American Civil War

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Union and Confederate dead lie together after the Battle of Antietam.
It never changes
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A view to kill
There was never any moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent — It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention.
—John Jay Chapman[1]
[T]hat cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
—Ulysses S. Grant as quoted in Personal Memoirs of General U. S. Grant.[2]

The American Civil War (1861-1865, alternatively known as the "War of Secession", "The War Between the States", and to the uneducated/undereducated/ alternatively educated, "The War of Northern Aggression") was a war fought between the United States and a secessionist union of states from its South called the Confederate States. The war began primarily as a result of the longstanding moral crisis over the reliance of the United States on the slave status of a large group of African-Americans.

Abraham Lincoln's victory in the 1860 U.S. Presidential Election brought issues to a head. South Carolina, after receiving word of this, issued its declaration of independence from the Union, and a further six states followed before Lincoln took office. By 1862, eleven southern states had seceded and clubbed together to form the Confederate States of America. The four slave-owning states with a population that comprised less than 25% slaves[3] (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) did not secede, and remained in the Union. On April 12th, 1861, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, which was garrisoned by Union troops, effectively beginning the war.[4]

The war theoretically ended with a Unionist victory in 1865. Unfortunately, this did not result in equality or even a significantly improved quality-of-life for blacks in the United States. The process of Reconstruction (1865-1877) collapsed for a number of reasons, and in its wake many of the states, not just in the south, proceeded to enact Jim Crow laws to deny blacks their newly-won civil rights. Although freed from slavery, many blacks were left without any economic recourse but to return to their former masters in a system called "sharecropping", which left the ex-slaves trapped in a cycle of debt and tied to their fields[5] - compare serfdom.

More American soldiers died in the American Civil War than any other in the nation's history, and it remains the most recent war fought on American soil - so long as you ignore the Aleutian Islands Campaign of World War II.[6] Estimates place the death toll between 620,000[7] and 750,000[8] soldiers An unknown number of civilians (potentially as high as 2% of the nation's population) died during the war, and numerous large cities (Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia (South Carolina), Richmond, Montgomery, and others) were completely destroyed. The war was devastating and many places in the South took decades to recover.

Like the Korean War, this Civil War isn't over — only suspended.

Causes of the war[edit]

Slaves laboring on a South Carolina plantation.

The causes of the American Civil War have been extensively debated since the war's end in 1865, commonly by people trying their best to claim that the causes of secession were anything other than those the Confederates were claiming at the time:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
—Declaration of the Causes of Secession for Mississippi sentences 2-6[9]

An area of historical debate is found around whether or not the war was preventable. Some historians argue that the differences were too great between the two regions to be resolved by any other means than war; some believe that the war was avoidable, but fire-eaters in the South and abolitionists in the North arguably exacerbated the conflict. Still others think that the war should be blamed on "bumbling politicians," incapable of such compromises as "great" politicians like Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun[10] had accomplished.

Historians are divided on the extent to which economic issues, like the conflict over the tariff, and political issues, such as the debate between the "compact" versus "contract" theories of government, factored into the split. There's even a school of historiography that holds that on the eve of the war, the North and South were not just different economic regions, but were two distinct civilizations, both trying to exist in one government.

1853 slave trader's advertisement.


The institution of slavery is at the core of the origins of the war. By the end of the American Revolution, slavery had become largely unprofitable for the North, while the South still required slaves to produce their labor-intensive cash crops like cotton and tobacco.[11] The inherent contradiction between the US' claims of being a democratic republic and the continued brutalization of black slaves helped give rise to a powerful abolitionist movement in the North.[12] Southerners for their part argued that blacks were like children and could not care for themselves and that slavery was somehow a benevolent institution that clothed, fed, and Christianized blacks.[11]

However, the historical view that the North and South fought the war over the moral issue of slavery has been disputed. Instead, slavery as a cause manifests itself in different ways, for example, the expansion of slavery into the territories, which the North opposed more for economic reasons than moral reasons. In addition, the protectionist tariffs that the North wanted made industrial machinery and finished products more expensive, which was good for Northern industries with free ("free" meaning "not slave") labor, but bad for the South with its infinite supply of cheap slave labor.

Free states vs. slave states[edit]

Animation showing slave states and free states from independence to the Civil War

The early-to-mid Nineteenth Century saw rapid US expansionism as the young nation acquired new lands by conquest, extermination of the local natives, or by bargaining with European colonizers. This became an increasingly pressing political issue when the question arose as to which new states would become slave states and which new states would be free. This question was important due to the way the US Congress works: whichever side had more states following their ideology would have the advantage in representation.

This crisis began in 1819 when Missouri was in the process of being admitted as a state. When the Northern-dominated House of Representatives tried to introduce abolitionist language to Missouri's statehood, they came into conflict with the infuriated southern-controlled Senate.[13] When Maine also applied for statehood, Congress was finally able to agree on the so-called Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to be a slave state and Maine to be a free state. This preserved the balance between the two sides, but this increasingly dangerous game would become more and more difficult to maintain.

Lawrence, Kansas in ruins after being attacked by pro-slavery forces in 1856.

