Civil War 1861 Essay Definition

By Dr. James McPherson

The Civil War is the central event in America's historical consciousness. While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be. The war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution: whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world.

Northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery that had divided the country from its beginning. But these achievements came at the cost of 625,000 lives--nearly as many American soldiers as died in all the other wars in which this country has fought combined. The American Civil War was the largest and most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914.

The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, seven slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The incoming Lincoln administration and most of the Northern people refused to recognize the legitimacy of secession. They feared that it would discredit democracy and create a fatal precedent that would eventually fragment the no-longer United States into several small, squabbling countries.

The event that triggered war came at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Claiming this United States fort as their own, the Confederate army on that day opened fire on the federal garrison and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this "insurrection." Four more slave states seceded and joined the Confederacy. By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men confronted each other along a line stretching 1200 miles from Virginia to Missouri. Several battles had already taken place--near Manassas Junction in Virginia, in the mountains of western Virginia where Union victories paved the way for creation of the new state of West Virginia, at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and at Port Royal in South Carolina where the Union navy established a base for a blockade to shut off the Confederacy's access to the outside world.

But the real fighting began in 1862. Huge battles like Shiloh in Tennessee, Gaines' Mill, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland foreshadowed even bigger campaigns and battles in subsequent years, from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to Vicksburg on the Mississippi to Chickamauga and Atlanta in Georgia. By 1864 the original Northern goal of a limited war to restore the Union had given way to a new strategy of "total war" to destroy the Old South and its basic institution of slavery and to give the restored Union a "new birth of freedom," as President Lincoln put it in his address at Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the battle there.

For three long years, from 1862 to 1865, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia staved off invasions and attacks by the Union Army of the Potomac commanded by a series of ineffective generals until Ulysses S. Grant came to Virginia from the Western theater to become general in chief of all Union armies in 1864. After bloody battles at places with names like The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, Grant finally brought Lee to bay at Appomattox in April 1865. In the meantime Union armies and river fleets in the theater of war comprising the slave states west of the Appalachian Mountain chain won a long series of victories over Confederate armies commanded by hapless or unlucky Confederate generals. In 1864-1865 General William Tecumseh Sherman led his army deep into the Confederate heartland of Georgia and South Carolina, destroying their economic infrastructure while General George Thomas virtually destroyed the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee at the battle of Nashville.

By the spring of 1865 all the principal Confederate armies surrendered, and when Union cavalry captured the fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Georgia on May 10, 1865, resistance collapsed and the war ended. The long, painful process of rebuilding a united nation free of slavery began.

Learn More: This Day in the Civil War

Alexander Gardner's famous photo of Confederate dead before the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.

First Battle of Bull Run Kurz & Allison

Civil War Facts

Location

Eastern Theater, Western Theater, Trans-Mississippi, Gulf Coast, Sioux Uprising

Dates

1861-1865

Soldiers Engaged

Union: over 2,100,000

Confederate: over 1,000,000

Civil War Casualties

Union: over 350,000

Confederate: over 250,000

See Details Of Civil War Casualties

Outcome

Union Victory

Civil War Pictures

The Civil War was the first war that was widely photographed. Many American Civil War images, pictures, and photos have survived.

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Civil War Maps

The Civil War made wide use of battle maps.

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Civil War Timeline

See a timeline of events of the Civil War from 1861-1865. See events by year and important Civil War dates.

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Civil War Battlefields

The battlefields of the Civil War crossed the nation and made famous many previously unknown towns, crossroads, and farms like Antietam Creek, Shiloh and Gettysburg.

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Civil War Articles

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Civil War Summary: The American Civil War, 1861–1865, resulted from long-standing sectional differences and questions not fully resolved when the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, primarily the issue of slavery and states rights. With the defeat of the Southern Confederacy and the subsequent passage of the XIII, XIV, and XV amendments to the Constitution, the Civil War’s lasting effects include abolishing the institution of slavery in America and firmly redefining the United States as a single, indivisible nation rather than a loosely bound collection of independent states.

