Introduction to American Civil War

The American Civil War was a four-year armed conflict between northern and southern sections of the United States. It also is called the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War for the Union, and the War for Southern Independence. Many Civil War battles also have more than one name; in this article, the more common names are used, with alternative names in parentheses. The fighting began April 12, 1861, and lasted until April and May, 1865. There was neither a formal declaration of war nor a formal armistice.

UniformsUniforms of the Union Army.

The Civil War cost more American lives than any other war in history. What began for many as a romantic adventure soon became a heartbreaking bitter struggle between the two parts of a divided country. Families were divided, sometimes with brother fighting against brother.

The North far surpassed the South in population, wealth, industrial capacity, and natural resources. The South, however, had the advantage of fighting a defensive war. It did not have to conquer the North to win, but had merely to wear it out.

Important events during the American Civil War
April 12 Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter.
April 15 Lincoln issued a call for troops.
April 19 Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of the South.
May 21 Richmond, Virginia, chosen as the Confederate capital.
July 21 Northern troops retreated in disorder after the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
Feb. 6 Fort Henry fell to Union forces.
Feb. 16 Grant's troops captured Fort Donelson.
March 9 The ironclad ships Monitor and Merrimack (Virginia) battled to a draw.
April 6-7 Both sides suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Shiloh, won by the Union.
April 16 The Confederacy began to draft soldiers.
April 18-25 Farragut attacked and captured New Orleans.
May 4 McClellan's Union troops occupied Yorktown, Virginia, and advanced on Richmond.
May 30 Northern forces occupied Corinth, Mississippi.
June 6 Memphis fell to Union armies.
June 25-July 1 Confederate forces under Lee saved Richmond in the Battles of the Seven Days.
Aug. 27-30 Lee and Jackson led Southern troops to victory in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
Sept. 17 Confederate forces retreated in defeat after the bloody Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg).
Sept. 22 Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Oct. 8 Buell's forces ended Bragg's invasion of Kentucky in the Battle of Perryville.
Dec. 13 Burnside's Union forces received a crushing blow in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Dec. 31-Jan. 2, 1863 Union troops under Rosecrans forced the Confederates to retreat after the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro).
Jan. 1 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
March 3 The North passed a draft law.
May 1-4 Northern troops under Hooker were defeated in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
May 1-19 Grant's army defeated the Confederates in Mississippi and began to besiege Vicksburg.
July 1-3 The Battle of Gettysburg ended in a Southern defeat and marked a turning point in the war.
July 4 Vicksburg fell to Northern troops.
July 8 Northern forces occupied Port Hudson, Louisiana.
Sept. 19-20 Southern troops under Bragg won the Battle of Chickamauga.
Nov. 19 Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Nov. 23-25 Grant and Thomas led Union armies to victory in the Battle of Chattanooga.
March 9 Grant became general in chief of the North.
May 5-6 Union and Confederate troops clashed in the Battle of the Wilderness.
May 8-19 Grant and Lee held their positions in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
June 3 The Union suffered heavy losses on the final day of the Battle of Cold Harbor.
June 20 Grant's troops laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia.
July 11-12 Early's Confederate forces almost reached Washington but retreated after brief fighting.
Aug. 5 Farragut won the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Sept. 2 Northern troops under Sherman captured Atlanta.
Sept. 19-Oct. 19 Sheridan led his troops on a rampage of destruction in the Shenandoah Valley.
Nov. 8 Lincoln was reelected president.
Nov. 15 Sherman began his march through Georgia.
Nov. 23 Hood invaded Tennessee.
Nov. 30 Schofield's Union forces inflicted heavy losses on Hood in the Battle of Franklin.
Dec. 15-16 The Battle of Nashville smashed Hood's army.
Dec. 21 Sherman's troops occupied Savannah, Georgia.
Feb. 6 Lee became general in chief of the South.
April 2 Confederate troops gave up Petersburg and Richmond.
April 9 Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
April 14 Lincoln was shot. He died the following morning.
April 26 Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
May 4 Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi surrendered.
May 11 Jefferson Davis was captured.
May 26 The last Confederate troops surrendered.


The overriding cause of the Civil War was the dispute over the enslavement of blacks in the South. In the 40 years before the Civil War the issue had bitterly divided the country. The South considered slavery necessary to its economy and feared that freeing the slaves would lead to violence, revolution, and social upheaval. Southerners considered slavery to be constitutionally protected, and held that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery. In the North, however, there was a growing antislavery movement, which opposed slavery in the South and, especially, its expansion into the western territories.