The Mexican-American War, begun by President Polk under false pretenses, created another crisis as the US had acquired a vast swath of southwestern territory. The war itself was supported or opposed on partisan party lines, with the Democrats largely in favor and the Whigs opposed. The Whigs, especially then-Representative Abraham Lincoln, suspected that President Polk had intentionally begun the war in order to create more slave states and shift the balance-of-power in their favor.[14] It had also annexed Texas in the lead-up to the war, as Texas had seceded from Mexico in order to avoid that nation's abolition of slavery.[15] California's request to join the Union as a free state led to the Compromise of 1850 in which the southerners allowed this in exchange for a new and harsher Fugitive Slave Act.[16] That last part infuriated the northern public.

The Southerners feared the western expansion of the United States into territories in the Great Plains and mountain West, seeing that these areas, with vast wilderness areas and occupied by hostile Native Americans, were poorly suited for the expansion of plantation slavery as it existed in the cotton, tobacco, and sugar plantations of the Deep South. In addition to the war with Mexico, the southern United States gave rise to a group of "filibusters"Wikipedia, adventurers who sought to stir up trouble in Latin America in hopes of encouraging American expansion into tropical country in which plantation slavery could prosper.[17][18]

"Popular sovereignty" was the idea that the new states should be able to decide for themselves whether they would be slave or free. While a good idea on paper, this idea was disastrous in practice. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 theoretically allowed Kansas to vote on abolition, but the result was a mini-civil war in the state as free-soilers from the North and pro-slavery advocates from the South and Missouri poured in.[19]

"States' rights"[edit]

The southern states would never try to enforce their will on a federal level.
See the main article on this topic: State's rights
A state's right to what, sir?
—John Green, quoting his high school teacher[20]
They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man.
—Ulysses S. Grant helping to explain that the South didn't actually give a shit about "state's rights", 1885.[21]

A commonly cited cause of secession and the American Civil War is "states' rights"- the idea that most domestic matters should be handled by the states themselves rather than the federal government. This is normally framed as the Southern states being in favor of states' rights and the North opposing states rights. The truth is that it wasn't quite so simple, and neither side really argued in favor of states rights prior to the war.

From the beginning of the US through to the Civil War, there were two interpretations of the nature of the union. One, particularly favored in the pre-war South and famously argued by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the Kentucky and Virginia ResolutionsWikipedia, was that the union was a "compact"- a more informal agreement which the states had voluntarily joined, and could just as voluntarily leave. The other interpretation, particularly favored in the North and especially by Republicans such as Lincoln, was that the union was a "contract"- a formal legal agreement which could not be unilaterally broken. The South's belief in compact theory was their justification for a state's right to secede in 1860-61[22]; likewise, the "contract theory" was the rationale for the North's refusal to accept Southern secession. Four years after the Civil War's conclusion, the Supreme Court finally ruled on the issue in Texas v. WhiteWikipedia, coming down on the contract side, citing that the nation's founding documents described the union as "perpetual" and "indissoluble".

Aside from the "compact theory", "states rights" was not really mentioned in the various secession articles ratified by Southern states as a reason for their secession, and when they did, it was generally to argue against Northern states' rights, or to argue in favor of preserving unimpeded slavery. They argued that Northern states, in opposing slavery in general and especially in resisting full compliance with the widely disliked Fugitive Slave Act of 1850Wikipedia, were exerting the right of nullification (that is, the ability of a state to declare federal law invalid within their borders) that the South felt they had been denied- in 1832, South Carolina had tried and failed to nullify a federal law they didn't like (see "Tariffs", below). Free states in the North, not wanting to participate in returning escaped slaves to their owners in the South, passed "personal liberty lawsWikipedia" which did things like allow trials for accused escaped slaves, or disallow federal law enforcement from using local jails while returning escaped slaves. Throughout the 1840s-50s, the Supreme Court occasionally struck down these laws in cases such as Prigg v. PennsylvaniaWikipedia, but Northern resistance- and not nullification- continued nonetheless. Southern states also complained bitterly about Northern states like New York passing laws against bringing slaves into their state, and states in New England granting rights to blacks[23].

There was also the divisive Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. The decision, which was widely lauded in the South and reviled everywhere else, ruled that black people could not be U.S. citizens, nor did they have any rights, such as to bring suit in federal courts[24]. As many Free states had granted blacks citizenship and rights (such as to vote), the Dred Scott decision stripped the Free states of their fundamental right to determine who was a citizen. The decision also declared the Missouri CompromiseWikipedia unconstitutional (although it had already been largely repealed by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska ActWikipedia), and that the federal government had no right to restrict slavery in new territories, thus contributing to a major economic downturnWikipedia. At the time, a low-level civil war was on-going in "Bleeding KansasWikipedia", and the Dred Scott ruling caused concern that this sort of violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers would spread as the U.S. continued expanding into the West[25].

A comparison between the Constitution of the Confederacy and the Constitution of the United States also shows that the substantive changes made in the Confederate constitution took rights away from the states; the right to decide who had the vote, the right to set import tariffs to protect industries, the right to not have the government impose a tariff on one state in specific, and, significantly, the right to make slavery illegal, or even to interfere with it.[26] That said, it did grant states immunity from being sued by foreigners. So there's that.


