United States Civil War
Civil War, U.S.
Civil War, U.S.
Between the years 1861 and 1865, the United States engaged in a civil war, one of the most significant military confrontations in the young republic's life. The conflict dramatically altered the course of American society, eradicating the institution of slavery from the land and accelerating a number of social, economic, and political trends originating in other regions of the country. It also made lasting cultural impressions across imaginative and material American landscapes, including the gradual growth of a complex tourist industry built upon memory, patriotism, and consumerism, and the immediate expression of a deeply rooted, though politically sensitive, religious attachment to a distinctly southern way of life.
The Civil War, however, was a major turning point in American history for another reason as well: it transformed attitudes toward death and practices surrounding the corpse in the United States. While antebellum America demonstrated marked preoccupations with the reality of death in literature, material culture, religion, diaries and letters, and early medicine, the war led to the extreme escalation of certain tendencies emerging on the social scene, as well as to the production of entirely new views on death and the dead. The incredible numbers of young men who died during the war, the problems associated with disposal of their bodies, and the rhetorical and symbolic efforts to make sense of the lives lost had profound consequences for American sensibilities and institutional structures.
The Presence of Death
During the war years, death was a pervasive element of social life in both the northern and southern sections of the country. Up until the war, Americans were quite familiar with the presence of death, intimate with its consequences in their own homes and local communities. Some estimates suggest that in the North, where more accurate records of the period are available, the crude death rate in the antebellum period was around 15 per 1,000 in rural areas, and between 20 and 40 per 1,000 in more populated cities. Most people lived into their late thirties if they survived the exceedingly dangerous early years of life. Chances of dying in childhood were also quite high, according to many studies. Infant mortality hovered around 200 per 1,000 live births, and roughly 10 percent of individuals between one year and twenty-one years died from a wide range of causes.
Despite this close and personal awareness of human mortality, Americans during the Civil War had a radically different set of experiences with death than previously. First and foremost, this conflict produced more deaths than any other war in U.S. history. The total number of deaths for both the North and the South, in the four-year period, was over 600,000. World War II is the only other major conflict that comes close to this number, when over 400,000 individuals died in battles across the ocean.
More demographic information is available for the Northern armies than for the Confederacy, which did not have the resources to keep accurate records on soldiers. According to some historians, roughly one out of sixteen white males in the North between the ages of sixteen and forty-three lost his life during the war. Even more astonishing than the overall mortality rates for the entire conflict are the number for particular battles: During the three-day battle at Gettysburg, for example, 3,155 Union soldiers died; at Antietam, during one day of fighting, the Union lost over 2,000 young men.
The carnage left on these and other sites, for both sides, boggles the mind, and must have been overwhelming to Americans viewing photographs, visiting battlefields, or reading detailed accounts in newspapers. Another significant difference between this war and other wars after the Revolution is the proximity of the battles to American communities. The Civil War not only took place on American soil, it pitted neighbor against neighbor, family against family, countrymen against countrymen.
More threatening to American soldiers during the war than mortal wounds on the battlefield was the presence of disease and infection, which had the potential to seriously reduce the number of fighters on both sides. Nearly twice as many men died as a result of poor health in camps and hospitals than from wounds inflicted during combat. What did soldiers die from? Afflictions such as diarrhea, malaria, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and measles wiped out large numbers of men on both sides of the conflict. The deadly power of disease swept through the ranks because of the incredibly poor conditions in camps, resulting from inadequate shelter, contaminated water supplies, unhealthy diet, and a limited knowledge about proper sanitation and safe hygienic practices. As the war progressed, the Union forces worked especially hard to improve the living conditions of soldiers and patients—death became an urgent public health issue that could be combated with sound, rational decisions about such simple things as clean water, healthy food, and adequate sanitation.
Under wartime conditions, Americans in general, and soldiers in particular, acquired a unique familiarity with human mortality. Regardless of the formidable presence of death in life during the antebellum years, the Civil War posed a series of new challenges for those affected by the carnage— which is to say nearly every American at the time— and produced new attitudes that reflected distinct modifications in how these Americans made sense of death and disposed of their dead. In the midst of war, unorthodox views on death and the dead body emerged out of the entirely unparalleled experience with human violence, suffering, and mortality in U.S. history. On the other hand, some perspectives demonstrated a degree of continuity with more traditional views on the meaning of death, and reinforced deeply rooted religious sensibilities circulating before the onset of the conflict.
