Almost every historian of American History considers this to be the seminal event in the history of the United States. It was predicted as far back as
and has influenced the country's domestic politics well into the 21st century.
In 1861, a group of southeastern U.S. states seceded from the United States of America
(then a formal Union of American States
, and not just a loose association of independent states as it had been upon independence from Britain
) and declared themselves independent of the government as a new Confederation of American States. From there events took on a life of their own and the situation devolved into a full-blown war which lasted four years, the government's attempts to crush the rebellion inevitably and eventually resulting in the dissolution of the confederation and the rebellious states' re-integration into The Union.
Much like the contemporary 1850-64 War Of The Heavenly Kingdom
or Taiping Rebellion
along the mid-lower Yangzi and the later civil wars suffered by 20th-century China
, the Civil War was the result of a grand failure of normal politics. Modern historiography — the history of history — tells us that the great failure was over the future of slavery — of ethnic Africans — in the United States. The southern "Slave States", whose economies were based around the use of slave labor to harvest cotton for export to western Europe, feared that the central government in Washington, D.C. would attempt to regulate or ban the slave trade and the practice of slavery.
Again, as is typical of civil wars, the initial phase of the war was something of a mess. The 1861 secession of the "slave states" didn't see all
the slave states secede, though all the states that did secede were "slave states." The "slave states" of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained loyal through the initial secession crisis and the war that followed once the US Army had suppressed their more rebellious districts. A rebel state (Virginia) even suffered its own secession crisis when the half of the state (the future state of West Virginia) on the Appalachian Mountain range defected back
to the government as a new state.
The loyal states of the north were also not nearly as unified in their opposition to either slavery nor secession as they came to be seen in retrospect. There was also a notable split between the industrialized Northeast and the mostly agricultural Northwest (the name then used for what is now called the Midwest).note
This was clearly demonstrated in the antebellum political scuffles over the future of the west-American colonies that the United States had just conquered from Mexico. The Southern states wanted to establish new "slave states" in those areas so that no laws outlawing slavery could be passed by the central governmentnote
. Many Northwesterners opposed this because more plantations meant less space for small farms (owned by 'homesteaders'), which they believed — as per liberal (i.e. "free market") ideology — were more economically efficient (as it used free, rather than coerced, labor)note
and more desirable as the social-moral bedrock of a new/developing society. This conflict over the extension of slavery exploded into a prologue to the Civil War in 1856 in the internecine conflict known as "Bleeding Kansas," in which people from Northern states and Southern states moved en masse
to the by-then-approaching-statehood Kansas Territory to influence whether the new state would be slave or free (the issue having been left to "popular sovereignty," i.e. the state's residents would vote on it when they voted on the state's constitution).
This was the second civil war in just a century
to tear North America's families, towns, and governments apart. Nationalism had truly developed since then and where before people had largely been torn between ideals, people were now divided just as much if not more by State and local loyalties, for "National" nationalismnote
had yet to supersede these. It was for their States and for Freedom that, as in the English Civil War, about 2-5% of the total population of the United States died and far more were left impoverished, displaced, maimed and traumatized. Again as in the Revolution, the victory of the government was almost guaranteed; but no world powers aided the unsympathetic cause of these rebels, who were left to face the far superior manpower, finance, and industry of the central government on their own. The result was almost inevitable; the whole affair appeared a very close-run thing, especially given the rebels' early successes, but the US Army learnt (however slowly) from its mistakes and made good on its material advantage, grinding the rebels down and eventually crushing them after four years of the bloodiest fighting North America has ever seen. The rebels — The Confederacy — still engender sympathy in certain states, generally those that rebelled and in some (but not all) border states (Delaware and most of Maryland, for instance, would prefer that you even forget that they were ever seen as Southern, while Kentuckians are perfectly comfortable as firm Southerners). Such people often prefer to think that the rebels fought for Freedom From The Tyranny Of Central Government more than The Freedom To Own And Use People As They Saw Fit. This was the American Civil War, The War of the Rebellion
, the War Between the States
, the War of Southern Treason
, the War of Northern Aggression
, Lincoln's War
, the Slaveholders' Revolt
, and the Late Unpleasantness
— though rarely, if ever, referred to by any of those names while the war itself was being fought.note
It was an era which pitted brother against brother, and where the armies of the Blue and the Gray shot cannons and Minié Balls at each other across smoke-filled battlefields.
The Southern part of the United States at this time is a world filled with romantic, tall-columned plantation houses where delicate Southern Belles
sashay in large skirts and Corset Faint
at every available opportunity. Where chivalrous, cigar-chomping, white-tuxedo-wearing Southern Gentlemen
pistol-duel at dawn and where the word "Damyankees!"note
is used with a fair degree of regularity. Slaves work the fields down here, although whether a production chooses to show the more realistic
aspects of slave life depends a lot on the era in which it's made. Don't expect to see many whitewashed "happy" portrayals
of slaves in any
modern series. People despise historical inaccuracy these days, given that there's really no excuse for it.
