The American Civil War and Its Legacy

The American Civil War and Its Legacy

The American Civil War, a pivotal moment in the history of the United States, was a profound conflict that reshaped the nation’s identity, governance, and social structure. Spanning from 1861 to 1865, it was a battle not only on the fields but also for the soul of America.

The American Civil War resolved two great issues: the nature of the Federal Union (and the relative power of the states and central government); and the existence of black slavery.

On his election as US president (Nov 1860), Abraham Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery.

This provoked South Carolina to secede from the Union (Dec 1860). Following the secession of a further six Southern states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas), a Southern Constitution was drawn up, and Jefferson Davis was sworn in as provisional president of the Confederate States (Feb 1861). Hostilities commenced when Confederate forces under Pierre Gustav Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina (12 Apr 1861).

Lincoln quickly proclaimed a blockade of the Southern ports and called for the raising of an army of 75,000 men. This prompted the secession of four more Southern states, and Richmond, Virginia, became the Confederate seat of government.

During the early summer, George McClellan, commander of the Federal forces in Southern Ohio, advanced into West Virginia and, having eliminated Confederate resistance in three small but very significant battles, made it possible for the new state of West Virginia to join the Union in 1863. Meanwhile, some 350,000 Union troops marched on Richmond under the command of Irvin McDowell (1818–85). Ignoring the advice of his army commander, Winfield Scott, Lincoln ordered McDowell to attack Beauregard’s Confederate forces, which were attempting to hold the important rail crossroads at Manassas. Further, Union troops were to hold Joseph Eggleston Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Bull Run to prevent it from reinforcing Beauregard. In the ensuing battle (Jul 1861), the Union forces were forced to retreat to Washington. A notable defensive action on the part of Confederate brigade commander Thomas J. Jackson earned him the nickname Stonewall.

Following the defeat at Bull Run (Manassas), Lincoln called for a further 500,000 army recruits; he also determined a policy of simultaneous and widespread multiple offensives, together with an intensification of the naval blockade. McClellan was appointed as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, until the appointment, much later in the war, of Ulysses S. Grant as overall commander (Mar 1864), Lincoln’s generals were unsuccessful.

In early 1862 Grant commenced a major campaign to gain control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. His initial successes (Feb 1862) in capturing the Confederate strongholds of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Tennessee, were followed by John Pope’s capture of New Madrid, Missouri, and Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River (Apr 1862). Continuing South towards Corinth, Grant was surprised at Shiloh and hard-pressed by strong Confederate forces under Albert Sidney Johnston and Beauregard (Apr 1862). Only the death of Johnston and the later arrival of Union reinforcements from Nashville under Don Carlos Buell (1818–98) enabled Grant to recover and force a Confederate withdrawal. With the subsequent occupation of Corinth, the Union forces controlled the upper and lower reaches of the Mississippi. New Orleans was taken (May 1862) by David Glasgow Farragut, the naval fleet commander, who had run the Confederate forts of St Philip and Jackson, 90 miles south of the city.

In the east, McClellan had initiated his Peninsular Campaign, planning to attack Richmond from the southeast along the peninsula between the York and James rivers rather than by a direct overland assault (favored by Lincoln). After slow progress up the peninsula, delayed by a month-long siege of Yorktown (May 1862) and rearguard Confederate action at Williamsburg, his troops approached Richmond, where they were attacked by J E Johnston’s forces at Seven Pines (May 1862). Johnston was seriously wounded, and his troops withdrew into Richmond. He was replaced by Robert E Lee, who engaged McClellan in a series of indecisive but costly actions, the Seven Days Battle (25 Jun–1 Jul 1862), which convinced McClellan of the need for considerable reinforcement before approaching Richmond again. Lincoln, who had surreptitiously withheld a large number of McClellan’s troops to defend Washington, insisted on withdrawal. He transferred most of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to Pope’s Army of Virginia and replaced McClellan as general-in-chief with Henry Wager Halleck.

Pope was then ordered to move overland to Richmond, but Lee defeated him at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas, Aug 1862). Pope was then dismissed by Lincoln, and McClellan was reinstated. McClellan reorganized his troops to pursue Lee into Maryland. However, despite having obtained a copy of Lee’s orders and dispositions, McClellan was unable to score a decisive victory at Antietam(Sharpsburg, Sep 1862) against the numerically inferior Confederates, allowing Lee to retreat into Virginia. Lincoln again relieved McClellan of his command and substituted Ambrose Burnside, who led the demoralized Union troops into a major defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia (Dec 1862). Lincoln appointed a new army commander, Joseph (Fighting Joe) Hooker, who engaged Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863), but was outmaneuvered by Jackson.

Lee regrouped and reorganized his forces and once again invaded the North, moving into Pennsylvania, shadowed by Hooker. Hooker requested further reinforcements and resigned his command when this was refused. George Gordon Meade succeeded him and encountered Lee unexpectedly at Gettysburg. This developed into a climactic battle (Jul 1863), with Meade holding a defensive position and successfully withstanding Lee’s attacks. However, with Meade declining to counterattack, Lee retreated into Virginia. Almost simultaneously, this change in Confederate fortunes was reflected in the West, where Union forces commanded by Grant and ably assisted by gunboats under David Dixon Porter had captured Vicksburg (Jul 1863), the major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Having eliminated the few remaining Confederate posts, Grant consolidated Union control of the Mississippi.

