Dates: 12 April 1861 – 9 May 1865
Belligerents: United States of America (USA), Confederate States of America (CSA)
Key Figures: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee (amongst others)
Outcome: Union victory; dissolution of the Confederate States; slavery abolished; beginning of the Reconstruction era; US territorial integrity preserved (amongst others)
Casualties: 828,000+ Union; 864,000+ Confederacy
Deaths: 600,000 – 1,000,000+ dead in total.
A people divided. Bitter resentment towards the government. Doesn’t this sound similar to the US today?!
One of the most important things to note is the ‘North vs South’ argument. The US was divided politically, economically and socially: North vs South, Federal vs State government, slave state vs free state and urban vs rural. The North was much more urbanised than the south, and for the most part, had outlawed slavery (hence the free states). In fairness, there had been a huge influx of European migrants coming to the north of the US (like New York) and slavery had been outlawed in Europe for many years. In the South however, their economy was largely agrarian, meaning that slavery was economically viable for them, and part of their way of life. Many viewed slavery as part of the natural pattern of life.
But just what caused such divisions in America that 11 states seceded from the Union, and formed the Confederacy? Multiple reasons can be cited for this, and I have simply chosen the few I believe to be the most important/significant to discuss below.
The (Very) Early Beginnings: 1803-48
The US had doubled in size thanks to the Louisiana Purchase: the American acquisition of French territory on American soil for approximately $15 million – this worked out at about $18 per square mile (828,000 square miles in total). By purchasing this amount of land, the doctrine of ‘Manifest Destiny’ was drilled into the Americans’ mindset: it was their God-given duty to expand westwards, into this new territory.
Thousands of Americans migrated into this territory, but nowhere attracted Americans more than Texas, which was still technically Mexican territory. In 1836, the Texans declared independence from Mexico, and by 1845 the area was annexed and admitted to statehood (i.e., Texas officially became an American state), and this drew resentment from those who passionately resisted the addition of another slave state in America.
The US declared war on Mexico on 13 May 1846. After two years of fighting, the US won, and Mexico ceded all claims to Texas above the Rio Grande boundary, and also surrendered California and New Mexico – two other Mexican provinces.
The issue of slavery had already arisen and led to the next chapter of the US Civil War.
Decade of Turbulence: the 1850s
The Compromise of 1850
With newly acquired territories from Mexico – California, Arizona and New Mexico – came the argument of slave states vs free states (slave states being states where slavery was legal, free states being where it was not). David Wilmot, a Congressman from Pennsylvania, argued that any territory acquired from Mexico should not permit slavery. On the other hand, Jefferson Davis, a Senator from Mississippi, said that the new territory should be comprised of slave states because they were in the South of the US. Stephen Douglas, a lawyer from Illinois, came up with the idea of Popular Sovereignty: that states should be allowed to decide for themselves.
These arguments culminated in what was known as the Compromise of 1850: which gave statehood to California as a free state, allowing the new territories in the south to decide whether or not they wanted to allow slavery: Popular Sovereignty. It also implemented the new and controversial Fugitive Slave Law: whereby anyone in any state – even if it was a free state – had to hand back escaped slaves to their masters.
This effectively meant that the northern states – who were largely free states – had a role to play in maintaining slavery, which many vehemently opposed. Therefore, an anti-slavery movement based on abolishing slavery grew throughout the 1850s in the north, called ‘Abolitionism’.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened up large-scale settlement and migration to states whose position on slavery would be decided as a result of Popular Sovereignty. This culminated in an event known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’, where members of anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions attacked each other.
On the Eve of War: 1856-61
In 1856, the pro-slavery president, James Buchanan of the Democratic Party, ran for re-election and he won. The reason this election is significant is because he ran against a brand-new, newly formed, anti-slavery party: The Republican Party. For the most part, the Republican Party had gained a lot of ground and support in the north.
A year later, in 1857, brought about the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott – a slave – was taken by his master to Illinois (a free state). Scott argued that he was therefore free, but the court ruled against him, essentially citing that black people – whether slaves or not – were not classed as US citizens at all.
Tensions kept arising into 1858, and it was at this point that the Republican Party put forward an unknown Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas. They both took part in a series of debates which made Lincoln well-known around the country.
In the forerunning to the 1860 elections, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate, but the Democrats were still divided: in the south they nominated the current Vice-President John Breckinridge, while in the north they chose Stephen Douglas. Lincoln ultimately won the election, and as an outspoken abolitionist, many in the south feared what he would do next.
However, Lincoln set out to be moderate, and promised not to interfere with slavery in the existing slave states, but the damage had already been done throughout his staunch abolitionist views. Before he had even taken office, South Carolina seceded from the United States. By February 1861, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas had joined South Carolina in forming the Confederate States of America (CSA), under the presidency of Jefferson Davis.
