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Encyclopedia > U.S. Civil War
Military history of the United States
Conflict American Civil War
Date 18611865
Place Central and southern USA
Result Defeat of seceding CSA
Battles of the American Civil War
United States of America

USA flag (34 stars, after the admission of Kansas to the Union and before that of West Virginia), 1861–1863
Confederate States of America

CSA flag to May 1863

May 1863

Briefly from March 1865

Abraham Lincoln Jefferson Davis
2,803,300 1,064,200
KIA: 110,070
Total dead: 359,528
Wounded: 275,175
KIA: 74,524
Total dead: 198,524
Wounded: 137,000+

The American Civil War was fought in the United States from 1861 until 1865 between the northern states, popularly referred to as "the U.S.," "the Union," "the North," or "the Yankees"; and the seceding southern states, commonly referred to as "the Confederate States of America," "the CSA," "the Confederacy," "the South," "the Rebels," or "Dixie." Soldiers who fought for the North were referred to as "Billy Yanks"; those who fought for the South were called "Johnny Rebs."


Naming the War

The most common and most neutral term for this conflict in the U.S. is simply The Civil War, but this name has never carried official status. The first legally-sanctioned term originated out of a Northeastern wartime usage; the officially-commissioned 1880 U.S. War Department report and compilation of Union and Confederate army records was entitled The War of the Rebellion. The usage of The War Between the States, as preferred by some reenactment and Southern heritage groups to this day, is based upon a Congressional resolution of the 1920's declaring this the proper designation for the war, in deference to those who asserted that the generic category of "civil war" did not apply to the events of 1861-65 in the United States. The War Between the States is also the name used on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.

The war had a host of unusual or biased names as well; usage of these terms today often signifies an affiliation with one side of the conflict or the other. Some preferred Southern names, in addition to The War Between the States, included The War of Northern Aggression, The War of Southern Independence, Mr. Lincoln's War, The War of Secession or, simply, The War; more obscure Southern terms include The Second American Revolution and The War in Defense of Virginia. However, most of these names are not in common usage today, except among Southern nationalist, historical and cultural groups such as the League of the South (LS) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Northerners were known to refer to the conflict as The War of the Rebellion (often seen on veterans' monuments in Massachusetts) or The War of Southern Rebellion, The War to Save the Union and The War for Abolition; these names are in even rarer modern use than their pro-Southern counterparts, due to comparatively lesser interest in Civil War heritage study in the North. The earliest name was The War of the Insurrection.

The Civil War was not simply a conflict between rival factions mixed throughout a single territory over control of their government. The war was between two separate geographical regions. Since the war was in fact between states of the North and states of the South, War Between the States is perhaps a more neutral term.

Southern partisans have claimed that this term, too, is inaccurate, since they believed that the war was really about allowing the South to be independent or not, preferring to call it the War of Southern Independence instead. Today, Southern heritage groups, such as the League of the South (LoS) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), alone assert that this is the most accurate and neutral term, since to them, the war ended Southern independence. Southern heritage groups use even more emphatic terms, such as the War Against Southern Independence, and the War of Northern Aggression to emphasize their claim that the North invaded the South.

However, some accept the War Between the States as a sensitive compromise with the term Civil War. An official Congressional resolution of the 1920's declared the War Between the States the proper designation for the war. This resolution was passed in an effort to bury the axe once and for all between North and South and to accept a compromise term for the war — officially. The War Between the States is therefore the second most common term for the Civil War.

There are also Southern pet-names for the war as well. This includes the Second War of Independence, to claim that the South carried on the tradition of the early American republic. The War in Defense of Virginia, is another obscure nickname used to claim for the South that the Confederacy was formed only after Lincoln attacked Virginia in the wake of South Carolina's lone secession resolution. Other pet-names are Mr. Lincoln's War, The War of Secession or, simply, The War. A particular favorite in the immediate postwar South was the vague euphemism The Late Unpleasantness.

To be sure, partisans in the North were known to refer to the Civil War as The War of the Insurrection, or The War of the Rebellion (often seen on veterans' monuments in Massachusetts). This was the first legally-sanctioned term originated out of a Northeastern wartime usage; the officially-commissioned 1880 U.S. War Department report and compilation of Union and Confederate army records was entitled The War of the Rebellion. The War of Southern Rebellion, The War to Save the Union and The War for Abolition; these names are in even rarer modern use than their pro-Southern counterparts, due to comparatively lesser interest in Civil War heritage study in the North. Indeed the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) have fewer members than their Southern counterparts in the SCV. These Northern partisan names all serve to emphasize that the Union was one nation indivisible, and that slavery was at least one major cause.

