Key Personalities of the American Civil War


President Abraham Lincoln meeting officer and troops in the field / Library of Congress, Public Domain

Taking a look at some of the key figures who played important roles during one of our nation’s most divisive times.


Abraham Lincoln

February 12 1809 – April 15 1865

Abraham Lincoln (1860) by Mathew Brady, taken the day of the Cooper Union speech. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and the first Republican elected to that office. Lincoln was president during the Civil War, with his election being cited by southern states as one of the reasons for their succession. Lincoln’s two terms in office saw the Union defeat the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in the United States. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the first American President to die in that manner.

Ulysses S. Grant

April 27 1822 – July 23 1885

Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant (1861), Published 1911 / Wikimedia Commons

Ulysses S Grant was the supreme Union general during the civil war and then later 18th President of the United States. Grant was instrumental in the battlefield defeat of the Confederacy and then as President worked to implement Reconstruction.

Robert E. Lee

January 19 1807 – October 12 1870

Lee in uniform, 1863 / Heritage Auction Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Robert E. Lee was the Confederate general in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia and at the end of the war Supreme Commander of remaining Confederate forces. Lee was considered to be one of the finest generals in the United States at the outbreak of succession and was offered command of Union armies but declined. When Virginia left the Union, Lee remained loyal to his home state and became a general for the Confederacy. Lee’s surrender in 1865 marked the end of the Civil war and Lee himself strongly supported reconciliation between the North and South, particularly in rejecting any suggestions for a southern insurgency against the Union. After the war Lee became the president of what is today known as Washington and Lee University.

William Tecumseh Sherman

February 8 1820 – February 14 1891

Portrait by Mathew Brady, c. 1864 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

William Tecumseh Sherman was a Union General serving under the command of Ulysses Grant during the Civil War. He is most known for his campaign through Georgia and the Carolina’s in 1864 where he followed a scorched earth policy including the capture and burning of Atlanta. During the Grant Presidency, Sherman became Commanding General of the Army, formulating the military response to the conflict with Indian tribes in the west.

Frederick Douglass

February 1818 – February 20 1895

Frederick Douglass, c.1840s, in his 20s / Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass was a major African-American abolitionist, reformer, and writer. Douglas, who escaped slavery himself, was famous before and during the Civil war as an orator and writer fighting for abolition. His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, detailed his life as a slave and is still read today.

Stonewall Jackson

January 21 1824 – May 10 1863

General Jackson’s “Chancellorsville” portrait, taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26, 1863, seven days before he was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville / Wikimedia Commons

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a beloved Confederate general. He was accidentally shot by Confederate forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville in an incident of friendly fire; he survived the shot at first only with the loss of his left arm but died from pneumonia complications eight days later. His death strongly affected the moral of the Confederate armies and public.

John Brown

May 9 1800 – December 2 1859

John Brown in 1859 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

John Brown was a prominent abolitionist. Brown believed that slavery could only be overthrown violently. He became famous during the Bloody Kansas period in 1856 when he and his supporters murdered pro-slavery southerners and in 1859 attacked the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Brown hoped that by doing so he would start a slave insurrection. The Raid at Harpers Ferry ended in failure; seven people were killed and at least ten wounded. He was tried and executed by hanging. His death was considered inspirational in the North, particularly among abolitionists who viewed him as a martyr.

Winfield Scott

June 13 1786 – May 29 1866

Scott in 1861 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Winfield Scott was a the longest serving active duty general in United States history. His career was 53 years and at the start of the Civil War was the general in charge of the Union army. At the very start of the war he had realized that his age and health problems could cause issues and so offered his command to Robert E Lee who refused it.

Scott developed a slow plan to destroy the Confederacy which was in opposition to public opinion for a swift campaign. His plan, called the “Anaconda Plan” by opponents was meant to defeat the south with a naval blockade and an invasion of the Mississippi river valley. It was ultimately this plan that was followed by the Union armies. Scott was replaced by George McClellan.

J.E.B. Stuart

February 6 1833 – May 12 1864

J.E.B. Stuart / National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

James Ewell Brown Stuart (known as Jeb for the initials of his name) was a cavalry commander in the Confederate army during the Civil War. He  is considered one of the greatest cavalry commanders in American history and also to bear some responsibility for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. He died from wounds received at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

Andrew Jackson

March 15, 1767 – June 8, 1845

BEP engraved portrait of Jackson as president / Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Jackson was the 7th President of the United States. In 1831 during his presidency, there was a Nullification Crisis between the Federal government and the state of South Carolina over the matter of tariffs. South Carolina threatened succession and Jackson threatened armed intervention to prevent it; Jackson denied that any state had a right to leave the Union or that the states had the right to nullify Federal laws.

George B. McClellan

December 3 1826 – October 29 1885

The Julian Scott portrait of McClellan in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. / Wikimedia Commons

George McClellan was the chief general of the Union army in the beginning of the Civil war, taking over after Winfield Scott. He was an efficient planner and organizer but was criticised for being overly cautious, allowing Confederate armies to escape and prolonging the war. Lincoln eventually removed him from command. He later was the 1864 Democratic party candidate against Lincoln, running on a platform of a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta ended any Presidential hopes. After the war he served as governor of New Jersey.

Joseph E. Johnston

February 2 1807 – March 21 1891

Portrait by Benjamin Franklin Reinhart (c. 1860) / National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Johnston was a Confederate general who served on many fronts during the war but particularly during the campaign around Atlanta. He was considered to be not aggressive enough and was replaced by Lt. Gen. Hood who ended up losing the entire city of Atlanta to Sherman’s Union forces. Johnston was later given a command over Confederate forces in the Carolina’s and ended up surrendering to Sherman after hearing of Lee’s surrender at Appotomattox Courthouse. Johnston died of a pneumonia he caught as a palmbearer at Sherman’s funeral in 1891.

