Key moments of the American Civil War

Union and Confederate armies clashed close to the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg in the battle we now know was a defining moment in the American Civil War. At the time of the American revolution it was legal to hold human beings as ‘property’ in all of the British colonies that rebelled. But in the wake of the revolution slavery was abolished in New England and, gradually, in the mid-Atlantic states as well. In the south, though, where most enslaved people were held, abolitionism stalled and slavery expanded rapidly.

The cause of the trouble: slavery

Between the revolution and 1860, the slave population increased from 700,000 to nearly 4 million, geographically concentrated in the south. The increase was driven by the profits to be made from the sale of the raw cotton – and, to a lesser extent, sugar, rice and tobacco – on world markets.

'Slaves Waiting for Sale' by Eyre Crowe (1861)

‘Slaves Waiting for Sale’ by Eyre Crowe (1861)

As Abraham Lincoln was later to say, “all knew” that “somehow” slavery was the cause of the war. This is not the same as claiming that northerners and southerners went to war in 1861 with the desire to attack or defend slavery as a prime motivation: most did not. However, it became increasingly difficult to sustain a nation divided, “half slave and half free” in Lincoln’s phrase.

Americans in 1861 had much in common with one another: a reverence for the Founding Fathers and a shared belief in freedom, opportunity and providential God. Most people, in both north and south, worked on the land; almost all white folk assumed racial superiority, whatever their views on slavery. However, slavery shaped the south in ways that made the north see it as a threatening and alien society, just as northern attacks on slavery pushed southerners to see Yankees as their enemies.

The Mexican War breaks out

In 1846, President James K Polk, a Democrat and a slaveholder, used a border dispute as a pretext to invade Mexico. Southerners were excited by the prospect of acquiring new slave territory but many northerners also supported the war, assuming that it was the destiny of whites to settle the entire continent. The Mexican War was probably the most successful war of imperial expansion in modern history: a decisive and relatively low-cost victory for the USA that led, in 1848, to the annexation of the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico as well as parts of Texas and Colorado.

Mexican - American War

Mexican – American War

However, the war also set the nation on a collision course over slavery.Very few northerners were out-and-out abolitionists but most, it turned out, were against the expansions of slavery into these new territories in the west. Increasing numbers of northerners believed that if the new territories were allowed to become a ‘vast slave empire’ then the character of the nation would be changed forever, and ‘the right to rise’ for the honest white working man would be sacrificed in the interest of a slaveholding class. Free white men did not want to have to compete for land with privileged slaveholders. Nor did they want to end up competing as labourers against black slaves.

In the end, a compromise was struck: california was admitted as a free state (just as the Gold Rush made it a magnet) but most of the rest of the former Mexican land was opened to the possibility of slavery, should the local settlers so desire it.

Kansas – Nebraska Act 1854

Did railroads help to cause the civil war? It was the desire to build the rail road to California that in 1854 led Congress to organise land to the west of Illinois, creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This was land that has been part of the United States for half a century but which had been barely settled by European Americans, and from which slavery had been banned under the terms of the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

Southerners in Congress only supported the bill once the prohibition on slavery was lifted. To millions of northerners, including many who had never previously considered themselves antislavery, this was a betrayal of a sacred promise that the lands of Kansas and Nebraska would be open to the free settlement of poor white men. More than that, it seemed to be evidence that the government was in the hands of sinister and ‘aristocratic’ proslavery interest.

Kansas - Nebraska Act 1854

Kansas – Nebraska Act 1854

The Kansas – Nebraska Act was the single most important catalyst for the rise of a new political party, the Republican Party, which presented itself as the only true defender of northern interests against the aggressions of the south. “The North is discovered!” was one of many Republican campaign songs. if the party could unite the northern states, it could capture enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency event without having any support at all in the south. It didn’t manage this in 1856; instead, hapless Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan won. But in the coming few years, the new party built further support as the south demanded even greater protection for its slave ‘property’.

John Brown’s raid of 1859

In October 185, the messianic abolitionist John Brown launched an amateurish raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His aim was to distribute the arms among local slaves and spark a general insurrection. Brown was quickly apprehended by US troops under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee.

Brown’s raid struck southern society at its weakest point but, shocking as it was for white southerners the violence had been used on their home soil, the most frightening aspect of the affair was the northern response. While most mainstream politicians, including Republican leaders, condemned Brown’s acts, there was also admiration for his bravery. In antislavery strongholds, including Massachusetts, supporters raised funds for Brown’s legal defence and to help his family.

John Brown

Brown played the part of martyr to perfection. Republican newspapers reported his well-aimed final words as he was led to the gallows: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away – but with blood.”.

Brown’s raid reinforced southerners’ conception of themselves as victims. One Virginia newspaper concluded: “Thousands of men who, a month ago, scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the Union… now hold the opinion that its days are numbered.”