Disposing of the Dead
The Civil War forced Americans to reconsider what counts as appropriate treatment of the dead, as well as to reconceptualize the symbolic meanings of the dead body. The confrontation, with brutally slaughtered masses of bodies or hopelessly diseased soldiers dying in hospitals or camps, upset conventional patterns of disposal, as well as established attitudes about communal duties, religious rituals, and personal respect in the face of death. What counted as proper and appropriate action to usher the dead from the land of the living in an earlier time often proved impossible during the conflict, though in some cases efforts were made to treat the dead with a dignity that evoked prewar sensibilities.
In both the Union and Confederate armies, soldiers attempted to provide some kind of burial for fallen comrades who perished during a battle, even if this meant simply covering bodies with dirt, or placing the dead in common graves. The details of burial depended on a variety of circumstances, including which side won a particular battle, and which unit was assigned burial duty. Victors had the luxury of attending to their own dead with more care and attention, if time permitted. On the other hand, the losing side had to retreat from the battlefield, which meant leaving the fate of the dead and wounded to the winning side, who treated them as most enemies are treated, with indifference and disrespect.
If the Union forces controlled the field after a fight, for example, the dead were often buried without ceremony somewhere on or near the site, either individually in separate graves or collectively in common graves. In many cases, those assigned to burial duty—often African Americans, who performed a variety of noxious duties for the Union army—left the dead in their uniforms or placed a blanket around them before interment. If such resources as pine coffins or burial containers were available, and time permitted, soldiers would be placed in them before being put in the ground, a procedure that rarely occurred in the early years of the war. Many soldiers on both sides expressed a great deal of fear that their bodies would be left to the enemy, which was understood as a fate worse than death.
The federal government and Union soldiers themselves tried to ensure that bodies were identified with at least a name, a desire that led some soldiers to go into battle with their names and positions pinned onto their uniform (foreshadowing the popular use of dog tags in subsequent wars). Again, when time allowed and when burial units were available, Union forces made an effort to avoid anonymous burial, identify graves, and keep records of who died during a battle, an effort that grew increasingly more sophisticated as the war dragged on.
In contrast to the lack of ceremony surrounding the disposition of the dead on or near fields of battle, conditions in Union camps and hospitals allowed for more conventional burial practices that maintained older traditions. Reasons for this difference had nothing to do with smaller numbers of dying soldiers in these settings. More men died from disease than wounds inflicted in battle, so there were ample corpses in these locations. Camps and hospitals simply had more resources, personnel, and time to take care of these matters. Many also had space singled out for use as cemeteries, which provided a readily available and organized location for disposal.
General hospitals in larger towns seemed to be settings where more formal funeral observances could be carried out, especially for the Union. In addition to the presence of hospital nurses in these locations, members of the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission made burial of the dead more humane, respectful, and ritually satisfying. According to some firsthand accounts of Union hospitals in Virginia and elsewhere, the dead were given proper burials, which included religious services, the use of a coffin, a military escort from the hospital, the firing of arms, and an individual headboard with information about the deceased.
Regimental hospitals much closer to battlefields, on the other hand, could not offer the kind of attention that larger hospitals provided the dead. Descriptions of death and dying in these locations can be found in a number of soldiers' letters and diaries, anticipating the shifting scenery of expiration from home to hospital. The presence of corpses, as well as other reminders of human mortality like piles of amputated limbs, did not evoke images of order and solemnity. Instead, death and burial had many of the same characteristics as found on fields of battle, though a rudimentary graveyard next to these hospitals allowed for a slightly more organized space for disposing of remains.
In addition to hospitals and battlefields, another location where Civil War dead could be buried included prisons. According to one account of prison burials by a Union soldier incarcerated in Georgia's Andersonville Prison, treatment of the dead followed a fairly regimented set of procedures. These procedures included pinning the name of the deceased on his shirt, transportation to the prison "dead-house," placement on a wagon with twenty to thirty other bodies, and then transferal to the cemetery, where a superintendent overseeing the burial ground would assume responsibilities for ensuring as adequate a burial as possible. Dead prisoners were placed in trenches, usually without any covering, and buried under prison dirt. The location of each body was then marked with a stake at the head identifying the soldier and the date of death.
For family members and friends in the North, the prospect of loved ones dying far away from home, and being interred in what most considered to be profane Southern soil, led to a great deal of anguish and outrage. Indeed, many Northerners were deeply disturbed by this prospect because it upset normal social scripts ingrained in American culture when a family experienced a death. In normal times, death occurred in the home, people had a chance to view the body before it disappeared forever, and burial took place in a familiar space, which usually included previously deceased family members and neighbors. These were not normal times for sure, so some families, particularly the more affluent families in the North, would do whatever they could to bring the body of a loved family member's home, either by making the trip south on their own, or paying someone to locate, retrieve, and ship the body north.
