Civil War, American

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Civil War, American (1861-1865), took more American lives than any other war in history. It so divided the people of the United States that in some families brother fought against brother. The war’s terrible bloodshed left a heritage of grief and bitterness.
The war was a conflict between the United States government and a group of states that had seceded (withdrawn) from the union. The Southern States had broken away to form the Confederate States of America. The U.S. government sought to maintain the union, insisting that states were not permitted to secede. The issue behind secession was slavery. The South’s economy relied heavily on the labor of African American slaves. Southerners feared the federal government would try to limit or end slavery.

The American Civil War is also known by such names as the War Between the States and the War of Secession. The opposing sides were known as the Union, or the North, and the Confederacy, or the South. The Union soldiers were called Yankees, a nickname originally applied to the New England colonists. The Confederates were the Rebs, for rebels.

The war started on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, a U.S. military post in Charleston, South Carolina. It ended four years later. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, a small Virginia settlement. The other Confederate forces gave up soon after.

Over the years, the war has been the subject of numerous books, plays, movies, television programs, paintings, and sculptures. Civil War monuments stand in parks and squares throughout the United States. Battlefields and the tombs and former homes of such people as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and Grant are popular tourist sites. Some Civil War figures are among the nation’s most beloved heroes. Lincoln in particular became a respected figure throughout the world.

Causes and background of the war

In 1861, the United States consisted of 19 free states, in which slavery was prohibited, and 15 slave states, in which it was allowed. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called the nation “a house divided.” Americans had much in common, but the free and slave states also had many basic differences besides slavery.

Historians have long debated the causes of the Civil War. Many of them maintain that slavery was the root cause. In his second inaugural address in 1865, Lincoln said of slavery: “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” But most historians agree that the war had a number of causes. They note, for example, that the northern and southern states had been drifting apart because of sectional differences, dissimilarities between the two areas in culture and economy. They also point to ongoing tensions between the federal government and the states over the extent of the federal government’s powers. They mention the disorder in the American political party system of the 1850’s. Yet slavery emerges as the most serious single cause. All explanations for the causes of the war have always involved or revolved around that issue.

Sectional differences

Sectional differences between North and South dated from colonial times. The settlers of the South had found the warm climate and long growing season ideal for raising tobacco and, later, cotton. But these crops required intense labor to plant, maintain, and harvest. The Southerners did not have enough people to do the work. They turned to slave labor. European slave traders shipped millions of captive Africans to the Americas from 1500 to 1860. By 1860, about 4 million black slaves labored in the Southern States.

In the North, slave labor was used until the 1800’s. But the cooler climate and shorter growing season discouraged the development of such crops as tobacco or cotton. Most Northerners earned their living by farming. But the North had no plantations and no need for farm labor on such a large scale as in the South. Immigrants from Europe poured into the North’s great port cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Northern farmers found it less expensive to hire immigrant workers than to buy slaves.

Unlike the South, the North rapidly developed a manufacturing economy. The extent of Northern manufacturing helped create an environment in which the normal concept of labor was that of free workers hiring themselves out for wages rather than slaves working because they were forced to do so.

The North also was home to strong Protestant religious and cultural forces. Northern Protestants highly valued moral strictness, economic independence, and efforts to improve oneself. They disapproved of slavery and believed it to be an embarrassment to a republic dedicated to liberty and freedom.

The conflict over slavery

In colonial times, most Americans regarded slavery as a necessary evil. The Founding Fathers of the United States had been unable to abolish slavery and compromised over it in writing the Constitution (see Constitution of the United States [The compromises]).

By the early 1800’s, many Northerners had come to view slavery as wrong. Abolitionists in the North began a movement to end it. An antislavery minority also existed in the South. But most Southerners found slavery to be highly profitable and in time came to consider it a positive good. From a fourth to a third of all Southern whites were members of slaveholding families. About half the families owned fewer than 5 slaves, though less than 1 percent of the families owned 100 or more. Even many of the white Southerners who did not own slaves supported slavery. They accepted the ideas that the South’s economy would collapse without slavery and that blacks were inferior to whites.

