The Civil War

The Civil War was the largest armed conflict ever fought on American soil. It raged from 1861 to 1865 between the United States, known as the Union, and the Confederate States of America, a group of eleven states that had declared their secession and formed a new government. The tension between the two sides began over the desire of the Southern states to continue the practice of chattel slavery, which the US government began to move away from with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The question of slavery was not simply moral and ethical – whether it was right to treat some human beings as less than others because of their race. For the Southern states, slavery also represented complicated political and economic issues as well. The plantation-based economies of the Southern states relied heavily on slave labor and were seeking to expand the practice into new territories. With Lincoln’s election, the Southern way of life was threatened, prompting states to argue that the federal government was no longer acting in their best interests; the argument over state’s rights ultimately led to secession.

The Confederacy formed their own government, electing President Jefferson Davis, and went so far as to set up their own cabinet and laws and print their own money. These acts were seen as treasonous against the United States and the North did not acknowledge the legality of secession. Rather than being a war over slavery, which was only one of many causes, the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union.

The strength of the northern Union army was nearly double that of the southern Confederacy. Most of the battles were fought in the east in the border states between the North and the South, though the war was also taken to sea in naval fights. Because the two sides were not fighting for geographic territory, the main objective was to take out the enemy soldier. For four years, both sides struggled for small victories while losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the process.

The estimated total number of soldiers killed in action for the Union was over 140,000, for the Confederacy the number was over 72,000. Over 50,000 civilians died in the conflict. The over half million total dead included those who perished due to infection, complications following crude and poorly performed surgeries, disease, malnutrition and starvation. Supplies and food became impossible to find and field hospitals set up to treat the wounded were little more than filthy tents in meadows where amputations were done without anesthetic. An estimated 60,000 soldiers lost limbs because of the war.

There were devastating losses on both sides and America’s economy ground to a halt. Ultimately, the war ended when General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army plowed into Virginia and forced the Confederate General Robert E. Lee to vacate the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. In a gesture to help welcome the Southern states back into the Union, Confederate soldiers were pardoned. Five days later, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. Andrew Johnson became the 17th President of the United States.

The process of reconciliation and reconstruction that followed the Civil War was complicated. The South was ravaged by the war, many cities were burned to the ground and many farms and plantations destroyed. The Southern economy went from exporting 70% of the nations goods to about 2%. Over three million recently emancipated slaves were free, but had nowhere to go. Congress passed three Constitutional amendments in an effort to resolve the effects of the war, though the legacy of perhaps the most divisive period in American history lingers on today.