For many, the war is a thing of the past. The New South is reconstructed and very much more industrialized - like the North was. Few from the north have much interest in dredging up old wounds. Some descendents of southern residents are more inclined to make extensive studies of the war, having a great interest in understanding the actions of their ancestors.

The division of the country

Map of the division of the states during the Civil War. All blue states represent the Union, light blue states represent Union states which permitted slavery during the War, and red represents Confederate states. Unshaded states did not exist or were territory at the time of the War. The division between the shades of blue in the east is also the Mason-Dixon Line.

Seven states seceded shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 – even before he was inaugurated. They were South Carolina (December 20, 1860), Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), and Texas (February 1, 1861). These Deep South States, where slavery and cotton plantation agriculture were most dominant, formed the Confederate States of America February 4, 1861, with Jefferson Davis as President, and with a Constitution closely modeled on the U.S. Constitution (see also Confederate States Constitution). After the Battle_of_Fort_Sumter, South Carolina, Lincoln called for troops from all remaining states to recover the forts, resulting in the secession of four more states: Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), Tennessee (May 7, 1861), and lastly, North Carolina (May 20, 1861).

Four "slave states" did not secede, and one seceding state split; these five are known as the Border States. Delaware never considered secession. The Maryland Legislature rejected secession (April 27, 1861), but only after the rioting in Baltimore and other events had prompted a federal declaration of martial law. Missouri and Kentucky remained in the Union, but in both, factions organized "secessions", which were recognized by the Confederate States of America. In Missouri, the State government under Governor Claiborne F. Jackson, a southern sympathizer, evacuated the state capital of Jefferson City when it was attacked by northern Gen. Nathaniel Lyon on June 14, 1861. The elected Missouri government, under Jackson, met in-exile at the town of Neosho, Missouri and adopted a secession ordinance that was recognized by the Confederacy on October 30, 1861 (see the Missouri secession controversy). Meanwhile the Union organized a competing government of the state by calling a constitutional convention, originally convened to vote on secession. Although Kentucky did not secede, for a time, it declared itself neutral in the conflict, and southern sympathizers organized a secession convention, and swore in a Confederate Governor, during a brief sojourn by the Confederate Army. Residents of the northwestern counties of Virginia organized a secession from Virginia and entered the Union as a free state in 1863 as West Virginia.

The southern half of the federal territory of New Mexico voted to secede, and were accepted into the Confederacy as the Territory of Arizona (not shown on the map), with its capital in Mesilla (now New Mexico). Although California was a free state, Lincoln won there with only 32% of the vote, with the other 68% split between the three other parties, including the Southern Democrats.

Origins of the conflict

For details see the main article Origins of the American Civil War. See also the Timeline of events leading to the American Civil War.

Slave "patrollers," mostly poor whites, were given the authority to stop, search, whip, maim, and even kill any slave who violated the slave codes. In their agitation against the South, abolitionists cited the slave codes as example of the barbarism of Southern society. Above a woodcut from the abolitionist Anti-Slavery Almanac (1839) depicts the capture of a fugitive slave by a slave patrol.

On the eve of the Civil War, the United States was a nation divided into four quite distinct regions: the Northeast, with a growing industrial and commercial economy and an increasing density of population; the Northwest, a rapidly expanding region of free farmers; the Upper South, with a settled plantation system and (in some areas) declining economic fortunes; and the Southwest, a booming frontier-like region with expanding cotton economy. With two fundamentally different labor systems at their base, the economic and social changes across the nation's geographical regions – based on free labor in the North and on slavery in the South – underlay distinct visions of society that had emerged by the mid-nineteenth century in the North and in the South.

Before the Civil War, the Constitution provided a basis for peaceful debate over the future of government, and had been able to regulate conflicts of interest and conflicting visions for the new, rapidly expanding nation. For many years, compromises had been made to balance the number of "free states" and "slave states" so that there would be a balance in the Senate. The last slave state admitted was Texas in 1845, with five free states admitted between 1846 and 1859. Kansas's admission as a slave state had recently been blocked, and it was due to enter as a free state instead in 1861. The rise of mass democracy in the industrializing North, the breakdown of the old two-party system, and increasingly virulent and hostile sectional ideologies in the mid-nineteenth century made it highly unlikely, if not impossible, to bring about the gentlemanly compromises of the past (such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850) necessary to avoid crisis.

