The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 has been described as "the most destructive armed conflict in the history of North America", with more than 600,000 deaths in total. The United States still bears scars from this conflict, in which the slaveholding southern states formed the Confederate States of America, attempting to secede from the Union, and the North fought to defeat the secession. Ultimately the war resulted in the abolition of slavery, the utter defeat of the South and the permanent end of secession as a political stance taken seriously by Americans.
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Indigenous nations → Pre-Civil War → Civil War → Old West → Industrialization → Postwar
African-American history • Mexican American history • Presidents
|“||I tell you, war is Hell!||”|
—William Tecumseh Sherman, Union Army general who led the March to the Sea
The Civil War is generally presented as the deadliest war in terms of American death toll (though by no means the deadliest war with US involvement), and the most destructive single conflict in North America.
The war saw a horrific death toll when measured against the numbers of soldiers fighting. In many battles, more than 30% of the combatants died. This was due in part to the bad medical situation, but also due to advances in military technology that the tactics of that era did not account for, an error that was repeated in World War I. Both the range and the accuracy of all types of weapons, but particularly artillery, and especially their rate of fire, had increased a lot, making open charges especially bloody for both sides and leading to heavy fortification and early World War I style trenches in some battles. As photography had become feasible shortly before the war, there are a lot of images of the war, showing its dead and the havoc it wrought on man and nature alike. If you look at enough of them, you will understand what led William Tecumseh Sherman, a high-ranking general of the Union, to his statement that "war is hell".
The war had an enormous long-term impact on the United States, and the rest of the world. Already during the war, the Union embarked on political projects that had been blocked by Southern politicians, such as opening the Western territories for colonization, and building a transcontinental railroad. The policies, together with government investments for war, fueled the Industrial Revolution, and usage of telegraphy and railroads. The war ended slavery, and the devastation of the war as well as the post-war "Reconstruction" policy left the South an economic and cultural backwater for decades to come. The end of the 19th century was called "The Gilded Age", with the rise of a wealthy capitalist class, while most of the population remained poor.
During a short period after the war, (male) African Americans actually enjoyed most if not all of the political rights nominally granted to them by the constitution, and several advances were made, because the former (white) Southern elites were pushed out of power and federal troops ensured that African Americans couldn't be harassed or denied their rights. However this period of so-called "Reconstruction" came to an end in 1876 when, in a close election (with popular vote and electoral vote going different ways), the Republican candidate agreed to withdraw the federal troops from the South in exchange for the presidency. Consequently, almost all of the Southern blacks were denied civil rights for almost a century to come, and the antebellum elites or their descendants often returned to their former positions of power. While it took until 1912 for a man born in the South to become President again, the South became an electoral stronghold for the Democratic party and white southerners continued to exert a disproportionately large influence through a conservative federal voting bloc, which only started to disintegrate with the advent of Civil Rights as a major federal policy issue. The Republican Party would later try to ingratiate itself to Southern whites with various tactics and today most Southern states are as decidedly Republican as they were safely Democratic before the 1950s.
Course of the war
Despite overwhelming industrial, manpower, supply and other advantages, and the fact that the North were fighting from the position of a legitimate and recognized government, while the South was fighting as a haphazard rebellion with internal divisions not adequately reflected through the political process, the South made some initial gains and advances, particularly in the Eastern Theater of the war. Initially both sides largely believed the war would be decided in one quick battle, but the bloody battle of First Bull Run, decided by the Confederate use of railroads to bring fresh troops to the battlefield, quickly disabused both sides of that notion. Most of the fighting took place between Washington DC and Richmond, the respective capitals, with both armies trying to outflank one another, draw the opponent away from the respective capital or threaten the other capital to relieve pressure at other points. However, on the Western fronts, the North quickly gained the upper hand, with Southern advances in what are now Arizona and New Mexico stalling because of insufficient supply logistics and U.S. Grant emerging as a rising star when he demanded (and got) the unconditional surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862. The North had developed an "Anaconda Plan" to "suffocate" the South through blockade early in the war on the urging of Mexican War veteran Winfield Scott - by 1862 Faragut and the Union Navy had captured the crucial port of New Orleans, and by 1863 the Confederacy had been split in half with the fall of Vicksburg to Grant in accordance with that plan. The blockade squadron made it hard for the South to get needed supplies and the Southern economy hovered on the brink of collapse. However, even after the 1863 defeat at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia was considered unbeaten and a considerable foe by the North. When Grant took over in the East in 1864 he changed the tactics of the Army of the Potomac and aggressively pursued Lee with the latter ultimately surrendering at Appomattox Court House in 1865. While other less significant armies fought on for a few more weeks or even months, the war was mostly over by then, and even the death of Abraham Lincoln by the hand of John Wilkes Booth could not turn around the fortunes of the South, which was militarily occupied and ultimately readmitted into the Union.