Less frequently offered as a reason for the war are tariffs, a type of tax levied on goods that are imported into a country.

Northern industrialists and farmers tended to favor higher tariffs to discourage Americans from buying cheap foreign products by making those foreign products more expensive than their American equivalents, a concept called "protectionismWikipedia". Meanwhile Southern plantation owners favored lower tariffs so that they would pay less for goods imported from the North or abroad, and so they could more easily sell their cash crops like cotton, sugar, and tobacco abroad. Until the 1830s, American tariffs tended to be rather protectionist, and the high 1828 "Tariff of Abominations" was blamed for economic problems in the South[27]. Although the Tariff of Abominations was replaced in 1832 by a lower tariff, South Carolina, which was especially hard hit by the economic downturn, remained unsatisfied and tried to nullify the tariff in late 1832, eventually threatening to secede. President Andrew Jackson then threatened to send in the military and even got Congressional approval to do so, causing a standoff called the Nullification CrisisWikipedia which lasted until a compromise tariff was passed a few months later, and South Carolina relented (and was unable to convince any other state to join their protest)[28].

However, after the Nullification Crisis, tariffs trended low (with a brief upward spike in 1842Wikipedia), and stayed very low from 1846 until the tariff of 1857Wikipedia, which was the lowest tariff rate in the world at the time. This low tariff, in addition to the instability caused by the Dred Scott decision, contributed to a major economic crisis called the Panic of 1857Wikipedia. In reaction to the Panic, calls to restore higher protectionist tariffs arose (primarily in the North), and in 1860, the Morrill tariffWikipedia was proposed, which would raise the general tariff rate from 17% to 26% (by comparison, the Tariff of Abominations was 38%). The tariff was passed in the House in May 1860 due to the higher number of Northern representatives, but languished in the Senate until December 1860 and the "Secession Winter", when Southern Congressmen resigned their seats, and their states began seceding. At that point, the tariff finally passed and went into effect in March 1861, two days before Lincoln's inauguration.

While tariffs had been the impetus behind South Carolina's threat to secede in 1832-33, the tariff already in place by 1860 had been written by Southerners and favored the South's agricultural interests; Southern Senators were able to block attempts to increase them. Tariffs played little role in secession or the outbreak of the war. The dispute over the proposed Morrill tariff came late, and was "largely analogous to the tossing of another can of gasoline onto a raging, slavery-fueled fire" and "never more than an ancillary grievance added to the litany of secessionist charges against the incoming Republican Party’s positions..."; only South Carolina and Georgia even bothered mentioning tariffs in their articles of secession.[29]


1860 Electoral College results.

1860 US presidential election[edit]

The 1860 presidential election was one of the most chaotic in American history. For a long time, the northern Democrats and the southern Democrats were divided over to what lengths they should go to defend slavery. During the Democratic convention that year, disagreements convinced the southern delegates to walk out.[30] Favored candidate Stephen Douglas, who generally supported popular sovereignty, got the majority of the delegate votes, but not the required two-thirds. The Democratic Party was forced to hold a second convention; the southerners boycotted this event and allowed Douglas to finally be nominated. The southerners, angered by this, met separately and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge, the then-current vice president.[30]

In response to all of this drama over slavery, the Constitutional Union Party formed as the "can't we all just get along?" option.[31] Unsurprisingly, when push came to shove, their candidate John Bell would later throw his support to the southern secessionists.[32] This position generally appealed to the border states, which had slavery but also had no interest in leaving the Union.

Lincoln was not even on the ballot in any southern state, but he managed to get a majority of the Electoral College by carrying every single northern state.[33] Douglas came in second in the popular vote (30% versus Lincoln's 40%), but again due to the Electoral College, he was only rewarded with two states' electoral votes.[30] Bell won the border states while Breckinridge won the South.

Secession crisis[edit]

South Carolina's politicians vote for secession.
We ask you to join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.
—South Carolina Legislature, Address of South Carolina to Slaveholding States.[34]

Lincoln's victory in the election panicked the pro-slavery South, who viewed Lincoln as a radical abolitionist. About a month after Lincoln's election, South Carolina's government met in a banquet hall and voted to secede from the United States.[35] Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama followed in the following January, and Georgia, Louisiana and Texas joined them in February.[35] It must be noted that every state which issued a statement regarding their reasons for secession listed the preservation of slavery first and foremost.[36]

The Secession crisis was exacerbated by the seeming indifference of Democratic president James Buchanan. This inaction was not a result of age or incompetence, but was instead just another symptom of Buchanan's clear support for the South's goals. Many of Buchanan's Cabinet members went on to be important figures in the Confederacy, and he had his Secretary of War scatter the Union's armies and distribute federal weapons to the South.[37] Buchanan even outright stated that he basically agreed with what the seceding states were doing, writing, "All for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil."[38]

Bombardment of Fort Sumter[edit]

The first shots of the war.
To a good many southerners the events of 1861–1865 have been known as 'The War of Northern Aggression'. Never mind that the South took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority. Never mind that the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag.
—James M. McPherson, American Civil War historian.[39]

