The American Civil War (1861-1865)

Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Major Figures

Abraham Lincoln

Early Years

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the sixteenth president of the United States, and is remembered best for preserving the union and freeing the slaves through the course of the U. S. Civil War.

The two men that led the United States and the Confederacy, respectively, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, had similar origins. They were born less than one hundred miles apart in central Kentucky and less than a year apart, both to farm families. Lincoln was born seven months after Davis, on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Hardin County (now LaRue County), Kentucky. Lincoln came from humble origins. His mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate, and his father, Thomas Lincoln, was illiterate. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine; his father remarried.

The family had moved to Indiana when Lincoln was seven. A few years later, Thomas Lincoln moved the family to Illinois. After a few years in a one-room schoolhouse, Abraham Lincoln educated himself, eventually learning law and becoming a successful lawyer.

Lincoln was also fascinated with technology. He is the only president to have held a patent—for a never-manufactured device to help steamboats maneuver in shallow water. He carried this interest into the White House. Lincoln oversaw the enactment of legislation to authorize a transcontinental railroad and the land-grant college system.

Abraham Lincoln ascended to the presidency of the United States at a time of great crisis. He had the greatest plurality of the popular vote but got less than 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race. He did not receive a single popular vote in ten southern states. Nevertheless, he achieved an absolute majority of electoral votes, which gave him the presidency. It was the first time a candidate from the Republican party was elected president and only the second election in which that new party fielded a candidate for that office.

Virtually as soon as the results became official, Southern states began seceding from the Union, beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860. The motivation was Lincoln’s election.

A major plank in the Republican platform was abolition of slavery. The act of the nation’s electing a president from an abolitionist political party was seen as sufficient justification for secession. Lincoln did not assume the presidency planning to enforce abolition—or even planning to contain slavery, except for preventing its spread into the territories. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, in March 1861, however, seven states—the lower south and Texas—had seceded.

Initial Steps

Lincoln initially sought non-confrontational means to preserve the Union. He was determined to keep under Union control all federal property, such as the national government, but virtually all mints, armories, custom houses, and military and naval installations in the seceding states had already been seized by the rebels. Only two offshore forts remained in federal control: Fort Pickens, off Pensacola, and Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor.

When firebrands in South Carolina fired upon and then captured Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 militia to put down the rebellion. This led four additional states from the upper south to secede. Lincoln was faced with the task of restoring a divided Union without having the means at hand to do so.

Restoration of the Union was the task that consumed the rest of his life. For Lincoln, the war was less about slavery than about the preservation of the Union. In an 1862 letter to New York City newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811-1872), Lincoln wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

War Leader

Lincoln’s first job was to see that an army was built and to find a commander who was capable of doing that job. Initially impatient to achieve that goal, he made significant mistakes early in the war. He allowed political considerations to dictate the choice of leaders and also pressed the initial leader of the Union Army into precipitate action that led to the disaster at Bull Run.

He educated himself in military strategy as president using the same method by which he taught himself law as a young man—he pored over books of strategy and consulted with experts in military affairs. Lincoln realized that a Northern victory depended on destroying the Southern armies, not just occupying territory. He began searching for generals who shared this vision.

Lincoln kept trying out and discarding commanders for the Union armies until he found leaders who could fight—and fight effectively. Once convinced of a general’s competence, he stuck with the man, despite any criticism. When others complained that General Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk, Lincoln stated: “I cannot spare this man—he fights.”

Lincoln and Emancipation

As casualty lists mounted, especially after the Seven Days Battle campaign in 1862, Lincoln realized that reconciliation would not draw the seceding states back into the Union and that simple preservation of the Union did not justify the cost in blood. He then transformed the war into a crusade to abolish slavery.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that was as much a military tool as a political one. It only freed slaves in territories under rebellion. It preserved slavery in portions of the nation then under federal control. It was issued as a military proclamation under his power as commander-in-chief. Doing this prevented a political fight in Congress.

The Emancipation Proclamation was presented as a tool for depriving those states in rebellion of military resources—their slaves. It also prevented European recognition of the Confederacy until the Confederate states eliminated slavery—the “state’s right” over which the Southern states seceded.

When Lincoln’s tenacity bore fruit after four years of bloody struggle with the military collapse of the Confederacy, Lincoln again opted for conciliation. In his second inaugural address, he called for an end to the conflict “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” He endorsed the generous terms offered to Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House by General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885).

Lincoln’s vision of a charitable peace was forgotten after his death. Days after the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He was shot while attending a play on April 14 and died the next day. His death shifted government to the Radical Republicans who were more interested in retribution than reconciliation.

Jefferson Davis

Early History

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was the only president of the short-lived Confederate States of America and led the rebel nation through its failed fight to secede from the Union. He was born on June 3, 1808, in a farmhouse in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky, seven months before Abraham Lincoln’s birth and less than one hundred miles away. Davis’s family moved to Mississippi when he was an infant. Like Lincoln, Davis helped on the family farm, working in his father’s cotton fields until he was sent to school at the age of eight.

After attending Transylvania University in his teens, Davis received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 1828, he served as a lieutenant in a post in the Northwest Frontier, where he met and married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of post commandant, Colonel (and later President) Zachary Taylor.

Sarah’s father disapproved of Davis as a husband, so Davis left the army in order to marry her in 1835. Davis and his wife returned to Mississippi and established a plantation, Brierfield. His wife died of malaria only three months after returning.

After living in seclusion at Brierfield for ten years after his wife’s death, Davis remarried, entered politics, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He resigned in 1846, when the Mexican-American War began to command a volunteer regiment from Mississippi. He served under his first father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, at Monterey and Buena Vista during that war.

Returning to Mississippi a war hero in 1848, he spent the next twelve years in and out of politics. He served as a Mississippi’s U.S. senator and as secretary of war during the Pierce Administration.

As the secession issue heated up in the late 1850s, Davis cautioned against it. When Mississippi left the Union, however, he threw himself into the cause of the new nation that his adopted state joined.

Jefferson Davis was no one’s first choice to become president of the Confederate states—not even his own state’s. Davis’s ambition was to command the Army of the State of Mississippi and later, perhaps, become the supreme commander of the Confederate Army. Becoming a general was a goal of his youth.

Davis allowed himself to be appointed president—the compromise candidate who was acceptable to both radical and moderate politicians. He became the Confederacy’s president on February 9, 1861, and served as interim president until he was elected to the position in October. Inaugurated in March 1862, he was the only president during the Confederacy’s brief existence.

Strengths as President

Davis oversaw the creation of both a national army and the civil branches of a national government. The South was handicapped in its fight with the North. The agrarian South had 40 percent of the population of the Union states and perhaps 10 percent of the industry. Davis began initiatives to overcome the manufacturing gap and prepared to fight a defensive war. The North had to invade in order to subdue the South.

Davis built a government, an army, and an economy. He appointed his initial cabinet from each of the other original Confederate states; no one else from his state, Mississippi, was appointed. His cabinet included several other politicians who had been considered for the presidency. He built a Confederate army by nationalizing state forces into a national army. Davis also instituted a more rational system for the appointment of officers than was used in the North, one that valued military experience more than political connections.

Davis had opposed secession in 1860, but after Mississippi moved to secede, Davis became one of the foremost proponents of the Confederacy. As president, Davis also put the Confederate economy on a war footing, using Southern exports as an economic weapon. He seized otherwise unavailable supplies from civilian owners when they were needed for military purposes. He encouraged the enactment of a conscription act in March 1862, a full year before the Union passed a similar national conscription act.

At the very end of the Confederacy, in 1865, too late to make a difference, Jefferson Davis pushed a bill through the Confederate legislature to permit black slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. Blacks would receive freedom for enlisting. This voided the major reason for secession. But Davis had become so wedded to the cause of the Confederacy that he was willing to destroy the institution of slavery—the very cause of its existence—to see it continue.


Davis had significant weaknesses as president. He was autocratic and possessed a fiery temper. These traits served a military leader well, but the presidency was a civilian job. To work effectively with a legislature, a president needed to be a consensus builder and conciliator. Instead, Davis alienated many potential allies within the Confederacy’s civil government.

Davis also saw the president’s role as commander-in-chief as a more active one than was appropriate. Davis wanted to be a battlefield general instead of a civilian president. He actively meddled in the tactical decisions of his generals, often to the detriment of events on the battlefield.

