The American Civil War started with the secession crisis on April 12, 1861 and ended up with the assassination of Lincoln and the abolition of slavery on May 9, 1865. It transformed the political, economical and social life of the nation.
It first began with a constitutional struggle and then became a test of federal authority but soon took a broader dimension. The initial belief it would be short proved tragically to be mistaken.
The seceding states fought to achieve independence and yet, they closely modeled the government of their Confederacy on the American one. Lincoln’s administration responded with a crusade to preserve the union and expanded its war aims to include the destruction of slavery and the liberation of all black slaves.
In the end, the Union had been preserved and questions left unresolved had been answered at a very high cost in human terms: 600 000 lives, which is still the largest number of fatality in any American war (it was worse than Vietnam).
The Civil War: the story of a secession
The secession started in South Carolina, which withdrew from the Union. It was a direct response to Lincoln’s election. That decision was taken in December 1860. In less than 6 weeks, the other 6 states of the “Lower South” had also seceded: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
That decision was not really surprising because there were a Southern nationalism and a popular ideal in the South that has existed in the 1850s: the South had its own destiny and could exist as a separate nation.
Some Southerners argued that their section would prosper more outside the Union once free of taxes and tariffs, which increased the costs of their goods to foreign purchasers.
There was also a general atmosphere of anxiousness in the South, full of conspirational theories by 1860: Southerners were paranoid toward the North, perceiving the growing trend of abolitionism as a threat to their way of life.
The last event that quickened the War was the political victory of the Republican Party: Lincoln was elected in 1860 without winning any of the Southern states. It was perceived as a provocation.
On the 4th of March 1861, Lincoln took the oath and became President. Less than a month passed before the creation of a Confederacy from the part of the South.
In February 1861, a new national entity was created: the Confederate States of America, composed of Southern states. They selected Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi cotton planter as their leader. The feeling of secession was not general. There was still a strong opposition (especially from businessmen) to preserve the Union.
In the winter 1860-1861 lots of schemes for re(conciliation) were proposed but they failed. In his inaugural address a s President, Lincoln appealed the South to stay in the Union. He said he would not interfere with slavery but would not allow them to break the United States by seceding. The South did not answer.
On April 12th 1861, the Confederate States opened fire on Fort Sumter (South Carolina). It marked the beginning of the Civil War.
On April 15th, Lincoln proclaimed that an “insurrection” existed in the South. Since army regulars numbered only 60 000, Lincoln called on the Loyal States to raise 75 000 militiamen to serve for 3 months. Soon followed a call for 42 000 state troopers for 3 years. Later, the congress authorized the President to enlist 500 000 volunteers for 3 years.
The call to arms rallied support of Lincoln in the North but also tested the loyalty of the states bordering slave states. As a result, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina seceded, strengthening the Confederacy.
The capital of the South was moved from Montgomery to Richmond. In 4 other slave states – Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland – unionist sentiments proved strong enough to avoid secession. After the Northern and Southern calls to arms, volunteers rushed forwards in thousands in both sides.
The decision was hard to make and it sometimes split whole families (3 of Lincoln’s own brothers-in-law died for the South). The first month, the Union blockaded harbors in the South to prevent the Confederation from selling its cotton abroad and from obtaining foreign supplies.
The Forces in opposition
The superiority of the Union was great in terms of human and physical resources. The population of the Loyal states was 20 700 000 people while the total population of the 17 states composing the Confederacy was 9 100 000, of whom 3 500 000 were black slaves.
The roads and railways, factories and businesses, banking capital and investment and food suppliers were vastly superior in the Loyal states. The North grew more food crops than the South and had more than 5 times the manufacturing capacity (including weapon factories). So the North seemed to be far more superior than the South before the War.
In order to offset the North, the South expected to rely on cotton factories and industries. Moreover, the North had to face a major difficulty: the only way the North could win the War was to invade the South, which only had to hold out and to wait till the North grew tired of fighting.
One major asset of the South was the number of trained military leaders who had attended West Point and who organized the Southern army. Furthermore, most battles took place in the South.
In terms of morale, the Confederate soldiers were defending their land/home and fought with spirit. The South denied they were fighting mainly to preserve slavery: most Southerners had no slaves and were poor farmers.