Along with their declaration of secession, South Carolina demanded that the United States turn over all federal property in South Carolina to the state's government as well as vacate all of its military property.[4] The traitorous James Buchanan actually considered giving in to these demands (and much of his Cabinet wanted him to), but he instead told everyone to hang tight and wait for Lincoln to tell them what to do.[40]

When Lincoln was finally inaugurated, Buchanan reportedly said to him, "If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man."[41]

Lincoln ordered ships to resupply Fort Sumter, which was outside of Charleston, with food and other life needs.[4] The Confederacy apparently took exception to this, and they began to bombard the fort. These were the first shots of the American Civil War. Fort Sumter had little ammunition, and was bombarded for days before finally surrendering.[42]

In response to this treason, Lincoln announced that he would call up volunteers for the Armed Forces. Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which had previously declined to join the secessionist movement, then chose to join them rather than obey Lincoln's orders to fight their fellow southerners.[43] The secessionists rewarded Virginia by placing the capital of their new nation in Richmond, Virginia.

Lincoln clamps down[edit]

The Baltimore Riot of 1861.

Of great concern to the Union was the fact that Maryland was generally pro-southern; this was dangerous because if Maryland joined the Confederates, Washington DC would be surrounded by enemy territory.[44] These tensions resulted in bloodshed when a pro-southern mob in Baltimore attacked a regiment of Unionist volunteers from Massachusetts.[45]

Maryland's legislators convened in Frederick to debate the question of whether or not they should secede from the Union. Luckily, the secession bills all failed because most of the legislators, even the pro-southern ones, didn't feel that they had the legal authority to do so and likely feared an immediate Union attack.[44] Instead, Maryland chose to remain neutral by refusing to open its rail lines to either the Union or the Confederacy.

Lincoln wasn't about to put up with Maryland's shit when he had a nationwide crisis to deal with. He responded by sending in northern militias to impose martial law on Maryland.[46] Lincoln also suspended the constitutionally protected right to writs of habeas corpus to Maryland and parts of the Midwest.[47] In response to the arrest and imprisonment of secessionist activist John Merryman, Chief Justice Roger Taney (of Dred Scott infamy) demanded that Lincoln hand Merryman over to the courts and then declared Lincoln's suspension unconstitutional.[47] Lincoln ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States and then, in 1862, suspended the right to habeas corpus nationwide.[47]

The border states take sides[edit]

The Union saves Kentucky from Confederate invasion in the Battle of Perryville.

The term "border states" refers to those states which permitted slavery but did not support secession. Their attempts at neutrality could not last, however, when both the Union and the Confederacy were seeking to gain any and all advantages over the other.

Missouri, which had already seen violence during Bleeding Kansas, again became the site of a protracted guerrilla campaign. Back then, Missouri generally resembled the Upper South, as its population was largely composed of migrants from places like Kentucky and Tennessee.[48] During the secession crisis, Missouri voted decisively to remain with the Union, but only on the condition that the federal government avoid using violence against the Confederacy.[48] When the crisis obviously came to violence, Missourians were divided over what to do. Both sides rushed troops into Missouri, but the Union only managed to control St. Louis while the rest of the state rose up for the Confederacy. Pro-Confederate governor Claiborne F. Jackson lost the initial clashes with the federal troops and retreated to the south; the Missouri legislature subsequently removed him and replaced him with a Unionist.[48] Unfortunately, this didn't bring peace. Unionists and rebels spent the remainder of the war battling for control of the state.

Kentucky Fried Chicken was also a southern state through and through. When Lincoln asked the state for troops, Governor Beriah Magoffin refused because Kentucky would not provide aid to "the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states."[49] Luckily, although Kentucky wasn't fond of the Unionist cause, they were far more economically dependent on the North than just about any other southern state.[49] Kentucky was further alienated from the rest of the Confederacy when the Louisville Journal published remarks from Georgia Senator Howell Cobb about how "the border states would have to do all the fighting," so the rest of the South "undisturbed might go about its business raising slaves and cotton".[49] Kentucky fully joined the Union's side when the Confederacy invaded them in 1862.

West Virginia became another border state when it chose to remain with the Union rather than join the rest of Virginia in secession.[50] Tennessee was the least enthusiastic Confederate state, and its eastern half also attempted to remain with the Union.[51] This secession attempt was sadly suppressed by the Confederacy, which then arrested about 3,000 suspected Unionist sympathizers and held them without trial.[52]

The war[edit]

Stylized illustration of Scott's plan to crush the rebels.

The Anaconda Plan[edit]

Early Union strategy was dictated by the so-called Anaconda Plan, which was devised by General Winfield Scott in 1861.[53] This was a program of economic warfare designed to starve the Confederacy of the resources it needed to continue its war against the United States. General Scott meant for the plan to be a humanitarian one, essentially allowing the Union to fight defensively while waiting for the South to collapse under its own weight.[54] Scott hoped to avoid an all-out invasion of the South which he knew would result in many bloody battles and great destruction.

