The American Civil War, widely known in the United States as simply the Civil War as well as other names, was a civil war fought from 1861 to 1865 to determine the survival of the Union or independence for the Confederacy. Among the 34 states in January 1861, seven Southern slave states individually declared their secession from the United States of America and formed the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy, often simply called the South, grew to include eleven states, and although they claimed thirteen states and additional western territories, the Confederacy was never diplomatically recognized by any foreign country. The states that remained loyal and did not declare secession were known as the Union or the North. The war had its origin in the factious issue of slavery, especially the extension of slavery into the western territories. After four years of combat, which had left around 750,000 Americans, Union and Confederate, dead and had destroyed much of the South’s infrastructure, the Confederacy collapsed and slavery was abolished. Then began the Reconstruction and the processes of restoring national unity and guaranteeing civil rights to the freed slaves.
In the 1860 presidential election, Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, supported banning slavery in all the U.S. territories, something the Southern states viewed as a violation of their constitutional rights and as being part of a plan to eventually abolish slavery. The Republican Party, dominant in the North, secured a majority of the electoral votes, and Lincoln was elected the first Republican president, but before his inauguration, seven slave states with cotton-based economies formed the Confederacy. The first six to secede had the highest proportions of slaves in their populations, a total of 48.8 percent. Eight remaining slave states continued to reject calls for secession. Outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan and the incoming Republicans rejected secession as illegal. Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 inaugural address declared his administration would not initiate civil war. Speaking directly to “the Southern States,” he reaffirmed, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Confederate forces seized numerous federal forts within territory claimed by the Confederacy. Efforts at compromise failed, 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. While in the Western Theater, the Union made significant permanent gains, in the Eastern Theater, battle was inconclusive in 1861–62. The autumn 1862 Confederate campaigns into Maryland and Kentucky failed, 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 seized New Orleans. The 1863 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. Inflicting an ever-tightening naval blockade of Confederate ports, the Union marshaled the resources and manpower to attack the Confederacy from all directions, leading to the fall of Atlanta to William T. Sherman and his march to the sea. The last significant battles raged around the Siege of Petersburg. Lee’s escape attempt ended with his surrender at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. While the military war was coming to an end, the political reintegration of the nation was to take another 12 years of the Reconstruction Era.
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 the impact of industrialization in World War I. It remains the deadliest war in American history. From 1861 to 1865, it has been traditionally estimated that about 620,000 died but recent scholarship argues that 750,000 soldiers died, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By one estimate, the war claimed the lives of 10 percent of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males aged 18–40.
Causes of secession
The causes of the Civil War were complex and have been controversial since the war began. James C. Bradford wrote that the issue has been further complicated by historical revisionists, who have tried to offer a variety of reasons for the war. Slavery was the central source of escalating political tension in the 1850s. The Republican Party was determined to prevent any spread of slavery, and many Southern leaders had threatened secession if the Republican candidate, Lincoln, won the 1860 election. After Lincoln won without carrying a single Southern state, many Southern whites felt that disunion had become their only option, because they thought that they were losing representation, which would hamper their ability to promote pro-slavery acts and policies.
Contemporary actors, the Union and Confederate leadership and fighting soldiers on both sides believed that slavery caused the Civil War. Union men mainly believed the war was to emancipate the slaves. Confederates fought to protect southern society, and slavery as an integral part of it. From the anti-slavery perspective, the issue was primarily about whether the system of slavery was an anachronistic evil that was incompatible with Republicanism in the United States. The strategy of the anti-slavery forces was containment — to stop the expansion and thus put slavery on a path to gradual extinction. The slave-holding interests in the South denounced this strategy as infringing upon their Constitutional rights. Southern whites believed that the emancipation of slaves would destroy the South’s economy because of the alleged laziness of blacks under free labor.
Slavery was illegal in the North. It was fading in the border states and in Southern cities, but was expanding in the highly profitable cotton districts of the South and Southwest. Subsequent writers on the American Civil War looked to several factors explaining the geographic divide, including sectionalism, protectionism and state’s rights.