Milestones

It was a war that saw many “firsts” that included America’s first income tax, the first battle between ironclad ships, the first extensive use of black soldiers and sailors in U.S. service, the first use of quinine to treat typhoid fever, America’s first military draft, and many others. There were advances in medical treatment, military tactics,  and the chaplain service. Over the course of the Civil War weapons ranged from obsolete flintlocks to state-of-the-art repeaters. During the Civil War, women took on new roles, including running farms and plantations and spying; some disguised themselves as men and fought in battle. All of the nation’s ethnic groups participated in the war, including Irish, Germans, American Indians, Jews, Chinese, Hispanics, etc.

Other Names for the Civil War

Northerners have also called the Civil War the War to Preserve the Union, the War of the Rebellion (War of the Southern Rebellion), and the War to Make Men Free. Southerners may refer to it as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. In the decades following the conflict, those who did not wish to upset adherents of either side simply called it The Late Unpleasantness. It is also known as Mr. Lincoln’s War and, less commonly, as Mr. Davis’ War.

Troop Strength and Casualties

Between April 1861 and April 1865, an estimated 1.5 million troops joined the war on the side of the Union and approximately 1.2 million went into Confederate service. An estimated total of 785,000-1,000,000 were killed in action or died of disease. More than twice that number were wounded but survived at least long enough to muster out. Casualties of the Civil War cannot be calculated exactly, due to missing records (especially on the Southern side) and the inability to determine exactly how many combatants died from wounds, drug addiction, or other war-related causes after leaving the service. An untold number of civilians also perished, primarily from disease as entire towns became hospitals.

Naval Battles

Most naval actions occurred on rivers and inlets or in harbors, and include history’s first clash between two ironclads, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (a captured and converted ship formerly called the Merrimac), at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862. Other actions include the Battle of Memphis (1862), Charleston Harbor (1863), and Mobile Bay (1864), and the naval sieges of Vicksburg in 1862 and again in 1863. The most famous clash between ocean-going warships was the duel between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France, June 19, 1864. Throughout the war, the Union had a decided advantage in both numbers and quality of naval vessels.

The War Between The States Begins

On April 10, 1861, knowing that resupplies were on their way from the North to the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, provisional Confederate forces in the city demanded the fort’s surrender. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused. On April 12 the Confederates opened fire with cannon. At 2:30 p.m. the following day, Major Anderson surrendered.

On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion, a move that prompted Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina to reverse themselves and vote in favor of secession. (Most of the western section of Virginia rejected the secession vote and broke away, ultimately forming a new, Union-loyal state, West Virginia.)

The United States had always maintained only a small professional army; the nation’s founders had feared a Napoleon-esque leader might rise up and use a large army to overthrow the government and make himself a dictator. Many graduates of the U.S. Army’s military academy, West Point, resigned their commissions in order to fight for the South—this was especially true in the cavalry arm, but no members of the artillery “went South.” The Lincoln Administration had to rely on large numbers of volunteers from the states and territories.

In Richmond, Virginia, the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, faced a similar problem in raising and equipping armies. Neither side expected a war of long duration. Volunteers were asked to serve for 90 days. “One big battle, and it’ll be over,” was the commonly expressed belief on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Southerners thought Northerners too weak and cowardly to fight. Northerners thought a dependence upon slave labor had rendered Southerners too weak both physically and morally to present a serious battlefield threat. Both sides were due for a rude awakening.

The Challenges of North and South

To win the war would require Lincoln’s armies and navy to subdue an area from the East Coast to the Rio Grande, from the Mason-Dixon Line to the Gulf of Mexico. To prevent a Northern victory, the South would have to defend that same large area, but with a smaller population and less industry than the North could ultimately bring to bear. A short war would favor the South, a long one the North.

Theaters of War

Actions in the war were divided into the Eastern Theater, primarily comprised of Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the coast of North Carolina. The Atlantic Coast farther south was the Lower Seaboard Theater. The Western Theater began west of the Alleghenies (West Virginia excepted) and continued to the Mississippi River, but it also included the interior of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Events farther west are considered to have occurred in the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the Far West.

