For the four years between 1861 and 1865, the United States engaged in a civil war. FYI, a civil war is any war in which forces within a country fight against themselves, as opposed to with external forces like neighboring countries. Plenty of other countries have had and continue to have civil wars, but the American Civil War is the one we're diving into here. We just call it the Civil War from here on out, but remember that we specifically mean our civil war. All the puzzle pieces are coming together now, aren't they?
To start with, divisions between the free North and the slaveholding South had been simmering like a fine chili, that is to say, for a long time. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, a northerner, to the presidency in 1860, they erupted into a full-scale conflict. You only thought it was bad when Kanye stole Taylor Swift's acceptance speech. This North v. South conflict was less Twitter-based, sure, but it was just as passionate.
Shortly after Lincoln's election, eleven southern states seceded from the Union and collectively turned their backs on the idea of a single American nation. It took a lot for them to do that because, as notorious gun-lovers, they generally made it a rule not to turn their backs on anything.
Lincoln, who had been in office for only six weeks, declared these acts of secession illegal and asked Congress for 500,000 soldiers to crush what threatened to be an aggressive rebellion. The first shots were fired in April 1861, and what followed became a national tragedy of unimaginable proportions. We're talking even worse than Miley Cyrus's twerking performance on the VMAs, if such a thing can be imagined.
In all, more than 600,000 soldiers were killed and millions more were wounded. Large sections of the South were ravaged by violent battles, and the Union nearly collapsed under the determined Confederate forces of the South. So yeah, you could say it was bad.
The war itself began hesitantly, but after the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July 1861, it was clear that warfare would last for many months or years. In fact, they even considered renaming that first clash the Battle of Bull Meander, or Bull Moseys Leisurely.
Huge, bloody battles raged in places such as Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, and Shiloh, as well as in Virginia and Tennessee, where 40% of the 10,000 engagements of the war were fought. Confederate General Robert E. Lee won victory after victory for the South over the poorly led Union forces. However—and we hope you're in the mood for a good comeback story—when Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862, he suffered a major loss at the Battle of Antietam. It was the bloodiest, ugliest engagement of the war and turned the odds decisively toward the Union.
The following year, Lee trounced the Union army at Chancellorsville and invaded Pennsylvania. The invasion led to the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, in which 50,000 men were killed or wounded. Poor Lee and his losing men were forced to retreat to Virginia, never to invade the North again. He then spent plenty of time holed up licking his wounds, which we don't recommend for optimum healing. At least put some Neosporin on those things.
Over west by the Mississippi River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant—yep, the debonair old guy from the fifty dollar bill—took the important Confederate town of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 on the same day that news of the Union victory at Gettysburg reached Washington. In addition, Grant's pre-ordered Walking Dead box set arrived from Amazon that day. All in all, it was a good day.
Despite these key victories over the span of three years, the war was still not over. Grant launched his Overland Campaign in 1864 and fought a series of major battles, hoping to destroy Lee's army by attrition, or slowly wearing him down. For good measure, Union General William Tecumsah Sherman soon marched from Atlanta to Savannah, burning the countryside as he went. Back then you could get away with stuff like that. Today, we call it "arson."
By the spring of 1865, the South was exhausted and ready to cash it all in. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, effectively ending the war. He also made use of the visit to stop in and try to fight an outstanding parking ticket. He lost that, too. It wasn't Lee's best day.
Though most Americans knew that the central reason behind the war was slavery, it wasn't until the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 that Lincoln began emancipating the slaves. On January 1, 1863, he issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing many of the slaves, with some exceptions. From that point on, the war was officially about slavery. Still, it wasn't until December 1865 that the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, finally freeing every slave in the still-united America. It was an honest to goodness dance party paradise.
Economically, the war was an aid to the North and a disaster for the South. The North began the war with several advantages that helped see them through: more men, more money, more industrial power, and an extensive railroad system. They did have fewer cheese grits than the South, but that didn't really play into things.
At the end of the war, the North's resources helped them continue to dominate economically, but the ravaged South struggled to recover from the devastation and the loss of all their, ahem, manpower. In addition to losing many of its young men, sons, husbands, fathers, and friends to the conflict, the southern planter aristocracy and their business model was crushed. It never regained the same political power.
The Civil War answered many of the fundamental questions of the American experiment: free or slave, one or many, united or divided. However, it did so at a tremendous cost—and that's not even accounting for inflation.