UniformsUniforms of the Confederate Army.

The expansion of slavery became the center of the controversy. The South feared that with the admission of non-slave territories as states of the Union, the South's equality in the U.S. Senate would end. Long outvoted in the House of Representatives, the Southern states would lose protection for slavery in the Senate, and slavery would be threatened in the South itself. Most Northerners opposed expansion because they opposed slavery; some opposed it because they believed that slave labor would compete unfairly with free labor.

This sectional dispute came to a head following the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the Presidency in 1860. Although the Republicans had pledged not to seek the abolition of slavery in those areas where it already existed, they did oppose its expansion. The South, therefore, saw Lincoln's election as a severe threat.

Southern states asserted the principle of state sovereignty; that is, that the states had supremacy over the federal government, and had the right to secede (withdraw) from the Union. One month after Lincoln's election, the legislature of South Carolina voted to secede. By early February, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had taken similar steps. Early in February, delegates from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as President and Alexander H. Stephens as Vice President.

The seceding states claimed the right to federal property within their borders. When President Lincoln ordered reinforcement of Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, the first shots of the war were fired. On April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries opened fire on Major Robert Anderson's Federal garrison. With the surrender of the fort the next day, all efforts at compromise were abandoned. Lincoln appealed for 75,000 volunteers to save the Union, and ordered a naval blockade of Southern ports. Shortly thereafter Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee joined the Confederacy, and Richmond, Virginia, was made the capital.

The War In 1861

In response to popular cries of On to Richmond, a Union army under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell began on July 16 a slow advance from near Washington toward the Confederate capital. On July 21, the Union forces encountered Confederate troops under Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard about 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Washington. In the ensuing Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), the Northern troops were defeated and forced to retreat to the Potomac River.

In early summer, Union troops led by Major General George B. McClellan drove Confederate forces out of the western part of Virginia. This part of the state, where there was little sympathy for the Confederacy, formed a pro-Union government, and in 1863 was admitted to the Union as the state of West Virginia. In late July, Lincoln summoned McClellan to command the main Union force in the East, the Army of the Potomac. McClellan spent the rest of the year organizing and training his army.


The West

In February, Brigadier General U. S. Grant, aided by Commodore A. H. Foote's naval gunboats, took Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. This forced the Confederates out of Kentucky and a large part of Tennessee. The Confederates evacuated Nashville on February 23; it was the first Confederate state capital to fall to the Union. They then retreated to Corinth, Mississippi, where they organized a counteroffensive. The Battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing) began on April 6, when the Confederates attacked Grant's troops. They had initial success, but were driven off with heavy losses the next day. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was mortally wounded on the first day of the battle. General Beauregard was his successor.

Bloody battlesBloody battles raged throughout the west.

General H. W. Halleck, who had been given command of all the western Union armies, had ordered Major General John Pope to take New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River. With the cooperation of Foote's naval forces, this was done on April 7. Halleck then marched the combined forces of Major Generals Grant and Don C. Buell against Corinth, Mississippi, where the Confederates had retired after Shiloh. Halleck arrived on May 30 to find the Confederates gone. In April Captain D. G. Farragut with a naval force took New Orleans, leaving the Confederates in control of the river only between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

A Confederate invasion of Kentucky under General Braxton Bragg was turned back by General Buell's forces at the Battle of Perryville. However, Buell did not forcefully pursue Bragg, and was replaced by William S. Rosecrans. The armies of Bragg and Rosecrans met at the Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro) and fought to a standstill December 31, 1862 January 2, 1863. The battle is considered a Union victory, however, because Bragg retreated south on January 3.

The East

Early in 1862, President Lincoln ordered McClellan to make a determined effort to take Richmond. McClellan planned to take the city from the east, by marching up the peninsula between the York and James rivers.

The Union army of 100,000 men was moved by water to Fort Monroe, Virginia, in late March. McClellan faced only a small Confederate force of about 17,000 men. However, he overestimated the strength of the enemy, and instead of attacking, he began a siege of the Confederate position at Yorktown, on April 5. The Confederates evacuated Yorktown after a month, during which time they were able to move reinforcements to the peninsula.

There was fighting at Williamsburg on May 5. Union troops reached and crossed the Chickahominy River on May 20. Here they were faced by a Confederate force of about 60,000, under General Joseph E. Johnston.

