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The Beginning of the American Civil War

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As a direct result of the American Civil War, about 600,000 people died in battle or from disease. It was the most costly war, in terms of lives, in American history, with more people dying in it than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish American War, World War I, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War put together1. Perhaps this is why it has inspired such a great interest from historians.

There were thousands of engagements in the war, with some battles killing more men than entire wars. Each side fought with all its strength and passion, and for the most part each side felt it was fighting for a deserving cause. The sides as follows:

The Union, whose soldiers were called 'Federals', 'Northerners' or 'Yankees', was the portion of the United States that remained after the Confederacy seceded. Their soldiers wore blue uniforms and were abbreviated as USA or US. Their armies were funded by the large number of citizens in the north - who had the benefit of better infrastructure and manufacturing capability. They were better able to supply their armies with food, clothes and other supplies. However, they lacked in strong leadership on the battlefield. There were no good generals in this early phase of the war, though it had the benefit of Abraham Lincoln as a strong overall leader and a federal government that could exercise control over the states to build an army. They named their battles after the geographical feature that the battle was fought near - like a river or a hill2.

The Confederacy comprised states that voted to secede from the United States of America in the South. They were dressed in grey uniforms, and their nation's name was officially the Confederate States of America, abbreviated CSA. The main difference between the USA and CSA governments, other than on the issue of slavery, is that the national government that tied the states together didn't have much power, which meant it was unable to wage war as effectively as they could. Their armies had plenty of ammunition and guns (some states had been stockpiling weapons for years in anticipation of a war), but were lacking in food, uniforms and other necessary supplies. They had several good generals, under the great leadership of Robert E Lee and President Jefferson Davis. They were referred to as 'Rebels', 'Johnny Rebs' and many other things.

When Did it Begin?

Most historians put the beginning of the Civil War at 12 April, 1861. This was the day that Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina's bay. However, a war between pro- and anti-slavery people had been raging for hundreds of years and can be said to have started in any number of years.

  • 1492 - Christopher Columbus landed in America, and brought back to Europe the renewed idea of a new world. He would help enslave the indigenous people of the new world. Naturally, there were those who resisted the idea of slavery, and there were even a few uprisings. Still, this didn't stop in America for almost 400 years.

  • 1776 - The Declaration of Independence was signed and agreed upon. It had originally included a clause banning slavery, but after some debate it was edited out.

  • 1787 - The American Revolutionary War had concluded and the Constitutional Convention was convened to make a Constitution for the new nation. There were several mentions of slavery, including the famous 'Three-Fifths Compromise.' It was the first of many slavery compromises that began a political war between southerners, who were largely dependent on slavery and northerners who felt slavery should be abolished.

  • 1794 - Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin invention. This led to a renewal of slavery, as slaves were required in order to pick cotton cheaply and the cotton gin made cotton easier to process and more in demand. This made cotton the primary product of the South, and as slaves were necessary to protect this product, southern politicians guarded the practice of slave-keeping with all their strength.

  • 1820 - The Missouri Compromise entered a slave and free state into the Union at the same time, because southern politicians did not want for there to be more free states in the Union than slave states, and northerners vice versa. This was because Congress was delicately balanced. If there were equal numbers of slave states and free states, the Senate, in which there were two Senators from each state, would be divided on any decision to eliminate slavery, and it would be unable to pass. This tradition of admitting a free state and a slave state at the same time preserved the balance of power for about 35 years.

  • 1832 - The South asserted states' rights by saying that any state could nullify a Federal law that it didn't like. President Andrew Jackson sent the US military to enforce a tariff in South Carolina and the Civil War nearly started 30 years earlier at that point. However, both sides backed down before a major conflict came. This raised passions on the pro- and anti-slavery issue.

  • 1854 - The Kansas-Nebraska act abolished the Missouri Compromise and established the idea of Popular Sovereignty. This allowed people in a territory to decide if their state would be a slave state or not before it became a state. This opened up slavery to all future states, and in fact sparked a huge outrage from anti-slavery politicians. The Republican party was formed in response, and Abraham Lincoln rejoined politics as a result of the act. Northern opposition to the southern way of slavery would not have been as fierce without this act.

  • 1857 - The Supreme Court Dred Scott decision ruled that it was illegal to ban slavery, because the Bill of Rights said it was illegal to keep possessions from people. This completely ruined the balance of power, though for the most part northerners ignored it and didn't allow slavery.

