Photos Demonstrate What The American Civil War Was Really Like

Fought in the United States between 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War is described as one of the darkest times in United States history. Brother fought against brother over several reasons, although primarily over the controversy of slavery in the United States. The states that remained loyal to the United States were known as the Union with the southern states that succeeded calling themselves the Confederate States of America. The conflict is the bloodiest and most costly war ever fought on American soil, changing the trajectory of the United States forever. These photos salvaged from the Civil War show what that time was really like.

Major General John Sedgewick Was Killed By A Sniper

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Here is an image of General John Sedgewick sitting while surrounded by some of his men. Sedgewick was regarded as one of the most experienced and respected commanders in the Union Army and was even referred to as Major General. Unfortunately, he was shot in the head by a sharpshooter, killing him.

According to fellow general Ulysses S. Grant, losing him was “greater than the loss of a whole division of troops.” Supposedly, he claimed that the snipers “couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance” just moments before he was killed.

The Biggest Gun In The War

Massive Gun
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This massive piece of artillery could be found guarding Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. However, this wasn’t the only gun of its kind. There were 13 more in the surrounding area guarding other forts. The continuous shelling by the Union forced the Confederates to abandon the fort and the gun.

In a battle, the 54 Regiment suffered major losses at Fort Wagner, which allowed for a group of black soldiers to take control of the fort. They stayed there for the remainder of the war.

The Remains Of A Bombardment

Aftermath Of Bombardment
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This is an image of Fort Sumter located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. It was the site where the first shots of the war were fired, resulting in a 34-hour battle. However, the Union was forced to surrender the fort on April 13th.

After Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated into the presidency, he ordered three unarmed ships to restock supplies at Fort Sumter. This deeply angered the South because the fort was in their territory, resulting in the fighting. Luckily, nobody was killed during the bombardment.

General Sheridan Gave Robert E. Lee A Lot Of Trouble

Civil War Soldier
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

General Sheridan was a controversial Union general, especially in the eyes of the Confederacy. Few were willing to forget the Burning Raid he led up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. He was a highly skilled leader and gave the Confederacy quite a difficult time.

It was even Sheridan who led the Confederates to surrender when he crossed the bridge over the James River. He is also known for capturing several of Robert E. Lee’s men, cutting off their retreat at Appomattox. This was the end of the line for the Confederacy.

Custer As A Soldier

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Although it may be hard to tell at first glance, the soldier on the right in the photo is actually George Armstrong Custer. During the Civil War, Custer served as a United States Army officer and cavalry commander, known for his military prowess. Although he served bravely in the war, he is best known for leading his men to their deaths during the controversial Battle of Little Big Horn in 1976.

The man on the left is Confederate officer John “Gimlet” W. Lea, a classmate of Custer’s at West Point. During the war, the two fought against each other at the Battle of Williamsburg. After Lea was injured, Custer carried him to a hospital where they later took this picture.

Countless Cannonballs

Cannonballs
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While the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, it ended at Appomattox, Virginia, even though the Confederate capital was located in Richmond, Virginia. There was a lot of fighting occurring in the area, so a lot of ammunition was needed as well.

Here is a picture of cannonballs both stacked on top of each other as well as those that had already been fired out of cannons. The amount of cannonballs provides a sense of how devastating the fighting really was.

A Battle Stopped To Watch Two Men Fight

Skeletal Remains
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Here is one of the many positions that were held around Fredericksburg, Virginia. This was one of the openings to Richmond, so it was the site of numerous bloody confrontations between the Union and Confederate forces. One of these engagements is known as the Battle of the Wilderness.

During the battle, a Union soldier went to take cover in a gully. To his surprise, there was already a Confederate soldier in the trench. What started as an argument turned into a fistfight, with the surrounding soldiers stopping to watch. It wasn’t until the Confederate soldier started beating the Union man with his belt that the Union soldier surrendered.

Skeletal Remains

Skeletal Remains -178005811
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images

This is a photograph of all that remains of a Confederate ironclad ram called the Albemarle. The ship was named after Albemarle Sound, where it was built in 1863, and went on to terrorize Union vessels in the coming months.

