The American Civil War: Causes, Timeline, Battles, and People

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Less than one hundred years after declaring independence from the British and becoming a nation, the United States of America was ripped to shreds by its bloodiest conflict ever: The American Civil War.

Some 620,000 men lost their lives fighting for both sides, although there’s a reason to believe this number may have been closer to 750,000. That comes out to about 504 people per day. 

Just think about that for a second. That’s small towns and entire neighborhoods being wiped out each and every day for nearly five years.

To drive this home more, consider that roughly the same amount of people died in the American Civil War as all other American wars combined

First battle of bull run
The painting Capture of Ricketts’ Battery, depicting action during the First Battle of Bull Run, one of the early battles in the American Civil War.

By why did this happen? How did the nation succumb to such violence?

The answers are in part political. Congress during this time period was a heated place. But things went deeper. In many ways, the Civil War was a battle for identity. Was the United States a unified, inseparable entity as Lincoln claimed? Or was it merely a voluntary, and potentially temporary, collaboration of independent states?

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These different interpretations eventually distributed equally throughout the deep North and South and mixed in estuarial fashion along the unofficial border between the two sides that ran through Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, creating a sectional crisis in the United States. 

So, when the Southern states decided to secede and take up arms against the North, people choose sides and mobilized into action, leading to the deadliest war ever fought in American history.

The North on April 13, 1861…

New York, 1850
New York in 1861

You awake on the morning of April 13, 1861 in Binghamton, New York. The cool air has left dew on the fresh green grass just perking up this time of year. Things will be quiet in town save a few bursts of activity at the market. The farms aren’t yet up and running, and most folks don’t have the cash to be wandering around the main street doing this and that to make their lives hum.

You’re standing out on your front porch having just had your modest breakfast of two eggs fried in butter when Tom Rollins comes bumbling down the street on his wagon. He’s pulling a few pigs he’s likely to try and sell in the market. 

He yells out, “You hear the news?” You look up and shake your head visibly. “The folks down in South Carolina have attacked an army fort and taken it. Lincoln is writing to the states as we speak to ask for volunteers to fight back and save the Union.”

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At first, the words hit you as if they were mumbled from the corner of a quiet room. Tom kept talking but you didn’t hear him. He was soon past the house and on his way to town. 

The idea of war scares you, but you’ve come to take great pride in your American identity. Your father fought in the War of 1812 when he was just a boy, standing up to the British and defending his young new nation just twenty or so years after his father first fought them in the American Revolution

You knew what this was all about. The Southerners wanting to keep their slaves and all. But you aren’t too bothered by slavery. 

It’s wrong, you think, but it’s not something you deal with on a daily basis. It’s certainly not worth fighting a war over. 

But the issue of slavery has driven a conflict, and the nation is now under attack. There’s no doubt in your mind that when the recruitment officer wanders into town from Albany in the next few days, you will sign your name on that register and march off to make sure the United States of America stays united.

The Northern Attitude on the Eve of War

The American Civil War: Causes, Timeline, Battles, and People 4
An 1850s Lithograph of the city of Boston, Massachusetts. Northern cities like this had flourishing industries with the absence of slavery.

Slavery had not existed in the North for some time. In its absence, industry had begun to flourish in areas such as shipbuilding, logging, metalwork, railroad construction, etc.,and this meant more work and more money for most able-bodied men and boys. Because everyone was paid, employers competed, although casually, for employees by offering better wages, driving the standard of living up. 

Seeing the success of this model, it only made sense that territories entering the Union as states should use it as well so as to be more prosperous. Slavery should not be tolerated. Plus, slavery is being phased out in the world. Even Great Britain, known for its slave trade, has given it up. Its persistence in the American system leaves a stain on the country’s international reputation. 

So as the fights continue throughout the first half of the 1800s about slavery in new states, no one in the North bends. More states who oppose slavery gives those against it an advantage in Congress, which means industry can continue to flourish. The government can pass more protectionist policies to bolster industry and all that comes with it without having to worry about the impact it will have on Southern cotton. 

All would be well. 

However, while you sought to have slavery stopped, you didn’t care much for the negro. The issue of slavery itself would not have driven you to war. There is always a solution in politics, and the North by 1860 had the numbers in both the House and Senate to do as it pleased.  

But when the South decided to abandon diplomacy, secede from the Union, and fire on American troops, things changed. It was no longer about slavery but rather about protecting the Union and keeping it together.

You’re an American first and a Northerner second. 

Protecting the union means so much to you that you’re willing to fight for it. It didn’t matter that you’d be fighting your Southern countrymen. The nation was under attack and you had to respond.