As a result of these desires—to maintain familial control over the final resting place and, if possible, to have one last look before the body vanished—a new form of treating the dead appeared on the social scene, and paved the way for the birth of an entirely modern funeral industry. Undertakers who contracted with Northern families began to experiment with innovative means to preserve bodies that had to be shipped long distances on train cars, often during the hot summer months. The revolutionary practice that emerged in this context, embalming, provided both the military and Northern communities with a scientific, sanitary, and sensible way to move bodies across the land.
Making Sense of Death
In peaceful times, death is often experienced as a painful, disruptive, and confusing moment that requires individuals to draw on strongly held religious convictions about the meaning of life, the fate of the soul, and the stability of an ordered cosmos. During war, when individuals are called to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation and prepare for an early, violent end, the religion of nationalism makes a distinctive mark on meaningmaking efforts circulating throughout public culture. Indeed, the religion of nationalism becomes an integral frame of reference when war breaks out, setting earthly, political conflicts in a cosmic realm of ultimate good battling ultimate evil. In the Civil War, two conflicting visions of American national life came into sharp relief against the backdrop of fields of bloodied bodies and widespread social anguish over the loss of sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands fighting for God and country.
Both Northerners and the Southerners believed God was on their side, and the nation envisioned by each a fulfillment of distinctive Christian commitments and values. Indeed, the blood of martyrs dying in the fight over slavery, and their sacrifices for the preservation of a sacred moral order ordained by God, had curative powers in the mind of many leading figures precisely because the nationalist ideologies of each side relied on Christian imagery and doctrine to justify killing, and being killed, in the service of a higher good. Although certain dead heroic figures had been intimately linked to the destiny of the nation from the Revolutionary War to the attack on Fort Sumter, the U.S. Civil War dramatically altered that linkage, and established a context for imagining innovative ways of making sense of death in American culture.
One concrete example of this innovation was the creation of military cemeteries, a new form of sacred space that gave material expression to religious sensibilities tied to both Christianity and nationalism. First established during the war by the federal government, military cemeteries gave order to death by placing bodies of fallen soldiers in a tidy, permanent, and sacrosanct space that glorified both the war effort and the Christian virtues associated with it. In the midst of the war and in the immediate aftermath these cemeteries made profoundly political statements about Northern power, resources, and determination.
After Congress approved the purchase of land by the government in 1862, twelve new cemeteries located on or near major battlefields, Union camps and hospitals, and other military sites were authorized. Most of them, including Robert E. Lee's estate near the Potomac, were on Southern soil, thereby enhancing the political and sacral weight of each. President Abraham Lincoln articulated the essential meanings undergirding these cemeteries during his dedication speech at Gettysburg. Here Lincoln transformed the bloodied ground and buried lifeless bodies into the rich symbolic soil nourishing Union ideology and American traditions. In the brief speech, Lincoln successfully integrated the fallen soldiers into American mythology, giving them a permanent, holy spot in the physical landscape and assigning them a pivotal, transcendent role in the unfolding of American history. He also gave voice to the incalculable national debt living American citizens owed to the dead.
After the war, the victorious federal government began to ensure that as many Union soldiers as possible were identified and interred in the sacred space of national cemeteries. One of the first postwar national cemeteries was established on the grounds of Andersonville, a site that held profound symbolic meaning for Northerners who, by the end of the war, were outraged by the treatment of federal soldiers there. More than sixty cemeteries owned and operated by the government appeared across the North and South, and within the next decade nearly 300,000 bodies were reinterred. Trumpeting republican values and Christian morality, these cemeteries provided American citizens with an accessible space—in time, many became popular tourist destinations— that imposed a victorious national identity and promoted collective revitalization.
Northern and Southern leaders also gave meaning to the war dead through public pronouncements, in religious services, and by glorifying individual stories of heroism and sacrifice during and after the conflict. Unprecedented levels of social grief and mourning throughout American communities required extraordinary efforts at meaning-making that spoke to the profound emotional pain of individual citizens as well as created a shared sense of loss that could only be overcome through ultimate victory.
