American Civil War

12th April 1861. Confederate troops bombed Fort Sumter, above which flies the flag of the federal government. This was the first drama of the Civil War

12th April 1861. Confederate troops bombed Fort Sumter, above which flies the flag of the federal government. This was the first drama of the Civil War.

Confederate and Federal states

Confederate and Federal states.

Members of the Confederate cavalry

Members of the Confederate cavalry.

The huge, armored Merrimac encounters the Federal ship Monitor

The huge, armored Merrimac encounters the Federal ship Monitor.

The rift between North and South had been widening for some time. In the South the wealthy landowners depended on the labor of Black slaves. But the more industrialized Northern communities were opposed to slavery. Moreover, the South condemned the economic policy of the North. In order to protect their own industries Northern businessmen wished to restrict the import of foreign manufacturers. In addition there was the mutual antipathy of the proud, cultured Southerners for their brash 'Yankee' fellow-countrymen of the North.


In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He was known as a 'black republican', on account of his opposition to slavery, Although he said he would not abolish slavery in states where it existed, he was determined that it should not be extended to the new states in the west. The slave states of the South had no intention of being ruled by Lincoln, and in December 1860 South Carolina announced that she had seceded from the Union, meaning she was no longer a member of the 'United' States. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated as President in March 1861 six other slave states – Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – and followed South Carolina. They formed a new union of their own – the Confederate States of America – and elected a distinguished soldier, Jefferson, as their President.


Lincoln was convinced that the Southern states had no right to leave the Union. But could he use force? The question was decided for him when in April 1861 the Confederates forced Federal troops to surrender Fort Sumter outside Charleston. Lincoln regarded this as an act of insurrection or revolution. He summoned 75,000 soldiers, and the North prepared to restore the Union by force. In the South, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined the Confederates; the scene was set.


Advantages of the North

On paper the South was much weaker than the North. She lacked the North's productive capacity and consisted of 11 states as opposed to 23. Her population was less than half the North's, and after secession the Confederates had to create new instruments of government and administration. And the South was far from 'solid'. Many people in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana supported the North, while the West Virginians formed a separate state and joined the Union later in the war. The South's prosperity depended upon exports, but the American navy, supporting the North, blockaded the Southern ports, so preventing the export of her staple crop, cotton. The Southerners made one attempt to gain naval supremacy. In 1863 they fitted a captured frigate with ten guns and plated it in armor. This ship, the Merrimac, caused havoc until another iron-clad ship, the Monitor, was launched by the Union against her. In their first encounter Merrimac was defeated.


The South did have a few advantages. Her generals were superior and her soldiers more used to handling firearms.


Invasion of the South

The Confederacy had gathered an army of 400,000, but its strategy was defensive. It fully expected France and Britain to intervene on its behalf. Yet the European countries remained neutral; the South stood alone.


Lincoln was faced with two main areas to attack. The Southern states were divided into east and west by the Appalachian Mountains. In the east, Virginia, which included Richmond, the Confederate capital, was all-important, and most of the eastern fighting took place there. But victory in the west would divide the Confederacy completely in two, and so was equally important.


The first major campaign of the war was disastrous for the Union. An army descended into Virginia to make an onslaught on Richmond; it met the Confederates under General Beauregard near the little stream of Bull Run and was overwhelmingly defeated. Lincoln realized that to take Virginia would be a long and arduous business.


In the west, however, events were more encouraging for the Union. Before the end of 1861 Union troops had consolidated their position in Missouri. Early the next year they marched under General Grant into Tennessee and on 6th February forced the Confederates at Fort Henry to surrender. From then on Confederate strongholds were destroyed one by one, and by 1863 Union troops were in Upper Mississippi and Alabama. Grant now left other officers to deal with the Confederates in Tennessee and concentrated on the assault of Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. He starved the Confederate general into surrender on 14th July. Shortly afterwards Port Hudson, Louisiana, was taken by one of Grant's officers. As New Orleans had already been seized by the American navy the whole Mississippi was now in Union hands. The South was split in two and never reunited. Meanwhile Lincoln had taken advantage of Union victories to make the momentous proclamation of 1st January 1863 abolishing slavery in the United States. This was to be the most enduring achievement for which he is remembered.


A costly war of attrition was now taking place in the east. The Virginian army under the Southern General Robert E. Lee and his able lieutenant Colonel 'Stonewall' Jackson (who had gained his nickname at the battle of Bull Run) was powerful and confident.


In 1863 Lee invaded Pennsylvania and was only stopped by a decisive defeat at Gettysburg in July. Yet in early 1864 Lee's army still appeared an insuperable barrier to Union hopes.


The final stages

In May 1864 General Grant, now commanding all Federal armies, took charge of the Virginian campaign. In a determined drive on Richmond he thrust his way south, heedless of heavy losses. He crossed the James River and laid siege to Petersburg, near Richmond. Meanwhile General Sherman had begun his campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta. 'Marching through Georgia', he laid that state waste, destroying everything in his path. In December Savannah fell, and Sherman turned north and pushed into Virginia.


The pincers were closing in on Virginia, and the war was in its final phase. On 2nd April 1865 Petersburg fell to Grant. The next day the Unionists entered Richmond, hurriedly evacuated by the Southern President Davis. Lee's unconquered army was racing westwards, slowly pursued by Grant and with another Federal army under General Sheridan on its flank. On 9th April Lee surrendered, having given up a plan to join General Johnston in North Carolina. A fortnight later Johnston surrendered, and in the west General Kirby Smith laid down his arms. The war was over.


The cost of the American Civil War was enormous. About 600,000 men were killed and hundreds of thousands wounded or crippled. The total cost of the war has been estimated at over 10,000 million dollars.


The war had results of immense significance for the future. The emancipation of the slaves was ensured despite Lincoln's assassination in the year of victory, and the Union was consolidated and enabled to grow into the great nation that was to play a decisive role in world politics in the next century. But the feelings and hatreds generated by four years of Americans fighting Americans left differences of outlook which were to prove lasting and scars which have perhaps not been fully healed to this day.