Final Battles: Climax and Conclusion

Lesson Content

Inquire: How Did the North Finally Defeat Lee and the Armies of the South?


The end was in sight — after losing at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the same day, July 3, 1863, even Confederate soldiers could see that the South was in serious trouble. By the spring of 1864, with General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of the Union forces, it became clearer every day that a Confederate victory was impossible.

With Union General William Tecumseh Sherman making his infamous devastating drive across Georgia and Grant closing in with ever increasing numbers, Confederate soldiers started to desert the cause, and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army shrank. The lack of supplies — food, ammunition, and resources — hastened Lee’s inevitable destruction.

In the North, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had a huge military and economic impact. Although it did not legally free the slaves, many African Americans joined the Union’s fight, strengthening the army. From July of 1863 to April of 1865, there was little hope that the South could win. The question became whether Lee could hold out long enough to force a more acceptable resolution than utter defeat?


Big Question

How did different factors (including the Emancipation Proclamation and the African American population) lead to the end of the war?

Watch: Glory - Fighting for Freedom and Future

Read: It’s the End of the War


“Only the dead have seen the end of war” – George Santayana*

On July 3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg ended in a devastating defeat for General Robert E. Lee and the South. On the same day, Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, giving the North control of the Mississippi and splitting the Confederacy in half. Following July 3rd, President Abraham Lincoln and his Union commanders began to prepare for ending the war.

The Union Strategy

By 1863, the Union strategy to win the war consisted of five major goals:

  1. Fully blockade all Southern coasts. This strategy, known as the Anaconda Plan, would eliminate the possibility of Confederate help from abroad.
  2. Control the Mississippi River. This strategy would destroy much of the South’s commerce and separate Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the other Confederate states.
  3. Capture Richmond. Without its capital, the Confederacy’s command lines would be disrupted.
  4. Shatter Southern civilian morale by capturing and destroying Atlanta, Savannah, and South Carolina, the heart of Southern secession.
  5. Use the advantage of more Northern troops to engage the enemy everywhere and dishearten the Confederate Army.

DecorativeBy early 1864, the first two goals had been accomplished. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in July of 1863 secured the Mississippi; meanwhile, the Union had created a successful blockade. In the spring of 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant to command the entire Union Army, complete these final goals, and finish the war.

Grant’s Plan to End the War

Grant planned to end the war by November by mounting several simultaneous offensives. General George Meade was to lead the Union’s massive Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee. Grant would stay with Meade. General James Butler was to advance up Virginia’s James River and attack Richmond, the Confederate capital. General William Tecumseh Sherman was to plunge into the South, inflicting as much damage as possible as he drove toward Atlanta.

In opposition, Lee’s strategy in Virginia was to use the terrain and fortified positions to his advantage, thus offsetting the Union’s advantage of superior numbers. Additionally, Lee hoped that the Northern public would not stand for the costs of forcing the South back into the Union. Lee was almost successful. From May 5 to May 24, the full force of Grant’s and Lee’s armies fought continually with enormous casualties, especially for the Union.

However, unlike past Union commanders, Grant’s resolve was unbreakable, despite the costs. 28,000 soldiers died at the Battle of the Wilderness. Another 28,000 soldiers died just a few days later in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Of the 56,000 dead, two-thirds were Union soldiers.

DecorativeThe following week, Grant lost another 13,000 soldiers — 7,000 of them in half an hour — at Cold Harbor. In 30 days fighting Lee, Grant had lost 50,000 troops — equivalent to half of the Confederate army at the time. Grant became known as the “Butcher” and Congress was appalled. They even petitioned for his removal. But, Lincoln argued that Grant was winning the battles and refused to acquiesce to Congress’ request.

Meanwhile, the Union failed to capture Richmond, sparing the Confederate capital temporarily. On May 6, one day after Grant and Lee started their mass confrontation that earned Grant his nickname, Union General Sherman entered Georgia, scorching every resource that lay in his path. By late July, he had forced the enemy back to within sight of Atlanta, where he laid siege on the city for a month. Finally, in early September, he entered Atlanta — one day after the Confederate Army evacuated it.

Sherman waited until seven days after Lincoln’s hotly fought reelection before putting Atlanta to the torch and starting his March to the Sea. No one stood before him. His soldiers pillaged the countryside and destroyed everything of conceivable military value as they traveled 285 miles to Savannah in a march that became legendary for terrorizing the civilian population. On December 22, Savannah fell.

