The American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression or simply the Civil War in the United States, was a civil war fought from 1861 to 1865 in the United States after seven Southern slave states declared their secession and formed the Confederate States of America (the “Confederacy” or the “South”). The states that stayed loyal to the United States of America were known as the “Union” or the “North”. The war’s origins can be traced back to the American Revolutionary War in the fractious issue of slavery, especially the extension of slavery into the western territories. Foreign powers were courted but did not form an alliance with either side. After four years of bloody combat that left over 600,000 soldiers dead and destroyed much of the South’s infrastructure, the Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished, and the Reconstruction process of restoring national unity and guaranteeing rights to the freed slaves began.
In the 1860 presidential election, Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, opposed the expansion of slavery into United States’ territories. Lincoln won, but before his inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven slave states with cotton-based economies formed the Confederacy. Outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan and the incoming Republicans rejected secession as illegal. Lincoln’s inaugural address declared his administration would not initiate civil war. Eight remaining slave states continued to reject calls for secession. Confederate forces seized numerous federal forts within territory claimed by the Confederacy. A peace conference failed to find a compromise, and both sides prepared for war. The Confederates assumed that European countries were so dependent on “King Cotton” that they would intervene; none did and none recognized the new Confederate States of America.
Hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina. Lincoln called for each state to provide troops to retake the fort; consequently, four more slave states joined the Confederacy, bringing their total to eleven. The Union soon controlled the border states and established a naval blockade that crippled the southern economy. The Eastern Theater was inconclusive in 1861–62. The autumn 1862 Confederate campaign into Maryland (a Union state) ended with Confederate retreat at the Battle of Antietam, dissuading British intervention. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made ending slavery a war goal. To the west, by summer 1862 the Union destroyed the Confederate river navy, then much of their western armies, and the Union siege of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two at the Mississippi River. In 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate incursion north ended at the Battle of Gettysburg. Western successes led to Ulysses S. Grant’s command of all Union armies in 1864. In the Western Theater, William T. Sherman drove east to capture Atlanta and marched to the sea, destroying Confederate infrastructure along the way. The Union marshaled the resources and manpower to attack the Confederacy from all directions, and could afford to fight battles of attrition through the Overland Campaign towards Richmond, the Confederate capital. The defending Confederate army failed, leading to Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. All Confederate generals surrendered by that summer.
The American Civil War was one of the earliest true industrial wars. Railroads, the telegraph, steamships, and mass-produced weapons were employed extensively. The mobilization of civilian factories, mines, shipyards, banks, transportation and food supplies all foreshadowed World War I. It remains the deadliest war in American history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 750,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. Historian John Huddleston estimates the death toll at ten percent of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males aged 18–40.
Secession and war begins
Secession of South Carolina
South Carolina did more to advance nullification and secession than any other Southern state. South Carolina adopted the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” on December 24, 1860. It argued for states’ rights for slave owners in the South, but contained a complaint about states’ rights in the North in the form of opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, claiming that Northern states were not fulfilling their federal obligations under the Constitution.
Before Lincoln took office, seven states had declared their secession from the Union. They established a Southern government, the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861. They took control of federal forts and other properties within their boundaries with little resistance from outgoing President James Buchanan, whose term ended on March 4, 1861. Buchanan said that the Dred Scott decision was proof that the South had no reason for secession, and that the Union “was intended to be perpetual”, but that “the power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union” was not among the “enumerated powers granted to Congress”. One quarter of the U.S. Army—the entire garrison in Texas—was surrendered in February 1861 to state forces by its commanding general, David E. Twiggs, who then joined the Confederacy.
As Southerners resigned their seats in the Senate and the House, Republicans were able to pass bills for projects that had been blocked by Southern Senators before the war, including the Morrill Tariff, land grant colleges (the Morill Act), a Homestead Act, a transcontinental railroad (the Pacific Railway Acts), the National Banking Act and the authorization of United States Notes by the Legal Tender Act of 1862. The Revenue Act of 1861 introduced the income tax to help finance the war.
Beginning the war
Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of 1860 triggered South Carolina’s declaration of secession from the Union in December, and six more states did so by February 1861. A pre-war February Peace Conference of 1861 met in Washington, Lincoln sneaking into town to stay in the Conference’s hotel its last three days. The attempt failed at resolving the crisis, but the remaining eight slave states rejected pleas to join the Confederacy following a two-to-one no-vote in Virginia’s First Secessionist Convention on April 4, 1861.