1861

The first inland clash between significant bodies of troops occurred on the morning of June 3, 1861, when 3,000 Union volunteers surprised 800 Confederates at Philippi in (West) Virginia. Lasting less than half an hour, the affair would barely qualify as a skirmish later in the war, but the Union victory there and subsequent ones in the region elevated the reputation of Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio.

The first real battle took place July 21, 1861, on the hills around Bull Run creek outside Manassas, Virginia, a railroad junction some 30 miles south of the Northern capital at Washington City (Washington, D.C.) and about 90 miles north of the Confederate capital at Richmond on July. It is known as the First Battle of Bull Run (Northern name) or the First Battle of Manassas (Southern name). During the war, the North named battles for the nearest body of water, and the South used the name of the nearest town.

The Union army made progress early in the battle, but Confederate reinforcements arrived late in the day from the Shenandoah Valley and routed the Federals. The unfortunate Union commander, Irvin McDowell, was made the scapegoat and was replaced with an officer who had some victories to his credit: McClellan.

On September 10 a Union victory at Carnifax Ferry in the Big Kanawha Valley of (West) Virginia virtually ended Confederate control in most of the western counties, although there would be raids and guerrilla warfare there. A successful naval invasion of North Carolina took place in August.

The Western Theater saw only minor skirmishing. Kentucky was attempting to remain neutral and had vowed to take sides against whichever side first moved troops into it. That was the Confederacy, which felt compelled to establish Mississippi River forts and establish camps within the state to repel any attempted Union move south.

Near Springfield, Missouri, in the Trans-Mississippi, the South won a major battle on August 10, 1861. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek, also known as the Battle of Oak Hills, saw some 12,000 Confederates defeat less than 5,500 Union soldiers and take control of southwestern Missouri, but the Southerners did not immediately pursue northward. The Union commander, Nathaniel Lyon, was killed, the first Federal general to die in action during the war. The South had already lost Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett in a skirmish at Carrick’s Ford, (West) Virginia, and Brigadier General Bernard E. Bee at First Manassas. After Wilson’s Creek, Confederate forces won another Missouri victory at the First Battle of Lexington, September 13–20, 1861.

During the fall and winter, both sides swelled their ranks, trained troops, and obtained additional weapons, food and equipment, and horses and mules for the coming year’s campaigns.

1862

If 1861 had disabused Americans north and south of the notion this would be a short war, 1862 showed how terrible its cost in human life would be, beginning with the two bloody days of the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and continuing through a series of battles in Virginia and America’s bloodiest single day, the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

The year saw the first clash between ironclad warships, in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation. The South found two heroes: Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, for his Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and Robert E. Lee, who took command of the main Confederate army. Lincoln would be hard-pressed to find a commander Lee could not out-general. Farther south along the Atlantic Coast, Federals captured territory in North and South Carolina and Georgia, but lost a chance to shorten the war when they were turned back at the Battle of Secessionville, South Carolina.

In the Western Theater, Union forces made deep penetrations into Dixie, beginning the year along the Ohio River and finishing it in control of Middle and West Tennessee, with outposts in Mississippi. Even New Orleans was under the Stars and Stripes again.

Beyond the Mississippi, initial Confederate successes in New Mexico territory were nullified by a defeat at Glorietta Pass. Texans lynched 50 Unionists in what became known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville and attacked German immigrants trying to leave the state, executing nine of the wounded after the Battle of the Nueces.

In August, starving Sioux Indians in Minnesota, angered because they’d not received badly needed payments promised by their treaty, began an uprising that killed at least 113 white men, women and children. Three hundred Sioux were sentenced to hang, but Lincoln cut that number to 38—still the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Antietam and Shiloh

If 1861 had disabused Americans north and south of the notion this would be a short war, 1862 showed how terrible its cost in human life would be, beginning with the two bloody days of the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and continuing through a series of battles in Virginia and America’s bloodiest single day, the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. September saw simultaneous Confederate invasions into Maryland and Kentucky in September. Neither, however, was long lived.

