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The Civil War was unimaginably bloody. Fought all over the country from the Mississippi to Pennsylvania and throughout the South, the battles of the Civil War were massive affairs involving tens of thousands of soldiers—and horrific casualties.
At places like Antietam Creek, Gettysburg, Kennesaw Mountain, and Shiloh, troops on both sides were killed and wounded in staggering numbers. Many more died of disease, starvation, and brutality in notorious prisoner of war camps like Andersonville. By the end of the war, over 600,000 people—about one out of every 50 Americans alive in 1860—lay dead.
One major factor in the severity of this war was the development of modern guns and artillery in the 19th century. The Enfield and Springfield rifles used by the infantry on both sides had far greater accuracy than previous smoothbore weapons of the Mexican-American War. In battles like the Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, commanders used tactics based on an 18th-century European model in which armies used massive amounts of ammunition and charged the enemy to fire at close range in order to compensate for unreliable weaponry.
Traditional man-to-man combat tactics combined with advances in artillery—especially the development of grapeshot, a shell filled with small metal balls used for close range attacks—led to the deaths of thousands.
Northern war campaigns were deadly as well. President Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander in the East during 1864 and 1865, resolved to destroy the Confederate army. During Grant's 1864 offensive in Virginia, hundreds of thousands of Northern casualties did little to slow Grant's advance on Richmond, and later Petersburg.
Grant was determined to mow down as many Southern armies as he could, regardless of the cost. For this reason, he was nicknamed "The Butcher."
Many of the over 600,000 deaths during the Civil War were the result of poor medical care. The germ theory was still unknown at the time, and some battlefield aid stations were horrific. Surgeons didn't bother to clean instruments after amputating limbs, and often didn't, or couldn't, use any anesthesia. Many patients infected by dirty knives, saws or bandages, died. With no way to stop nasty infections like gangrene, doctors routinely cut off arms and legs rather than let patients die. The surgeries, though, were often as deadly as the conditions they were meant to cure.
When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 14th, 1861, neither the North or the South had an official army. The largest military force on the continent was far to the West protecting the frontier.
So, President Lincoln immediately called for thousands of volunteers, and President Jefferson Davis did the same in the South.
However, sensing quickly that the war might be longer than he at first anticipated, Lincoln convinced Congress to authorize the conscription of half a million additional volunteers in June. These troops, he planned, would serve three-year terms, far longer than the standard three-month term.
The armies met for the first time on July 21st, 1861 40 miles west of Washington at the Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas. Hoping for some excitement—and maybe to escape the blistering heat of a Washington summer—thousands of Washingtonians followed the army with picnic blankets to see the fun.
What they witnessed was the rout of their army by a smaller Confederate force. General Thomas Jackson received the nickname "Stonewall" after his brigade of Virginians stood "like a stone wall" against repeated Union assaults. The ensuing retreat to Washington was chaotic, and Jackson complained that if he had had 10,000 men, he could've been in Washington in two days.
Instead, both sides realized that the war would be long and drawn out.
The year 1862 was one of confusion and delay, at least for the Union. General George B. McClellan, Lincoln's choice for command of all Union armies, developed a complicated plan to attack Richmond not by land, but by sailing his 80,000-strong army down the Potomac River, through the Chesapeake, and up the peninsula created by the James and York Rivers towards Richmond.
The so-called Peninsular Campaign was a disaster. Robert E. Lee, newly elevated to command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Joseph Johnston was injured, frustrated McClellan at every turn, and with the Battle of the Seven Days (June 25th to July 1st), McClellan, cautious as always, decided to retreat.
Lincoln was incensed and sacked McClellan, placing himself in the role of Chief of the Army. McClellan retreated back down the peninsula to Washington.
In the West, things were little better for the Union. In April, a surprise attack by a large Confederate force against Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee led to the two-day Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing). Grant tried to rally his troops but his army suffered 13,000 casualties, an appalling number. Combined with the 10,000 casualties on the Confederate side, more men were lost at Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined.
