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The American Civil War was the most deadly and arguably the most important event in the nation's history. Sectional tensions enshrined in the Constitution erupted into a brutal war that cost over 600,000 lives and cleaved a nation in two.
It was a war that would come to define America—that would answer the "slavery question" once and for all. Were we a nation committed to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" or were we really two separate nations that should just go their separate ways and cut their losses?
When the South peaced out and created its own country, the Confederate States of America, it didn't take long for Lincoln to protest. His idea was to try and settle this without any bloodshed.
Oh, what a cute thought, Abe.
Once the first shots were fired and war was official, people thought it was going to be a quick and easy war, over in a matter of weeks.
Oh, what a cute thought, Americans.
After the bloodshed at the First Battle of Bull Run, Americans realized they were in for something else entirely. In fact, they were in for the bloodiest war in history to date. Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better. The war touched every aspect of American life, for both soldiers and civilians, and its effects are still being seen today.
Slavery was a root cause of the conflict, and while the 13th Amendment ended the practice at war's end, race relations continued to dominate American politics and society well into the future. The war also increased American economic power until it rivaled, and then surpassed, that of all other countries.
But it wasn't—and arguably, still isn't—a pretty journey.
The Civil War is one of the most—if not the most—important event in the history of the United States.
The American Revolution? Sure, we got some freedom. The creation of the U.S.Constitution? Yeah, that's key. The last episode of The Sopranos? Up there.
But few things in American history changed this country like the Civil War. We're not being too bold when we say that everything in American history leading up to 1860 was a cause of the Civil War, and everything that's happened since was caused by the Civil War.
Every part of American society was fundamentally changed, from the role of the federal government to the status of African Americans to the art, music, and culture of a nation. Over 600,000 Americans died in the conflict, more than in all other American wars combined except for the Vietnam War. And all of them died on American soil.
Brothers fought brothers. Fathers shot sons. What began as a small-scale bombardment of an average fort in Charleston, South Carolina, grew and grew, ultimately killing more than 2% of the population and reforming the United States in ways big and small.
But the Civil War and all of its causes and effects can't be absorbed easily. After all, it was a huge conflict, brought about by deep-seated forces and fought across the entirety of the American continent, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, and Savannah to San Francisco.
So, how do you get your mind around an event of this magnitude? How do you try to understand what the Civil War was all about?
Well, you start here, and as you read, you think big. Imagine 150,000 men attacking each other in a place like Maryland. Consider the noise, the fear, the terror, and the death. Imagine yourself listening to the cries of the wounded in dirty hospitals, doctors operating without anesthesia, and more wounded men flooding in all the time.
Think about the joy of newly emancipated slaves, who had labored their entire lives under the watchful eyes and often violent hands of white Southern planters, finally free to determine their own destinies.
And think about the very meaning of the country. Is the United States one nation, indivisible? Or is the United States a collection of linked but autonomous states?
The Civil War changed even the language we use to describe the nation. Before the Civil War, Americans used the phrase, "The United States are..." but after the war, that phrase became, as it is today, "The United States is..."
A cataclysmic conflagration like the Civil War profoundly changed the way in which Americans envisioned their own nation, seeing it no longer as a grouping of autonomous states but as one nation, indivisible. For better or for worse, the Civil War altered the fabric of the idea that is the United States.
And that's definitely food for thought.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
Published in 1852, this book's depiction of slavery and loss in the Old South was monumentally influential in driving the North and South apart during the 1850s. It's worth reading not only for a better appreciation of the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War, but also to see how Stowe, a white Northerner, imagined the lives of Southern slaves despite the fact that she'd never visited the South. Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains one of the most influential and controversial texts in American literature.
Bruce Catton, The Civil War (1961, 1962, 1965)
Catton was one of the foremost scholars of the war, and his Civil War trilogy—The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat—is excellent. They're slightly dated but worth reading for their brilliant insight and clear writing.
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Written in 1895, Crane's novel about the life of a young soldier in the Civil War is the most famous American war novel. It includes fantastically detailed battle scenes, and its powerful prose paved the way for many of America's great authors of the 20th century.
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958)
This three-part history of the Civil War is the authority on the subject, although its length makes it hard to digest. Still, for those who want the entire story of the war in clear and exciting detail, this is the perfect series to read.
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988)
First published in 1988, this is the best single-volume history of the Civil War. It's clearly-written and authoritative, and McPherson is able to make the entire war—from its origins to its battles to its aftermath—easily accessible.
Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974)
The Killer Angels is a powerful work of historical fiction based on the Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for the book, and after his death, his son Jeff finished the proposed trilogy on the war with Gods and General and The Last Full Measure. For an engaging introduction to the Civil War, The Killer Angels can't be beat.
Chris Vallillo, Abraham Lincoln in Song (2007)
Contemporary roots singer-songwriter Chris Vallillo honors his fellow Illinois-ian as well as his state's deep musical traditions with this masterpiece of slide guitar twang and mesmerizing vocals.
