U.S. Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During this four-year struggle, eleven southern states and parts of other states tried to break away from the United States of America to set up the independent Confederate States of America. After thousands of battles and skirmishes that cost some 600,000 American lives, from as far afield as New Mexico, Florida, and Vermont, the issue was decided in favor of preserving the Union. Slavery, too, became a major issue of the war, and with the Union victory, slavery was abolished within the same year.

Summary of Event

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor surrounding Fort Sumter opened fire on the U.S. military installation there. The fort was one of the last remaining military outposts still garrisoned by the Union within the territory of the deep southern states that had declared secession from the Union. The Confederate attack was the culmination of a war of nerves that had been waged between the northern and southern states since December 20, 1860, when South Carolina had become the first of the seven southern states to vote for secession from the federal union. Despite the opposition of recently inaugurated U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas soon joined South Carolina in secession. In February, these seven states joined and proclaimed themselves the independent Confederate States of America. They set up their capital at Montgomery, Alabama, and elected former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis their president. Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865) Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Civil War[Civil War] Davis, Jefferson Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Civil War[Civil War] Johnston, Joseph Eggleston Lee, Robert E. McClellan, George B. [kw]U.S. Civil War (Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865) [kw]Civil War, U.S. (Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865) [kw]War, U.S. Civil (Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865) Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Civil War[Civil War] Davis, Jefferson Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Civil War[Civil War] Johnston, Joseph Eggleston Lee, Robert E. McClellan, George B. [g]United States;Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865: U.S. Civil War[3475] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865: U.S. Civil War[3475] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 12, 1861-Apr. 9, 1865: U.S. Civil War[3475] Farragut, David G. Hood, John Bell Jackson, Stonewall Sherman, William Tecumseh [p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Civil War[Civil War]

Civil War Sites

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Almost immediately following Fort Sumter’s surrender, after more than thirty-two hours of bombardment, President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to quell what he regarded as open rebellion. This left the states of the upper south and border regions in a quandary, and each state had to determine its own allegiance in the days to come. Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia voted for secession, but the last three of these states did so only by narrow margins. Maryland Maryland;and Civil War[Civil War] and Delaware Delaware;and Civil War[Civil War] opted to remain in the Union, as did the western counties of Virginia, which broke away from the state to form West Virginia West Virginia;creation of in 1863. Residents of Kentucky and Missouri were almost evenly divided on secession, and although the Confederacy officially counted them as states, portions of both their territories were occupied by both the Union and the Confederacy at the end of 1861. After Virginia seceded, the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery to Richmond, Virginia.

The North faced more challenging strategic decisions than did the South, as the North had to take the initiative to invade and conquer Southern territories to force the rebel states into submission. By contrast, the Confederacy’s strategy was simply to resist Northern invasion until the North was compelled, either by outside interference or by lack of resolve, to abandon its efforts to preserve the union.

The Northern military commanders were driven by two basic schools of thought. General Winfield Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Civil War[Civil War] , the seventy-five-year-old commanding general of U.S. forces, envisioned a long and possible bloody war of attrition. He argued that the most effective strategy to employ would be a strangulation naval blockade along the Confederate coastline, along with the coordination of naval and land forces to secure control of the Mississippi River Valley and thus split the Confederate territories. His detractors dubbed his plan “Scott’s Anaconda,” and Lincoln himself thought it too cautiously pessimistic. On November 1, 1861, Lincoln replaced Scott with the younger and more charismatic Major-General George B. McClellan McClellan, George B. . The administration favored a direct march on Richmond, hoping for a quick resolution in one major battle. However, it also adopted Scott’s proposal to blockade Southern ports.

Meanwhile, the Confederacy sought diplomatic recognition from Great Britain and France through its King Cotton diplomacy. The Confederates hoped that the Northern blockade of cotton exports to British and French factories would cause sufficient economic hardship in Europe to move those countries to intervene in the American war. What ultimately frustrated that plan was the opposition of French and British popular opinion toward Southern slavery and the development of alternative sources for cotton.

