American Civil War

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

The American Civil War (1861–1865) was a civil war in the United States of America. It was fought when 11 Southern states left the United States and formed the Confederate States of America (also called the Confederacy). The US government and the states that remained loyal to it were called the Union.

American Civil War

Top left: William Rosecrans at Stones River, Tennessee; top right: Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg; bottom: Battle of Fort Hindman, Arkansas
DateApril 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865
United States, Atlantic Ocean

The Union won.

 United States of America  Confederate States
Commanders and leaders

United States Abraham Lincoln
United States Ulysses S. Grant
United States George B. McClellan
United States William T. Sherman
United States Winfield Scott
United States Henry Halleck
United States George G. Meade
United States Joseph Hooker
United States Benjamin F. Butler
United States Philip Sheridan
United States William Rosecrans
United States George H. Thomas
United States John Pope
United States Edward Canby

United States Nathaniel P. Banks

Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis
Confederate States of America Robert E. Lee
Confederate States of America Joseph E. Johnston
Confederate States of America P. G. T. Beauregard
Confederate States of America A.S. Johnston
Confederate States of America Samuel Cooper
Confederate States of America Braxton Bragg
Confederate States of America John Bell Hood
Confederate States of America Stonewall Jackson
Confederate States of America J.E.B. Stuart
Confederate States of America Jubal Early
Confederate States of America James Longstreet
Confederate States of America Edmund K. Smith
Confederate States of America John C. Pemberton

Confederate States of America Richard Taylor
2,100,000 1,064,000
Casualties and losses
140,414 killed in action[1]
~ 365,000 total dead[1]
275,200 wounded
72,524 killed in action[1]
~ 260,000 total dead
137,000+ wounded

The main cause of the war was slavery, which was allowed in the South, including all 11 Confederate States. Slavery was illegal in most of the North. The Confederate States tried to leave the Union after Abraham Lincoln, who disliked slavery, was elected US president. The Union believed that it was illegal for the states to break away. There were five states that allowed slavery which stayed in the Union.

The war began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, a fort in South Carolina that was held by Union soldiers.[2] The war lasted four years and caused much damage in the South. Most battles were in northern states until 1862 and in southern states after 1862.

After four years of fighting, the Union won the war, and soon, slavery was made illegal everywhere in the United States of America.



When the United States of America was founded in 1776, most states allowed slavery. However, over the next 84 years, the Northern states decided that slavery was a bad thing and banned it. The Southern states kept slavery legal. Slaves from Africa grew tobacco, cotton and other cash crops in those states. It was very different in the North, where the Industrial Revolution led to more people working in factories instead of on farms.

The United States became divided into slave and free states. By 1860, those groups were angry at each other. Few people wanted to end slavery in the South and so Americans argued on whether slavery should be allowed to spread to the territories and new states in the west. In the late 1850s, there was fighting in Kansas over whether the territory should allow slavery.

Abraham Lincoln from the Republican Party won the 1860 United States presidential election. He then did not want to ban slavery in the states. Like nearly everyone else, he believed that the US Constitution did not allow the federal government to ban slavery (the amendment to ban slavery was passed later, in 1865). He also thought that banning it suddenly would anger the South.

Instead, Lincoln and his Republican Party thought that slavery should be banned in US territories. They thought that slavery would die out if it could not go to new places.

Lincoln became president on March 4, 1861.[3] In the four months between the election and the day that Lincoln became president, seven Southern states declared their independence from the Union. The outgoing US president, James Buchanan, said that was against the law but he could do nothing to stop them.

The Republican Party treated secession as a rebellion. No country in the world ever recognized the Confederacy as a separate nation.[4] That was because of diplomacy on the part of the Union, anti-slavery feelings in Europe and the northern blockade of southern ports, and of war against the United States.[4]

The states in 1861
   The first 7 Confederate states
   The 4 Confederate states that left later
   Union states that allowed slavery
   Union states that banned slavery
   Areas that were not yet states but were still territories
West Virginia had not yet split from Virginia

The first seven states to join the Confederacy were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Four others joined after the fighting began: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The Confederacy claimed Kentucky and Missouri belonged to them, but they never joined the Confederacy. Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland were slave states that tried to avoid taking sides. Delaware supported the Union although it was a slave state. Also, the western counties of Virginia chose to remain in the Union and created a new state, West Virginia.

Fighting begins


Fighting started when the Confederates shot and threw bombs at Fort Sumter, a Union Army fort in South Carolina. Lincoln then asked the Union states to bring soldiers to fight the Confederates.[5]

The Confederates said that all forts and other federal buildings in the South belonged to them. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked the fort and forced the Union soldiers in it to surrender. Lincoln then asked every Union state for volunteers to join the Union Army. Four more southern slave states joined the Confederates, rather than supply forces to fight against them.