Although the Albemarle was a solid and fast ship, it wasn’t powerful enough to sink Union ships such as the Miami. One victory that the Albemarle did have however was the Captain of the vessel, Captain Fusser. An exploding cannonball ricocheted off Albemarle’s hull and landed back at the captain’s feet.

A Plan That Went Awry

Plan That Went Awry -90018520
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images

This observation balloon, called Intrepid, was invented by Thadeus Lowe. These balloons had been around for years before the Civil War, but Lowe saw the potential for them to be used by the Union. To prove their effectiveness, he came up with a risky plan to fly to Washington D.C. and land on the White House lawn.

Unsurprisingly, the plan didn’t go how Lowe had envisioned, with the wind blowing the balloon into enemy territory. He was then captured by the Confederates but managed to escape before being executed.

Sherman’s Neckties

Sherman's Neckties
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Taken by Andrew Russell is a picture of what may look to be simple pieces of wood and scraps of steel. However, Confederate soldiers would see them as the materials used to make “Sherman’s Neckties,” named after General Tecumseh Sherman. Southern soldiers would use the wood as fuel, and heat the steel to the point that it was malleable.

They would then twist the metal as much as they could so that the steel could no longer be used for railroad tracks. Needless to say, the Union found these to be very inconvenient.

Enemies And Neighbors

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Former United States senator, Jefferson Davis, was elected as President of the Confederacy when the government formed. They chose Richmond, Virginia as the destination for their capital, just over 100 miles away from the Union’s capital of Washington DC.

The Union made two attempts to take Virginia at the beginning of the war although both were unsuccessful. Being so close, the Union watched carefully as the southern armies grew weak and tired and waited for the right time to strike. It took the Union a whole three years to invade the south.

Abraham Lincoln’s Height Was A Problem

Lincoln's Height
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Known for already being the tallest president ever, Abraham Lincoln also wore a large top hat to make himself appear even taller than he already was. In a combat scenario, size can actually be a disadvantage, because the smaller you are, the smaller a target you are.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s height almost cost him his life. During a Union army attack on Fort Stevens, Lincoln paid a visit to the soldiers. While talking to the soldiers, Confederate rifle fire was getting extremely close, and Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes forced Lincoln down before he was shot in the head.

Experiencing War From A Different Perspective

Matthew Harrison Brady -181457029
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Pictured in the middle is Matthew Harrison Brady, the man considered to be the founder of photojournalism. He’s also credited with being the reason we have such a diverse collection of Civil War photos today. Supposedly, he spent $100,000 of his own money in order to share the war with the public in ways that had never been done before.

During the war, people were intrigued and wanted to see his work. However, after the war, people wanted to move on and not be reminded about the horrors of war. So, Brady ended up selling his work to Congress for a small sum of money.

It Changed Naval Warfare

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Here is an image of the crew of the USS Monitor, a ship that entered the war in just enough time to save the Union. The USS Monitor was different from any other ship and required 40 new patents and rose 18 inches above the waterline.

The ship was built in response to the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia, and the two met each other in the Chesapeake Bay on March 9, 1862. This was one of the first armored ships introduced to the war which would drastically change naval warfare. The battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack ended in a draw as each of the ships were so well made.

The Union Was Jealous Of The Confederate Navy

Confederate Navy -615313294
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

At the beginning of the Civil War, the CSS Virginia was originally known as the USS Merrimack and was one of the most prized ships by the United States Navy. While the Union would have happily taken control of the ship, it fell into the hands of the confederacy.

However, the Union soldiers eventually ended up sinking the ship while docked in the harbor. The Confederates attempted to salvage and rebuild the ship, however, the Union Navy put a stop to that.

Ulysses S. Grant Created A Sea Blockade

Sea Blockade
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In order to put the Confederate Navy at a disadvantage, General Ulysses S. Grant built a sea blockade, which drastically affected the Confederate Navy throughout the war. The bridge was built on June 14, 1861, and although there’s not much going on, it was incredibly effective.

It was not only the longest but also the most impressive bridges built during the Civil War. It crossed the James River which was 2,000-feet wide and 84-feet deep. It was crossed by infantry, wagons, cattle, and calvary in order to blindside the Confederates.

Don’t Mess With “The Dictator”

The Dictator
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This piece of equipment is known as “the Dictator,” a 17,000-pound gun that is so large it could only be transported by railroad. Many of the buildings that were almost completely destroyed throughout the war were most likely the work of the dictator.