Grant retreated up the Tennessee River, and Lincoln was pressured to fire him. But Grant had showed a trait hard to find in the Northern armies: he was a fighting soldier. McClellan and McDowell before him were timid in the face of the enemy. Grant, a hard-drinking Ohioan was anything but timid, and his ferocious tactics would serve the Union well in years to come.
Only a few days later, on April 24th, David Farragut, commander of a Union naval squadron, attacked and captured New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy. From this early point, the South could no longer ship cotton down the Mississippi, and the Union blockade of Southern ports began to show results.
Back in the East, Lee moved north and defeated the Union again at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The battlefield was a grisly sight for the soldiers with the year-old bodies of men killed at First Bull Run lying unburied. Lee took his army of 55,000 and marched north into Maryland, invading Union territory for the first time.
McClellan, still in charge of the Army of the Potomac, followed him, and on September 17th, 1862, the armies met at a small town named Sharpsburg, near Antietam Creek. The ensuing battle still ranks as the bloodiest day in American history: 23,000 men were killed or wounded during the all-day battle, which ended Lee's advance into Maryland, but was something of a draw.
McClellan refused to follow Lee as he retreated, finally exasperating Lincoln who relieved him of command.
Lee returned to Virginia followed, at last, by new Union commander Ambrose Burnside, who led his troops into a disaster at Fredericksburg on December 13th. With the Confederates entrenched on Marye's Heights, the Union Army was ordered to attack an astonishing 14 separate times. Over 12,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded, and some Confederate soldiers stopped shooting as the dogged Northern units came at them again and again as they sheltered behind the famous Sunken Road. Their astonishing bravery wasn't matched by their general's skill, and Burnside's tenure was quick to end.
In the North, morale plummeted, while in the South, there were hopes that the Union might just give up.
With the arrival of winter, the fighting slowed. Both sides took stock of 1862, and the assessment was that the South, with its limited manpower and small economy but brilliant generals, was defeating the North.
The election of 1862 had been a great setback for Lincoln's Republican Party, which lost a number of congressional seats, and the value of Union "greenback" paper currency fell dramatically. Responding to the mood of his people, and understanding that the Northern cause was suffering due to military setbacks, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863.
The war became much more than a conflict about rebellious states. It was now a war about slavery.
After a year and a half of warfare, nothing had been decided. In Washington, Lincoln ordered Grant to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate strongpoint on the Mississippi River.
In the East, General "Fighting" Joe Hooker again set off for Richmond and engaged Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May. Despite facing a larger force, Lee divided his army so he could attack two separate Union forces. This daring and unorthodox strategy paid off and Lee defeated Hooker during the three-day battle. Over 30,000 casualties mounted on both sides, but Lee was able to use his victory to invade Pennsylvania. The South suffered a grievous loss, however, when Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot and killed by his own soldiers during the battle.
Lee lamented the loss of Jackson, claiming that he had "lost his right arm."
The Civil War was a charnel house of high-ranking officers, and the losses of generals and colonels was much harder on the South, which counted on brilliant leadership to make up for deficiencies in other areas. In the North, the same trend dominated, but Northern generalship was so bad that the effect of the deaths of numerous high-ranking officers was to provide opportunities for younger, more talented officers.
In the South, Jackson was irreplaceable, and his leadership was to be sorely missed in the coming months. Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania was a turning point in the war. Many in Washington and throughout the North were clamoring for peace before the entire war was lost and Washington captured.
In the West, James Longstreet and other Confederate leaders were making life difficult for the Union armies of Tennessee and the Cumberland. As Lee made his way north, General George Meade was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac and ordered to stay between Washington and Lee's army. On July 1st, a detachment of Confederate soldiers entered the town of Gettysburg searching for supplies, especially shoes, which were always in short supply. A unit of Meade's army met them there and a skirmish broke out. Reinforcements were called in and, although planned by no one, over the next three days, the fate of the United States was to be decided.
Of all the many battles in American history, none was quite as important or has been quite as extensively studied as Gettysburg.