Many saw the battle in apocalyptic terms, with the very salvation of American society, and indeed the entire world, at stake. Millennial notions about the impending return of Christ, the role of the nation in this momentous event, and the demonization of the enemy transformed the blood of fallen soldiers into a potent source of social regeneration that would eventually purify the sins of the nation. Leaders on both sides, for example, publicly encouraged citizens to keep the cosmic implications of the war in mind, rather than stay focused on the tragedy of individual deaths on the battlefield. In this rhetorical context, mass death became meaningful because it forcefully brought home a critical realization about the life and destiny of the nation: It occasionally requires the blood of its citizens to fertilize the life-sustaining spirit of patriotism.
On the other hand, however, Northerners committed to democratic ideals and individual rights also took great pains to glorify, and sentimentalize, the deaths of certain soldiers who embodied at the time of their death national virtues like courage in the face of injustice, spiritual preparedness with an eye toward heavenly rewards, and concern about stability at home with one foot in the grave. Numerous accounts of individuals dying a heroic death on the battlefield or in hospitals were anchored with abundantly rich symbol systems relating to Jesus Christ, America, and home. Indeed, whether death became meaningful in collective or personal terms, a reinterpretation of what it meant to die triumphantly and heroically took place over the course of the war, and was animated by one, two, or all three of these symbolic systems.
Both Northerners and Southerners kept certain deaths in mind and used them as a symbolic and inspirational resource throughout the fighting. For the Confederacy, one of the critical figures in the pantheon of heroic leaders was Stonewall Jackson. A paragon of Christian virtue and piety, Southern honor and pride, Jackson died after being accidentally wounded by one of his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. The example of his death, with a chaplain close at hand, his wife singing hymns, and a calm, peaceful demeanor during his last hours, aroused many downhearted Confederates and, in time, attained mythological standing in Southern culture. After the war, Jackson, along with other venerated Southern heroes who eventually passed on like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, played an important role in the creation of a cultural system of meaning that transformed defeat into the basis for a regionally distinctive southern identity. The southern historian Charles Reagan Wilson argues that this identity embodies a peculiar religious system, the religion of the Lost Cause. This cultural religion, still vital and strong in the twenty-first century, can be characterized as a cult of the dead since much of its mythological and ritual dimensions focus on deceased Southern martyrs who died during the war.
While many responses to the Civil War conveyed a belief in the regenerative powers of violent death, and that redemption of both the individual and society followed in the wake of mass sacrifices by young men, some grew hardened to the savagery and suffering taking place on American soil. For these people, including soldiers themselves who witnessed fighting firsthand, the meaning of death had nothing to do with religious notions like regeneration or redemption. Rather than being swept away by the emotional resonance of responses that glorified the dead and focused on the life of the spirit, certain individuals grew more and more disenchanted with the symbolism of death. Soldiers on the battlefield, military and political leaders guiding the troops, and citizens back home reading eyewitness accounts or seeing visual depictions of the fighting assumed a more pragmatic, disengaged posture, and became indifferent to scenes of human carnage and the deaths of individual men. The question first raised by these attitudes—Does overexposure to death and violence lead to desensitization?—continues to plague twenty-first-century American society.
Advances in Weaponry
Finally, one of the more long-lasting social changes associated with American experiences in the Civil War has to do with the emergence of a particularly strong cultural and political obsession with guns. During the war, technological advances in weaponry, and the wide distribution of rifles and pistols among the male population, transformed the way Americans related to their guns. After the war, a gun culture took shape that to this day remains anchored by both the mythic and social power of owning a weapon, threatening to use it in the face of perceived danger (a danger often understood as jeopardizing the three symbol systems mentioned earlier, Christian virtues, national security, or more commonly, home life), and using it as an expression of power. This fascination with guns, coupled with an ingrained historical tendency to experience violence as a form of social and religious regeneration, has contributed to making violent death in America a common feature of daily life.
See also: Brown, John; Cemeteries, Military; Cemeteries, War; Lincoln in the National Memory; War
Farrell, James J. Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830–1920. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. "The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying." The Journal of Southern History 67, no. 1 (2001):3–40.
Fredrickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Jackson, Charles O., ed. Passing: The Vision of Death in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977.
Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Linenthal, Edward. Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
MacCloskey, Monro. Hallowed Ground: Our National Cemeteries. New York: Richards Rosen, 1969.
Mayer, Robert G. Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice. Norwalk, CT: Appleton and Lange, 1990.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine, 1989.
Paluden, Phillip Shaw. "A People's Contest": The Union and the Civil War, 1861–1865. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Saum, Lewis O. The Popular Mood of America, 1860 –1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. A Shield and a Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.
Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600 –1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Steiner, Peter E. Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare, 1861–1865. Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas, 1968.
