After years of escalating political conflict over the future of slavery in the United States, the breaking point came with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, whose platform opposed the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. Seven slave states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America before Lincoln’s inauguration. By the beginning of the war, eleven states in all had seceded from the Union. At stake was the future of the nation—could a democratic nation endure if states could secede? Could slavery exist in a country founded on the principle of liberty?
Fighting broke out on April 12, 1861, after Confederate forces attacked the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Although both sides expected a short conflict, the war raged for four years. Battles, skirmishes and guerilla warfare caused large-scale suffering, death and destruction. Many major battles ensued from Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg in the east to Chickamauga, Shiloh and Stones River in the west. The casualties reached staggering numbers, exceeding American casualties of the Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War combined.
In the spring of 1865, the Confederate army surrendered, ending the Civil War. Union victory was a result of several factors:
- One reason was economic: the Union had twice the population of the Confederacy, manufactured 90 percent of the goods in America, had more productive agriculture and possessed twice as much railroad track.
- A second reason was political: in 1864 Lincoln was reelected, indicating continued public support. Lincoln could push for the end of the war and reconciliation of northern and southern states.
- A third reason was military: although the Confederacy had a larger number of experienced officers and initially won many battles, they could not withstand the sheer amount of destruction inflicted by the Union in the final years of the war.
Legacy of the War
The impact of the Civil War was wide-reaching, shaping the world we know today.
- The war resulted in over a million causalities; new evidence suggests 750,000 were soldier deaths. These soldiers comprised 2 percent of America’s total population.
- With the use of accurate rifle muskets, repeating rifles and exploding artillery shells, this was also one of the most destructive wars yet recorded.
- Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the war and pressed for the passing of the 13th amendment, which officially ended slavery in the United States.
- The former Confederate states were left impoverished for over a century, an effect of the rapid change in social order in the country and the devastation of the battles, which were largely fought in the south.
- The powers of the executive office were expanded. Congress banded together to create acts and offices to modernize and link the nation back together. Examples of this include the Morrill Land Grant Act, which financed colleges; the Homestead Act, which was passed to expand settlement of the west; the Department of Agriculture, which was created to produce statistics and share best practices; and massive land grants, which were issued to railroad companies.
- Financing the war also caused Congress to pass the first progressive income tax, create bond issues for the public, begin printing a national currency and start a national banking system.
- The mass slaughter on the battlefields influenced intellectual culture, fostering an existential movement that can be found in the works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ambrose Bierce, and William Faulkner, among others.
- The progression of the media was affected by the Civil War; it was the first time an event had been so thoroughly documented.
- The Civil War likewise impacted the idea of nation building throughout the world, particularly places like Italy (1861) and Germany (1871).
Several digitized archival artifacts are located below.