American Civil War

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The American Civil War (1861–1865), also known as the War Between the States and several other names, was a civil war in the United States of America. Eleven Southern slave states declared their secession from the U.S. and formed the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). Led by Jefferson Davis, they fought against the U.S. federal government (the "Union"), which was supported by all the free states and the five slaveholding border states.


  • It is a revolution; a revolution of the most intense character; in which belief in the justice, prudence, and wisdom of secession is blended with the keenest sense of wrong and outrage, and it can no more be checked by human effort for the time than a prairie fire by a gardener’s watering pot.
    • Judah P. Benjamin, Senator from Louisiana, on the secession movement in the South (1860). Reported in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (1950), p. 387.
  • We know that if Mexico is acquired, the South will demand it for slavery and the North for free institutions. We must forego, for the present, new conquests, unless the love of acquisition is stronger than the love of domestic peace.

    Suppose it to be conceded that the Constitution should be amended, what amendment will satisfy the South? Nothing less than the protection of slavery in the territories. But our people have pronounced against it. All who voted for Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Douglas — over 3,300,000 citizens — voted against this claim. Less than 1 million voted for it. Should the great majority yield to a meager minority, especially under threats of disunion? This minority demand that slavery be protected by the Constitution. Our fathers would not allow the word 'slave' or 'slavery' in the Constitution, when all the states but one were slaveholding. Shall we introduce these words when a majority of the states are free and when the progress of civilization has arrayed the world against slavery? If the love of peace, and ease, and office should tempt politicians and merchants to do it, the people will rebel. I assure you, whatever may be the consequence, they will not yield their moral convictions by strengthening the influence of slavery in this country.

    Recent events have only deepened this feeling. The struggle to establish slavery in Kansas; the frequent murders and mobbings, in the South, of Northern citizens; the present turbulence and violence of Southern society; the manifest fear of freedom of speech and of the press; the danger of insurrection; and now the attempt to subvert the government rather than submit to a constitutional election — these events — disguise it as you may, have aroused a counterirritation in the North that will not allow its representatives to yield, merely for peace, more than is prescribed by the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Every guarantee of this instrument ought to be faithfully and religiously observed. But when it is proposed to change it, to secure new guarantees to slavery, to extend and protect it, you awake and arouse the antislavery feeling of the North to war against slavery everywhere....

    Without disrespect to South Carolina, it would be easy to show that Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Insurrection involved the government in greater danger than the solitary secession of South Carolina. But the movement becomes imposing when we are assured that several powerful states will very soon follow in the lead of South Carolina; and when we know that other states, still more powerful, sympathize with the seceding states, to the extent of opposing, and perhaps resisting, the execution of the laws [of the United States] in the seceding states....

    Disunion is war! God knows, I do not threaten it, for I seek to prevent it in every way possible. I speak but the logic of facts, which we should not conceal from each other....

    If war results, what a war it will be! Contemplate the North and South in hostile array against each other. If these sections do not know each other now, they will then.

    We are a nation of military men, naturally turbulent because we are free, accustomed to arms, ingenious, energetic, brave, and strong. The same qualities that have enabled a single generation of men to develop the resources of a continent would enable us to destroy more rapidly than we have constructed....

    How can we avert a calamity at which humanity and civilization shudder? I know no way but to cling to the government framed by our fathers, to administer it in a spirit of kindness but, in all cases, without partiality to enforce the laws.... Let us cling to each other in the hope that our differences will pass away, as they often have in times past. For the sake of peace, for the love of civil liberty, for the honor of our name, our race, our religion, let us preserve the Union, loving it better as the clouds grow darker. I am willing to unite with any man... who is willing to rely on the Constitution as it is for his rights, and who is willing to maintain and defend the Union under all circumstances, against all enemies, at home or abroad.
    • Rep. John Sherman (Republican-Ohio), letter to Philadelphians (December 22, 1860). He sent a copy to his brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, who would later command the Union armies in the West.
  • If the confederacy is broken up, the government is dissolved, and it behooves every distinct community, as well as every individual, to take care of themselves.

    When disunion has become a fixed and certain act, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master.... Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a free city, may shed only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed confederacy.
    • New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, address to the City Council, recommending that, with the Southern states seceding from the United States, New York City should become an independent city-state (1861).
  • Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern states that, by the accession of a Republican administration, their property and peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension....

    I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these states is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law (constitution) for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever....

    Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by the constitutional checks and limitations... is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism....

    No State upon its mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.... There needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forded upon the national authority....

    In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it.

The First Shots Are Fired: Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861)

  • Fort Sumter has been on fire. [Union Army Major] Anderson [the commanding officer of Fort Sumter] has not yet silenced any of our guns.... But the sound of these guns makes regular meals impossible.
  • Showers of [cannon] balls... and shells... poured into the fort in one incessant stream, causing great flakes of masonry to fall in all directions. When the immense mortar shells, after sailing high in he air, came down in a vertical direction and buried themselves in the parade ground, their explosion shook the fort like an earthquake.
    • Major Abner Doubleday (1861). Doubleday was second-in-command at Fort Sumter and briefly commanded Union troops at Gettysburg in July 1863. He was later credited with establishing the rules of baseball.