The US Navy stopped other ships from going in or out of southern ports. That stopped the Confederacy from selling its cotton and other goods and also made it harder for the South to buy weapons and military supplies.[6]

The war


The American Civil War was fought in three important land areas, or "theaters." The Eastern Theater was the land east of the Appalachian Mountains. The Western Theater included everything between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and along the river. The Trans-Mississippi Theater included territory west of the Mississippi River.

Both the United States and the Confederacy had their capital cities in the Eastern Theater. Washington, DC, had been the US capital since 1800.[7] When the South seceded, its first capital was Montgomery, Alabama, but it moved the capital to Richmond, Virginia. Richmond and Washington DC are only about 90 miles (145 km) apart.

One of the first battles of the war was fought in Virginia. The Union tried to march to Richmond, but the Confederates stopped them at the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861. The Union Army of the Potomac then tried to capture Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign during the spring of 1862, but Robert E. Lee became leader of the Army of Northern Virginia and defeated the Union Army. He then won the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. Lee tried to win the war by invading Maryland, but he lost the Battle of Antietam and retreated to Virginia. The Eastern Theater was the hardest fight for the Union, as they did not get far in Virginia until 1864. They did much better in other areas.

There was much fighting between ships in the war, but the Union had a stronger and bigger navy. Lincoln put the Confederates under a blockade and so the Union Navy would not let any ships into or out of southern ports. The Confederates used ships called blockade runners to bring things from Europe like weapons. The navies of each side also fought on the rivers. The ships included ironclads, which were protected by iron on their sides, and cottonclads, which used cotton along their sides. During the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Confederate ironclad Virginia fought against the Union ironclad Monitor. It was the first time in world history that two ironclads fought each other.

In the Western Theater, much of the fighting happened along the Mississippi River. Ulysses S. Grant was an important Union general in the West. The Confederates tried to send their soldiers into the state of Kentucky in the summer of 1861. In the early months of 1862, the Union Army made the Confederates retreat from Kentucky and from western Tennessee. They tried to recapture western Tennessee by attacking Grant's army at the Battle of Shiloh, but Grant won the battle. The Confederates then tried to send their soldiers into eastern Kentucky in the fall of 1862 but lost the Battle of Perryville and then left Kentucky. Over the next year, the Union took control of the rest of Tennessee.

The North won control of almost all of the Mississippi River by capturing the cities along the river in the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1863. However, the Confederacy still held Vicksburg, an important city and fort. If they held, the Confederates could move soldiers and supplies from one side of the river to the other. Grant started the Siege of Vicksburg during the month of May 1863. The siege continued until July 4, 1863, when the Confederates there surrendered to Grant. That was one of the turning points in the war by dividing the Confederacy into two parts.

There were also battles west of the Mississippi River Valley in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. For example, two important battles were the Battle of Wilson's Creek and the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Confederates tried to invade New Mexico in February and March 1862 but they were defeated at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. After the Union captured Vicksburg, the area became separated from the rest of the Confederate States. Other battles happened in the area after the capture of Vicksburg.

During the Siege of Vicksburg in the west, another turning point came in the east. After winning some battles, Lee decided to invade the North again. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia went into Pennsylvania. The Confederate Army met the Union Army near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and fought the Battle of Gettysburg, which lasted from July 1 to 3, 1863. More soldiers died at Gettysburg than in any other Civil War battle, which the Union won. Lee and his troops were pushed back into the South and could no longer invade the North.

From Vicksburg, Grant led the army to finish taking control of Tennessee in the Chattanooga campaign. Lincoln then decided that Grant was his best general and put Grant in control of all Union armies. Abraham Lincoln also made William Tecumseh Sherman the general in charge leading the Union troops from Tennessee to Georgia. Grant led many attacks on Lee's army in Virginia. The battles were made up the Overland Campaign.

The Union had more success when Sherman marched into Georgia in May 1864, into the middle of the Confederate States. In September, he captured Atlanta, an important city. Sherman then led a "march to the sea" and captured Savannah. He then marched north through South Carolina and North Carolina. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston attacked Sherman at the Battle of Bentonville. Sherman won the battle. Even in the 20th century, Southerners remember Sherman's march as destroying many homes, farms, and railroads, but his soldiers are blamed for things that they could not have done since they were too far away.

By late 1864, Lee's army was struggling, as they had less soldiers and supplies than Grant's army. Helped by Philip Sheridan, Grant's army slowly started to push into Virginia. At the start of April 1865, they won several battles against Lee's army and captured Richmond. Lee decided that he had too few soldiers to keep on fighting. He surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865 near Appomattox Court House. Later, many other Confederate armies surrendered as well. The last Confederate general to surrender was Brigadier General Stand Watie, who surrendered on June 23, 1865, in Oklahoma.

After the war ended, Lincoln pardoned all of the Confederate soldiers and so they could not be arrested or punished for fighting against the Union. The South would be allowed to rejoin the United States but only later. Some Confederates did not want to return to the United States and moved to places like Mexico or Brazil.