Sectional tensions changed in their nature and intensity rapidly during the 1850s. The United States Republican Party was established in 1854. The new party opposed the expansion of slavery in the Western territories. Although only a small share of Northerners favored measures to abolish slavery in the South, the Republicans were able to mobilize popular support among Northerners and Westerns who did not want to compete against slave labor if the system were expanded beyond the South. The Republicans won the support of many ex-Whigs and Northern ex-Democrats concerned about the South's disproportionate influence in the Senate, the Buchanan administration, and the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the profitability of cotton, or "King Cotton," as it was touted, solidified the South's dependence on the plantation system and its foundation: slave labor. A small class of slave barons, especially cotton planters, dominated the politics and society of the South.

Southern secession was triggered by the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a moderate in his opposition to slavery. He pledged to do all he could to oppose the expansion of slavery into the territories (thus also preventing the admission of any additional slave states to the Union); but he also said the federal government did not have the power to abolish slavery in the states in which it already existed, and that he would enforce Fugitive Slave Laws. The southern states expected increasing hostility to their "peculiar institution"; not trusting Lincoln, and mindful that many other Republicans were intent on complete abolition of slavery. Lincoln had even encouraged abolitionists with his 1858 "House divided" speech, though that speech was also consistent with an eventual end of slavery achieved gradually and voluntarily with compensation to slave-owners and resettlement of former slaves.

In addition to Lincoln's presidential victory, the slave states had lost the balance of power in the Senate and were facing a future as a perpetual minority after decades of nearly continuous control of the presidency and the Congress. Southerners also felt they could no longer prevent protectionist tariffs such as the Morrill Tariff, which generally placed a greater burden upon the South.

The Southern justification for a unilateral right to secede cited the doctrine of states' rights, which had been debated before with the 1798 Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812, and the 1832 Nullification Crisis with regard to tariffs.

Before Lincoln took office, seven states seceded from the union, establishing a rebel government, the Confederate States of America on February 9, 1861. They took control of federal forts and property within their boundaries, with little resistance from President Buchanan. Ironically, by seceding, the rebel states weakened any claim to the territories that were in dispute, cancelled any obligation for the North to return fugitive slaves, and assured easy passage of many bills and amendments they had long opposed. The Civil War began when Confederate General Pierre Beauregard opened fire upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.

Narrative summary

Battles of the American Civil War by Theater, Year
16th President (1861-1865)
Abraham Lincoln
16th President

Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of 1860 triggered South Carolina's secession from the Union. Leaders in the state had long been waiting for an event that might unite the South against the antislavery forces. Once the election returns were certain, a special South Carolina convention declared "that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the 'United States of America' is hereby dissolved." By February 1, 1861, six more Southern states had seceded. On February 7, the seven states adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America and established their capital at Montgomery, Alabama. The remaining southern states as yet remained in the Union. Several seceding states seized federal forts within their boundaries; President Buchanan made no military response.

Less than a month later, on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he argued that the Constitution was a more perfect union than the earlier Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, that it was a binding contract, and called the secession "legally void". He stated he had no intent to invade southern states, but would use force to maintain possession of federal property. His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union. The South, particularly South Carolina, ignored the plea, and on April 12, the South fired upon the Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina until the troops surrendered.

Lincoln called for all of the states in the Union to send troops to recapture the forts and preserve the Union. Most Northerners believed that a quick brutal victory for the Union would put out the rebellion, and so Lincoln only called for volunteers for 90 days. This resulted in four more states voting to secede. Once Virginia seceded, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Even though the Southern states had seceded, there was considerable anti-secessionist sentiment within several of the seceding states. Eastern Tennessee, in particular, was a hotbed for pro-Unionism. Winston County, Alabama issued a resolution of secession from the state of Alabama. The Red Strings were a prominent Southern anti-secession group.

Winfield Scott created the Anaconda Plan as the Union's main plan of attack during the war.

