James H. Ward, bombarded Confederate batteries near the mouth of Aquia Creek. These batteries were built to protect the northern terminus of the railroad to Richmond. Confederates feared a landing of troops, but, this did not materialize. Results of the bombardment were inconclusive, but the battle resulted in 10 estimated casualties.
Big Bethel (June 10, 1861) – Also known as the Battle of Bethel Church or Great Bethel, this was one of the earliest land battles Civil War. On June 10, 1861 Major General Benjamin F. Butler sent converging columns from Hampton and Newport News against advanced Confederate outposts at Little and Big Bethel. Confederates abandoned Little Bethel and fell back to their entrenchments behind Brick Kiln Creek, near Big Bethel Church. The Federals, under immediate command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce, pursued, attacked frontally along the road, and were repulsed. Crossing downstream, the 5th New York Zouaves attempted to turn the Confederate left flank, but were repulsed. Unit commander Colonel T. Wynthrop was killed. The Union forces were disorganized and retired, returning to Hampton and Newport News. The battle engaged about 3,500 Union soldiers and 1,200 Confederate. Though the southerners were outnumbered, the battle resulted in a Confederate victory. There were an estimated 79 Union casualties, compared to 8 Confederate.
While small in comparison to the many larger, bloodier and more significant battles later in the war, the Battle of Big Bethel and all early Civil War military engagements attracted considerable notice, press coverage and exaggerated importance because of the newness of the war and the general feeling the war would be short.
Manassas Campaign (July, 1861)
The Union’s first goal in the early days of the Civil War was to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond.
Situated only 100 miles from Washington, D.C., the Federal troops first had to capture Manassas Junction, an important railway junction 30 miles southwest of Washington, before they could get to Richmond. Union soldiers set out for Manassas on July 16, 1861. So naive was the nation about the coming horrors that 200 or so private citizens from Washington, D.C., accompanied federal troops on the march. They hoped to witness and be entertained by this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Blackburn’s Ford (July 18, 1861) – This battle took place in Prince William County and Fairfax County, Virginia. On July 16, 1862, the untried Union army under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, 35,000 strong, marched out of the Washington defenses to give battle to the Confederate army, which was concentrated around the vital railroad junction at Manassas. The Confederate army, about 22,000 men, under the command of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, guarded the fords of Bull Run. On July 18, McDowell reached Centreville and pushed southwest, attempting to cross at Blackburn’s Ford. However, the Union troops were repulsed by Confederate fire and commanders decided to cross the creek farther upstream. The Confederate victory resulted in estimated casualties of 83 Federal and 68 Confederate.