Sectionalism refers to the different economies, social structure, customs and political values of the North and South. It increased steadily between 1800 and 1860 as the North, which phased slavery out of existence, industrialized, urbanized, and built prosperous farms, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor, together with subsistence farming for poor freedmen. In the 1840s and 50s, the issue of accepting slavery (in the guise of rejecting slave-owning bishops and missionaries) split the nation’s largest religious denominations (the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches) into separate Northern and Southern denominations.
Historians have debated whether economic differences between the industrial Northeast and the agricultural South helped cause the war. Most historians now disagree with the economic determinism of historian Charles A. Beard in the 1920s and emphasize that Northern and Southern economies were largely complementary. While socially different, the sections economically benefited each other.
Historically, southern slave-holding states, because of their low cost manual labor, had little perceived need for mechanization, and supported having the right to sell cotton and purchase manufactured goods from any nation. Northern states, which had heavily invested in their still-nascent manufacturing, could not compete with the full-fledged industries of Europe in offering high prices for cotton imported from the South and low prices for manufactured exports in return. Thus, northern manufacturing interests supported tariffs and protectionism while southern planters demanded free trade.
The Democrats in Congress, controlled by Southerners, wrote the tariff laws in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, and kept reducing rates so that the 1857 rates were the lowest since 1816. The Whigs and Republicans complained because they favored high tariffs to stimulate industrial growth, and Republicans called for an increase in tariffs in the 1860 election. The increases were only enacted in 1861 after Southerners resigned their seats in Congress. The tariff issue was and is sometimes cited–long after the war–by Lost Cause historians and neo-Confederate apologists. In 1860–61 none of the groups that proposed compromises to head off secession raised the tariff issue. Pamphelteers North and South rarely mentioned the tariff, and when some did, for instance, Matthew Fontaine Maury and John Lothrop Motley, they were generally writing for a foreign audience.
The South argued that each state had the right to secede–leave the Union–at any time, that the Constitution was a “compact” or agreement among the states. Northerners (including President Buchanan) rejected that notion as opposed to the will of the Founding Fathers who said they were setting up a perpetual union. Historian James McPherson writes concerning states’ rights and other non-slavery explanations:
While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few professional historians now subscribe to them. Of all these interpretations, the states’-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, states’ rights for what purpose? States’ rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle.
Between 1803 and 1854, the United States achieved a vast expansion of territory through purchase, negotiation, and conquest. At first, the new states carved out of these territories entering the union were apportioned equally between slave and free states. It was over territories west of the Mississippi that the proslavery and antislavery forces collided.
With the conquest of northern Mexico west to California in 1848, slaveholding interests looked forward to expanding into these lands and perhaps Cuba and Central America as well. Northern “free soil” interests vigorously sought to curtail any further expansion of slave territory. The Compromise of 1850 over California balanced a free soil state with stronger fugitive slave laws for a political settlement after four years of strife in the 1840s. But the states admitted following California were all free: Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859) and Kansas (1861). In the southern states, the question of the territorial expansion of slavery westward again became explosive. Both the South and the North drew the same conclusion: “The power to decide the question of slavery for the territories was the power to determine the future of slavery itself.”
By 1860, four doctrines had emerged to answer the question of federal control in the territories, and they all claimed they were sanctioned by the Constitution, implicitly or explicitly. The first of these “conservative” theories, represented by the Constitutional Union Party, argued that the Missouri Compromise apportionment of territory north for free soil and south for slavery should become a Constitutional mandate. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 was an expression of this view. The second doctrine of Congressional preeminence, championed by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, insisted that the Constitution did not bind legislators to a policy of balance – that slavery could be excluded in a territory as it was done in the Northwest Ordinance at the discretion of Congress, thus Congress could restrict human bondage, but never establish it. The Wilmont Proviso announced this position in 1846.
Senator Stephen A. Douglas proclaimed the doctrine of territorial or “popular” sovereignty – which declared that the settlers in a territory had the same rights as states in the Union to establish or disestablish slavery as a purely local matter. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 legislated this doctrine. In Kansas Territory, years of pro and anti-slavery violence and political conflict erupted; the congressional House of Representatives voted to admit Kansas as a free state in early 1860, but its admission in the Senate was delayed until January 1861, after the 1860 elections when southern senators began to leave.
