An Overview of the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln stands outside a tent with a man. [Public Domain]

While the Southern army dwindled, the Union simply mustered new armies and tried again.

By Tina Ulrich, Tom Gordon, Sherry Trier, Michelle Schneider, Ryan Bernstein, and Justin Guillard

Western Advance, Eastern Stalemate

Having been turned down by Robert E. Lee, Lincoln turned to George McClellan to lead the Union Army. In McClellan, Lincoln found one who was capable of building and training a magnificent army. However, in Lee, Lincoln would have found a brilliant tactician. Both sides expected a quick victory. At the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Northern sightseers found themselves running pell-mell back into Washington D.C. amidst the routed Union Army. McClellan was inclined not to use his magnificent, well trained army for fear of being out numbered, which was never the case. After trying in vain to get McClellan to put his army to work Lincoln finally replaced him, rehired him and replaced him again. For his part, Lee was conducting a brilliant campaign against the Federals with fewer men, fewer weapons and fewer supplies.

Failure in the East, Victory in the West

Bull Run, (also known as First Manassas) near Washington, stripped away any illusions that victory would be quick or easy. It also established a pattern, at least in the Eastern United States, of bloody Southern victories which, however, never translated into a decisive military advantage for the Confederacy.

In contrast to its military failures in the East, the Union was able to secure battlefield victories in the West and slow strategic successes at sea. Most of the Navy, at the war’s beginning, was in Union hands, but it was scattered and weak.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles took prompt measures to strengthen  it. Lincoln then proclaimed a blockade of the Southern coasts.  Although the effect of the blockade was negligible at first, by 1863 it almost completely prevented shipments of cotton to Europe and blocked the importation of sorely needed munitions, clothing, and medical supplies to the South.

Success on the Water

“Lashed to the shrouds — Farragut passing the forts at Mobile, in his flagship Hartford,” By L. Prang & Co., [Public domain], via Library of Congress

A brilliant Union naval commander, David Farragut, conducted two remarkable operations. In April 1862, he took a fleet into the mouth of the Mississippi River and forced the surrender of the largest city in the South, New Orleans, Louisiana. In August 1864, with the cry, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” he led a force past the fortified entrance of Mobile Bay, Alabama, captured a Confederate ironclad vessel, and sealed off the port.

A Union General who can Fight

“Battle of Shiloh” by L. Prang and Co. (Library of Congress), [Public domain], restoration by Adam Cuerden, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces won an almost uninterrupted series of victories. They began by breaking a long Confederate line in Tennessee, thus making it possible to occupy almost all the western part of the state. When the important Mississippi River port of Memphis was taken, Union troops advanced some 320 kilometers into the heart of the Confederacy. With the tenacious General Ulysses S . Grant in command, they withstood a sudden Confederate counterattack at Shiloh, on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. Those killed and wounded at Shiloh numbered more than 10,000 on each side, a casualty rate that Americans had never before experienced. But it was only the beginning of the carnage.

A Union General who can’t Fight

“Field hospital after the Battle of Savage’s Station,” by James F. Gibson, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Virginia, by contrast, Union troops continued to meet one defeat after another in a succession of bloody attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates enjoyed strong defensive positions afforded by numerous streams cutting the road between Washington and Richmond. Their two best generals, Robert E . Lee and Thomas J (“Stonewall”) Jackson, both far surpassed in ability their early Union counterparts. In 1862 Union commander George McClellan made a slow, excessively cautious attempt to seize Richmond.  But in the Seven Days’ Battles between June 25 and July 1, the Union troops were driven steadily backward, both sides suffering terrible losses.

After another Confederate victory at  the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland. McClellan again responded tentatively, despite learning that Lee had split his army and was heavily outnumbered. The Union and Confederate Armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, in the bloodiest single day of the war: More than 4,000 died on both sides and 18,000 were wounded.  Despite his numerical advantage, however, McClellan failed to break Lee’s lines or press the attack, and Lee was able to retreat across the Potomac with his army intact. As a result, Lincoln fired McClellan.

Leveraging Antietam

“Antietam, Md. President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general’s tent; another view,” (cropped) by Alexander Gardner, [Public domain], via Library of Congress

Antietam, a marginal Union victory, was inconclusive in military terms; yet its consequences were nonetheless momentous. Great Britain and France, both on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, delayed their decision, and the South never received the diplomatic recognition and the economic aid from Europe that it desperately sought.

Emancipation Proclamation

Earlier in the war, Lincoln had been committed to leaving slavery alone where it existed and he hoped, as he always had, that slavery would collapse in its own way, in its own time, of its own weight. However, the South was using slaves to support their war machine. As the Union was seeing few battlefield successes in the East, emancipation would be important both to harm the southern war machine and to inflict that harm after a major Union victory so as not to look like a last ditch measure of desperation. That victory came at Antietam where Union forces defeated the Confederates in the bloodiest day of American military history. Nearly 4,000 Americans were killed in this single battle.Politically, however, it meant that in addition to preserving the Union, the abolition of slavery was now a declared objective of the Union war effort.

“First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Shown from left to right are: Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war (seated); Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury (standing); Abraham Lincoln; Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy (seated); Caleb Blood Smith, secretary of the interior (standing); William H. Seward, secretary of state (seated); Montgomery Blair, postmaster general (standing); Edward Bates, attorney general (seated).

Shown from left to right are: Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war (seated); Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury (standing); Abraham Lincoln; Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy (seated); Caleb Blood Smith, secretary of the interior (standing); William H. Seward, secretary of state (seated); Montgomery Blair, postmaster general (standing); Edward Bates, attorney general (seated).