Eastern Theater 1861-1863

As a Confederate force was built up by July 1861 at Manassas, Virginia, a march by Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell on the Confederate forces there was halted in the First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, whereupon they were forced back to Washington, DC by Confederate troops under the command of Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. Alarmed at the loss, and in an attempt to prevent more slave states from leaving the Union, the U.S. Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution on July 25 of that year which stated that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and not to end slavery.

Major General George McClellan took command of the Union Army of the Potomac on July 26 (he was briefly given supreme command of all the Union armies, but was subsequently relieved of that post in favor of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck), and the war began in earnest in 1862.

Upon the strong urging of President Lincoln to begin offensive operations, McClellan invaded Virginia in the spring of 1862 by way of the peninsula between the York River and James River, southeast of Richmond. His Army of the Potomac reached the gates of Richmond, but Robert E. Lee defeated him in the Seven Days Campaign and forced his retreat; he was stripped of many of his troops to help create John Pope's Union Army of Virginia. Pope was beaten spectacularly by Lee at Second Bull Run in August.

Emboldened by Second Bull Run, the Confederacy made its first invasion of the North, when General Lee led 55,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland on September 5. Lincoln then restored Pope's troops to McClellan. McClellan won a bloody, but inconclusive, victory at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. Lee's army, checked at last, returned to Virginia before McClellan could destroy it. Antietam is considered a Union victory because it halted Lee's invasion of the North and provided justification for Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.

When McClellan failed to follow up on Antietam, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside suffered near-immediate defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was in his turn replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker, too, proved unable to defeat Lee's army, despite possessing twice its numbers, and was humiliated in the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade during Lee's second invasion of the north, in June. Meade defeated Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the largest battle in North American history, which is sometimes considered the war's turning point. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia suffered 28,000 casualties (versus Meade's 23,000), again forcing it to retreat to Virginia, never to invade the north again.

Western Theater 1861-1863

While the Confederate forces had numerous successes in the Eastern theater, they failed in the West. Confederate forces were driven from Missouri early in the war as result of the Battle of Pea Ridge. Leonidas Polk's invasion of Kentucky enraged the citizens who previously had declared neutrality in the war, removing that state from the list of those friendly to the Confederacy.

Nashville, Tennessee fell to the Union early in 1862. Most of the Mississippi was opened with the taking of Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri, and then Memphis, Tennessee. New Orleans, Louisiana, was captured in January, 1862, allowing the Union forces to begin moving up the Mississippi as well. Only the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi prevented full Union control of the river.

Braxton Bragg's second Confederate invasion of Kentucky was repulsed at the bloody Battle of Perryville and he was defeated by William S. Rosecrans at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee.

The one clear Confederate victory in the West was the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee, near the Georgia border, where Bragg, reinforced by the corps of James Longstreet (from Lee's army in the east), defeated Rosecrans and forced him into a siege at Chattanooga.

The Union's key strategist and tactician in the west was Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who won victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, driving Confederate forces out of Tennessee.

Fall of the Confederacy 1864-1865

Jefferson Davis
First and only President of the Confederate States of America

At the beginning of 1864, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac although Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant understood the concept of total war and believed, along with Lincoln and Sherman, that only the utter defeat of Confederate forces and their economic base would bring an end to the war. He devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia and capture Atlanta; Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama.

Union forces in the East attempted to maneuver past Lee and fought several battles during that phase of the Eastern campaign, known as Grant's Overland Campaign. An attempt to outflank Lee from the South failed under Butler, who was corked into the Bermuda Hundred river bend. Grant was tenacious and, despite astonishing losses (over 66,000 casualties in six weeks), kept pressing the Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He pinned down the Confederate army in the Siege of Petersburg, where the two armies engaged in trench warfare for over nine months.

After two failed attempts (under Sigel and David Hunter) to seize key points in the Shenandoah Valley, Grant finally found a commander, Philip Sheridan, aggressive enough to prevail. Sheridan was sent as a result of a raid by Jubal Early, whose corps reached the outer defenses of Washington, scaring the government, before withdrawing back to the Valley. Sheridan defeated Early in a series of battles, decisively at Cedar Creek, and proceeded to destroy the agricultural and industrial base of the Valley, similar to tactics Sherman would use in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Sherman marched from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Georgia, defeating Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John B. Hood. The capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, was a significant factor in re-electing Abraham Lincoln. Leaving Atlanta, he laid waste to much of the rest of Georgia in what has been called Sherman's March to the Sea, reaching the sea at Savannah, Georgia in December, 1864. Burning towns and plantations as they went, Sherman's armies hauled off crops and killed livestock to retaliate and to deny use of these economic assets to the Confederacy, a consequence of Grant's total war doctrine. When Sherman turned north through South Carolina and North Carolina to approach the Virginia lines from the south, it was the end for Lee and his men, and for the Confederacy.