In 1858, Senator William H. Seward of New York, who later became Lincoln’s secretary of state, referred to the differences between North and South as “an irrepressible conflict.” He placed slavery at the heart of that uncontrollable conflict. Indeed, an almost continuous series of debates over slavery raged in Congress between Northern and Southern lawmakers during the 1850’s.

Developments in the political party system

Anger over the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the founding of the Republican Party in the North in 1854. Members of the Republican Party considered slavery evil and opposed its extension into Western territories. Many Whigs and Democrats—members of the nation’s two largest parties—joined the new party. They included Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig. Some other Americans belonged to the Know-Nothing Party, which blamed immigrants and Roman Catholics for the country’s problems. The Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, won most of the Northern vote and almost the presidency in 1856. But Democrat James Buchanan was elected president.

In 1858, the Democratic Party was divided over a constitution that proslavery Kansans hoped to have adopted when the Kansas territory became a state. Buchanan and another party leader, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, took opposite positions on the constitution. Buchanan favored it, and Douglas opposed it. The conflict between proslavery and antislavery Democrats caused the party to split into Northern and Southern branches in 1860.

The Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas ran on the Northern Democratic ticket. Vice President John C. Breckinridge was the Southern Democratic candidate. Some former members of the Whig and Know-Nothing parties—which had disbanded by 1860—formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated former Senator John Bell of Tennessee.

Lincoln won all the electoral votes of every free state except New Jersey, which awarded him four of its seven votes. He thus gained a majority of electoral votes and won the election. However, Lincoln received less than 40 percent of the popular vote, almost none of which came from the South. Southerners feared Lincoln would restrict or end slavery.


Before the 1860 presidential election, Southern leaders had urged that the South secede (withdraw) from the Union if Lincoln should win. Many Southerners favored secession as part of the idea that the states have rights and powers that the federal government cannot legally deny. The supporters of states’ rights held that the national government was a league of independent states, any of which had the right to secede.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede. Five other states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana—followed in January 1861. On Feb. 4, 1861, representatives from the six states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and established the Confederate States of America. They elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as vice president of the Confederate States. On March 2, Texas joined the Confederacy. Lincoln was inaugurated two days later.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln avoided any threat of immediate force against the South. But he stated that the Union would last forever and that he would use the nation’s full power to hold federal possessions in the South. One of the possessions, the military post of Fort Sumter, lay in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederates fired on the fort on April 12 and forced its surrender the next day. On April 15, Lincoln called for Union troops to regain the fort. The South regarded the move as a declaration of war. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon joined the Confederacy.

Virginia had long been undecided about which side to join. Its decision to join the Confederacy boosted Southern morale. Richmond, Virginia’s capital, became the capital of the Confederacy in May.

Mobilizing for war

When the American Civil War began, about 22 million people lived in the North. About 9 million people, including 4 million slaves, lived in the South. The North had around 4 million men from 15 through 40 years old—the approximate age range for combat duty. The South had only about 1 million white men in that range. The North began to use black soldiers in 1863. The South did not attempt to recruit blacks as soldiers until the war’s closing days.

How the states lined up

Eleven states fought for the Confederacy. They were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Twenty-three states fought for the Union. These states were California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The territories of Colorado, Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington also fought for the Union.

A number of slave states lay between the North and the Deep South. Some people in those border states supported the North, but others believed in the Southern cause. When the war began, both the Union and the Confederacy made strong efforts to gain the support of those states. Border states that joined the Southern side were Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. However, Virginians in the western part of the state remained loyal to the Union and formed the new state of West Virginia in 1863. Border states that stayed in the Union were Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. But secessionist groups in Kentucky and Missouri set up separate state governments and sent representatives to the Confederate Congress. Some of the heaviest fighting of the war occurred in the border states.