Here lay the fate of nations, and during three incomparably bloody days, men fought and died in thickets, in fields, in the Bloody Stream, and a hellish ditch known as Devil's Den. They fought hand to hand, with bayonets, fists and even teeth. Units ran straight uphill into enemy fire to capture a strategic hill, only to be thrown off by an equally brave charge from the enemy. Smoke obscured everything, until on the third day, out of the smoke and trees, 12,000 Confederate soldiers, in a great charge, walked across a field of death into the waiting guns of the Northern Army.
Pickett's Charge, as it came to be known, was Lee's greatest folly, and as the men of General George Pickett's division walked slowly across the three quarters of a mile of empty fields, the hopes of the Confederacy marched with them. Only 5,000 ever made it back to the Confederate lines, and Lee was forced to turn and flee.
On July 4th, after three days of fighting, telegrams arrived in Washington to announce a great victory. Casualties were appalling: 23,000 men were killed, captured, or missing on the Union side, and there were 28,000 casualties from Confederate lines.
But Lee was stopped, and the South would never again invade the North. At the same time, General Grant managed to capture Vicksburg by landing an army below it and encircling the city. A lengthy siege left the town in ruins, and the starving inhabitants surrendered on July 4th, cutting the Confederacy in two as the Union now controlled the entire length of the Mississippi.
In the North, it was an Independence Day to remember. In the South, it was the beginning of the end.
But even with the twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war was far from over.
In September, the Confederate army under General Braxton Bragg won a smashing victory over a larger Union force at Chickamauga outside the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Union Army under William Rosecrans found itself trapped and under siege in Chattanooga, a vitally important railroad junction.
For over two months, the Northern soldiers suffered under the guns of the South until Ulysses S. Grant came up with his Army of Tennessee and broke the siege on November 23rd. During the battle, the Union troops avenged their defeat at Chickamauga and stormed the heights of Missionary Ridge yelling "Chickamauga! Chickamauga!"
With Chattanooga now firmly in Union hands, the road to Atlanta and the Deep South was open. For the Confederacy, the strategic situation looked bleak as winter set in, slowing the war for several months.
The year 1864 dawned with a new determination in the North. Nearly three years of warfare had failed to defeat the South, and now patience was running out.
Lincoln decided in March that the time for half measures was past. He appointed Grant commander of all Union armies, and put him in direct charge of the Army of the Potomac. William Tecumsah Sherman, another general with a fighting reputation, was placed at the head of the Union Army in the West. On May 4th, a coordinated assault by both armies began, aiming for the complete destruction of the South.
Grant was a soldiers' soldier, and he began what would be called the Overland Campaign by smashing into Lee's army at a place called the Wilderness. The Wilderness became the site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the war, and this area of woods, marsh and rough terrain became the grave of thousands.
During the second day of the battle, the woods themselves caught on fire, burning to death injured men from both sides. Despite heavy casualties, Grant pressed on down the rail line for Richmond, meeting Lee again at Spotsylvania. Again, Grant's larger army pounded Lee's men. Casualties were high on both sides, but Grant and Lincoln had agreed that Richmond must be taken to ultimately defeat Lee's army.
Replacements flowed from the Northern states to fill the holes in the lines. On the other hand, few men came to aid the devastated South, for the region had already been depleted of its white men.
After years of timid generals and missed opportunities, Grant's approach wasn't elegant and it wasn't pretty, but it was effective. Until Cold Harbor.
In yet another flanking movement to the east, Grant's men encountered Lee's at Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 1st. Three days later, more than 13,000 Union soldiers were lost, while Lee lost only 2,500. While in theory, the nearly inexhaustible manpower reserves of the North could make up the difference, public opinion was shocked and appalled by the carnage. Grant was also horrified, writing years later in his memoirs that Cold Harbor was a terrible mistake.
The battle took place only ten miles from Richmond but with the losses at Cold Harbor and an entrenched Confederate Army between him and Richmond, Grant moved southward toward the city of Petersburg. Failing to capture it on June 15th, he began encircling the city, leading to a nine-month siege. Grant had learned his lesson at Cold Harbor, and decided that he'd had enough of attacking fortified positions.
During the siege, there were several large battles, including the Battle of the Crater on July 30th, in which a huge mine was exploded under the Confederate line. Though it managed to blow a hole in the defenses, poor planning and execution by the Union troops assigned to the attack ended up with the Confederates firing into the Crater filled with Union soldiers.