The weapon was able to fire a 13-inch shell which weighed around 218 pounds and could fire accurately up to 2.5 miles. Of course, it was also incredibly dangerous to fire, as it was rumored to recoil up to 12 feet after every shot.

The Confederacy Looked To Europe For Allies

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Although the Civil War was fought between Americans on American soil, that didn’t mean that Europe wasn’t looking to get involved. The Confederacy was even talking to the English and the French having them intervene in the war. However, both countries eventually backed out.

This photo was taken in 1863 and shows the Union Secretary of States William Seaward spending time with ambassadors from England, France, Italy, Nicaragua, Russia, among others. President Lincoln’s goal was to make sure the United States was in good standing with other countries so they were less likely to side with the Confederacy. He succeeded in his goal.

The Battle Of Gettysburg Was One Of The Most Decisive Moments Of The War

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For the most part, battles during the Civil War took place in the Southern states. So, eventually, General Robert E. Lee decided to take the fight to the Union. This resulted in the Battle of Gettysburg which took place in a small town in southern Pennsylvania. The two armies met in what is considered to be the biggest battle in North American history.

Although there are some rumors about how the battle actually started, what really happened was that both sides were looking for a fight. The battle lasted a whole three days and is regarded as the deadliest battle in American history.

The Remains Of Richmond

Remains Of Richmond
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In 1965, the Confederates were defending their capital of Richmond with all that they had. Yet, once the Union forces were upon them, both the citizens and the government knew they could no longer hold the city. On April 12, 185, the Union army laid into them while Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled the city, utilizing the last railroad line still in use.

Seven days later, the Confederates still defending Richmond surrendered and Jefferson was still on the run. Even though Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, Jefferson was arrested by Union soldiers on May 10.

Wounded Soldiers Being Tended In the Field

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Archive Photos/Getty Images

This photo was taken on May 2, 1863, after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. It was a year after Jonathan Letterman reformed first aid on the battlefield to ensure that soldiers get proper treatment as quickly as possible.

Before Letterman, nicknamed the “Father of Modern Battlefield Medicine,” stepped in to lead, it would typically take around a week for wounded soldiers to be removed from where the action took place. Here soldiers sit under a tree where they were brought to the makeshift field-dressing station. From there, the men were moved to the field hospital.

The Ruins Of Charleston, South Carolina

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

This image taken in 1861 shows three boys sitting on the edge of a pillar in what’s left of Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate president Jefferson Davis ordered the surrender of Fort Sumter, which was located in the middle of the harbor of Charleston.

Major Anderson, Lincoln’s commander, sent a reply back to Davis, which he rejected, and ordered that General P.G.T. Beauregard attack the fort. The confederates destroyed the city. Afterward, Lincoln called on forces to recapture the fort.

Living As Contraband

Group of contraband slaves at Allens farm house near Williamsburg Road, in the vicinity of Yorkville, Virginia, during the American Civil War, from the New York Public Library, 1862.
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Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This is a picture of contraband slaves at a farmhouse near Yorkville, Virginia taken in 1862. As the Civil War raged on African-Americans began to leave their masters to seek refuge behind Union lines.

It was easier as Union troops moved deeper into Virginia and by 1863, around 10,000 former slaves came to Washington, which was seen as a symbol of Union and freedom. Because the Union didn’t have a policy as to what to do to help those seeking protection, commanders either put them to work in the troops or returned them to their plantation owners.

Life Of A Union Officer

Union officers rest while their african-American orderly serves drinks. Warrenton, Virginia, during the American Civil War 1862.
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is a photo of some Union officers in Virginia taking a break as their African-American orderly serves them drinks. When it came to dealing with those who were seeking protection from slavery, most Union commanders felt that they were contraband of war and as a result, they unfortunately just became the property of the Union.

Major General Benjamin Butler was known for treating escaped slaves as contraband and refused to send them back to the bonds of slavery. But in 1861 a policy was instituted that once they were found as contraband, they were declared free.