In both the North and the South, some families were torn by divided loyalties to the Union and the Confederacy. One of Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden’s sons, Thomas, became a Union general. Another son, George, became a Confederate general. George H. Thomas, one of the Union’s best generals, was born in Virginia. Admiral David Farragut, who defeated Southern naval forces at New Orleans and Mobile Bay, was born in Tennessee. Three half brothers of Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, died fighting for the Confederacy. The husband of one of her half sisters was a Confederate general who was also killed.

Reaction in the South. The Confederacy objected strongly to the North’s use of black soldiers. The Confederate government threatened to kill or enslave any captured officers or enlisted men of black regiments. Lincoln replied by promising to treat Confederate prisoners of war the same way. Neither side carried out its threats, but the exchange of prisoners broke down mainly over the issue of black prisoners.

The North’s success in using black soldiers slowly led Southerners to consider doing the same. In the spring of 1865, following a strong demand by General Lee, the Confederate Congress narrowly approved the use of black soldiers. However, the war ended soon thereafter.

The home front

The American Civil War became the first war to be completely and immediately reported in the press to the people back home. Civilians in the North were especially well informed of the war’s progress. Northern newspapers sent their best correspondents into the field and received their reports by telegraph. Winslow Homer and many other artists and illustrators produced war scenes for such magazines as Harper’s Weekly. Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and other pioneer photographers captured the horrors of the battlefield and the humanity of the soldiers in thousands of news pictures.

The war inspired a flood of patriotic songs. Northern civilians and soldiers sang such songs as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “John Brown’s Body.” Early in the war, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” Southern soldiers marched to war to the stirring music of “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Some Northern songs, such as “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” also became popular in the South. And some Southern songs—for example, the mournful “Lorena” and “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight”—were also popular in the North.

In the North

Government and politics. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln boldly ordered troops to put down the rebellion, increased the size of the U.S. Army, proclaimed a naval blockade of the South, and spent funds without congressional approval. He became the first president to assume vast powers not specifically granted by the Constitution. He suspended habeas corpus in many cases in which people opposed the war effort. Habeas corpus is a right that guarantees a person under arrest a chance to be heard in court. Its suspension received bitter criticism. Yet many traditional American freedoms continued to flourish, even though the nation was in the midst of a civil war.

Opposition to the war and Lincoln’s policies came chiefly from the Democratic Party, especially from a group known as the Peace Democrats, who wanted the war stopped. Republicans considered the Peace Democrats disloyal and treacherous and called them Copperheads, after the poisonous snake. Other protesters of the war joined secret antigovernment societies, such as the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Lincoln administration was also criticized by so-called Radical Republicans. They wanted the government to move more rapidly to abolish slavery and to make sweeping changes in the Southern way of life. Such disputes continued throughout the war.

Economy. The Civil War brought booming prosperity to the North. Government purchases for military needs stimulated manufacturing and agriculture. The production of coal, iron and steel, weapons, shoes, and woolen clothing increased greatly. Farmers vastly expanded their production of wheat, wool, and other products. Exports to Europe of beef, corn, pork, and wheat doubled. Factories and farms made the first widespread use of labor-saving machines, such as the sewing machine and the reaper.

Although the Civil War brought prosperity to the North, financing the war was difficult. Taxes and money borrowed through the sale of war bonds became major sources of income. The government also printed more paper money to meet its financial needs. But by increasing the money supply, the government promoted inflation. Wages did not keep up with inflation through much of the war, and factory workers struck for higher pay. But as the war went on, war production—and finally victory—helped the North grow ever stronger.

During the Lincoln administration, Congress passed the most important series of economic acts in American history to that time. It established the national banking system, a uniform (standard) currency, and the Department of Agriculture. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 provided for the building of the nation’s first transcontinental rail line. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted settlers public land in the West free or at low cost. The Land-Grant, or Morrill, Act of 1862 helped states establish agricultural and technical colleges. Under Lincoln, Congress also passed the first federal income tax. Altogether, the economic progress in the North brought about by and during the Civil War helped put the United States on the road to becoming the world’s greatest industrial power by the late 1800’s.