The North Responds to the Attack on Fort Sumter

  • Monday dawned, April 15. Who that saw that day will ever forget it! For now... there rang out the voice of Abraham Lincoln calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months. They were for the protection of Washington and the property of the government... This proclamation was like the first peal of a surcharged thunder-cloud, clearing the murky air. The... whole North arose as one man.

    Hastily formed companies marched to camps of rendezvous, the sunlight flashing from gun-barrel and bayonet.... Merchants and clerks rushed out from stores, bareheaded, saluting them as they passed. Windows were flung up; and women leaned out into the rain, waving flags and handkerchiefs. Horsde-cars and omnibuses halted for the passage of the soldiers, and cheer upon cheer leaped forth from thronged doors and windows....

    I have never seen anything like this before. I had never dreamed that New England... could be fired with so warlike a spirit.
    • Mary Ashton Livermore, observing the mustering of troops in Boston (1861).
  • We, on our side, are praying to [God] to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray to Him, look for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?
  • Forward to Richmond!
    • Demand of the New York Tribune that the Federals start attacking the Confederates (1861).
  • We shall crush out this rebellion as an elephant would trample on a mouse.
    • Overconfident Union supporter at the start of the Civil War (1861).

The South Responds to the Start of the Civil War

  • If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes,... then I will follow my native state with my sword and, if need be, with my life.
    • U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, before Virginia joined the Confederacy (1861).
  • With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling and loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State — with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be used — I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.
    • Robert E. Lee of Virginia, Colonel, U.S. Army, on resigning his commission (1861). He was soon appointed to the Virginia Militia and later headed the Confederate Army.
  • Just throw three or four shells among these blue-bellied Yankees and they'll scatter like sheep.
    • Anonymous overconfident Confederate supporter (1861).

War Aims

  • We seek no conquest. All we ask is to be left alone.
    • Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the war aims of the Confederacy (1861).
  • We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
    • President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863).

The First Major Battle: Bull Run (July 21, 1861)

  • Woh-who-ey! Who-ey!
    • The "Rebel Yell" shouted by Confederate troops in the attack (1861).
  • There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it.
    • A Union soldier, on the Rebel Yell (1861).
  • Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians.
    • Confederate Gen. Bernard Elliott Bee at the First Battle of Bull Run, in a comment that gave Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson the nickname "Stonewall" (1861).
  • Soon the slopes... were swarming with our retreating and disorganized forces, while riderless horses and artillery [horse] teams ran furiously through the flying crowd. All further efforts were futile. The words, gestures, and threats of our officers were thrown away upon men who had lost all presence of mind, and only longed for absence of body [from the field of battle].
    • Union Colonel Andrew Porter, on the rout of the initially-overconfident Federal troops that ended the Battle of Bull Run (1861).
  • It is best for the country and for mankind that we make peace with the rebels, and on their own terms...
    • Advice for President Lincoln from Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, following the Union defeat at Bull Run (1861).

The Peninsula Campaign (April-July 1862)

  • My dear McClellan: If you don't want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.
    • Pres. Lincoln, unsent letter to Gen. George McClellan, the inactive commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac (1862).
  • I was left alone on horseback, with my men dropping around me.... My field [staff] officers... were all dead. Every horse ridden into the fight, my own among them, was dead. Fully one half of my line officers and half my men were dead or wounded.

The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia (December 13, 1862)

  • A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.
    • General E.P. Alexander, Lee's engineer and superintendent of artillery, before the Union attack on Fredericksburg (1862); reported in Bim Sherman, The Century (1886), p. 617.
  • Gone were the proud hopes, the high aspirations that swelled our bosoms a few days ago.... [The army] has strong limbs to march and meet the foe, stout arms to strike heavy blows, brave hearts to dare — but the brains, the brains! Have we no brains to use the arms and limbs and eager hearts with cunning?
    • Union Army private William Lusk, letter home after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, blaming Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. The Federal attacks against high ground south of the Rappahannock River, strongly held by the Confederates, cost it 12,000 casualties (1862).

The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1863)

  • Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it.
    • President Lincoln, regretting the failure of Union Army commanders to destroy the Confederate Army before it could recross the Potomac and retreat into the safety of northern Virginia (1863).

The Siege of Vicksburg (June-July 1863)

  • If you can't feed us, you had better surrender, horrible as the idea is, than suffer this noble army to disgrace themselves by desertion.
    • A Confederate soldier besieged at Vicksburg to the Confederate commander (1863).