Wells, Robert V. Revolutions in Americans' Lives: A Demographic Perspective on the History of Americans, Their Families, and Their Society. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
GARY M. LADERMAN
See Brain Death; Definitions of Death.
U.S. Civil War
U.S. Civil War
The Civil War (1861–1865) broke out in the early hours of April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannons opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The battle over the fort, which had become a symbol for both North and South, was both an end and a beginning. The assault marked the conclusion of years of spiraling hostility and suspicions between the North and South and of a series of escalating political, legal, and even physical altercations over the question of slavery. Slavery had been a point of contention since the inception of the United States, with the founders arguing over it in the debates over both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the interest of building the nation, however, they agreed to compromises that left the question of what to do about slavery to another generation. From that point until the 1840s, the matter stood, simmering, on the back burner.
The Mexican War gave the subject new urgency. Defeated, Mexico in 1848 ceded half a million square miles of territory to the United States (including the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah; most of New Mexico and Arizona; and parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Wyoming). Now the nation would have to decide whether—or what parts of—this new territory would be free or slave. Aside from the abolitionists, who were considered a radical fringe group, few people in the North disputed slavery in the states where it already existed because the Constitution protected the peculiar institution there. Congress, however, had the power to dictate whether the territories would be free or slave.
Thus the 1850s became a time of increasing hostility and suspicion between North and South as the nation wrestled with the issue of slavery in the territories. A new party, the Republicans, formed on the platform of opposing the expansion of slavery into the territories. By the time Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, the sectional divisions had grown so great that many Southerners refused to believe the president-elect when he said that he was interested in eliminating slavery only in the territories. Seven Southern states seceded in the months after Lincoln’s election and declared themselves the Confederate States of America. Four more would leave the Union and complete the Confederacy after the attack on Fort Sumter.
Over the years, historians have blamed a number of forces for secession—including the industrializing North versus the rural South, cultural differences between the sections, and myopic and self-serving political leadership—but since the 1960s most historians have come to agree that while those factors may have contributed to secession, the fundamental cause was slavery.
After the attack on Fort Sumter, people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line enthusiastically greeted the news of war. The common belief on both sides was that this would be a 90-day war. The first notable battle came July 21, 1861, at Manassas, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. The battle was a Confederate rout that sent picnicking observers from the capital and green Union troops alike flying back to Washington. This loss would haunt most of the upper command of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war, imbuing them with a defeatist attitude that only Ulysses S. Grant was able to shake in 1864.
General Grant first came to the fore in early 1862 with major wins at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. His victory at Shiloh, Tennessee, in April was the first harbinger of how costly the war was going to be, however. After nearly losing the field on April 6, Grant battled back the next day. Casualties (killed, wounded, missing, and captured) on both sides approached 24,000. The toll was the highest in the history of the hemisphere, but by the end of the war Shiloh would rank as only the seventh bloodiest battle.
Robert E. Lee was appointed commander of the Virginia forces in June 1862 after General Joseph E. Johnston was seriously wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Lee quickly took control of what he now called the Army of Northern Virginia and unleashed it on the Army of the Potomac in the Seven Days’ Battles. Two months later he again scored a searing victory against the Northerners at a second encounter at Manassas (also known as Second Bull Run). From there, Lee began to move into Maryland. He saw this as an opportunity to pull the occupying enemy out of Virginia and to allow his hungry troops to live off the Northern countryside. He clashed again with the Yankees on September 17 at Antietam, a ferocious battle that remains the single bloodiest day in American history, with about 23,000 casualties.
Antietam was a draw, but Lincoln claimed it as a victory—one that gave him an opportunity to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that had been sitting in his desk drawer since July. For the first year of the war, Lincoln believed the South held a significant number of Unionists who would rise up against the government of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. As the war proceeded, however, Lincoln learned he was wrong. Unwilling to abolish slavery early in the war, Lincoln came to see emancipation as a way to strike at the heart of the Confederacy: Freedom for the slaves would deprive the South of its labor force and give the North an additional pool from which to draw soldiers and laborers for its own armies. Moreover, emancipation promised to keep the European powers, France and England, from formally recognizing the Confederacy and therefore kept them out of the war. It is impossible to know how European intervention might have affected the war’s outcome, but the assistance the French provided the Patriots during the American Revolution suggests that neutrality in this war was an important development in favor of the North. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued as a war measure, went into effect January 1, 1863. Slavery would be permanently abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The winter of 1862–1863 was a dismal one for the Union. Lee crushed the Yankees at Fredericksburg in December. A month later the Army of the Potomac tried to move around Lee but got stuck in the mud and had to turn back. Grant’s efforts to gain Vicksburg, Mississippi, “the Gibraltar of the West,” were fruitless. The one bright spot for the Union was the Battle of Stones River, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, over the New Year’s holiday.