Henry Clay

April 12 1777 – June 29 1852

Henry Clay and Lucretia (née Hart) / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Henry Clay was a major United States politician in the first half of the 19th century, serving as the representative of Kentucky in both houses of Congress and also as Speaker of the House. Clay was one of the figures behind the various political compromises of the era including the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

July 13 1821 – October 29 1877

Gen. Bedford Forrest / Wikimedia Commons

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate cavalry leader. After the war he served in the Ku Klux Klan but distanced himself from them by denying any formal connection. He was responsible for officially dissolving the first incarnation of the Klan in 1869 though they continued to operate afterwards for many years.

Winfield Scott Hancock

February 14 1824 – February 9 1886

Winfield S. Hancock / National Archives at College Park, Wikimedia Commons

Winfield Scott Hancock (no relation to General Winfield Scott; he was only named in honor of him) was a Union general known for his leadership at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war he served in the South as a part of Reconstruction and in the West against the Indians. He ran for President as a Democrat in 1880 but lost to Republican James Garfield. He also served as President of the NRA (National Rifle Association).

John C. Calhoun

March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850

Calhoun photographed by Mathew Brady in 1849, shortly before his death. / Wikimedia Commons

John C. Calhoun was during the early 19th century one of the major politicians in the United States. He served in a variety of political positions including Vice President and Secretary of State and War. He is considered to have played a major part in laying the groundwork for the eventual succession that happened at the start of the Civil War, long after his death.

James Longstreet

January 8, 1821 – January 2, 1904

Antebellum portrait of Longstreet / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

James Longstreet was a commander and general in the Confederate army of Northern Virginia. He is mostly known for his part in the Battle of Gettysburg where he argued with Robert E Lee over tactics and supervised Pickett’s Charge. (Pickett’s charge was an infantry assault ordered on Union positions at the high ground known as Cemetery Ridge on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg by General Robert E Lee. The Charge was a failure.)

Ambrose Burnside

May 23 1824 – September 13 1881

Ambrose Burnside, circa 1880 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

General Ambrose Burnside was a popular Union general. He eventually became governor of Rhode Island and the first president of the NRA (National Rifle Association). He is more well known for the style of facial hair he maintained which are called sideburns after him.

Daniel Webster

January 18 1782 – October 24 1852

Daniel Webster / Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Webster was a major United States political figure in the first half of the 19th century. He served in the Senate as a representative of Massachusetts for 19 years and in the House of Representatives as a representative of New Hampshire for 10 years. At the end of his career he was instrumental in helping to support the Compromise of 1850 which ultimately led to a massive decline in his popularity.

Jefferson Davis

June 3, 1807/1808 – December 6, 1889

Illustration of Jefferson Davis in prison / Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson Davis was a former Secretary of War (under President Franklin Pierce) and Senator from Mississippi who became the first President of the Confederacy. He was seen as an ineffective leader particularly given the wartime situation and in comparison with Abraham Lincoln. Davis was captured after the war and imprisoned for two years.

George Meade

December 31, 1815 – November 6, 1872

Meade photographed by Mathew Brady or Levin C. Handy / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

George Meade was the Union General in command of the Army of the Potomac in 1863 and is known for defeating General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war he served as a part of various military commands in the south as part of Reconstruction.

William Lloyd Garrison

December 12, 1805 – May 24, 1879

William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1870 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

William Lloyd Garrison was an important abolitionist and social reformer in the pre-Civil war period. Before the war he founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and published a newspaper called The Liberator. After the war he moved on to become a voice for woman’s suffrage or right to vote.

Judah P. Benjamin

August 11, 1811 – May 6, 1884

Benjamin, c. 1856 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Judah P. Benjamin was Attorney General and eventually Secretary of War in the Confederate government. Prior to the war, he was the first Jew to be elected to the United States Senate, representing the state of Louisiana. He was also seriously considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court in the 1850s. After the war he moved to Britain and became a successful lawyer.

Joshua Chamberlain

September 8, 1828 – February 24, 1914

Chamberlain as the Governor of Maine / The Blaine House, Wikimedia Commons

Joshua Chamberlain was a brigadier and later major general in the Union army during the Civil war. Known specifically for leading the defense and victory at Little Round Top during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Later when the war ended Chamberlain preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12. Chamberlain ordered his men to come to attention and “carry arms” as a show of respect while the Confederates surrendered. After the war he served as governor of Maine and as a professor at Bowdoin College.

Philip Sheridan

March 6, 1831 – August 5, 1888

Sheridan during the 1860s / Wikimedia Commons

Philip Sheridan was a Union general closely associated with Ulysses Grant and who during the war defeated and devestated the Shenandoah Valley region. After the war Sheridan played large roles in the military reconstruction of the south and later in fighting Indian wars in the American west. He was also responsible for the development of Yellowstone National Park.

Stephen Douglas

April 23 1813 – June 3 1861

Stephen A. Douglas / Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Douglas was an Illinois senator who helped to design the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He is more famously known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln in 1858 and for being the Democratic candidate for President in 1860.

Andrew Johnson

December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875

Contemporary woodcut of Johnson being sworn in by Chief Justice Chase as Cabinet members look on, April 15, 1865 / Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Johnson was Lincoln’s last Vice-President and succeeded to office as the 17th President following Lincoln’s assassination. He was the first President to be impeached and avoided removal from office by a single vote.


Originally published by Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, under a Creative Commons license.

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