Lee attempted to escape from Petersburg and link up with Johnston in North Carolina, but he was overtaken by Grant. He surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Johnston surrendered his troops to Sherman shortly thereafter. The Battle of Palmito Ranch, fought on May 13, 1865, in the far south of Texas, was the last land battle of the war and ended, ironically, with a Confederate victory. All Confederate land forces surrendered by June 1865. Confederate naval units surrendered as late as November 1865.

Reasons for the Outcome

Why the Confederacy lost, or why the Union won, the Civil War, has been the subject of extensive analysis and debate. Advantages widely believed to have contributed to the Union's success include:

  • The North's strong, industrial economy.
  • The North's strong compatible railroad links (and the South's lack thereof).
  • The North's larger population and greater immigration.
  • The North's possession of the U.S. merchant marine fleet and naval ships (and successful blockade of the South).
  • The North's established government.
  • The North's moral cause (the Emancipation Proclamation) given to the war by Abraham Lincoln mid-way during the war and encouraged international support.
  • The recruitment of black men, including many freed slaves, into the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation was approved: towards the end of the war, the Confederacy relented, and began to allow Blacks to enter the Confederate Army, but this action was only a token effort.

Major land battles

Main article: Battles of the American Civil War

Dead soldiers lie where they fell on the field at Antietam

Major land battles included First Bull Run, Shiloh, The Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Perryville, Fredericksburg, Stones River, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Siege of Petersburg, and the battles of Franklin and Nashville. There was also Jackson's Valley Campaign, the Atlanta Campaign, Red River Campaign, Overland Campaign, Missouri Campaign, Sheridan's Valley Campaign, and many coastal and river battles.

Major naval battles

Main article: Battles of the American Civil War

Major naval battles included Battle of Island Number Ten, Battle of Hampton Roads, Battle of Memphis, Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Battle of Fort Hindman, and Battle of Mobile Bay.

Military/Naval developments in the war

The American Civil War is often called the first modern, or total, war because the economies of the participants were targets as important as the armies in the field. This was most visible in General Sherman's famous March to the Sea. It was the first war fought after the Industrial Revolution that mobilized the entire economy of an emerging first world power. It was also the first war between two industrialized opponents.

The War introduced a number of weapons to widespread military use: the repeating rifle, rifled artillery, machine guns, and land mines (initially rejected as being inhumane). The War was the first in which trenches were dug on a wide scale, such as in defense of Vicksburg or Petersburg.

Railroads were first used at First Bull Run to transport troops into combat and the War was the first in which entire armies were rail-transported long distances. Telegraphs were used routinely to communicate orders between a capital and its armies in the field, or between armies.

All conventional navies became instantly obsolete in the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, which was the first battle in history between ironclads—steam-powered, iron-armored ships with shell-firing guns. The Union's naval blockade of the Confederate coast was one of the most ambitious up to that time, and was the first major blockade under the Declaration of Paris of 1856. The Confederate CSS Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, the USS Housatonic.

Civil War leaders

One of the reasons that the US Civil War wore on as long as it did and the battles were so fierce was that leaders on both sides had formerly served in the United States Armed Forces together, many including Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee during the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848. Most were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where Lee had been commandant for 3 years in the 1850s.

Significant Southern leaders included Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, James Longstreet, P.G.T. Beauregard, John Mosby, Braxton Bragg, James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, William Mahone, Judah P. Benjamin, Jubal Early, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Northern leaders included Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, Edwin M. Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, Joseph Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, Irvin McDowell, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, George Armstrong Custer, Christopher "Kit" Carson, John E. Wool, George G. Meade, and Abner Read.


Slavery and disputes over constitutional questions concerning States' Rights were clearly the "causes" of the war, and Union victors determined to end slavery and to strip the States of their powers to define citizenship and to deny citizens fundamental rights. During the early part of the war, Lincoln, to hold together his war coalition of Republicans and War Democrats, emphasized preservation of the Union as the sole objective of the war, from a northern perspective, but with the Emancipation Proclamation, announced in September 1862, and put in

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