Lee had more in store for the bluecoats. In early May 1863, he staged his most audacious victory, at Chancellorsville, Virginia, defeating a Union army nearly twice the size of his own. This success came with tremendous cost for the rebels, however. After a night reconnaissance, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—more beloved in the South even than Lee at that time—was shot by his own jittery troops as he approached his lines. He died eight days later.
Lee took advantage of his win at Chancellorsville to move into the North again, this time into Pennsylvania. This again would be a chance to move the Union army out of Virginia and allow his own men to forage off the North’s bounty. It is not known where Lee intended to go, but when an advance column on July 1 bumped into Union cavalry on the west side of Gettysburg, Lee decided to fight. His decision on the third day of the battle to send thousands of men across about 1,300 yards of open ground against an entrenched enemy was suicidal. In fifty minutes, Lee suffered about 50 percent casualties, including three brigadier generals (James L. Kemper, Lewis A. Armistead, and Richard B. Garnett). Major General Isaac R. Trimble was badly wounded and had his leg amputated. The three days of battle would be the most costly of the war, claiming 51,000 casualties, and Lee, who favored offensive warfare, would spend the rest of the war on defense.
More bad news came for the Confederacy. On July 4, the day after Gettysburg ended, Grant finally succeeded in taking Vicksburg. Now the Mississippi River was entirely open to the Federals, and the Confederacy was cut in half.
Grant had emerged as the North’s long-sought hero general, and when Lincoln promoted him to command all the armies in March 1864, many in the war-weary North thought that victory was certain and would come soon. They were wrong. Grant went on the attack, engaging Lee in a series of bloody battles in the spring of 1864, losing 64,000 men in six weeks. The fighting came to a halt at Petersburg, Virginia, where the two sides settled in for a siege that would last nine months.
Public sentiment turned on Grant and soured on Lincoln, too, as General William T. Sherman stalled outside of Atlanta and General Nathaniel Banks was turned back from an effort to move into Texas. Many people in the North were “wild for peace,” as one Republican politico said. Lincoln would not accept peace without the dual conditions of reunion and emancipation. Davis had just one requirement: independence. The two leaders were at loggerheads.
In the South, food shortages had plagued the Confederacy since 1862, and people at home began to starve the following year. Desertion became a problem for the Southern armies as men drifted home to help their families. By the summer of 1864, when Lincoln’s political fortunes tanked, many Southerners pinned their hopes for victory less on their armies’ winning than on Lincoln losing in the fall elections.
Like many others in the North—Republicans and Democrats—Lincoln was certain his bid for re-election would fail. Buoyant Democrats met at the end of August, pronounced the war a failure, and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. But two days after the convention ended, Sherman took Atlanta, and Northerners were suddenly convinced the war was nearly won. Riding the tide of good feeling, Lincoln won by a landslide.
Just after the election, Sherman set out on his march across Georgia. His goal was to destroy the Southern civilians’ continuing will to wage war. Moving to Savannah in a 60-mile-wide swath, he succeeded. Meanwhile, the rebel army that had been in Atlanta moved toward Nashville, hoping to draw Sherman north. The effort failed disastrously when the Federals decimated the army on November 30 at Franklin, Tennessee. From this point on, Lee’s was the only viable army remaining in the Confederacy.
From Savannah, Sherman turned north in January 1865 and began a devastating march through South Carolina. Union soldiers unleashed their wrath on the people they held responsible for starting the war. Sherman continued to move north, ultimately intending to hook up with Grant and squeeze Lee in a pincer movement. Grant, meanwhile, was busy cutting all of Lee’s supply lines. On April 2, Lee decided to move to the west. Deprived of its military protection, Richmond, the capital, quickly fell.
With Grant in pursuit, Lee’s starving, ragged, and depleted army headed southwest. The chase lasted a week, until Grant cut Lee off at Appomattox Court House. There the two men signed a surrender that for all practical purposes ended the war that had claimed 620,000 lives (although fighting would go on for several weeks thereafter in other theaters). Clearly, Union victory was not inevitable. Lincoln’s tenacious commitment to victory, even if it cost him the presidency, was a key factor in the North’s success. Another critical factor was the willingness of generals such as Sherman, Phil Sheridan, and especially Grant to press the war ruthlessly on Confederate armies and civilians, even—in Grant’s case—at the cost of their own men’s lives. While one cannot discount the industrial, financial, and manpower advantages the North had over the South, ultimately the men in blue defeated the men in gray.