While Davis established commands spanning operational theaters, he failed to provide a grand strategic plan for the defense of the Confederacy. He also allowed personal pique to affect his choice of commanders. Several highly talented Confederate generals sat out critical parts of the war because Davis did not like them or was angry at them.

Initially, these weaknesses were unimportant, because the Union lacked the army or military leaders to mount effective offensive operations. As time passed, Davis’s strategic shortcomings combined with Lincoln’s strength as a wartime president to undermine the Confederacy.

An example is the 1864 Atlanta campaign. The Union army was led by William T. Sherman (1820-1891), a general plucked from professional obscurity—in part through Lincoln’s efforts. He was opposed by an army led by Joseph Johnston (1807-1891), a man Davis disliked. Johnston delayed Sherman, refusing to fight pitched battles, except when he held an overwhelming advantage.

Frustrated by a summer of skirmishing as Sherman continued advancing toward Atlanta, Davis relieved Johnston, replacing him with the more aggressive John B. Hood (1831-1879). Hood sought battle with Sherman and was trounced. This allowed Sherman to take Atlanta. The victory shifted the victory in the 1864 presidential election in the North from peace candidate George McClellan (1826-1885) to Abraham Lincoln, who was reelected. Had Johnston remained in command, he might have lost Atlanta, but it would have fallen later, too late to affect the 1864 elections.

Post-War Life

On May 10, Davis was captured in Georgia while attempting to flee the U.S. Army. He was held prisoner for two years and then released. The federal government decided not to try him for treason. He returned to Mississippi and wrote his memoirs. He died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889.

General Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was the leading general of the Confederate Army and is remembered for his battlefield genius as much as for his grace in defeat. He was born on January 19, 1807, in Stratford, Virginia. He was the son of American Revolutionary hero and former governor of Virginia Henry Lee (1756-1818)—known as “Light-Horse Harry”—and Ann Hill Carter, daughter of a respected Virginia landowner. By the time Robert, the couple’s fifth son, was born, the Lee family had fallen on hard times. Lee’s father had made a series of bad investments and lost the family fortune, and he was sent to debtor’s prison when Robert was still a toddler. After his release, the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, for a time, but Henry later moved to the West Indies for health reasons, leaving his family behind with young Robert as acting head of the household. Henry Lee died in 1818.

Without the benefit of financial support from his family, young Robert Lee decided on a career in the military. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825, where he excelled as a student, both academically and militarily, graduating second in his class. Two years after graduating, he married Mary Custis, a descendant of Martha Washington. The couple had seven children together in their plantation home in Virginia.

U.S. Military Services

Lee first distinguished himself as a man of unusual military talent during the Mexican War (1846-1848), where he served under General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), conducting scouting missions that led to the capture of Mexico City. Scott was impressed with the young captain and came to rely on his reconnaissance skills. It was during this war that Lee developed a reputation as a brave and capable leader.

In 1859, Lee took a central role in an event that pushed the nation down the path to civil war. Militant abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided the armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in an attempt to launch an armed slave insurrection. Lee and his troops were sent to Harpers Ferry to end the skirmish. Brown refused to surrender, and Lee’s forces stormed the building. Within minutes, Brown and his small band were subdued. The event outraged southerners, who were concerned that Brown’s violent attempt was the beginning of a northern effort to put an end to slavery. Southern states began to talk about secession.

Although Lee was a dedicated Virginian, he believed slavery was morally wrong. He had inherited slaves from his wife’s father, but, following the dictates of his own conscience and the terms of his father-in-law’s will, he freed them in 1862—before the Emancipation Proclamation, before the end of the war, and before many of his northern counterparts (including some top Union generals) freed their own slaves. He also found the idea of leaving the Union and rebelling against the federal government unthinkable, and he hoped Virginia would opt to remain part of the United States.

In 1861, the southern states began seceding from the Union. With civil war erupting, General Scott began gathering his most talented officers; Lee was at the top of his list. Scott recalled Lee to Washington with the intention of giving him command of the Union Army, a remarkable vote of confidence given that Lee was only a colonel at the time and had never commanded an army. The appointment could have been the crowning glory of Lee’s thirty years of devoted service in the U.S. military.

Confederate Military Service

When Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861, Lee was faced with a wrenching dilemma. He could either uphold his oath of loyalty to the U.S. government, accept Scott’s commission, and lead forces against the South, or he could resign and fight for his home state against the army to which he had devoted his life. Lee decided he could not fight against the South, writing to his sister, “With all my devotion to the Union … I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the [U.S.] Army.” It was a decision of tremendous historical significance. Military historians count Lee as one of America’s greatest generals; the top Union generals, however, ranged from mediocre to incompetent, a fact that quickly became apparent when hostilities broke out. Had Lee accepted Scott’s orders and commanded Union forces, it is likely the South would have been subdued quickly. As it was, the South moved speedily to recruit the talented Lee. By 1862, he was made military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In May 1862, General Joseph Johnston was seriously wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. General Lee immediately replaced him and enthusiastically took his new command, renaming Johnston’s army the Army of Northern Virginia. By July, his forces stopped the Union Army from advancing on the Confederate capital of Richmond during the Seven Days Battles and forced Union General George B. McClellan to retreat.

Lee’s army was always outnumbered and outgunned, but his attacks were strategically sound, aggressive, bold, and merciless. Before McClellan could reorganize, Lee swiftly attacked at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 1862). An easy victory prompted Lee to march into Maryland—his first foray into northern territory. It was a bold move, but it proved disastrous. The Battle of Antietam (September 1862), fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, was technically a wash, but since Lee had to retreat, it was viewed as a Union victory. It was also the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, costing Lee almost his entire army. France and Britain, which had been considering formal diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, decided after the battle to wait a little longer to see how events played out. Sensing the momentum of the war had shifted in favor of the North, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22.

Lee was down, but he was not yet defeated. In December 1862, he scored yet another victory, this time at Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Union forces hoped to crush his remaining army. Lee implemented a defensive plan that forced the Union to abandon its offensive, giving General Lee the rest of that winter to rebuild his army. By spring 1863, the Union was again on the attack. In April, General Joseph Hooker (1814-1879) was poised to take Chancellorsville, Virginia, but Lee made a surprise advance, putting Hooker on the defensive. After three days of furious fighting against a numerically superior force, Lee’s troops forced a Union retreat. His improbable victory at Chancellorsville is considered his greatest triumph.

Emboldened, Lee again attempted again to push the fighting onto northern soil. In June 1863, Lee marched his army into Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, he clashed with the forces of Union’s new commander, General George Gordon Meade (1815-1872), in the small town of Gettysburg. The three-day battle was brutal. Lee was forced to retreat, leaving a third of his army (28,000 men) dead on the field.

In the spring of 1864, Lee met his match: General Ulysses S. Grant. The two engaged in small but deadly skirmishes and bloody battles as the two armies fought in Virginia, starting with the Battle of the Wilderness. President Lincoln sent Grant to take Richmond and squash Lee, but Lee was able to block Grant’s maneuvers. Grant finally managed to force Lee to retreat to Petersburg, a town on the outskirts of Richmond.

Grant turned the battle into a nine-month siege. Although Lee’s army did not starve, they were unable to participate in the war. In April 1865, Lee made an attempt to evacuate his men and head west, but Grant cut him off. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered his tired and weak army to Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. Grant accepted Lee’s surrender graciously, allowing his officers to retain their horses and sidearms. Lee returned home.

After the War

Lee worked diligently to heal the wounds of the nation and to revitalize a shattered region. “Abandon your animosities,” he famously urged southerners, “and make your sons Americans.” Because of his concern for how the war would affect the younger generation, he accepted the position of president of Washington College, later named Washington and Lee University in his honor. He held the position until his death from heart failure on October 12, 1870.

Even before his death, Lee had become a legend. His renown only grew as years passed. To those in the former Confederate states, he was a potent symbol of the “Lost Cause.” Stories of the valiant General Lee on his iron-gray horse, Traveller, thrilled generations in the post-war South, for whom Lee was like an idol. In the North and abroad, he came to be viewed as one of America’s great leaders, admired by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

A few months after the Civil War, Lee submitted an application to have his U.S. citizenship restored. His wish was never granted during his lifetime. Somehow, the application was lost for more than one hundred years, only to be found by a clerk sorting through papers at the National Archives in Washington. The rediscovered application was approved by an act of Congress, and, with the support of President Gerald Ford, General Robert E. Lee once again became a U.S. citizen on July 22, 1975.