The Early Years of the War, 1861-62
In April 1861, South Carolina demanded that federal troops stationed in South Carolina evacuate because they were independent. The federal government refused and maintained their garrison at Fort Sumter. In the early hours of 12 April 1861, just after 4:30am, the Confederate States’ navy bombarded the fort and captured it the next day, thereby starting the US Civil War.
Although nobody was killed at Fort Sumter, Lincoln immediately called for 75,000 troops and northerners rallied to his cause. His appeal for troops caused four more states to secede between April and June: Virginia (17 April); Arkansas (6 May); North Carolina (20 May) and Tennessee (8 June), bringing the Confederacy to a total of eleven states. Within these eleven states, they had a combined population of 9 million, including 3.5 million slaves. The Union consisted of 22 states, with a population of about 22 million people, with about 500,000 whom were slaves. In addition to the north/south divide, there were also four ‘border states’ (these were the states who although they remained in the Union, thousands of men within them fought for the Confederacy). These states were Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. In some cases, brothers in the same family fought on opposite sides, including Senator Crittenden of Kentucky: one of his sons rose to be a General in the Union Army, while the other rose to be a General in the Confederate Army.
Yet both the Union and the Confederacy had more in common than initially appeared: they both referred to the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776) to justify their causes. For the Union, they referred to the “All men are created equal” section, interpreting this as nobody should be subjected to slavery. On the other hand, the Confederacy referred to the section claiming “The right to alter or abolish unjust government” – in their view, the government intervening in their (now independent) states trying to abolish slavery (their way of life) was reason enough for them to refer to this.
The first fielded battle of the US Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run (sometimes referred to as First Manassas), and this was on 21 July 1861. 35,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson forced a much larger number of Union forces to retreat back towards Washington DC. The realisation dawned upon the Union that any hope of a quick conflict was soon gone to ground. It even led Lincoln to call for 500,000 more troops – even the Confederates called for more, as they also realised the war would not be over any time soon.
Bloody War: 1862
Perhaps the most violent year of the US Civil War was 1862. In the Spring, George B. McClellan (Supreme Commander of the Union Army) led his Army of the Potomac up the peninsula between the York River and the James River, and captured Yorktown (Virginia) on 4 May.Less than two months later, the combined forces of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee successfully drove back McClellan’s forces in the Seven Days Battles (25 June – 1 July), and McClellan called for more troops.
In the summer of 1862, Lee moved his Confederate forces northwards and split his men, sending Jackson to meet Union forces near Manassas again. On 29 August, Union troops led by John Pope met with Jackson’s forces in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The following day, Lee – with the other half of his Confederate forces – hit the Union army on their left flank, and once again succeeded in driving the Union forces back to Washington DC.This was when Lee began a series of invasions into the Union states: but by 14 September, McClellan had successfully reorganised his army, and struck at Lee’s forces in Maryland, and this time it was the Union’s turn to drive the Confederate forces back to a defensive position, at Antietam.
This ultimately led to the bloodiest day of fighting of the whole Civil War: the Battle of Antietam. The Army of the Potomac hit Lee’s forces (reinforced by Jackson’s) in a huge, pitched battle. There were estimates of 12,410 casualties from the 69,000 Union troops, and 13,724 from the 52,000 Confederate troops.
However, at the cost of over 12,000 lives, the Union victory at Antietam proved decisive: it halted the Confederate advance into Maryland, and also forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. McClellan was relieved of his duties after – in Lincoln’s mind – failing to pursue his advantage, and he was replaced by Ambrose E. Burnside.
Burnside then led an assault on Lee’s troops near Fredericksburg on 13 December, but this ended in heavy casualties and a Confederate victory; he was soon replaced by Joseph ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker, and both armies then settled into winter quarters on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River.
1863 (and the Emancipation Proclamation)
Lincoln had used the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which freed all enslaved people in the rebellious states after 1 January 1863. Lincoln justified this decision as a wartime measure but did not go so far to free the enslaved people in the border states loyal to the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labour forces and pitted international public opinion against them, and in favour of the Union. In fact, around 186,000 black Civil War soldiers joined the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865.On 1 May 1863, plans for a Union offensive were spoiled by a surprise attack by the bulk of Lee’s forces, whereupon Hooker pulled his men back to Chancellorsville. The Confederates gained a costly victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville, suffering 13,000 casualties (around 22% of their soldiers), while the Union lost 17,000 men (around 15% of their troops). Lee launched another invasion of the North the following month, which culminated in the Confederates attacking the forces commanded by General George Meade on 1 July, near Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania.