They were attached to the land, fighting for their independence from the North, just as their grand-parents had fought for their independence against Britain. It explains how valiant they were.
The War took place in 2 areas: Virginia and the Mississippi Valley. Lincoln settled on 3 objectives:
- the capture of Richmond
- the blockade of the harbors of the Confederation
- the control of the Mississippi River
“On to Richmond !” was the motto. In Virginia, during the first year, the Union army knew defeat after defeat and was thrown back with heavy losses.
The Confederate forces had 3 advantages:
- the topography: land and rivers
- the distance for forces to reach the battlefields : they had to travel dozens of miles while the Union forces had to travel hundreds
- the quality of the leaders with Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson, nicknamed “Stonewall” for he stood firm against unionists and did not move an inch. They showed much more skilled than the Union generals.
The North’s early defeats in Virginia discouraged its supporters. As a consequence, the flood of volunteers began to dry out. The first defeats took place in Bull Run and in Antietam in September 1862. Antietam was the bloodiest single day battle of the War with 4 500 casualties and 18 500 people injured.
In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces had more success. In April 1862, an officer called David Farragut sailed Union ships into the mouth of the river and captured New Orleans.
At the same time, other Union forces were fighting their way from the North. By Spring 1863, the Union armies were closing in on an important confederate stronghold called Vicksburg.
On July 4th, after much bloody fighting and a siege lasting six weeks, Vicksburg capitulated and surrendered to the Union army led by General Ulysses S. Grant. That fall was a heavy blow to the South because Union forces now controlled the whole length of the Mississippi. They had split the Confederacy into two and it became impossible to Western confederate states like Texas to send anymore men or supplies to the East.
Yet, by 1863, many Northern abolitionists were tired of the war, sickened by its heavy cost in lives and money. General Lee believed that if his army could win a decisive victory on North soil, the popular opinion might force the Union government to make peace. In the last week of June 1863, Lee marched his army North into Pennsylvania. A Union army blocked his way at a small town named Gettysburg.
The battle which followed was the biggest ever fought in the US: it marked a turning point for the Confederacy. In three days of fighting, more than 50 000 men were killed or wounded. On the 4th day, Lee broke off the battle and led his men back into the South: the Confederacy had suffered the most terrible defeat of the South, from which it would never recover.
Another important event is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19th 1863. Lincoln had realized in 1862 that the North would only win the war if he could arouse more enthusiasm for his cause.
That is why he issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, which declares that -from January 1st 1863-, “all persons held as slaves…shall be then…forever free”. All slaves were to be free, but only if they lived in the States belonging to the Confederacy.
It changed the purpose of the war: first, it was a struggle to preserve the union, then a struggle to abolish slavery.
A Northern victory
By 1864, the Confederacy was running out of almost everything: men, equipment, money, food. The union armies moved in to end the war in Fall 1864. In November, the Union army led by General Sherman began to march through Georgia. Its soldiers destroyed everything on their path: they burnt crops and buildings and torn up railroad tracks.
On December 22nd, The Union army occupied the city of Savannah and split again East from West. Then Sherman turned North, marched through the Carolinas as he made for Richmond. “Total War” is the worst aspect of the war for it consists in inflicting horrors to the civilian population. The reason is obvious: to quicken the end of the war and to break the South’s will to resist.
Richmond was already in danger with Grant’s army: by March 1865, Grant had almost encircled the city. On April 2nd, Lee was forced to abandon it in order to save his army from being trapped and marched South, hoping to fight from a higher position. But Grant followed close behind and blocked him.
April 9th 1965: Lee met Grant in a tiny mini village called Appomatox (Virginia). Lee surrendered his army and Grant treated the defeated Confederate soldiers generously. After they had given up their weapons and promised never again to fight against the USA, Grant allowed them to go home: “the war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” (Grant).
The war put an end to slavery everywhere in the USA and contributed to the elaboration of the 13th Amendment in the American Constitution. Finally, the war decided that the US was one nation whose parts could not be separated. But it left bitter memories.
The US weighed other wars later but all the wars it was engaged in took place outside its own boundaries. The American Civil War caused terrible distractions at home. In this war, more Americans died than in any other war before or since: 635 000 casualties.