In the North, there is industry and patriotism, and Abolitionists cry out against the evils of slavery from every pulpit. Abraham Lincoln is a pretty popular guy in these parts — he spends most of his time in the Oval Office, brooding over battle maps and writing deep historical speeches on stovepipe hats. Ask him why he's fighting the war and he'll tell you it's to free the slaves. Never mind that this runs contrary what he actually said
when asked, during the war; this is Hollywood History
, where heroes are pure and their motives always perfectly clear. Similarly ignored are all of the explicit references to preserving slavery made by Southern governments and politicians during this time, because the product has to be sellable in all fifty states. Naturally, you don't see much of pro-slavery Confederate President Jefferson Davis
in most Civil War movies. Oh, and remember what we said about "whitewashed happy portrayals of slaves" in the paragraph above? You're lucky if you see portrayals of black persons at all
in the North — even anti-slavery crusaders had a tendency to view blacks as inferior
, and historical accuracy sometimes bends to political correctness.
In actuality, Lincoln at first refused to make freeing the slaves a Union war aim. Doing so would have made the border states — slave states that stayed in the Union — leave. This was particularly important not only for propaganda reasons but also military strategy (Kentucky and Missouri were very useful) and the very pragmatic reason that Washington DC was surrounded by Virginia (a Confederate state) and Maryland (a border slave state). When the mood was right, he presented the abolition of slavery (in only those states which were in rebellion
) as a means of critically undermining the rebel war effort. Two years previously by this time, Benjamin Butler, an Abolitionist lawyer-turned-general, had made his major contribution to the war effort by declaring he claimed three slaves who had been used to dig trenches on the grounds they were contraband of war, and then expanding that legal fiction to encompass any slave, whom the Union then emancipated on the grounds they didn't want them; since the most die-hard racist and advocate of slavery who supported the Union could see the logic of seizing rebel slaves, the legal fiction was so widespread that escaped slaves were (and are) habitually referred to as contrabands. The Emancipation Proclamation merely declared it a universal matter; it was ostensibly written as a war measure that only freed slaves in rebel-held areas — where public opinion didn't matter very much.note
But by the end of the war, the national mood shifted, and Lincoln helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment that completely ended the institution. Emancipation also had the effect of making British and French public opinion — already wary about the Confederacy — turn decisively in favor of the Union, more or less making recognition of the Confederacy politically unthinkable.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield itself, the Age of Dakka
has dawned, which means that everything anybody knew about warfare is wrong again. Soldiers learned the new realities firsthand, such as standard-issue rifles which could hit with deadly accuracy at three times the range of smooth muskets, and multishot repeating rifles that create near-unsurvivable hails of gunfire at the enemy. Hollywood Tactics
are played straight, and while this is justified
, that doesn't make anybody any less dead. There is smoke and blood everywhere
, with doctors severing gangrened legs left and right, bugles blowing, drummer boys drumming, and cavalry charging every which way (often resulting in casualty figures upwards of 30%, per battle). Expect to see at least one man from either side bravely carrying a tattered unit flag until he gets shot with a Minié ball and crumples artfully in a heap. One aspect that tends to get lost in nearly all depictions of the war is that as in previous wars, but unlike the ones that came after, the majority of deaths were still due to non-combat-related causes such as various diseases contracted in the field (such as "camp fever") and the still-primitive state of battlefield medicine that meant almost any infected wound could kill if it wasn't on an easily-amputated limb. The cumulative effect was enough, especially near the end of the war when the campaigns were relentless, to churn out men suffering from "soldier's heart" — what we would today recognize as post-traumatic stress
. Americans like to believe that they learned this well and kept it in mind, while the European powers didn't notice until after World War One
presented it to them on a massively greater scale. This is true if one sticks only to the effects of the war upon the USA's economy and society, for this period was one of rapid development that made the tactical lessons of the war irrelevant in just two decades. On a strategic level, the war is one of the first, and certainly the largest, to have modern mechanized supply lines via railroad. Now armies no longer needed to supply themselves from the land they inhabited, allowing far more troops in a given area. This furthermore allowed Sherman's March, since his troops could burn down Confederate farms without having to worry about starving themselves. Surprisingly to many, the American Civil War was the first-ever war in which aviation played a role, as Union forces pioneered the use of balloons as reconnaissance and observation platforms during the Siege of Richmond and other battles.
Four years long, the Civil War was by far the most protracted of the early industrial warsnote
; none of the other industrial wars of this period, save the Crimean and Boer Wars, lasted more than three years. Though several of those conflicts were more expensive in absolute terms, none
were "relatively" more expensive or illustrated quite so well the crippling effect of protracted industrial warfare upon an economy and societynote
. The Austro-French War in Piedmont-Sardinia/Northern Italy, the Russo-Turkish War, the Franco-Prussian War
, the Second Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 all give certain (and better
) insights into "modern" warfare at the time, however, as they involved The Great (and second-rate) Powers of the age. The Crimean War
of 1853-6 is often contrasted with and seen as a smaller-scale precursor to the American Civil War — Russia was about as under-industrialized relative to the Franco-Britishnote
alliance as were the USA's rebel states to its loyal ones.