Next, Sherman ordered his army to move north into South Carolina. Their intent was to destroy the state where secession began. Exactly a month later, the capital, Columbia, was captured and Union forces retook Fort Sumter. The war was almost over, with the end firmly in sight.

The Last Events in the War

Lee’s Northern Virginia Army was the only substantial military force left to challenge the Union Army. For nine months, Grant and Lee had faced each other from within 53 miles of opposing trenches during the Siege Of Petersburg. Lee’s forces had been reduced to 50,000, while Grant’s had grown to over 120,000. With the end inevitable, the Southern troops began to melt away. On April 2, Grant ordered an attack on Petersburg and broke the Confederate line, although Lee and his shrinking army were able to escape.

DecorativeLee sent a message to Jefferson Davis saying that Richmond could no longer be defended and that he should evacuate the city. That night, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet set fire to everything of military value in Richmond, then boarded a train to Danville, Virginia, 140 miles to the south. Mobs took over Richmond’s streets and set more fires. The next day, Northern soldiers arrived, and the following day, Lincoln visited the city and sat in the office of Jefferson Davis.

Lee’s Northern Virginia Army, now reduced in size to 35,000 troops, had escaped west. Lee had asked the Confederate Commissary Department to have rations for his infantry waiting at the Amelia Courthouse, as his soldiers were starving from their narrow escape. But, when he arrived, no rations awaited his troops and they were forced to forage the countryside for food. While Lee expended valuable time securing food for his troops, 125,000 Union soldiers surrounded his army, whose numbers had been reduced to 25,000 troops and were steadily falling. Seriously outnumbered, Lee decided to make one last stand. On April 9, the remaining Confederate Army, under John Gordon, drove back Union cavalry blocking the road near the village of Appomattox Court House. Beyond the initial cavalry were 50,000 Union infantry, and as many closing in on Lee from his rear. The war was over.

Lee sent a note to Grant, and the two men met later that afternoon. Grant offered generous terms of surrender: Confederate officers and soldiers could go home, taking with them their horses, sidearms, and personal possessions. Also, Grant guaranteed their immunity from prosecution for treason. Grant also sent three day’s worth of food rations to the 25,000 hungry Confederate soldiers.

The official surrender ceremony occurred three days later when Lee’s troops stacked their rifles and battle flags. President Lincoln’s will to save the Union had prevailed. He looked with satisfaction on the survival of his country and with deep regret on the great damage that had been done. However, these emotions did not last long, as Lincoln only lived for five more days.

*George Santayana; Soliloquies in England – Soliloquy #25, “Tipperary” (1924); Scribners, 1924

Reflect: Punish or Rebuild?


The South’s refusal to give up slavery resulted in between 600,000 and 750,000 deaths. The monetary cost was over $8,289,808,707 in 1865 dollars. As such, the Civil War was almost unfathomably destructive.

Following the war, should the South have been punished and made to pay for endorsing slavery or should the North have forgiven, moved on, and used their resources to rebuild the South?

Expand: The Emancipation Proclamation: Did It or Didn’t It?


Americans tend to think of the Civil War as a fight to end slavery. Yet, one full year into the Civil War, the North had not abolished slavery anywhere. Despite a vocal Abolitionist movement in the North, many people and particularly many soldiers opposed slavery but did not favor emancipation, expecting slavery to die out on its own over time. In the border states — Union states that still permitted slavery — the idea of emancipation was particularly problematic. When one Union officer in Kentucky freed local slaves after a major victory, many other Union soldiers threw down their arms and disbanded. Lincoln intervened and “unfreed” the slaves to prevent a military backlash, providing further evidence that Lincoln’s primary goal was not emancipation, at least not initially.

Lincoln’s Position on Slavery

By mid-1862, Lincoln had come to believe that slavery needed to end. Besides his disdain for the institution, he simply felt that the South could not be welcomed back into the Union with no consequences after they had tried to dismantle it. However, many in the Union disagreed. Lincoln’s military commander General George McClellan was vehemently against emancipation and many Republicans who backed policies forbidding black settlement in their states were also against granting blacks additional rights. In fact, in mid-1862 when Lincoln indicated to his cabinet he wanted to issue a proclamation of freedom, they convinced him he had to wait until the Union achieved a significant military success.