The fourth theory was advocated by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, one of state sovereignty (“states’ rights”), also known as the “Calhoun doctrine”, named after the South Carolinian political theorist and statesman John C. Calhoun. Rejecting the arguments for federal authority or self-government, state sovereignty would empower states to promote the expansion of slavery as part of the Federal Union under the U.S. Constitution. “States’ rights” was an ideology formulated and applied as a means of advancing slave state interests through federal authority. As historian Thomas L. Krannawitter points out, the “Southern demand for federal slave protection represented a demand for an unprecedented expansion of federal power.” These four doctrines comprised the major ideologies presented to the American public on the matters of slavery, the territories and the U.S. Constitution prior to the 1860 presidential election.
Beginning in the American Revolution and accelerating after the War of 1812, the people of the United States grew in their sense of country as an important example to the world of a national republic of political liberty and personal rights. Previous regional independence movements such as the Greek revolt in the Ottoman Empire, division and redivision in the Latin American political map, and the British-French Crimean triumph leading to an interest in redrawing Europe along cultural differences, all conspired to make for a time of upheaval and uncertainty about the basis of the nation-state. In the world of 19th century self-made Americans, growing in prosperity, population and expanding westward, “freedom” could mean personal liberty or property rights. The unresolved difference would cause failure—first in their political institutions, then in their civil life together.
Nationalism and honor
Nationalism was a powerful force in the early 19th century, with famous spokesmen such as Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster. While practically all Northerners supported the Union, Southerners were split between those loyal to the entire United States (called “unionists”) and those loyal primarily to the southern region and then the Confederacy. C. Vann Woodward said of the latter group,
A great slave society … had grown up and miraculously flourished in the heart of a thoroughly bourgeois and partly puritanical republic. It had renounced its bourgeois origins and elaborated and painfully rationalized its institutional, legal, metaphysical, and religious defenses … When the crisis came it chose to fight. It proved to be the death struggle of a society, which went down in ruins.
Perceived insults to Southern collective honor included the enormous popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and the actions of abolitionist John Brown in trying to incite a slave rebellion in 1859.
While the South moved toward a Southern nationalism, leaders in the North were also becoming more nationally minded, and rejected any notion of splitting the Union. The Republican national electoral platform of 1860 warned that Republicans regarded disunion as treason and would not tolerate it: “We denounce those threats of disunion … as denying the vital principles of a free government, and as an avowal of contemplated treason, which it is the imperative duty of an indignant people sternly to rebuke and forever silence.” The South ignored the warnings: Southerners did not realize how ardently the North would fight to hold the Union together.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 was the final trigger for secession. Efforts at compromise, including the “Corwin Amendment” and the “Crittenden Compromise”, failed. Southern leaders feared that Lincoln would stop the expansion of slavery and put it on a course toward extinction. The slave states, which had already become a minority in the House of Representatives, were now facing a future as a perpetual minority in the Senate and Electoral College against an increasingly powerful North. Before Lincoln took office in March 1861, seven slave states had declared their secession and joined to form the Confederacy.
Outbreak of the war
The election of Lincoln caused the legislature of South Carolina to call a state convention to consider secession. Prior to the war, South Carolina did more than any other Southern state to advance the notion that a state had the right to nullify federal laws and, even, secede from the United States. The convention summoned unanimously voted to secede on December 20, 1860 and adopted the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”. 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. The “cotton states” of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit, seceding in January and February 1861.
Among the ordinances of secession passed by the individual states, those of three – Texas, Alabama, and Virginia – specifically mentioned the plight of the ‘slaveholding states’ at the hands of northern abolitionists. The rest make no mention of the slavery issue, and are often brief announcements of the dissolution of ties by the legislatures. However, at least four states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas – also passed lengthy and detailed explanations of their causes for secession, all of which laid the blame squarely on the movement to abolish slavery and that movement’s influence over the politics of the northern states. The southern states believed slaveholding was a constitutional right because of the Fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.
These states agreed to form a new federal 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.
On December 18, 1860, the Crittenden Compromise was proposed to re-establish the Missouri Compromise line by constitutionally banning slavery in territories to the north of the line while guaranteeing it to the south. The adoption of this compromise likely would have prevented the secession of every southern state apart from South Carolina, but Lincoln and the Republicans rejected it. It was then proposed to hold a national referendum on the compromise. The Republicans again rejected the idea, although a majority of both Northerners and Southerners would have voted in favor of it. A pre-war February Peace Conference of 1861 met in Washington, proposing a solution similar to that of the Crittenden compromise, it was rejected by Congress. The Republicans proposed an alternative compromise to not interfere with slavery where it existed but the South regarded it as insufficient. Nonetheless, 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.
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 address, he stated that it would be U.S. policy to only collect import duties at its ports; there could be no serious injury to the South to justify armed revolution during his administration. His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union, famously calling on “the mystic chords of memory” binding the two regions.
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
Fort Sumter was located in the middle of the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, where the U.S. fort’s 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 that 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.
The attack on Fort Sumter rallied the North to the defense of American nationalism. Historian Allan Nevins says:
The thunderclap of Sumter produced a startling crystallization of Northern sentiment. … Anger swept the land. From every side came news of mass meetings, speeches, resolutions, tenders of business support, the muster of companies and regiments, the determined action of governors and legislatures.”
However, much of the North’s attitude was based on the false belief that only a minority of Southerners were actually in favor of secession and that there were large numbers of southern Unionists that could be counted on. Had Northerners realized that most Southerners really did favor secession, they might have hesitated at attempting the enormous task of conquering a united South.
Lincoln called on all the states to send forces to recapture the fort and other federal properties. He cited presidential powers given by the Militia Acts of 1792. With the scale of the rebellion apparently small so far, Lincoln called for only 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. The governor of Massachusetts had state regiments on trains headed south the next day. In western Missouri, local secessionists seized Liberty Arsenal. On May 3, 1861, Lincoln called for an additional 42,000 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 Carolina refused to send forces against their neighbors, declared their secession, and joined the Confederacy. To reward Virginia, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
Attitude of the Border states
Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky were slave states that were opposed to both secession and coercing the South. They were later joined by West Virginia which separated from Virginia and became a new state.
Maryland had numerous anti-Lincoln officials who tolerated anti-army rioting in Baltimore and the burning of bridges, both aimed at hindering the passage of troops to the South. Maryland’s legislature voted to stay in the Union, but also rejected hostilities with the South, voting to close Maryland’s rail lines to prevent them from being used for war. Lincoln responded by establishing martial law, and unilaterally suspending habeas corpus, in Maryland, along with sending in militia units from the North. Lincoln rapidly took control of Maryland and the District of Columbia, by seizing many prominent figures, including arresting 1/3 of the members of the Maryland General Assembly on the day it reconvened. All were held without trial, ignoring a ruling by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Roger Taney, a Maryland native, that only Congress (and not the president) could suspend habeas corpus (Ex parte Merryman). Indeed, federal troops imprisoned a prominent Baltimore newspaper editor, Frank Key Howard, Francis Scott Key’s grandson, after he criticized Lincoln in an editorial for ignoring the Supreme Court Chief Justice’s ruling.
In Missouri, an elected convention on secession voted decisively to remain within the Union. When pro-Confederate Governor Claiborne F. Jackson called out the state militia, it was attacked by federal forces under General Nathaniel Lyon, who chased the governor and the rest of the State Guard to the southwestern corner of the state. In the resulting vacuum, the convention on secession reconvened and took power as the Unionist provisional government of Missouri.
Kentucky did not secede; for a time, it declared itself neutral. When Confederate forces entered the state in September 1861, neutrality ended and the state reaffirmed its Union status, while trying to maintain slavery. During a brief invasion by Confederate forces, Confederate sympathizers organized a secession convention, inaugurated a governor, and gained recognition from the Confederacy. The rebel government soon went into exile and never controlled Kentucky.
After Virginia’s secession, a Unionist government in Wheeling asked 48 counties to vote on an ordinance to create a new state on October 24, 1861. A voter turnout of 34 percent approved the statehood bill (96 percent approving). The inclusion of 24 secessionist counties in the state and the ensuing guerrilla war engaged about 40,000 Federal troops for much of the war. Congress admitted West Virginia to the Union on June 20, 1863. West Virginia provided about 20,000–22,000 soldiers to both the Confederacy and the Union.
A Unionist secession attempt occurred in East Tennessee, but was suppressed by the Confederacy, which arrested over 3,000 men suspected of being loyal to the Union. They were held without trial.
The Civil War was a contest marked by the ferocity and frequency of battle. Over four years, 237 named battles were fought, as were many more minor actions and skirmishes, which were often 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 U.S. 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. 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. In the North, some 120,000 men evaded conscription, many of them fleeing to Canada, and another 280,000 soldiers deserted during the war. At least 100,000 Southerners deserted, or about 10 percent. In the South, many men deserted temporarily to take care of their distressed 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, the Union and Confederate armies had grown into the “largest and most efficient armies in the world” within a few years. 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.
Perman and Taylor (2010) say that historians are of two minds on why millions of men seemed so eager to fight, suffer and die over four years:
Some historians emphasize that Civil War soldiers were driven by political ideology, holding firm beliefs about the importance of liberty, Union, or state rights, or about the need to protect or to destroy slavery. Others point to less overtly political reasons to fight, such as the defense of one’s home and family, or the honor and brotherhood to be preserved when fighting alongside other men. Most historians agree that no matter what a soldier thought about when he went into the war, the experience of combat affected him profoundly and sometimes altered his reasons for continuing the fight.
At the start of the civil war, a system of paroles operated. Captives agreed not to fight until they were officially exchanged. Meanwhile, they were held in camps run by their own army where they were paid but not allowed to perform any military duties. The system of exchanges collapsed in 1863 when the Confederacy refused to exchange black prisoners. After that, about 56,000 of the 409,000 POWs died in prisons during the war, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the conflict’s fatalities.
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 percent 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 occurred during the early stages of the industrial revolution and subsequently many naval innovations emerged during this time, most notably the advent of the ironclad 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 Merrimack. 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, 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. Most historians agree that the blockade was a major factor in ruining the Confederate economy, however, Wise argues that the blockade runners 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 few lives in combat. Practically, the entire Confederate cotton crop was useless (although it was sold to Union traders), costing the Confederacy its main source of income. Critical imports were 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 merchant 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 axis. 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 “Gibraltar 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, U.S. 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 the Crittenden–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 more than 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 the high-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.
Numerous small-scale military actions south and west of Missouri sought to control Indian Territory and New Mexico Territory for the Union. The Union repulsed Confederate incursions into New Mexico in 1862, and the exiled Arizona government withdrew into Texas. In the Indian Territory, civil war broke out within 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 killing civilians but rather in taking provisions and forage and destroying homes, farms, and railroads, that Grant said “would otherwise have gone to the support of secession and rebellion. This policy I believe exercised a material influence in hastening the end.” 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.
Grant’s army set out on the Overland Campaign with the goal of drawing Lee into a defense of Richmond, where they would attempt to pin down and destroy the Confederate army. The Union army first attempted to maneuver past Lee and fought several battles, notably at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. These battles resulted in heavy losses on both sides, and 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. Each battle resulted in setbacks for the Union that mirrored what they had suffered under prior generals, though unlike those prior generals, Grant fought on rather than retreat. Grant was tenacious and kept pressing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back to Richmond. While Lee was preparing for an attack on Richmond, Grant unexpectedly turned south to cross the James River and began the protracted 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 was 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 and John 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 percent of the farms in Georgia in his “March to the Sea”. He reached the Atlantic Ocean at Savannah, 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. One last Confederate attempt to break the Union hold on Petersburg failed at the decisive Battle of Five Forks (sometimes called “the Waterloo of the Confederacy”) on April 1. This meant that the Union now controlled the entire perimeter surrounding Richmond-Petersburg, completely cutting it off from the Confederacy. Realizing that the capital was now lost, Lee decided to evacuate his army. The Confederate capital fell to the Union XXV Corps, composed of black troops. The remaining Confederate units fled west after a defeat at Sayler’s Creek.
Initially, Lee did not intend to surrender, but planned to regroup at the village of Appomattox Court House, where supplies were to be waiting, and then continue the war. Grant chased Lee and got in front of him, so that when Lee’s army reached Appomattox Court House, they were surrounded. After an initial battle, Lee decided that the fight was now hopeless, and surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at the McLean 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 the 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; President Jefferson Davis was captured the following day. On June 2, Kirby Smith officially surrendered his troops in the Trans-Mississippi Department. On June 23, Cherokee leader Stand Watie became the last Confederate General to surrender his forces.
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 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.
Lincoln’s foreign policy was deficient in 1861 in terms of appealing to European public opinion. Diplomats had to explain that United States was not committed to the ending of slavery, but instead they repeated legalistic arguments about the unconstitutionality of secession. Confederate spokesman, on the other hand, were much more successful by ignoring slavery and instead focusing on their struggle for liberty, their commitment to free trade, and the essential role of cotton in the European economy. In addition, the European aristocracy (the dominant factor in every major country) was “absolutely gleeful in pronouncing the American debacle as proof that the entire experiment in popular government had failed. European government leaders welcomed the fragmentation of the ascendant American Republic.”
U.S. minister to Britain Charles Francis Adams proved particularly adept and convinced Britain not to boldly challenge the blockade. The Confederacy purchased several warships from commercial shipbuilders in Britain (CSS Alabama, CSS Shenandoah, CSS Tennessee, CSS Tallahassee, CSS Florida, and some others). 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, through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, had begun to abolish slavery in most of her 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 the British mail steamer Trent 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. British Prime Minister 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. 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.
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.
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. Lincoln was not a military dictator, and could only continue to fight the war as long as the American public supported a continuation of the war. 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 secured the support of the Republicans, War Democrats, the border states, emancipated slaves, and the neutrality of 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 industrial strength and population. Confederate actions, they argue, only delayed defeat. Civil War historian Shelby Foote expressed 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.”
A minority view among historians is that the Confederacy lost because, as E. Merton Coulter put it, “people did not will hard enough and long enough to win.” Marxist historian Armstead Robinson agrees, pointing to a class conflict in the Confederates army between the slave owners and the larger number of non-owners. He argues that the non-owner soldiers grew embittered about fighting to preserve slavery, and fought less enthusiastically. He attributes the major Confederate defeats in 1863 at Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge to this class conflict. However, most historians reject the argument. James M. McPherson, after reading thousands of letters written by Confederate soldiers, found strong patriotism that continued to the end; they truly believed they were fighting for freedom and liberty. Even as the Confederacy was visibly collapsing in 1864–65, he says most Confederate soldiers were fighting hard. Historian Gary Gallagher cites General Sherman who in early 1864 commented, “The devils seem to have a determination that cannot but be admired.” Despite their loss of slaves and wealth, with starvation looming, Sherman continued, “yet I see no sign of let up – some few deserters – plenty tired of war, but the masses determined to fight it out.”
Also important were Lincoln’s eloquence in rationalizing the national purpose and his skill in keeping the border states committed to the Union cause. 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 Britain 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 percent effective at stopping trade goods; as a result, imports and exports to the South declined significantly. The abundance of European cotton and Britain’s hostility to the institution of slavery, along with Lincoln’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico naval blockades, severely decreased any chance that either Britain or France would enter the war.
Historian Don Doyle has argued that the Union victory had a major impact on the course of world history. The Union victory energized popular democratic forces. A Confederate victory, on the other hand, would have meant a new birth of slavery, not freedom. Historian Fergus Bordewich, following Doyle, argues that:
The North’s victory decisively proved the durability of democratic government. Confederate independence, on the other hand, would have established an American model for reactionary politics and race-based repression that would likely have cast an international shadow into the twentieth century and perhaps beyond.”
The war produced at least 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent 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 percent higher than traditionally estimated, and possibly as high as 850,000. The war accounted for more American deaths than in all other U.S. wars combined.
Based on 1860 census figures, 8 percent of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6 percent in the North and 18 percent in the South. About 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps during the War. An estimated 60,000 men lost limbs in the war.
Union army dead, amounting to 15 percent of the over two million who served, was broken down as follows:
110,070 killed in action (67,000) or died of wounds (43,000).
199,790 died of disease (75 percent was due to the war, the remainder would have occurred in civilian life anyway)
24,866 died in Confederate prison camps
9,058 killed by accidents or drowning
15,741 other/unknown deaths
359,528 total dead
In addition there were 4,523 deaths in the Navy (2,112 in battle) and 460 in the Marines (148 in battle).
Black troops made up 10 percent of the Union death toll, they amounted to 15 percent of disease deaths but less than 3 percent of those killed in battle. Losses among African Americans were high, in the last year and a half and from all reported casualties, approximately 20 percent of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War. Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than white soldiers:
[We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two millions troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2 percent. Of the 67,000 Regular Army (white) troops, 8.6 percent, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5 percent. In other words, the mortality “rate” amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former were not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began.
Confederate records compiled by historian William F. Fox list 74,524 killed and died of wounds and 59,292 died of disease. Including Confederate estimates of battle losses where no records exist would bring the Confederate death toll to 94,000 killed and died of wounds. Fox complained, however, that records were incomplete, especially during the last year of the war, and that battlefield reports likely under-counted deaths (many men counted as wounded in battlefield reports subsequently died of their wounds). Thomas L. Livermore, using Fox’s data, put the number of Confederate non-combat deaths at 166,000, using the official estimate of Union deaths from disease and accidents and a comparison of Union and Confederate enlistment records, for a total of 260,000 deaths. However, this excludes the 30,000 deaths of Confederate troops in prisons, which would raise the minimum number of deaths to 290,000.
While the figures of 360,000 army deaths for the Union and 260,000 for the Confederacy remained commonly cited, they are incomplete. In addition to many Confederate records being missing, partly as a result of Confederate widows not reporting deaths due to being ineligible for benefits, both armies only counted troops who died during their service, and not the tens of thousands who died of wounds or diseases after being discharged. This often happened only a few days or weeks later. Francis Amasa Walker, Superintendent of the 1870 Census, used census and Surgeon General data to estimate a minimum of 500,000 Union military deaths and 350,000 Confederate military deaths, for a total death toll of 850,000 soldiers. While Walker’s estimates were originally dismissed because of the 1870 Census’s undercounting, it was later found that the census was only off by 6.5%, and that the data Walker used would be roughly accurate.
Analyzing the number of dead by using census data to calculate the deviation of the death rate of men of fighting age from the norm suggests that at least 627,000 and at most 888,000, but most likely 761,000 soldiers, died in the war. This would break down to approximately 350,000 Confederate and 411,000 Union military deaths, going by the proportion of Union to Confederate battle losses.
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, and roughly 13,000 killed overall. One reason for the high number of battle deaths during the war was the use of Napoleonic 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 the Henry 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 much 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 before the Emancipation Proclamation were freed by state action or (on December 6, 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 percent of that of the North, a condition that lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the U.S. 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.
Slavery as a war issue
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.
Texas v. White
In Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869) the United States Supreme Court ruled that Texas had remained a state ever since it first joined the Union, despite claims that it joined the Confederate States; the court further held that the Constitution did not permit states to unilaterally secede from the United States, and that the ordinances of secession, and all the acts of the legislatures within seceding states intended to give effect to such ordinances, were “absolutely null”, under the constitution.
Reconstruction began during the war, with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 and continued until 1877. It comprised multiple complex methods to resolve the outstanding issues of the war’s aftermath, 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 consolidate 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 proof that Confederate nationalism was dead and that the slaves were truly free. They came to the fore after the 1866 elections and undid much of Johnson’s work. In 1872 the “Liberal Republicans” argued that the war goals had been achieved and that Reconstruction should end. They ran a presidential ticket in 1872 but were decisively defeated. In 1874, Democrats, primarily Southern, took control of Congress and opposed any more reconstruction. The Compromise of 1877 closed with a national consensus that the Civil War had finally ended. With the withdrawal of federal troops, however, whites retook control of every Southern legislature; the Jim Crow period of disenfranchisement and legal segregation was about to begin.
Memory and historiography
The Civil War is one of the central events in American collective memory. There are innumerable statues, commemorations, books and archival collections. The memory includes the home front, military affairs, the treatment of soldiers, both living and dead, in the war’s aftermath, depictions of the war in literature and art, evaluations of heroes and villains, and considerations of the moral and political lessons of the war. The last theme includes moral evaluations of racism and slavery, heroism in combat and behind the lines, and the issues of democracy and minority rights, as well as the notion of an “Empire of Liberty” influencing the world.
Professional historians have paid much more attention to the causes of the war, than to the war itself. Military history has largely developed outside academe, leading to a proliferation of solid studies by non-scholars who are thoroughly familiar with the primary sources, pay close attention to battles and campaigns, and write for the large public readership, rather than the small scholarly community. Bruce Canton and Shelby Foote are among the best-known writers. Practically every major figure in the war, both North and South, has had a serious biographical study. Deeply religious Southerners saw the hand of God in history, which demonstrated His wrath at their sinfulness, or His rewards for their suffering. Historian Wilson Fallin has examined the sermons of white and black Baptist preachers after the War. Southern white preachers said:
God had chastised them and given them a special mission – to maintain orthodoxy, strict biblicism, personal piety, and traditional race relations. Slavery, they insisted, had not been sinful. Rather, emancipation was a historical tragedy and the end of Reconstruction was a clear sign of God’s favor.
In sharp contrast, Black preachers interpreted the Civil War as:
God’s gift of freedom. They appreciated opportunities to exercise their independence, to worship in their own way, to affirm their worth and dignity, and to proclaim the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Most of all, they could form their own churches, associations, and conventions. These institutions offered self-help and racial uplift, and provided places where the gospel of liberation could be proclaimed. As a result, black preachers continued to insist that God would protect and help him; God would be their rock in a stormy land.
Memory of the war in the white South crystallized in the myth of the “Lost Cause”, shaping regional identity and race relations for generations. Alan T. Nolan notes that the Lost Cause was expressly “a rationalization, a cover-up to vindicate the name and fame” of those in rebellion. Some claims revolve around the insignificance of slavery; some appeals highlight cultural differences between North and South; the military conflict by Confederate actors is idealized; in any case, secession was said to be lawful. The two important political legacies that flowed from the adoption of the Lost Cause analysis were that it facilitated the reunification of the North and the South, and it excused the “virulent racism” of the 19th century, sacrificing African-American progress to a white man’s reunification. But the Lost Cause legacy to history is “a caricature of the truth. This caricature wholly misrepresents and distorts the facts of the matter” in every instance.
The interpretation of the Civil War presented by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard in The Rise of American Civilization (1927) was highly influential among historians and the general public until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Beards downplayed slavery, abolitionism, and issues of morality. They ignored constitutional issues of states’ rights and even ignored American nationalism as the force that finally led to victory in the war. Indeed, the ferocious combat itself was passed over as merely an ephemeral event. Much more important was the calculus of class conflict. The Beards announced that the Civil War was really:
A social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South.
The Beards themselves abandoned their interpretation by the 1940s and it became defunct among historians in the 1950s, when scholars shifted to an emphasis on slavery. However, Beardian themes still echo among Lost Cause writers.
Civil War commemoration
The American Civil War has been commemorated in many capacities ranging from the reenactment of battles, to statues and memorial halls erected, to films being produced, to stamps and coins with Civil War themes being issued, all of which helped to shape public memory. This varied advent occurred in greater proportions on the 100th and 150th anniversary. Hollywood’s take on the war has been especially influential in shaping public memory, as seen in such film classics as Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and more recently Lincoln (2012). Ken Burns produced a notable PBS series on television titled The Civil War (1990). It was digitally remastered and re-released in 2015.