From Confederate Success to Union Momentum

Lesson Content

Inquire: How the South’s Economic Plan Failed


After the First Battle of Bull Run, the Civil War entered a stalemate, with both sides refusing to commit the next big move. Like two boxers circling each other in the ring, neither side stepped in to throw a real punch.

The stalemate ended in 1862 when Lincoln demanded that the Union Army try to take Richmond, the Confederate capital. General Lee and the Confederate Army stopped the Union advance and then counter attacked — successfully driving into Northern territory. The Battle at Antietam proved to be a turning point, and the single deadliest day in U.S. history. Meanwhile, General Ulysses S. Grant was having great success in battles out west.

On the home front, the South’s economy was failing — miserably — due to its inability to raise money through cotton sales. What was believed to be a guaranteed trade pipeline to England and France had dried up — and the South was slowly dying. The economic reality in the South set the stage for the war’s final act.


Big Question

What factors led the Confederacy to be successful in the early parts of the war and later gave the North momentum?

Read: From Stalemate to Confederate Success to Union Momentum: The U.S. Civil War 1861-1863

Military Stalemate in the East

The military forces of the Confederacy and the Union battled from 1861 to early 1862 without either side gaining the upper hand. Leaders on both sides had received the same military education and often knew one another — either as students at West Point or as officers in the Mexican-American War. As a result, they anticipated each other’s strategies, with both sides believing the key to victory was concentrated armies and capturing the capital city of their enemy; the capture of Richmond, Virginia for the North and Washington D.C. for the Confederate forces. After hopes of a quick victory faded at Bull Run, the war dragged on for months without any major movement on either side.

DecorativeGeneral George B. McClellan, the general in chief of the army, responsible for overall control of Union land forces, proved especially reluctant to engage in battle with the Confederates. By 1862, however, both President Lincoln and the new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had tired of waiting. The Union therefore put forward a new effort to bolster troop strength, enlisting one million men to serve for three-year stints in the Army of the Potomac. In January of 1862, Lincoln and Stanton ordered McClellan to invade the Confederacy with the goal of capturing Richmond.

To that end, General McClellan moved 100,000 soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to the outskirts of Richmond where he engaged Lee’s army and the forces led by “Stonewall” Jackson. Beginning June 25, the two sides engaged in the brutal Seven Days Battles that killed or wounded almost 20,000 Confederate and 16,000 Union soldiers. McClellan’s army returned north, having failed to take Richmond.

In August of 1862, a Confederate army invaded Kentucky from Tennessee, seizing Frankfort and seating a Confederate governor. The South appeared the superior side — and European powers, like England, were moving closer to recognition of the fact. Lee and CSA President Jefferson Davis agreed that all the Confederates needed was one more significant victory and the European powers would move off the fence and support the Confederacy.


Lee, flush from his success at keeping McClellan out of Richmond, decided to capitalize on the Union’s failure by going on the offensive. He moved his forces into northern Virginia, where at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Confederates once again defeated the Union forces.

Lee wanted to attack the North on its own territory. His plan was to attack the federal rail center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but he was forced to change his tactics as the Union General George McClellan was pursuing him. He therefore decided to stop and confront the Union Army at Sharpsburg, Maryland next to Antietam Creek.

On September 15, Lee deployed 30,000 soldiers on four miles of rising ground behind Antietam Creek, utilizing the cover of rock outcroppings, rolling farmland, stone walls, fields of standing corn, and a sunken road in the center of his line to hide his troops.

Two days earlier, a Union corporal had found a copy of Lee’s special orders wrapped around three cigars. But McClellan, who had 60,000 men, refused to act because he thought Lee’s troops outnumbered his own. Had McClellan engaged in battle with the Confederates on September 15 or 16, he may have defeated Lee’s army decisively.

The Battle of Antietam began early on the morning of September 17 when Union troops, under the command of General Joseph Hooker, attacked the forces of Stonewall Jackson across a cornfield that lay between the two sides. The fighting was ferocious and the battle surged back and forth across the cornfield 15 times, costing each side nine generals. Within five hours, 12,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded.

DecorativeBy mid-day, the fighting had moved to a sunken country road between two farms. Two Confederate brigades managed to stand their ground against advances from Union attackers until they assumed a position from which they could shoot down on the Confederate soldiers occupying the road. The road was quickly filled with the dead and dying, sometimes two and three deep, and earned a new name: Bloody Lane. The Confederates fell back, and McClellan once more had the opportunity to cut Lee’s army in two and ruin it, but he did not follow through, and the battlefield fell silent.