Time For A Soldier’s Haircut

A soldier from the Army of the Potoma getting a hair cut during the US civil war, circa 1862.
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Archive Photos/Getty Images

In this photo taken in 1862, this man from the Army of the Potomac is getting a haircut from his fellow soldiers. The Army of the Potomac was the principal Union Army in the Civil War’s Eastern Theatre that was started in 1861 after the First Battle of Bull Run.

The Army of the Potomac didn’t last too long and disbanded in 1865 after surrendering to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in April of that year.

Time To Eat With The Messmates

Cooks preparing the mess in camp during the US civil war, circa 1862.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

After long days on the battlefield, a soldier is certainly bound to work up a hunger and well, someone’s got to do the cooking! These soldiers are preparing mess at a camp sometime around 1862.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers had to prepare their own food and were given daily rations that were unprepared. When it was time to eat, they’d gather in groups called “messes” to cook their food together. Food was often cooked over an open fire in a cast skillet or kettle and often supplemented their rations with wild game or wild berries.

Lincoln Chats With McClellan

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, General George B.McClellan, after Battle of Antietam, Maryland, USA, Matthew Brady, 3 Oct 1862.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Here we see Abraham Lincoln having a chat with General George B. McClellan following the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in October 1862. The following month, Lincoln did what he had to do and ousted McClellan from his post as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan may have built the Army but would later prove to be a sluggish and paranoid field commander who didn’t want to aggressively charge at Confederate General Robert E. Lee in North Virginia.

Dog Days Of War

Lieutenant George A. Custer with Dog, Peninsula Campaign, Virginia, USA, 1862.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lieutenant George A. Custer is pictured relaxing here with his very serious pooch during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Long before the famed Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Civil War.

He was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and fought at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign. Throughout the war, Custer worked his way up through the ranks and by 1865 had achieved the rank of Brevet major general with the U.S. Army.

A Train Gets Derailed

Derailed Train during American Civil War, Manassas, Virginia, USA, by Andrew J. Russell, early 1860's.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This train was derailed at Manassas, Virginia in the early 1860s. Trains were at great risk of being derailed in the midst of war. One of the greatest train wrecks to happen as a result of the war was the Shohola train wreck of 1864 along the Erie Railroad in Pennsylvania.

There were 833 Confederate prisoners of war on the Shohola train and 128 Union guards who were taking them to Point Lookout, Maryland, where a prisoner camp was being built. The wreck occurred as a result of a collision with an oncoming train, killing a total of 65 people.

A Telegraph Camp Waiting For News

One of General Grant's Unionist (northern) Field Telegraph stations during the American Civil War 1861-1865 Photograph.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This was one of General Grant’s Field Telegraph stations that was ready to send out and receive breaking news. The telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse, changed the course of the Civil War. After the war broke out, the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps was formed in 1861.

An office in Washington, D.C. was tasked with maintaining communications between the federal government and the commanding officers of the Union Army that were spread throughout the country. Serving in the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps was a demanding job, in which one had to be quick and intelligent.

Capturing Fort Harrison

Union Major General Godfrey (Gottfried) Weitzel and the staff of XVIII Corps Army of the James after the capture of Fort Harrison on 5 October 1864 during the Fort Harrison Campaign of the American Civil War at Fort Harrison, Virginia, United States.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Union Major General Godfrey Weitzel stood proud with his staff of XVII Corps Army of the James after they successfully captured Fort Harrison on October 5, 1864. Fort Harrison was one of the major Confederate defenses at Richmond and was named for Lieutenant William Harrison.

Fort Harrison was the largest of fortifications that went from new Market Road to the James River, meant to protect the Chaffin’s Bluff on the James. It took 2,500 Union soldiers to overrun the fort and capture it in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.

The USS Kearsarge Crew Ready For Action

The crew of the USS Kearsarge on deck during the American Civil War, USA, circa 1864.
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Archive Photos/Getty Images

The crew of the USS Kearsarge poses on deck in this photo from 1864. The USS Kearsarge was a Mohican-class sloop-of-war, which was a warship with a single gun deck that could carry up to 18 guns.

USS Kearsarge is best remembered for defeating Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama at the Battle of Cherbourg. There, the Alabama was the first to fire but the Kearsarge didn’t respond until she was close enough. She was the only ship in the U.S. Navy to be named for New Hampshire’s Mount Kearsarge.