Ulysses S. Grant

Early Life

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was general-in-chief of the Union Army in the Civil War, and later, the eighteenth persident of the United States. He was born in Ohio on April 27, 1822, and named Ulysses Hiram Grant. He had reversed his name to Hiram Ulysses when he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There, his name was listed as Ulysses S. Grant, and he remained Ulysses S. Grant for the rest of his life. Grant received an appointment to West Point in 1839. He graduated in 1843 in the bottom half of his class and was assigned to the Fourth Infantry. During the Mexican-American War, he served with General Zachary Taylor’s army at Palo Alto, and then with Winfield Scott in the Veracruz-Mexico City campaign.

Service in the Civil War

When the Civil War began, Grant was working as a clerk in a leather goods store. He joined a company of volunteers in Galena, Illinois, and was elected captain on the basis of prior service in the U.S. Army. Because of the shortage of trained officers, Grant was soon promoted to colonel, and he commanded a regiment of Illinois volunteers.

He was given command of a brigade in Missouri a month later and then promoted to brigadier general. His promotion was more a sign of the desperation of the Union Army than an endorsement of him. He had left the Army abruptly amid rumors of drunkenness during the 1850s and had failed at various businesses after leaving.

Grant handled his brigade well at Belmont, Missouri, where they fought an indecisive action. Grant’s commander, General Henry Halleck, then approved a plan drawn up by Grant to take two Confederate forts: Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.

Working with naval river gunboats under the command of Flag Officer Andrew Foote, Grant and Foote forced the abandonment of Fort Henry and captured Fort Donelson in February 1862. Donelson’s surrender yielded fifteen thousand Confederate prisoners. It was the first significant military success by the North.

Grant pushed aggressively down the rivers to exploit his success. Surprised by a Confederate army at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, and pushed back to the landing, Grant held his position at the end of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. The next day, April 7, 1862, Grant counterattacked, scattering the Confederate army facing him.

Late 1862 saw Grant marching against Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River. He was unsuccessful then, but he was tenacious. Working closely with the Navy, he besieged the river port, cutting it off from the Confederacy. Repelling Confederate attempts to relieve the siege, Grant starved the town into its surrender on July 4, 1863.

Lincoln was seeking aggressive, competent commanders for the U.S. Army. Grant was both. He had utterly destroyed two major Confederate armies at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg, in both cases accepting nothing less than unconditional surrender. He had demonstrated determination in the face of adversity at Shiloh. He had distinguished himself as a master of maneuver in the Vicksburg Campaign.

Lincoln promoted Grant to general-in-chief of the Army in March 1864. Grant attached himself to the Army of the Potomac, launching a series of new offensives intended to destroy the Confederacy. Grant led his army against Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Grant’s goal was less the capture of the enemy’s capital than the tying up of Confederate forces to defending this strategically unimportant but psychologically critical objective.

Grant realized that the war would be won west of the Appalachians, but he also knew that the Confederacy would focus its efforts on him. His grinding offensive on Richmond absorbed the attention of the South’s most talented general, Robert E. Lee, and it forced the Confederates to commit reserves to defend Richmond rather than the rest of the Confederacy. Whether he won or lost each battle, Grant stuck to Lee after each engagement, preventing Lee’s army from recovering.

By Grant’s focusing the Confederacy’s attention on him, he allowed the armies led by his lieutenants, the generals William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip H. Sheridan to ravage the Confederacy.

Sherman, commanding in the west, surrounded and captured Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1864. He then took one army and marched across the heart of Georgia to Savannah. Reaching Savannah, Sherman marched north, capturing and destroying Charleston, South Carolina, before going on to link up with Grant.

Sheridan, in an independent campaign, marched through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, using scorched-earth tactics to burn Lee’s granary. Thomas repelled an offensive led by Confederate General John B. Hood. After destroying the Confederate army at Nashville in December 1864, Thomas marched into Alabama.

The combined effect of these offensives gutted the Confederacy. Before Sherman could reach Grant, Lee’s army had collapsed, fleeing the Petersburg lines they held for over six months.

With the war at an end, Grant offered Lee terms as magnanimous as his previous terms had been unconditional. He allowed Lee’s men to return home on parole, Lee’s officers to retain their personal arms, and everyone to keep their horses—so they could use them for the season’s plowing.

Post-War Life

After that war, Grant served on various frontier posts in Michigan, the Oregon Territory, and California. Frustrated by lack of advancement and separation from his family, he quit the Army. He left under a cloud, dogged by accusations of drunkenness. He then started and failed at several businesses before finally being hired as a clerk in his father’s store.

After the Civil War, Grant’s reputation was quite good. Persuaded to run for president, he won that election and was reelected. He understood politics poorly and filled his cabinet with men more interested in serving themselves than the United States. While Grant was personally honest, his Administration was one of the nation’s most corrupt.

After leaving office in 1876, a series of bad business decisions left him bankrupt. He restored his family’s fortunes as a writer, first writing magazine articles about his Civil War experiences. Encouraged by Mark Twain, Grant finished his two-volume memoir on his deathbed. Grant died days after finishing the work on July 23, 1885.

Major Battles


On September 17, 1862, two armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on what would prove to be the bloodiest day in American history. The Confederacy was never so close to winning the Civil War as it was when the sun rose that day. By the time the sun set, the Confederate offensive had been shattered. Lincoln used the result to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, transforming the war into a crusade against slavery and preventing European recognition of the Confederacy.

Lee decided to invade the North after Second Bull Run (Manassas). He planned to move into Maryland, which with luck would switch sides. Britain was ready to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. A successful invasion of the United States would convince Britain the Confederate States of America was a viable nation.

Lee marched north with 55,000 men on September 4, 1862. Desertion and straggling cost him 10,000 soldiers in the first week. By September 7, Lee was in Frederick, Maryland, upland country with few slave owners. The majority of the population supported the Union. Lee found few recruits.

Lee learned that 10,500 Union soldiers still held the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He had expected the garrison to withdraw once he was in their rear, but it dug in. It was a poor defensive position. Harpers Ferry was surrounded by ridges and deep rivers. Whoever held the heights commanded Harpers Ferry.

On September 9, Lee split his army into four parts. Three parts would surround Harpers Ferry. Lee, with the remainder of the army, would screen the mountain passes. By the time the Army of the Potomac figured out what was going on, Lee would be gone.

After Second Bull Run, morale in the Army of the Potomac collapsed. Lieutenant General George McClellan was restored to command of Union forces in the East. When McClellan learned that Lee was in Frederick, the Army of the Potomac began a lumbering pursuit. McClellan reached Frederick after a week’s march, on September 13. The Marylanders in Frederick greeted the Union troops as liberators, restoring the Army’s morale.

McClellan got another gift in Frederick: Lee’s plan of battle. Orders containing them were found in a nearby farm and sent to McClellan. McClellan knew where Lee was marching, when, and with what units.

McClellan moved swiftly (for him, that is) in pursuit. McClellan thought Lee outnumbered him two to one (in actuality, McClellan had 90,000 to Lee’s 45,000). McClellan wanted to trap part of Lee’s army before it outnumbered the Union forces.

McClellan pushed through at South Mountain and Crampton’s Gap on September 14. Lee, realizing his danger, began gathering his scattered army near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Part of his army was stuck at Harpers Ferry and fighting the Union garrison.

Beaten at South Mountain, Lee wanted a battlefield victory before returning to Virginia. On September 15, Harpers Ferry surrendered. Lee decided these additional troops would enable him to fight it out with McClellan’s larger force at Sharpsburg.

McClellan arrived on September 16. He spent the day disposing his troops along Antietam Creek, east of Sharpsburg. The battle that was fought the next day was the war’s only set-piece engagement voluntarily entered by both armies.

Despite a day to plan the battle, McClellan let control slip away from him. The Union attacks were launched sequentially by corps.

First, Major General Joseph Hooker’s First Corps launched an attack from the Union right. It fought unsupported for ninety minutes. About the time Hooker’s attack petered out, Joseph Mansfield’s Twelfth Corps, just to Hooker’s left, renewed the attack. As they fell back, exhausted, it was the turn of the Second Corps.

The blows these attacks dealt shattered the Confederate line each time. Between attacks, Lee reformed his line and committed reserves to the most threatened areas. Many reinforcements came from the Confederate right. There, the Union Ninth Corps, commanded by Ambrose Burnside, spent the morning just listening to the gunfire to their right. When they finally attacked at 1:00 p.m., they stalled on a narrow bridge spanning Antietam Creek instead of fording the stream.

