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American Civil War

1861–1865 civil war in the United States between the North and the South

Top 10 American Civil War related articles

American Civil War

Clockwise from top left:
DateApril 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865
(4 years and 27 days)[a][1]
Result Union victory:
United States Confederate States
Commanders and leaders
Abraham Lincoln
Ulysses S. Grant
and others...
Jefferson Davis
Robert E. Lee
and others...
698,000 (peak)[2][3]
360,000 (peak)[2][5]
Casualties and losses
  • 110,000+ KIA/DOW
  • 230,000+ accident/disease deaths[6][7]
  • 25,000–30,000 died in Confederate prisons[2][6]

365,000+ total dead[8]

Total: 828,000+ casualties

290,000+ total dead

  • 137,000+ wounded
  • 436,658 captured[2][d]
Total: 864,000+ casualties
  • 50,000 free civilians dead[9]
  • 80,000+ slaves dead (disease)[10]
  • Total: 616,222[11]–1,000,000+ dead[12][13]

The American Civil War (also known by other names) was a civil war in the United States from 1861 to 1865, fought between northern states loyal to the Union and southern states that had seceded to form the Confederate States of America.[e] The principal cause of the war was the status of slavery in the United States, especially in the territories.

After Abraham Lincoln won the November 1860 presidential election on an anti-slavery platform, an initial seven slave states declared their secession from the country to form the Confederacy. War broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, just over a month after Lincoln's inauguration. An additional four slave states joined the Confederacy in the following two months. The Confederacy grew to control at least a majority of territory in those eleven states (out of the 34 U.S. states in February 1861), and it claimed the additional states of Kentucky and Missouri by assertions from native secessionists fleeing Union authority. These states were given full representation in the Confederate Congress throughout the Civil War. The two remaining slave states, Delaware and Maryland, were invited to join the Confederacy, but Delaware declined and nothing substantial developed in Maryland due to intervention by federal troops.

The Confederate states were never diplomatically recognized as a joint entity by the government of the United States, nor by that of any foreign country.[f] The states that remained loyal to the U.S. were known as the Union.[g] The Union and the Confederacy quickly raised volunteer and conscription armies that fought mostly in the South for four years. Intense combat left between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead,[14] along with an undetermined number of civilians.[h] The Civil War remains the deadliest military conflict in American history,[i] and accounted for more American military deaths than all other wars combined until the Vietnam War.[j]

The war effectively ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Confederate generals throughout the Southern states followed suit, the last surrender on land occurring on June 23. Much of the South's infrastructure was destroyed, especially its railroads. The Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished, and four million enslaved Black people were freed. The war-torn nation then entered the Reconstruction era in a partially successful attempt to rebuild the country and grant civil rights to freed slaves.

The Civil War is one of the most studied and written about episodes in U.S. history, and remains the subject of cultural and historiographical debate. Of particular interest are the causes of the Civil War and the persisting myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The American Civil War was among the earliest industrial wars. Railroads, the telegraph, steamships and iron-clad ships, and mass-produced weapons were employed extensively. The mobilization of civilian factories, mines, shipyards, banks, transportation, and food supplies all foreshadowed the impact of industrialization in World War I, World War II, and subsequent conflicts.

American Civil War Intro articles: 139


The practice of slavery in the United States was one of the key political issues of the 19th century. Slavery had been a controversial issue during the framing of the Constitution, but the issue was left unsettled.[17] On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, four million of the 32 million Americans were black slaves.[18]

In the 1860 presidential election, Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, supported banning slavery in all the U.S. territories (parts of the U.S. that are not states). The Southern states viewed this as a violation of their constitutional rights, and as the first step in a grander Republican plan to eventually abolish slavery. The three pro-Union candidates together received an overwhelming 82% majority of the votes cast nationally: Republican Lincoln's votes centered in the north, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas' votes were distributed nationally and Constitutional Unionist John Bell's votes centered in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The Republican Party, dominant in the North, secured a plurality of the popular votes and a majority of the electoral votes nationally; thus Lincoln was elected president. He was the first Republican Party candidate to win the presidency. The South was outraged, and before his inauguration, seven slave states with cotton-based economies declared secession and formed the Confederacy. The first six to declare secession had the highest proportions of slaves in their populations, with an average of 49 percent.[19] Of those states whose legislatures resolved for secession, the first seven voted with split majorities for unionist candidates Douglas and Bell (Georgia with 51% and Louisiana with 55%), or with sizable minorities for those unionists (Alabama with 46%, Mississippi with 40%, Florida with 38%, Texas with 25%, and South Carolina, which cast Electoral College votes without a popular vote for president).[20]

Eight remaining slave-holding states continued to reject calls for secession. Outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan and the incoming Republicans rejected secession as illegal. Lincoln's March 4, 1861, inaugural address declared that his administration would not initiate a civil war. Speaking directly to the "Southern States", he attempted to calm their fears of any threats to slavery, reaffirming, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."[21] After Confederate forces seized numerous federal forts within territory claimed by the Confederacy, efforts at compromise failed and both sides prepared for war. The Confederates assumed that European countries were so dependent on "King Cotton" that they would intervene,[22] but none did, and none recognized the new Confederate States of America.