There were two main goals of the Anaconda Plan. The first was to establish a full blockade of the Confederacy's ports. The Confederacy was agrarian and was highly reliant on foreign trade for its finances. The second goal called for about 60,000 men and about 60 ships to capture the length of the Mississippi River, which would cut the Confederacy in half and heavily restrict its ability to move resources around internally.[54]

This was a good plan, but Scott's colleagues were skeptical that such a passive approach could ever work. Lincoln also disliked the plan, and he was spurred on by a domestic press calling "On to Richmond."[53] The Union's failure at Bull Run made Lincoln rethink some things and begin to implement aspects of Scott's ideas. The blockade was initially weak due to the Confederacy's effective blockade-runners, but the Union's naval strength rapidly grew.[53] The Union's armies also effectively seized control of the Mississippi, isolating the Confederacy's western states. Economic warfare was effective against the South, and it drove the southern commanders to increasingly desperate acts.

Union setbacks in the east[edit]

The Monitor versus the Virginia.

1861 was a bad year for the Union. The First Battle of Bull Run was the first great engagement of the war, and it began when Union armies entered Virginia in pursuit of Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard's main force.[55] The resulting battle demonstrated the superiority of the South's command and discipline, and the shattered Union army had to retreat to Washington DC.[55] This victory convinced both sides that the war would be a long one, and emboldened the South to keep on fighting.[55]

The Union continued to fixate on Richmond, convinced that the fall of the Confederate capital would end the war. To this end, General George "Little Napoleon" McClellan devised an invasion through the Virginia peninsula which would hopefully end the war quickly.[56] Unfortunately, a key aspect of McClellan's plan fell apart immediately. The Confederates had converted a captured Union warship into the C.S.S. Virginia, one of the world's first ironclad vessels.[56] This vessel destroyed two of the US' capital ships, an event Lincoln considered to be the Union's worst calamity since Bull Run.[56] Luckily, the U.S.S. Monitor, another ironclad warship, entered the scene the next day and prevented the Virginia from destroying the rest of the Union fleet. This was the world's first ever clash between metal warships, and it spurred naval powers like the UK and France to stop building wooden-hulled ships.[57]

The Union's Peninsular Campaign ultimately failed in large part due to indecisiveness. Lincoln and the Navy were focused on protecting Washington and did not supply needed troops to support McClellan, and McClellan repeatedly failed to be decisive, most egregiously when he did not press the advance after his victory at the Battle of Williamsburg.[56] Things generally did not improve throughout 1862, as Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia repeatedly thwarted the Union's attempts to break Virginia. Lee spectacularly smashed the Union's Army of the Potomac at the Second Battle of Bull Run.[58]

Union victories in the west[edit]

Escaped slaves appeal to United States soldiers.
The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.
—General Ulysses S. Grant, at the start of his Tennessee River Campaign, early 1862.[59]

The Western Front saw better fortunes for the Union. As mentioned above, the Confederacy's invasion of Kentucky turned that state over to the Union and also resulted in a military failure. The Union's commander on the Mississippi, Ulysses S. Grant, was made of sterner stuff than his counterpart to the east. His rapid victories in the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in 1862 forced the Confederacy to abandon Nashville, Tennessee.[60] Grant turned his attention to Memphis, and the Confederates failed to stop him despite fighting the horrifically bloody Battle of Shiloh.[61]

The Confederacy lost two important cities in mid-1862. In April, the Union Navy bloodlessly captured the South's most populous and most economically important city, New Orleans.[62] The Navy then captured Memphis, in the process eradicating all Confederate naval power on the Mississippi.[63]

General Benjamin Butler became one of the most hated figures among the southerners due to his policies during the occupation of New Orleans; he stole from civilians and forced women into prostitution if they showed any form of displeasure towards his soldiers.[64] Despite his brutishness, "Beast Butler" provided one of the most important contributions to American emancipation. He came up with the policy of treating slaves as "contrabands of war".[65] In other words, he and other Union commanders would free any slave they found in the South. Congress approved of the policy, and other commanders rapidly caught on. Butler had dealt slavery in the South a death blow even before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Confederate invasion of Maryland[edit]

The Battle of Antietam.
Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.
—General George B. McClellan, in response to the capture of Special Order 191.[66]

Already running low on supplies and hoping to loot what he needed from the north, General Lee launched his first great invasion of the Union in the fall of 1862.[53] This attack was one of the greatest ever threats the Confederates were able to put against Washington DC. Lee also hoped to influence the upcoming 1864 election. Although it was a long time away, Lincoln was already coming under heavy criticism from the Democratic Party over his restrictions on civil liberties and his conduct of the war.[67] If Lee managed to get an army into Maryland, it may have been possible that Lincoln's political position would suffer enough for a potentially more friendly Democrat to take the presidency. Finally, Lee hoped that Maryland, once free of federal soldiers, would proceed to join its fellow southern states in the Confederacy.