DecorativeThe Emancipation Proclamation

That victory came in September at Antietam. No foreign country wanted to ally with a potentially losing power, thus the Union’s victory was significant because it demonstrated to the British that the South could lose. As a result, the British did not recognize the Confederate States of America, and Antietam became one of the war’s most important diplomatic battles, as well as one of the bloodiest. Five days after the battle, Lincoln decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863. Unless the Confederate States returned to the Union by that day, he proclaimed their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

The Emancipation Proclamation did not legally free any slaves as Lincoln had no Constitutional authority to free the slaves, and even Congress probably did not have that authority in the federal system of government set up by the Constitution. In the Proclamation, Lincoln does not even attempt to claim political power. Instead, the Proclamation was issued as a military order from the Commander-in-Chief, “…in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States…”

Similarly, President Lincoln did not try to free slaves in slave states that were still part of the Union. Instead, the Proclamation only applied to the rebellious Confederate States as an act to seize enemy resources. By claiming to free the slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln was actually freeing people not directly in his control, which made it more acceptable to much of the Union army.

Lincoln also emphasized emancipation as a tactic to shorten the war by taking Southern resources and reducing Confederate strength. The Proclamation would certainly affect, perhaps even cripple, the South’s economy which relied on slave-labor to grow cotton. Lincoln and his army hoped that if slaves heard they would be free if they reached the North, the South would face mass desertion. Even McClellan supported the policy as a strategic move.

DecorativeSo why did Lincoln issue the Proclamation, and what purpose did it serve? First, the Proclamation created a climate where ending slavery was seen as a major objective of the war, which hindered the Confederate image abroad. Overseas, the North seemed to champion a great moral cause and so even if a foreign government wanted to help the South, its population might object. Second, as Southern slaves heard of the Proclamation, many deserted and ran to the promised freedom in the North, creating havoc and uncertainty in the South and damaging their economy. Lastly, eventually the Proclamation led to the proposal and ratification of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery throughout the unified nation.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves, it played a major part in the North’s victory and served as a precursor to laws that would.

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Sherman’s March

A History Channel video and article expanding on Sherman’s Georgia campaign and his March to the Sea

10 Facts: The Emancipation Proclamation

A Civil War Trust article breaking down some common misconceptions around the Emancipation Proclamation, including that it freed all slaves

Civil War Timeline

A comprehensive timeline of the Civil War, from the National Park Service

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

A Crash Course video describing the end of the Civil War, including some of the themes discussed in this lesson

Lesson Glossary


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  • 13th Amendment
    Constitutional amendment which formally abolished slavery throughout the nation
  • 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
    an African American Union company, 85% of whom were former slaves, who fought valiantly at Fort Wagner in South Carolina
  • Anaconda Plan
    called for a full blockade of the Southern coasts as part of the Union strategy to win the war in hopes of eliminating the possibility of Confederate help from abroad
  • Appomattox Court House
    location where General Lee surrendered to General Grant after being surrounded by Union infantry, ending the Civil War
  • border states
    Union states that permitted slavery
  • contrabands
    escaped slaves who did manual labor for the Union
  • Emancipation Proclamation
    proclamation by Lincoln which claimed to free the slaves in the Confederacy.  It did not free all slaves but led to the enrollment of African American men as Union soldiers and set a precedent for the 13th Amendment
  • March to the Sea
    285 mile Union march from Atlanta to Savannah in which soldiers pillaged the countryside and destroyed everything of conceivable military value

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

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

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library.  CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Northern Plans to End the War: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Road to Appomattox: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Emancipation Proclamation: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeEmancipation ProclamationPopular Graphic ArtsWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeEmancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862 (1919)E.G. Renesch Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeCollier’s 1921 Lincoln Abraham – cabinet meetingFrancis Bicknell CarpenterWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeAppomattox Court House, Va (NYPL Hades-118891-55042)H. Bufford & Sons (Lithographer) and Webber, Elbridge Wesley (1839-1914) (Artist)Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeThe battle of the Wilderness Va. May 5th & 6th 1864 LCCN90714911Currier & IvesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeAnaconda PlanJ.B. ElliottWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain