This article is part of the
History of the United States series.
Colonial America
History of the United States (1776-1865)
The coming of the Civil War
American Civil War
History of the United States (1865-1918)
History of the United States (1918-1945)
History of the United States (1945-1964)
History of the United States (1964-1980)
History of the United States (1980-present)
Demographic history of the United States
Military history of the United States

In the United States of America, the American Civil War was fought from 1861 until 1865 between the northern states, popularly referred to as the "Union," the "north," or the "Yankees," and the seceding southern states, commonly referred to as the Confederate States of America, the "Confederacy," the "south," or the "rebels."

Table of contents
1 The coming of the Civil War
2 Historical summary
3 Major battles
4 Civil war leaders
5 Aftermath
6 External links

The coming of the Civil War

For details see the main article The coming of the Civil War.

While there is considerable debate about the influence of individual events that led the states to this civil war, the following events are often cited as contributing:

There is little question that the salient issue in the minds of the public and popular press of the time, and the histories written since, was the issue of slavery. Slavery had been abolished in most northern states, but was legal and important to the economy of the Confederacy, which depended on cheap agricultural labor. State sovereignty (for the South) and preservation of the Union (for the North) have both also been cited as issues, but both were reflections of the slavery issue, i.e., could the Federal government force southern states to end slavery or could the southern states leave the Union to preserve slavery?

Although the war was also known in the South as The War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, The War of Southern Independence, Mr. Lincoln's War, or simply as The War, these names are infrequently used today. More obscure names for the war include The Second American Revolution and The War in Defense of Virginia. Northerners often referred to this conflict as The War of the Rebellion or The War of Southern Rebellion, The War to Save the Union, and The War for Abolition.

The states which seceded consisted of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Three 'slave states' did not secede: Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky. Although Kentucky did not secede, it declared itself neutral in the conflict. Delaware and Maryland were garrisoned by Union forces throughout the war to prevent their secession. Missouri's government split, with a Unionist government in the capitol and a secessionist government-in-exile run from Camden, Arkansas and Marshall, Texas. The state of West Virginia was created by the secession from Virginia of its northwestern counties, and added to the Union in 1863.

The Union was led by President Abraham Lincoln and the Confederacy by President Jefferson Davis.

Historical summary

Confederate Battle Flag, approved by the CS War Dept. 1 Oct. 1861. (compare Stars and Bars)

It started with Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of 1860, which triggered South Carolina's secession from the Union. Leaders in the state had long been waiting for an event that might unite the South against the antislavery forces. Once the election returns were certain, a special South Carolina convention declared "that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the 'United States of America' is hereby dissolved." By February 1, 1861, six more Southern states had seceded. On February 7, the seven states adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. The remaining southern states as yet remained in the Union.

Less than a month later, on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he refused to recognize the secession, considering it "legally void". His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union. The South, particularly South Carolina, ignored the plea, and on April 12, the South fired upon the Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina until the troops surrendered.

Abraham Lincoln
16th President

As a Confederate force was built up by July 1861 at Manassas, Virginia, 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, whereupon they were forced back to Washington, DC by Confederate troops under the command of Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. Alarmed at the loss, and in an attempt to prevent more slave states from leaving the Union, the United States 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.

Major General George McClellan took command of the Union Army of the Potomac on July 26 (he was briefly given supreme command of all the Union armies, but was subsequently relieved of that post in favor of Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck), and the war began in earnest in 1862. Ulysses S. Grant gave the Union its first victory of the war, by capturing Fort Henry, Tennessee on February 6 of that year.

McClellan reached the gates of Richmond in the spring of 1862, but when Robert E. Lee defeated him in the Seven Days Campaign, he was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac. His successor, John Pope, was beaten spectacularly by Lee at Second Bull Run in August. Emboldened, the Confederacy's made its first invasion of the North, when General Lee led 55,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River at White's Ford near Leesburg, Virginia into Maryland on September 5. Lincoln then restored McClellan, who won a bloody, almost Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. Lee's army, checked at last, returned to Virginia.

When McClellan failed to follow up on Antietam, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside suffered near-immediate defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was in his turn replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker, too, proved unable to defeat Lee's army, and was relieved after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade, who stopped Lee's invasion of Union-held territory at what is sometimes considered the war's turning point, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), inflicting 28,000 casualties on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and again forcing it to retreat to its namesake state.