Despite Lee’s best efforts, and the courage of his soldiers, by 1:00 p.m. the Confederate center collapsed. One final Union push would have crushed the Army of Northern Virginia, trapped as it was on the north bank of the Potomac.

That final push never came. McClellan refused to commit his reserves. The battle continued on the Union left, where Burnside had finally pushed across the creek. As this attack was picking up steam, a fresh Confederate division arrived from Harpers Ferry. It proved to be just enough to stop Burnside.

Both sides had suffered enormous casualties by dusk. The Union had over 12,000 men dead, wounded, or missing; the Confederate tally was 11,000. Over 3,600 men died on that one day. McClellan was content to let Lee withdraw back to Virginia across the Potomac the next day.


After a surprising victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee led his forces once more into northern territory. The Army of Northern Virginia (75,000 men)—organized into three corps under Generals James Longstreet, Richard Ewell (1817-1872), and A. P. Hill—marched into Pennsylvania. On June 30, 1863, Confederate and Union soldiers spotted each other just west of Gettysburg. Both sides returned to their camps without fighting.

The next day, the Battle at Gettysburg would begin, pitting Lee against General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, a force of 95,000.

Day 1: July 1, 1863

The first engagements of the battle were somewhat disorganized. Confederate troops, under Major General Henry Heth’s command, struck General John Buford’s cavalry early in the morning in an attempt to drive them out of Gettysburg. Buford was able to hold off the troops for a while, but he eventually retreated. At about the same time, Union General John F. Reynolds saw Confederate troops and committed his two corps (First and Eleventh Corps) to move into Gettysburg and engage in battle. By late morning, Heth was forced to retreat. The Union had gained the upper hand early, but Reynolds was killed early in the fighting.

After Heth’s failed attack, Brigadier General Robert Rodes launched an immediate and uncoordinated attack on the First Corps. General Lee arrived on the battlefield after noon. He had hoped to delay or avoid battle, since he lacked information about the terrain and the size of the opposing force. Yet when he arrived, the fighting was in full swing, and he had no choice but to organize it as best he could. He allowed Heth to support Rodes in his fight with First Corps; both of their brigades took heavy losses in fierce fighting. At the same time, Lee sent Major General Jubal Early to attack the Eleventh Corps. Early quickly forced the federals to retreat to Cemetery Hill in considerable disorder. By late afternoon, both the First and Eleventh Corps were retreating. At the end of first day of fighting, more than 9,000 Union soldiers and approximately 6,800 Confederate soldiers were dead or wounded, and Confederate forces had won the day—but not the battle.

General Meade received word of the day’s events and readied reinforcements during the night. Fighting would resume the next morning, and six of the seven Union corps would be prepared for battle.

Day 2: July 2, 1863

General Lee was optimistic because of the previous day’s success, but still troubled by his lack of information about the opposing army. Early morning reconnaissance had revealed that the Union army was holding a horseshoe-shaped position along Cemetery Ridge. Lee planned his attack accordingly. He would send General James Longstreet with two divisions to attack the Union flank on the left. Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s men would follow and attack the center. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell was ordered to attack Cemetery Hill from the north, and pin the Union in place. Lee gave Ewell instructions to engage in a full-scale attack for control of the hill “if practicable,” but Ewell was overly cautious and did not press his attack. Historians consider Ewell’s failure to gain control of Cemetery Hill one of decisive tactical mistakes of the battle.

What Lee did not know was that Meade had regrouped overnight. Almost the entire Army of the Potomac was waiting for him. Meade had also positioned his troops to take advantage of the natural terrain, using small hills and the forests for cover.

Longstreet reached his position in the late afternoon. He charged and broke through the lines of Major General Daniel Sickles’s troops at Peach Orchard and pressed the fighting on to Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, where his advance was finally halted by the arrival of the Union’s Sixth Corps.

Just to the north, Ewell tried to take Culp’s Hill, but was repelled. Early sent his brigades up Cemetery Hill, where he was attacked by Second and Eleventh Corps and driven back.

By then end of the second day of fighting, Lee’s forces had gained little ground and more than 16,500 men, about equal numbers on both sides, were killed, wounded, or missing.

Day 3: July 3, 1863

Determined to continue striking, the still-confident Lee planned for an early attack on the Union center at Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet would lead the attack, while Ewell once again would try to take Culp’s Hill. It was a well-designed plan, but General Meade was more than ready.

At 1:00 p.m., Longstreet began an artillery bombardment of the Union lines. The Union army answered with its own cannons. For the next two hours, a deafening artillery duel ensued, with Confederate forces pitting their 140 cannons against the Union’s 80. Thick clouds of smoke covered the field, hindering the view. The Confederate forces kept shooting blindly through the smoke and soon ran out of ammunition; the Union army had stopped firing to conserve ammunition. When the smoke cleared, the Confederate infantry massed a desperate, doomed, legendary attack known as “Pickett’s Charge” in which General George Pickett (1825-1875), with a farewell salute from Longstreet, led fifteen thousand men on a mile-long march across an open field and up toward Cemetery Ridge, where most of them met their death. The Union cannons tore the infantry to shreds, but the Confederates pressed on, engaging the Union troops in small-arms fire and hand-to-hand combat, all the way to the Union lines. By the time they got there, their forces had dwindled and they were unable to break the lines. The attack was a failure and the losses extreme: Nearly six thousand Confederate soldiers were killed or captured.

Attacks by Johnson, Ewell, and Stuart had also failed, and the battle was effectively over. The Union forces had handed General Lee a crushing defeat, crippling his army. Overall, Confederate casualties were close to 28,000. Meade’s Army of the Potomac suffered horribly as well, with nearly 23,000 men—about one in four—lost.


On July 4, Lee maintained his position, expecting that Meade would press his advantage. He did not. The battlefield was a disaster: dead bodies, blood-filled trenches, the wounded groaning in agony. That night, a heavy rain allowed Lee to make his retreat across the Potomac to Virginia. Meade slowly pursued him, but did not attack.

Sherman’s March

After Sherman took Atlanta, he had difficulty defending his supply lines. Rather than retreat to Chattanooga, Tennessee, he split his army in half. He sent half to Chattanooga. With the rest, abandoning his supply lines, he marched across country to Savannah, Georgia. In a five week campaign, he cut a swath across Georgia that cut the heart out of the Confederate will to fight on. Then, having taken Savannah, Sherman took his army north to join Grant. It was the campaign that ended the war.

None of this was apparent in early November 1864. Sherman took Atlanta in September 1864, but he did not destroy General John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee. Sherman’s narrow supply line ran over one hundred miles to Chattanooga. It was vulnerable to guerrillas as well as to Hood’s army. Prudence dictated abandoning Atlanta.

Sherman felt that withdrawing back to Chattanooga would send a message of weakness. Sherman wanted to abandon his supply lines and march through the Confederacy to the Atlantic coast with an army. On October 9, Sherman telegraphed his proposal to Grant:

I propose that we break up the railroad from Chattanooga forward, and that we strike out with our wagons for Milledgeville, Millen, and Savannah. Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses, and people, will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads, we will lose a thousand men each month, and will gain no result. I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!

Sherman spent the month it took to get permission to make the attempt preparing. He had sent his sick and wounded north and divided his forces in half. He left sixty thousand men with Major General George Thomas, who was charged with shielding Tennessee and Kentucky from Hood.

Sherman lightened the load of the army he was taking. Baggage was reduced to a bare minimum. Wagons carried mainly ammunition. Soldiers were issued rations for three days. The rest would come from the Confederates. It was harvest season in Georgia.

On November 15, Sherman left Atlanta and headed toward Savannah. Before leaving, his Army burned every building of military value. The fires spread, and many private buildings and houses burned.

As Sherman moved south, Hood invaded Tennessee. The only forces opposing Sherman were 3,500 Confederate cavalry commanded by Joe Wheeler and several thousand members of the Georgia militia.

Sherman broke his army into four infantry corps that marched independently along parallel courses. Sherman’s army cut a lane of destruction across Georgia that was between twenty-five to sixty miles across.

Along the way, farms were stripped of food. Railroads tracks were torn up—sometimes for tens of miles when the advance paralleled the railroad. Public buildings, warehouses, and any industrial buildings that could aid the Confederate military were torched. Livestock was “conscripted” into the Union army. Slaves were freed. Young, able-bodied blacks were encouraged to join the march and serve as pioneers.

