I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.
— Robert E. Lee, January 1861
The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations; before you lies the future–a future full of golden promise.
– Jefferson Davis
Blockade of the Chesapeake Bay – May-June 1861
Manassas Campaign – July 1861
McClellan’s Operations in Northern Virginia – October-December 1861
Blockade of the Potomac River – October 1861 – January 1862
Jackson’s Valley Campaign – March-June 1862
Peninsula Campaign – March 8-July 1, 1862
Northern Virginia Campaign – August 1862
Manassas Station Operations – August 25-27,1862
Fredericksburg Campaign – November-December, 1862
Longstreet’s Tidewater Operations – March-April 1863
Cavalry Operations along the Rappahannock – March 1863
Chancellorsville Campaign – April-May 1863
Gettysburg Campaign – June 9-July 1863
Bristoe Campaign – October-November 1863
Mine Run Campaign (November-December 1863)
Demonstration on the Rapidan River – February 1864
Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid – February 28–March 3, 1864
Crook-Averell Raid on the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad – May 1864
Bermuda Hundred Campaign – May 1864
Grant’s Overland Campaign – May-June 1864
Cold Harbor II – May 31-June 12, 1864
Lynchburg Campaign – May-June 1864
Early’s Raid and Operations Against the B&O Railroad – June-August 1864
Richmond-Petersburg Campaign – June 1864-March 1865
Sheridan’s Valley Campaign – August-October 1864
Sheridan’s Expedition to Petersburg – March 1865
Appomattox Campaign – March-April 1865
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 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 creating 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 Virginia’s entry into the Confederacy, a decision was made in May to move the Confederate capital 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 Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s family.
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. The remarkable success of General Robert E. Lee in defending the Confederate capital 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 America’s most important water bodies. 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 supported a blockade of the southeastern Virginia ports at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. It had previously captured several ships that 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 Aquia Creek’s mouth. 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 Brick Kiln Creek’s entrenchments, near Big Bethel Church. Under the immediate command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce, the Federals 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. Winthrop 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 Richmond’s Confederate capital.
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 battle 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 Bull Run’s fords. 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.