American Civil War

American Civil War
   The American Civil War was fought between the military forces of the Federal Government of the United States against those of the Confederate States of American, made up of 11 states who announced their secession from the Union in early 1861. The respective parties are often referred to as the Union or the “North,” and the Confederacy or the “South.” More than 600,000 American soldiers lost their lives, more than half from the effects of disease, during the conflict, which involved more than 3 million personnel. After four years of bloodshed, the Union of the United States of America was preserved and slavery was abolished. Northern victory also inaugurated a trying period of Reconstruction and marked a key staging post in the development of the nation.
   The events leading to the outbreak of the war in 1861 centered on the issue of slavery as the United States continued to expand westward across the North American continent, bringing more states into the Union. Since the very inception of the American republic, and before, slavery had existed across vast tracks of the South and was integral to the plantation economies of the region. In the face of the abolitionist movement in the North and the demise of slavery in Europe, Southerners became increasingly concerned that their way of life was under threat. Led by South Carolina, the southern states were prompted to secede by the threat they perceived from the election in 1861 of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Lincoln, leader of the Republican Party from Illinois, held firmly antislavery views but did not promise federal laws preventing slavery. Instead, he and his supporters argued that slavery should not be permitted in those territories to the west seeking to become states and join the Union. The Republican Party had emerged in the 1850s with a dedicated antislavery agenda, and, for many in the South, the Republican victory in the 1860 presidential election was the final straw. Thus in February 1861, before Lincoln had assumed office, the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas seceded and formed the Confederate States of America; they had adopted a constitution and were led by their own president, Jefferson Davis. The states of Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Virginia joined them in April and May. Despite efforts at conciliation conflict followed, not over the issue of slavery itself but over the preservation of the Union against southern secessionism. Lincoln’s presidential inaugural address stated that the “Constitution of the Union of these States is perpetual” and therefore could not be dissolved unless all the parties agreed.
   The slavery issue nonetheless continued to be important to the progress of the war. Lincoln addressed the dilemma in two parts, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, and publishing the final version on 1 January 1863, at which point it came into force. The proclamation did not abolish slavery; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in December 1865 did that. Rather, it stated that those slaves in the Confederacy were henceforth freemen. Given that the proclamation was a presidential decree and not a law, considerable debate remains as to Lincoln’s motivations. Although the impact of the abolitionist movement undoubtedly played a role, Lincoln justified his decision as a war measure. The proclamation, he argued, would enable the North to win the war to preserve the Union by undermining the South. Further, the measure enabled African Americans to be recruited into the Union forces and thus swelled the pool of men fighting for the North by almost 200,000 by the end of the war, far in advance of the Confederacy arming their slaves, which took place only in the final months of the war.
   The military prosecution of the war began in the spring of 1861 at Fort Sumter near Charlestown, South Carolina, and was to continue for the next four years to devastating effect. Those years marked the beginning of the industrialization of warfare through the use of the telegraph, the railways, and the machine gun and are seen as part of a movement toward “total war” involving the whole of society and not just the military. The total number of engagements during the war is estimated at more than 10,000, ranging from small unit activity to the set piece battles at Gettysburg and Jamestown. The Confederacy won many of the war’s battles at the tactical level but was unable to translate these into strategic victory. As the war wore on, the North’s population and industrial capacity led to the South’s eventual defeat. The maritime environment played host to some of the most significant engagements of the war, particularly in the sense of the danger of the war escalating and drawing in the European powers. The Union’s strategy was to use a blockade and starve the Confederacy of essential war supplies. British businessmen in particular, whose cotton industry was injured by the war in the first instance, constructed a fleet of small ships known as blockade runners to supply the South. Their occasional interception by Union forces ran the risk of British reprisals, but Union forces were careful to return the British crews unharmed after confiscating any contraband. On land, the battles were particularly bloody. The Battle of Gettysburg at the beginning of July 1863 cost the lives of more than 50,000 Americans in just three days. The battle is often seen as a turning point in the war, as the Union Army repelled the invasion of the North by the skilled Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Up to this point, Lee had enjoyed successes over Union forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Lee referred to Chancellorsville as “the perfect battle,” because of his skill in maneuvering his forces to outwit the numerically stronger opposition. The leading general on the Union side was Ulysses S. Grant, later the 18th President of the United States, who became General in Chief at the beginning of 1864 after his capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Grant followed a policy of attrition in campaigning against the South during 1864, which led to massive casualties on both sides. Crucially, Lincoln supported Grant’s approach and reinforced his armies. At the end of 1864, the Confederacy’s prospects for victory were negligible. In April 1865, Grant’s forces broke through the South’s defensive lines surrounding Richmond, capturing the Confederate capital and forcing Lee to flee to the West. Lee, realizing his untenable predicament, surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1945. Grant allowed Lee to retain his cavalry sword and horse as a sign of his respect. The rest of the Confederate forces followed suit and the war was over.
   In the immediate aftermath of the cessation of hostilities, the nation was rocked by the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. The president was shot at close range by the well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, while attending a performance at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday. He died the next morning without regaining consciousness. The political impact of Lincoln’s death was to rally support for the Thirteenth Amendment and the spirit of reconciliation. Lincoln had operated skillfully in maintaining the support of the border states, Democrats who supported the war, the still relatively new Republican Party, and the emancipated slaves, as well as preventing international recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or France. After Lincoln’s burial in Illinois, Jefferson Davis was captured and spent two years in a federal jail; however, he was never tried, and when he died in 1889 his funeral in Richmond was attended by thousands of supporters.
   More broadly, the impact of the American Civil War was felt in a number of fields. Thousands had died, families had been torn apart, and the economy of the South was ravaged. Nonetheless, the Union had been preserved and the issue of slavery settled, although discrimination against African Americans persisted through the Reconstruction period, and their civil rights continued to be an issue until the mid-1960s.
   See also <>.
    Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 vols. New York: Vintage, 1986;
    Gallager, Gary, W., Steven D. Engle, Robert K. Krick, and Joseph T Glatthaar. The American Civil War - This Mighty Scourge of War. Oxford: Osprey, 2003;
    McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000;
    Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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