The American Civil War created the nation of the United States as we know it today. The bloodiest war in the history of the nation, the victory was a combination of many factors and many battles that finally resulted in a Union victory. But why would a nation engage in combat so fiercely that more Americans were lost in the one war than in the American Revolution, WW1, WW2 and the Vietnam War combined?
The main cause of the American Civil War was slavery. According to historian David Goldfield, “Both Northerners and Southerners recognized slavery as the immediate cause of the Civil War” and even Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this fact in his second inaugural address by saying, “An eighth of the whole population were coloured slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest – all knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” The Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865 between two sides – the anti-slavery, northern Union and the pro-slavery, southern Confederate States of America. The southern states’ economies and social structures were built entirely on the concept of slavery – slavery was fundamental to the entire economic and social existence. The upper class’s riches were all earned from the cotton plantations that provided two-thirds of the world’s cotton crop, all worked by slave labour. When the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 eventually freed the slaves, the southern states’ economies and social structures were literally turned upside down – the South lost half its capital wealth in an instant.
Aside from slavery, there were several minor causes of the Civil War, including the concept of agriculture versus industry and the states’ rights to freedom from the tyranny of an overarching federal government, but these cannot be argued as the main cause of the war. If so, the war would have erupted in the 1830s with the Nullification Crisis, when President Andrew Jackson stated that South Carolina could not declare a federal tax null in their state. In reality, the Confederate government was quite demanding of its citizens, through passing the first conscription Act in the Americas, implementing national taxes, creating a national currency and having a national bureaucracy of 70 000 or more. But governmental reasons for going to war differed from those of the soldiers. Each soldier likely had a prosaic reason for enlisting, for example, one Alabamian only enlisted after his girlfriend sent him a dress and told him that he should start wearing it if he was not willing to fight for his country. Religion also paid a main role in the Civil War – the Protestant North was high motivated to support combat if it preserved their states, ended slavery and promoted their religious denomination.
Throughout the Civil War, there were numerous battles fought all across the nation, bringing the death toll to a total of 680 000. Unknown to most modern-day Americans, for the first year of the war, it seemed that the Confederates had secured a definitive victory. South Carolina had begun the war by attacking Fort Sumter. Three months later, the South then shockingly arose triumphant at the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia. Robert E. Lee (the commander of the Southern military) had highly energized, disciplined and trained soldiers who were fighting on home turf in Virginia on the Eastern front. The North, on the other hand, still believed that the war would be over quickly, and therefore, their soldiers were not so motivated to fight. The next major event of the war was the huge Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh near Pittsburg Landing. This area was key as it was the crossroads of the Confederates’ two main railroads. 44 000 of General Ulysses S. Grant’s command were amassed in camps around this area and were attacked at night by the Southern soldiers. Schermann, one of Grant’s underlings, heard a noise and went out to investigate, only to realise that the entire Union force in the area was under attack.
Lasting all day, and beginning the next at daybreak, the leaders had only a small Methodist chapel in which to convene to discuss potential rapid strategizing. Due to the Southerners’ element of surprise and the Northerners’ superior force, it became the most costly battle of the war to date with 23 000 dead, injured or captured, and with around equal numbers on both sides. It was then the South were to suffer a great defeat at the Battle of Antietum – Lee marched a force of 40 000 strong to Maryland on 4th September, 1862, only to be met with huge numbers of General George McClellan’s troops. 23 000 were killed in a single day, and General Lee was forced to retreat back to Virginia. After these major humiliations, it was months before the first real turning point of the war when the tide began to turn towards a Union success. Although politically the Union made some impact with the release of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1st January, 1863, in reality, there was little change in the secessionist states and the war dragged onwards. An excellent execution of division tactics by Lee resulted in a Confederate victory over the new Union commander Hooker at the Battle of the Wilderness, but at a cost of 24 000 casualties.
From May to July 1863, Grant laid siege to the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, starving the population and firing shots at any soldiers who appeared on the walls of the town. After a naval landing, commander Pemberton’s force of 23 000 met Grant’s force, encircling and overrunning the city, and surprising the Southerners. The ensuing siege resulted in the Union’s control of the lower Mississippi river, after the trapped Confederates surrendered unconditionally. This blocked any avenues for shipping supplies and soldiers for the South, which was extremely important. It also split the Confederacy down the centre, disrupting order and the transfer of information and supplies from east to west. During the same month, General Lee led a force into northern territory and met with Union forces at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After a three day battle, 50 000 men had died, a stunning blow to the South.
The second important turning point of the war was over a year later in August 1864, when the Union general Sherman took Atlanta, a manufacturing and railroad centre. This capture was important politically, rather than militarily, as it was close to the elections of 1864. Lincoln had to re-run for presidency and at the time, was very unpopular with the Northern population because the war was dragging on, and families were losing their sons and fathers. A difficult win, in Atlanta, Sherman besieged the city and when the citizens did not surrender, his troops began the famous March to the Sea, a night time march of terror involving all of Sherman’s command in which the soldiers marched from inland to the city, tearing up railway tracks and destroying all things of value along the way. The March ended in Savannah, where the inhabitants surrendered. With the fall of Atlanta, the public’s view of Lincoln changed putting him in a position of superiority over his democratic opponent, former top general George McClellan. Lincoln’s election was an extremely important determinant of the course of the war as Lincoln was determined to have a Union victory, while McClellan did not seem to care which side was victorious, wanting only a settlement with the South.
After Lincoln’s electoral victory, both the Union and the Confederates decided to wage total war, rather than the limited war that had been occurring for the last three years. In the mean time, the South was spiralling into despair, suffering under the Union naval blockade, Sherman’s campaign in Georgia, lack of international assistance, class conflicts, and a lack of money. The army began to disband, and as the Confederate leaders realized that all hope was lost, Jefferson Davis proposed peace negotiations. Delegations from the South and the North met at the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865. Still there was no resolution to the conflict – Lincoln demanded that the South surrender unconditionally, while Davis wanted to be granted full independence. In April 1865, however, the conflict was resolved at the Battle of Appomattox when Grant’s forces broke through Confederate lines headed by Lee, forcing the Southerners into a shameful retreat. Days later, Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. With this, the Civil War had finally come to an end.
The American Civil War involved four gruelling years of conflict in which approximately 680 000 lost their lives. With the northern and southern states completely divided on the issue of slavery and the existence of slavery so intrinsic to the South’s entire economic and social structures, there was much fuel for battle – a battle largely about the right to human freedom and which ultimately lead to the demise of slavery in the United States. The Civil War was a critical part of American history, a defining moment in the future of the nation, and a defining moment in the freedom of all American people henceforth.