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The American Civil War 1861-1865

Updated on August 29, 2010

When in 1860 the newly invented telegraph wires flashed the news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States, all America knew that this meant trouble.

For a long time the Northern and Southern halves of the United States had disagreed with one another. Lincoln belonged to the Northern Republican party which wanted to stop slavery spreading to new states, while the Southerners, who had many black slaves, believed that slavery should be allowed everywhere. These Southerners were afraid that Lincoln planned to do away with slavery throughout the United States, although the abolitionists, as those who wanted to abolish slavery were called, were actually in the minority.

Another question that divided the North and South was that the Northern manufacturers wanted taxes put on goods coming from abroad so that they could sell their own goods more easily, and the Southerners objected to this.

The anti-slavery movement spread in the North, and the Southern states began to say that if their rights were attacked by the central government of the United States they would leave the Union. In 1859 they had been alarmed when John Brown (whose soul still goes marching on, according to the song) tried to stir up the slaves to revolt at Harper's Ferry, in Virginia.

South Carolina was the first state to leave the Union, and Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas soon followed. They began to call themselves the Confederate States of America and, having chosen Jefferson Davis as their President, they prepared for war.

President Lincoln knew that if these seven states were allowed to leave the Union it would begin to break up. When he took the oath of office, therefore, he promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed already, but warned them that he was going to keep the Union together.

Fort Sumter in the South was held by Union (Northern) troops and when it was attacked by Southerners in 1861 Lincoln denounced them as rebels and called for volunteers to defend the Union. Then more Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee) broke away and joined the Confederacy.

Lincoln had asked for 75,000 volunteers for three months; but the war lasted four years, 4,000,000 men took part and 600,000 of them died. Lincoln cannot be blamed for thinking that the North would have an easy victory. It had a population more than twice as large as the Confederate (Southern) states, where in any case one person in three was a slave; it had plenty of food, most of the factories to produce munitions and the larger part of the navy. On the other hand, the South had many experienced army officers and also the advantage of fighting a mainly defensive war on its own territory.

How the War was Fought

The American Civil War was the first "modern" war, which saw the use of new weapons such as the repeating rifle and armoured steam-powered ships, and new means of communications such as the railway and telegraph. In this mechanized war, the North had a great advantage, for it had more factories, more men and more supplies.

The main aims of the North were to capture Richmond (the Confederate capital), gain control of the great Mississippi River and cut the South off from foreign help by blockading its ports. But an early defeat at Bull Run, Virginia (i 861) dashed the North's hopes of early victory. Lincoln put General George McClellan in command of the Northern Army of the Potomac. He sailed right down the Chesapeake River to Yorktown in Virginia but he was driven back by General Robert E. Lee, aided by "Stonewall" Jackson, who was given this nickname because he stood as firmly as a stone wall against attacks by the Northern troops. Another Northern army, led by Ulysses S. Grant, fought a bloody battle at Shiloh, Tennessee, without winning a clear victory.

In 1862 Lee invaded the North, hoping to secure foreign aid by showing that the South could win the war. More than 25,000 soldiers died when the Union and Confederate armies met at Antietam, Maryland. President Lincoln treated this indecisive battle as a victory for the Union, and celebrated it by declaring that the slaves held by the Southerners were to go free.

Also in 1862 history was made at sea, when the South's armoured steam frigate "Merrimac" was engaged by the North's ironclad ship, the "Monitor", which had a revolving gun turret. This was the first naval battle between armoured ships. After three hours, the "Merrimac" returned to port and thereafter the Northern merchant ships were safe from attack.

But on land the Northern armies were still unable to win a decisive victory. In 1863 Jackson was killed, and Lee was left without his most able aide. He moved north once more and met the Northern forces at Gettysburg. The South's defeat at this terrible battle was the turning point of the war. Another blow came in the west, where General Grant captured Vicksburg, the last Southern stronghold on the Mississippi River.

After this the South could expect no foreign aid as the Union armies drove south. Grant marched slowly towards Richmond destroying the Confederate forces in one battle after another, while General William Sherman went "marching through Georgia" and laid it waste "from Atlanta to the sea". General Philip Sheridan attacked the Southern forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Lee's troops were harassed until they had to surrender at Appomattox. The war ended in April 1865.

Much of the South was left in ruins. Lincoln wanted to "bind up the South's wounds", but he was assassinated and, angered by this, the Northerners treated the Southern states very harshly. However, they had stopped the Union breaking up and a few years later slavery was abolished throughout the country.


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