Because of the substantial disparity in Union and Confederate staffing, resources, and provisions, the Confederacy’s ability to carry out attacks into Northern territory was limited. However, leading Confederate commanders, such as Robert E. Lee, saw possibilities in carefully timed invasions that might produce victories on Union soil that might undermine Northern morale and force the Union to recognize Southern independence. Such attempts were made in the fall of 1862 and summer of 1863.

It was clear that a lengthy war of attrition would favor the North, which had a population of twenty-two million people, compared to only nine million in the South. The North also had a markedly superior infrastructure, with highly developed urban centers, heavy industries, shipyards, highways, railroads, and canals. So long as the war continued, it appeared almost certain that the South would eventually be worn down.

The first significant battle of the war was the First Battle of Bull Run, First Battle of (1861) Bull Run, near Manassas Junction, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. There, an ill-trained and overconfident Union army was beaten and scattered by a Confederate army commanded by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard Beauregard, Pierre G. T. . This battle quickly dispelled Northern notions that the war would be brief and glorious. In the only other large-scale engagement of 1861, Union general Nathaniel Lyon Lyon, Nathaniel was defeated and slain at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, on August 10. That Union setback ensured a stalemate in the war’s western theater of operations.

At the end of 1861, Confederate territory remained largely intact. However, after the New Year, a series of devastating Union offensives brought the Union close to victory by the middle of 1862. Joint army-navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War operations under the direction of General Ambrose Burnside Burnside, Ambrose in North Carolina brought most of the South’s coastal regions under Union control. In Kentucky, General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 on the Cumberland River led to the Confederacy’s loss of Kentucky and half of Tennessee. However, Grant’s drive toward the Mississippi was halted by the bloody Battle of Shiloh Shiloh, Battle of (1862) (also known as Pittsburg Landing; April 6-7) in Tennessee, where Grant was lucky to survive a surprise counterattack and salvage a marginal victory.

The major clash between ironclad naval vessels, an event that revolutionized warfare, occurred at Hampton Roads, Monitor and Virginia, Battle of (1862) Virginia, March 9, when the Union’s Monitor and the Confederacy’s Virginia (also known as the Merrimack) struggled in an indecisive engagement. New Orleans, the South’s largest city, fell to a fleet commanded by Admiral David G. Farragut Farragut, David G. on April 28. In Virginia, McClellan’s massively ponderous army had slowly advanced from its eastern base at Fortress Monroe to within nine miles of Richmond.

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At Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1), Joseph Johnston failed to drive McClellan McClellan, George B. back and was put out of action by a serious wound. His command then was assumed by Robert E. Lee. From May to June a vastly outnumbered Confederate force in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley under General Stonewall Jackson Jackson, Stonewall conducted one of the war’s most skillful campaigns by rapidly marching some 350 miles, fighting four major battles, and defeating three Union armies. From June 25 through July 1, Jackson joined Lee east of Richmond for the Seven Days’ Battles, and McClellan was driven back. The Lee-Jackson combination was to prove one of the war’s most effective.

The Second Battle of Bull Run Bull Run, Second Battle of (1862) (also known as the Second Manassas Battle), fought on August 29-30 against Union general John Pope Pope, John , was one of the South’s most thorough successes. Through the following year, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sustained a reputation for near-invincibility. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was halted by McClellan at the Battle of Antietam Antietam, Battle of (1862) , or Sharpsburg, on September 17, 1862. This bloodiest single day of the war resulted in no clear victory for either side, but Lee withdrew. After McClellan failed to offer pursuit, he was replaced by Burnside.

On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Effective on January 1, 1863, it declared freedom for all slaves still held in rebel territory. The main object of the proclamation was to claim a strong moral position for the Union on the slavery question and thereby lessen the chance of European intervention on behalf of the South. Meanwhile, a parallel Confederate invasion into Kentucky was turned back at Perryville on October 8. However, the year ended horrendously for the Union, as Burnside sacrificed his men in suicidal attacks on Lee’s impregnable positions at the Battle of Fredericksburg Fredericksburg, Battle of (1862) on December 13.