In the South

Government and politics. During the Civil War, the South tried to bring political power under the control of a single authority. But it was not successful. Southerners had long opposed a strong central government. During the war, some of them found it difficult to cooperate with officials of both the Confederacy and their own states and cities. States’ rights supporters backed the war but opposed the draft and other actions needed to carry it out. And Jefferson Davis lacked Lincoln’s leadership abilities. For example, Lincoln believed he had the power to suspend the law if necessary, and he did so. Davis asked the Confederate Congress for such power but received only limited permission.

Economy. As in the North, manufacturing and agriculture in the South were adapted to the needs of war. Factories converted from civilian to wartime production. For example, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond became the South’s main source of cannons. Cotton cultivation dropped sharply, while food production was greatly increased.

The South thus tried to adjust to meet wartime needs, but its economy became strained almost to the breaking point. The attempt to finance the war by taxation and borrowing from the people failed. The Confederacy’s solution to the problem was to print large amounts of paper money, which led to an extremely high inflation rate. By the end of the war, prices were 10 times higher than they were at the start. In 1865, flour cost up to $300 a barrel, and shoes $200 a pair. In time, Southerners had to make clothes of carpets and curtains and print newspapers on the back of wallpaper.

Confederate troops were never as well equipped as their Northern foes. As resources were used up and the tightening naval blockade severely reduced imports, matters got worse. The Confederate government then passed the Impressment Act of 1863. The act permitted government agents to seize from civilians food, horses, and any other supplies the Army needed. The civilians received whatever the agents decided to pay.

Relations with Europe. At the beginning of the war, Southern leaders hoped that European countries—especially France and the United Kingdom—would come to the aid of the Confederacy. Southerners believed that France and the United Kingdom would be forced to support the Confederacy because their textile industries depended on Southern cotton. The efforts of Southern statesmen to persuade the European powers to help the Confederacy came to be called “cotton diplomacy.”

As a result of cotton diplomacy, France and the United Kingdom allowed the Confederacy to have several armed warships built in their shipyards. But the South never won European recognition of the Confederacy as an independent nation or obtained major aid. Northern grain had become important in Europe, which had suffered several crop failures. At the same time, Southern cotton was increasingly replaced by cotton from India and Egypt. The Emancipation Proclamation made the Civil War a fight against slavery. The proclamation deeply impressed those Europeans who opposed slavery. Such skillful Northern diplomats as Charles Francis Adams also helped persuade the European powers not to recognize the Confederacy. But most important, Britain and France would not fight on the side of the South unless the Confederacy could show that it might win final victory. And that never happened.

The South surrenders. In Virginia, Grant at last achieved his goal. In April 1865, he seized the railroads supplying Richmond. The Confederate troops had to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. Lee retreated westward with nearly 50,000 men. He hoped to join forces with Johnston in North Carolina. But Grant overtook him and barred his way with an army of almost 113,000 troops. Lee realized that continued fighting would mean useless loss of lives. He wrote Grant and asked for an interview to arrange surrender terms.
On April 9, 1865, the two great generals met in a house owned by a Southern farmer named Wilmer McLean in the little country settlement of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The meeting was one of the most dramatic scenes in American history. Grant wore a mud-spattered private’s coat, with only his shoulder straps indicating his rank. Lee had put on a spotless uniform, complete with sword. Grant offered generous terms, and Lee accepted them with deep appreciation. The Confederate soldiers received a day’s rations and were released on parole. They were allowed to keep their horses and mules to take home “to put in a crop.” Officers could keep their side arms.

Five days later, on the evening of April 14, Lincoln was shot by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. He died the following morning. Northerners cried out for revenge for Lincoln’s assassination and for the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. But before his death, Lincoln had advised “malice toward none … charity for all’’ to heal the country’s wounds. Although feelings were strong, no major incidents occurred.