Meanwhile, Confederate General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson tied down three small Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley. Making superb use of his small force, Jackson moved his men up and down the valley, fighting a series of engagements with Union troops. His rapid and deceptive maneuvering caused fear that Washington might be attacked, and consequently, the Union armies in the valley were withheld from the Peninsular Campaign.

On May 31 and June 1, General Johnston tried unsuccessfully to break through McClellan's lines outside Richmond in the Battle of Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines). Johnston was wounded in the battle, and was succeeded by General Robert E. Lee.

During the next three weeks there was little fighting. The Confederate J. E. B. Stuart, however, made a spectacular cavalry raid, circling entirely around the Union army on June 11, 12, and 13.

McClellan received reinforcements and planned to resume the offensive. Lee, however, was too quick for him and attacked the Union right flank at Mechanicsville. This was the beginning of the Seven Days' Battles. After the Battle of Gaines's Mill, McClellan moved his base of operations to Harrison's Landing, on the James River. The Confederates remained on the offensive, attacking repeatedly until by July 1 McClellan had retreated to a strong position at Malvern Hill, northwest of Harrison's Landing.

Lee's troops attacked on July 1. The assaults were all frontal and were delivered piecemeal by only part of the army. Union artillery halted them and shattered the attacking units, inflicting more than 5,300 casualties. This was the last battle of the Peninsular Campaign. The Union forces fell back and dug in at Harrison's Landing. The exhausted Confederates were ordered back to the Richmond lines for rest and reorganization.

On July 11, Halleck was appointed general-in-chief. McClellan was ordered to abandon the peninsula and withdrew by water to Aquia Creek, on the Potomac. Pope was called from the west to command the newly formed Army of Virginia. McClellan's Army of the Potomac and Pope's Army of Virginia were to join between Richmond and Washington.

Before this could happen, Lee and Jackson moved against Pope's army and maneuvered him back to the old Bull Run battleground. Here on August 2830 was fought the second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas). Pope fought hard but was outgeneraled and defeated, afterwards withdrawing his troops to the defenses of Washington. Pope's army was then merged with the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan in command.

Lee invaded Maryland in early September. McClellan moved to counter the invasion, and halted the Confederates at the battles of South Mountain, September 14, and Antietam (or Sharpsburg), September 17. McClellan, however, did not vigorously pursue the exhausted Confederate army, allowing Lee to escape across the Potomac.

Angered by McClellan's inaction, Lincoln replaced him in November with General Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside advanced to Fredericksburg, where Lee established a secure position on Marye's Heights, a bluff overlooking the town. Burnside ordered a direct assault on Lee's position, and his forces were repulsed in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.


On January 1, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which followed a preliminary proclamation made on September 22, 1862. The proclamation declared that all slaves held in territory controlled by the Confederates were henceforth free. It did not actually free any slaves, but made the abolition of slavery an issue of the war. This had an important effect on world opinion.

Eastern Campaigns

General Joseph Hooker succeeded Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac and in May launched an offensive with heavy numerical superiority. Again Lee and Jackson were better in maneuver, and Hooker was badly defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 24). However, during the battle, Jackson was accidentally shot and mortally wounded by his own troops, depriving the Confederacy of one of its ablest generals.

Union soldiersUnion soldiers engage confederate troops.

In late June, Lee again invaded the north. Before the armies made contact, Hooker was replaced by General George G. Meade. At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first three days of July, the armies met in the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. On July 3, Lee risked everything in an direct assault on the Union center. The attack, called Pickett's Charge, was repelled by withering artillery volleys. The failure of Pickett's Charge was a crucial turning point in the war, and the assault's point of farthest advance is sometimes called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. After their defeat, Lee's men retreated into Virginia, and the armies maneuvered indecisively for the rest of the year.


In the west, Grant began operations against Vicksburg. The capture of this city would open the Mississippi River to Union transportation, and cut off Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas from the rest of the Confederacy. In May, Grant marched his army down the west bank of the river to a point below Vicksburg. Here Flag Officer David D. Porter, who had led his river fleet past Vicksburg at night, ferried the army to the east bank. In five sharp battles, Grant prevented Johnston from reinforcing Vicksburg's defenders, and drove General John C. Pemberton into the city, which was then besieged. On July 4, the day after Gettysburg, Pemberton surrendered his starving army to Grant. Four days later, Port Hudson surrendered to General Nathaniel P. Banks. Lincoln said, The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.