Why the Union won


Historians have had different ideas about whether the Confederacy could have won the war. Most of them, such as James McPherson, say that it would have been difficult but possible. The Union had far more people, money and industry.[8][9][10][11] By most estimates, the Union had over 2 million soldiers while the Confederacy had 1 million.

One advantage the Confederacy had was that they only needed to defend their land, whereas the Union could only win if they took full control of the Confederate states.[9][12] Furthermore, the Union could only fight the war if their people wanted them to keep fighting. Lincoln had opponents in the North (the Copperheads) who wanted the war to end. If the Confederacy had defended itself for long enough, it may have led to more people in the Union turning against the war and supporting the Copperheads. However, Lincoln held on to his support and won the 1864 election.[12]

The Union Navy blocked ships from going into the Confederate ports. Although some ships managed to get past, most could not. The Confederacy had big money problems because they could not sell cotton and other goods to other countries.[13] The Confederacy collected less taxes than the Union, so they printed money to pay for the war. This caused inflation (rising prices).[14][15]

Another factor was that the Confederacy could not get help from outside. They had hoped that Britain and France would support the Confederacy because they wanted to buy their cotton. However, Britain and France did not give them help. There were three reasons for this. Firstly, they thought that slavery was wrong. Secondly, they did not want to become enemies of the United States. Thirdly, they could get cotton from elsewhere.[13]

Most historians also think that Abraham Lincoln was a better leader than Jefferson Davis. Don E. Fehrenbacher says that Lincoln's skills helped keep the Border States and ordinary people on his side.[16] Lincoln left his generals alone if they did a good job and fired them if they did not.[17] Davis lacked a clear plan, tried to do too many tasks at once and often chose people to do jobs just because they were his friends. He annoyed his generals and other Confederate politicians.[18][19][20] William Cooper says that better leadership helped the Union, but they were already more likely to win.[20]

After the war


Many soldiers on both sides died during the war. Most of the war was fought in the South. Many railroads, farms, houses and other things were destroyed, and most people there became very poor.

The period after the war, called Reconstruction, lasted from the end of the war to 1877. The Union Army stayed in some Southern states and made them occupied territory. Three important amendments were added on to the US Constitution. The amendments were proposed (or suggested) by the US government. Although not every American supported them, they got enough support to pass:

After the war, some of the Union Army's leaders went into politics. Generals Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley became US presidents. Other veterans were elected to other offices.

The Southern states were allowed to ask to rejoin the union. When they were accepted, that could send senators and representatives to the US Congress again and make their own state laws. During Reconstruction, black Americans built schools and other social infrastructure. Some of the schools became the historically black colleges that still exist. After southern states rejoined the Union, most of them made laws that limited what black people could do.

The Amnesty Act of 1872 restored the rights to vote and to hold political office for most former members of the Confederacy.[21] Some of them also became politicians.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 John W. Chambers, II, ed. in chief, The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0-19-507198-6. P. 849.
  2. "Fort Sumter". Civil War Trust. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  3. Roland, pp. 27–29.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy, 1861–1865". Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. Archived from the original on August 28, 2013. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  5. Gibboney, p. 21.
  6. Encyclopedia of United States National Security, ed. Richard J. Samuels (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), p. 227
  7. "Washington DC". History/A&E Television Networks. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  8. McPherson 1988, p. 855.
  9. 9.0 9.1 James McPherson, Why did the Confederacy Lose?. p. ?.
  10. Murray, Bernstein & Knox 1996, p. 235.
  11. HeidlerHeidlerColes 2002, p. 1207–10.
  12. 12.0 12.1 McPherson 1988, pp. 771–72.
  13. 13.0 13.1 McPherson 1988, pp. 382–88.
  14. Cooper 2000, pp. 351–52.
  15. Escott 1978, pp. 146, 269.
  16. Fehrenbacher, Don (2004). "Lincoln's Wartime Leadership: The First Hundred Days". Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 9 (1). University of Illinois. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
  17. Cooper, Jr., William J. (2010), "A Reassessment of Jefferson Davis as War Leader", in Hewitt, Lawrence Lee; Bergeron, Jr., Arthur W. (eds.), Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 1: Classic Essays on America's Civil War, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, p. 161, ISBN 9781572337008
  18. Beringer, Richard E., Hattaway, Herman, Jones, Archer, and Still, William N., Jr. (1986). Why the South Lost the Civil War. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  19. Woodworth 1990, p. 309.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Cooper 2000, p. 511.
  21. "Amnesty Act of 1872". The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Archived from the original on August 19, 2016. Retrieved August 26, 2016.

Other sources

  • Gibboney, Douglas Lee. Tragic Glory: A Concise, Illustrated History of the Civil War. Fredericksburg, Virginia: Sergeant Kirkland's, 1997. ISBN 1-887901-17-5.
  • Roland, Charles P. An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. ISBN 0-07-241815-X.

Other websites