Thaddeus Lowe And His Horse

Thaddeus Lowe was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as head of the Union Army's aeronautics division to investigate the use of hot air balloons for reconnaissance.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was hired by Abraham Lincoln to head the Union Army’s aeronautics division. His primary task was to investigate the use of hot air balloons for reconnaissance during the Civil War and as a result has been dubbed the father of military aerial reconnaissance in the U.S.

Lowe’s work was general successful, but many members of the military didn’t have faith in it. He eventually resigned in 1863 and returned to the private sector to continue his exploration of hydrogen gas manufacturing.

Relaxing By The Tent

Civil War soldiers of the 7th New York State Militia by tent opening in Camp Cameron, Washington, DC.
Brady-Handy Studio/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Brady-Handy Studio/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

This is a photo of members of the 7th New York Militia posing by the opening of a tent posted at Camp Cameron. The 7th Regiment was nicknamed the “Silk Stocking” regiment and were also known as the “Blue-Bloods” since many of its members were a park of the New York City’s social elite.

They were initially part of a pre-war New York Militia that were eventually enlisted into federal service at the onset of the Civil War.

Resting With Their Swords

Two Union soldiers of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment seated with swords during the US civil war, circa 1861.
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Archive Photos/Getty Images

Here are two Union soldiers taking a seat with their swords. They were a part of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment that was posted near Washington, D.C. in 1862. Camp life for the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment wasn’t so bad, as many women followed their husbands out to the battlefield to serve as nurses or laundresses.

While many women were accepted in these roles, those who were there but weren’t married were presumed to be women of the night and therefore were encouraged to stay away.

Many Felt The Civil War Was About This

Slaves in a field with a horse during the US civil war circa 1861.
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Archive Photos/Getty Images

Many people felt the Civil War was primarily motivated by one issue: slavery. But others felt that it was more so about preserving the Union, in which there were slave-holding states. Even President Abraham Lincoln himself said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.”

In 1860, four million slaves inhabited 15 states and territories. It was not acknowledged in the Southern states that there were 400,000 free African Americans, who did not have equal rights but were successful businessmen who sometimes held slaves themselves.

Centerville Was At The Center Of War

American Civil War: In 1862 the town of Centreville in Virginia, USA, was significantly fortified by the Confederacy and served as a supply depot for both sides at various points in the war.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Centerville was an important location during the Civil War. Part of an unincorporated community in Fairfax County, Virginia, Centerville was a prime location for both the Union and the Confederacy because it was on elevated ground and close to Washington, D.C.

It was also a site that had access to two important railroads and therefore served as a supply depot for both sides during the war. The First and Second Battles of Manassas were fought nearby.

Siege of Yorktown

Union army battery at Yorktown, 1862.
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is what a Union Army battery looked like during the Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War in 1862. This particular battery was located at Yorktown, where the Siege of Yorktown was fought from April 5 to May 4 of that year.

Union Major General George B. McClellan encountered Major General John B. Magruder’s small Confederate force at Yorktown. McClellan brought heavy siege guns and ended up having to battle the Confederate opposition for two weeks longer than he expected.

The Confederate Army Prepares For Battle

Confederate fortifications in Manassas, Virginia during the US civil war, circa March 1862.
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Here is what the Confederate Army’s fortifications looked like at Manassas, Virginia in 1862. They eventually fought in the First Battle of Manassas, which to the Union forces was known as the First Battle of Bull Run.

It was the first major battle of the Civil War that ended in victory for the Confederacy. Part of this was attributed to the fact that Union forces took too long to position themselves, giving Confederate forces time to fortify and get reinforcements by rail, as you see here.

Gearing Up At Fort Sumner

Union artillery at Fort Sumner near Susan Clark's House, Fair Oaks, Virginia on 1 June 1862.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Union didn’t seem to be at a loss of artillery at Fort Sumner near Fair Oaks, Virginia. This photo was taken during the Battle of Seven Pines that was a part of the Peninsular Campaign through spring and summer of 1862.

The Battle of Seven Pines was an interesting one in that both sides claimed victory. Confederate assaults were successful in driving back Union forces but reinforcements for both sides kept feeding into the action. By the time Union forces were able to stabilize, the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was injured. In the end, both sides made little headway.