From the beginning of 1863, Rosecrans and Bragg had faced each other between Murfreesboro and Chattanooga. In late June, Rosecrans executed a series of skillful flanking movements that maneuvered Bragg out of Chattanooga. While Rosecrans was in pursuit, General James Longstreet arrived to aid Bragg with a corps from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Rosecrans was trapped and badly defeated at Chickamauga, Georgia (September 1920). Only the stand of General George H. Thomasthereafter called The Rock of Chickamaugasaved Rosecrans' army from complete rout. His army then moved to Chattanooga, where it was besieged by the Confederates.

In October, Grant was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and Thomas replaced Rosecrans. Grant's first move was to open a supply line into Chattanooga so his starving troops could be fed. He then planned a full-scale battle to raise the siege. Hooker, with a corps from the Army of the Potomac, captured Lookout Mountain on November 24. The next day, General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, attacked the Confederate right flank. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, was ordered to make a diversionary attack in the center. Instead, his troops charged up Missionary Ridge and scattered Bragg's main forces into nearby Georgia. They were reassembled at Dalton, and Joseph E. Johnston replaced Bragg.


The Wilderness Campaign

In March, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in command of all Union armies. He stationed himself with the Army of the Potomac, still under the nominal command of Meade. In May he crossed the Rapidan River in Virginia and was stopped by Lee in the bloody, indecisive two-day Battle of the Wilderness (May 56).

Grant expressed his determination not to withdraw by saying he would fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. He tried a flanking movement and again was halted by Lee in a series of battles near Spotsylvania Court House, May 819. Some of the most savage fighting of the war took place there at a Confederate salient called the Bloody Angle. Grant tried another flanking movement, but Lee anticipated it, and moved to a new position near Cold Harbor. On June 3, Grant launched a large-scale frontal attack on the Confederate position, but was beaten back with heavy losses.

The Siege of Petersburg

Grant's next move, crossing the James River in a wide flanking march that shifted his base of supply, nearly caught Lee off guard. Only Beauregard's prompt action in assembling reserve troops saved Petersburg, Virginia, the key to Richmond. Grant then began a siege of Petersburg. Both sides dug long lines of trenches. All attempts by the Union forces to break through the Confederate defenses failed. Union engineers tunneled under a strong point in the Confederate lines and placed 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of gunpowder there. On July 30 the powder was detonated, and Union troops attacked the stunned Confederates. The attacking troops, however, became trapped in the crater made by the explosion, and suffered heavy losses.

Early's Raids

In the hope of forcing Grant to withdraw troops from the lines, General Jubal A. Early attempted a diversion from the Shenandoah Valley. Early crossed the Potomac into Maryland and threatened Washington. Lincoln was under fire while inspecting a fort at the outskirts of the capital. Early, however, did not have enough troops to press home the attack and withdrew to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant then organized an army under General P. H. Sheridan to destroy Early's army and lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley, the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. Sheridan decisively defeated Early at Cedar Creek on October 19.

Sherman's March to the Sea

Sherman started an advance against Atlanta in May, at the same time that Grant began the campaign in the East. Sherman's force was so much larger than his enemy's that he could use two of his armies to hold Johnston, while using the third to threaten the Confederate flank or rear. However, Johnston was a master of delaying tactics, and refused to be trapped into a general battle.

As Johnston slowly fell back toward Atlanta, Sherman became impatient and ordered a frontal attack at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia (June 27). It failed, but he continued his flanking movements and crossed the Chattahoochee River, threatening Atlanta. President Davis then replaced Johnston with General John B. Hood. Hood attacked, but gained no advantage in the battles of Peachtree Creek and Atlanta (July 20 and 22). The city was then besieged. Hood gave up Atlanta in September and attempted to attack Sherman's lines of supply, but was unsuccessful.

Sherman sent Thomas in pursuit of Hood, then began one of the most remarkable military exploits of the war. Abandoning its supply lines and living off the land, Sherman's huge army marched across central Georgia to Savannah, destroying supply depots, railroads, barns, and crops as they went. They left a swath of destruction some 60 miles (96 km) wide and 300 miles (480 km) long, demonstrating that the Confederates could no longer defend their own territory.

As Hood moved northward, he attacked General John M. Schofield at Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30. The battle was short, sharp, and furious. Schofield beat off Hood. Six Confederate generals were killed. At Nashville on December 15 and 16 Thomas attacked, destroying Hood's army as an effective force.