In the so-called "turkey shoot" that followed, 5,300 Union troops were killed or wounded. The siege went on for another eight months.
In the West, Sherman began the campaign by attacking south from Chattanooga toward Atlanta, which he took in September after Joe Johnston's delaying campaign had frustrated him for most of the summer. On September 2nd, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln declaring, "Atlanta is ours and fairly won."
Coming close to the 1864 election, this was welcomed news in Washington where the failure of Grant's thrust toward Richmond had lowered morale considerably. After nearly two months in Atlanta, Sherman ordered it burned and began his famous March to the Sea on November 15th.
A column of Union troops 60 miles wide carved a path of destruction, burning farms, livestock, plantations and anything else they found. They lived off the land meaning that the army had no supplies of its own, but ate what it found.
Sherman's march, one of the more famous episodes of the war, fit with his view that "all war is hell," meaning that there was no point in sparing the enemy population the horrors of the war. By the time Sherman reached Savannah on December 21st, he'd brought the war home to Georgia in a lasting way.
But Sherman wasn't done in Savannah. He turned his army north and marched through South Carolina, the first state to secede in 1860. He ordered his army to destroy everything it encountered, and he burned the city of Charleston to the ground. By the end of the war, Sherman and his men were approaching a link-up with Grant's men outside Petersburg, with only Johnston's army in North Carolina between them.
For all intents and purposes, the war was over by the beginning of 1865. However, a peace conference held in February between Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President, and Lincoln was unsuccessful. Jefferson Davis insisted on fighting to the bitter end. More men had to die.
The main fighting took place at the end of March near Petersburg where Lee ordered a final attack on Grant's line. But with many of his men sick and dying of starvation and disease, Lee's campaign failed, and on April 3rd, Grant broke through the line and moved quickly to capture Richmond.
With the Confederate capital in Union hands and the Army of Northern Virginia limping to the West, the end was at hand.
On April 9th, at a small village called Appomattox Court House a few miles west of Richmond, Grant met Lee in Wilmer McLean's house. Lee wore his best gray uniform, his stars shining on his shoulders as he contemplated surrendering his army and all he had fought for. Grant wore a private's uniform, dirty and torn from wear, with only his general's stars to denote his rank. The two men chatted aimlessly for a while before Lee brought the subject back to the task at hand.
Grant offered generous terms: the Confederate Army was to be disbanded and all property turned over to the United States Government. He expressly noted that this didn't include the officers' personal guns, an honorable gesture that won him respect and admiration from all sides. He also agreed that any member of the Confederate Army who took an oath not to fight against the government again, could return to their homes and be left alone, escaping all treason trials.
Lee accepted the terms.
Still, the war wasn't over just yet. Johnston's army in North Carolina remained in the field, but by May, his army was captured and effective resistance ended. In the end, the war had been terribly costly. The South had lost 280,000 men, and the North counted 320,000 casualties of its own.
Lincoln and the North had won the war and kept the Union together. But it all came at a terrible price.
It's hard to believe, but the Civil War wasn't originally framed as a war to free the slaves.
In its early years, President Abraham Lincoln promised not to impose abolitionist goals on the South. He was desperate to keep border states like Kentucky and Maryland loyal to the Union, and he believed that making the war explicitly about slavery would make this difficult.
So, it wasn't until September 22nd, 1862 that Lincoln proposed to free the slaves. But even then, he issued only a provisional proclamation to emancipate slaves in select parts of the South where he had no authority. As the war had increased in rancor and violence, it became increasingly clear that the South wasn't going to stop fighting and peacefully rejoin the Union.
After the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, he ordered slaves freed in all areas of the Confederacy that didn't declare loyalty to the Union by January 1st, 1863. On that date, he issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in those parts of the South that remained hostile to the Union.
In many ways, the Proclamation was limited. It didn't expressly free slaves in loyal border states, and it exempted those areas of the Confederacy already under Union control. However, it changed the character of the war in fundamental ways.
