Study Guide

The Civil War People

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  • Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was the 16th President of the United States during one of the most consequential periods in American history, the Civil War. Before being elected president, Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature and lost an election for the U.S. Senate to Stephen A. Douglas. Nevertheless, his fierce campaign earned him a nomination for the presidency. The first Republican president ever, Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War and ended slavery in America.

    With firm conviction, Lincoln declared South Carolina's secession illegal and pledged to go to war to protect the federal union in 1861. During the four years of the American Civil War, the president steered the North to victory and authored the Emancipation Proclamation, which dealt a severe blow to the institution of slavery in the U.S. 

    Lincoln was a thoughtful and soft-spoken man who used words sparingly but to great effect. His brilliance was captured in the Gettysburg Address, in which he movingly related the ongoing Civil War to the founding principles of America, all in less than two minutes. Lincoln's assassination on April 14th, 1865 removed his politically moderate influence from the national stage, giving way to a more radical form of Reconstruction.

    For more on Lincoln, we have entire learning guides devoted to his "House Divided" speech and the Gettysburg Address.

  • Jefferson Davis

    Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. After a distinguished career in national politics as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, Davis served as a congressman and then as a Mississippi senator. After the South's defeat in the Civil War, he was stripped of his citizenship and took refuge in Europe, returning to the United States after a treason case against him was dropped. He died in New Orleans in 1889, and Congress posthumously reinstated his American citizenship in 1978.

    Davis was a moderate political leader who was never able to figure out how to defeat the better-equipped North. As president, he acted as his own Secretary of War and meddled constantly in Southern military strategy. He held less power in the South than Lincoln did in the North, and the power he did have rapidly decreased as the Union Army captured large parts of the Confederacy. 

    Davis' economic policies failed to provide the South with a stable currency or enough industrial capacity to prevail in the war. Toward the end, Davis insisted on holding out until the bitter end, even when it was clear that the Confederacy had lost. 

    In recent years, his legacy has suffered in comparison to that of Robert E. Lee, the general he appointed to replace Joe Johnston in 1862. Davis is buried in Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy.

  • Robert E. Lee

    Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) was one of the most talented and successful generals of the Civil War. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1846, Lee fought in the Mexican-American War, where he showed his excellent leadership skills. 

    In 1859, he was in command of the force that captured abolitionist John Brown at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Though he was against secession, he declined Lincoln's offer to command the Union Army, instead declaring his allegiance to his home state of Virginia. Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until his surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.

    Given the almost impossible task of defeating a larger and better-equipped Northern army, Lee used brilliant and aggressive tactics to defeat his enemies. At the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, he daringly divided his army and won a decisive victory, paving the way for his second invasion of the North. 

    The ensuing Battle of Gettysburg, however, turned into a disaster when Lee ordered a huge frontal assault at the middle of the Northern line, a doomed attack known to history as Pickett's Charge. The South never recovered from the losses of that day, and Lee spent the remainder of the war doing his best to hold off the inevitable. His surrender after the nine-month siege of Petersburg ended all major Southern resistance. Lee is still remembered as a great hero of the Southern cause.

  • Ulysses S. Grant

    Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) served as Commander in Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War, leading the North to victory over the Confederacy. Grant later became the 18th President of the United States, serving from 1869 to 1877. After fighting in the Mexican-American War, Grant left the army, only to rejoin at the outbreak of the Civil War. 

    His victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga convinced Lincoln to promote him to head all Union armies. After a bloody campaign in Virginia, Grant accepted Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9th, 1865. Grant's subsequent presidency was mired in corruption, and he became caught up in several political scandals.

    During the Civil War, Grant was the only Union general who could equal Southern General Robert E. Lee. Grant's early victories catapulted him into the public eye, and his willingness to be aggressive and fight—two traits sorely lacking in many Union generals—allowed him to keep his post after a near-disaster at Shiloh. 

    Upon taking command of all Union armies, he embarked on the Overland Campaign of 1864, a brutal war of attrition in which Grant's armies suffered enormous losses as they attacked Lee on the way to Richmond. Union casualties were so high that Grant was branded "The Butcher." 

    Still, after three years of indecisive and timid generalship from others, Lincoln was happy to have an aggressive general lead his forces against the South. Grant's magnanimous surrender terms at Appomattox helped heal the divided nation by avoiding treason trials and leaving the South with some of its honor intact.

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe

    Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was an American abolitionist and novelist who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most influential books in American history. Her father was Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Congregational Church in Litchfield, and her brother was the famous Congregational preacher Henry Ward Beecher. 

    After the death of one of her children made her contemplate the pain slaves must endure when family members are sold away, she decided to write a book about slavery. With the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, she became a national celebrity, and went on to write several more books on the topic, many of them in response to Southern critiques of the original.

    The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the issue of slavery home to millions of Americans. The story, which helped galvanize the abolitionist movement, is a dramatic—if somewhat patronizing—portrayal of the pain and heartbreak suffered by slaves throughout the South. It sold 500,000 copies in its first four years in print, a record in book sales. 

    Contemporaries believed that much of the sectional strife following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was due to Stowe's influence. While Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't start the war, it did bring into focus the severe brutality of slavery, and contributed to the divide growing between the North from the South during the crucial decade of the 1850s.

  • Robert Gould Shaw

    Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) was the white colonel in charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first all-Black units to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He was killed while storming a Confederate battery at Fort Wagner in Charleston on July 18th, 1863. 

    Shaw is remembered for his leadership of African-American troops and the over 200 letters he wrote to his family from the front.

    Over 200,000 Black soldiers fought for the Union, but, invariably, white officers commanded them. Shaw was initially less than thrilled with his assignment, but he warmed to his troops, who showed bravery and determination when confronting both Confederate bullets and the prevailing prejudice of the day. 

    After Shaw's death at Fort Wagner, he was buried with his troops in a common grave, which the Confederates perceived as an insult. His death and burial, however, were championed by his family who understood the heartfelt respect Shaw had for his men and for the Union cause.

    The exploits of the colonel and his unit were dramatized in the 1989 movie, Glory. The Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a center of Black cultural expression during the first half of the 20th century, is named for him.

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