  • 1860 - Abraham Lincoln, a moderate Republican, who limited the expansion of slavery, but not abolish it, was elected as President. As a result, South Carolina seceded from the Union as it passed an ordinance of secession. Several states followed. The election of Lincoln was the immediate cause (or excuse, perhaps) for the states to secede, but it had been a long time coming. With the secession of the states, both sides saw a war was coming - in the north to preserve the Union and in the South to preserve the Confederacy.

However, these were events of a different, mostly political, strife and not the actual causes of the Civil War. The major cause was sectional difference between the north and South - which had a lot to do with slavery. However, there were economic and political issues as well. The federal government was demonised in the South, because it was dominated by the more populous north in the House of Representatives, and passed tariffs and laws benefiting the north and harming the South. The South preferred a strong state government and a weak central government and the north the opposite. There was a strong sense of antagonism between the southern and northern states, resulting in what Abraham Lincoln described as a 'house divided.'

Slavery was at the root of the war. The main products of the South were agricultural, and the system relied on slavery. This led to the South adopting an anti-tariff policy, to ensure that they made a profit. In order to preserve slavery and be ensure the crops were most profitable, the South had to fight the north by both political and military means. Had slavery not been in force, agriculture in the South would not have been as dominant and the region probably would have naturally gravitated towards a more industrial society, though of course agriculture would have still have been a very important element in the southern economy.


The Civil War was coming. Abraham Lincoln was elected President, and the South would not allow a Republican man to be its President. It was really their own fault that Lincoln was elected President. Democrats (the party that consisted of northerners who did not hate slavery and nearly the whole of the South) came together at their convention to nominate a Presidential candidate in 1860. They nominated Stephen Douglas, but this was unacceptable to the southern Democrats. They left the convention, set up a convention of their own and nominated another candidate. As a result of this split, the Democratic party was not unified. Some Democrats voted for Douglas, some for the southern candidate, John Breckinridge, and Lincoln won.

Naturally, when the southerners left the Democratic convention, they knew that they were electing Lincoln. If they had not left, Lincoln probably would have lost. The southern pundits weren't stupid. They realised that dividing the party would elect Lincoln, but some were also looking for an excuse to secede from the Union. They were looking for a war.

South Carolina seceded from the United States on 20 January, 1861. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia all eventually passed ordinances of secession with South Carolina's example. Pro-secessionists in Virginia and Tennessee had a particularly difficult time getting their states to secede. In Virginia, there was a large population of Union men in the western state and Tennessee's fight to stay in the Union was spearheaded by Andrew Johnson.

These states formed the Confederate States of America. They quickly formed a capital city in Montgomery, Alabama and eventually transferred it to Richmond, Virginia. They elected a Congress and a chief executive, just like the Union. Their President was Jefferson Davis, and Vice-president Alexander Stephens.

Luckily for the Union, several slave states did not secede. Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri stayed with the Union, and the free states of California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin remained. A part of Virginia broke off of the Confederate state and called itself West Virginia. It joined the Union in 1863.

Fort Sumter

During his inauguration, Lincoln gave a speech saying that he would use military power to keep control of the Federal Government's possessions in the states that seceded. One of the most key forts in the South was Fort Sumter, because controlling it was necessary to controlling Charleston harbour, one of the busiest ports in the South.

The Man with a Plan

The day after his inauguration, Lincoln was reminded of Fort Sumter when he received a message from the commander of Federal forces in the fort, Major Robert Anderson. The message told him that there were supplies were running out at the fort, and would last only six more weeks.

Meanwhile, the southern government wanted to get Union forces and forts out of their new nation, starting with the weakened Fort Sumter. Lincoln knew this, and decided that a battle at Fort Sumter was inevitable. He had supplies sent to the fort. He also notified the governor of South Carolina, Francis Pickens of his intention to do so. Of course, the South wouldn't let the fort be resupplied. They would have to use force to make the fort surrender, before the supplies arrived.

This was part of Lincoln's plan. The South would have to fire the first shots of the war, which was good politics for the Republicans. It would portray the Confederacy as the aggressive force.

The Firing

Pierre Beauregard, a Confederate General at Charleston, was told to order Major Anderson to evacuate the fort. Anderson resisted evacuation, but said he would leave the fort at noon, 15 April... unless of course he received instructions or supplies from the US government. The supplies were to come before 15 April, so Beauregard rejected this time. As the Confederate messenger left, Anderson said-

If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.

On 4:30am, 12 April, 1861 the Confederates began firing 43 guns onto Fort Sumter. This woke citizens in Charleston, who came into the street to pray, cheer, watch and cry. The Federals at Fort Sumter didn’t return fire until about 7am. Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first shot, and the six usable guns in the fort were fired slowly, because ammunition was low in supply. The tired and malnourished US troops had to continually put out fires.