This day sits in history as the bloodiest single day America has ever suffered. Over 22,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing — more than the total number of casualties suffered during the entire American Revolution. Lee lost a quarter of his army; the survivors headed back to Virginia the next night.

Antietam proved to be a turning point in the Civil War. Lee and Davis did not get their victory, and as a result, neither Britain nor France was prepared to recognize the Confederacy. Five days after the battle, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam changed everything.

Late 1862 Into Early 1863

Lincoln wanted to promote someone who could deliver a decisive victory for the Union Army. He also strongly disliked McClellan, who referred to the president as a “baboon” and a “gorilla,” and constantly criticized his decisions. On November 5, therefore, Lincoln chose General Ambrose E. Burnside to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside also failed to deliver. His efforts to push into Virginia in December of 1862 were met with defeat, as Confederates held their position at Fredericksburg and devastated Burnside’s forces with heavy artillery fire.

The Union’s loss at Fredericksburg lowered morale in the North and in turn bolstered Confederate spirits. By the end of 1862, the Confederates were still holding their ground in Virginia, and this failure led Lincoln to make another change in leadership. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker took over command of the Army of the Potomac from Burnside in January of 1863.

Union Success in the West

General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the West, operating in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Mississippi River Valley, had been more successful. The goal of both the Union and the Confederacy was to gain control of the major rivers in the West, especially the Mississippi. If the Union could control the Mississippi, the Confederacy would be split in two. The major battle in the Western theater took place at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee on April 6 and 7, 1862. Confederate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston were close to defeating the Union forces as Grant called for reinforcements. Many of the Union troops fled in terror.

DecorativeUnfortunately for the Confederates, Johnston was killed on the afternoon of the first day of fighting. Leadership of the Southern forces fell to General P. G. T. Beauregard, who ordered an ill-fated assault at the end of that day. This assault was so desperate that one of the two attacking columns did not even have ammunition. Unsurprisingly, the assault failed, and the following day, the reinforced Union forces counterattacked, and the Confederate forces were routed. The North could now concentrate on its efforts to gain control of the Mississippi River.

In April of 1862, the Union navy under Admiral David Farragut forced the Confederate forces to pull back to Vicksburg, Mississippi. New Orleans was now controlled by the North. Upriver, Union naval forces bombarded Fort Pillow, 40 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. On June 4, 1862, the Confederate defenders abandoned the fort, and on June 6, Memphis — a Southern industrial center and one of the largest cities in the Confederacy — fell to the Union.

The War in the West was going well for the Union, but several goals eluded them. They needed Vicksburg, Mississippi to control the Big River. Lincoln still could not find a Supreme Commander of the Union forces to defeat Lee in the East. The bloodiest, deadliest battle of the war was yet to come, and the outcome of the war was still hanging in the balance.

Reflect: Careful or Daring?


Cautious or daring? Do you always have a plan before taking a leap or do you tend to jump and try to figure out how to land on the way down?

McClellan was a planner — cautious to a fault. His cautiousness was popular with his troops but not popular with Lincoln. However, while he did not strike the deciding blow to the Confederacy, he did defeat Lee at Antietam.

Lee was one of the greatest military strategists in American history. While he was a planner, he recognized there was no gain without risk and won more battles than he should have. Yet at Antietam and Gettysburg, his losses were crippling.

Are you a “planner” or a “jumper”?

Expand: July 3, 1863: Vicksburg and Gettysburg - the Death and Defeat of the South


General Grant’s Union forces had taken New Orleans and Memphis by mid-June of 1862. Grant then focused his efforts on capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg would give the Union complete control over the MIssissippi River and would divide the South in half. A military bombardment that summer had failed to force a Confederate surrender, and an assault by land forces had also failed in December of 1862. In April of 1863, Grant launched a final assault to capture Vicksburg.

DecorativeEven as Grant and his forces were attacking Vicksburg in the West, General Robert E. Lee proposed that the Confederacy take the offensive in the East. In early May of 1863, Lee defeated a larger Union army at Chancellorsville, Virginia and forced Lincoln to replace General Joseph Hooker with yet another Union Commander — General George Meade.

Lee’s goal was to invade Pennsylvania and defeat the Union Army in its own territory, relieving Virginia of the burden of war. If he had succeeded, he would have strengthened the hand of Peace Democrats in the North, weakened the Union’s resolve to fight, undermined Lincoln’s chances for reelection, and reopened the possibility for European support that had closed after Antietam. Perhaps, it would have even led to peace. In reality, the result would be the Battle of Gettysburg — the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent, where more than 170,000 fought. Combined, the two armies sustained more than 51,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing).