In addition to the destruction wrought by Sherman’s army, deserters from both the Confederate and Union armies, and runaway slaves, trailed behind Sherman. The deserters looted anything the army missed, and many of the slaves took their opportunity for revenge, burning whatever was still standing.

Sherman advanced five to fifteen miles each day. The Confederate Army could not stop Sherman. Their first-line troops were tied down on the frontiers of the Confederacy, fighting Union forces pressing on the Confederacy.

What few local troops could be called upon were either teenagers or grandfathers. The one time the Georgia militia faced Sherman’s army on the battlefield, on November 22 at Griswoldville, they experienced a bloody repulse.

Sherman reached Savannah in mid-December. By then his army had exhausted the food they brought with them and were subsisting on anything they could capture, mainly rice. Sherman stormed Fort McAllister, which guarded Savannah, on December 13. He captured it, opening communications with the sea.

Sherman resupplied his army in anticipation of storming Savannah. Instead, on December 20, the Confederates evacuated Savannah. Sherman sent a telegraph to Lincoln stating, “I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty five thousand bales of cotton.”

After resting a month in Savannah, Sherman left a garrison to hold the port. On February 1, 1865, Sherman took sixty thousand men north, heading to join Grant in Virginia. He left a path across South Carolina so destroyed that it made Georgia look untouched. His men blamed South Carolina for starting the war, and were determined to make the state pay for it.

Sherman cut through South Carolina, avoiding the remnants of the Confederate army, now commanded by Joseph Johnston. Bypassing Charleston for Columbia, he forced Charleston to surrender to blockading Union forces by destroying the railroads that supplied the city.

Sherman reached Virginia after the war ended, an end hastened by his march. By demonstrating the inability of the Confederacy to stop an army in its rear, he demoralized the Confederacy. Destruction of the Southern transportation and industrial infrastructure weakened the Confederate ability to react militarily.

Key Elements of Warcraft


When the Monitor clashed with the Virginia (called the Merrimack by Northerners) in 1862, a fundamental shift occurred in naval technology, rendering every wooden warship in the world obsolete over the course of a single four-hour battle. The two ships in question were the first fully-armored naval vessels to engage in combat and were the culmination of several decades’ worth of experimentation and theorizing. Their clash was just the beginning of a boom of ironclad building that took place over the course of the American Civil War, at home and abroad, as navies rushed to upgrade their fleets. A mere three decades after the historic clash, steel-hulled battleships were taking to the waves sporting massive gun turrets, direct descendants of the Monitor’s design.

The First Ironclads

The idea of bolting metal to wooden hulls was not a new one, but covering vessels entirely in thick iron plates was not technologically practical prior to the development of steam-powered propulsion systems. The effectiveness of iron plating versus naval cannons had been conclusively demonstrated by John Stevens, an American colonel who had first envisioned ironclad ships as early as the War of 1812. The need for the ironclad had grown increasingly desperate as developments in naval gunnery, from exploding shells to rifled barrels, increased both the accuracy and destructive power of cannons. It wasn’t until after the Crimean War in the 1850s—where floating, iron-hulled cannon batteries had met with success—that the British and French navies began experimenting with such designs. Several prototype ironclads were constructed, but none saw combat.

As the American Civil War got under way in 1861, both the Union and Confederacy commissioned ironclad designs, each hoping to construct an invincible new wonder weapon to rule the waves. The revolutionary Union design was built from scratch, conceived and engineered by Swedish naval inventor John Ericsson. Ericcson had also invented the first efficient screw propeller, which would prove invaluable for subsequent ship designs. The Confederate design, on the other hand, relied on a preexisting hull, reconfigured and covered with thick iron plates.

The difference in designs was a reflection of the vastly different needs and realities of the two opposing navies. The Monitor could afford to be experimental—the Union Navy was large and getting larger. The Confederate Navy, on the other hand, was vastly outnumbered and outclassed; the Virginia was to be one of five new ocean-going ironclads destined to raid the Atlantic shoreline and offset the Union’s superiority in numbers. At the same time, the construction had to be fairly frugal, as the Confederacy’s resources were extremely limited. Thus, the scuttled Union steam frigate Merrimack was raised and formed the core of the new Virginia.

The other four ironclads—the Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee—were of similar design to the Virginia: large and somewhat unwieldy, designed to sail the open ocean. Their perceived importance to the Confederate war effort was summed up by Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory:

I regard the possession of an iron armored ship as a matter of the first necessity.… [I]nequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability; and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood.

Despite Mallory’s wishes, the Virginia, after a successful day of raiding, would find itself fighting iron against iron. The first clash of ironclads would end in a tactical draw, neither ship being able to damage the other. Ultimately, however, the Confederate design was proven inferior to Ericsson’s “floating shingle.” The Monitor was agile and, thanks to its turret, able to match the firepower of the Virginia despite the latter’s advantage in cannon armament.

Further Development and Deployment

After the initial battle, both navies continued on their ironclad building programs. The Union navy already had two other designs on order, the Galena and the New Ironsides. Both were based on prewar ironclad designs, which resembled conventional frigates sheathed in metal sheets. The Monitor formed the basis for a new class of ship designed to stick close to the shoreline, protecting coastal targets from Confederate raids. Confederate designs also began to emphasize coastal defense. The larger Virginia-style designs were not terribly seaworthy and, as the war dragged on, the need for home defense outweighed any lofty goals of breaking the Union blockade or raiding the Atlantic shoreline.

The new Confederate ironclad designs served throughout the war, forming the nucleus of small task forces of gunboats. They contributed significantly to the defense of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River and fought actions around Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond and were used as floating fortresses at vulnerable points all along the Confederate coast. By the end of the war, forty ironclads had been laid down, although only half that number were actually launched. Attempts were made to supplement these numbers with ironclads purchased from Europe, but only one, the Stonewall, was delivered.

By the end of the war, the age of the armored warship was well under way. The first confrontation between ironclad fleets would occur between Austria-Hungary and Italy at the Battle of Lissa in 1866, a mere four years after the first two ironclads exchanged shots.

Neither of the pioneering ironclads survived the year 1862, although neither perished in battle. The Virginia was blown up by her crew when her harbor at Norfolk was occupied by Union troops; the Monitor, extremely unseaworthy as it was, sank on the last day of the year, swamped in rough waters off North Carolina while being towed north.


The American Civil War is often called the first modern war for a variety of reasons, both tactically and strategically. Perhaps the most notable of the strategic developments was the widespread use of the railroad by both sides to transport troops and supplies, bringing a whole new element to the planning and execution of warfare.

Railroads and the Military

The use of railroads in the Civil War was dictated by pure necessity: the theater of conflict ranged from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and beyond, a distance of over two thousand miles. Moving troops quickly across such vast stretches would have proven impossible without the assistance of the railroad. As it was, the “iron horse” was able to move troops quickly and in large and decisive numbers.

The battlefields of the Civil War were often located in sparsely populated locales which would have been unable to support the massive armies and their logistical needs—Sherman’s famous “march to the sea” demonstrates the devastation an army of the day could wreak when living off the land. Trains brought food and supplies forward to the battlefields, vastly expanding the range over which armies could campaign.

American Railroads

The first steam-powered rail lines had been laid down in the first decades of the nineteenth century in England—the first modern railway, the Liverpool & Manchester, began regular service in 1830—but it didn’t take long for construction of rail lines to take off in the United States. By 1860 thousands of miles of track had been laid down by both the North and South.

In the North, a complex rail network covering New England stretched east into the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The connections “back East” developed by these rail lines helped ensure the western states north of the Ohio stayed in the Union during the early days of secession.

The Confederacy could not claim nearly the same density of rail lines as the North; less than 30 percent of prewar railways fell within the boundaries of the CSA. This was soon cut by a further one-third as Federal forces pressed south into the Confederacy’s border states. Southern rail lines covered about six thousand miles by mid-war, mostly focused on an east-west axis between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic seaports. Another axis ran north-south between Richmond, Virginia, to Georgia and the Gulf ports. Efforts were made throughout the war to extend this network, particularly into the Confederacy’s northwestern reaches.

Railroads in the War

Despite these shortcomings, the South benefited immensely from the use of railroads in the war. As they were fighting a largely defensive war, the Confederate generals were able to make use of what is called “interior lines,” shifting troops over shorter distances than the Northern armies had to cross. Because of the use of interior lines, the Confederacy’s lack of railway mileage was partly negated.

