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American Civil War

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Indigenous nationsPre-Civil War → Civil War → Old WestIndustrializationPost-war

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 was 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, where the southern states formed the Confederate States of America, attempting to secede from the Union.


The Civil War was 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 the Western Hemisphere.

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.

Course of the war[edit]

Despite overwhelming industrial, man power, 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. 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" early in the war on the urging of Mexican War veteran Winfield Scott 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 smaller 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 at the hand of a Southern sympathizer 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 a 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 as right wing Southerners in particular like to call into question the narrative that the South fought for the preservation of slavery, which is however attested in speeches and public documents of many prominent Confederates as well as several state declarations of secession. 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 as well as during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when those laws and practices were challenged and ultimately overcome. Today the removal of those monuments as well as the attitude towards the various other symbols of the Confederacy are hot button issues in many places.


Eastern theater[edit]

Map of American Civil War
  • 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. Antietam National Battlefield on Wikipedia Antietam National Battlefield (Q3820310) on Wikidata
  • 2 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 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, commonly known as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy" Gettysburg National Military Park on Wikipedia Gettysburg National Military Park (Q5554764) on Wikidata
  • 3 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. Manassas National Battlefield Park on Wikipedia Manassas National Battlefield Park (Q6747016) on Wikidata
  • 4 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. Monocacy National Battlefield on Wikipedia Monocacy National Battlefield (Q6901361) on Wikidata
  • 5 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.
  • 6 Richmond, 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.
  • 7 Harpers 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.

Trans-Mississippi theater[edit]

Western theater[edit]

  • 10 Batteries F and Robinett and the Beauregard Line (Corinth, Mississippi).
  • 11 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.
  • 12 Glorietta 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. Glorieta Pass Battlefield on Wikipedia Glorieta Pass Battlefield (Q5571506) on Wikidata
  • 13 Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (Kennesaw, Georgia). A preserved battleground featuring 11 miles 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.

See also[edit]

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