Since December, secessionists with and without state forces had seized Federal Court Houses, U.S. Treasury mints and post offices. Southern governors ordered militia mobilization, seized most of the federal forts and cannon within their boundaries and U.S. armories of infantry weapons. The governors in big-state Republican strongholds of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania quietly began buying weapons and training militia units themselves. President Buchanan protested seizure of Federal property, but made no military response apart from a failed attempt in January to resupply Fort Sumter using the ship Star of the West, which was fired upon by South Carolina forces and turned back before it reached the fort.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President. In his inaugural address, he argued that the Constitution was a more perfect union than the earlier Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, that it was a binding contract, and called any secession “legally void”. He had no intent to invade Southern states, nor did he intend to end slavery where it existed, but said that he would use force to maintain possession of federal property. The government would make no move to recover post offices, and if resisted, mail delivery would end at state lines. Where popular conditions did not allow peaceful enforcement of Federal law, U.S. Marshals and Judges would be withdrawn. No mention was made of bullion lost from U.S. mints in Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina. In Lincoln’s Inaugural, U.S. policy would only collect import duties at its ports, there could be no serious injury to justify revolution in the politics of four years. His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union.
The South sent delegations to Washington and offered to pay for the federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with Confederate agents because he claimed the Confederacy was not a legitimate government, and that making any treaty with it would be tantamount to recognition of it as a sovereign government. Secretary of State William Seward who at that time saw himself as the real governor or “prime minister” behind the throne of the inexperienced Lincoln, engaged in unauthorized and indirect negotiations that failed. President Lincoln was determined to hold all remaining Union-occupied forts in the Confederacy, Fort Monroe in Virginia, in Florida, Fort Pickens, Fort Jefferson, and Fort Taylor, and in the cockpit of secession, Charleston, South Carolina’s Fort Sumter.
Battle of Fort Sumter
Ft. Sumter was located in the middle of the harbor of Charleston, SC where the U.S. forts garrison had withdrawn to avoid incidents with local militias in the streets of the city. Unlike Buchanan who allowed commanders to relinquish possession to avoid bloodshed, Lincoln required Maj. Anderson to hold on until fired upon. Jefferson Davis ordered the surrender of the fort. Anderson gave a conditional reply which the Confederate government rejected, and Davis ordered P. G. T. Beauregard to attack the fort before a relief expedition could arrive. Troops under Beauregard bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12–13, forcing its capitulation. On April 15, Lincoln’s Secretary of War then called on Governors for 75,000 volunteers to recapture the fort and other federal property.
Northerners rallied behind Lincoln’s call for all the states to send troops to recapture the forts and to preserve the Union, citing presidential powers given by the Militia Acts of 1792. With the scale of the rebellion apparently small so far, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. Several Northern governors began to move forces the next day, and Secessionists seized Liberty Arsenal in Liberty, Missouri the next week. Two weeks later, on May 3, 1861, Lincoln called for an additional 42,034 volunteers for a period of three years.
Four states in the middle and upper South had repeatedly rejected Confederate overtures, but now Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolinarefused to send forces against their neighbors, declared their secession, and joined the Confederacy. To reward Virginia, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
The Civil War was a contest marked by the ferocity and frequency of battle. Over four years, 237 named battles were fought, and many more minor actions and skirmishes. In the scales of world military history, both sides fighting were characterized by their bitter intensity and high casualties. “The American Civil War was to prove one of the most ferocious wars ever fought”. Without geographic objectives, the only target for each side was the enemy’s soldier.
As the first seven states began organizing a Confederacy in Montgomery, the entire US army numbered 16,000, however Northern governors had begun to mobilize their militias. The Confederate Congress authorized the new nation up to 100,000 troops sent by governors as early as February in the opinion of historian E. Merton Coulter. After Fort Sumter, Lincoln called out 75,000 three-month volunteers, by May Jefferson Davis was pushing for 100,000 men under arms for one year or the duration, and that was answered in kind by the U.S. Congress.
In the first year of the war, both sides had far more volunteers than they could effectively train and equip. After the initial enthusiasm faded, reliance on the cohort of young men who came of age every year and wanted to join was not enough. Both sides used a draft law—conscription—as a device to encourage or force volunteering; relatively few were actually drafted and served. The Confederacy passed a draft law in April 1862 for young men aged 18 to 35; overseers of slaves, government officials, and clergymen were exempt. The U.S. Congress followed in July, authorizing a militia draft within a state when it could not meet its quota with volunteers. European immigrants joined the Union Army in large numbers, including 177,000 born in Germany and 144,000 born in Ireland.
When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in January 1863, ex-slaves were energetically recruited by the states, and used to meet the state quotas. States and local communities offered higher and higher cash bonuses for white volunteers. Congress tightened the law in March 1863. Men selected in the draft could provide substitutes or, until mid-1864, pay commutation money. Many eligibles pooled their money to cover the cost of anyone drafted. Families used the substitute provision to select which man should go into the army and which should stay home. There was much evasion and overt resistance to the draft, especially in Catholic areas. The great draft riot in New York City in July 1863 involved Irish immigrants who had been signed up as citizens to swell the vote of the city’s Democratic political machine, not realizing it made them liable for the draft. Of the 168,649 men procured for the Union through the draft, 117,986 were substitutes, leaving only 50,663 who had their personal services conscripted.