By war’s end, however, the North had made consistently better use of its rail network. Large parts of the Northern rail system had been taken over by the government by February 1862, when a military director of railroads was appointed. This centralized approach to handling railway transport increased efficiency and allowed Federal railways to negotiate the inevitable hurdles of operating a rail line in wartime conditions.

Such centralized control was held up in the South, which resisted any move towards federalization, until 1865, far too late to help with the war effort. Administration of rail lines in the Confederacy fell to government contractors and generally suffered from inefficiency and poor management, which only exacerbated the already shaky condition of many Southern rail networks.

An example of how railroads impacted Civil War operations on both a tactical and strategic level can be seen in the campaigns around Chattanooga in 1863. In response to a Union invasion of the region under General Rosecrans, Confederate General Braxton Bragg, utilizing interior lines, rushed in thirteen thousand troops from Virginia under General Longstreet.

Longstreet’s veterans stopped the Union advance cold at Chickamauga and pushed the Federals back towards Chattanooga, surrounding the town. Even so, the shoddy nature of the Southern railroads, which necessitated long delays and detours, prevented three brigades from reaching the battle on time, quite possibly robbing the South of a decisive victory.

Meanwhile, the Union shifted 23,000 troops and 3,000 animals from Virginia, across Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and into Tennessee to relieve Chattanooga. Unlike the Confederate movement, the Federal army crossed hundreds of miles of territory with relative ease, passing from one rail line to the next and meeting potential delays—such as bridges destroyed by Confederate raiders—head on, quickly resolving the problems. Chattanooga was relieved and the Union began pushing the Confederates out of Tennessee, a goal they would accomplish two months later.

The railroad changed the face of modern warfare and the Civil War was its baptism of fire. Although both sides grasped its importance, in the end it was the Union’s effective administration of the logistical end of railroads that told the difference and helped propel the Northern armies to victory.

War Photography

The Civil War was the first large and prolonged conflict to be recorded by photography. The craft had been in existence in the United States for just twenty-one years at the beginning of the war. Dozens of photographers, either private individuals or employees of the Confederate and Union governments, photographed civilians and civilian activities; military personnel, activities, and equipment; and the locations and aftermaths of battles. An estimated five thousand or more camp, outdoor, and battlefield photographs were created for military use and commercial sale. The type of negatives used at the time (wet-plate collodion) required an exposure time of five to twenty seconds, which explains why no action photographs of the war exist.

Although he may have only taken a few photographs of the war, Mathew B. Brady’s name has become synonymous with Civil War photography. Other well-known Civil War photographers include Alexander Gardner, James F. Gibson, Timothy O’Sullivan, James Gardner, George S. Cook, and Egbert Guy Fox.

Mathew B. Brady, the most famous of the Civil War photographers, gained a reputation for being one of America’s finest photographers before the start of the war. He produced portraits of the famous, including the nation’s leaders and visiting foreign dignitaries. One of the first photographers to use photography to chronicle national history, Brady felt it was his duty to preserve the likenesses of historically important individuals. He eventually turned his attention to the Civil War. He wanted to document the war on a grand scale, so he organized a corps of photographers to follow troops in the field. Brady did not actually shoot many of the Civil War photographs that are attributed to him, but he did make the photos available to a wide audience. In 1862, he shocked the nation by displaying photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam in his New York gallery. The exhibit marked the first time most people were exposed to the carnage of war. His war scenes proved that photographs could be more than posed portraits, and his overall effort represents the first instance of anyone attempting a comprehensive photo-documentation of a major war.

Impact of the American Civil War

The world felt the effects of the American Civil War in many ways. Since Britain’s vast textile industries depended on cotton from the American South, the disruption of cotton exports during the war greatly affected Britain and its Empire. The disastrous “cotton famine” of 1862 all but terminated operations in many factories in Northern England and Scotland. Work stoppages led to unemployment and social unrest on a huge scale, which encouraged many British government officials to consider recognizing the Confederacy, even though the Emancipation Proclamation made this a politically unwise decision. The primary impact of the cotton famine on the Empire, however, was that it forced the British to find and develop new sources of cotton. Egypt and India replaced America as cotton exporters, which resulted in India receiving more British investment in agriculture, especially for irrigation and transportation.

The practice of slavery, the fundamental cause of the Civil War, was not limited to the United States; after it was abolished in America, the international community was forced to rethink its relationship to it. Britain began moving towards abolishment after the American Revolution and finally ended the practice in Britian in 1807. After the sugar trade declined in 1833 and the Caribbean lobby in Britain’s Parliament dried up, slavery was ended throughout the British Empire. The abolishment of slavery in Britain and the Empire resulted in increasing British military power in Africa to intercept the slave trade. Britain’s increased presence on the continent inspired rising numbers of Britons, especially missionaries and adventurers, to flock there. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and one of the greatest European explorers of Africa, was responsible for penetrating the continent’s interior. This eased the path toward the “scramble for Africa” that led to global European imperialism on a grand scale.

By the time slaves were emancipated in the United States in 1863, the “scramble,” also known as the “race for Africa” was gathering momentum. The established empires of Britain, Portugal, and France had already expropriated vast expanses of Africa and Asia, while emerging imperial powers Italy and Germany followed suit on a smaller scale. Colonization up to the 1880s had been relatively orderly and fairly informal. Between the 1880s and World War I, the period of New Imperialism, competition for African territorial acquisitions became aggressive. The pursuit of “empire for empire’s sake” was based on the doctrine of racial superiority, which held that subjugated peoples were unable to govern themselves. Disputes over Africa were among the primary factors that precipitated World War I. Although Africa was the chief target of new imperialist expansion, Japan and the United States joined the European powers’s scramble for territory by conquering areas of Southeast Asia and the East Asian seaboard.

The Industrial Revolution and the shift from slave labor did much to change the face of the United States after the Civil War. The American Industrial Revolution really escalated in the mid-1850s. Just as innovations in industry changed the country from an agrarian society into a mechanized one, the railroad system transformed more than just the actual American landscape. It transformed America. In 1863, construction began on the United States’ first transcontinental railroad. Despite the Civil War, the challenges of the relatively unexplored western geography, and treacherous weather, the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. Americans celebrated this profound achievement as a giant step forward in the country’s westward expansion, but its impact on America’s economic future turned out to be an added bonus. Many of the country’s greatest fortunes were made by the men who helped build and later control the transcontinental railroad. The ability to transport both goods and passengers to the West created and sustained tremendous growth and allowed new settlements and businesses to prosper. Capitalism and industrialization converged on the railroad system, which helped the American economy move to the forefront of world commerce.

Expansion into the American West between 1800 and 1900 was devastating to the Native Americans. The growing American capitalist economy, the Industrial Revolution, and the dramatic influx of European and Chinese immigrants effectively destroyed Native American lands, culture, and way of life. Once fiercely independent, the Native Americans were violently repressed by political and military forces that saw them as mere obstacles to modernization. During westward expansion, clashes over land rights precipitated the majority of battles that made up the Indian Wars. For fifty years, the United States military fought Native Americans, signed and broke treaties with them, and eventually subjugated them completely. By 1890, the last “free” Native Americans were rounded up and forced to live on reservations. They would never live freely again.

Cultural and economic shifts in the 1880s and 1890s caused American social classes to be divided by an extreme gap. The novel “The Gilded Age,” published in 1873 and written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, criticized the politics and rampant corruption that allowed some Americans to become incredibly rich while others struggled in extreme poverty. The novel’s title would later become synonymous with the age that saw the lower classes in cities such as Chicago and New York suffering in slums while the elite built lavish mansions beside them and enjoyed the fruits of industrialization. Farms and manufacturing plants produced an abundance of goods, especially products of convenience such as clothing and processed foods, which gave rise to a consumer culture that had not previously existed.


December 1833 The American Anti-Slavery Society forms in Philadelphia.

July 1840 Abby Kelly is elected to the board of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Subsequent debate over the role of women in the abolitionist movement results in some members forming a separate American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. William Lloyd Garrison remains with the American Anti-Slavery Society.

July 1848 Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other supporters of women’s rights hold a convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and issue a “Declaration of Sentiments.”

1850 Allan Pinkerton opens a detective agency in Chicago.

September 1850 President Millard Fillmore signs a series of bills that became known as the Compromise of 1850.