After New Year's Day 1863, the war became, for the North, a conflict aimed at freeing the slaves and ending the Southern planter aristocracy. Each advance of Northern troops was a move for freedom, and each town and farm captured aided in the emancipation of slaves. What had begun as a war to corral rebellious states had become a great crusade for freedom and liberty.
And it also became a fight to the death, for the South knew that losing the war meant an end to life as it had existed before the war. In addition, Lincoln made provisions for the use of Black soldiers to fight the war. The Confederacy didn't do likewise (until the very last months of the war), and they promised to shoot any captured Black soldiers as runaways.
That didn't deter over 200,000 Black men from fighting in the Union Army during the war: 38,000 were killed.
The most famous Black unit was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led by a white colonel named Robert Gould Shaw. All Black units were commanded by white officers and Shaw's unit was no exception. Many of the Black units were forced to perform menial tasks in support of white fighting units, and until late in the war, they were paid at a lower rate than white troops, if paid at all.
Despite the prejudice they experienced, units like the 54th fought bravely and successfully in many battles. By the end of the war, 200,000 Black men had fought for the Union.
Though the North fought the war to abolish slavery, public opinion wasn't all one-sided. There was still a great deal of racism in the North and it occasionally provoked serious violence. The most famous instance were the draft riots in New York that followed the beginning of conscription in July 1863.
Fearing that a large free Black population would take their jobs, many working-class groups, particularly the Irish, grew resentful of the war, ultimately rebelling against the draft. The four-day riots that ensued were about many things—including the decision to allow rich men to pay their way out of fighting in the war—but race lay beneath it all.
Bands of Irish workers and others sought out Blacks living in the city and attacked them. Over 200 men, women, and children were killed before Union soldiers returning from Gettysburg ended the mayhem. The war ended slavery, but really, it did little to end the prejudice and racism that Blacks faced in the North as well as in the South.
Economically, the Civil War wasn't a contest between equals. The South had no factories to produce guns or ammunition, and its railroads were small and weren't interconnected, meaning that it was hard for the South to move food, weapons, and men quickly and over long distances.
In addition, though agriculture thrived in the South, planters focused on cash crops like tobacco and cotton, and didn't produce enough food to feed the Southern population. The North, on the other hand, had enough food and enough factories to make weapons for all of its soldiers. It also had an extensive rail network that could transport men and weapons rapidly and cheaply.
At first, this superiority of the North didn't seem to make much of a difference. Like many wars in history, those involved thought it would be over quickly. But Northern advantages would prove crucial as the war dragged on.
The differences in manpower and industrial capacity were so profound that the fact that the South almost won the war was a shock to observers all over the world. On paper, there was no way that the South could possibly have stood up to the North, which had all of the material and financial advantages, and which did an excellent job of closing off the only advantage the South did have: cotton.
Since most of the South's money came from exporting cotton the North aimed to shut this trade down. One of the very first things the Union government did was to blockade Southern ports. The blockade took some time to become operational, but after the capture of New Orleans, the amount of Southern cotton exported to England plummeted.
With it went the South's only consistent form of income, something it desperately needed to defeat the North.
With the loss of its cotton exports, the South was in big trouble. It had lost its banking system—which had been headquartered in New York—and held no gold or silver reserves. There were various forms of paper money printed by the states and even by some private banks, but overall people did not trust paper money, unless it was explicitly backed by gold.
Without gold and without banks, the Confederacy did the only thing it could: it printed money. Lots and lots of money.
However, it couldn't do much to collect taxes to support this huge printing effort because the Confederate Constitution forbade the central government from imposing taxes on the states, and left it up to each individual state to tax its citizens.
As in the American Revolution decades before, states collected little money and so, the Confederacy was left nearly broke.
The Confederate government levied taxes in 1864, but by that time, it was too late to do much good. With money flooding the market, its value fell dramatically, and horrendous inflation dogged the Confederate war effort from beginning to end.
With so many family heads away in fighting the war, much of the Southern agricultural land was left idle or insufficiently farmed. The South, then, couldn't manage to feed both the civilian and military populations. Food was scarce throughout the war and, by the end, parts of the South suffered from starvation. The final dissolution of the Confederate army came when men realized that their families were starving to death and they left the army to try to help.