The year 1862 ended—and the new year would begin—with another bloodbath, on the banks of Stones River outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Overall, the scales were still nearly balanced between the two sides in their struggle to restore the Union or to establish a Southern Confederacy.

1863

The tide of war shifted noticeably in favor of the Union in 1863, despite a brilliant victory by Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Chancellorsville, a battle that cost the life of his daring lieutenant Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Lee then suffered a major defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in early July. The victor, George Gordon Meade, did not pursue aggressively, and the Confederate “Gray Fox” escaped to fight another day. The two antagonists met again in November in a confused, inconclusive affair known as the Mine Run Campaign.

Battle of Chancellorsville

On April 17, the Army of the Potomac, under yet another commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, attempted to outflank Lee at Fredericksburg by crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers above the town. In response, Lee divided his force, leaving part of it to guard the river at Fredericksburg. On April 30, Hooker and Lee collided near a mansion called Chancellorsville in a densely thicketed area of woods known as The Wilderness. After a brilliant flank attack that disorganized Hooker’s right, Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men in the darkness. He died May 10. Lee, learning the Federals had captured Fredericksburg, divided his force again and defeated them at Salem Church. Hooker gave up the campaign and withdrew on the night of May 5–6. The Battle of Chancellorsville is regarded as Lee’s most brilliant victory. Read more about the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga

The “Confederate Gibraltar,” Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4 after a 47-day siege. Confederates won their greatest victory in the Western Theater at the Battle of Chickamauga in September, but failed to capitalize on it and in late November were routed from the hills above Chattanooga, opening the road to Atlanta for the Union’s Western armies. Grant was placed in command of all Western armies, a prelude to an even greater promotion that would come the following spring.

Two massacres marked 1863. In response to raids by Shoshoni Indians in the Idaho Territory of the far northwest, U.S. troops under Col. Patrick E. Connor attacked the camp of Chief Bear Hunter on January 29. A number of Shoshoni women, children and old men were killed along with Hunting Bear’s warriors in the Bear River Massacre (Massacre at Boa Ogoi). On August 21, Confederate guerrillas under Captain William C. Quantrill sacked and burned Lawrence, Kansas, a center for pro-Union, anti-slavery Jayhawkers and Redlegs, killing 150–200 men and boys.

Gettysburg

In mid-June, Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland and Pennsylvania in his second invasion of the North, hoping to take pressure off Virginia’s farms during the growing season and seeking a victory on Northern soil. His men encountered the Army of the Potomac, now under George Gordon Meade, at a crossroads town in southeastern Pennsylvania on July 1. Capturing the town but failing to take the high ground around it, Lee assailed the Union flanks the next day. The fighting on the Union left was particularly costly to both sides, memorializing Little and Big Round Top, Devil’s Den, the each Orchard and the Wheatfield. On the right, the Confederates nearly broke through on Culp’s and Cemetery hills before being repulsed. On July 3, Lee made perhaps his greatest mistake of the war, ordering a frontal attack across open ground against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Known as “Pickett’s Charge” for the commander of the largest Confederate division involved, George Pickett, the attack failed, leaving thousands of Southern soldiers dead and wounded. On Independence Day, a wagon train of wounded over 14 miles long began Lee’s retreat. With the Confederate’s loss of Vicksburg, Mississippi, that same day, July 4, 1863, is often described as the turning point of the Civil War. Read more about the Battle Of Gettysburg.

The year also saw an event unique in American history. Counties of western Virginia had refused to leave the Union when the state seceded in 1861. On June 20, 1863, West Virginia entered the Union as the 35th state, although the U.S. Constitution requires a mother state’s permission before a new state can be carved out of it.

At the end of 1863, both sides still had significant forces, and the Confederates enjoyed good defensive terrain in Virginia and North Georgia. If they could inflict enough losses on their Northern opponents, they might win at the ballot box what they could not on the field of battle: Lincoln was vulnerable and in the 1864 elections might be replaced by a Democrat who would make peace with the Confederacy.

1864

Since the beginning of the war, Lincoln had sought in vain for a general who understood that destroying the Confederate armies in Virginia was more important than capturing Richmond, and who wouldn’t turn back in the face of a defeat in battle. He believed he’d found that man in Ulysses S. Grant, who was put in charge of all Union armies in March 1864. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant proved Lincoln right, but the cost in lives led many, including the president’s wife, Mary, to call the general a “butcher.”

The Wilderness

Following his promotion, Grant attached himself to the North’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac, while leaving George Gordon Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, in command of that force. On May 2, the Army of the Potomac crossed Virginia’s Rapidan River. Three days later, it collided with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a wooded area thick with underbrush, known as The Wilderness, near the old Chancellorsville battlefield, site of Lee’s most brilliant victory. There was no such clear-cut outcome this time. After two blood-soaked days of close-quarters fighting, Grant maneuvered his army to outflank Lee’s right. Lee anticipated the move, and the two armies tore at each other again for two weeks in May around Spotsylvania Courthouse. Again, Grant sidestepped, and again Lee met him in the Battle of the North Anna. Grant intended to “fight it out along this line if it takes all summer,” and the two armies clashed again and again, moving ever southward. At Cold Harbor, Grant made one of the worst mistakes of his career, suffering 7,000 casualties within 20 minutes while Lee’s losses were negligible. Eventually, the Federals maneuvered their opponents so close to Richmond and Petersburg—a town essential to the Confederates’ supply line—that Lee had to give up his ability to maneuver and settle into trench warfare. The siege of Richmond and Petersburg had begun. Read more about the Battle Of The Wilderness

Petersburg and Richmond

On July 30, the Union exploded a mine beneath a portion of the Confederate works around Petersburg. A tardy advance by a large number of Union soldiers into the 30-foot-deep crater it created allowed the Southerners time to recover. They poured fired into the densely packed Federals; eventually, the fighting was hand-to-hand. Angered by the blast and the presence of black troops, the Confederates gave no quarter and the Battle of the Crater resulted in 4,000 Union casualties for no gain. Read more about the Battle Of Petersburg

Although much of Lee’s army was tied down in the defense of Richmond and Petersburg, other portions resisted Union advances in the Shenandoah Valley. After a victory at Lynchburg in June, Jubal A. Early took his Army of the Valley across the Potomac and boldly marched on the Northern capital at Washington, D.C. A desperate delaying action on July 9 at Monocacy, Maryland, by an outnumbered force under Lew Wallace—the future author of Ben Hur—bought the capital time to prepare. When Early attacked Fort Stevens outside the city on July 11—12, President and Mrs. Lincoln came out to watch the fighting. After Early retired back down the Shenandoah Valley, Grant ordered Philip Sheridan to lay waste to the Valley. On October 9, Early surprised Sheridan’s camps on Cedar Creek near Winchester. Sheridan galloped to the sound of the guns, arriving in time to halt the Union rout and crushed the Confederates, effectively ending Early’s ability to take offensive actions to protect the Valley.

When Grant went east his friend and subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, took command of the armies of the Tennessee and the Cumberland at Chattanooga. While Grant bludgeoned and sidestepped his way toward Richmond, Sherman was slugging through the mountains of North Georgia. There, Confederate general Joseph Johnston made superb use of terrain to slow the Federal advance. After a series of clashes followed by maneuvers around Johnston’s defenses, Sherman lost patience and ordered a frontal assault on Kennesaw Mountain that cost 3,000 Union lives compared with 1,000 for the Confederates. But gradually, his armies closed in on the rail center of Atlanta. Finally, on September 2, Sherman’s men entered Atlanta after the Confederate army, now under the command of John Bell Hood, evacuated the town, setting fire to it before leaving.

The capture of Atlanta was one of the most crucial events of the war. The South’s last remaining hope was that war-weary Northern voters might turn Lincoln out of the White House in the November elections and replace him with a Peace Democrat. The Democrats had nominated George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, as their candidate. The party made many missteps during the campaign, and for the first time ever, the North allowed soldiers to vote in the field. Both of those contributed to Lincoln winning a second term, but had Sherman not taken Atlanta, the long casualty rolls from Grant’s Overland Campaign and the on-going stalemate around the Confederate capital might have been enough to convince Northerners to “give peace a chance” and vote against Lincoln and the war.

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Sherman left Atlanta November 15 on his march to the sea. Along the way, he intended to “make Georgia howl,” letting his men live off the land and burning all they couldn’t take with them. He reached Savannah by Christmas, leaving a 60-mile wide swath of ashes, wrecked railroads and utter destruction behind him. Read more about Sherman’s March To The Sea

In an attempt to pull Sherman back into Tennessee, John Bell Hood swung the Army of Tennessee through upper Alabama and struck north for Nashville. Sherman detached George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland to deal with him. At the town of Franklin, Hood ordered frontal assaults that after five hours of intense fighting, left his army in tatters; five generals were dead. Hood’s reduced force then besieged Nashville—the most heavily fortified city in America after Washington, D.C. After an ice storm melted, Thomas came out of his works and finished the job of shattering the Confederate army. Its remnants withdrew to Tupelo, Mississippi.

In the spring of 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest began an expedition that reached Paducah, Kentucky, on the Ohio River before rampaging against Federal installations in West Tennessee. Stories that his men massacred Union soldiers, particularly members of the United States Colored Troops captured at Fort Pillow, a poorly designed Mississippi River fort north of Memphis, gained instant credence in the North, but two official inquiries were unable to reach a conclusion about what had actually happened. At New Johnsonville, Tennessee, Forrest gained the distinction of commanding the only cavalry group ever to defeat gunboats, when they sunk or frightened crews into scuttling four ships.

On the Gulf Coast of Alabama on August 5, Admiral David G. Farragut steamed into the Battle of Mobile Bay with 18 ships. Tradition has it that when he was warned about torpedoes (mines) in the bay he responded, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” After Farragut’s ships defeated the unfinished ironclad CSS Tennessee, Union infantry captured forts Gaines and Morgan, sealing off the mouth of the bay, but the city of Mobile remained defiant.

By the end of 1864, the Confederacy had nothing left but courage and tenacity. With Lincoln’s re-election, no viable hope remained for a negotiated peace. The smoke rising above Georgia and the thousands of bodies strung out from Nashville to Atlanta to Petersburg and the gates of Washington said there would be no military victory. Legislators of North Carolina pressed Jefferson Davis to make peace before their state suffered Georgia’s fate but to no avail. The South would fight on, no matter cost.

1865

The noose around the Confederacy was strangling it. In mid-January Fort Fisher in North Carolina fell to a combined land and naval force. The port city of Wilmington followed a month later. Sherman’s bummers were advancing north. When they reached South Carolina, where the rebellion had begun, any bit of restraint they may have shown elsewhere was pitched aside. By February 20, the state capital of Columbia was captured; fires destroyed much of the city, but whether they were set deliberately by Sherman’s troops or by retreating Confederates or accidentally by Union soldiers celebrating with too much alcohol has been long debated. Sherman’s men continued on through North Carolina, setting fire to the pine forests that played an important role in the state’s economy. What remained of the Confederate forces, once more under the command of Joseph Johnston, was far too small to stop the juggernaut.

Outside Petersburg, Virginia, Lee launched a costly failed attack against the besiegers’ Fort Steadman on March 25. When Federals under Phil Sheridan captured the crossroads at Five Forks, cutting Lee’s supply line, he withdrew from the Petersburg–Richmond trenches and headed southwest, hoping to link up with Johnston coming up from the south. Before leaving Richmond, the Confederates set fire to the town. On April 9, at Appomattox Courthouse, after discovering Federals had beaten him to a supply cache, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. Despite his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and his policy of waging total war against the South to end the rebellion, Grant offered generous terms, realizing this surrender would virtually end the war.

Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Bentonville, North Carolina, on April 26. Sherman extended even more generous terms than Grant had but endured the embarrassment of having to go back to Johnston with harsher conditions. Between Lee and Johnston’s surrenders, an event had occurred that reduced the North’s compassion toward their proud, defeated enemies.

Lincoln Assassinated

On the night of April 14, John Wilkes Booth, a staunchly pro-slavery Confederate sympathizer, slipped into the President’s Box at Ford’s Theater in Washington and fired a single bullet into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head. Lincoln died the next morning, the first American president to be assassinated. Booth was shot weeks later while trying to escape from a barn in Virginia. All those captured who were believed to be his co-conspirators in the plot were hanged, including Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where the plotters met.

Jefferson Davis, who had escaped Richmond, was captured in Georgia on May 10 and imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before being released on $100,000 bond.

One after another, the remaining Confederate forces surrendered. Their last army in the field was surrendered by Cherokee Chief Stand Watie in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) on June 23.

The Last Battle

The last land battle, a Confederate victory, occurred May 12–13 at Palmito (or Palmetto) Ranch in south Texas, where word of Lee’s surrender had not yet been received. Far across the Atlantic on November 6, 1865, the sea raider CSS Shenandoah surrendered to a British captain; had the ship’s crew surrendered in America, they risked hanging as pirates.

On Christmas Day, 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation to all former Confederates, including Jefferson Davis. Only one Confederate was executed, Henry Wirtz, commander of the notorious prison camp at Andersonville. Officially known as Fort Sumter, Andersonville was the largest prison camp in the south and was infamous for its ill treatment of Union prisoners who lacked adequate food and medicine. Southerners have long protested that the death rate in Northern prison camps was higher than that of Andersonville, and Wirtz should not have been punished for war crimes. Learn more about the Andersonville Prison Camp

 

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the central figure of the Civil War. His election as President in 1860 on a platform of anti-slavery was a catalyst for southern states’ secession. He led the nation through the troubled years of 1861 until his assassination in 1865, just before the war ended.

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Casualties

The total number of casualties in the Civil War is not known precisely as records were not accurately kept during the era. Most sources put the total casualties on the Union and Confederate sides at between 640,000 and 700,000.

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Sherman’s March

Sherman’s March to the Sea refers to the Savannah Campaign by General William Tecumseh Sherman which took place November to December, 1864. It is noted not only for its military success but for the sheer destruction inflicted on the south.

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Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation, was issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Delivered soon after the union victory at the battle of Antietam, it freed all slaves in confederate states. The proclamation proved a great motivator for the northern war effort and gave the war a higher purpose.

» Learn more about The Emancipation Proclamation

 

The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address, written by Abraham Lincoln and delivered after the battle of Gettysburg at the battlefield, is one of the most famous speeches in American History.

» Read more about The Gettysburg Address

 

Soldiers

The common soldier of the Civil War varied greatly. Most were farmers, aged 18 to 29. Most were white protestants though African Americans made up roughly 10 percent of the Union army. Most earned 11 dollars per month.

» Read more about Civil War Soldiers

 

Uniforms

The uniforms for the soldiers of the Civil War are generalized between the blue for the Union and grey for Confederates, but there were many variations depending on location and time period.

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Confederacy

The Confederacy is the name commonly given to the Confederate States of American which existed from 1860-1865 throughout the Civil War. It was started when southern states seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Confederate President was Jefferson Davis.

» Read more about the Confederacy

» Read more about Jefferson Davis

 

Slavery In America

Slavery in America started in the early 17th Century with most slaves coming from Africa and being used in agriculture production. By the 18th Century, the Abolitionism movement began in the north and caused a divide between the northern and southern states. This divide came to the forefront with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who ran on an anti-slavery platform.

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Civil War Flags

 

There were many different flags used during the Civil War. On the Union side, there were both 33 star flags and 34 star flags after Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861. On the Confederate side, there were three national flags as well as the more recognizable confederate battle flag. Additionally, each corps, divisions, brigades, regiments, and even individual companies carried their own unique flags.

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African Americans In The War

African Americans served many roles in the Civil War. In the Union army, over 179,000 African Americans served, with more serving in the Navy and in various support roles. In the Confederacy, African Americans remained slaves and their role was limited mostly to labor positions. Also, figures like Frederick Douglass were active abolitionists before and during the Civil War.

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