Second South Carolina String Band, Southern Soldier: Favorite Camp Songs of the Civil War (1996)
Although this disc's title implies that its tracks were heard only in Confederate camps, some of the selections here were familiar to soldiers in both the North and the South. In fact, the Second South Carolina String Band performs songs like "Boatman's Dance," "Zip Coon," and "Palmetto Quickstep," that were known to people throughout the country during the fighting years as well as in the tumultuous time leading up to the war.
Various Artists, Songs of the Civil War (1991)
Inspired by the release of director Ken Burns' epic Civil War documentary, a group of contemporary rock, soul, and blues singers collaborated to perform their own renditions of war-era compositions. Don't miss Sweet Honey in the Rock's performing "No More Auction Block For Me," Kathy Mattea singing "The Southern Soldier Boy," Judy Collins' interpretation of "Battle Hymn of the Republic (John Brown's Body)," and so many more.
Various Artists, The Civil War: Traditional American Songs and Instrumental Music Featured in the Film by Ken Burns (1990)
Check out this soundtrack, complete with gripping war-era gems, from the Emmy Award-winning television documentary series about this pivotal period in American history.
James Horner, Glory: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1990)
Composer James Horner crafted this thunderous backdrop to director Edward Zwick's Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first all-Black unit to serve the United States Army.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army to victory.
Major General Ambrose Burnside, with sideburns.
USS Monitor, first Union ironclad warship, in James River, 1862.
President & General
President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan in McClellan's tent at Antietam, Maryland after battle, September 1862.
Cost of War
Ruins of Harper's Ferry, Virginia after battle in 1862.
Worst Cost of War
Confederate dead at Antietam, Maryland, September 17th, 1862.
In the Devil's Den
Confederate dead in "Devil's Den," Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3rd, 1863.
Early Aerial Recon
Union reconnaissance balloon, 1862.
"War is Hell"
Atlanta in ruins after an attack by Union General Sherman's Army, November 1864.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Christian Bale plays a Civil War veteran who may lose his farm if he can't find a way to pay his debts. When he's offered a large sum to detain and escort a dangerous outlaw to a train headed to a federal court in Yuma, he must accept. Scenes in this riveting action film present the post-Civil War West as a place where life remained tough, unpredictable, and wild.
Ride with the Devil (1999)
Before he became Spider-Man, actor Tobey Maguire played a young guerrilla soldier loyal to the South in this Civil War drama. This tale about the Missouri bushwackers, a little-known group of non-uniformed fighting men, reminds us that this war wasn't simply a North-versus-South, or a slave-versus-free, affair.
Based on Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, this is one of the longest films ever released by a Hollywood studio at 4 hours, 15 minutes. Despite its length, it's intensely engaging and does an excellent job of recreating the famous battle of Gettysburg. Plus, the portrayal of Pickett's Charge is one of the most impressive war sequences in any movie.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (1990)
An 11-part miniseries that first aired on PBS in 1990, The Civil War is the most complete and moving documentary retelling of the war to date. Burns uses still photos and firsthand accounts of those who lived through the war to narrate this story.
Arguably the best movie made about the Civil War, Glory stars Matthew Broderick as Union General Robert Gould Shaw, and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as members of the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The film's screenplay is based largely on the letters of the regiment's white captain, Robert Gould Shaw, and although at times historically inaccurate, it offers a compelling view of the African-American experience on the Civil War battlefield.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Based on the best-selling novel by Georgia-born author Margaret Matchell, this hit Hollywood romance about the American South during and after the Civil War did a great deal to shape 20th-century attitudes about race and the legacies of slavery, the war, and Radical Reconstruction. Keep in mind, though, historical accuracy isn't its strong suit.
Photographs of the Civil War
This Library of Congress site has photographs arranged in chronological order and by subject. Plus, it contains excellent information about many facets of the war.
The Civil War by the Library of Congress
This Library of Congress' Civil War site includes maps, charts, and other documents from the period.
The Civil War was told in poetry and music, as well as through photos and diaries. This site has dozens of poems written by the men who fought on each side of the conflict.
A House Divided
We have an entire learning guide devoted to Abraham Lincoln's 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican Convention. This speech got him nominated for a seat on the United States Senate, and is known as the "House Divided" speech because Lincoln used that phrase to express his views about the coming crisis between the North and the South.
The text of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery.
Lincoln's War Message
Abraham Lincoln's address to Congress, July 4th, 1861, in which he called for huge numbers of troops to fight the war.
Abraham Lincoln's proclamation that suspended the writ of habeas corpus, September 24th, 1862.
Ex Parte Merryman
Chief Justice Roger Taney's (the same judge who presided over the Dred Scott Case) ruling in Ex parte Merryman, which stated that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was illegal.