The South on April 13, 1861…

Cotton farming Jesup
Itinerant cotton pickers leaving a farm in McKinney, Texas

As the sun peaks over the Georgia pines in Jesup, your day is already hours gone. You’ve been up since the predawn light, running the till over bare soil to plant the cotton that will make you your money. The last frost a thing of the past, you’ve already cleared and planted several fields. You’ll have a crop by June.

Usually, at this time of year, you’re working on your own. There’s not much to it. Your patch of land is small, but the cotton you grow on it in exchange for a modest rent from Charles Duckworth’s plantation gives you enough to live off. 

He wanted to buy it, but he’d need at least three or four slaves to run it, as they tend to not be as productive as paid laborers, and he didn’t want to spend that kind of money. It works out nicely for you in the end. 

During the summer, the kids and Charlotte give you a hand working the fields and making sure you meet your quotas. But this time, you’re not alone. You’ve got your two sons, Thomas, who’s twelve, and William, who’s fifteen, helping you, and as you work, you’re explaining to William in meticulous detail everything that needs to be done throughout the next few months. 

It’s critical you keep up production so that your family can survive. The army is promising to pay a wage, but with the new government so new, you’re skeptical it will come in time. 

Of course, you would sign up anyway. The Northerners have been trying to destroy the Southern way of life since the beginning of time, and now that they have the votes in Congress and the President to do it, the end is as near as ever. Now is the time to stand and fight. 

You figure Lincoln and his crew wouldn’t wage an all-out war, so you sign up thinking you’ll stand tall with your Dixie brethren for a few months until the those damn yankees finally leave the South in peace, just like it’s always wanted. 

Unfortunately, Lincoln had no real plans of doing that, and those few months you signed up for would soon turn into a few years. 

You’re a Southerner first and an American second.

It’s time to take a stand and make those words mean something.

The Southern Attitude on the Eve of War

Louisiana in 1857
Louisiana in 1857.

Throughout the 19th century, the North wanted to stop slavery from expanding into new territories mainly to prevent the Southern states from gaining an edge in American politics. On the other hand, the South wanted to expand it into new territory to gain that very same advantage and protect the vile institution upon which its entire society was built. 

But despite fighting to protect slavery, most Southerners at the time actually didn’t own any slaves. However, most Southerners thought, or had been taught to think, that their way of life could not continue without slavery. 

The general idea was that the barbarous blacks would break free and rape their children, kill their wives, and put them into a form of bondage more evil than the one they had been subjected to for centuries. 

The degree of racism varied, but most people felt at the time that blacks deserved to form the underbelly of society, and that by keeping them enslaved, social order was maintained. Pretty sick stuff, but this is how people thought back then. 

This is part of the reason why the Confederacy received so much support from such a large segment of the population that did not own slaves. They saw the Northerners as not only trying to eliminate slavery but also trying to eliminate them. So when Lincoln responded to the South’s claim of independence with rifles and cannons, you signed up with fervor to fight and protect Dixie and all it stood for.

How the American Civil War Happened 

Slave auction in the USA
An artist’s depiction of a slave auction

The American Civil War happened because of slavery. Period.

People may try to convince you otherwise, but the reality is they don’t know the history.  

So here it is:

In the South, the main economic activity was cash-crop, plantation agriculture (cotton, mainly, but also tobacco, sugarcane, etc.), which relied on slave labor. This had been the case since the colonies first came into existence, and although the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the South continued to rely on slave labor for its money. 

There was little in the form of industry in the South, and in general, if you weren’t a plantation owner, you were either a slave or poor. This established a rather unequal power structure in the South where rich white men controlled almost everything. 


What’s more, these rich powerful white men believed their businesses could only be profitable if they used slaves. And they managed to convince the public at large that their lives depended on the continuaton of the institution of slavery.

In the North, there was more industry and a larger working class. In these contexts, people did not want slavery not because its a horrifying institution that defies all morality and respect for human rights but rather because slaves in the workforce drove down wages for working white people. God forbid the white man should suffer. 

There were some segments of the population in the North that opposed slavery on moral grounds, but most Northerners were just as racist as their Southern counterparts. They just didn’t like slavery.

This is something we should never forget. 

Northerners also sought to contain slavery because of the three-fifths stipulation in the US Constitution. This said that slaves counted as three-fifths of the population used to determine representation in Congress. The spread of slavery to new states would give these new states more people to count and therefore more members of Congress, something that would give the pro-slavery caucus in Congress even more control over the Federal government.

Okay, so it’s clear the North and the South didn’t see eye to eye on the whole slavery thing. But why did this lead to war? You would think the white aristocrats of 18th century America could sort out their differences over martinis and oysters, eliminating the need for guns, armies, and lots of dead people. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

The Expansion of Slavery

Slavery in Georgia
Family of enslaved black Americans in a field in Georgia, circa 1850

While the American Civil War was caused by a fight over slavery, the main issue regarding slavery leading up to the war was not whether or not to abolish slavery. Instead, it was about whether or not the institution should be expanded into new states. 

And in lieu of moral arguments about the horrors of slavery, which would only not be motivation enough in a moment in history when racism was not only cool but deeply engrained in the entire white world’s collective consciousness, most anti-slavery advocates, sometimes known as Abolitionists, approached the question of slavery as a legal issue. 

In other words, they wanted to answer the question: Does the Federal government have the power to allow or disallow slavery? And if they don’t who does?

The institution of slavery had been debated amongst the powerful elites since the times of American Revolution and the signing of the Constitution, but it flung to the forefront of American politics during the Antebellum Period because of the nation’s westward expansion, driven in part by the “Manifest Destiny” ideology.

This basically said that it was God’s will for the United States to be a “continental” nation, meaning it would stretch from “sea to shining sea.” Sound familiar?

The new territory gained in the West, first from the Louisiana Purchase and later from the Mexican-American War, opened the door for adventurous Americans to move west and pursue what we can probably call the roots of the American dream: land to call your own, successful business, the freedom to follow your interests both personal and professional. 

But as more and more people settled an area, they would apply for statehood to officially join the country, which meant getting some protection in the area from natives, an establishment of the rule of law (although we all know how hard it was to police the Wild West), and, perhaps most importantly, representation in Congress.

This was significant because as the country grew, members from both sides knew the only way to protect or defeat slavery was to get the numbers in Congress to do it. And since no Southern states were going to flip and suddenly not want slaves, and no Northern states would do the opposite, the only choice was to try and win the new states admitted to the Union to their side, something far easier said than done.

Compromise After Compromise After Compromise

Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner fight
A lithograph cartoon depicting Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber ,1856.

While this story eventually ends in the American Civil War, no one at the time was really trying to fight one another, at least maybe not on the scale of the Civil War. Surely several senators wanted to have a go at one another, something that actually happened in 1856 when Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with his cane in the Capitol building, but the aim was to try and keep things “civil.”

In other words, most politicians were looking to find a way to “solve” this pesky “slavery question.” 

These attempts came in the form of three distinct compromises. But in the end, they didn’t solve the question but instead led to the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Organizing New Territory

Wisconsin School for the deaf
A lithograph of the Wisconsin school for the deaf, 1893. Wisconsin, with the territory northwest of the Ohio, was placed under a government, by the Ordinance of 1787

The conflict 19th-century politicians were trying to solve actually had its roots in the signing of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This was one of the few pieces of legislation made by the Confederation Congress (the one in power before the signing of the constitution) that actually had an impact, although they probably had no idea the chain of events this law would set in motion.

It established rules for the administration of the Northwest Territory, which was the area of land west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River. In addition, the Ordinance laid out how new territories could become states, and, interestingly enough, it banned the institution of slavery from these lands. However, it did include a clause that said fugitive slaves found in the Northwest Territory had to be returned to their owners. Almost a good law. 

This gave the Northerners and anti-slavery proponents hope because it set aside a huge territory of “free states.” 

When America was born, there were just thirteen states. Seven of them did not have slavery whereas six states did. And when Vermont joined the Union in 1791 as a “free” state, it became 8-6 in favor of the North. And with this law, the Northwest Territory was a way for the North to expand its lead.

But over the first 30 years of the Republic, as the Northwest Territory turned into the states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818), Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama all joined the Union as “slave” states, leveling things up to 11 all. 

However, we should not think of the adding of new states as some sort of chess game being played by American lawmakers.  It was more random. But as slavery became an issue, politicians realized the importance these new states would have in determing the fate of the institution. And they were ready to fight about it. 

Compromise #1: The Missouri Compromise

The first round of the fight came in1819 when Missouri applied to be a state that allowed slavery. Under the leadership of James Tallmadge Jr., Congress reviewed the state’s constitution and approved admission only if slavery was restricted. Southern congressmen did not like this, obviously, and a big argument broke out between the North and the South. No one threatened to leave the Union, but let’s just say things got heated.

In the end, Henry Clay, famous for brokering The Great Compromise during the Constitutional Convention, negotiated an agreement. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, but Maine would be added to the Union as a Free state, keeping things level at 12-12.

Furthermore, the 36º 30’ parallel was established as a boundary (see below). Any new territories admitted to the Union north of this line would not have slavery and any from the south of it would be open to slavery.

The American Civil War: Causes, Timeline, Battles, and People 5
Everything below the green line was open to slavery while all the territory above it was not.

This solved the crisis for the time being, but it did not remove the tension between both sides. And as more and more states were added to the Union, the issue kept coming up again and again.

For some, the Missouri Compromise actually made things worse as it added a legal element to sectionalism. The North and the South had always been different in their political views, economies, societies, etc., but by drawing an official boundary, it quite literally split the nation in two. And over the next 40 years, that split would grow wider and wider until the American Civil War could not be avoided.

Compromise #2: The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850
 Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser,” introduces the Compromise of 1850 in his last significant act as a senator.

All things considered, things went smoothly for the next twenty or so years. However, by 1846, the issue of slavery started to come up again. The United States was at war (surprise!) with Mexico, and it appeared they were going to win. This would have meant even more territory added to the country. Politicians had their eyes on California, New Mexico, and Colorado, in particular.

The Texas Question

San Antonio Texas in 1857
The military plaza at San Antonio, Texas, 1857.

Elsewhere, Texas, after breaking free from Mexican control and existing as an independent nation for ten years (or until this present day if you ask people from Texas), joined the Union in 1845 as a slave state. However, Texas started stirring things up, as they tend to do, when they made absurd claims to territory in New Mexico they had never really controlled. They just figured, why not?

Representatives from Southern states supported this move because they figured the more territory where slavery was allowed the better. But the North opposed the claim for the exact opposite reason.

Things got worse in 1846 with the Wilmot Proviso, which was an attempt by David Wilmot from Pennsylvania to ban slavery in the territories acquired from the Mexican War. This greatly irritated Southerners because it effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise – much of the land to be acquired from Mexico was south of the 36º 30’ line. 

The Wilmot Proviso did not get passed, but it reminded Southern politicians that people from the North were beginning to look more seriously at wiping out slavery.

The California Question

California gold rush
A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush

The issue of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico came to a head when California was included in the treaty terms with Mexico and applied to become a state in 1849, just one year after it was made part of the US. (People flocked to California in 1848 because of a gold rush and this quickly give it the population the population needed to apply for statehood). 

Under normal circumstances, this might not be a big deal, but the thing with California is that it is both above and below that imaginary slavery border. The 36º 30’ line from the Missouri Compromise runs right through it.

Southerners, seeking to gain as much as they could, wanted to see slavery allowed in the southern part of the state, effectively diving it into two parts. But Northerners, and also the people in California, spoke out against this. 

The California Constitution was passed in 1849 outlawing the institution of slavery. But for California to join the Union, Congress needed to approve this constitution, which the Southern states were not about to do without making a fuss

The Compromise

The series of laws passed over the course of the next year (1850) were written to quiet down the evermore aggressive rhetoric from Southern states and their attempts to block California’s admittance to the Union. They said the following:

  • California would be admitted as a free state.
  • The rest of the Mexican Cessation (the territory given to the United States from Mexico after the war) would be divided into two territories, New Mexico and Utah, and the people of those territories would choose to allow or ban slavery by voting, a concept known as popular sovereignty.
  • Texas surrendered its claims to New Mexico but wouldn’t have to pay the $10 million debt it had from its time as an independent nation. (A sweet deal for them!)
  • The slave trade would no longer be legal in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.

In many ways, the Compromise of 1850, although successful in stymieing the conflict at the time, made it clear to the South they were probably fighting a losing battle.

Think about it. Before the compromise, the law said that half of California and all of New Mexico would be slave territory. But after it, California was a free state, and New Mexico “could” become a slave state if it wanted to, but it could also choose freedom, something not really on the table up until this point. 

This was not good.

Compromise #3: The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Stephen Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas.He proposed a bill in Congress to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territory.

While the question of slavery was a main topic in Antebellum America, there were other things going on as well. For example, railroads were being built all over the country, mostly in the North, and they were proving to be a money machine. 

Not only did people make lots of money building the infrastructure, but more railroads facilitated trade and gave economies with access to it got a major boost.

Talks had been going on since the 1840s about building a transcontinental railroad, and in 1850, Stephen A. Douglas, a prominent Southern Democrat, decided to get serious about it. He proposed a bill in Congress to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territory, something that needed to be done for the railroad to be built.

This plan seemed innocent enough, but Southerners would never go for it because, according to the Missouri Compromise, these new territories, which everyone knew would eventually become states, would have to be admitted as “free” states. So, to win support for his bill, Douglas included a clause that repealed the language of the Missouri Compromise and gave the people settling the territory the chance to choose to allow slavery or not. He wanted to make popular sovereignty the new norm.

A fierce battle took place in the House of Representatives, but eventually, the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854.

Douglas argued doing things this way would remove the issue of slavery from national politics and return it to the people living in the territories hoping to become states. 

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But this was wishful thinking at best. Instead, it lit a fire under both sides, and from 1856-1861, armed conflicts took place across Kansas as settlers attempted to establish a majority and influence the Kansas constitution. This period of violence is known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and it’s an important precursor to the fighting that would take place during the American Civil War.

The American Civil War Begins – Fort Sumter, April 11, 1861

The American Civil War: Causes, Timeline, Battles, and People 6
Confederate flag flying over Fort Sumter, 1861

Initially, the Kansas-Nebraska Act appeared to give the pro-slavery movement hope, but in the end, it had no effect. The first state to be admitted to the Union after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was Minnesota in 1858, but it entered as a free state. Then came Oregon in 1859, also a free state. This meant there were now 14 free states to 12 slave states.

At this point, the handwriting was on the wall for the South. Slavery was being contained, and they no longer had the votes in Congress to win back what they’d lost. This led politicians from Southern states to begin to question if remaining in the Union was in their best interest

They rallied support for this sentiment by claiming the North was setting out to “destroy the Southern way of life,” which was one in which slavery was used to maintain the social standing of whites and protect them from the “barbarous” blacks.

Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election by a landslide in the electoral college but with only 40 percent of the popular vote and without winning a single Southern state. 

The more-populated North had shown it could elect a president without having to consider the South, which just proved how little power it had in the national government at this time. Plus, the Democratic party, which was dominant in the South at the time, was at odds with itself over the slavery issue, preventing it from coordinating a unified campaign.

After Lincoln’s election, Southern states saw no more hope for them and their precious institution if they stayed in the Union. And they wasted no time in acting. 

Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and by February 1861, a month before Lincoln was set to take office, seven states – Texas, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana – had seceded from the Union, leaving the new president to deal with the nation’s most pressing crisis as his first order of business. Lucky him.

Fighting Begins at Fort Sumter

Attack on Fort Sumter
Print of artillerymen firing cannons in foreground at Fort Sumter in the background, circa 1861

As the secession crisis was playing out, there were still people working for compromise. Senator John Crittenden proposed a deal to re-establish the 36º 30’ line from the Missouri Compromise in exchange for guaranteeing, via an amendment to the Constitution, the Southern states’ right to keep the institution of slavery.

However, this compromise, known as the Crittenden Compromise, was rejected by Lincoln and his Republican counterparts, angering the South even more and encouraging them to take up arms. 

One of the first moves by the South was to seize a large force of American soldiers stationed in Texas – one-fourth of the entire army, to be exact – to which outgoing president James Buchanan did nothing to prevent or punish.

After seeing the apathy of Buchannan, the now mobilized militias of the South decided to try and take control of even more military forts and garrisons throughout Dixie, one of which was Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

But by this time, Lincoln has been sworn in, and hearing of the South’s plans, he instructed his commander at Fort Sumter to hold it at all costs.

Jefferson Davis, who was serving as the Confederacy’s president, ordered the surrender of the fort, which was rejected, and then launched an attack. The battle lasted two days – April 11-12, 1861 – and was a victory for the South. But this willingness on the South’s part to draw blood for their cause inspired people from the North to fight to protect the Union, setting the stage perfectly for the bloodiest and most costly war in US history: the American Civil War.

States Choose Sides

Confederate Territory 1861

Fort Sumter drew a line in the sand. It was now time to pick sides. Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which had not seceded before Fort Sumter, officially joined the Confederacy shortly after the battle, bringing the total states in the Confederacy up to twelve.

However, that the government decided to secede did not mean there was widespread support for secession throughout the state. People from border states, Tennessee in particular, fought for both sides.

As with everything in history, this story is not that simple.

Maryland was apparently on the verge of seceding, but Lincoln imposed Marital Law in the state and sent in militia units to prevent them from declaring with the Confederacy, a move that prevented the nation’s capital from being completely surrounded by rebellious states.

Missouri voted to stay a part of the Union, and Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state (all that fighting by the South during Bleeding Kansas turned out to be for nothing). But Kentucky, which originally tried to stay neutral, eventually joined the Confederacy.

Also during 1861, West Virginia broke free from Virginia and joined the Confederacy, which now officially had twelve states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia.

Interestingly, West Virginia would later be admitted back to the Union in 1863. This is surprising because Lincoln, who adamantly opposed a states’ right to secede, was okay with West Virginia seceding from Virginia and joining the Union. But in this case, it worked in his favor, and Lincoln was, after all, a politician.

It’s also important to remember that Lincoln’s government never officially recognized the Confederacy as a nation, choosing instead to treat it as an insurgency. The newly formed Confederate government reached out to both Britain and France for support, but they got nothing. Lincoln had made it clear that siding with the Confederacy would be a declaration of war, something neither nation wanted to make.

Fighting the American Civil War

Abraham Lincoln and George B McClellan 1862
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan in the general’s tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862

During the secession crisis and in the weeks and months following Fort Sumter, both sides began mobilizing for the American Civil War. Militias were coalesced into armies, and troops were sent out throughout the nation to prepare for battle. 

In the South, the largest army was The Army of Northern Virginia, which was led by General Robert E.Lee. Interestingly, many of the generals and other commanders who fought in the Confederacy were commissioned officers in the United States Army who resigned their posts to fight for the South. 

In the North, Lincoln organized his army, the largest of which being The Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan. Additional armies were put together to fight in the western theater of the war, most specifically the Army of the Cumberbund ad The Army of the Tennessee

But the American Civil War was also fought on water, and one of the first things Lincoln did was develop a plan to establish naval supremacy. You see, for the South, the war was to be defensive, meaning all they had to do was hold on long enough for the North to consider it too costly. It would therefore be on the North to pressure the South and make them realize their insurrection was not worth it. 

Lincoln recognized this from the beginning, and he felt with swift action he could squash the rebellion and quickly bring the country back together. 

But things, as usual, didn’t work out as he planned. Surprising strength from the South early on in the war combined with some follies made by Union generals prolonged the war. It wasn’t until 1863 when the Union won some key victories in the west and the effects of their isolation tactics began working that the North managed to break the South’s resolve and bring the American Civil War to an end.

The Anaconda Plan

The Anaconda plan
Scott’s great snake. Cartoon map illustrating Gen. Winfield Scott’s plan to crush the Confederacy, economically. It is sometimes called the “Anaconda plan.”

The Anaconda Plan was Lincoln’s genius strategy of collaborating with the newly independent nations of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to ship aggressive, mutant anacondas from the Amazon and release them in Southern rivers and swamps to terrorize the people of Dixie and end the rebellion in a few short months. 

Just kidding.

Instead, the Anaconda Plan was developed by Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott and adapted to some extent by President Lincoln. It called for a naval blockade of the entire Southern coast to halt its lucrative cotton trade and access to resources. And it also included plans for a large army to advance down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans. The idea was that by achieving these two objectives, the South would be split in two and isolated from resources, which would force a surrender. 

Opponents of this plan argued it would take too long, especially since the US Army and Navy did not have the capacity at the time to carry it out. They proposed marching directly into the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, to wipe the Confederacy out at its core in one quick, decisive move. 

In the end, the war strategy Lincoln and his advisors used was a combination of the two. Yet the planned naval blockade took too long to be effective and the Confederate army in the east was stronger and more difficult to beat than anyone could have predicted, both of which caused the war to drag on far longer than anyone predicted.

In fact, at the start of the war, most believed it would be a quick conflict, with the North only needing to secure a few victories to put down what they considered to be no more than an insurrection. And they thought this would come easy due to the imbalance between the two sides: the Union army was considerably larger than that put together by the Confederacy. 

But boy were they wrong. Numbers can lie, and the war would last much longer than anyone ever thought it would.

The Eastern Theater

Robert E. Lee
Portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, officer of the Confederate Army , circa 1865

The main Confederate Army, the Army of Northern Virginia, which was lead by General Robert E. Lee, and the main Union Army, the Army of the Potomac, led first by General Geoerge McClellan but later by several others, dominated the story on the war’s eastern front. 

They first met in July 1861 at the First Battle of Manassas, also known as The First Battle of Bull Run. Lee and his army managed to secure a decisive victory, giving early hope to the Confederate cause. 

From there, throughout the end of 1861 and the beginning of 1862, the Union army attempted to work its way south through the Eastern Virginia peninsula, yet despite their superior numbers and early successes were halted frequently by their Confederate counterparts. 

However, part of the Confederacy’s success came from an unwillingness by Union commanders to deliver a punishing blow. Seeing their enemies as brethren, Union commanders, McClellan in particular, often allowed Confederate troops to escape without pursuit, or they didn’t send enough troops to follow them and deliver that crushing blow. 

Meanwhile, Confederate forces under the command of Stonewall Jacskon were moving quickly through the Shenandoah Valley in Northern Virginia, winning multiple battles and seizing territory. After finishing the Valley Campaign, which helped Jackson earn his legendary reputation, he led his army to meet back up with Lee’sto fight the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in late August 1861. The Confederates won this one too, making them 2-0 in Battles of Bull Run.


Battle of Antietam
The 9th New York Infantry Regiment charging the Confederate right at Antietam.

This string of successes led Lee to make the bold decision of invading the North. He thought doing so would force the Union to take the Confederate army seriously and begin negotiating terms. So, he took his army across the Potomac River and engaged with the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. 

This time, the Union was victorious, but both sides took a heavy beating. Lee’s Confederate army lost 10,000 of its roughly 35,000 men, and McClellan’s Union army lost 12,000, but it started with more than 80,000. 

If we combine casualties from the two sides, the Battle of Antietam marks the bloodiest day in American military history.

After the Battle of Antietam, McClellan had Lee on the run, but he once again refused to follow up with the vigor Lincoln desired. This allowed Lee to regain strength and mount another campaign in the beginning of 1863.

After Anitetam, Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, and he also removed McCellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. 

This set in motion a merry-go-round of officers at the head of the Union’s largest army. Lincoln would replace the man in charge twice between September 1862 and July 1863 after Union losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863), which were both won by the Confederacy. And he would do so once again after Gettysburg.


Battle of Gettysburg
A painting depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863

Emboldened by his victories after Antietam, Lee decided to once again enter Union territory to try and secure a statement victory. The site ended up being Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the three days of fighting that took place there have gone down as some of the most infamous in not only in the American Civil War but in the whole of American history. 

More than 50,000 people died from both sides during the battle. On the first two days, it appeared the Confederates might prevail despite being outnumbered. But a risky decision combined with poor communication amongst Confederate generals led to the disastrous Day 3 event known as Pickett’s Charge. The failure of this advance forced Lee to retreat, handing the Union another key victory when it needed it most.

The carnage of the battle inspired Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In this short speech, Lincoln spoke soberly of the death and destruction, but he also used this moment to remind the Union what they were fighting for: the preservation of a nation he believed was destined to be eternal.

However, while Lincoln was publicly upset by the bloodshed at the Battle of Gettysburg, in private he was furious at his General, George Meade, for not more aggressively pursuing Lee during his retreat and delivering that decisive blow the Union so needed to hammer the rebellion.

But firing Meade opened up the opportunity for Ulysses S. Grant to step up and take command of the Union army, and Grant was just the man Lincoln had been looking for the whole time. 

The Eastern Theater after Gettysburg goes quiet until the beginning of 1864 when Grant led his Overland Campaign through Virginia in an attempt to squash the rebellion once and for all.

The Western Theater

Gen. Ulysses S.Grant
General-in-Chief of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant in 1865

The Eastern Theater produced legendary names such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as all-time historic battles such as The Battle of Antietam and The Battle of Gettysburg, but most people today agree the American Civil War was won in the West.

In the west, the Union had two armies: The Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Tennessee, whereas the Confederacy had just one: The Army of Tennessee. The Union armies were commanded by none other than Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s soon to be best bud and a ruthless general.

Unlike Lincoln’s generals in the North, Grant had no problem kicking the snot out of his Southern brethren. This was war, and he was ready to do what he needed to win it. Confederate armies were pursued relentlessly as they retreated, and Grant forced more surrenders than any other general in the war. 

Grant’s objective was to take the Mississippi River and split the Union in two. He was delayed in part by Confederate advances into Kentucky and Tennessee, but in general (pun intended), he moved down the Mississippi swiftly and effectively. 

By April 1862,  Grant and his armies had captured and secured both Memphis and New Orleans, leaving almost the entire Mississippi River under Union control. It fell fully under Union control in July 1863 after the long siege of Vicksburg. 

This victory officially cut the Confederacy in two, leaving the Western states and territories, mainly Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, completely alone. 

Grant then marched, along with his counterpart in the west, William Rosencrans, to fight the remaining Confederate forces in the region in Kentucky and Tennessee. The two combined forces to win the Third Battle of Chattanooga at the end of 1863. The road to Atlanta was now open, and victory was within reach. 

Winning the American Civil War

United states colored infantry
Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Circa 1864. Many freed slaves joined the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation.

By the end of 1863, Lincoln could smell victory. The Confederacy was split in two down the Mississippi, and it had beaten back from trying to invade the north twice. Struggling to fill its ranks, the Confederacy had been conscripting (drafting) more and more people, lowering the age requirement for fighting all the way down to fifteen. Lincoln had been drafting too, but he was also receiving a steady supply of volunteers. 

In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states, was starting to have its effect. Slaves were running from their plantations and receiving protection from Union soldiers, further crippling the Southern economy. Many of these newly-freed slaves actually even joined the Union army, giving Lincoln yet another advantage. 

Seeing the win on the horizon, Lincoln promoted Grant, a man who shared his all-or-nothing approach to fighting, and made him the commander of all Union armies. Together they hatched a plan to crush the Confederacy and win the war. It consisted of three main components: 

  • Grant’s Overland Campaign. The plan was to chase Lee’s army throughout Virginia and force it to defend the Confederate capital: Richmond, Virginia. However, Lee’s army once again prove tough to beat, and the two ended up in a trench warfare stalemate at Petersburg at the end of 1864.
  • Sheridan’s Valley Campaign. General William Sheridan would march back down the Shenandoah Valley, much like Stonewall Jackson had done in 1862, capturing what he could and destroying farmland and homes in an attempt to crush the soul of the rebellion.
  • Sherman’s March to the Sea. General William Tecumseh Sherman was tasked with capturing Atlanta and then marching to the sea. He was given no firm objective yet was instructed to destroy as much as possible. 

Clearly, in 1864, the approach was much different. Lincoln finally had generals who believed in the total war strategy he’d been trying to get his previous leaders to implement, and it worked. 

By December 1864, Sherman arrived in Savannah, Georgia after having left a trail of destruction throughout the South, and Sheriden’s efforts in Virginia had a similar effect. 

During this time, Lincoln was reelected in a landslide \  despite an attempt by his former general, George McClellan, to defeat him with a campaign based on bringing the war to an abrupt end. This gave him the mandate he needed to finish the job. 

During Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he spoke about the need to finish the war but also to reconcile the country and reunite it. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his vision become reality.

Lee Surrenders

the Battle of Five Forks
An artist’s depiction of the Battle of Five Forks

After spending months locked in a stalemate at Petersburg, Lee attempted to break the Union line by engaging them at the Battle of the Five Forks on April 1, 1865. But he was defeated. This left Richmond surrounded and gave Lee no other choice but to retreat. He was run down in the town of Appomattox Courthouse, where he finally decided the cause was lost. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia. 

This effectively ended the war, but it took until the end of April for the remaining Confederate generals to surrender. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and by the end of the month, the war was over. Lincoln began his presidency when the nation was at war, and he finished it without seeing his cause victorious. 

All this meant that the American Civil War, the bloodiest and ugliest war in American history, was over. But in many ways, the hardest part was yet to come.

The War’s Aftermath

African American Segregation
“Colored” drinking fountain from mid-20th century with African-American drinking.

With the American Civil war over and the rebellion squashed, it was time to rebuild the nation. The states that seceded were to be let back into the Union, but not before they were rebuilt without slavery. However, differing opinions on how to deal with the Southern states – some favored harsh punishment whereas others favored leniency – stalled reconciliation and left many of the same structures that defined Southern society intact. 

This effort to rebuild defined the next era of American history, most commonly known as Reconstruction. 

Eventually, slavery was abolished across the country and blacks were given more rights. But the lack of oversight in the South led to the creation of institutions, such as sharecropping and Jim Crow, that kept blacks as the underclass of the South. This caused much of the black population of the South to move to other parts of the country, dramatically changing the demographics of American cities forever. 

Remembering the American Civil War

Voting rights act of 1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while Martin Luther King and others look on.

The developments that took place after the American Civil War helped define the history of the United States throughout the 20th century. But with social structures still in place today that subjugate black Americans, many argue the American Civil War, although instrumental in ending slavery, did not touch the racial undertones of American society that still exist. 

Plus, in today’s world, there are still stark political differences between the South and the rest of the country, and a big part of this comes from this idea that Southerners are “Southerners first, Americans second.”

Furthermore, the United States still struggles to remember the Civil War. A large part of the American population (around 42 percent according to a 2017 poll) still believe the war was fought over “states’ rights” instead of slavery. And this misrepresentation has caused many to overlook the challenges race and the institution of slavery have caused in American society. 

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However, putting all these issues aside, perhaps the biggest impact the American Civil War had was on the nation’s identity. By responding to secession with force, Lincoln stood up for the idea of an eternal United States, and by sticking to that ideology, he reshaped the way America sees itself. Of course, it took decades for the wounds to heal, but few people today respond to political crisis by saying, “let’s just leave.” Lincoln’s efforts, in many ways, reaffirmed commitment to the American experiment and to working out differences within the context of a Union.

Perhaps this is more relevant now than in any other moment in history. American politics are deeply divided, and geography plays an important role in that. Yet most people are seeking a way to move forward together, a perspective we owe in large part to Abraham Lincoln and the Union soldiers of the American Civil War.

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