The firing from the fort stopped by night, and it slowed from the Confederate side. Union ships outside the harbour did not come to the relief of the men in the fort.

As the day started on 13 April, battle resumed. A hot cannonball caught the barracks on fire, and the Federals were unable to put out the blaze. Soon enough, the entire fort was burning out of control, with smoke crippling the ability of the men to see and fight. When the Union broke a long silence of their guns with one shot, the Confederates applauded their bravery with cheers.

After Beauregard decided the fire was out of control, he sent a few officers to offer Anderson help in keeping the flames down. The Union soon decided to surrender. Louis Wigfall, a Texas politician, without authority from the Confederate leaders, received the surrender at 2.30pm.

In 33 hours of combat, no-one on either side died. The surrender included a 100-gun salute to the American flag before the Federals left the fort. On 14 April, the salute began, but a man died as a result of an explosion, the first death of the American Civil War. The garrison left the island and returned to Union territory, where they were considered heroes.

Building an Army

President Lincoln was reluctant - but not unwilling - to go to war. His first priority was to preserve the Union, and made it clear that he thought the secession of the states to be illegal. He issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve three months in the Union Army. Lincoln knew 75,000 would not be sufficient, but he also knew that issuing a call for a huge number of troops to serve for a very long time would dishearten people in the Union, and make them think that they were in for a long, hard war. At the time, the public had a naive notion that the South could be stopped with a quick, strong offensive. They had no idea what they were in for. Fortunately for Lincoln, more than the required 75,000 reported, and by December, 1861 there were 600,000 men under his command.

Generals quickly lined up on each side. The most talented and competent went to the Confederacy, including Robert E Lee, JEB Stuart, Thomas Jackson and GT Beauregard. The South undoubtedly had the more effective generals, but some of them, such as Lee and Jackson did not particularly like slavery and were in favour of the preservation of the Union. Like southern gentlemen, though, they were loyal to their homes - even when Lee was offered overall command of all Union forces, he took an inferior command in the South. The Union's group of generals were unimpressive.

The north had essentially been taken by surprise. The South had been planning the war secretly for a while, (though a few states in the north had been building up their military might, guessing there would be a war) but by the time Lincoln had called for his volunteers there were not enough guns or ammunition and no strategy had been developed. James Buchanan, who held office before Lincoln, had refused to move against the Confederacy. In fact, he arrogantly declared that he was the last President of the United States.


As the Union army was training and growing, Lincoln and his advisors developed an overall strategy - the famous Anaconda Plan, named after the snake that crushes its prey. It was proposed by General Winfield Scott, who had been an important general in the Mexican-American War.

He proposed that the Union should aim to crush the South by isolating it into smaller sections, away from the rest of the world. A naval blockade stretching from the top of Virginia to where the Rio Grande ended the Texan border would keep the South from being able to receive supplies that it would be unable to produce. Controlling the Mississippi River would separate the western states from the rest. The states east of the Mississippi River would further be separated by dividing states east of the Appalachian Mountains from those west of them. This would form three isolated areas in an isolated nation. The Union men felt that this would crush the economic prosperity (through trade) of the South and make it more difficult for them to muster effective armies. It would, as the name of the strategy implied, crush them.

The South had an entirely different military strategy, if it had one at all. It basically planned to play the part of the victim. It would let the north be the aggressor3 but stop them from invading their land. They wanted to defeat their opponents enough to wear them down and get tired of the war. They didn't want to invade the north - it didn't suit their purpose of defending their country. However, twice in the war Robert E Lee attempted to invade the north, ending with Union victories in the decisive battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. Both invasions were an attempt to gain European support for their independence by showing the European powers that they could hold their own against the Union in the north. This was a vital piece of their political strategy, but Europe's powers would not directly support a county which had the institution of slavery.


The Civil War took place after the age of the single shot, stop, load and clean it musket but before repeating rifles were widely used and accessible to everyone. Cannons were still used as the primary artillery. Railroads were the most useful methods of transporting supplies and soldiers around. Officers led on horseback, and early in the war, ships were entirely wooden. Bayonets were commonly used in desperate situations and by officers who had not updated their tactics to fit the technology.

This was the technology of the war as it began. It was a modern war by the standards of the time. Some referred to it as the first modern war.


As the war began, artillery was an important element of combat. In fact, it was the first American war where artillery was used as a separate unit, like cavalry.