The 1860 election

The trigger for secession was the election of the Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. It was, in effect, two parallel elections, one in each section. The Democratic Party split, with one Democrat, Stephen A Douglas, fighting Lincoln in the free states, while another, John C Breckinridge, fought for the votes of slave states against a more moderate third-party opponent. Lincoln won only 40 per cent of the national popular vote but, by winning almost all of the free states, he comfortably carried the Electoral College.

Election Scene 1860,  from Harper's Weekly

Election Scene 1860, from Harper’s Weekly

Antislavery men welcomed Lincoln’s election as a decisive break with the past. The patrician Bostonian Charles Francis Adams was elated that “the great revolution has actually taken place” and that “the country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders”.

In southern states, the so-called ‘fire eaters’, who had been campaigning for secession for years, appeared to have been prescient. Lincoln, like the rest of his party, believed slavery was wrong. To the leaders of southern society, this was enough for them to believe that the federal government had fallen into the hands of people who were their enemies – and irrevocably so, since the rising population of the free states meant their Electoral College advantage would only increase and leave the south politically impotent. “The election of Lincoln,” wrote one southern politician, “has placed our necks under their heel.”

Sumter and the outbreak of war, 1861

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at 4.30am on 12th April 1861 by South Carolina forces. Their target was Fort Sumter, an island in Charleston’s harbour garrisoned by Union troops. Perhaps deliberately, the new president, Abraham Lincoln, had precipitated this aggression by making public his plan to re-supply (though not reinforce) the fort. By opening fire on Fort Sumter, the Confederates played into Lincoln’s hands by making the issue a test of whatever a free government could and would defend itself.

The shocking image of the stars and stripes under fire stirred the north in defence of the Union, overshadowing the slavery issue. Newspapers that only the day before had called for compromise and a cooling of passions now called for vengeance and urged their readers to rally behind the flag.

Firing on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861

Firing on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861

On 15th April, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers under the 1795 Militia Act to serve for 90 days, the maximum amount prescribed by the law. This was the ‘overt act’ of aggression that prompted the states of Virginia, North carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee to join their fellow southern slave states in seceding. With the seceded states making clear that they were fighting for nothing less than independence, the Lincoln administration mobilised for a war to bring the rebels forcibly back into the Union.

Abraham Lincoln never recognised the Confederacy: to him these states were simply rebels and the war a giant police action to restore the authority of the national government. “Secession”, Lincoln insisted, was “the essence of anarchy”.

Strategy and tactics

In grand strategic terms, the Union needed to be on the offensive in order to conquer the South. Yet the South took the offensive whenever it could. General Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania in the summers of 1862 and 1863, taking the war onto northern soil, in part because there was huge popular pressure on both sides to be seen to be on the attack.

However, technological innovations gave defending forces much greater tactical strength. Whereas in the Mexican War the army was still using smooth-bore muskets, by 1861 the use of rifled muskets and new conical-shaped bullets called Mini̩ balls greatly increased the accuracy of firepower from a longer range. Towards the end of the war, entrenchments and barbed wire Рnotably in the long siege of Petersburg Рmade the conflict resemble the Western Front in the First World War.

Union soldiers welcomed in Frederick City in 1862 by F.H. Schell

Union soldiers welcomed in Frederick City in 1862 by F.H. Schell

Nevertheless, offensives against well-defended positions could still succeed when commanders not only had a numerical advantage but were also prepared to be persistent and flexible – as Grant and Sherman proved in 1864, and as British generals on the Western Front learned after 1916.

The Union army and slavery

From the moment war began, abolitionists argued that a conflict caused by slaveholders could only be ended by ending slavery, the ‘taproot of the rebellion’. But other northerners vowed that they wouldn’t support an ‘abolition war’. The official line from Lincoln was clear: this was a war to restore the Union, with no their aim.

Yet the reality on the ground in the south meant that the Union army had to make de facto decisions about whether to encourage the dismantling of slavery. Wherever there was a Union military presence in a slave state, enslaved people sought sanctuary. Some Union generals sent them back to their ‘owners’. Others allowed them to stay, and refugee camps grew up around military camps.

General Benjamin F Butler

General Benjamin F Butler

It was General  Benjamin F Butler, in command of a Union-held enclave in Virginia,who found a way of protecting runaway slaves without publicly challenging the officials line that the Union did not seek emancipation. In the summer of 1861 he announced that any fugitive slave who sought refuge with his forces would be held as ‘contraband of war’.

This phrase deftly turned the argument that slaves were property against southerners. Just as horses or guns, if captured, could legitimately be impounded since they were likely to be of military value to the enemy, so, too, ‘human property’ likely to be used to dig fortifications or supply the Confederate army could be seized – and, effectively, freed. Contraband became the normal term to describe runaway slaves for the rest of the war. As the debate about emancipation raged in the north, the reality was always that, intentionally or otherwise, the Union army was an instrument of emancipation.

