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American Civil War

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History -- Military history -- War

The American civil war was fought in the United States of America between the northern states, popularly referred to as the "Union", and the seceding southern states (in the U.S., The South), calling themselves the Confederate States of America or the "Confederacy" between 1861 and 1865. There is considerable debate about causes that may have motivated the states to war, although the following events are often cited as responsible:

But there is no 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.

The war was and is also known in the South as The War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, The War of Southern Independence, or simply as The War. More obscure southern names for the war include The Second American Revolution and The War in Defence of Virginia. Northerners often referred to it as The War of the Rebellion, The War to Save the Union, or 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.

It started with Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of 1860, which made South Carolina's secession from the Union a foregone conclusion. The state had long been waiting for an event that would 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. But the South turned deaf ears, and on April 12, guns opened fire on the federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor.


Abraham Lincoln
16th President
(1861-1865)

A near-immediate march by Union troops on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was halted in the battle of First Bull Run, whereupon they were forced back to Washington, DC by Confederate troops under the command of Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston[?]. Major General George McClellan took control of the Union Army of the Potomac (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. Lincoln then restored McClellan, who won a bloody, almost Pyhrric 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 replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker, too, proved unable to defeat the enemy, and was relieved after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade, who again checked Lee on an invasion of Union-held territory at 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, holding that key strategic state for the Union.


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

Nashville, Tennessee fell early in 1862. The Mississippi was opened up 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, 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 control of all the 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 faced stalemate at the battle of the Wilderness[?] and took large numbers of casualties at Spotsylvania[?] and Cold Harbor[?] but Grant was tenacious and kept pressing the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. He slowly ground down the Confederate armies; he laid siege to their forces in the siege of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman marched on Atlanta and laid waste to much of the rest of Georgia and parts of South and North Carolina.

The Northern states (the Union) had won. Advantages believed to have contributed to the Union's success include:

  • The North's strong, industrial economy
  • The North's larger population
  • The North's possession of the U.S. merchant marine fleet and naval ships
  • 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.

The war ended in 1865 with the surrender of Confederate forces. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on 9 April 1865 at Appomattox Court house. Joseph E Johnston[?], who was in charge of the Army of Tennessee 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. The last Confederate land forces surrendered by June 1865. Confederate naval units surrendered as late as November of 1865.

The Northern states (the Union)

Major battles included First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, 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 of its kind up to that time, and was the first major blockade under the Declaration of Paris of 1856.

Significant Southern military leaders included Robert E Lee, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and P.G.T. Beauregard. Northern leaders included Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George Meade

This war ended with the emancipation of all slaves held in the Confederate States. Slaves were not freed in the remaining states until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution by 3/4 of the states, which did not occur until December of 1865, 8 months after the end of the war. A great deal of ill-will among the Southern survivors resulted from the total warfare practiced during the war by the Union armies and the "reconstruction" program forced on the former Confederacy by the Union victors.

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.

See also: Emancipation Proclamation, CSS Hunley, Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan and Reconstruction.

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