There were two types of artillery - heavy (or foot) and light (or field). Light artillery was used in battle against infantry, and heavy artillery was lined along coasts and mountains and used in forts and cities. Light artillery was divided into two parts - mounted and cavalry. Mounted was basically just men marching along the artillery and cavalry was men on horses manning the artillery.

A field battery during the war had four to six guns, with about five batteries to a brigade and one brigade to a division. Of course, this fluctuated according to the availability of weapons. Plenty of guns at important battles could make the difference between a victory and a loss.

Cannons on the battlefield operated in general by one format. Horses would pull the cannon, and a few more horses would pull a box with ammunition and a spare wheel. There were wagons, an ambulance and several other vehicles to a battery. There were several men needed to operate a cannon - someone who aims, someone who led the horses, someone in charge of ammunition and an overall commander. There were about five other men doing various jobs to make sure the cannon operated, was loaded, cleaned and fired.


Gun technology was in a time of transition during the Civil War, but tactics were not as updated yet - in fact, most guns (besides handguns) could have bayonets, a tactic that should have been outdated. Soldiers lined up in tight lines to maximise firing power, but that also made them easy targets. Weapons that fired longer distances and more accurately killed many more people when the enemy was in a tight formation.

At the beginning of the war, muzzle-loading muskets were most popularly used, as there weren't many better weapons, and muskets were cheap. The most popular gun in the Union was the Springfield, which was also popularly used in the South after the Confederates raided the US Armory at Harpers Ferry. The Enfield, an imported British gun, was another popular musket. European weapons sometimes tore up the soldiers' hands, and so they preferred Springfields.

Of course, all soldiers preferred to have rifles, as a musketed man against a rifle armed soldier would suffer the disadvantage of a closer range, and being fired at more often. The cavalry units generally had even longer range weapons, such as short-barrelled carbines, shooting things up to 200 yards away. These guns never really worked for the Confederacy. In the Union cavalry, the Spencer Repeating Rifle was extremely useful for firing on the enemy, and the Confederates were scared of it. The Henry Repeating Rifle held 16 shots and was even more deadly when used by Union men.


Ironclads were the only major naval development that came out of the Civil War. Though the first ironclads in the war weren't the first ironclads ever, they made wooden ships obsolete and forever after naval warfare would be decided by ironclad ships. This was put to test by Confederates as the war went on and the blockade became more complete.


Fighting the war wasn't really glamourous. Sitting in trenches, being bloody and shooting at other men wasn't nearly as romantic as the movies show it to be. However, men mounted on horses seemed above it all, whether they were part of a cavalry unit, a high-ranking officer, sending messages or spying.

The South's horses were generally better-bred than northern horses. The South also used its horses more effectively, launching raids through northern towns. One might expect that, looking through a biography of George McClellan, he would have given the army a cavalry advantage. He had created a saddle that was commonly used in war, and wrote the regulations for cavalry units in the Union. However, he treated his cavalry poorly when he was in charge.

'JEB' Stuart was in charge of Confederate cavalry in many battles, including important roles in First Bull Run and Gettysburg. Cavalry men in the South cut off communications during the siege of Vicksburg and of Petersburg. They raided and stopped raids. They ran ahead of infantry and gathered information of the strength of any opposing army. They coordinated attacks between armies and watched the movements of enemies. They were absolutely vital for both sides winning battles and fighting an effective war.

As well as these folks, important officers rode on horses.

  • Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson rode Old Sorrel when he was killed.

  • Robert E Lee's favourite horse was Traveller. He was probably the best-known horse of the war, and a book was even written showing the war through his eyes.

  • Virginia was the companion of 'JEB' Stuart, and possibly saved him from capture when he jumped a ditch.

  • Ulysses S Grant's favourite horse was Cincinnati, given to him late in the war.

  • Joseph Hooker gained a horse in Chattanooga and named it Lookout after one part of the battle.

  • George McClellan rode Bums and Kentuck, though Kentuck was probably the favorite.

  • George Meade rode into his greatest battle, and the greatest battle of the war, Gettysburg, on Baldy. Baldy had been wounded previously at Antietam and First Bull Run.

Further Reading

1Basically speaking, this list is every major American war except the Civil War and World War II. However, including World War II, the Civil War cost only about 20,000 less lives than all other American wars combined. The point is that it killed more Americans than any war, and about as many as the rest of the wars combined.2...while the Confederates named their battles after the towns a battle was near. This Entry will generally use the Union's system, because as we all know, history is written by the victors (not to give away the ending).3Making a popular nickname of the war, 'The War of Northern Aggression' that much more apt.

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