From a travel standpoint, the number of preserved battlefields (that look almost like they did in the 1860s) is among the highest for any war or location. If you want to "get" how a soldier on either side must have felt during this particular war, the various re-enactment groups and state entities associated with the memory of the US Civil War explain the concepts well.
As one of the first wars where many of the soldiers and civilians on both sides were literate, the Civil War was documented in plenty of diaries, letters and other texts. Together with the 1850s Crimean War, it also pioneered photography and telegraphy for journalism. And as the aims of the war were inherently political on all sides, political journalism was at least as important as guns and grain shipments. This is particularly evident through the many eminently quotable lines of military and political leaders on both sides, most prominently the Gettysburg address. Due to the fact that a significant number of veterans lived into the newsreel age, there is more picture and text for TV documentaries to work with than for any prior war.
The war is "fought" to this day in the minds of many and in public debate, with the aims of both sides frequently drawn into question. The Lost cause of the South is an ideology which claims that the prime objective of the Confederacy was not to preserve slavery, but instead states' rights and the rights of individuals over their property. It is, however, attested in the speeches and public documents of many prominent Confederates, as well as several state declarations of secession, that the preservation of slavery was the main motivation behind the secession of the Confederate states. Throughout the South and even in some states that never seceded, monuments of individual Confederate generals as well as abstract concepts or the war dead as a whole were put up, mostly during the "Jim Crow" era, when segregation was at its worst and a legal system disenfranchising African-Americans was put into place and entrenched. Even nominally integrated areas were highly segregated in practice, as businesses could choose to refuse service to non-white customers based on their race, and many did so. It was not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that those laws and practices were successfully challenged and ultimately overturned, and not until 2008 that a black person (albeit one who only has very little African-American slave ancestry - said ancestry unknown even to himself in 2008) would be elected president. The Civil Rights Era also coincided with another spurt of construction of pro-Confederate monuments and memorials, largely by and on behalf of Southern white conservatives as acts of defiance towards the federal government. In the 21st century, many monuments, place names and various other symbols of the Confederacy have been removed, under intense debate.
Even the briefest summary of works on the Civil War would likely go beyond the limits of a travel guide. The Civil War was largely fought by young men who would otherwise not venture more than 50 miles from their front porch and thus was perceived as a "great adventure" or "the most important thing in their lives" even by many participants at the time. Therefore, there is a wealth of primary sources, be they diaries, letters home, autobiographical works written after the war or works of fiction heavily inspired by the war. They run the gamut from eminently readable to utter reading torture and their veracity ranks from the merciless assessment of the facts as they were to the self-exculpation of many participants who wanted to clear their names and thereby often smear the names of others.
Historians - largely, but not exclusively North American - have also written volumes upon volumes on the war and there are minutiae that have repeatedly been "exposed" as a "myth", then "confirmed" and then "debunked" again in the works of various historians. It would seem that by now all questions are answered, but even a hundred and fifty years hence, the debate - and public interest - has not ceased and there are even publicly oriented publications that deal with nothing but the Civil War, often discussing rather small details and second guessing military decisions down to pretty low ranks.
Perhaps the best known popular nonfiction work on the Civil War is the Ken Burns documentary series which created a link between the instrumental piece of music, "Ashokan Farewell" and the war, despite "Ashokan Farewell" being written in the 20th century and having no prior connection to the war. To give just one example of the types of minutiae enthusiasts and historians like to argue about, the Ken Burns documentary claims that Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would commonly eat or suck on lemons if at all possible, however many historians and other works aimed at the general public have vehemently denied this "myth", saying that while Jackson did have a fondness for whatever fruit were available and ate them in the belief they would better his health, there is no indication whatsoever that he had any particular relation with lemons or any other citrus fruit. Despite this, visitors to his grave still often place lemons there in honor of the widespread story.
As for fiction, the perennial favorite and starter of every list is Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for the thick and rich description of people, places and situations before, during and after the war, told from a pro-Confederate viewpoint. The 1939 movie, however long and well produced, is a very crudely abridged version in comparison.
- 1 Antietam National Battlefield and Cemetery (Sharpsburg, Maryland). Site of the battle which became the bloodiest day in American military history up to that point. After the battle, which resulted in a draw that could be charitable described as advantageous to the North, Abraham Lincoln, who had been waiting for a military victory to do so, released the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in rebelling states free.
- 2 Fort Sumter, Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. The island site of the start of the Civil War, now a National Monument. Fort Sumter is in ruins, but there are markers telling you where things used to be, as well as a museum.