The last casualty of the war was Lincoln, who was shot in a theater on April 14—Good Friday—by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer. Lincoln died the next morning. Standing at his bedside, his secretary of war said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
SEE ALSO Confederate States of America; Grant, Ulysses S.; Lee, Robert E.; Lincoln, Abraham; Slavery
Grimsley, Mark. 1995. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McPherson, James M. 2001. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.
McPherson, James M. 2002. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weber, Jennifer L. 2006. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer L. Weber
Civil War, U.S.
Civil War, U.S.
The dispute between white brothers that erupted into armed conflict in April 1861 was a turning point for American men and women of color. African Americans had fought in the nation's previous wars, but the Civil War was different. Much more was at stake, for themselves as well as for the country. At the beginning of the conflict, nearly four million enslaved people lived and labored as property, denied a birthright while making the nation (not just the South) richer. The nearly 500,000 African Americans who had known statutory freedom before the war had endured a second class status that denied them a political voice, refused them equal access to economic opportunity, and marginalized them socially. Aliens in their own homeland, they watched as immigrants sought and eventually received the fruits of American democracy, only to use their newly acquired citizenship to perpetuate longestablished traditions of bigotry and injustice.
Aims of the War
When the war came, African Americans recognized its long-term as well as its immediate implications for themselves. Long before the rest of the nation acknowledged the possibility, blacks saw the war as an opportunity to topple the socioeconomic foundation of the southern way of life. In striking a blow against slavery, they sought both liberation for the enslaved and an extension of rights that for so long had been denied to all African Americans. Black men and women, therefore, agitated for an expansion of the war's limited aim—preservation of the Union—while pressing for the right of black men to don the Union blue. But a nation fearful of even greater disunion, and doubtful of the ability and courage of black men, was not immediately prepared to accept them as soldiers. This was a white man's war, they believed, to be fought by them exclusively for the preservation of the Union.
While black men waited for the nation to recognize their value to the Union cause, they drilled and prepared themselves for service. Some of them responded to the army's rebuff by joining the navy, which historically had admitted black men into its ranks. Others managed to gain entry into all-white units, despite laws meant to exclude them. Attempts to organize black units early in the war, especially efforts by Senator James Lane of Kansas and Major General David Hunter in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, met with outright rejection or slow acceptance from the Lincoln administration. Hunter was forced to disband his units and official recognition of Lane's force was delayed until 1863.
With Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of freedom for enslaved people living and laboring in Confederatecontrolled territory, the conflict became not simply a fight for the Union, but a war of liberation as well. This shift, along with a desire to strengthen Union forces, which had been depleted by a war of attrition, led to the admission of black men into the army. Ultimately, nearly 200,000 African Americans would serve in the army and navy, the majority of them former slaves. Approximately 50,000 of them were drawn from the North. In addition, former slaves and the free born who had fled the country following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, now returned to the United States to help liberate their people. These black soldiers were organized into segregated units under the division of United States Colored Troops and were commanded overwhelmingly by white officers.
Discrimination in the Armed Forces
Winning the struggle to enter the war, however, led neither to respect nor equal treatment. Instead of real soldiering, black men often found themselves erecting fortifications and engaging in fatigue duty. Moreover, black men suffered externally imposed disabilities that left them demoralized and resentful. For instance, they were paid roughly half what a white soldier of comparable rank received, making it difficult for the families of black soldiers
to survive and sometimes leading black soldiers to protest by stacking their arms or refusing to receive any pay until their grievances had been redressed. When the men of the Third South Carolina Volunteers stacked their arms in protest against their low pay, the leader of the protest was court-martialed and executed.
Black military men were especially vulnerable to the Confederate forces, who were determined to treat them as property, without regard for rules governing the treatment of captured enemy soldiers. The Confederacy considered all black troops slaves in insurrection, regardless of their status before the war. Hence, rebel forces executed some and sold others into slavery. The Fort Pillow Massacre of April 1864 provides a chilling example of the consequences of this policy. After having surrendered to Confederate forces led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Union troops, most of whom were African American, were shot down. The incident outraged the black community and inspired black men to fight even more tenaciously, adopting the rallying cry "Remember Fort Pillow!"