In Tennessee, the fiercely contested clash at Stones River, or Murfreesboro (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863), forced the Confederates to withdraw from the central portion of the state. Burnside’s successor, General Joseph Hooker Hooker, Joseph , was completely outmaneuvered by Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville, Virginia (May 1-4), but Stonewall Jackson, Stonewall [p]Jackson, Stonewall;death of Jackson was accidentally killed by his own men. In June, Lee advanced into Pennsylvania and met the Union army at Gettysburg on July 1-3. Lee’s decision to send fifteen thousand men under General George Pickett Pickett, George into the strong center of the Union army cost the South the battle and ended Confederate efforts to invade the North.

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to Grant after a lengthy Union siege. The loss of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana (July 9), meant that Union control of the Mississippi Valley was complete and Confederate territory was finally split. The Union army pushed the Confederates out of Tennessee but then suffered a significant setback at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia (September 19-20). Grant, however, was appointed to command in Tennessee and drove the Southern army back into Georgia by lifting the Siege of Chattanooga (November 23-25).

As the war entered its fourth year in 1864, its end seemed as far away as ever. Most of Confederate territory remained intact. This was a presidential election year in the Union, and rising casualty lists were boosting public dissatisfaction with Lincoln’s leadership. Meanwhile, on March 10, Lieutenant-General Grant took overall command of all U.S. forces and proposed an all-out assault on all fronts, with the major thrusts directed against Richmond, where Grant himself would confront Lee, and in Georgia, where Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh [p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Civil War[Civil War] would move against Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, with the city of Atlanta Atlanta, Georgia;in Civil War[Civil War] as the objective.

From May to June, 1864, Grant doggedly pushed his Army of the Potomac toward Richmond in a series of battles known as the Overland Campaign, only to find himself bogged down by year’s end in a lengthy siege of the crucial nerve center of Petersburg, Virginia, while sustaining twice as many casualties as his opponents. Sherman too, was frustrated by the wily Johnston’s strategic retreat into Georgia.

The fall of Richmond to Union troops in early April, 1865, marked the effective end of the Confederacy.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

With war-weariness becoming a major political issue, the ousted Union commander George B. McClellan accepted the Democratic nomination for president against the embattled Lincoln. Shortly afterward, however, the tide of the war turned in the Union’s favor. On July 17, the Confederate general Johnston was replaced as the leader of the Army of Tennessee by the reckless John Bell Hood Hood, John Bell , whose offensives against Sherman’s superior numbers in the fighting around Atlanta Atlanta, Georgia;in Civil War[Civil War] (in the Atlanta Campaign) led to the city’s surrender on September 2. The Union’s capture of Atlanta turned the election around, and in November, Lincoln was resoundingly returned to office on his pledge to prosecute the war to the end.

After the election, Hood’s desperate attempt to invade the North through Tennessee failed when his army was shattered at Nashville on December 15-16. Meanwhile, Sherman was leading his army on his famous march to the sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia (November 15-December 10), leaving in his wake a swath of destruction. The Union’s top naval commander, Farragut, Farragut, David G. claimed his second great naval victory by capturing the port of Mobile, Alabama, on August 23.

After reaching Savannah, Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh [p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Civil War[Civil War] continued relentlessly northward, through the Carolinas. A last-ditch attempt to stop his advance by Johnston and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee failed at Bentonville, North Carolina, in late March. Grant then broke Lee’s lines at Petersburg on April 2, and Richmond fell the next day. While trying to reach North Carolina so he could combine his forces with those of Johnston, Lee was pursued and cornered by Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The surrender of Lee’s army there on April 9 virtually ended the war. President Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;assassination of was assassinated a few days later, however, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Within less than two months, Johnston’s and every other major Confederate army came to terms, Jefferson Davis was captured, and hostilities virtually ceased.