May 1851 Former slave Sojourner Truth delivers her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.

June 1851 Washington-based abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, begins publishing in serial form Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.

December 1851 The first American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) opens in Boston, Massachusetts.

March 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is published in book form.

April 1853 Former slave Harriet Tubman begins working on the Underground Railroad to bring other slaves to freedom.

May 1854 Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Escalating violence in Kansas begins between proslavery and antislavery settlers in the territory and continues until Kansas’ admission to the Union as a free state in January 1861. This violence is referred to as “Bleeding Kansas.”

June 1854 The first YMCA opens in Buffalo, New York.

April 1856 The first bridge to span the Mississippi River opens.

May 1856 Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner delivers his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

John Brown and his sons kill five proslavery men during a raid on Pottowatomie Creek.

November 1856 Pro-slavery democrat James Buchanan is elected as the fifteenth president of the United States.

March 1857 The Supreme Court makes its Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling.

May 1857 Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

August 1857 Widespread financial panic and economic depression begin with the failure of the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company.

June 1858 Abraham Lincoln delivers his “House Divided” speech.

August 1858 The first transatlantic telegraph cable is completed. It breaks after a few weeks of operation.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engage in their first debate in Ottawa, Illinois.

October 1858 A fancy dry-goods store, opened by R. H. Macy in New York City, will become one of the nation’s first department stores.

Lightweight sewing machines by Isaac Singer become available for family use.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engage in their final debate in Alton, Illinois.

April 1859 Machinist and blacksmith union workers meet in Philadelphia and call for an eight-hour workday.

October 1859 Abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), hoping to initiate a slave rebellion.

December 1859 John Brown is executed in Charlestown, Virginia, after being found guilty of murder, treason, and attempting to incite a slave insurrection.

February 1860 Jefferson Davis asks the Senate to pass slave codes for the territories.

March 1860 Approximately 6,000 shoemakers stage a protest march in Lynn, Massachusetts, for union recognition and higher wages. At least 800 women join their male colleagues in the strike.

April 1860 Mail service between Missouri and California, via the Pony Express, begins.

The Democratic Party splits over slavery.

Anna Dickinson delivers “The Rights and Wrongs of Women” at a Quaker meeting.

May 1860 Former members of the Whig and American Parties create the Constitutional Union Party.

October 1860 Hoping to train a ministry for the Episcopalian Church and prevent the influence of abolitionism, Leonidas Polk founds the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee.

November 1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected president of the United States.

December 1860 South Carolina secedes from the Union.

The Crittenden Compromise, which upholds the Compromise of 1850, is enacted.

January 1861 Kansas is admitted to the Union under its antislavery constitution.

Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana secede from the Union.

Harriet Jacobs [Linda Brent] publishes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

February 1861 Texas secedes.

The seceded states hold convention in Montgomery, Alabama, where they adopt a Confederate Constitution and elect Jefferson Davis to be president of the Confederate States of America.

The Confederacy inaugurates Jefferson Davis as its president.

Former president John Tyler chairs a peace convention in Washington, DC.

March 1861 Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as president of the United States.

April 1861 Confederates fire upon and capture Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Lincoln declares that an insurrection exists, calls for 75,000 soldiers to put it down, and orders a naval blockade of Confederate seaports.

Virginia secedes.

Lincoln orders all civilian employees within the executive branch to take a Loyalty Oath.

Riots erupt in Baltimore, Maryland.

New York City women form the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

Dorothea Dix is appointed superintendent of female nurses for the Union Army.

May 1861 Arkansas and North Carolina secede.

Dorothea Dix organizes the first military hospitals in the United States.

Congress creates the Department of Agriculture.

June 1861 The Women’s Central Association of Relief is sanctioned by Lincoln and it becomes the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

After speaking at a pro-Union rally, Sojourner Truth is arrested for breaking a state law that prohibited African Americans from entering Indiana.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke begins her work at Union hospitals.

Western counties in Virginia secede from the state and form West Virginia.

July 1861 Congress authorizes the enlistment of 500,000 soldiers and passes the Crittenden Resolution, which declares that the United States was waging war to reunify the nation rather than to eliminate or restrict slavery.

The Confederate and Union armies face each other for the first time at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in Virginia.

The U.S. Congress passes the Crittenden Resolution, affirming that the war will be fought to preserve the Union and not to end slavery.

August 1861 Lincoln declares the Confederate states to be in a state of insurrection.

Congress passes the first Confiscation Act.

Congress passes the first federal income tax.

The U.S. Secret Service arrests and imprisons Rose O’Neal Greenhow for spying on behalf of the Confederacy.

Anna Ella Carroll publishes Reply to the Speech of Honorable John C. Breckinridge.

September 1861 Sally Louisa Tompkins becomes a commissioned Confederate officer to keep Robertson Hospital open in Richmond, Virginia.

Reverend L. C. Lockwood opens a Sunday school for freed slaves at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

The American Missionary Association opens the first school for freedpeople.

October 1861 The first transcontinental telegraph line is completed.

Abraham Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus.

Charlotte Forten goes to Port Royal, South Carolina, to work as a teacher for recently freed African Americans.

November 1861 General Winfield Scott resigns his post as head of the U.S. Army. Lincoln appoints George B. McClellan to replace him.

The YMCA establishes the U.S. Christian Commission.

January 1862 The first federal income tax (3 percent of income more than $800) goes into effect.

The Port Royal Experiment begins on the Union occupied Sea Islands in South Carolina.

The Union’s first ironclad steamer (the Monitor) is launched in Long Island, New York.

February 1862 Jefferson Davis suspends the writ of habeas corpus.

Julia Ward Howe publishes “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in Atlantic Monthly.

March 1862 Lincoln recommends that Congress compensate slave owners in states that accept gradual abolition.

The Confederate ironclad Merrimac and Union ironclad Monitor fight to a draw.

The Peninsular Campaign begins.

The U.S. Congress passes the Impressment Act.

To begin the work of educating freedpeople, teachers and superintendents sail from New York to Port Royal, South Carolina.

April 1862 The Battle of Shiloh takes place.

Forces commanded by Admiral David Farragut capture New Orleans, Louisiana.

Congress abolishes slavery in the District of Columbia.

The Confederacy passes its first Conscription Act.

May 1862 The U.S. Congress enacts the Homestead Act, providing for settlement of the west.

Delegates from pro-Union western counties of Virginia officially vote to secede from Virginia and create the state of West Virginia.

Union general Benjamin Butler takes command of occupied New Orleans, Louisiana. Butler issues his General Order Number 28, the “Woman Order.”

Without approval, Union general David Hunter frees slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Lincoln revokes the order.

While working for the Confederate Navy, slave Robert Smalls navigates the Planter from Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and into Union lines where he surrenders it.

June 1862 Virginian Robert E. Lee assumes command of the Confederate Army.

July 1862 The U.S. Congress passes the second Confiscation Act.

The U.S. Congress issues the Ironclad Oath. It requires all federal, civil, and military officials to pledge allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

Lee and McClellan face each other at The Seven Days’ Battle.

General Henry Halleck takes control of the Union Army.

The U.S. Congress passes the Pacific Railway Act.

Confederate spy Belle Boyd is imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison.

The U.S. Congress passes the Morrill Land Grant Act, giving states federal lands on which to establish colleges.

U.S. general Ulysses S. Grant chooses Colonel John Eaton to run the Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas.

Abraham Lincoln signs the Second Confiscation Act, freeing slaves that escape behind Union lines.

August 1862 When their government annuity is delayed, the Santee Sioux, led by Little Crow, revolt in Minnesota.

Confederate soldiers defeat the Union Army at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in Virginia.

September 1862 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invades the North. The deadliest day of fighting occurs when 26,000 soldiers die at the Battle at Antietam in Maryland.

Lincoln issues a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Laura M. Towne establishes a school for freedmen and freedwomen on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

An explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal kills 78 workers, mostly young women and girls.

October 1862 Jefferson Davis amends the draft law, exempting those who own 20 or more slaves.

Southerners organize the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America.

November 1862 General Ambrose E. Burnside replaces McClellan as Commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac.

December 1862 Confederates defeat Union forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

In Minnesota, 38 leaders of a Sioux uprising are executed.

Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order Number 11, which expels Jews from his area of operation, in the hopes of ending war profiteering. He revokes his order after a few weeks.

Louisa May Alcott begins work at Union Hospital in Washington, D.C.

January 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect.