Confederate flag, the "Stars and Bars"

Hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter. While in the Western Theater the Union made significant permanent gains, in the Eastern Theater, the conflict was inconclusive during 1861–1862. In September 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made ending slavery a war goal.[23] To the west, the Union destroyed the Confederate river navy by summer 1862, then much of its western armies, and seized New Orleans. The successful 1863 Union siege of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two at the Mississippi River. In 1863, Robert E. Lee's Confederate incursion north ended at the Battle of Gettysburg. Western successes led to Ulysses S. Grant's command of all Union armies in 1864. Inflicting an ever-tightening naval blockade of Confederate ports, the Union marshaled resources and manpower to attack the Confederacy from all directions, leading to the fall of Atlanta to William Tecumseh Sherman and his march to the sea. The last significant battles raged around the Siege of Petersburg. Lee's escape attempt ended with his surrender at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. While the military war was coming to an end, the political reintegration of the nation was to take another 12 years, known as the Reconstruction era.

American Civil War Overview articles: 35

Causes of secession

Status of the states, 1861
   States that seceded before April 15, 1861
   States that seceded after April 15, 1861
   Union states that permitted slavery
   Union states that banned slavery

The causes of secession were complex and have been controversial since the war began, but most academic scholars identify slavery as the central cause of the war. James C. Bradford wrote that the issue has been further complicated by historical revisionists, who have tried to offer a variety of reasons for the war.[24] Slavery was the central source of escalating political tension in the 1850s. The Republican Party was determined to prevent any spread of slavery to newly formed states, and many Southern leaders had threatened secession if the Republican candidate, Lincoln, won the 1860 election. After Lincoln won, many Southern leaders felt that disunion was their only option, fearing that the loss of representation would hamper their ability to promote pro-slavery acts and policies.[25][26]


Slavery was the main cause of disunion.[27][28] The issue of slavery had confounded the nation since its inception, and increasingly separated the United States into a slaveholding South and a free North. The issue was exacerbated by the rapid territorial expansion of the country, which repeatedly brought to the fore the issue of whether new territory should be slaveholding or free. The issue had dominated politics for decades leading up to the war. Key attempts to solve the issue included the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, but these only postponed an inevitable showdown over slavery.[29]

Although there were opposing views even in the Union States,[30][31] most Northern soldiers were mostly indifferent on the subject of slavery,[32] while Confederates fought the war mainly to protect a Southern society of which slavery was an integral part.[33][34] From the anti-slavery perspective, the issue was primarily about whether the system of slavery was an anachronistic evil that was incompatible with republicanism. The strategy of the anti-slavery forces was containment—to stop the expansion and thus put slavery on a path to gradual extinction.[35] The slave-holding interests in the South denounced this strategy as infringing upon their Constitutional rights.[36] Southern whites believed that the emancipation of slaves would destroy the South's economy, due to a large amount of capital invested in slaves and fears of integrating the ex-slave black population.[37] In particular, many Southerners feared a repeat of 1804 Haiti massacre, (also known as "the horrors of Santo Domingo"),[38][39] in which former slaves systematically murdered most of what was left of the country's white population – including men, women, children, and even many sympathetic to abolition after the successful slave revolt in Haiti. Historian Thomas Fleming points to the historical phrase "a disease in the public mind" used by critics of this idea and proposes it contributed to the segregation in the Jim Crow era following emancipation.[40] These fears were exacerbated by the 1859 attempt of John Brown to instigate an armed slave rebellion in the South.

Slavery was illegal in much of the North, having been outlawed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was also fading in the border states and Southern cities, but it was expanding in the highly profitable cotton districts of the rural South and Southwest. Subsequent writers on the American Civil War looked to several factors explaining the geographic divide.


Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, aroused public opinion about the evils of slavery. According to legend, when Lincoln was introduced to her at the White House, his first words were, "So this is the little lady who started this Great War."[41]
Theodore Parker was a prominent minister, abolitionist and reformer.

The abolitionists – those advocating the end of slavery – were very active in the decades leading up to the Civil War. They traced their philosophical roots back to the Puritans, who strongly believed that slavery was morally wrong. One of the early Puritan writings on this subject was The Selling of Joseph, by Samuel Sewall in 1700. In it, Sewall condemned slavery and the slave trade and refuted many of the era's typical justifications for slavery.[42][43]

This portrait of Judge Samuel Sewall by John Smibert is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Massachusetts.