North and South, the draft laws were highly unpopular. An estimated 120,000 men evaded conscription in the North, many of them fleeing to Canada, and another 280,000 Northern soldiers deserted during the war, along with at least 100,000 Southerners, or about 10% all together. However, desertion was a very common event in the 19th century; in the peacetime Army about 15% of the soldiers deserted every year. In the South, many men deserted temporarily to take care of their families, then returned to their units. In the North, “bounty jumpers” enlisted to get the generous bonus, deserted, then went back to a second recruiting station under a different name to sign up again for a second bonus; 141 were caught and executed.
From a tiny frontier force in 1860, in a few years the Union and Confederates armies had grown to be the “largest and most efficient armies in the world”. European observers at the time dismissed them as amateur and unprofessional, but British historian John Keegan’s assessment is that each outmatched the French, Prussian and Russian armies of the time, and but for the Atlantic, would have threatened any of them with defeat.
The small U.S. Navy of 1861 was rapidly enlarged to 6,000 officers and 45,000 men in 1865, with 671 vessels, having a tonnage of 510,396. Its mission was to blockade Confederate ports, take control of the river system, defend against Confederate raiders on the high seas, and be ready for a possible war with the British Royal Navy.Meanwhile, the main riverine war was fought in the West, where a series of major rivers gave access to the Confederate heartland, if the U.S. Navy could take control. In the East, the Navy supplied and moved army forces about, and occasionally shelled Confederate installations.
By early 1861, General Winfield Scott had devised the Anaconda Plan to win the war with as little bloodshed as possible. Scott argued that a Union blockade of the main ports would weaken the Confederate economy. Lincoln adopted parts of the plan, but he overruled Scott’s caution about 90-day volunteers. Public opinion however demanded an immediate attack by the army to capture Richmond.
In April 1861, Lincoln announced the Union blockade of all Southern ports; commercial ships could not get insurance and regular traffic ended. The South blundered in embargoing cotton exports in 1861 before the blockade was effective; by the time they realized the mistake it was too late. “King Cotton” was dead, as the South could export less than 10% of its cotton. The blockade shut down the ten Confederate seaports with railheads that moved almost all the cotton, especially New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. By June 1861, warships were stationed off the principal Southern ports, and a year later nearly 300 ships were in service.
Modern navy evolves
The Civil War prompted the industrial revolution and subsequently many naval innovations emerged during this time, most notably the advent of theironclad warship. It began when the Confederacy, knowing they had to meet or match the Union’s naval superiority, responded to the Union blockade by building or converting more than 130 vessels, including twenty-six ironclads and floating batteries. Only half of these saw active service. Many were equipped with ram bows, creating “ram fever” among Union squadrons wherever they threatened. But in the face of overwhelming Union superiority and the Union’s own ironclad warships, they were unsuccessful.
The Confederacy experimented with a submarine, which did not work well, and with building an ironclad ship, the CSS Virginia, which was based on rebuilding a sunken Union ship, the Merrimac. On its first foray on March 8, 1862, the Virginia decimated the Union’s wooden fleet, but the next day the first Union ironclad, the USS Monitor, arrived to challenge it. The Battle of the Ironclads was a draw, but it marks the worldwide transition to ironclad warships.
The Confederacy lost the Virginia when the ship was scuttled to prevent capture, and the Union built many copies of the Monitor. Lacking the technology to build effective warships, the Confederacy attempted to obtain warships from Britain.
British investors built small, very fast, steam-driven blockade runners that traded arms and luxuries brought in from Britain through Bermuda, Cuba, and the Bahamas in return for high-priced cotton. The ships were so small that only a small amount of cotton went out. When the Union Navy seized a blockade runner, the ship and cargo were condemned as a Prize of war and sold with the proceeds given to the Navy sailors; the captured crewmen were mostly British and they were simply released. The Southern economy nearly collapsed during the war. There were multiple reasons for this: the severe deterioration of food supplies, especially in cities, the failure of Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, foraging by Northern armies, and the seizure of animals and crops by Confederate armies. Historians agree that the blockade was a major factor in ruining the Confederate economy. However, Wise argues that they provided just enough of a lifeline to allow Lee to continue fighting for additional months, thanks to fresh supplies of 400,000 rifles, lead, blankets, and boots that the homefront economy could no longer supply.
Surdam argues that the blockade was a powerful weapon that eventually ruined the Southern economy, at the cost of very few lives in combat. Practically, the entire Confederate cotton crop was useless (although was sold to Union traders), costing the Confederacy its main source of income. Critical imports were very scarce and the coastal trade was largely ended as well. The measure of the blockade’s success was not the few ships that slipped through, but the thousands that never tried it. Merchant ships owned in Europe could not get insurance and were too slow to evade the blockade; they simply stopped calling at Confederate ports.