In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates were unable to push through the Union defence, and suffered casualties of close to 60%. However, once again, the Union failed to take the opportunity to counterattack, and Lee’s remaining forces were able to escape into Virginia, ending the last Confederate invasion of the North. Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg (Mississippi) in the Siege of Vicksburg, in a victory that would prove to be the turning point of the war in the western theatre.
Four score and seven years ago…The opening line of the famous Gettysburg Address, which referred to the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.
However, a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek (Georgia), just south of Chattanooga (Tennessee) in September 1863 caused Lincoln to expand Grant’s command, and he led a reinforced Federal army – including two corps from the Army of the Potomac – to victory in the Battle of Chattanooga in late November.
On 19 November 1863, Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address, opening with the line “Four score and seven years ago”, in reference to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, once again referring to the principle that the US was a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”, adding that the Civil War was a test that would determine whether such a nation could endure. It was a particularly rousing and moving speech, and motivated those who supported him.
The End in Sight: 1864-65
In early 1864, it finally seemed as if Lee had met his match in Grant. The Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 1864) were bloody but indecisive skirmishes, but the Battle of Cold Harbor in Richmond (June 1864) brought the Union one of its worst defeats: in a single hour, 6000 Union soldiers were killed. In the course of one month, Grant’s campaigns had cost the Union 50,000 soldiers. By September, General Sherman captured the Georgian capital of Atlanta, which foreshadowed the end of the secession of Georgia and created another partition in the Confederacy. Lincoln was re-elected in November – defeating Democratic candidate George McClellan.
At the turn of the year in 1865, it was a Union victory in all but name. Columbia and Charleston (South Carolina) fell to Sherman’s men by mid-February, and Jefferson Davis belatedly handed over the supreme command to Lee.
Lee’s forces made a last attempt to attack and captured the Federal-controlled Fort Stedman on 25 March. An immediate counterattack reversed the victory, and on the night of 2-3 April, Lee’s forces evacuated Richmond. Grant pursued the Confederates along the Appomattox River, finally exhausting their possibilities for escape. Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (Virginia) on 9 April 1865.
However, the Union victory was soon put on a downer when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on 14 April 1865.
After Lee’s surrender, secession was no longer an option in American politics. On 4 May, all the remaining Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi had surrendered, and on 9 May 1865 President Andrew Johnson officially declared an end to the US Civil War.
Approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the US Civil War. It is to date the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil. However, the main question posing problems for the US government was how to recover from four years of civil war? This ushered in what is known as the Reconstruction era: essentially, the rebuilding of the south, as much of it had been destroyed – farms and plantations had been burned down, and many people had also been using Confederate money, which was now rendered worthless. The Reconstruction era lasted from 1865-77. I won’t go into too much detail, just a very brief overview.
Lincoln had planned to be lenient on the south, and make it easy for them to re-join the Union, adding that if 10% of the voters in an ex-Confederate state supported the Union, then the state could be readmitted. Obviously, this meant that slavery had to be made illegal as part of their constitution.
However, because of his assassination at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s plans never went through. His successor, Andrew Johnson (a southerner himself, from Raleigh, North Carolina) wanted to be even more lenient to the South, but Congress disagreed and passed harsher laws.
To help with Reconstruction, three new amendments were added to the US Constitution (for the first time in 60 years): the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. These are commonly known as the Civil War Amendments.
The 13th Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, and gave Congress the power to enforce the article through legislation
The 14th Amendment (1868) stated that black people were citizens of the United States, thereby overruling the Dred Scott case from 1857.
The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited governments from denying US citizens the right to vote based on their race or colour. However, poll taxes and literacy tests blocked many black citizens from voting, so the 15th Amendment was not as kosher as it seems from the outside.
Eventually, all 11 Confederate states were readmitted to the Union – Tennessee being the first in 1866, and Georgia being the last in 1870. It was years before the economy in the South fully recovered, but the point was that the United States was united (or as united as it could fathom to be) once more.
The Reconstruction era officially ended under the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. He removed federal troops from the South, and state governments took over. Unfortunately, this meant that the majority of the changes to equal rights were immediately reversed.
In conclusion, the US Civil War was one of the most significant events in US history. From the abolition of slavery to the ‘right’ for black citizens to vote in the space of seven years is an incredible achievement to behold, given the circumstances and attitudes at the time. As the late author Shelby Foote said in his book The Civil War: A Narrative: “The Civil War defined [the US] as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things…It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it!
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Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958)
Philip Jenkins, A History of the United States (Fourth Edition) (2012)
Louis P. Masur, The U.S. Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2020) https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-politicalscience/chapter/slavery-and-civil-rights/ https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/american-civil-war-history