Arms and ammunition were also chronically in short supply in the South. Men had to bring their own guns, and soldiers scavenged the battlefields to take Union weapons and ammunition. Soldiers also lacked simple necessities such as shoes.
In fact, the quest for shoes brought both the North and the South together at the town of Gettysburg which housed a shoe factory. Uniforms, tents, wagons and horses were also rare in the South, and these problems only increased toward the end of the war. In the end, the South lost the war primarily because it ran out of men, money, and supplies.
The picture was much rosier north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In addition to having a population that was more than twice that of the South, the North had enough food to feed all of its people, including its armies.
Plus, it boasted many factories that produced much of what those armies needed. The federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts alone produced over one million rifles for the army, and countless rounds of ammunition. The Union armies had wagons, tents, and its factory-produced blue uniforms. (Southern uniforms were generally of a brownish grey homespun color.)
The North enjoyed 69% of the railroad capacity compared to only 31% in the South, and held all of the currency reserves of the federal government. The Midwest and Northeast were the most industrialized areas of the country, and those factories quickly turned to making war supplies that kept the massive Union armies relatively well-equipped.
Despite these advantages, the government needed money, and it went to great lengths to get it. First, it issued a massive bond measure in which citizens and financial institutions were asked to buy bonds to fund the war. When this failed to yield enough money for the war, the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, decided to print paper money.
The "greenbacks," as paper money became known, were initially backed by gold, and then later by the bonds that the government sold. In a complicated scheme, the government sold bonds for greenbacks but repaid the interest in gold, making them attractive investments. The value of the paper money varied according to the fortunes of the Union Army, and at times, they were worth almost one-third less than face value.
In contrast to the economic plan in the Confederacy, the Union made the greenbacks "legal tender for all debts public and private," which helped lower inflation since, by law, everyone had to accept them for goods and services.
Still searching for ways to gather more money, the federal government introduced the first income tax in 1862, and the Bureau of Internal Revenue, later known as the IRS, was established. All of this worked relatively well, and the Union dealt with a rate of inflation that never topped 80% per year, while the South suffered a rate that reached 9,000% by the end of the war.
The Civil War was more than just a series of battles. It was a nationwide catastrophe that had a profound impact on all aspects of American society.
Men were taken from farms, factories, and plantations and sent to fight one another leaving women and children to tend to the home front. Huge casualties on both sides meant that everyone was directly affected by the carnage, even those living far from the scene of battle. In the areas where battles did occur, homes, farms, schools, and bridges were leveled.
All in all, war led to the dislocation of American society on an unprecedented scale.
As millions of men made their way to the front, those they'd left behind faced a difficult situation.
Farms were without men to till the soil and factories were left with few workers. However, demands for food and goods increased as the armies ate their way through the war. Women bore the brunt of the home-front hardships. Many were forced to manage small farms themselves.
Though women were excluded from the military and from factory work, they found ways to serve the Northern cause. For instance, women made bandages from lint, nursed wounded men back to health, and worried about their loved ones on the fighting front. In the Midwest, thousands of women did the best they could to keep their lives together while men were away, and all dreaded the fateful telegrams with the lists of the dead.
Outward manifestations of wealth continued to characterize high society during the war. For those attending lavish parties, grand balls, and elaborate marriage celebrations, the war, at times, seemed far away. But funerals tempered the enjoyment. Despite the common claim that it was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," elites, as well as middle and lower-class citizens, fought in the war. In poorer areas, the hardships were, of course, greatest, and many moved to cities or to the homes of nearby relatives to make ends meet.
Uncertainty, too, plagued the North during the war years. Casualty lists notified communities of the names of soldiers who'd died in battle, but families also had to wait for letters from their loved ones with up-to-date information about their well-being.
Many families were heartbroken to learn that someone they knew had been classified as "missing" or had been taken by Southern forces as a "prisoner of war."
On the other hand, the war brought greater economic opportunities to Northern citizens. Factories producing firearms, shells, bullets, blankets, tents, and shells proliferated. Work was easy to come by for most young white men and immigrant men in the North, although inflation during the war made it difficult for workers to earn much money.