Happily, none of this ever came to be. Lee was unable to dislodge a stubborn federal garrison from Harpers Ferry, which placed his supply lines under threat.[66] Lee already sensed that his plans had gone awry, and he began to withdraw southwards. McClellan's forces pursued him and then, in a glorious moment of luck, recovered a trashed copy of Lee's Special Order 191 from an abandoned Confederate camp.[66] This document detailed Lee's grand battle plan and gave the Union army valuable, if outdated, information.[68]

The Union's victory was not immediate. The Confederates finally forced Harpers Ferry to surrender and managed to hold off the Union's advance at the Battle of South Mountain. Eventually, however, the two armies finally engaged each other at the Battle of Antietam, which was the Civil War's bloodiest day.[66] Although tactically inconclusive, the battle forced Lee to fully withdraw from Maryland.[69]

Emancipation Proclamation[edit]

Lincoln and his cabinet read over the Emancipation Proclamation.
Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue.
—President Lincoln, Second State of the Union address (1862)[70]

Five days after Antietam, Lincoln issued his final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although a great humanitarian good, the Emancipation was first and foremost a weapon of war. It applied only to the rebellious southern states and left the Union's border states alone. After all, the Union still had to worry about whether or not Maryland might join the Confederacy. Lincoln's cabinet also worried that the measure might be generally seen as too radical, which is why Lincoln waited for a great Union victory (provided by Antietam) to give him political cover for its passage.[71]

Despite all of the asterisks attached to its passage, it must be emphasized how important the Emancipation Proclamation really was. The Proclamation declared that African-Americans of "suitable condition, would be received into the armed service of the United States."[71] This gave black men the ability to fight for their own freedom and to truly prove to the reluctant North that they were worthy of it. The limited nature of the Proclamation also helped ease the North's population to acceptance of the later Thirteenth Amendment.

Another important, oft-overlooked wrinkle is that the Proclamation dashed any lingering hopes for the Confederacy potentially gaining foreign allies, notably Britain and France, two of the world's greatest powers of the time[72]. Neither of these countries held much love for the Union (in particular, France took advantage of the opening of hostilities to invade and conquer Mexico, which the Union strongly opposed under the Monroe Doctrine), and each had economic ties to the South. From the beginning of the war, the Confederacy had sent diplomats to London and Paris, hoping to strike some sort of alliance with the countries. However, by the 1830s both Britain and France had abolished slavery, and their populations generally held anti-slavery sentiments. With Lincoln essentially shouting to the world "the Confederacy still has slavery!" and affirming that the Union was invested in abolishing it, Britain and France refused to officially acknowledge the existence of the Confederacy, and withdrew what support they were giving- in particular, the British had been building and selling ships to the Confederate Navy[73]. The Confederacy was forced to fight the war entirely on her own.

The war turns[edit]

The Battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln spent much of the post-Antietam campaigns rapidly trying to find the United States a worthy commander in the Eastern Front. He relieved General McClellan after his failure to take advantage of Lee's rout at Antietam, but General Ambrose Burnside was reluctant to command and promptly suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.[74] Lincoln replaced Burnside with General Joseph Hooker, who then lost the Battle of Chancellorsville in spring 1863.[75] Although Chancellorsville is considered one of Lee's greatest victories, it also marked the beginning of the end for his glory days. His trusted subordinate, General "Stonewall" Jackson, fell to friendly fire during this battle and died due to a botched amputation.[75]

Emboldened by his victory at Chancellorsville, Lee launched a second invasion of the North. Lincoln, meanwhile, replaced General Hooker with General George Meade and tasked Meade with stopping Lee's advance.[76] The two armies maneuvered against each other and eventually clashed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee suffered from his own overconfidence and the loss of Stonewall Jackson, and the three-day battle resulted in a crushing defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia.[77]

A day later in the Western Front, Ulysses Grant finally won the Vicksburg Campaign. After multiple attempts to take the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi failed, Grant finally besieged the city.[78] After running out of food and supplies, the Vicksburg garrison finally surrendered, allowing the Union to control the entirety of the Mississippi river at last.[79]

Grant and Sherman go all in[edit]

Massive Union mortar at the Petersburg siege lines.

In Ulysses Grant, Lincoln had finally discovered a commander aggressive enough for his liking. Grant and his close colleague General William Tecumseh Sherman met in March, 1864 to plan the killing blows they would deliver to the Confederacy.[80] Sherman would lead an army into Georgia to cut the Confederacy into thirds, and Grant would hammer relentlessly at Lee in Virginia with his superior manpower and supply reserves.

The Overland Campaign[edit]

Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.
—General Ulysses S. Grant.[81]

Grant set off on the so-called Overland Campaign, aimed not at Richmond but at Lee himself. Grant realized that the Union could never truly win the Eastern Front unless the Army of Northern Virginia was destroyed.[82] Grant led a three-pronged assault on Lee, leading the Army of the Potomac himself, sending General Meade west and downriver, and sending General Benjamin Butler directly towards Richmond.[82] As a result, Lee had to contend not only with his own supply problems, but with when and how the three armies might appear, attack, or converge. Although Grant generally lost the ensuing battles (Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor) Lee's forced uncertainty and Grant's tenacity meant that Lee was constantly on the back foot.[82]

This good luck couldn't continue forever, of course. Lee settled down to defend Petersburg from Grant's army, forcing both armies into eight months of trench warfare.[83] The seemingly impregnable Confederate defenses convinced the Union army to try running a mine underneath their earthworks and blowing up the rebels, but this didn't work.[84] The Battle of Petersburg stretched into the winter of 1864 and then the early spring of 1865, inflicting disease and supply shortages on Lee's armies. The end was drawing near for him.