Lee was appointed general in chief of the Southern armies in February. Grant continued to extend his lines around Petersburg through the winter and spring, until Lee's smaller army was stretched so thin it could no longer hold. The Confederate line was broken when Sheridan's troops flanked the defenders at Five Forks, on April 1; Petersburg and Richmond were given up two days later. Lee moved westward in the hope of joining Johnston, but was cut off at Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered to Grant on April 9.

Lee surrendersLee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.

Sherman, who had captured Savannah in December, moved northward in February and took Columbia, South Carolina. As he entered North Carolina, he was opposed at Averasboro and Bentonville by an army assembled by Johnston. After Lee's surrender, Johnston asked for terms, and surrendered his army on April 26 at Durham Station. Smaller Confederate forces surrendered during April and May. Northern rejoicing brought on by the end of the war was cut short on April 14, when Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an emotionally unstable Southern sympathizer.

Naval Warfare

The Union navy, headed by its able secretary, Gideon Welles, blockaded the Southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts throughout the war. The blockade at first was largely a paper blockade, because of lack of ships, but became increasingly effective as the war progressed. However, blockade runners managed to get through until the very end of the war, carrying important supplies to Southern ports by way of the Bahamas and Mexico. The Confederates' most effective naval actions were carried out by British-built commerce raidersthe Alabama, Florida, Shenandoah, and otherswhich attacked Union merchant shipping.

Confederate forcesConfederate forces were defeated at Mobile Bay in 1864.

A diplomatic problem arose between the United States and Great Britain after the Union warship San Jacinto halted the British mail packet Trent and forcibly removed two Confederate envoys destined for England and France. Britain protested, and threatened war, but the affair was settled after the United States disavowed the action of the Trent and released the envoys.

The most significant ship duel of the war occurred in Hampton Roads at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, between the Union ship Monitor and the Confederate ship Virginia (or Merrimack, the ship's original name). This battle, fought in March, 1862, was the first ever between two ironclad (armored) ships. The battle was a draw, but the Monitor proved itself to be the superior ship.

By early 1863, most of the Atlantic coast from Norfolk to the southern tip of Florida was under Union control. In August of 1864, Farragut entered Mobile Bay and destroyed or captured a number of Confederate ships; the city of Mobile, however, did not fall until April, 1865.

Results of the War

Nearly all the fighting took place on Southern soil, so that section suffered heavy war damage. Some regions, such as central Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, were deliberately ravaged. Freeing of the slaves added a property loss estimated at two billion dollars. The Federal government spent more than six billion dollars on the war; the Confederacy, perhaps two billion dollars.

Both sides sustained heavy casualties. There were far more deaths caused by disease than by combat. Estimated total deaths are 360,000 for the Union army and 260,000 for the Confederate army.


Physical reconstruction in the South was a great problem, but more serious difficulties were encountered in the effort to politically reintegrate the Southern states into the Union. Both Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, wanted the conditions for the readmission of the rebellious states into the Union to be mild and conciliatory. However, some Republican congressmen, known as the Radical Republicans, considered the Presidential conditions to be too lenient, and formulated their own Reconstruction policy.

The objectives of the Radical Republicans were to protect the former slaves (or freedmen) and to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, whom they considered to be traitors. All Confederate leaders were denied their civil rights, but only Jefferson Davis was charged with treason. He spent two years in prison but was never brought to trial.

The Radical Republicans outraged white Southerners by enacting laws that gave political and economic rights to blacks. The Southern response was sometimes violent; the Ku Klux Klan was formed to terrorize blacks and other supporters of Reconstruction. To enforce its Reconstruction policies, Congress imposed military rule on most of the South in 1867. Governments formed under Reconstruction were sometimes inefficient and corrupt, but they enacted much progressive legislation. Eventually the commitment of the Federal government to its Reconstruction policies waned; by 1877 all Southern states were controlled by white supremacists, who began to strip blacks of their political, economic, and civil rights.

Military Lessons

The Civil War is often called the first modern war. It saw the introduction of rapid-fire weapons. Trenches were first used extensively in battle. The railway and the telegraph were first used in a large-scale war. The campaigns of Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, and Joseph E. Johnston were studied abroad for new concepts of strategy and tactics. At sea, ironclad ships and rifled cannon had made the wooden navies of the world obsolete.

Interest in the campaigns, and in the personalities of Lincoln, Lee, and other leaders, made the Civil War one of the most studied periods in American history. It has been a subject for many best-selling novels and much poetry. Its story continues to fascinate historians, writers, and hobbyists.