While the Confederate forces had some success in the Eastern theater holding on to their capital, fortune did not smile upon them in the West. Confederate forces were driven from Missouri early in the war.

Jefferson Davis
First and only President of the Confederate States of America

Nashville, Tennessee fell to the Union early in 1862. The Mississippi was opened, at least to Vicksburg, with the taking of Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri and then Memphis, Tennessee. New Orleans was captured in January, 1862, allowing the Union forces to begin moving up the Mississippi as well.

The Union's key strategist and tactician was Ulysses S. Grant, who won victories at Fort Donelson, Battle of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, driving Confederate forces out of Tennessee. Grant understood the concept of total war and realized, along with Lincoln, that only the utter defeat of Confederate forces would bring an end to the war.

At the beginning of 1864, Grant was given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac although Meade remained the actual commander of that army. Union forces in the East attempted to maneuver past Lee and fought several battles during that phase of the Eastern campaign: the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. An attempt to outflank Lee from the South failed under Generals Butler and Smith, who were 'corked' into the Bermuda Hundred river bend. Grant was tenacious and kept pressing the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. He extended the Confederate army, pinning it down in the Siege of Petersburg and, after two failed attempts (under Siegel and Hunter), finally found a commander, Philip Sheridan, who could clear the threat to Washington DC from the Shenandoah Valley.

Meanwhile General William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Chattanoga on Atlanta and laid waste to much of the rest of Georgia after he left Atlanta and marched to the sea at Savannnah. When Sherman turned north through South Carolina and North Carolina to approach the Virginia lines from the south, it was the end for Lee and his men, and for the Confederacy.

Advantages widely believed to have contributed to the Union's success include:

  • The North's strong, industrial economy.
  • The North's strong compatible railroad links (and the South's lack thereof)
  • The North's larger population.
  • The North's possession of the U.S. merchant marine fleet and naval ships (and successful blockade of the South).
  • The North's established government.
  • The North's moral cause (the Emancipation Proclamation) given to the war by Abraham Lincoln mid-way during the war and encouraged international support.
  • The recruitment of black men, including many freed slaves, into the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation was approved.

Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on 9 April 1865 at Appomattox Court house. Joseph E. Johnston, who commanded Confederate forces in North Carolina, surrendered his troops to Sherman shortly thereafter. The Battle of Palmito Ranch, fought on May 13, 1865, in the far south of Texas was the last land battle of the war and ended with a Confederate victory. All Confederate land forces had surrendered by June 1865. Confederate naval units surrendered as late as November of 1865.

Major battles

Major battles included First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Battle of Shiloh, The Seven Days, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the Siege of Petersburg. A naval battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia was the first battle in history between steam-powered, iron-armored ships with shell-firing guns. The Union's naval blockade of the Confederate coast was one of the most ambitious up to that time, and was the first major blockade under the Declaration of Paris of 1856.

See also: List of American Civil War battles

Civil war leaders

Significant Southern leaders included Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, James Longstreet, P.G.T. Beauregard, John Mosby, Braxton Bragg, James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Northern leaders included Abraham Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, Joseph Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, George McClellan, Irvin McDowell, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, George Armstrong Custer, Christopher "Kit" Carson, John E. Wool, George G. Meade, and Abner Read.


During the War, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to free all slaves held in territory under Confederate control at the time of the Proclamation. In actuality, it did not. Slaves were not freed in the remaining states and parts of the Confederacy until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by 3/4 of the states, which did not occur until December of 1865, 8 months after the end of the war. A good deal of ill will among the Southern survivors resulted from the resulting shift of political power to the North, the destruction inflicted on the South by the Union armies as the end of the war approached, and the Reconstruction program instituted in the South by the Union after the war's end.

According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving Union veteran of the conflict, Albert Woolson, died on August 2, 1956 at the age of 109, and the last Confederate veteran, John Salling, died on March 16, 1958 at the age of 112. However, William Marvel investigated the claims of both for a 1991 piece in the Civil War history magazine Blue & Gray. Using census information, he found that Salling was born in 1858, far too late to have served in the Civil War. In fact, he concluded, "Every one of the last dozen recognized Confederates was bogus." He found Woolson to be the last true veteran of the Civil War on either side; he had served as a drummer boy late in the war.

See also: American Civil War spies, Antebellum, Emancipation Proclamation, CSS Hunley, Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan and Reconstruction.

External links