Sherman's total war[edit]

Atlanta's train station in ruins, 1864.
Sherman had accomplished an amazing task. He had defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South's potential and psychology to wage war.
—David J. Eicher, Civil War historian.[85]
Union troops destroying infrastructure and freeing slaves.

While Grant grappled with Lee over Virginia, Sherman set out on his infamous march through Georgia. Sherman spectacularly captured Atlanta in the later summer, providing a significant morale boost for the North and giving Abraham Lincoln a publicized victory that helped him in the 1864 election.[86] Atlanta had come under heavy bombardment during the battle, and Sherman's occupation of the city ended when he ordered much of its business and industrial districts burned to the ground.[87] Although Sherman's act is infamous nowadays, Atlanta actually recovered fairly quickly, managing to regain its thriving business community by the end of 1865.[87]

Sherman's total war strategies really came into play during his "March to the Sea," where he turned his armies further south towards the Atlantic coastline. He ordered his troops to "live off the land" by confiscating livestock and food and scrounging the countryside for firewood.[85] Although effective against the South's war effort, Sherman's tactics also inflicted hardship on many of the slaves he freed. It's estimated that as many as 10,000 freed slaves starved to death because Sherman stripped the southern countryside so bare of resources.[85] Along with stealing food, Sherman's armies also destroyed Confederate infrastructure by smashing tunnels and bridges and sabotaging railroads.[88] Sherman was not a personally cruel man; in many ways his strategies were the forerunner of the "shock and awe" principle the United States used in World War II and Vietnam and still uses in Afghanistan and Iraq.[88] The point wasn't to kill civilians. The point was to terrorize an enemy into surrender.

End of the Confederacy[edit]

Lee surrenders to Grant.
Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.
—General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House.[89]

Lee suffered his greatest defeat in April of 1865. Called the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," the Battle of Five Forks was Lee's last stand in the siege lines around Petersburg.[90] General Sheridan had just arrived from his successful campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and he was able to use his superior numbers to break the Confederate lines and force them into retreat once more.[91] On the back foot again, Lee moved west towards his final battle.

Ruins of Richmond.

A week after Five Forks, Grant's armies trapped Lee at Appomattox Court House. Lee's army was surrounded, outnumbered, and out of supplies.[89] In other words, the end had finally come for him and Lee had no choice to to surrender his army to General Grant. After Lee's surrender, the Confederates evacuated and destroyed their capital of Richmond, leaving the incoming Union troops to put out the fires.[92] The last major Confederate force, the Army of Tennessee surrendered to General Sherman soon after.[93]

Reduced to an outlaw, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had to flee further and further south to avoid the advancing Union troops. The Union, for its part, was unrelenting in its pursuit of the man (even offering a $100,000 reward for his capture) because it was generally and wrongly believed that Davis had been responsible for the April 14th assassination of Abraham Lincoln.[94] Davis actually made it all the way to Georgia, but he was eventually discovered and arrested by Union troops after attempting to disguise himself with his wife's coat to escape.[94] It was an ignoble end for an ignoble cause. Cherokee leader San Watie was the last Confederate-aligned general to surrender, on June 23rd.[95]


See the main article on this topic: Reconstruction

The Civil War left the American South in ruins and under martial law. Although blacks were freed from slavery, the United States still faced an extreme challenge in convincing white Southerners to accept blacks as their equals. These problems were addressed by the US federal government throughout a process called Reconstruction, and sadly the process eventually failed to bring about meaningful social change in the South or civil rights for American blacks.

Strategic analysis[edit]

Confederate territorial losses year-by-year.

The American Civil War turned out to be one of the most bloody wars the world had ever seen. New technology was teamed up with old tactics, leading to a greatly increased casualty rate.[96] Despite the greater lethality of the weapons involved, particularly the artillery (aided by the widespread availability of long-range rifles), most battles were still fought by lines of men facing each other across a field. Also the large, unjacketed soft lead bullets fired by the rifles caused terrible damage to human bodies, making the war famous for the large number of amputations performed (although contrary to popular belief, many of these amputations were performed under anesthesia, at least in the well-supplied Union army[97]).

The American Civil War would also prove to be the last American war in which horse-mounted cavalry played a significant role. The Southern cavalry in particular were rather effective skirmishers, and would often attempt to disrupt supply lines for the North.

Much has been made about the South's alleged superiority during the first half of the war, with the implication that the South was the downtrodden underdog. Most commentators fail to understand how, with the South's natural disadvantages going into the war, it all played out about how you'd expect. Among other things, having a large number of unenthusiastic workers spread across the land meant the landed gentry of the South were possessed of an all-encompassing paranoia about the possibility of slave revolts, and much like the Spartans before them, devoted significant energy to ensuring they didn't have to do manual labor themselves. Thus they entered the war with a large, well trained militia force that was able to convert to a main force relatively quickly and effectively. Once the North was able to bring its vastly superior manpower and economic resources to bear, the inevitable followed.

In the end, due to both greater industrial power and better political leadership, the North managed to grind down the Southern forces. The North, towards the end of the war, had installed generals who understood the nature of total war, exemplified by Sherman's "March to the Sea."

