The origins and history of the American Civil War are complex and difficult to summarize, but the basic facts regarding the origins and events of the war are as follows. Slavery was present in the American colonies as early as 1619 and became entrenched as the 17th century wore on. Every part of the country was, to some degree, involved in the system: in the southern colonies slaves grew the crops and in the northern colonies these crops were exported to other countries.
Slavery was extremely lucrative for planters and small farmers alike. Racial justifications for the inhumane treatment of Africans became more commonplace, and by the 1800s there was a complete racial separation in the new country. The differences between the North and South became more manifest after the Revolutionary War, especially as abolitionist sentiment for the first time became part of the civic discourse.
After the Constitution established a House of Representatives based on population, southern states began to focus more seriously on the possibility of being outnumbered by free states. They believed that such states were planning to imperil their “peculiar institution,” and starting in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise in which Missouri entered the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, a series of compromises dealing with the precarious balance of these free and slave states took place.
Tensions ratcheted up in the 1850s. New land won in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) was subject to dispute over the expansion of slavery; a stronger Fugitive Slave Act angered the North; the Missouri Compromise was repealed; the Dred Scott case proclaimed African Americans were not citizens and that Congress could not make any laws restricting slavery; Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas” due to violence over whether the territory would allow slavery or not; John Brown became a martyr to the North after he was executed for a failed raid on Harper’s Ferry to incite a slave uprising; Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrified Northerners and vexed Southerners; and in 1860 Abraham Lincoln, who espoused limiting slavery’s expansion and the value of free soil, was elected to the presidency.
Following Lincoln’s election South Carolina seceded from the Union; other states soon joined to create the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as their president. War did not break out until April of 1861 when the Confederates attacked a ship sent to re-provision Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter, located in the Charleston harbor.
The Confederates, or the “Rebels,” seemed to have the advantage at first given their culture’s emphasis on shooting, hunting, and riding, as well as the Union’s difficulty in finding capable generals. Troops on both sides, however, struggled from lack of uniforms, food, and guns; desertions were not infrequent and both sides had to implement a draft. The Union enlisted black soldiers but the Confederacy did not consider this until the very end of the war.
The battle of Antietam in 1863 was a turning point for the Union, and resulted in Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. This declaration could not physically free any slaves but said those within the states in rebellion were free; this gave slaves hope and indicated that the point of the war was not just about preserving the Union but eradicating this system of bondage.
The war dragged on, with both sides occasionally eking out victories. The Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant were much better than they had been, and the industrial might of the North combined with its high population began to pay dividends. In July 1863 Gettysburg and Vicksburg were turning points for the North. Eighteen sixty-four was a tough year for Lincoln and the Republicans, but he managed to win a second presidential term after reports of the capture of Atlanta during General Sherman’s March to the Sea.
After the battle at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865, the Confederates under Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war was finally over. The Union was preserved and slavery was abolished.