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The History of the Civil War

The Civil War has had a number of different names: the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, the War of Rebellion, and so on. It was the bloodiest war in American history, with 620,000 combatant deaths. It was a war that literally pitted brother against brother, friend against friend, as individuals declared themselves for the Union or the Confederacy. It was the war that confirmed the power of a centralized government. It was the war that ended slavery in America. Beginning in 1861, and ending in 1865, it formed the identity of the United States in ways that are still significant today. A good timeline of the Civil War can be found online as part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory project.

A number of issues culminated in the Civil War. Politically, there was the question of whether the country was organized around a central government or was a loose cooperative of independent states. There was the difference between the growing industrial economy in the north and the agricultural economy of the south, with very different needs for trade and banking practices. There was the issue of slavery, particularly whether or not it would be extended into the new western states.

A series of legislative acts, especially the Compromise Act of 1850, tried to hold the country together. Matters came to a head in the presidential election of 1860. When Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, was elected, the southern states began to secede even before he took office. War broke out on April 12, 1860, when Confederate troops fired on Union military at Fort Sumter.

Initially both sides thought it would be a short war, but they were wrong. Pitched fighting left both armies more determined to win. The Union blockade slowly weakened the Confederacy, which campaigned for international recognition as a separate country.

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862, effectively ended the possibility of European involvement in the war and simultaneously struck an economic blow at the South. Negro troops were added to the Union army.

The summer of 1863 was a decisive one. The battle of Gettysburg stopped the last Confederate advance into the North. The battle of Vicksburg gave the Union control over the Mississippi .

In 1864, Union forces captured Richmond and Atlanta. General Sherman began his punitive March to the Sea, determined to destroy the core areas of Southern resistance. The war ended on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

The Civil War was the first war to be recorded photographically. Over 1100 Civil War images are online as part of the American Memory project, with more at PBS’s Civil War site.

An extensive collection of links is available at the American Civil War Homepage and the American Civil War site, including local histories and maps. An index of source materials is also available online.