General Joseph Hooker replaces Ambrose Burnside.

Union general Ulysses S. Grant takes control of the Army of the West.

Recruitment begins for the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Infantry Regiment, the nation’s first African American regiment.

February 1863 The U.S. Congress passes the National Banking Act, creating a national banking system.

March 1863 The National Academy of Sciences is incorporated.

The Habeas Corpus Act gives the government the authority to imprison an individual indefinitely without charging that person.

An explosion at an ordnance lab in Richmond, Virginia, kills 34 women.

Women in Salisbury, North Carolina, riot in response to their shortage of salt and flour.

The U.S. Congress passes the Conscription Act.

April 1863 Women in Richmond, Virginia, engage in a bread riot to protest the wartime shortages.

The Battle of Chancellorsville begins.

Confederate Mary Francis Battle is arrested for spying.

The Union’s policy of conscription goes into effect.

May 1863 Lee defeats Hooker at Chancellorsville.

The National Women’s Loyal League meets for the first time.

Louisa May Alcott begins to publish in serial form her Hospital Sketches.

Fanny Kemble publishes her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation while in England; it is published in the United States that July.

Union spy Pauline Cushman is captured.

Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson dies in Virginia from complications from friendly fire.

June 1863 General Ambrose Burnside orders the anti-Lincoln Chicago Times to close its doors; Lincoln overrules the order three days later.

Lee again invades the North as he heads into Pennsylvania.

General George G. Meade becomes the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi, evacuate to nearby caves to avoid Union shelling.

Western Virginia becomes West Virginia and is admitted to the union. West Virginia’s new state constitution establishes public schools for African Americans.

July 1863 The Union Army defeats Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Union forces under Grant capture Vicksburg and take control of the Mississippi River.

The Battle of Honey Springs takes place in Indian Territory.

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the Union’s first African American regiment, suffers heavy casualties at Battery Wagner, South Carolina.

Draft riots in New York City expose home front frustrations and result in the wounding and deaths of approximately 1,000 people. Similar riots occur in Boston, Massachusetts, Holmes County, Ohio, and elsewhere across the Union.

August 1863 Confederate William C. Quantrill and 450 supporters raid Lawrence, Kansas.

September 1863 Confederates win the Battle of Chickamauga.

Union troops capture Little Rock, Arkansas.

October 1863 Lincoln calls for a national day of thanksgiving to be held in November.

Grant takes control of all operations in the western theater.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission holds one of its most successful sanitary fairs in Chicago.

November 1863 Lincoln delivers the “Gettysburg Address” at the dedication of a national cemetery near the battlefield in Pennsylvania.

Grant repels the Confederate siege at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

January 1864 Jefferson Davis enacts a conscription law that requires the enlistment into the Confederate Army of all white males between the ages of 18 and 45.

February 1864 Confederates win the Battle of Olustee in Florida.

The National Women’s Loyal League presents Congress with a petition demanding the abolition of slavery.

Rebecca Lee becomes the first African American woman to earn a medical doctorate.

March 1864 Grant takes control of all the armies of the United States and General William T. Sherman assumes control of Union forces in the west.

Women protest for peace in High Point, North Carolina.

April 1864 The U.S. Sanitary Commission holds a three-week fund-raising fair in New York that raises $1 million.

A bread riot erupts in Savannah, Georgia.

Nathan Bedford Forrest and his Confederate cavalry capture Fort Pillow, Tennessee. They murder African American soldiers who are trying to surrender.

May 1864 Union troops under Grant’s command fight Confederate forces led by Lee at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

Sherman advances toward Atlanta and the Army of the Tennessee.

The U.S. Congress passes the Wade-Davis Bill, requiring that the majority of white male citizens in each rebel state take an oath of allegiance to the United States and that each state adopt a constitution acceptable to the president and Congress before it can be readmitted to the Union.

Montana becomes a territory separate from the Idaho Territory.

June 1864 Confederates win the Battle of Cold Harbor.

Grant begins a nine-month siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

The U.S. Congress passes an Internal Revenue Act that increases income tax rates and raises taxes on some items.

A national cemetery is established at Arlington.

July 1864 Sherman forcefully evacuates female workers and their families from the textile mill town of Roswell, Georgia.

September 1864 Sherman captures Atlanta and issues Special Field Order Number 67, evacuating the city of all civilians. The order primarily affects the city’s women and children.

Frustrations lead to bread riots in Mobile, Alabama.

October 1864 Union general Philip H. Sheridan defeats Jubal Early’s Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.

Nevada becomes the 36th state.

November 1864 Lincoln is reelected as president, defeating McClellan.

Sherman burns Atlanta and begins his March to the Sea.

December 1864 Salmon P. Chase becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

General George H. Thomas defeats the Army of the Tennessee.

Sherman captures Savannah, Georgia.

January 1865 Freed slaves obtain control of the Sea Islands between Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina when Sherman issues Special Field Order Number 15.

Sherman marches through South Carolina, destroying much of Charleston, Columbia, and the surrounding areas.

Before Sherman arrives, the women of Columbia, South Carolina, hold the Confederacy’s largest fund-raising bazaar.

February 1865 In Hampton Roads, Virginia, Confederate peace commissioners meet with Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward.

Sherman captures Columbia, South Carolina.

African American Julia C. Collins begins publishing “The Curse of Caste; or, The Slave Bride” as a serial in the Christian Recorder, a weekly newspaper run by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

March 1865 Grant defeats Lee at the Battle of Petersburg.

Jefferson Davis signs a bill that allows African American enlistment in the Confederate Army.

Congress creates the Freedmen’s Bureau to help former slaves in their transition to freedom.

Clara Barton establishes the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army.

April 1865 Confederate forces evacuate from Richmond, Virginia.

Lee surrenders his Confederate forces to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

Joseph E. Johnston surrenders his Confederate forces to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina.

Andrew Johnson becomes president of the United States.

May 1865 General O. O. Howard becomes head of the Freedman’s Bureau.

Northerners celebrate with a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

General Edmund Kirby-Smith surrenders his troops to General E. S. Canby in New Orleans, Louisiana.

July 1865 Four convicted conspirators—Mary Surratt, David E. Herold, Lewis Paine, and George A. Atzerodt—are hanged for their involvement in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Four others are given prison sentences for their roles.

August 1865 A convention in Jackson, Mississippi, repeals secession and outlaws slavery.

October 1865 A convention in Savannah, Georgia, repeals secession and outlaws slavery.

November 1865 Mississippi passes the first Black Code. Other Southern states follow with their own restrictive codes.

Mark Twain publishes The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

December 1865 Congress ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.

The Ku Klux Klan forms in Pulaski, Tennessee.

March 1866 Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

April 1866 President Andrew Johnson ends the “insurrection” with a proclamation of peace.

May 1866 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organize the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City.

Jefferson Davis is indicted for treason against the United States.

June 1866 Congress approves the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship rights to all men born and naturalized in the United States.

July 1866 A race riot erupts in New Orleans.

Despite President Andrew Johnson’s veto, the U.S. Congress passes the Freedmen’s Bureau bill.

March 1867 Republican Thaddeus Stevens proposes freedpeople receive 40-acre plots of land. Congress votes down this plan.

Congress enacts the Reconstruction Acts, dividing the South into five militarily controlled districts.

Congress passes the Tenure of Office Act, requiring Senate approval before the president can dismiss a cabinet member.

July 1867 The Ladies Memorial Association unveils the first monument to the Confederate dead in Cheraw, South Carolina.

July 1868 The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified. It grants citizenship to all men born or naturalized in the United States. The amendment introduces the term “male” to the Constitution.

November 1868 Ulysses S. Grant is elected president.

February 1869 Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment, which prevents states from denying voters the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous condition.

May 1869 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton establish the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Lucy Stone founds the American Woman Suffrage Association.

December 1869 Wyoming passes the first women’s suffrage law in the United States.

April 1871 Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act.

June 1872 Congress abolishes the Freedman’s Bureau.

March 1875 The U.S. Supreme Court, in Miner v. Happersett, concludes that citizenship does not guarantee suffrage.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guarantees that African Americans receive equal treatment in public facilities.

November 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes is elected president.

April 1877 Hayes orders the last federal troops to leave South Carolina, and Reconstruction comes to a formal end.

May 1881 Former Civil War nurse Clara Barton forms the American Association of the Red Cross.

September 1894 The United Daughters of the Confederacy is formed.