This war was essentially the Trope Codifier
for modern battlefield tactics: less about cavalry, more about infantry, and keep your Dakka handy, 'cuz Swords
aren't useful anymore. In fact, the Gatling gun
was invented and saw limited experimental use during the last years of the war ("limited," as it was extremely expensive and prone to mechanical failure) — though it was an early predecessor to rapid-fire automatic weaponry
. The world even got a sneak preview of World War One
in the form of the trench warfare that took place at Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Vicksburg. Of course, like it does so often, the world proceeded to completely ignore itnote
Like World War II
, this war was waged on battlefields but won in factories; the highly industrialized North could mass-produce muskets, cannon, and ships that the agrarian South could only import, and largely couldn't in large numbers with the Union Naval Blockade
in place. Also, this war had the first recorded successful sinking of an enemy ship by a submarine, and they did it completely blind
. And the first battle between two fully-armored ships, CSS Virginia
(an ironclad) and USS Monitor
(founder and namer of its class, first all-iron ship, first rotatable gun turret) at Hampton Roads. The two shot at each other for three hours
, and neither took any appreciable damage whatsoever. Naval forces of the world took note: From now on, their ships needed to be made of iron... and they needed some bigger guns.
Current estimates are that about 2% of the country's population was killed, a scale of suffering unkown to the Anglosphere since the English Civil War
(which killed 7%) but which put the relative and absolute suffering quite comfortably below that of the Qing Empire's Taiping Rebellion (which killed 5%). At least 620,000 soldiers died in the American Civil Warnote
. That's more armed-forces dead than in every other war the US has fought put together
... and does not include civilian deaths, which came out to another 41,000, for a total of over 660,000 dead of a combined population around 34 millionnote
. More US citizens died in 1864 than during The Hundred Days' Offensive
, ''Operation Overlord''
, or any of the anti-partisan operations of the 'War On Terror'
. The dead for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg
almost equal the Americans killed in the entire Vietnam War
. The destruction and loss of life were immense, even "medieval"note
; it was like something out of Homer, the Thirty Years' War
, or contemporary China.
The costs of the war—not just the immediately obvious ones like having to pay for raising and maintaining massive standing armies, but also vast swaths across entire states laid waste, cities burned and farms looted, interruptions in trade, factories idled and mines closed for lack of labor, two-and-a-half million maimed and crippled veterans who could not support themselves and required pensions—caused an economic depression that lasted for a generation after the war. Some regions took generations to recover; some maintain that part or even all of the South still
hasn't recovered from the War (specifically Sherman's March to the Sea), although some of these claims are more silly and unqualified than others. Some of the more dramatic statements about post-war former-rebel-state suffering at the hands of the central governmentnote basically ignore subsequent economic development over the next century-and-a-half to the order of a several hundred-percent increase in GDP
, not to mention the huge advances in general quality-of-life. Now leave it at that. We mean it.
Admittedly, the Civil War took a larger toll upon the Southern states of the American Union, where most of the war was fought. Not only was property destroyed, but more importantly a lot of wealth
disappeared virtually overnight; wealth in the form of Confederate government bonds and currency — which became worthless when the Confederacy was dissolved in '65 — and perhaps most importantly slaves, who were declared free by the Federal Government as a means of sabotaging the Confederate war effort. Slavery had shaped the southern economy for decades, the profitable and dependable returns from investing in slave-picked cotton discouraging investment in other forms of agriculture, raw-resource gathering, primary and secondary industries. As the Industrial Revolution picked up speed, the economic 'sideshows' of industry and commerce turned out to be far more profitable than agriculture ever could or would be. The South had been prosperous, but by the 1850s the central-northern United States had become more
prosperous and were growing at a dramatically faster rate. What the war did was destroy much of the wealth of the South and force a fundamental restructuring in its economy. Thus did the South largely lag behind the rest of the United States until the New Deal
and the advent of the more balanced economy of the "New South" in the mid-twentieth century. The southern states were neither impoverished nor left backward (relative to the rest of the entire world except Britain, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and France) by the Civil War. But the war did leave them struggling to adapt to a more... normal
state of economic affairs, something that would have been difficult even had there been a smoother and more gradual end to slavery (a virtual impossibility in any case).
Very unusually, a large portion of the battlefields are preserved in national parks, and, after a concerted effort by the US National Parks Service in the 1990s, most have been almost entirely restored to their appearance in the 1860s. Unlike practically any other place (or for any other war) on Earth, it is possible to visit a very significant portion of all the war's battlefields, and have a reasonable possibility of experiencing exactly
what the combatants saw (well, exactly, other than than the legions of enemy troops). Combined with an extensive preservation and historical research community (and a huge commitment from the US government to support it), the US Civil War is perhaps the best-preserved war in history. Not just US history, but world history. It borders on obsessive, especially for a nation that came this close to self-immolation. Said parks have been the location setting for many (if not most) of the historical and fictional films about the period, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "on location."
Finally, contains two of the greatest speeches ever made, both by the same man, Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address
(pure distilled Awesome in 2 minutes) and his Second Inaugural Address
(an eloquent Earn Your Happy Ending