American Civil War – 1861-1865

The young nation that was the United States of America grew vigorously in the decades following independence; but beneath the Confidence and optimism a canker festered in the body politic. The affirmations of the founding fathers that everyone had a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ rang hollow for the underclass of black slaves on which much of American society was constructed. Whereas the more affluent, enlightened farmers and industrialists of the North forswore slavery and advocated its abolition, the conservative states of the South, where slave-owning had become a key element of the cotton-growing economy, were fiercely resistant to any challenges to the status quo. Conflict was almost inevitable, especially after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 from the newly formed (and anti-slavery) Republican Party.

In 1861 11 Southern states, led by South Carolina, seceded from the Union and formed a breakaway government known as the Confederacy. The four-year civil war that followed saw the bitterest and most bloody fighting ever to take place on American soil. That the war lasted as long as it did, given the overwhelming superiority of the Union in both manpower and resources, was due to the more skillful leadership displayed by the Confederate generals in its early years. The turning point came in July 1863 when the North struck two decisive blows: taking control of the Mississippi River, they effectively split the Southern forces in two; and, in the defining battle of the war, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Union army halted the Confederacy’s advance north, though not without heavy casualties on both sides. When the Confederacy capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the North in early April 1865 the final surrender soon followed, bringing to an end a devastating conflict which has left deep and lasting incisions in the American psyche.

When: 1861-1865

Where: USA, especially the Deep South

Death toll: Some 620,000 Americans died in the Civil war, of which 200,000, or one third, were killed in action; the remainder died from various diseases.

You should know: The trauma of the Civil War may live on, but so do the many legends it gave birth to, with the names of generals such as Ulysses Grant (later US president) and William Sherman (Union), and Robert E Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (Confederacy), preserved for ever in the nation’s memory.

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