The American Revolution and the cause of liberty added tremendous impetus to the abolitionist cause. Slavery, which had been around for thousands of years, was considered "normal" and was not a significant issue of public debate prior to the Revolution. The Revolution changed that and made it into an issue that had to be addressed. As a result, shortly after the Revolution, the northern states quickly started outlawing slavery. Even in southern states, laws were changed to limit slavery and facilitate manumission. The amount of indentured servitude (temporary slavery) dropped dramatically throughout the country. An Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves sailed through Congress with little opposition. President Thomas Jefferson supported it, and it went into effect on January 1, 1808. Benjamin Franklin and James Madison each helped found manumission societies. Influenced by the Revolution, many individual slave owners, such as George Washington, freed their slaves, often in their wills. The number of free blacks as a proportion of the black population in the upper South increased from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent between 1790 and 1810 as a result of these actions.[44][45][46][47][48][49]

Rufus Putnam was George Washington’s chief engineer in the Revolutionary War and later became the "Father of Ohio" (painted from life, ca 1796–1797, age 59).

The establishment of the Northwest Territory as "free soil" – no slavery – by Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam (who both came from Puritan New England) would also prove crucial. This territory (which became the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota) doubled the size of the United States. If these had been slave states, and their electoral votes had gone to Abraham Lincoln's main opponent, Lincoln would not have been elected president. The Civil War would not have been fought.[50][51][43]

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the abolitionists, such as Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglass, repeatedly used the Puritan heritage of the country to bolster their cause. The most radical anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, invoked the Puritans and Puritan values over a thousand times. Parker, in urging New England Congressmen to support the abolition of slavery, wrote that "The son of the Puritan ... is sent to Congress to stand up for Truth and Right..."[52][53] Literature served as a means to spread the message to common folks. Key works included Twelve Years a Slave, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slavery as It Is, and the most important: Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best selling book of the 19th century aside from the Bible.[54][55][56]

By 1840 more than 15,000 people were members of abolitionist societies in the United States. Abolitionism in the United States became a popular expression of moralism, and led directly to the Civil War. In churches, conventions and newspapers, reformers promoted an absolute and immediate rejection of slavery.[57][58]

Abolitionist sentiment was not strictly religious or moral in origin. The Whig Party became increasingly opposed to slavery because they saw it as inherently against the ideals of capitalism and the free market. Whig leader William H. Seward (who would serve in Lincoln's cabinet) proclaimed that there was an "irrepressible conflict" between slavery and free labor, and that slavery had left the South backward and undeveloped.[59] As the Whig party dissolved in the 1850s, the mantle of abolition fell to its newly formed successor, the Republican Party.[60]

Territorial crisis

Between 1803 and 1854, the United States achieved a vast expansion of territory through purchase, negotiation, and conquest. At first, the new states carved out of these territories entering the union were apportioned equally between slave and free states. Pro- and anti-slavery forces collided over the territories west of the Mississippi.[61]

With the conquest of northern Mexico west to California in 1848, slaveholding interests looked forward to expanding into these lands and perhaps Cuba and Central America as well.[62][63] Northern "free soil" interests vigorously sought to curtail any further expansion of slave territory. The Compromise of 1850 over California balanced a free-soil state with stronger fugitive slave laws for a political settlement after four years of strife in the 1840s. But the states admitted following California were all free: Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859), and Kansas (1861). In the Southern states, the question of the territorial expansion of slavery westward again became explosive.[64] Both the South and the North drew the same conclusion: "The power to decide the question of slavery for the territories was the power to determine the future of slavery itself."[65][66]

Sen. Stephen Douglas, author of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854
Sen. John J. Crittenden, of the 1860 Crittenden Compromise

By 1860, four doctrines had emerged to answer the question of federal control in the territories, and they all claimed they were sanctioned by the Constitution, implicitly or explicitly.[67] The first of these "conservative" theories, represented by the Constitutional Union Party, argued that the Missouri Compromise apportionment of territory north for free soil and south for slavery should become a Constitutional mandate. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 was an expression of this view.[68]

The second doctrine of Congressional preeminence, championed by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, insisted that the Constitution did not bind legislators to a policy of balance—that slavery could be excluded in a territory as it was done in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at the discretion of Congress;[69] thus Congress could restrict human bondage, but never establish it. The Wilmot Proviso announced this position in 1846.[70]

Senator Stephen A. Douglas proclaimed the doctrine of territorial or "popular" sovereignty—which asserted that the settlers in a territory had the same rights as states in the Union to establish or disestablish slavery as a purely local matter.[71] The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 legislated this doctrine.[72] In the Kansas Territory, years of pro and anti-slavery violence and political conflict erupted; the congressional House of Representatives voted to admit Kansas as a free state in early 1860, but its admission did not pass the Senate until January 1861, after the departure of Southern senators.[73]