To fight an offensive war the Confederacy purchased ships from Britain, converted them to warships, and raided American merchants ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Insurance rates skyrocketed and the American flag virtually disappeared from international waters. However, the same ships were reflagged with European flags and continued unmolested. After the war, the U.S. demanded that Britain pay for the damage done, and Britain paid the U.S. $15 million in 1871.
The 1862 Union strategy called for simultaneous advances along four axes. McClellan would lead the main thrust in Virginia towards Richmond. Ohio forces were to advance through Kentucky into Tennessee, the Missouri Department would drive south along the Mississippi River, and the westernmost attack would originate from Kansas.
Ulysses Grant used river transport and Andrew Foote’s gunboats of the Western Flotilla to threaten the Confederacy’s “Gilbraltar of the West” at Columbus, Kentucky. Grant was rebuffed at Belmont, but cut off Columbus. The Confederates, lacking their own gunboats, were forced to retreat and the Union took control of western Kentucky in March 1862.
In addition to ocean-going warships coming up the Mississippi, the Union Navy used timberclads, tinclads, and armored gunboats. Shipyards at Cairo, Illinois, and St. Louis built new boats or modified steamboats for action. They took control of the Red, Tennessee, Cumberland, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers after victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and supplied Grant’s forces as he moved into Tennessee. At Shiloh, (Pittsburg Landing) in Tennessee in April 1862, the Confederates made a surprise attack that pushed Union forces against the river as night fell. Overnight, the Navy landed additional reinforcements, and Grant counter-attacked. Grant and the Union won a decisive victory – the first battle with the high casualty rates that would repeat over and over.
Memphis fell to Union forces and became a key base for further advances south along the Mississippi River. In April 1862, US Naval forces under Farragut ran past Confederate defenses south of New Orleans. Confederates abandoned the city, which gave the Union a critical anchor in the deep South. Naval forces assisted Grant in his long, complex campaign that resulted in the surrender of Vicksburg in July 1863, and full Union control of the Mississippi soon after.
Because of the fierce resistance of a few initial Confederate forces at Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861, a march by Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell on the Confederate forces there was halted in the First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas. McDowell’s troops were forced back to Washington, D.C., by the Confederates under the command of Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. It was in this battle that Confederate General Thomas Jackson received the nickname of “Stonewall” because he stood like a stone wall against Union troops.
Alarmed at the loss, and in an attempt to prevent more slave states from leaving the Union, the U.S. Congress passed theCrittenden-Johnson Resolution on July 25 of that year, which stated that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and not to end slavery.
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan took command of the Union Army of the Potomac on July 26 (he was briefly general-in-chief of all the Union armies, but was subsequently relieved of that post in favor of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck), and the war began in earnest in 1862. Upon the strong urging of President Lincoln to begin offensive operations, McClellan attacked Virginia in the spring of 1862 by way of the peninsula between the York River and James River, southeast of Richmond. Although McClellan’s army reached the gates of Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign, Johnston halted his advance at the Battle of Seven Pines, then General Robert E. Lee and top subordinates James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson defeated McClellan in the Seven Days Battles and forced his retreat. The Northern Virginia Campaign, which included the Second Battle of Bull Run, ended in yet another victory for the South. McClellan resisted General-in-Chief Halleck’s orders to send reinforcements to John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia, which made it easier for Lee’s Confederates to defeat twice the number of combined enemy troops.
Emboldened by Second Bull Run, the Confederacy made its first invasion of the North. General Lee led 45,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland on September 5. Lincoln then restored Pope’s troops to McClellan. McClellan and Lee fought at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day in United States military history. Lee’s army, checked at last, returned to Virginia before McClellan could destroy it. Antietam is considered a Union victory because it halted Lee’s invasion of the North and provided an opportunity for Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.
When the cautious McClellan failed to follow up on Antietam, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was soon defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, when over 12,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded during repeated futile frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. After the battle, Burnside was replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Hooker, too, proved unable to defeat Lee’s army; despite outnumbering the Confederates by more than two to one, he was humiliated in the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men during the battle and subsequently died of complications. Gen. Hooker was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade during Lee’s second invasion of the North, in June. Meade defeated Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863). This was the bloodiest battle of the war, and has been called the war’s turning point. Pickett’s Charge on July 3 is often considered thehigh-water mark of the Confederacy because it signaled the collapse of serious Confederate threats of victory. Lee’s army suffered 28,000 casualties (versus Meade’s 23,000). However, Lincoln was angry that Meade failed to intercept Lee’s retreat, and after Meade’s inconclusive fall campaign, Lincoln turned to the Western Theater for new leadership. At the same time, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg surrendered, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River, permanently isolating the western Confederacy, and producing the new leader Lincoln needed, Ulysses S. Grant.