Battle of Antietam, 1862

In September 1862 General Robert E Lee launched the first of his two grand raids into the north. In optimistic moments, Confederate leaders hoped Lee’s invasion might persuade Maryland slaveholders to support the South and foreign powers to recognise it, but at the very least they wanted to prove that the North could never subdue the South militarily.

Battle of Antietam

Battle of Antietam

The ‘invasion’ culminated in a battle at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on 17th September. The conflict was a fluid, confused and messy affair, with friendly fire compounding the difficulties of communication on a large battle area where no one had more than a partial view of the fighting. particular spots on the battlefield acquired an especially gruesome reputation, including Miller’s cornfield, which changed hands six times over the course of just a few hours, and ‘Bloody Lane’, a sunken road from which the rebel South held the attacking forces of the North at bay for over three hours in late morning.

By nightfall, at the cost of around 23,000 casualties, the Confederate line had been pushed back a few hundred yards. Still, it was a victory for the Union, although to Lincoln’s frustration McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s forces after the battle.

The Emancipation Proclamation

The limited Union victory at Antietam was to be the final battle of the first phase of the war. Just a few days later, on 22nd September 1862, Lincoln issued a proclamation stating that if, by 1st January 1863, the rebel states of the Confederacyhad not returned to the Union, the United States would, from that date onwards, regard slaves held in rebel areas as free. This Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had an incendiaryeffect. It was an ultimatum to the South: return to the Union within 100 days with slavery intact, or face total destruction.

Confederate leader Jefferson Davies called it “the most execrable measure in the history of the guilty man”. The three-month delay was intended to send a clear message that emancipation was a tool of war rather than an end itself. Like a riot policeman giving notice that a mob was about to firedupon if it did not disperse, Lincoln wanted to give the appearance of due process. But no one had any illusions: the President had tied the Union’s fate to emancipation.

Emancipation and racial attitudes in the Union Army

Union soldiers commonly used terms such as ‘darkie’ and ‘nigger’ in their letters. Even proudly antislavery soldiers exhibited an unquestioning racism. There was no contradiction in holding racist views while also thinking that a war against secession was inherently a war against slavery, and that the Confederacy was a repressive society that challenged American values of freedom and opportunity.

Encounters with runaway slaves had a dramatic impact on some Union soldiers. Black people were exotic and fascinating to rural farm boys from the north. In addition, many soldiers interpreted their encounters withfreed slaves in the light of what they had heard and read of the cruelties of slavery. Private Chauncey Cookewrote to his mother in Wisconsin about “a toothless old slave with one blind eye” who told him horrific stories of his wife and children having been sold, of whippings and been hunted by bloodhounds when he tried to escape. The stories, Cooke wrote, were “just like the ones in Uncle Tom’scabin and I believe them”.

Escaped slaves, Cumberland Landing, Va., May 1862.

Escaped slaves, Cumberland Landing, Va., May 1862.

Some Union troops were convinced by evangelical preachers and antislavery propaganda that expunging the sin of slavery would redeem their country in God’s eyes. Some simply wanted black troops to be placed in the front line instead of them. Most were probably convinced by the much more pragmatic case that if the rebels hated emancipation then it must be a good thing – a weapon to strike at the heart of southern society.

Gettysburg address

The most famous of Lincoln’s speecheswas a two-minute address to dedicate the military cemetery at Gettysburg on 19th November 1863. Lincoln was not even the main speaker – he wound up proceedings after a two-hour oration from Edward Everett. But the words that endure are Lincoln’s: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth of this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg

Lincoln speaking at Gettisburg

The effect of this was to date the origins of the republic to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, with its grand preamble authored by Jefferson and appealing to the universal ideal of equality, rather than the more prosaic Federal Constitution of 1787. Lincoln was implying that the Constitution merely gave form to the nation, and that the nation mattered not as an end in itself, but as an embodiment of the ideals of equality and liberty.

Echoing in secular language the Christian idea of a trial of faith, Lincoln went on to claimthat the civil war was a test of “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.

The siege of Petersburg, 1864-65

The Army of the Potomac moved south from Cold Harbor and crossed the James River in another attempt to force General Lee out from his trenches by flanking his army and seizing the key railroad junction at Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond. Once again, before an assault took place, Lee realised what was happening and marched his army to thinly defended Petersburg with astonishing speed. Thousands of Union soldiers fell in futile efforts to dislodge the rebelsfrom their earthwork entrenchments.

Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment play cards during the lengthy Siege of Petersburg

Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment play cards during the lengthy Siege of Petersburg

For the third year in a row, a Union army that set out in the spring with high hopes of crushing Confederate resistance in Virginia appeared by mid-summer to have stalled. Lee still had fewer troops, but Grant had lost more men – 64,000 casualities in two months – and morale sank. After numerous failed assaults in June, July and August 1864, the Union army bedded in for a siege of Petersburg, extending a line of trenches south and west around the city. Romantic notions of valour were tested against the ever-present danger of being shot by snipers and constant artillery bombardment. Reflecting that reality, troops built ‘bomb-proof’ shelters and zigzag trenches. As one Ohio soldier put it, “The spade is more powerful than the cannon.”

But battlefield defences could aid attackers, too, since they enabled forces to be pushed close to the enemy lines, from where an overwhelming raid could be launched. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2nd April 1865 that Petersburg surrended, on the same day the Confederates evacuated Richmond.

A holy war?

The American Civil War took place in a highly religious society, where both sides interpreted victory and defeat in terms of God’s pleasure or displeasure.

This religiosity was an essential component in the capacity of both sides to endure horrendous losses. Clergymen told their congregations that war was a test of faith. And if it was a chastisement for sin, it was also an opportunity for national redemption and purification. Secular nationalist ideas about the sacrifice of war markinga coming of age for the American republic – or the creation of the Confederate nation – were reinforced by the religious notion of soil made sacred by a baptism of fraternal blood.

Priest hold the service for Confederate soldiers

Priest hold the service for Confederate soldiers

For many Confederates, faith was the basis of their nationalism. The Yankees were imagined to be infidels. Confederate suffering was evidence that God had singled them out as a specially chosen people. On the other side, many northerners came to believe that God’s purpose in creating such suffering must be as a punishment for slavery. In the great abolitionist anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Christ is seenin the “watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” and in the “burnished rows of steel”of the soldiers’ bayonets. The Union army was the army of the Lord.

In his second inauguraladdress, Lincoln abjured any triumphalism and instead spoke of “this terrible war”as judgement on both sides for the offence of “American slavery”. Perhaps, he speculated, only when “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” would the war end.

Southern surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, 1865

After one final fling at the Union trenches outside petersburg, Lee’s men retreated from one line of trenches to the next and escaped west across the Appomattox river. On 2nd April, in anticipation of the fall of Petersburg, the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, setting its offices on fire, loading its treasury and archives into railroad cars and fleeing west. The following day the Confederate capital was in Union hands.

The half-starved remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia, now grossly outnumbered by the Army of the Potomac, were chased into the remote south-western corner of Virginia. On 8th April, union cavalry overtook Lee’s armyand captured three trainloads of desperately needed rations at Appomattox station. Lee and his men had finally come to the end of the road.

General Lee surrender at Appomattox Court House

General Lee surrender at Appomattox Court House

Grant and Lee met in the drawing room of a private home in the village of Appomattox Court House on the afternoon of 9th April. For a few minutes the two generals exchanged pleasantries. Then Lee brought them to the business at hand. Grant wrote out the surrender terms and Lee signed them. The two generals shook hands.

Most Americans shared the assumption that the surrender of Lee’s army signalled the effective end of the war, even though Jefferson Davies remained at large, as did several other Confederate forces. Not until 2nd June in Texas did General Edmund Kirby-Smith formally surrender the last of the major Confederate forces but in reality Appomattox was the end. It marked not just the defeat of the South’s four-year experiment in independence, but of freedom and republican government as they had understood it.

Lincoln’s assassination, 1865

On the evening of 14th April 1865, President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to FOrd’s Theatre a few blocks from the White House to attend a benefit performance of a popular British comedy, Our American Cousin, raising money for the play’s producer, who also performed in the show.

Well-known actor John Wilkes Booth, scion of a famous family of Shakespearean thespians, entered the theatre by the stage door and made his way to the corridor otside the presidential box. A man of strong Confederate sympathies, Booth had cast himself in the role of avenging angel. Together with a coterie of peculiar friends, several of whom appear to have been mentally ill, Booth had hatched a vainglorious plot. The plan was originally to kidnapp Lincoln, bind and gag him, but after the fall of Richmond it was decided to assassinate the president instead.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

Booth made his move at a quiet moment in the play. He fired a bullet into Lincoln’s head at close range, then leapt from the box onto the stage. Booth fled before the audience grasped what they had witnessed, only to be killed when Federal troops caught up with him.

Lincoln did not die instantly. He was carried across the road to a room in a boarding house where he lay until the early hours of the next morning, never regaining consciousness. With Mary convulsed with grief and news of the assassination spreading rapidly by telegraph, Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues gathered. They were present at his bedside when the president drew his last breath, at 7.22am on 15th April. Edwin Stantonbroke the silence with the words “Now he belongs to the ages”.

Lincoln’s death allowed northerners to weep for all their dead. The slogans sewn on flags and black banners, “The memory of the just is blessed,” ensured that Lincoln stood in for many other private losses.

Extract from “The American Civil War Story”, by historian Adam IP Smith