After the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, Bluell had been ordered against the vital rail center at Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was being held by Confederate Braxton Bragg. However, Bragg invaded Kentucky and drew Buell out of Tennessee. Their armies met at Perryville (Oct 1862), and after an indecisive battle, Bragg retreated south. Buell’s tardy pursuit displeased Lincoln, who replaced him with William Starke Rosecrans. The latter forced Bragg to retreat further after the Battle of Murfreesboro (Stone’s River, 31 Dec 1862–2 Jan 1863), but Bragg received reinforcements from Lee and, later in the year, defeated Rosecrans at Chickamauga (Sep 1863). Rosecrans took refuge in Chattanooga, besieged by Bragg. Grant, newly appointed departmental commander of the West, then replaced Bragg with George Henry Thomas and himself proceeded to the relief of Chattanooga. With Hooker, Thomas, and William Tecumseh Sherman, he scored a signal victory there (Nov 1863), routing Bragg’s forces. Bragg was replaced by J E Johnston.

In March 1864, Grant succeeded Halleck and became commander of all Union armies. His strategy to the end of the war was for the Army of the West, under Sherman, to destroy the remains of J E Johnston’s Confederate army and their resources in north Georgia while he accompanied Meade’s Army of the Potomac against Richmond. On his march South towards Richmond, Grant fought the costly and indecisive Battle of the Wilderness (May 1864), and at Spotsylvania (May 1864), he was repulsed with heavy losses. Following further serious losses against Lee’s forces at Cold Harbor (Jun 1864) and the failure of an assault against Beauregard at Petersburg (Jun 1864), a vital center for rail communications with Richmond, Grant settled down to a nine-month siege of the city, gradually increasing his encirclement of the region to cut off Richmond from the rest of the Confederacy. During this period, cavalry were active on both sides. Union cavalry under Philip Henry Sheridan had raided the Richmond area while assisting Grant’s campaign, and in July, Confederate troops led by Jubal Anderson Early advanced to the suburbs of Washington before being repulsed by Sheridan.

Confederate steamships had been active since early in the war, harassing Northern shipping and blockade-running in the North and South Atlantic, as well as the Pacific Ocean. These were originally captained by authorized privateers, but later the Confederacy acquired its own navy comprising British-built raiders. In June 1864, the most notorious of these, Alabama, under the command of Raphael Semmes, was sunk by the USS Kearsarge just outside Cherbourg harbor in France, ending a commission during which Semmes had captured some 69 Union ships. Following the sinking, Semmes received a hero’s welcome in Southampton, England. He returned to America and eventually assumed command of the Confederate Navy. He scuttled its remaining ships in the James River (Apr 1865).

In the West, meanwhile, Sherman had advanced towards Atlanta in pursuit of Johnston. He eventually forced a confrontation at Kennesaw Mountain (Jun 1864) but was beaten, with heavy losses. Johnston’s failure to eliminate Sherman’s army displeased the Confederate president, who replaced him with John Bell Hood. The latter initiated several unsuccessful offensives against Sherman and finally evacuated Atlanta (Sep 1864). After an initial pursuit, Sherman left Thomas to deal with Hood (Nashville, Dec 1864) while he began a 300-mile march of destruction through Georgia to the sea. Reaching Savannah (Dec 1864), he turned north again and advanced through only light opposition. Lee had recently been appointed Confederate general-in-chief and had immediately reinstated Johnston; the latter, however, perceiving that it would be impossible to arrest Sherman’s advance, surrendered near Durham, North Carolina (Apr 1865).

The end came in the E, when Lee’s forces, diminished by casualties, disease, and desertions, evacuated both Richmond and Petersburg (Apr 1865) and attempted to move west to join up with Johnston in North Carolina. However, cut off by Sheridan’s cavalry and pursued by Grant and Meade, he eventually surrendered at Appomattox Court House (9 Apr 1865). There remained only isolated Confederate units, the last of which surrendered in June 1865.

Both the Confederate and Union armies had used African Americans as laborers in the war, but only the Union used them as combat troops. In August 1862, the enlistment of 5000 such troops was officially approved in the North, and eventually, about 180,000 served in the Union Army, many of them former slaves who had run away from their Southern owners. These troops, who were required to serve under white officers and who received lower pay than whites, demonstrated great courage in several engagements.

The larger population and the superior resources of the North finally prevailed against the cotton-based farming economy of the South. The cost to both sides, however, was enormous: Union forces suffered 359,000 dead and 275,000 injured, the Confederates 258,000 dead and some 225,000 wounded.

The Lasting Legacy

The American Civil War had far-reaching consequences for the United States. It led to the abolition of slavery, as enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, fundamentally changing the nation’s social and economic fabric. The war also resulted in significant advances in military tactics and technology, setting the stage for modern warfare. On a broader scale, the conflict tested and ultimately strengthened the concept of a united federal government, setting a precedent for handling internal divisions and disputes.

The Civil War remains a subject of intense study and reflection, serving as a reminder of the cost of division and the value of unity. It highlights the importance of addressing underlying issues and injustices within society to prevent such conflicts from arising again. As we look back on this critical period in American history, we are reminded of the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring quest for freedom and equality.

Understanding the American Civil War is crucial not only for grasping the historical trajectory of the United States but also for appreciating the complex tapestry of American identity today. It is a story of division and reconciliation, of suffering and healing that offers enduring lessons on the importance of dialogue, understanding, and compassion in overcoming differences. As we continue to navigate the challenges of the present and future, the Civil War serves as a poignant reminder of what is at stake when a nation is divided against itself and the transformative power of striving for a more inclusive and united society.

In conclusion, the American Civil War was more than just a historical event; it was a crucible that forged the modern United States. It was a conflict that tested the very ideals upon which the country was founded and, in the end, led to a new birth of freedom. As we reflect on its lessons, we understand that the fight for justice and equality is ongoing, and the courage to confront our own divisions is as essential now as it was over a century ago. By looking back at this tumultuous period, we gain insight into the resilience and potential for renewal inherent in the American spirit, a reminder of the continuous work required to fulfill the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.