When word of Antietam reached Lincoln, he revealed his intent regarding the proclamation. This proclamation effectively freed no one. It was designed to avoid alienating the loyal border slave states and to entice those states in rebellion to rejoin the Union. Here’s how it did so: The Emancipation Proclamation declared “forever free” all slaves in those states still in rebellion beginning January 1, 1863. All other slaves (in the loyal slave states) were to remain slaves. So, effectively, nobody had been freed. However, the president had committed the nation to a reconstructed union in which many, if not all, former slave states would be free states.

African Americans at War

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment “Storming Fort Wagner” by Kurz and Allison [Public domain], (Library of Congress), via Wikimedia Commons

The final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1,1863, also authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, a move abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass had been urging since the beginning of armed conflict. Union forces already had been sheltering escaped slaves as “contraband of war,” but following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army recruited and trained regiments of African-American soldiers that fought with distinction in battles from Virginia to the Mississippi. About 178,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops, and 29,500 served in the Union Navy.

“Battle of Chancellorsville” (cropped) by Kurz & Allison [Public domain], via Library of Congress

Despite the political gains represented by the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the North’s military prospects in the East remained bleak as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued to maul the Union Army of the Potomac, first at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and then at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But Chancellorsville, although one of Lee’s most brilliant military victories, was also one of his most costly. His most valued lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, was mistakenly shot and killed by his own men.

Gettysburg to Appomattox


”Picketts charge on the Union centre at the grove of trees about 3 PM” by Edwin Forbes [Public domain], via Library of Congress

Yet none of the Confederate victories was decisive. While the Southern army dwindled, the Union simply mustered new armies and tried again. The turning point in the war came in mid-summer of 1863. Believing that the North’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville gave him his chance, and, in hopes of gaining recognition from Great Britain and acceptance of separate status from the Union Congress, Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia North into Pennsylvania. His goal: Washington D.C. itself. After a three day battle, culminating in a disastrous frontal assault, Lee retreated—never to take the war into the North again. The Confederates had made a valiant effort to break the Union lines. They failed, and on July 4 Lee’s army, after crippling losses, retreated behind the Potomac.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers and almost 4,000 Confederates died at Gettysburg; wounded and missing totaled more than 20,000 on each side. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln dedicated a new national cemetery there with perhaps the most famous address in U.S. history. He concluded his brief remarks with these words:

…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Simultaneously, General Grant was engaged in a siege at Vicksburg Mississippi with the goal of gaining control of the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in two. His success there would ensure an eventual Union victory in the war effort. Union control had been blocked at Vicksburg, where the Confederates had strongly fortified themselves on bluffs too high for naval attack. In early 1863 Grant began to move below and around Vicksburg, subjecting it to a six-week siege.  On July 4, he captured the town, together with the strongest Confederate Army in the West. The river was now entirely in Union hands.  The Confederacy was broken in two, and it became almost impossible to bring supplies from Texas and Arkansas.

The Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the turning point of the war, although the bloodshed continued unabated for more than a year-and-a-half.

A Fighting General

Lincoln brought Grant east and made him commander-in-chief of all Union forces. In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee’s Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat. Instead, he attempted to outflank Lee, stretching the Confederate lines and pounding away with artillery and infantry attacks. “I propose to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer,” the Union commander said at Spotsylvania, during five days of bloody trench warfare that characterized fighting on the eastern front for almost a year.

Another Fighting General in the West

Alexander Hay Ritchie [Public domain or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Map by Hal Jespersen, [CC BY 3.0 ( , via Wikimedia Commons

In the West, Union forces gained control of Tennessee in the fall of 1863 with victories at Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain, opening the way for General William T. Sherman to invade Georgia. Sherman outmaneuvered several smaller Confederate armies, occupied the state capital of Atlanta, then marched to the Atlantic coast, systematically destroying railroads, factories, warehouses, and other facilities in a 50-mile wide path of destruction. His men, cut off from their normal supply lines, ravaged the countryside for food. From the coast, Sherman marched northward; by February 1865, he had taken Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Sherman, more than any other Union general, understood that destroying the will and morale of the South was as important as defeating its armies.


Grant, meanwhile, lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia, for nine months, before Lee, in March 1865, knew that he had to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond in an attempt to retreat south. But it was too late. On April 9,1865, surrounded by huge Union armies, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Although scattered fighting continued elsewhere for several months, the Civil War was over.

By The Major & Knapp Eng. Mfg. & Lith. Co. 71 Broadway (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide international admiration through the brilliance of his leadership.

With Malice Toward None

For the North, the war produced a still greater hero in Abraham Lincoln — a man eager, above all else, to weld the Union together again, not by force and repression but by warmth and generosity. In 1864 he had been elected for a second term as president, defeating his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, the general he had dismissed after Antietam. Lincoln’s second inaugural address closed with these words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


By Currier & Ives, 1865. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three weeks later, two days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he unfolded a generous reconstruction policy.  On April 14, 1865, the president held what was to be his last Cabinet meeting. That evening — with his wife and a young couple who were his guests — he attended a  performance at Ford’s  Theater. There, as he sat in the presidential box, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Virginian actor embittered by the South’s defeat. Booth was killed in a shootout some days later in a barn in the Virginia countryside. His accomplices were captured and later executed.

Gurney, Jeremiah. [Public Domain] via Library of Congress. 1865

Lincoln died in a downstairs bedroom of a house across from Ford’s Theater on the morning of April 15. Poet James Russell Lowell wrote:

Never before that startled April morning did such multitudes of men shed tears for the death of one they had never seen, as if with him a friendly presence had been taken from their lives, leaving them colder and darker. Never was funeral panegyric so eloquent as the silent look of sympathy which strangers exchanged when they met that day. Their common manhood had lost a kinsman.

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