When the draft pulled white men away from their jobs, immigrants—primarily German and Irish—filled in. With increased immigration, and greater competition for jobs, Northern whites, especially men returning from the battlefield, grew to resent the newcomers. In this way, the war sparked xenophobia in the North.
Southern society had long been more insular than Northern society, but the war changed this. In addition to the difficulties of producing food and industrial goods—with which the South struggled far more than the North—the majority of the fighting took place in the South and the ravages of war took years to heal.
In Virginia and Tennessee, not to mention the areas of Georgia and South Carolina destroyed during Sherman's marches, the war caused incredible damage to homes, farms, bridges, and roads. Much of the Southern railway system was destroyed during the war, making it difficult to bring food from one area to another.
Even more damaging to Southern society during the war was the drain on its population. Nearly half of military-aged white males fought during the war. Farms, factories, and plantations were emptied of fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands.
Southern society was less able to adapt to these changes due to its chivalric ideals and insistence that slaves not take any meaningful role in the army, other than forced labor. The rich in the South, like those in the North, tried to go on as if nothing was happening, but even that became impossible as the war dragged on. Part of Union General Sherman's plan for his March to the Sea was to bring the difficulties of the war home to many of the elite segments of society that hadn't borne the brunt of the fighting.
Political power also shifted from the landed aristocracy of the Virginia Tidewater and the cotton plantations of the Deep South to small farmers who demanded more political influence in return for their sacrifices in the war. This was to be a short-lived change, however, because after the war, their new power was compromised by the enfranchisement of former slaves and, later, by the resurgence of the aristocracy following Radical Reconstruction.
By far the largest changes to Southern society were due to the changing role of slaves. As Union armies advanced, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were freed. In places where the Union Army didn't reach, Blacks were still kept as slaves, but with white male overseers away, slaves were able to exert more power over their everyday lives.
Toward the end of the war, the Union government created the Freedman's Bureau to assist freed slaves in the South. New communities of freed slaves blossomed throughout the South, and post-war Radical Reconstruction allowed Blacks, for a time, to enjoy some political power in the South.
The impact of the emancipation of millions of slaves changed the power dynamics in the South considerably, but the determination of the white South to end Radical Reconstruction undid these. The Civil War upended Southern society, ending forever the planter-dominated social hierarchy that was a hallmark of the antebellum South.
From the very founding of the nation, the North and the South were different in almost every way. Economically and politically, the South revolved around the institution of slavery and an agricultural economy that benefited from slave labor.
By contrast, the North, less rural and depending far more on free labor, had become the industrial and financial center of the country by the early-19th century. As the abolitionist movement gained strength in the North, the South became increasingly concerned that the North would find a way to put an end to slavery, thus destroying—in the eyes of Southern plantation owners—their very way of life.
The Constitution, ratified in 1787, provided for some protections of the institution of slavery, but also prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808. By the first half of the 19th century, states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, began to outlaw slave labor.
Political leaders hoped to temper the brewing sectional conflict. In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Northern leaders accepted into the Union a new slave state, Missouri, on condition that another addition, Maine, gain statehood as a free territory. The Compromise of 1850, in which politicians negotiated the status of territory gained after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), was also aimed at maintaining the balance of power in Congress between leaders of slave states and of free states.
Still, these compromises didn't prevent divisions from growing deeper, and in some cases, further facilitated the rift. For instance, the Fugitive Slave Act, a stipulation in the Compromise of 1850, required free states to assist in the capture of runaway slaves who might seek refuge in those regions. The free North despised this law and the power it gave to the South.
The South based many of its grievances on the doctrine of "states' rights." The Constitution aimed to carve a middle ground between a strong federal government and the freedom of individual states to make decisions for themselves.
In fact, the federal government before the Civil War looked nothing like the federal government of today. Almost all decisions were made at the state level, with the government in Washington responsible for the army, Native American affairs and foreign policy, and not much else.
As time went on, the doctrine of states' rights—a founding principle upon which the United States was established—became the battle cry of the South in its struggle to prevent the North from imposing anti-slavery measures upon it.
