The American Civil War officially began April 12, 1861, but it had been a long time coming. The first shots were fired in South Carolina as the Confederacy took Fort Sumpter. The South won many of the early battles – and even some of the later ones – but ultimately lost the war. That’s why the United States stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific today, and the Confederacy is just a memory.
The War Begins
The war began after several southern states left the U.S. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, leaving on December 20, 1860. The next six – Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas – followed shortly after. They came together and formed the Confederate States of America, wrote a constitution, and elected Jefferson Davis as their president.
In May 1861, after Union President Abraham Lincoln demanded the remaining states send men to fight in the war, three more states included Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina seceded.
The Border States
Tennessee joined the Confederacy in July of 1861 and was the final state to fully secede. There were other controversial states, called border states, that didn’t seem to pick a side. Missouri and Kentucky never officially left the Union, but these two states had people fighting for both sides, and both states were counted by both the Union and the Confederacy as members.
The Lincoln administration considered the four border states critical to the Union winning the war. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri all served as buffers between the North and the South. Thanks to major waterways and other geographical advantages, losing those states could have meant losing the war.
Round One to the Confederacy
One of the biggest events of the early war was the First Battle of Bull Run – though it was called the First Battle of Manassas by the South. On July 22, the two armies fought what is considered by most to be the first major battle. The Confederacy won decisively, despite being outnumbered, and it was here that General Thomas Jackson earned the nickname Stonewall Jackson.
Not only were federal troops routed and sent back toward Washington, D.C., but dozens of observers – including some congressmen – had to flee as well. They had been so convinced the Union would win that they had brought snacks and set up picnics to watch!
The Union Army of the Potomac tried to take Richmond, Virginia, in the spring of 1862, but Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia and ended that campaign. He won the Second Battle of Bull Run in August of 1862, but then tried to end the war by invading Maryland. He failed, losing the Battle of Antietam, and retreated back to Virginia.
Emancipation and the Changing Tide
On September 22, 1862, shortly after the Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which said that all slaves in the Confederacy “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Some mistakenly see this as the legal end of slavery, but it didn’t apply to the slave states that had remained in the Union – it only mandated freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. While Lincoln’s views on slavery were changing, this was chiefly a military strategy. The war had not been going well for the Union until this victory, and the Proclamation shifted the public opinion of the Civil War. It went from being about forcing rogue states to rejoin the Union to being about ending slavery.
The Fight on the Water
A good deal of the fighting took place on the water, both at sea and on the major rivers, but the Union Navy was far superior to that of the Confederacy. President Lincoln put the South under blockade, meaning that the Union Navy didn’t let any ships in or out of southern ports. Fast ships called blockade runners defied the Union to bring in supplies, including weapons, from European allies of the South.
Gettysburg and the Beginning of the End
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. It is considered the most important battle of the entire war. It was the bloodiest, and it was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. It also represented a great threat to the Union. Had General Lee won the battle, many believe he would have then been able to take Baltimore, Maryland – or maybe even Washington D.C. The battle was critical to Lee, as he hoped to use the victory to gain more support in Europe and to get the Confederacy recognized as a legitimate nation.
But none of what may have been came to pass, as Lee ordered a doomed charge to rush the federal line and lost nearly a third of his army.
There were over 55,000 casualties at Gettysburg – more than any other single battle in the war. It inspired President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. And while the fighting lasted for another two years, this defeat was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The South never recovered, militarily or psychologically, and the Confederacy fought a mostly defensive war from that point on.
The War Ends, and Reconstruction Begins
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Even then, not everyone was ready to stop fighting. Other Confederate groups continued to resist, though the last official army was disbanded when General Edmund Kirby Smith signed the surrender terms offered by the Union on June 2. Still, some groups fought on.