While the Confederate forces had numerous successes in the Eastern Theater, they were defeated many times in the West. They were driven from Missouri early in the war as a result of the Battle of Pea Ridge. Leonidas Polk’s invasion of Columbus, Kentucky ended Kentucky’s policy of neutrality and turned that state against the Confederacy. Nashville and central Tennessee fell to the Union early in 1862, leading to attrition of local food supplies and livestock and a breakdown in social organization.
The Mississippi was opened to Union traffic to the southern border of Tennessee with the taking of Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri, and then Memphis, Tennessee. In April 1862, the Union Navy captured New Orleans, which allowed Union forces to begin moving up the Mississippi. Only the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, prevented Union control of the entire river.
General Braxton Bragg’s second Confederate invasion of Kentucky ended with a meaningless victory over Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell at the Battle of Perryville, although Bragg was forced to end his attempt at invading Kentucky and retreat due to lack of support for the Confederacy in that state. Bragg was narrowly defeated by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee.
The one clear Confederate victory in the West was the Battle of Chickamauga. Bragg, reinforced by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps (from Lee’s army in the east), defeated Rosecrans, despite the heroic defensive stand of Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas. Rosecrans retreated to Chattanooga, which Bragg then besieged.
The Union’s key strategist and tactician in the West was Ulysses S. Grant, who won victories at Forts Henry and Donelson (by which the Union seized control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers); the Battle of Shiloh; and the Battle of Vicksburg, which cemented Union control of the Mississippi River and is considered one of the turning points of the war. Grant marched to the relief of Rosecrans and defeated Bragg at the Third Battle of Chattanooga, driving Confederate forces out of Tennessee and opening a route to Atlanta and the heart of the Confederacy.
Extensive guerrilla warfare characterized the trans-Mississippi region, as the Confederacy lacked the troops and the logistics to support regular armies that could challenge Union control. Roving Confederate bands such as Quantrill’s Raiders terrorized the countryside, striking both military installations and civilian settlements. The “Sons of Liberty” and “Order of the American Knights” attacked pro-Union people, elected officeholders, and unarmed uniformed soldiers. These partisans could not be entirely driven out of the state of Missouri until an entire regular Union infantry division was engaged.
By 1864, these violent activities harmed the nationwide anti-war movement organizing against the re-election of Lincoln. Missouri not only stayed in the Union, Lincoln took 70 percent of the vote for re-election.
Areas south and west of Missouri saw numerous small-scale military actions which sought to control Indian Territory and New Mexico Territory for the Union. Confederate incursions into New Mexico were repulsed in 1862, the exiled Arizona government withdrew into Texas. In the Indian Territory, civil war broke out inside the tribes. About 12,000 Indian warriors fought for the Confederacy, and smaller numbers for the Union. The most prominent Cherokee was Brigadier General Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to surrender.
After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, General Kirby Smith in Texas was informed by Jefferson Davis that he could expect no further help from east of the Mississippi River. Although he lacked resources to beat Union armies, he built up a formidable arsenal at Tyler, along with his own Kirby Smithdom economy, a virtual “independent fiefdom” in Texas, including railroad construction and international smuggling. The Union in turn did not directly engage him. Its 1864 Red River Campaign to take Shreveport, Louisiana was a failure and Texas remained in Confederate hands throughout the war.
End of war
Conquest of Virginia
At the beginning of 1864, Lincoln made Grant commander of all Union armies. Grant made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and put Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant understood the concept of total war and believed, along with Lincoln and Sherman, that only the utter defeat of Confederate forces and their economic base would end the war. This was total war not in terms of killing civilians but rather in terms of destroying homes, farms, and railroads. Grant devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the entire Confederacy from multiple directions. Generals George Meade and Benjamin Butler were ordered to move against Lee near Richmond, General Franz Sigel (and later Philip Sheridan) were to attack the Shenandoah Valley, General Sherman was to capture Atlanta and march to the sea (the Atlantic Ocean), Generals George Crook and William W. Averell were to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks was to capture Mobile, Alabama.
Union forces in the East attempted to maneuver past Lee and fought several battles during that phase (“Grant’s Overland Campaign”) of the Eastern campaign. Grant’s battles of attrition at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor resulted in heavy Union losses, but forced Lee’s Confederates to fall back repeatedly. An attempt to outflank Lee from the south failed under Butler, who was trapped inside the Bermuda Hundred river bend. Grant was tenacious and, despite astonishing losses (over 65,000 casualties in seven weeks), kept pressing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back to Richmond. He pinned down the Confederate army in the Siege of Petersburg, where the two armies engaged in trench warfare for over nine months.
