The American Civil War

8 minute read

Brief History

Between 1861 and 1865, a civil war was fought in the United States between the Union (also referred to as The North) and the Confederacy (also called The South). Eleven of the southern states seceded (declared their separation and independence) from the U.S. due to a variety of ongoing social, political, and economic issues. The recently elected President (Abraham Lincoln) was of the Republican Party, which was against expanding the institution of slavery to other states. The southern states, whose economy relied upon labor provided by the slaves, disagreed with this. They also felt the government was not addressing their needs. The southern states then formed the Confederate States of America. The other 25 states supported the U.S. government (the Union) and current president in their belief that secession is illegal and an act of rebellion and vowed to preserve the Union.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Causes: The U.S. Civil War cannot be attributed to a single event; it was the culmination of several deeply rooted issues in American society. It was caused by a variety of sentiments that were and still are engrained in the U.S. In fact, many of the reasons that secession and the war took place are still contentious issues in U.S. politics today. For example, should laws governing the country be up to the federal government or for individual states to decide? What happens when the country is deeply divided on an issue?

The underlying cause was the institution of slavery and whether or not it should be expanded to U.S. territories other than the southern states, or if it should even exist at all. There was a huge movement in the North to end slavery. The abolitionists, people who believed slavery to be immoral and unjust, called for the liberation of all slaves. The Underground Railroad was a code name for the alliance of "safe houses" where escaped slaves could seek refuge along the route to freedom in the North. The South saw abolitionism as a major threat to their way of life. They especially resented that the North granted slaves their freedom in exchange for their fighting on the side of the Union. Many slaves jumped at this opportunity because of the chance to gain their own freedom and to fight for the freedom of others.

Also, the economy in the northern states differed greatly from the economy of the southern states. Sectionalism, or the increasing differences between society and beliefs in the North and South, was another major factor. The North was more industrial and had become more urbanized, whereas the South was agricultural and plantation-based. It relied on slave labor to keep the economy going. The South complained that the North was changing and becoming too modern, straying from the true republican values that the nation was founded upon; in fact, many of the country's "Founding Fathers" owned slaves themselves.

The period before the war was an incredibly tense time. The issues divided Americans over a huge number of factors—geographic/sectional reasons, religious, political and ethical. The result of this intensity was the South's secession from the Union, which paved the way for the deadliest war in American history, since Americans were fighting on both sides.

The War: The fighting officially began when the Confederates attacked a Union fort (Fort Sumter) that was in the territory that the Confederates claimed now belonged to them.

In the North, the "Anaconda Plan" was devised in order to severely weaken the South. This plan created a blockade around the South's main ports along the coast, and was effective in preventing incoming and outgoing ships. The South could no longer export cotton, their most lucrative cash crop that their economy depended on, and there were shortages in food and other supplies. The name "Anaconda" was given to this strategy since the blockade made a shape like an anaconda on the map.

Battles were fought predominantly on two fronts (or "theaters"), the eastern and western. The battles on the eastern theater, the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, were mainly the Union's attempts to move south to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The eastern theater received more attention because more of the population resided there. There were more major cities, newspapers, and strategic significance. The bloodiest battle of the war, Gettysburg (July 1863), and the bloodiest single day of the war, at the Battle of Antietam (1862), were both fought in the eastern theater.

The western theater was also significant as its more open territory and less-populated lands created a different type of warfare and strategy. There were almost constant Confederate defeats in this area, since they were defending a large area and being attacked from the north on multiple sides. The North also had control of the Mississippi River in this region, which the South depended on for resources.

The Confederacy was eventually defeated for a few key reasons. Union General Sherman had burned down major cities in the South, devastating the state of Georgia. Inflation was also a problem in both the North and South, but had more of an effect on the South, causing a great deal of hunger and suffering. The Union army also outnumbered the Confederate Army. Confederate General Lee was able to hold out for a while, but the Confederacy was eventually weakened to the point of defeat in the spring of 1865. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 near Appomattox Court House, ending the war.