Significance

The U.S. Civil War was the most profound event of nineteenth century American history. It settled any lingering constitutional vagueness about the nature of the union and established both the indivisibility of the United States and the supremacy of federal over state law. Although slavery was not a primary issue of the war when the conflict began, the progress of the war made slavery a central issue, and the Union victory ensured that slavery would finally be abolished. That issue was settled, once and for all, by the first of the so-called Civil War amendments—the Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified on December 18, 1865.

After the war reunified the United States, the nation entered into a period of unparalleled economic and technological growth, to emerge as a global power by the late nineteenth century. The South, however, did not fully share in these developments. The federal government’s attempts at postwar Reconstruction in the South helped foster an unresolved legacy of bitterness and racial division that would continue to spawn serious problems for generations to come.

The U.S. Civil War was also a turning point in military history. In many ways, it was the first modern war. Many of its technological advances—rapid-fire weapons, telegraphic communication, high-speed rail transportation, and ironclad warships—prefigured the technology of twentieth century warfare.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, William C., and Bell L. Wiley, eds. Civil War Album: A Complete Photographic History of the Civil War—Fort Sumter to Appomattox. New York: Tess Press, 2000. Richly illustrated with some four thousand photographs, this invaluable volume also contains very detailed textual material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. 9 vols. New York: Random House, 1958. Perhaps the best-written and most impartial account from the Southern viewpoint, this comprehensive history of the war avoids glamorizing the conflict, while bringing out relevant and engaging anecdotal material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowler, William M., Jr. Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Thorough examination of the Civil War’s naval campaigns and the largely overlooked significance of Union sea power and the blockade as markedly contributing to the Confederacy’s defeat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Groom, Winston. Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville, the Last Great Campaign of the Civil War. New York: Grove Press, 1995. Account of the planning, execution, and failure of the November-December, 1864, Tennessee campaign, which marked the last major Confederate assault on Union-held territory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendrickson, Robert. Sumter: The First Day of the Civil War. New York; Dell, 1991. Describes the background behind the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter and the events and personalities that led the two sections of the nation to the war’s first clash of arms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horn, John. The Petersburg Campaign, June, 1864-April, 1865. Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Books, 1993. Amply supplied with illustrative material and sidebars, this account chronicles and analyzes the longest and most decisive siege of the war and military operations and innovations that prefigured twentieth century warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James. The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Nearly definitive one-volume history of the war that covers the conflict in its entirety. The author skillfully intermingles the politics with the military campaigns, and maintains a particularly balanced appraisal of both sides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pratt, Fletcher. A Short History of the Civil War. New York: Pocket Books, 1961. Brief but highly readable and articulate exposition on the Northern point of view that presents particularly favorable views of the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Thomas, and Philip Sheridan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Phillip Thomas. The Final Fury: Palmito Ranch, the Last Battle of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001. Explores the largely overlooked story of the Civil War in Texas and the composition and mentality of those who waged the conflict in its far western theater even after the fall of the Confederacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Attractively illustrated and engagingly written companion volume to the eleven-hour documentary Ken Burns made for the Public Broadcasting System. Burns’s Civil War—in which historian Shelby Foote figures prominently—is available in several video formats.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weighley, Russell F. A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Solid general history emphasizing the lack of unanimity in the South as heavily contributing to the Confederate defeat, and the interplay of social factors alongside the more traditionally cited military and political elements.

Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Establishment of the Confederate States of America

Lincoln Is Inaugurated President

First Battle of Bull Run

Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Union Enacts the First National Draft Law

Battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga

Reconstruction of the South

Sherman Marches Through Georgia and the Carolinas

Surrender at Appomattox and Assassination of Lincoln

Watie Is Last Confederate General to Surrender

Treaty of Washington Settles U.S. Claims vs. Britain

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