Grant finally found a commander, General Philip Sheridan, aggressive enough to prevail in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. Sheridan was initially repelled at the Battle of New Market by former U.S. Vice President and Confederate Gen. John C. Breckinridge. The Battle of New Market would prove to be the Confederacy’s last major victory of the war. After redoubling his efforts, Sheridan defeated Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early in a series of battles, including a final decisive defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Sheridan then proceeded to destroy the agricultural base of the Shenandoah Valley, a strategy similar to the tactics Sherman later employed in Georgia.
Meanwhile, Sherman maneuvered from Chattanooga to Atlanta, defeating Confederate Generals Joseph E. Johnston andJohn Bell Hood along the way. The fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, guaranteed the reelection of Lincoln as president. Hood left the Atlanta area to swing around and menace Sherman’s supply lines and invade Tennessee in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Union Maj. Gen. John Schofield defeated Hood at the Battle of Franklin, and George H. Thomas dealt Hood a massive defeat at the Battle of Nashville, effectively destroying Hood’s army.
Leaving Atlanta, and his base of supplies, Sherman’s army marched with an unknown destination, laying waste to about 20% of the farms in Georgia in his “March to the Sea”. He reached the Atlantic Ocean atSavannah, Georgia in December 1864. Sherman’s army was followed by thousands of freed slaves; there were no major battles along the March. Sherman turned north through South Carolina and North Carolina to approach the Confederate Virginia lines from the south, increasing the pressure on Lee’s army.
Lee’s army, thinned by desertion and casualties, was now much smaller than Grant’s. Union forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, forcing Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond. The Confederate capital fell to the Union XXV Corps, composed of black troops. The remaining Confederate units fled west and after a defeat at Sayler’s Creek, it became clear to Robert E. Lee that continued fighting against the United States was both tactically and logistically impossible.
Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House. In an untraditional gesture and as a sign of Grant’s respect and anticipation of peacefully restoring Confederate states to the Union, Lee was permitted to keep his sword and his horse, Traveller. On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. Lincoln died early the next morning, and Andrew Johnson became president. Meanwhile, Confederate forces across the South surrendered as news of Lee’s surrender reached them. President Johnson officially declared a virtual end to the insurrection on May 9, 1865. On June 23, 1865, Cherokee leader Stand Watie was the last Confederate General to surrender his forces.
Europe in the 1860s was more fragmented than it had been since before the American Revolution. France was in a weakened state while Britain was still shocked by its own poor performance in the Crimean War. France was unable or unwilling to support either side without Britain, where popular support remained with the Union though elite opinion was more varied. They were further distracted by Germany and Italy, who were experiencing unification troubles, and by Russia, who was almost unflinching in their support for the Union.
Though the Confederacy hoped that Britain and France would join them against the Union, this was never likely, and so they instead tried to bring Britain and France in as mediators. The Union, under Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward worked to block this, and threatened war if any country officially recognized the existence of the Confederate States of America. In 1861, Southerners voluntarily embargoed cotton shipments, hoping to start an economic depression in Europe that would force Britain to enter the war in order to get cotton but this did not work. Worse, Europe developed other cotton suppliers, which they found superior, hindering the South’s recovery after the war.
Cotton diplomacy proved a failure as Europe had a surplus of cotton, while the 1860–62 crop failures in Europe made the North’s grain exports of critical importance. It also helped to turn European opinion further away from the Confederacy. It was said that “King Corn was more powerful than King Cotton”, as U.S. grain went from a quarter of the British import trade to almost half. When Britain did face a cotton shortage, it was temporary, being replaced by increased cultivation in Egypt and India. Meanwhile, the war created employment for arms makers, ironworkers, and British ships to transport weapons.
Charles Francis Adams proved particularly adept as minister to Britain for the U.S. and Britain was reluctant to boldly challenge the blockade. The Confederacy purchased several warships from commercial ship builders in Britain. The most famous, the CSS Alabama, did considerable damage and led to serious postwar disputes. However, public opinion against slavery created a political liability for European politicians, especially in Britain (which had abolished slavery in her its colonies in 1834).
War loomed in late 1861 between the U.S. and Britain over the Trent Affair, involving the U.S. Navy’s boarding of a British mail steamer to seize two Confederate diplomats. However, London and Washington were able to smooth over the problem after Lincoln released the two. In 1862, the British considered mediation—though even such an offer would have risked war with the U.S. Lord Palmerston reportedly read Uncle Tom’s Cabin three times when deciding on this.
The Union victory in the Battle of Antietam caused them to delay this decision. The Emancipation Proclamation over time would reinforce the political liability of supporting the Confederacy. Despite sympathy for the Confederacy, France’s own seizure of Mexico ultimately deterred them from war with the Union. Confederate offers late in the war to end slavery in return for diplomatic recognition were not seriously considered by London or Paris. After 1863, the Polish revolt against Russia further distracted the European powers, and ensured that they would remain neutral.
