The US Civil War (1861-1865) was the great psychological scar on US society during the 19th Century. The war symbolised the turning point for the multitude of political tensions that divided US society during this century. These political tensions exploded into open warfare between the states following the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States at the 1860 Presidential Election. The war divided the country, states, neighbours and even families. Millions of men were mobilised, cities were destroyed, and slavery – a politically divisive issue for decades – was abolished. The war ended with the North victorious and the South in ruins. America became more truly a ‘United States’, with railway lines and telegraph lines binding together the country from its eastern to its western coasts.
Political Tensions in Antebellum America
American society was sharply divided in the antebellum period, the decades immediately preceding the Civil War. Its western and southern borders expanded outwards as the expanding American population sought land and prosperity at the expense of the Native American tribes and neighbouring Mexico, and by purchasing the French and Spanish colonial territories in the South (the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ and Florida respectively). In the north, the US shared as a common border with the emerging nation of Canada, with their common border extending westwards to the Pacific Ocean as both countries expanded rapidly at the expense of the Native American Tribes.
The Presidential Election of 1860
The slavery issue, and in the particular the balance of power in Congress, came to a head in the 1860 Presidential Election. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate, championed a moderate anti-slavery position – namely that slavery should be permitted in those states where it was currently legal but that all new states should be admitted to the Union as ‘free states’. Opposed by a fragmented Democratic Party fielding rival candidates, Lincoln won an outright majority of Electoral College votes to be declared President.
Incensed by Lincoln’s victory, southern states began to secede. Following the election in November 1860 and Lincoln’s inauguration in February 1861, seven states seceded from the Union and declared themselves to be the Confederate States of America. Four ‘border’ states joined the Confederacy following Lincoln’s call for the reclaiming of federal property seized within the Confederate states after his inauguration. The ‘rebel’ states began to mobilise to resist an expected military intervention by the Federal government.
The Land Campaigns
The initial armed confrontations were assumed by both sides to be sufficient to force the opposing side to back down. After a wave of seizures of Federal property across the Confederate states, South Carolina moved to take control of Fort Sumter, a Federal fort in Charleston Harbour. Outgoing President Buchannan had issued orders for Federal troops to avoid bloodshed and to peacefully hand over their installations to local Confederate forces. In contrast, following his inauguration, Lincoln reversed this policy. He ordered Fort Sumter’s commander to resist. The garrison withstood a short siege before being forced to surrender in April 1861. President Lincoln began mobilising an army to compel the Southern states to re-join the Union.
Technology of War
forces and material that could obtain. The Northern or Union forces retained control of the US Regular Army and US Navy. However, these forces were relatively small and many capable officers resigned their commissions to join the Confederacy. Each state, North or South, could mobilise forces through a tradition of state militias, wartime volunteers, and the work of military schools – a class of educational institution that offered general liberal education and a military education to young men of middle and upper class backgrounds. Therefore, the armies comprised officers and enlisted men with generalised military knowledge (and a few men with significant experience and competency) but it took several years of war to hone the rival armies into effective military instruments. Along the way, commanders attempted to implement a theoretical knowledge of military tactics that was founded upon the campaigns and military technology of the Napoleonic Wars. The result was often disastrous, as attacking forces arrayed in large formations and attacked across open ground – exposed to the mass rifle and artillery fire of troops who were equipped with weapons that possessed greater range and rapidity of re-loading unknown to the armies of the Napoleonic Wars.
The US Civil War occurred in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, providing rival commanders with technologies and resources unknown by commanders in earlier wars. Railways and steam-powered ships could shift troops and supplies from place to place with greater speed and in greater numbers of troops and greater volumes of supplies than before. Telegraph systems united Presidents with Generals, and Generals with field commanders. Whilst industrialised outputs, modern weapons and iron-clad ships revolutionised the conduct of war – and brought about wartime casualties figures that outnumbered all US wartime casualties from all other wars combined (1,030,000 casualties or 3% of the population).
For several years after the war, Union forces remained in occupation of the former Confederate States. Eventually all states were re-admitted to the Union, and its leaders and citizens re-incorporated into US Society. This process was facilitated by a decision not to extract vengeance for the war by the victorious North, whether by oppressing the South or imprisoning its leaders. This policy was maintained despite the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Confederate sympathisers in April 1865.
As for the issue that had divided the country, slavery was declared illegal in the United States. Initially fearful of alienating slave owners in those states that remained in the Union, Lincoln resisted attempts to emancipate slaves in the early part of the war. However, following the Union success at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln felt that he had the necessary political support to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. This proclamation was followed by the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 – which declared slavery illegal, and granted authority to Congress to pass laws to ensure enforcement of the slavery prohibition.
|Title:Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States.
Date:8 November 1863
Photographer: Alexander Gardner
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Copyright statement: This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.
|Title:Jefferson Davis, ca. 1860 – ca. 1865
Source: This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, catalogued under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 528293.
Photographer: Matthew Brady
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Copyright statement: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.