The fourth theory was advocated by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis,[74] one of state sovereignty ("states' rights"),[75] also known as the "Calhoun doctrine",[76] named after the South Carolinian political theorist and statesman John C. Calhoun.[77] Rejecting the arguments for federal authority or self-government, state sovereignty would empower states to promote the expansion of slavery as part of the federal union under the U.S. Constitution.[78] "States' rights" was an ideology formulated and applied as a means of advancing slave state interests through federal authority.[79] As historian Thomas L. Krannawitter points out, the "Southern demand for federal slave protection represented a demand for an unprecedented expansion of federal power."[80][81] These four doctrines comprised the dominant ideologies presented to the American public on the matters of slavery, the territories, and the U.S. Constitution before the 1860 presidential election.[82]

States' rights

The South argued that just as each state had decided to join the Union, a state had the right to secede—leave the Union—at any time. Northerners (including President Buchanan) rejected that notion as opposed to the will of the Founding Fathers, who said they were setting up a perpetual union.[83] Historian James McPherson writes concerning states' rights and other non-slavery explanations:

While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few professional historians now subscribe to them. Of all these interpretations, the states'-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, states' rights for what purpose? States' rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle.[84]


Sectionalism resulted from the different economies, social structure, customs, and political values of the North and South.[85][86] Regional tensions came to a head during the War of 1812, resulting in the Hartford Convention, which manifested Northern dissatisfaction with a foreign trade embargo that affected the industrial North disproportionately, the Three-Fifths Compromise, dilution of Northern power by new states, and a succession of Southern presidents. Sectionalism increased steadily between 1800 and 1860 as the North, which phased slavery out of existence, industrialized, urbanized, and built prosperous farms, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor, together with subsistence agriculture for poor whites. In the 1840s and 1850s, the issue of accepting slavery (in the guise of rejecting slave-owning bishops and missionaries) split the nation's largest religious denominations (the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches) into separate Northern and Southern denominations.[87]

Historians have debated whether economic differences between the mainly industrial North and the mainly agricultural South helped cause the war. Most historians now disagree with the economic determinism of historian Charles A. Beard in the 1920s, and emphasize that Northern and Southern economies were largely complementary. While socially different, the sections economically benefited each other.[88][89]


Owners of slaves preferred low-cost manual labor with no mechanization. Northern manufacturing interests supported tariffs and protectionism while Southern planters demanded free trade.[90] The Democrats in Congress, controlled by Southerners, wrote the tariff laws in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, and kept reducing rates so that the 1857 rates were the lowest since 1816. The Republicans called for an increase in tariffs in the 1860 election. The increases were only enacted in 1861 after Southerners resigned their seats in Congress.[91][92] The tariff issue was a Northern grievance. However, neo-Confederate writers have claimed it as a Southern grievance. In 1860–61 none of the groups that proposed compromises to head off secession raised the tariff issue.[93] Pamphleteers North and South rarely mentioned the tariff.[94]

Nationalism and honor

Marais des Cygnes massacre of anti-slavery Kansans, May 19, 1858

Nationalism was a powerful force in the early 19th century, with famous spokesmen such as Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster. While practically all Northerners supported the Union, Southerners were split between those loyal to the entire United States (called "Unionists") and those loyal primarily to the Southern region and then the Confederacy.[95]

Perceived insults to Southern collective honor included the enormous popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin[96] and the actions of abolitionist John Brown in trying to incite a rebellion of slaves in 1859.[97]

While the South moved towards a Southern nationalism, leaders in the North were also becoming more nationally minded, and they rejected any notion of splitting the Union. The Republican national electoral platform of 1860 warned that Republicans regarded disunion as treason and would not tolerate it.[98] The South ignored the warnings; Southerners did not realize how ardently the North would fight to hold the Union together.[99]

Lincoln's election

Abraham Lincoln in 1864

The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 was the final trigger for secession.[100] Efforts at compromise, including the Corwin Amendment and the Crittenden Compromise, failed. Southern leaders feared that Lincoln would stop the expansion of slavery and put it on a course toward extinction. The slave states, which had already become a minority in the House of Representatives, were now facing a future as a perpetual minority in the Senate and Electoral College against an increasingly powerful North. Before Lincoln took office in March 1861, seven slave states had declared their secession and joined to form the Confederacy.

According to Lincoln, the American people had shown that they had been successful in establishing and administering a republic, but a third challenge faced the nation, maintaining a republic based on the people's vote against an attempt to overthrow it.[101]

American Civil War Causes of secession articles: 56