Victory and aftermath
The causes of the war, the reasons for its outcome, and even the name of the war itself are subjects of lingering contention today. There is much less dispute about the results. Confederate nationalism died. American nationalism triumphed. The North and West grew rich while the once-rich South became poor for a century. The national political power of the slaveowners and rich southerners ended. Historians are less sure about the results of the postwar Reconstruction, especially regarding the second class citizenship of the Freedmen and their poverty. The Freedmen did indeed get their freedom, their citizenship, and control of their lives, their families and their churches.
Historians have debated whether the Confederacy could have won the war. Most scholars, such as James McPherson, argue that Confederate victory was at least possible. McPherson argues that the North’s advantage in population and resources made Northern victory likely but not guaranteed. He also argues that if the Confederacy had fought using unconventional tactics, they would have more easily been able to hold out long enough to exhaust the Union.
|Population||1860||22,100,000 (71%)||9,100,000 (29%)|
|Free||1860||21,700,000 (81%)||5,600,000 (19%)|
|Slave||1860||400,000 (11%)||3,500,000 (89%)|
|Soldiers||1860–64||2,100,000 (67%)||1,064,000 (33%)|
|Railroad miles||1860||21,800 (71%)||8,800 (29%)|
Confederates did not need to invade and hold enemy territory to win, but only needed to fight a defensive war to convince the North that the cost of winning was too high. The North needed to conquer and hold vast stretches of enemy territory and defeat Confederate armies to win. The Confederacy sought to win independence by out-lasting Lincoln; however, after Atlanta fell and Lincoln defeated McClellan in the election of 1864, all hope for a political victory for the South ended. At that point, Lincoln had succeeded in getting the support of the border states, War Democrats, emancipated slaves, Britain, and France. By defeating the Democrats and McClellan, he also defeated the Copperheads and their peace platform.
Many scholars argue that the Union held an insurmountable long-term advantage over the Confederacy in terms of industrial strength and population. Confederate actions, they argue, only delayed defeat. Civil War historian Shelby Footeexpressed this view succinctly: “I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back … If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that War.”
Also important were Lincoln’s eloquence in rationalizing the national purpose and his skill in keeping the border states committed to the Union cause. Although Lincoln’s approach to emancipation was slow, the Emancipation Proclamation was an effective use of the President’s war powers. The Confederate government failed in its attempt to get Europe involved in the war militarily, particularly the United Kingdom and France. Southern leaders needed to get European powers to help break up the blockade the Union had created around the Southern ports and cities.
Lincoln’s naval blockade was 95% effective at stopping trade goods; as a result, imports and exports to the South declined significantly. The abundance of European cotton and the United Kingdom’s hostility to the institution of slavery, along with Lincoln’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico naval blockades, severely decreased any chance that either the United Kingdom or France would enter the war.
The war produced about 1,030,000 casualties (3% of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians. Binghamton University historian J. David Hacker believes the number of soldier deaths was approximately 750,000, 20% higher than traditionally estimated, and possibly as high as 850,000. The war accounted for roughly as many American deaths as all American deaths in other U.S. wars combined.
Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South. About 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps during the War. An estimated 60,000 men lost limbs in the war.
Confederate death toll estimates vary considerably. Union army dead, amounting to 15% of the over two million who served, was broken down as follows:
- 110,070 killed in action (67,000) or dead of wounds (43,000).
- 199,790 dead of disease (75% of which was due to the war, the remainder would have occurred in civilian life anyway)
- 24,866 dead in Confederate prison camps
- 9,058 killed by accidents or drowning
- 15,741 other/unknown deaths
- 359,528 total dead
Black troops accounted for 10% of the Union death toll, they amounted to 15% of disease deaths but less than 3% of those killed in battle.
Losses can be viewed as high considering that the defeat of Mexico in 1846-48 resulted in fewer than 2,000 soldiers killed in battle. One reason for the high number of battle deaths during the war was the use ofNapoleonic tactics, such as charging. With the advent of more accurate rifled barrels, Minié balls and (near the end of the war for the Union army) repeating firearms such as the Spencer Repeating Rifle and theHenry Repeating Rifle, soldiers were mowed down when standing in lines in the open. This led to the adoption of trench warfare, a style of fighting that defined the better part of World War I.
The wealth amassed in slaves and slavery for the Confederacy’s 3.5 million blacks effectively ended when Union armies arrived; they were nearly all freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves in the border states and those located in some former Confederate territory occupied prior to the Emancipation Proclamation were freed by state action or (on December 18, 1865) by the Thirteenth Amendment.
