2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. To my American readers, this will come as nothing new as I shall presume that you have had classes about the war. However, I know that this particular conflict is likely to have been overlooked by the British curriculum. So settle in and enjoy this brief history of the American Civil War.
Our story starts in 1791. The Vermont Republic becomes the first state to be admitted to the Union since the nation’s independence in 1783. Within the pre-existing constitution of Vermont is an article that prohibits slave ownership in the state, making Vermont the first state to abolish slavery. By 1804, every state north of the Ohio River has passed an abolition act and by 1810, 75% of all former slaves in the North are now free. However, as more territory is admitted to the union, it becomes apparent that the Southern states are still strongly in favour of slavery.
We jump to 1860; a 51 year old lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln has just been elected President. He had won comfortably, carrying seven states and winning a million votes more than his closest rival.
However, one of Lincoln’s biggest electoral platforms was an opposition to slavery. Notice in the map above how with the exception of the two pacific states, Lincoln (red) doesn’t win any states south of the Ohio River? That’s because his anti-slavery platform was interpreted by the pro-slavery Southern states as being unconstitutional and a violation of their rights. Many of these states relied on slave labour to maximise their profits from exports such as cotton and they weren’t going to let an upstart Northern lawyer tell them what to do. It was South Carolina that made the first move, announcing their secession from the Union in December 1860. They were followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas over the next two months.
In early February of 1861, these states formed the Confederate States of America and took control of military installations within their respective territory. This included the entire Texan garrison, which amounted to around one-quarter of the United States’ military personnel. They faced little resistance from the outgoing President, James Buchanan. However, when Lincoln was sworn in in March, he was determined to retain the remaining the Union held posts in Confederate territory.
One of these remaining posts was Fort Sumter, a sea fort located in Charleston harbour. It was manned by around 200 men and was Lincoln’s major act of defiance, as the fort sat in the harbour of the oldest city in the first state to secede. This would be the site of the first actions of the Civil War.
On April 12th 1861, Confederate troops at four locations opened fire on Fort Sumter. Due to the size of the garrison, the besieged Union troops could only fire 21 of their 60 guns back and were at a disadvantage as the fort was built to withstand a naval assault and so the elevated positions of the Confederate batteries on the mainland allowed for easy shelling of Sumter. After 34 hours, the commander of the garrison, Major Robert Anderson, reduced his defensive bombardment to a mere six guns. While a relief expedition led by Gustavus Fox was en route, it was forced to hold off until the 13th as it was split up to aid the relief of Fort Pickens in Florida and the remaining members of the operation were faced with Confederacy artillery and rough waters. Towards the end of the day and into the following morning, the Confederates began to use heated shot to set the wooden interior buildings and the fort gates alight.
On the 14th, Anderson surrendered to the Confederates on the condition that he could fire a 100 gun salute to the US flag. This action would cause the first casualties of the war (the two day battle not having caused any) as the 47th gun went off prematurely and killed Private Daniel Hough, five others were injured and Private Edward Galloway would die five days later in hospital.
And so, the American Civil War began.
3 days after the Battle at Fort Sumter, Virginal joined the Confederacy, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina by the end of May. This put the Confederacy at 11 states and a population of 9 million versus the Union of 21 states and a population of over 20 million. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederates, makes the bold move to set up his seat at Richmond, Virginia, a mere 100 miles from Washington DC.
The first skirmish of the war comes at the end of July as the Confederates, under Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, defeat the Union at Bull Run, 25 miles southwest of Washington. It is at this point that Lincoln realises that they may be in for a long war. Over the course of the next few months, the war is considered a general stalemate. The confederates send delegates to England to request help, whom the Union capture, nearly sparking a war with England until Lincoln releases the men and sends them on their way.
As we enter 1862, naval warfare is changed forever. In March, the Confederates unveil their ironclad, an armour plated warship. Wooden ships have become obsolete and both sides rush to try and claim naval superiority. The Union army on the Potomac also begins their campaign towards Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Union then suffers a shock defeat at Shiloh, Tennessee as General Grant’s forces succumb to a surprise attack in early April. 23,000 Americans lost their lives, more than all previous American wars combined. Just over a month later, the Union army of Potomac retreat after unsuccessfully attacking Richmond in the Battle of Seven Pines. Things are not looking good Lincoln and the Union.
Things continue to go poorly for the Union as their numerically larger force are once again defeated at Bull Run. Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy begins to push north. His aim is Harpers Ferry, 70 miles northwest of Washington. He is stopped at the bloodiest battle of the war so far- Antietam. It becomes the bloodiest day in US military history with an estimated 26,000 dead. Lee withdraws to Virginia, beaten and bloody but not broken. Despite the temporary boost from Antietam, the Union is some political disarray with Lincoln changing commanders frequently and infighting about how they should go about fighting the Confederates. The Army of the Potomac is slaughtered at the Battle of Fredericksburg, losing 12,000 men in futile charges at well defended positions. The year ends with the outlook grim for the Union.
The first of January 1863 is a day that goes down in history. President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that gave freedom to all slaves within the Confederacy, this would act as a precursor to the 13th Amendment that would be passed the following year. The motive of the Union becomes the liberation of the newly freed slaves. However, the Union is once again defeated by a much smaller Confederate force at Chancellorsville in May. However, when Stonewall Jackson dies of his wounds, the Confederates are left without one of their best leaders. Fate changes hands as the Union defeats Lee’s second invasion of the north as Gettysburg at the start of July. The day after the battle, Mississippi falls to the Union as Vicksburg surrenders, splitting the Confederacy. There is a minor hiccup as the Union is smashed at Chickamauga, leaving the Union army of the Cumberland trapped. However, General Grant ultimately saves the day two months later as he breaks the siege of Chattanooga.
1864 turns the war into a war of attrition as the Union armies mobilize and move out. Grant marches on Richmond while Sherman, the new commander of the Armies of the West after Grant was promoted to general-in-chief, marches on Atlanta. While Grant costs 7000 lives in 20 minutes at Cold Harbour in June, leading to a long siege of Petersburg, Sherman takes Atlanta. This act greatly aids Lincoln’s bid for re-election as something as minor as a civil war is not going to stop the elections. The year concludes with Lincoln winning a landslide, carrying all but three states and with the fall of Nashville, negating the effectiveness of Tennessee for the rest of the war.
1300 words in and we reach the final year of the war. At the end of January, Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment and awaits state ratification. This amendment abolishes slavery in the United Sates. In February, attempted peace talks fail and the war continues. In March, Lee launches one last attack at Grant’s forces in the north but the attack is broken in only four hours. Union forces enter the evacuated Richmond on April 2nd and Lee surrenders at Appomattox a week later.
The war is over, the Union has prevailed and slavery has been abolished. However, the Confederacy isn’t dead…
On the night of April 14th, Lincoln and his wife, Mary, go to see a play. At 10:13pm, the President is shot in the head by well-known actor John Wilkes Booth. At the same time, Lewis Powell was set to kill Secretary of State Seward and George Atzerodt was ready to kill Vice President Johnson. However, while Booth succeeded and Lincoln would die five days later after never regaining consciousness, Powell only wounded Seward and Atzerodt didn’t attempt to kill Johnson. The plan had been to destabilize the US government and allow the Confederates to rise again. But it failed- the country mourned Lincoln’s death and the remaining Confederate troops surrendered in May.
The war was finally over; America could begin to heal…