The Eastern Front (1863-1865)

  • I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.
    • Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, during the campaign in Virginia (May 11, 1864), commanding Union forces, on his intention to keep up offensive operations in Virginia, in contrast with his predecessors.
  • This is not war, this is murder.
    • Confederate general after viewing Union dead in the Battle of Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864).
  • We have met a man this time, who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole army.
    • Southern officer, reflecting on Grant, the new Northern commander (1864).
  • Leave nothing to invite the enemy to return.... Let the valley be left so that crows flying over it will have to carry their rations long with them.
    • Federal Commander Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, instructions for Gen. Philip Sheridan for his invasion of the Shenandoah Valley in northwestern Virginia (1864).
  • If [Georgians] raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.
    • Gen. William T. Sherman (1864), whose Western Army invaded Georgia and waged total war against the Confederacy, destroying cities and property along a band 60 miles wide during his march to the seacoast at Savannah (September-December 1864).
  • I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.
    • General Sherman to President Lincoln (December 22, 1864), following his capture of the seacoast city of Savannah, Georgia.

Lee's Surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865)

  • Let all the men who claim to own a horse or mule [with the Confederate Army] take the animals home with them to work their little farms."
    • Grant to Lee at Appomattox (1865).
  • This will do much toward conciliating our people."
    • Lee to Grant, on the latter permitting Confederate troops take their horses home to be farm animals (1865).
  • At a little before 4 o'clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant... and with Colonel Marshall left the room.... Lee gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay — now an army of prisoners....

    All [Union officers present] appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of everyone who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial....

    "General Grant... saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded....

    The news of the surrender had reached the Union lines, and the firing of salutes began at several points, but the general sent orders at once to have them stopped, and used these words...: 'The war is over, the Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.'
    • Gen. Horace Porter, account of the Confederate Surrender at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865).
  • I have done for you all that it was in my power to do. You have done all your duty. Leave the result to God. Go to your homes and resume your occupations. Obey the laws and become as good citizens as you were soldiers.
    • General Robert E. Lee to the men of the Army of Northern Virginia, following the surrender (1865).

The War on the Home Front

  • The war has stimulated the genius of our people and directed it to the service of our country. Sixty-six new inventions relating to engines, implements, and articles of warfare have been illustrated in our columns....

    Other departments of industry have also been well represented. Our inventors have not devoted themselves exclusively to the invention of destructive implements; they have also cultivated the arts of peace.
    • Scientific American magazine, year-end summary for 1861.
  • We have reproached the South for arbitrary conduct in coercing their people; at last we find we must imitate their example. We have denounced their tyranny for filling their armies with conscripts, and now we must follow their example. We have denounced their tyranny in suppressing freedom of speech and the press, and here, too, in time, we must follow their example. The longer it is deferred the worse it becomes.

    I say with the press unfettered as now we are defeated to the end of time. 'Tis folly to say the people must have news.
    • Letter from Union Gen. William T. Sherman to his brother John Sherman (1863).

The Antiwar Movement in the North

  • How are you my Abe? Is the list nearly filled
    Of the sick men and dying of wounded and killed
    Of widows and tears, or orphans unfed
    Of poor honest white men struggling for bread?
    'Dear Devil,' quoth Abe, 'I'm doing my best
    To promote the interest of you and the rest.
    • "Abe's Visitor," a poem published in a Democrat newspaper in Pennsylvania.
  • I will not consent to put the entire purse of the country and the sword of the country into the hands of the executive, giving him despotic and dictatorial power to carry out an object which I avow before my countrymen is the destruction of their liberties and the overthrow of the Union of these states....

    The charge has been made against us — all who are opposed to the policy of this administration and opposed to this war — that we are for 'peace on any terms.' It is false.... I am for peace, and would be, even if the Union could not be restored... because without peace, permitting this administration for two years to exercise its tremendous powers, the war still existing, you will not have one remnant of civil liberty left among yourselves. The exercise of these tremendous powers, the apology for which is the existence of this war, is utterly incompatible with the stability of the Constitution and of constitutional liberty.
    • Rep. Clement L. Vallandingham (D-Ohio), leader of the “Copperhead" antiwar Democrats, in a speech to the Democrat Union Association of New York (1863).

The War and Slavery

  • On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one... intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel... that the rebellion, if crushed tomorrow, would be renewed if slavery were left in full vigor... and that every hour of deference to slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the Union.
  • If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it be freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
    • Pres. Lincoln, reply to Horace Greeley (1862).
  • We the colored citizens of Queens County, N.Y., having met in mass meeting... take the present opportunity to express our opinions most respectfully and freely....
    Why not declare slavery abolished and favor our peaceful colonization in the Rebel states, or some portion of them?... We would cheerfully return there and give our most willing aid to deliver our loyal colored brethren and other Unionists from the tyranny of rebels to our government."
    • Petition of the Colored Citizens of Queens County (1862).

African Americans Recruited for the Army

  • Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters. U.S.; let him get an edge on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.
    • Frederick Douglass, whose sons Charles and Lewis served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1862).
  • Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidently asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers; they would lack courage, and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were these apprehensions.
  • We congratulate the American people upon your reelection by a large majority. If resistance to the slave power was the reserved watchword of your first administration, the triumphant war cry of your reelection is 'Death to slavery.'

    From the commencement of the titanic American strife, the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class....

    The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American antislavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded so of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
    • Letter of the Communist International to President Lincoln (1864).
  • Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step over the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! -- All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a Thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
    • President Lincoln (1861).

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