In the spring of 1861, decades of simmering tensions between the northern and southern United States over issues including states' rights versus federal authority, westward expansion and slavery exploded into the American Civil War (1861-65). The election of the anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede from the Union to form the Confederate States of America; four more joined them after the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Four years of brutal conflict were marked by historic battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, among others. The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, pitted neighbor against neighbor and in some cases, brother against brother. By the time it ended in Confederate surrender in 1865, the Civil War proved to be the costliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and the population and territory of the South devastated.
More to Explore
People and Groups
This Day in History
During the Civil War, West Virginia is admitted into the Union as the 35th U.S. state, or the 24th state if the secession of the 11 Southern states were…
Slavery and its legacy have shaped American history, from the Civil War to Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s to the struggle over civil rights a century later.
The 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War and emancipated the South's African-American slaves.
In July 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.
In 1860-61, after years of rising tensions, 11 southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, leading to the American Civil War.
Did You Know?
Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his famous nickname, "Stonewall," from his steadfast defensive efforts in the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). At Chancellorsville, Jackson was shot by one of his own men, who mistook him for Union cavalry. His arm was amputated, and he died from pneumonia eight days later.
Civil War Background
In the mid-19th century, while the United States was experiencing an era of tremendous growth, a fundamental economic difference existed between the country's northern and southern regions. While in the North, manufacturing and industry was well established, and agriculture was mostly limited to small-scale farms, the South's economy was based on a system of large-scale farming that depended on the labor of black slaves to grow certain crops, especially cotton and tobacco. Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North after the 1830s and northern opposition to slavery's extension into the new western territories led many southerners to fear that the existence of slavery in america--and thus the backbone of their economy--was in danger.
In 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict. Pro- and anti-slavery forces struggled violently in "Bleeding Kansas," while opposition to the act in the North led to the formation of the Republican Party, a new political entity based on the principle of opposing slavery's extension into the western territories. After the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857) confirmed the legality of slavery in the territories, the abolitionist John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859 convinced more and more southerners that their northern neighbors were bent on the destruction of the "peculiar institution" that sustained them. Lincoln's election in November 1860 was the final straw, and within three months seven southern states--South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas--had seceded from the United States.
Outbreak of the Civil War (1861)
Even as Lincoln took office in March 1861, Confederate forces threatened the federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12, after Lincoln ordered a fleet to resupply Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War. Sumter's commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after less than two days of bombardment, leaving the fort in the hands of Confederate forces under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Four more southern states--Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee--joined the Confederacy after Fort Sumter. Border slave states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland did not secede, but there was much Confederate sympathy among their citizens.
Though on the surface the Civil War may have seemed a lopsided conflict, with the 23 states of the Union enjoying an enormous advantage in population, manufacturing (including arms production) and railroad construction, the Confederates had a strong military tradition, along with some of the best soldiers and commanders in the nation. They also had a cause they believed in: preserving their long-held traditions and institutions, chief among these being slavery. In the First Battle of Bull Run (known in the South as First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, 35,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson forced a greater number of Union forces (or Federals) to retreat towards Washington, D.C., dashing any hopes of a quick Union victory and leading Lincoln to call for 500,000 more recruits. In fact, both sides' initial call for troops had to be widened after it became clear that the war would not be a limited or short conflict.
The Civil War in Virginia (1862)
George B. McClellan--who replaced the aging General Winfield Scott as supreme commander of the Union Army after the first months of the war--was beloved by his troops, but his reluctance to advance frustrated Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, McClellan finally led his Army of the Potomac up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, capturing Yorktown on May 4. The combined forces of Robert E. Lee and Jackson successfully drove back McClellan's army in the Seven Days' Battles (June 25-July 1), and a cautious McClellan called for yet more reinforcements in order to move against Richmond. Lincoln refused, and instead withdrew the Army of the Potomac to Washington. By mid-1862, McClellan had been replaced as Union general-in-chief by Henry W. Halleck, though he remained in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Lee then moved his troops northwards and split his men, sending Jackson to meet Pope's forces near Manassas, while Lee himself moved separately with the second half of the army. On August 29, Union troops led by John Pope struck Jackson's forces in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The next day, Lee hit the Federal left flank with a massive assault, driving Pope's men back towards Washington. On the heels of his victory at Manassas, Lee began the first Confederate invasion of the North. Despite contradictory orders from Lincoln and Halleck, McClellan was able to reorganize his army and strike at Lee on September 14 in Maryland, driving the Confederates back to a defensive position along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg. On September 17, the Army of the Potomac hit Lee's forces (reinforced by Jackson's) in what became the war's bloodiest single day of fighting. Total casualties at Antietam numbered 12,410 of some 69,000 troops on the Union side, and 13,724 of around 52,000 for the Confederates. The Union victory at Antietam would prove decisive, as it halted the Confederate advance in Maryland and forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. Still, McClellan's failure to pursue his advantage earned him the scorn of Lincoln and Halleck, who removed him from command in favor of Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside's assault on Lee's troops near Fredericksburg on December 13 ended in heavy Union casualties and a Confederate victory; he was promptly replaced by Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, and both armies settled into winter quarters across the Rappahannock River from each other.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up
Classroom Study Guides
Teacher's Guide to the program covering the last few weeks of the Civil War, from President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, to the surrender at Appomatox, the assassination of Lincoln, and the final laying down of arms by the Confederacy.
Teacher's Guide to the program dramatically exploring the events, meaning, and significance of the watershed battle at Antietam.
Classroom companion for the new HISTORY series Vietnam in HD.