Alternate perspectives and pseudohistory[edit]

Lost Cause of the South[edit]

Confederate "reunion" parade in Richmond, 1907.
See the main article on this topic: Lost Cause of the South
Southern gentlemen who led in the late rebellion have not parted with their convictions at this point, any more than at any other. They want to be independent of the negro. They believed in slavery and they believe in it still. They believed in an aristocratic class, and they believe in it still.
—Frederick Douglass, 1869.[98]

Today, many neo-Confederates deny that the issue of slavery was the primary motivation for the war, calling it the "War of Northern Aggression" or similar names to try and frame it as an issue of the federal government encroaching on the glorious states' rights, and also forgetting that it was the Confederacy who started shooting first. It is also important to mention that it is not just the system of slavery that the Confederate States were interested in protecting, but also the status of blacks in the social hierarchy as being lower than whites (which isn't to say that Northerners were all that enlightened at the time either). There were additional fears of miscegenation on both sides, but the South was especially worried that the policies of the North would eventually lead to (gasp!) race mixing.[99]

A huge source of evidence for the importance of not just slavery as the central cause, but the position of black individuals in society itself, can be found in contemporary documents. The various Declarations of Causes of Secession heavily reference slavery and the position of blacks as inferior as causes of secession, with almost no references to the elusive concept of "states' rights" that aren't explicitly tied to these issues.[100] Further evidence of this claim can be found in the words of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy in 1861, who in his Cornerstone Speech said,

Our new government [...] its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.[101]

As the war drew to a conclusion, the Confederacy became desperate, but it wasn't until March 13, 1865 (less than a month before Lee surrendered at Appomattox and less than two months before Jefferson Davis was captured) that the Confederacy passed General Order 14, authorizing the creation of all-black companies.[102] This was highly controversial, passing by a margin of 40 to 37 in the House and 9 to 8 in the Senate,[103] and led to the recruitment of a total of about fifty black soldiers.[104]

In order to try to "prove" that there were Black Confederate soldiers, there's a doctored image that can be found claiming to be the 1st Louisiana Native Guard; it has been carefully cropped to remove the Union officer on the far left.[105][106] This is especially ironic as there really was a Confederate 1st Louisiana Native Guard - until the state of Louisiana passed a law in January 1862 saying the militia should be made up of free white males only[107] There was subsequently a Union 1st Louisiana Native Guard that saw combat and was treated very badly by its commanding officers.

This isn't to say that no black people served as soldiers for the Confederacy (despite it being illegal); the Black Confederate Soldiers website has identified about 200 during the entire war.[108] Of these, fewer than 20 are identified as privates (the rest having non-combat roles such as cook, musician, and servant) and it is not certain that even the privates had combat roles. Some assuredly did fight - such as John Parker, a slave who was forced to fire a cannon at Bull Run.[109]

There are four common pieces of evidence used to foster the claim that there were black soldiers in the Confederacy. Firstly a statement made by Frederick Douglass to this effect who was miles away from the front lines, with no firsthand evidence, and lobbying to try to have the Union create black regiments. Secondly the New York Herald reported that: "... after the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, ...reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers..." Seven. In the pivotal battle of the war. Thirdly the census report that there were in 1890 over 3000 black Confederate Veterans. It is known that some Confederates took slaves with them as servants; this group may quite legitimately have considered themselves veterans, especially as more than one in four Confederate soldiers who volunteered in 1861 lived with parents who owned slaves.[110] Finally there are photographs like the previously mentioned doctored photo of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard (which cuts out the Union officer). It's also pointed out that unlike the Union the Confederacy didn't have a separate pay scale for black soldiers, and therefore was less racist. Or didn't allow black soldiers to fight at all, one of the two.

Howard Zinn's perspective[edit]

Howard Zinn.

The idea that slavery was not the primary driving force behind the war is not unique to neo-Confederates; it was also advanced by Howard Zinn in his A People's History of the United States, as part of his argument that the effect of the Civil War was to replace chattel slavery with wage slavery.

Zinn, like the neo-Confederates, argued that the war was one of Northern aggression and had the aim of removing the antebellum Southern elite; namely, that when industrial interests in the North wanted to industrialize the South, the slave-holding elite resisted by causing mass secessions from the Union, after which "Lincoln initiated hostilities" against them.[111] (Like, not withdrawing troops from Fort Sumter quickly enough to suit the South Carolinians, presumably.)

Zinn further argued that slavery was used only as a rhetorical fig leaf to cover this agenda, with the Union only taking action against slavery when their hand was forced: "It was only as the war grew more bitter, the casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered coalition behind Lincoln that he began to act against slavery."[111]

This can immediately be countered by simply reading Lincoln's own words: he was already having anti-slavery sentiments as early as the 1830s[112] and he wasn't particularly enamoured with "capitalists" that "fleeced the people."[113]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


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  105. [3]
  106. Black in Grey - Did African Americans fight for the Confederacy
  107. The law in question
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  110. Small Truth Papering Over a Big Lie - Ta-Nehisi Coates
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  112. Age 28
  113. Speech in the Illinois Legislature Concerning the State Bank