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U.S. Civil War

Civil War, U.S. (1861–65), conflict between 11 Southern states (Confederate States of America) and the U.S. federal government (Union). Because the 11 states had attempted to secede from the Union, in the North the conflict was officially called the War of the Rebellion. Since the war was a sectional struggle, North against South, it is sometimes also known as the War Between the States.


The economy of the South was based on the plantation system of agriculture, which absolutely depended on slave labor. Great staple crops—cotton, tobacco, sugar, and rice—were grown largely for export. The North had no need for slavery; its agriculture, which produced corn and wheat largely for subsistence and internal consumption, was based on small family farms; its industry and towns were expanding rapidly, and it welcomed European immigrants in large numbers to supply its growing labor needs. Political differences came to a head over the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the newly settled western territories, soon to become states. The Missouri Compromise (1820) was the first attempt to ease North-South tensions by admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and forbidding slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of latitude 30°30'. As a long-term solution it failed because expansion continued westward, raising the issue again and more acutely, and also because of the growth of abolitionism in the North.

The admission to the Union of the huge slave state of Texas (1845) and the resultant Mexican War renewed the fears of Southern political dominance and the possible extension of slave territory. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to solve the problem, but it was nullified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave the residents of those territories the right to vote on whether or not slavery would be permitted. This opened the way for opponents and supporters of slavery to begin a virtual civil war in “Bleeding Kansas.” The Dred Scott Decision (1857) further inflamed the problem as the Supreme Court's decision had the effect of declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The presidential election of 1860 raised the fears of the South as Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the newly formed Republican party, was known to be opposed to the further extension of slavery. Lincoln declared: “My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery,” but South Carolina voted to secede from the Union (Dec. 20, 1860) and was followed by 6 more states by Feb. 1861. Representatives met at Montgomery, Ala., to draw up a constitution for these Confederate states and elected Jefferson Davis provisional president. When Lincoln announced he was sending supplies to the federal garrison of Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, Confederate guns opened fire on the fort (Apr. 12), which surrendered 2 days later. The outbreak of hostilities drove 4 more slave states (North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee) into the Confederacy.

First phase of the war—Union defeats

The capture of the Confederate capital seemed the natural objective, and the first rallying cry of the North was “On to Richmond.” This simple aim of frontal attack led to the first major encounter, at Bull Run (July 21, 1861), and the Federals were routed. In the meantime the North blockaded the South, but chances of capturing a Southern blockade runner were rated at 1 in 10 and 800 vessels got through in the first year. The blockade, however, became increasingly effective. In Apr. the Union fleet under David Farragut took New Orleans, the first of many essential ports to fall to the North. Northern General George McClellan's Peninsular Campaign (1862) nearly reached Richmond but ended in defeat in the Battles of the Seven Days, and Southern General Robert E. Lee was again victorious at the second Battle of Bull Run. This opened the way for a Confederate invasion of Maryland that was thwarted by a Union victory at Antietam, and Lincoln seized the political initiative by issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (Sept. 1862) promising freedom to slaves held in the Confederacy. The year closed with a shattering defeat for the Union at Fredericksburg, Va.

Second phase—the Confederacy crushed

The first Union victories had come in the West in 1862, when General Ulysses S. Grant took forts Henry and Donelson, opening the Tennessee River. After the bloody battle of Shiloh, the Federals commanded nearly the entire length of the Mississippi. In 1863 Lee defeated the North at Chancellorsville, but General Stonewall Jackson, one of the ablest Confederate generals, was mortally wounded. Lee struck north into Pennsylvania, but Union forces won the decisive battle of the war after 3 days of costly fighting at Gettysburg (July 1863). On the following day Grant took Vicksburg, which finally gave the Union forces control of the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in two and opening the way for the invasion of Tennessee. Grant's attempt to capture Richmond in 1864 was halted in the Wilderness Campaign, but soon after he began the 9-month siege of Petersburg. Sherman meanwhile moved east from Chattanooga to take Atlanta in September 1864. His army marched through Georgia to the sea, leaving behind it a trail of devastation. The capture of Petersburg and Richmond on Apr. 2, 1865, led to Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomat-tox Court House a week later. Although Confederate forces in the South and West fought on for several weeks, the war was effectively over.

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