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Comparing the Armies of the North and the South and Generals Grant and Lee





        To understand the Civil War, one must understand the organization and terminology used for two armies (Union and Confederate).   There were theaters of the war.  A theater is a large area that has not yet been "taken" The "Army of the Potomac" was the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war and the "Army of Northern Virginia" was the main Confederate force. Remarkably, both of the armies were organized in a similar fashion including a structure of corps, divisions, and brigades.


Respected by both Union and Confederate People

"The Army of Northern Virginia is an army that has really sort of a split personality," historian Peter S. Carmichael says in Robert E. Lee. "One personality is this extraordinary confidence in their leader, extraordinary high morale, a belief they can’t be conquered. But at the same time it is an army that was being worn down. Lee was pushing these men beyond, beyond the logistical capacity of that army."



       The Army of Northern Virginia was the primary military force of the Confederate States of America in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, as well as the primary command structure of the Department of Northern Virginia. It was most often arrayed against the Union Army of the Potomac. Three districts were created under the Department of Northern Virginia:

  • Aquia District
    • First commander: Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes
    • Period of existence: October 22, 1861, to April 18, 1862
  • Potomac District
    • First commander: Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard
    • Period of existence: October 22, 1861, to January 29, 1862
  • Valley District
    • First commander: Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
    • Period of existence: October 22, 1861, to April 9, 1865

While the Aquia and Potomac Districts ceased to exist by the spring of 1862, the need remained for military organization in the Valley throughout the remainder of the war, and the Valley District remained in place for the duration of the war.


The name Army of Northern Virginia referred to its primary area of operation, as did most Confederate States Army names at the time. The Army originated as the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac, which was organized on June 20, 1861, from all operational forces in northern Virginia. On July 20 and July 21, the Army of the Shenandoah and forces from the District of Harpers Ferry were added. Units from the Army of the Northwest were merged into the Army of the Potomac between March 14 and May 17, 1862. The Army of the Potomac was renamed Army of Northern Virginia on March 14. The Army of the Peninsula was merged on April 12, 1862.

Robert E. Lee's biographer, Douglas S. Freeman, asserts that the army received its final name from Lee when he issued orders assuming command on June 1, 1862.[2] However, Freeman does admit that Lee corresponded with Joseph E. Johnston, his predecessor in army command, prior to that date and referred to Johnston's command as the Army of Northern Virginia. Part of the confusion results from the fact that Johnston commanded the Department of Northern Virginia (as of October 22, 1861) and the name Army of Northern Virginia can be seen as an informal consequence of its parent department's name. Jefferson Davis and Johnston did not adopt the name, but it is clear that the organization of units as of March 14 was the same organization that Lee received on June 1, and thus it is generally referred to today as the Army of Northern Virginia, even if that is correct only in retrospect.

In addition to Virginians, it included regiments from all over the Confederacy, even those as far away as Georgia, Texas and Arkansas. Of those, one of the most well known was the Texas Brigade, made up of the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas, and the 3rd Arkansas, which distinguished themselves in numerous battles, perhaps most notably during their fight for the Devil's Den at the Battle of Gettysburg. The 50th Georgia Volunteer Infantry are Georgia's most famous contribution to the army.

       Command under General R. E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

On June 1, 1862, its most famous and final leader, General Robert E. Lee, took command after Johnston was wounded, and Smith suffered what may have been a nervous breakdown, at the Battle of Seven Pines. In the first year of his command, Lee had two principal subordinate commanders. The right wing of the army was under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the left wing under Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. These wings were redesignated as the First Corps (Longstreet) and Second Corps (Jackson) on November 6, 1862. Following Jackson's death after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized the army into three corps on May 30, 1863, under Longstreet, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. A Fourth Corps, under Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, was organized on October 19, 1864; on April 8, 1865, it was merged into the Second Corps. The commanders of the first three corps changed frequently in 1864 and 1865. The Cavalry Corps was led by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. It was established on August 17, 1862, and abolished on May 11, 1864 (the day Stuart was mortally wounded), with cavalry units being assigned to the headquarters of the Army. The Reserve Artillery was commanded by Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton.

Corps organization under Lee

Although the Army of Northern Virginia swelled and shrank over time, its units of organization consisted primarily of the following corps, sometimes referred to as "wings" or "commands":

  • First Corps
  • Second Corps
  • Third Corps
  • Fourth Corps, often styled Anderson's Corps
  • Cavalry Corps

Campaigns and battles

The Army fought in a number of campaigns and battles, including:



Army strength at the beginning of campaign

Major Battles

Peninsula Campaign



Seven Pines (Fair Oaks)

Seven Days Battles


approx. 92,000

Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill

Northern Virginia Campaign


approx. 54,000

Second Bull Run (Second Manassas)

Maryland Campaign


approx. 60,000

Antietam (Sharpsburg)

Fredericksburg Campaign


approx. 75,000


Chancellorsville Campaign


approx. 75,000


Gettysburg Campaign




Bristoe Campaign




Mine Run Campaign


approx. 50,000


Overland Campaign



Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor

Richmond–Petersburg Campaign



Siege of Petersburg, including the Battle of the Crater

Appomattox Campaign


around 50,000

Five Forks, Battle of Appomattox Court House


The Army of Northern Virginia is one of the most respected military formations in American history. Although usually outnumbered, it won victories in the American Civil War at Fredericksburg, Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor. Additionally, it successfully drove the Army of the Potomac away from the "gates" of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles, effectively ending McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The army held out against long odds in the 1864 Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg, inflicting grievous casualties on the opposing forces of Grant. These successes sometimes gave the army a psychological advantage over its enemies. However, the army was most defined by its commander, Robert E. Lee. To this day, the army and Lee are famed in Southern culture.

On April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War, with General Lee signing the papers of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. The day after his surrender, Lee issued his Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia.

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