- 3 Gettysburg National Military Park (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania). The site of North America's biggest battle and a turning point in the American Civil War. Gettysburg was the site where the last major Southern offensive on Northern territory was stopped and turned back. There is a marker - nowadays known as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy" - where "Pickett's charge", a doomed infantry charge on a fortified Union position, ordered by Robert E. Lee and led by Pickett, ended and then retreated.
- 4 John Brown Farm State Historic Site (Lake Placid, New York). The home and grave of abolitionist John Brown, hanged by the state of Virginia for a 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry - a key milestone on the path to war. Historic house with picnic area, guided tours and re-enactments, hiking and cross-country ski area. Free.
- 5 Manassas National Battlefield Park (Manassas, Virginia). Site of the First and Second Battles of Manassas, also known as the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. First Bull Run showed the overconfident North that the South was willing and able to fight a serious war and showed both sides that the war would last more than a few months and not be decided by a single major engagement, no matter who won any given major battle.
- 6 Monocacy National Battlefield (Frederick, Maryland). Site of a summer 1864 battle between General Jubal Early of the Confederacy and General Lew Wallace of the Union.
- 7 Pamplin Park, National Museum of the Civil War Soldier (Petersburg, Virginia). Commemorating the siege and fall of Petersburg which led to the Lee's final surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
- 8Richmond, Virginia. Capital city of the Confederacy, is home to Richmond National Battlefield, the White House of the Confederacy, the Museum of the Confederacy, and other historic points.
- 9 Richmond National Battlefield Park (Richmond). A set of Civil War sites surrounding Richmond, including battlefields and former defensive fortifications.
- 10Harpers Ferry (West Virginia). This town which until 1863 was part of Virginia (the split off the two states being a result of the war) was the site of John Brown's famous raid that can be seen as a precursor to the war.
- 11 Batteries F and Robinett and the Beauregard Line (Corinth, Mississippi).
- 12 Fort Donelson National Battlefield and Cemetery (Dover, Tennessee). Site of an early battle which pushed the Confederates out of central Tennessee, and established the rapidly rising star of Ulysses S. Grant, who famously asked for (and got) an unconditional surrender from the Confederate defenders.
- 13 Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (Kennesaw, Georgia). A preserved battleground featuring 11 mi (18 km) of Union and Confederate earthworks.
- 14 Stones River National Battlefield (Murfreesboro, Tennessee).
- 15 Tupelo National Battlefield (Tupelo, Mississippi).
- 16 Vicksburg National Military Park (Vicksburg, Mississippi). Site of a 47-day siege in mid-1863. The fall of Vicksburg, which happened around the same time as the Battle of Gettysburg is often cited as one of the turning points of the war.
- 17 Pea Ridge National Military Park (Pea Ridge Battlefield) (Pea Ridge, Arkansas). On March 7 and 8, 1862, over 23,000 soldiers fought to decide the fate of Missouri. This 4,300-acre park honors those who fought and died at Pea Ridge. It was the most pivotal American Civil War battle within the Trans-Mississippi Theater and this is one of the most intact Civil War battlefields in the United States.
- 18 Glorieta Pass Battlefield (Pecos, New Mexico). In this battlefield, the Union Army (primarily in the form of the Colorado Militia) prevented the breakout of the Confederate Army forces onto the base of the Rocky Mountains. It's part of the famous movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly's plot.
- 19 Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park (Fayetteville, Arkansas), ☏ . Authentic, expansive, and well preserved, Prairie Grove is known as one of America’s most intact American Civil War battlefields. With more than 900 acres, the park commemorates the site of the battle, where on December 7, 1862, Confederate and Union forces clashed in a fierce day of fighting that resulted in 2,700 casualties. It marked the last major battle in Northwest Arkansas. The largest Civil War reenactment in Arkansas takes place here biennially (even-numbered years), the first weekend in December.
- 20 Jenkins' Ferry Battleground State Park (Timberlands, Arkansas). The land where this American Civil War battle took place was settled by Thomas Jenkins, who started the ferry in 1815. It was run by his sons, William and John DeKalb, until the Civil War. The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry, the third leg of the Red River Campaign, began after the first light of the foggy day. Despite their disadvantaged position, the Confederates launched one unorganized attack after another. Confederate commanders knew that letting up the pressure would allow Steele's army to cross the Saline and escape.
- 21Picacho Peak State Park (Battle of Picacho Pass) (Picacho, Arizona). Considered the westernmost battle of the Civil War, fought between Union troops from California and advancing Confederate troops from Tucson, Arizona. Confederate victory, with Union troops retreating back to White's Mill. The Confederates were driven back into Texas by summer of 1862.