Reconstruction and Impact: The period through the end of the Civil War through 1877 is known as Reconstruction. The U.S. was faced with the difficult job of putting itself back together again. Inflation had widespread effects on the economy and the country needed to rebuild the railroads, cities, and plantations in the South that had been destroyed. Elections were permitted in the states that had seceded to restore order quickly. Many Union troops also remained in the South to oversee the rebuilding and restructuring efforts.

Another aspect of Reconstruction was that there were also now huge numbers of newly freed slaves without homes or jobs. Some were given land by the president, but others had no jobs and nowhere to go. Three important constitutional amendments were passed at this time. The first ended slavery, the second made former slaves U.S. citizens, and the third gave former male slaves the right to vote. In 1877 the Southern states used their restored political power to pass laws that discriminated against black people, also known as the Jim Crow Laws. These laws took away many of the rights that had been granted to former slaves and their descendents. The consequences of the new amendments and the Jim Crow Laws were enormous for the country and led to issues with race relations, later racial tensions and even the Civil Rights Movement.

Since the war played such a large part in American history, there a number of museums containing Civil War artifacts and art, and reenactments of battles are still performed today. You can visit many of the battle sites, too, such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Today, there are still feelings of resentment on both sides. Diverse beliefs and values are part of what makes the U.S. special and unique. Unfortunately this is also what causes conflicts in the country. The issues surrounding the Civil War are still relevant today, and can be seen in class warfare as well as political tensions between conservative and liberal schools of thought. The big picture is that even though the United States of America can often be divided in terms of the varying beliefs of its citizens, the U.S. has learned from the past, has faith in the democratic process, and today tries to work through these issues without turning inward to civil war.

Key Battles

- Battle of Antietam: The first major battle of the Civil War to take place on Union soil, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. It was the bloodiest single day of the war with 23,000 casualties.

- Battle of Gettysburg: Known as the "turning point" of the war, this battle had the largest number of casualties and resulted in a Union victory. It took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1-3 of 1863.

Important People and Terms

- President Abraham Lincoln: The 16th President of the United States and sitting president during the Civil War until his assassination in 1865. Lincoln is known for leading the country through one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history, ending the institution of slavery, and keeping the country together and on the right path.

- Robert E. Lee: The commander of the Confederate Army.

- Ulysses S. Grant: The commander of the Union Army who later became the 18th President of the United States.

- Reconstruction: The name given to the period following the war. The United States had to "reconstruct" itself physically due to the widespread damage from the battles, and symbolically, by reuniting the country and solving the problems that led to the war in the first place. - Abolitionism: The movement to end slavery.

- Emancipation Proclamation: This was a declaration made by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 that declared the freedom of slaves. Slavery was made illegal everywhere in the U.S. by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.

- Gettysburg Address: A famous speech delivered by President Lincoln during the Civil War, and one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. It was given during the cemetery dedication in Gettysburg, the site of a famous battle fought four months earlier. Its purpose was to encourage Americans to stand by the Union and democracy during this hard time and make way for "a new birth of freedom" and make it known that "all men are created equal."


- The estimated death toll from the war is 10 percent of all Northern males 20-45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males, aged 18-40.

- The Confederate flag had 13 stars, one for every state that seceded and also including Kentucky and Missouri, who were accepted into the Confederacy.

- The war killed 40% of the South's livestock, and destroyed over one half of its farm machinery.

- More than half of all deaths during the American Civil War were the result of disease (typhoid fever, dysentery, tuberculosis and pneumonia) and not from gunshot wounds.

- During the Battle of Antietam, a nurse named Clara Barton was treating soldiers so close to the fighting that a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed a patient she was tending to.

Allison By

Allison joined the InterExchange team in 2011 and holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Higher Education. She oversees the daily operations of the Career Training USA program where she has the privilege of working with students and professionals from around the world pursuing U.S. internships and training programs. Allison is originally from Massachusetts and studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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