With Lee’s army gone, Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26 near Durham, North Carolina. Confederate President Davis fled southward and was captured in Georgia. General Richard Taylor surrendered the Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi on May 4. The war's last battle took place at Palmito Ranch, near the southern tip of Texas, on May 13. The Confederate and Union soldiers fighting there did not know that the South had surrendered. On May 26, General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the last Confederate army still in the field. The war was over.

Results of the war

The tragic costs. About 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, almost as many as the combined American dead of all other wars from the Revolutionary War in America (1775-1783) through the Iraq War, which began in 2003. The Union lost about 360,000 troops, and the Confederacy about 260,000. More than half the deaths were caused by disease. About a third of all Southern soldiers died in the war, compared with about a sixth of all Northern soldiers.

Both the North and the South paid an enormous economic price as well. But the direct damages caused by the war were especially severe in the South. The destruction in the South extended from the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in the north to Georgia in the south and from South Carolina in the east to Tennessee in the west. Towns and farms, industry and trade, and the lives of men, women, and children were ruined throughout the South. The whole Southern way of life was lost.

Terrible bitterness between the people of the North and South followed the war and continued for generations. The South was given almost no voice in the social, political, and cultural affairs of the nation. With the loss of Southern control of the national government, the more traditional Southern ideals no longer had an important influence over government policy. The Yankee Protestant ideals of the North became the standard for the United States. However, those ideals, which stressed hard work, education, and economic freedom, helped encourage the development of the United States as a modern, industrial power.
The beginning of modern warfare. The American Civil War is frequently called the first modern war. It was the first war in which the participants communicated by telegraph, transported supplies and troops by train, and used ironclad warships, submarines, and mines in naval combat. The armies were much larger than armies of the past. These forces introduced trench warfare and other combat tactics used in later wars.

On the other hand, the muzzleloading rifles and cannons used by most of the soldiers were soon surpassed by more advanced weapons and artillery. The ironclad warships gave way to warships of steel.

The American Civil War is also often described as the first total war because of the enormous amount of suffering and destruction it brought upon noncombatants as well as soldiers. A military campaign such as Sherman’s march seemed to indicate a shift from war as a battle between two armies to war as systematic destruction of anyone and anything in an army’s path. However, little of the war’s destructiveness was the result of deliberate planning, even during Sherman’s march. The war destroyed much of the South and ruined Southern agriculture. But the North never experienced a serious invasion, though large sectors of its economy suffered.
Union and Confederate leaders alike struggled to observe the accepted rules and conventions of war. They failed in the treatment of prisoners of war, but most of the evils of the prison system arose from incompetence and poor planning. Neither side resorted to executing all prisoners, though Confederates did execute some captured black soldiers. After the war, the federal government did not seek to convict the defeated Confederates of treason. In the end, if the Civil War can be considered a total war, it is because the conflict, with its huge armies and four years of fighting in two theaters of war, destroyed so many lives and so much of the nation’s resources.

The end of slavery. The Declaration of Independence, which gave birth to the United States in 1776, stated that “all men are created equal.” Yet the United States continued to be the largest slaveholding nation in the world until the Civil War. Americans tried to make equality a reality soon after the war by ratifying (approving) the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which officially abolished slavery throughout the United States. The place of blacks in American society, however, remained unsettled.

The preservation of the Union. In a fundamental sense, the Civil War may have been the greatest failure of American democracy. The war, in Lincoln’s words, was an “appeal from the ballot to the bullet.” From 1861 to 1865 in the United States, the calm reason that is basic to democracy gave way to human passions.

Yet democracy in the United States survived its “fiery trial.” The nation’s motto was E Pluribus Unum, a Latin term meaning out of many, one. It referred to the creation of one nation, the United States, out of 13 colonies. But for a long time, Americans could not decide whether they wanted to be “many” or “one.” The Northern victory established that no state had the right or power to end the Union. Furthermore, the outcome of the war paved the way for the rise of the United States as a major global power.

• Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Henry R. Luce Professor of Civil War Era Studies, Gettysburg College.

Guelzo, Allen C. "Civil War, American." World Book Advanced. World Book, 2010. Web.  28 Sept. 2010

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