When Abraham Lincoln beat three other candidates for the presidency in 1860, the die was cast. Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in nine Southern states, so his victory was seen as the North imposing its will on the South. Lincoln himself was a moderate on the issue of slavery, and many Northerners feared that Lincoln wasn't enough of an abolitionist for their tastes.
His most famous speech, given in 1858, declared that, "A house divided cannot stand," and promised that America couldn't endure "half-slave and half-free."
Still, during the campaign, he repeatedly insisted that he wouldn't violate the doctrine of states' rights and impose Northern sentiments on the South. Few in the South believed him.
Within days of Lincoln's election, South Carolina seceded from the Union, declaring that it wasn't under the jurisdiction of the federal government of the United States. When six other states followed South Carolina's lead, the Confederate States of America were formed with Jefferson Davis of Tennessee as its president.
After his inauguration as President of the United States on March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln warned the South that secession was illegal under the Constitution and that he'd bring war against the rebelling states if necessary. By April 1861, both sides were mobilizing for armed conflict and war seemed inevitable.
The Revolutionary War was won by American soldiers and French ships. Spain provided money and ammunition, and the Netherlands gave the new American nation large loans to keep them fighting.
The South had good reason to hope that 80 years later, the major powers of Europe would intervene on their side, especially hoping that cotton would be the key to European aid. Its leaders knew that with no cotton coming from Southern fields, the textile mills of Britain would shut down. Britain, then, should have had a major interest in supporting the South.
France had some interest in keeping the U.S. divided, since a warring America would allow the French to continue meddling in Mexico undisturbed. Throughout the war, the European powers watched and waited for one major Southern victory, withholding aid until the South proved they could win the war. Without help from abroad, however, the South could never quite manage to win that all-important victory.
For the North, foreign diplomacy meant keeping European powers from intervening in the war on the Southern side. Later in the war, when it became clear that Europe was going to stay out of the conflict, the North focused its attention on domestic politics. Always fearful of the threat of Southern sympathizers in Northern states, Lincoln, for the first time in American history, used his authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus: the right of prisoners to a trial.
So, the Union could arrest citizens who were suspected Southern sympathizers. Of course, it was a controversial decision at the time, but Lincoln always maintained that it was an unfortunate but necessary measure to save the Union.
By 1864, after three bloody and inconclusive years of war, many in the North were fed up with the struggle and wanted peace.
For this reason, the election of 1864 was a close race, with Lincoln winning reelection by only a small margin. The Democrats, who demanded peace, nominated General George McClellan to run against Lincoln, the Republican candidate.
McClellan was a popular general whom Lincoln had fired in 1862 for failing in his duties. But with Lincoln's leadership waning, McClellan attacked the president's handling of the war, and even questioned its goals.
Lincoln eventually resorted to somewhat nefarious tactics. For instance, in swing states he released soldiers from their duties on election day hoping they'd go to the polls to vote for him. Ultimately, General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, an important victory that boosted Northern support of the war, saved Lincoln's campaign.
Looking haggard and worn after bearing the burdens of war for four long years, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address on March 4th, 1865. In it, he committed himself to winning the war and restoring peace to the nation.
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right," he said, "let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
A month later, on April 9th, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Just five days later, on April 14th, 1865, President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln drove to Ford's Theater on 11th Street in Washington, D.C. to watch a play called Our American Cousin. The city of Washington was in a state of euphoria since Lee had surrendered and the war seemed to be over.
But as Lincoln sat in his box watching the show, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer, snuck into the box and shot Lincoln in the head. Booth jumped from the balcony onto the stage, breaking his ankle in the process, walked to the apron and shouted in his loudest stage voice, "Sic semper tyrannus!" ("Thus always to tyrants!")
He then fled the theater and 12 days later, after the largest manhunt in American history, was shot and killed in a burning barn.
Lincoln was carried to a nearby house where he died the next morning. An unprecedented period of national mourning ensued—at least in the North. Millions of people watched as the special train carried the president's body from Washington, D.C. to his final resting place in Illinois. In the North, Lincoln's assassination cast a pall over victory.