The war destroyed much of the wealth that had existed in the South. All accumulated investment Confederate bonds was forfeit; most banks and railroads were bankrupt. Income per person in the South dropped to less than 40% of that of the North, a condition which lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the US federal government, previously considerable, was greatly diminished until the latter half of the 20th century. The full restoration of the Union was the work of a highly contentious postwar era known as Reconstruction.
Issue of Slavery During the War
While not all Southerners saw themselves as fighting to preserve slavery, most of the officers and over a third of the rank and file in Lee’s army had close family ties to slavery. To Northerners, in contrast, the motivation was primarily to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. Abraham Lincoln consistently made preserving the Union the central goal of the war, though he increasingly saw slavery as a crucial issue and made ending it an additional goal. Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation angered both Peace Democrats (“Copperheads”) and War Democrats, but energized most Republicans. By warning that free blacks would flood the North, Democrats made gains in the 1862 elections, but they did not gain control of Congress. The Republicans’ counterargument that slavery was the mainstay of the enemy steadily gained support, with the Democrats losing decisively in the 1863 elections in the northern state of Ohio when they tried to resurrect anti-black sentiment.
The Emancipation Proclamation enabled African-Americans, both free blacks and escaped slaves, to join the Union Army. About 190,000 volunteered, further enhancing the numerical advantage the Union armies enjoyed over the Confederates, who did not dare emulate the equivalent manpower source for fear of fundamentally undermining the legitimacy of slavery. During the Civil War, sentiment concerning slaves, enslavement and emancipation in the United States was divided. In 1861, Lincoln worried that premature attempts at emancipation would mean the loss of the border states, and that “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Copperheads and some War Democrats opposed emancipation, although the latter eventually accepted it as part of total war needed to save the Union.
At first, Lincoln reversed attempts at emancipation by Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Generals John C. Frémont (in Missouri) and David Hunter (in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida) to keep the loyalty of the border states and the War Democrats. Lincoln warned the border states that a more radical type of emancipation would happen if his gradual plan based on compensated emancipation and voluntary colonization was rejected. But only the District of Columbia accepted Lincoln’s gradual plan, which was enacted by Congress. When Lincoln told his cabinet about his proposed emancipation proclamation, Seward advised Lincoln to wait for a victory before issuing it, as to do otherwise would seem like “our last shriek on the retreat”. Lincoln laid the groundwork for public support in an open letter published letter to abolitionist Horace Greeley’s newspaper.
In September 1862, the Battle of Antietam provided this opportunity, and the subsequent War Governors’ Conference added support for the proclamation. Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In his letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln explained his belief that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong … And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling … I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln’s moderate approach succeeded in inducing border states, War Democrats and emancipated slaves to fight for the Union. The Union-controlled border states (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia) and Union controlled regions around New Orleans, Norfolk and elsewhere, were not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. All abolished slavery on their own, except Kentucky and Delaware.
Since the Emancipation Proclamation was based on the President’s war powers, it only included territory held by Confederates at the time. However, the Proclamation became a symbol of the Union’s growing commitment to add emancipation to the Union’s definition of liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation greatly reduced the Confederacy’s hope of getting aid from Britain or France. By late 1864, Lincoln was playing a leading role in getting Congress to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, which made emancipation universal and permanent.
Reconstruction began during the war, with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 and continued to 1877. It comprised multiple complex methods to resolve the war, the most important of which were the three “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution which remain in effect to the present time: the 13th (1865), the 14th (1868) and the 15th (1870). From the Union perspective, the goals of Reconstruction were to guarantee the Union victory on the battlefield by reuniting the Union; to guarantee a “republican form of government for the ex-Confederate states; and to permanently end slavery—and prevent semi-slavery status.
President Johnson took a lenient approach and saw the achievement of the main war goals as realized in 1865, when each ex-rebel state repudiated secession and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Radical Republicans demanded strong proof that Confederate nationalism was dead and the slaves were truly free. They came to the fore after the 1866 elections and undid much of Johnson’s work. They used the Army to dissolve Southern state governments and hold new elections with Freedmen voting. The result was a Republican coalition that took power in ten states for varying lengths of time, staying in power with the help of U.S. Army units and black voters. Grant was elected president in 1868 and continued the Radical policies. Meanwhile the Freedmen’s Bureau, started by Lincoln in 1865 to help the freed slaves, played a major role in helping the blacks and arranging work for them. In opposition paramilitary groups such as the first Ku Klux Klan used violence to thwart these efforts.
The “Liberal Republicans” argued the war goals had been achieved and Reconstruction should end. They ran a ticket in 1872 but were decisively defeated as Grant was reelected. In 1874, Democrats took control of Congress and opposed any more reconstruction. The disputed 1876 elections were resolved by the Compromise of 1877 which put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House. He pulled out the last federal troops and the last Republican state governments in the South collapsed, marking the end of Civil War and Reconstruction.