In early June, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg, cutting off the Confederate defenders and civilians from food and fresh supplies. By the end of June, the situation in Vicksburg had become desperate; Vicksburg’s residents were hiding in caves to protect themselves from the bombardment.

In the East, Lee led 75,000 soldiers into south-central Pennsylvania in mid-June. To counter Lee, General Meade headed north with 95,000 soldiers. Lee then notified his generals to reunite near Gettysburg. As the Confederate Army gathered, CSA General A.P. Hill, heard rumor of a large shoe supply at Gettysburg, and on July 1, 1863, he sent a division to collect these shoes.

DecorativeAs Hill’s men approached Gettysburg, they were met by the Union cavalry of John Buford. Both sides sent couriers for reinforcements. By early afternoon, 40,000 troops faced each other in a semicircle north and west of the town. The Confederates drove the outnumbered Union troops south, where Union artillery located on Cemetery Hill halted the retreat.

At noon on July 2, Lee ordered his divisions to attack. Two nearby hills, Big Round Top and Little Round Top, had been left unprotected. If the Confederates could take these positions, they could surround the Union forces.

Union troops under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain arrived just in time to meet Confederate troops charging up Little Round Top, and in some of the most ferocious fighting of the battle, Chamberlain’s 20th Maine held on to Little Round Top and perhaps saved the Union from defeat.

July 3, 1863 is arguably the most pivotal day of the Civil War. After enduring a siege in Vicksburg for over a month, the trapped Confederate forces surrendered. Grant had finally succeeded in capturing Vicksburg.

Unaware of the fate of Vicksburg, and determined to leave Pennsylvania with a victory, Lee ordered a major assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Confederate batteries began to fire into the Union center, and this firing continued for two hours. At 3 p.m., 14,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General George Pickett began their famous charge across three-quarters of a mile of open field to the Union line. The majority of charging Confederate soldiers were killed, and Lee’s attempt to achieve a decisive victory in Pennsylvania had failed.

The human cost of Gettysburg was staggering. The North lost 23,000 soldiers; horrible, but replaceable. Lee lost 28,000 troops — one-third of his army; unbelievable and irreplaceable. A month later, Lee offered to resign, but Jefferson Davis refused.

The defeats and deaths suffered at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the same day mark the death and defeat of the Confederacy. Any hope for Southern recognition by any foreign government was dashed. The war continued for two more years, but with no way to truly recover from the loss of men and now divided in half by Union control of the MIssissippi River, the Confederacy was stumbling toward its inevitable demise.

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Lesson Resources

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Additional Resources and Readings

The Civil War in Four Minutes: The Battle of Gettysburg

A Civil War Trust video describing the events of the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance in the Civil War

Industry and Economy during the Civil War

An article, written by Benjamin T. Arrington of the National Park Service, describing how the Southern and Northern economies impacted success in the Civil War

The Civil War, Part I: Crash Course US History #20

A Crash Course video covering the causes and beginning of the Civil War

The Civil War Part 2: Crash Course US History #21

A Crash Course video emphasizing Abraham Lincoln’s role and strategy in the Civil War

The Civil War in Four Minutes: Confederate Leaders

A Civil War Trust video describing the Confederate leaders of the Civil War

The Civil War in Four Minutes: Union Leaders

A Civil War Trust video describing the Union leaders of the Civil War and Lincoln’s struggle to find the right man for leading his army

Lesson Glossary


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  • Battle of Antietam
    bloodiest single day America has ever suffered, in which Union General Joseph Hooker attacked Stonewall Jackson keeping the Confederate from gaining a victory
  • Battle of Gettysburg
    the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent, where more than 170,000 fought and over 40,000 died
  • Emancipation Proclamation
    an executive order issued by President Lincoln that freed slaves in the states that were seceding
  • Seven Days Battles
    the name for the seven day campaign that took place from June 25 to July 1, 1862 and featured six different battles along the Virginia Peninsula east of Richmond

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: “Bloody Antietam”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: “Gettysburg: High Watermark of the Confederacy”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Changing Nature of the War: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Early Mobilization and War – Military Stalemate: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeGettysburg CampaignHal JespersenWikimedia CommonsCC BY 3.0
DecorativeView of Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1863, during the American Civil WarWrotnowski, L. A.Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeScene at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee River, Sunday Afternoon, 6th April 1862 LCCN2005694844Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of CongressWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBattle of Antietam2Unknown author; Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, Chicago, U.S.A. / Restored by Michel VuijlstekeWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeMasterly Inactivity, Civil War Cartoon 1862A.B.Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBattle of GettysburgCurrier and IvesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain