American Civil War


(1861 - 1865)

    North America War  
    Union vs Confederate  

War 1861-65 between the Southern or Confederate States of America (the Rebels, Rebs or Johnny Rebs) and the Northern or Union States (the Yankees). The former wished to maintain certain 'states' rights', in particular the right to determine state law on the institution of slavery, and claimed the right to secede from the Union; the latter fought primarily to maintain the Union, with slave emancipation (proclaimed 1863) a secondary issue.

Upon Abraham Lincoln's inauguration as president March 1861 he affirmed that he did not propose to interfere with slavery where it already existed but he also asserted that no state could withdraw from the Union, and that he regarded it at his duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Union. Rebel Confederate forces began bombarding the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 12 April and 34 hours later the fort was surrendered. With the fall of Fort Sumter the Civil War began.

The North had certain advantages in the forthcoming war which were ultimately to weigh decisively in the balance. Its white population, and hence its fighting strength, was four times as large as the South - if there was to be a lengthy war, the North's numerical superiority would enable it to sustain casualties far better. It was also immeasurably more advanced industrially and could meet all its own needs and those of its armies, while the Southern states were mainly agricultural and dependent for most non-agricultural produce on purchases from the North and Europe. The Union states also had the stronger navy and soon had command of the sea, enabling them to blockade Confederate ports.

Two days after the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to join a militia to fight for the Union while the Confederate commander Jefferson Davis asked for 100,000. In the South, Virginia, which had at first been against secession, now joined the Confederacy together with Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina and soon all the 11 Southern states were united. The Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia. There were four border slave states - Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri and the Confederates put much effort in trying to win over Missouri and Kentucky, but although their governors favoured secession, their legislatures overruled them.

There was dismay in the North when Britain issued a declaration of neutrality 13 May 1861 which recognized the Confederacy was entitled to the belligerent rights of a sovereign nation; most European nations soon followed suit. However, the Union army was beginning to gather strength, with nearly half a million recruits compared to only about half that number who had responded in the South.


The first real clash of arms came at the Battle of Bull Run 21 July 1861 between the Union army under Irvin McDowell and the Confederates under P G T Beauregard and Johnston. The Union forces were routed, retreating as far as Washington. Federal strength first began to show 1862. In the West, Ulysses S Grant captured Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River 15 Feb 1862; the Confederate general Simon Buckner was forced to accept Grant's stipulation of unconditional surrender, and surrendered an army of 14,000. The two sides next met in battle at Shiloh 6 April. The first day's fighting favoured the Confederates, but Albert S Johnston, one of the best of the Confederate commanders, was killed. In the second day's fighting the Union forces won and the Confederates retreated to Corinth. The Confederates suffered a further blow with the Union capture of New Orleans.

The principal Union advance against Richmond began March 1862 as George McClellan led the Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula, first coming upon the Confederates at Yorktown. His army had been weakened by the sudden withdrawal of 25,000 troops to defend Washington, and he settled down for a siege, only to find that the enemy had retreated. He met them in battle at Williamsburg, where once more the enemy retreated toward Richmond. McClellan was unable to pursue as he was then ordered to march on Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Davis sent reinforcements to Jackson, who defeated Banks at Winchester, evaded the other two Union armies which were seeking him, and triumphantly led his troops back to join the forces in line near Richmond.

In the meantime McClellan's army fought a great battle at Fair Oaks 31 May-1 June. At first it seemed as if the Union force had lost the day but the timely arrival of a new corps put the Confederates to flight. Davis now appointed General Robert E Lee as commander-in-chief of the Southern armies. Lee was quick to take advantage of the pause in McClellan's movement. He rushed up reinforcements from all over the South until he had an effective fighting force of 90,000 troops against his enemy's 100,000 and drove the Union forces back in the Seven Days' campaign, June-July. The campaign only relieved the threat to Richmond temporarily and McClellan was soon ready to attempt the capture of Richmond again. All his plans had to be abandoned when the Union government ordered him to return with his army to cover Washington. Henry Halleck was appointed commander-in-chief of the Union forces and General John Pope was given the best part of McClellan's army. The Union defeat at the second Battle of Bull Run 29 Aug and at Chantilly shortly after completely destroyed Pope's reputation as a general and Lincoln called on McClellan to resume command of the army at the Potomac once more.

Lee had moved into Maryland, hoping to win the state to the Confederacy, capture Baltimore, and then advance into Pennsylvania, carrying the war into Union territory. McClellan met him in the great struggle at Antietam 17 Sept. Lee was forced to retreat across the Potomac and McClellan did not following his victory through: he was then relieved of his command for good.

Lincoln now took a bold step. He had until this point merely struggled to preserve the Union intact, holding the issue of slavery in abeyance for fear of alienating the Democrats in the North and the border states. But on 22 Sept 1862, he issued his famous proclamation of emancipation, declaring that the slaves in all states in rebellion against the government should be free as from 1 Jan 1863. In Europe, the declaration was well received as most nations were already abolitionist. But the reaction in the US itself was more mixed and the Democrats made big gains in the elections held in Nov, and it was only New England and the border states which kept the House of Representatives Republican.

In the autumn of 1862, Union victories at Corinth and Murfreesboro left most of Tennessee held by General William Rosecrans while in the East Lee severely defeated Ambrose Burnside in the Battle of Fredericksburg 13 Dec 1862.


The Confederates won a great victory at Chancellorsville 1 May 1863 but at the cost of Stonewall Jackson. In the West, Grant took Vicksburg 4 July 1863 after a siege lasting six weeks. While this siege was still in progress, the Confederates were decisively defeated at at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1-3 July 1863, in probably the greatest battle of the war and Lee retreated back into Virginia. This victory, the turning point of the war, was followed by success in the West. Initially, Braxton Bragg beat Union forces under Rosecrans at Chickamauga, Tennessee, Sept 1863 but the Confederates suffered heavily at the subsequent battle of Chattanooga in Nov, forcing them back into Georgia. This was one of the most important actions in the war, ensuring ultimate Federal success in the West.


Ulysses S Grant's success as commander-in-chief late 1863 led Lincoln to appoint him lieutenant-general in charge of all the armies Feb 1864. Grant now planned to end the war. He set out to face Lee in Virginia, intending to destroy his army and take Richmond. At the same time he dispatched Sherman to face General J E Johnston in Georgia. After the indecisive Battle of the Wilderness May 1864 there was a further clash at Spotsylvania, Virginia, with similar results. At the Battle of Cold Harbor 3 June 1864, over 12,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded in less than an hour. Grant had lost 60,000 troops in his campaign by this time, compared with Confederate losses of 40,000. However, he knew that the South could not replace its losses as easily as the North could.

The Confederate fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Mobile Bay Aug 1864 and in the early autumn Sheridan won victories at Winchester and Cedar Creek and then laid waste the entire Shenandoah Valley. Sherman entered Atlanta 2 Sept 1864 and in Nov set out on his famous march to the sea from Atlanta with an army of 62,000 leaving destruction in its wake. He entered Savannah unopposed 21 Dec 1864. In Tennessee, General George Thomas defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Nashville Dec 1864 driving them out of the state.


With the capture of Wilmington, North Carolina, Jan 1865 the last remaining port of the Confederacy was closed and Sherman began his march back from the sea. Columbia was burned down, and Charleston was deserted by the Confederates. Union forces captured Petersburg April 1865 and entered Richmond 3 April. Lee was completely surrounded and he surrendered at Appomattox Court House 9 April. Johnston surrendered to Sherman 26 April, and by the end of May all organized Confederate forces in the South had laid down their arms. Five days after Lee's surrender, Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate actor, John Wilkes Booth.

The civil war was enormously costly: over 620,000 lives had been lost, while tens of thousands of soldiers returned with their health permanently impaired. The Union's debt had risen to nearly $3,000 million: the cost to the Confederacy has never been definitely estimated. Despite all this, the North was stronger than ever; while the South was ruined. The victory of the Union, however, did not bring real reconciliation between the sections. Reconstruction was only finally achieved at tremendous social and political cost, and many of the problems of 20th-century America stem from the post-Civil War period.