In spite of discriminatory practices, black soldiers served in battle with valor and distinction. During the spring of 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, they engaged in a desperate (and unsuccessful) assault against rebel units perched atop an 80-foot bluff. Two weeks later, at Milliken's Bend (near Vicksburg), inexperienced black soldiers stood firm as Confederate forces descended on their position. At Morris Island, South Carolina, in July of that same year, the famed 54th Massachusetts, under the most difficult of circumstances, advanced on Confederate forces positioned at Fort Wagner before a torrent of artillery fire forced the black soldiers to withdraw. And at the Battle of the Crater (Petersburg, Virginia) in July 1864, black units stormed the rebel position after white soldiers
failed to exploit effectively the breech in Confederate lines caused by Union underground mining. By the war's end valiant black soldiers and sailors had won two dozen Medals of Honor and had dispelled doubts about their courage under the most extreme of combat conditions.
Civilian Contributions to the War Effort
African-American contributions to the war effort extended beyond armed military service. Long before blacks were accepted as fighting men, military laborers provided valuable assistance in building fortifications and as teamsters, cooks, launderers, and orderlies. Southern blacks provided invaluable aid by serving as guides, scouts, and spies, often relaying detailed information on Confederate troop movements and activities. Many of them risked their lives smuggling escaping Union soldiers and sympathizers out of the Confederacy. The indomitable Harriet Tubman, who had escaped slavery and returned south to lead many others to freedom before the war, is perhaps the most celebrated of these "civilian soldiers." In addition to spying for the Union army, she traveled with troops up South Carolina's Combahee River, where she helped liberate hundreds of her people from bondage. Similarly, Robert Smalls won respect and admiration for his daring escape from slavery by piloting the Confederate boat Planter out of Charleston Harbor, securing the freedom of fifteen members of the crew and their families, including his own.
Although the majority of enslaved blacks trapped behind Confederate lines never took up arms against their owners, they used the disruptions of war to destroy the institution of slavery from within. Emboldened by the absence of so many able-bodied white men from the farms and plantations, they flouted the rules and customs that had governed their behavior. Insolence became commonplace and the threat of flight was employed to negotiate the terms and conditions of labor.
With a quiet militancy and considerable dignity, black men and women—soldier and civilian—used the Civil War to effect a revolution. African-American soldiers demanded that they be treated not just as men, but as men with equal standing. Noncombatants pressed for recognition of the right of all African Americans to full citizenship. They expected a grateful nation to honor the obligation it incurred from black sacrifice and loyalty during the war years.
Black soldiers and civilians measured the success of the war not simply in terms of objectives seized or positions successfully defended. Every black man who enlisted or received a commission, every opportunity for marching at the front of the assaulting army, every shackled man, woman, or child rescued from bondage placed people of color closer to their intended objective: preserving the Union, perhaps; winning universal freedom for the enslaved, undoubtedly; but equally important, attempting to bequeath to America a new national identity predicated on true equality and recognition of an African-American birthright.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free Press, 1990.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. 1953. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1989.
Smith, John David, ed. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina press, 2002.
edna greene medford (2005)
U.S. Civil War
U.S. CIVIL WAR
The U.S. Civil War, also called the War between the States, was waged from April 1861 until April 1865. The war was precipitated by the secession of eleven Southern states during 1860 and 1861 and their formation of the Confederate States of America under President Jefferson Davis. The Southern states had feared that the new president, abraham lincoln, who had been elected in 1860, and Northern politicians would block the expansion of slavery and endanger the existing slaveholding system. Though Lincoln did free Southern slaves during the war by issuing the emancipation proclamation, he fought primarily to restore the Union.
The war began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. In the ten weeks between the fall of Fort Sumter and the convening of Congress in July 1861, Lincoln began drafting men for military service, approved a naval blockade of Southern ports, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Lincoln's authority to take these actions in the Prize cases, 67 U.S. (2 Black) 635, 17 L. Ed. 459; 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 451, 18 L. Ed. 197; 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 514, 18 L. Ed. 200; 70 U.S. 559, 18 L. Ed. 220 (1863). The Court concluded that the president had the authority to resist force without the need for special legislative action.
On July 21, 30,000 Union troops marched on Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. They were routed at the Battle of Bull
Run and forced to retreat to Washington, D.C. The defeat shocked Lincoln and Union leaders, who called for 500,000 new troops for the Union Army of the Potomac.
General ulysses s. grant brought the Union its first victory in February 1862, when his troops captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. Grant fought in the Battles of Shiloh and Corinth, Tennessee, before forcing the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1862.
The Army of the Potomac, however, did not have such success. A Union summer offensive against Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee fared badly. Union forces were defeated at the Seven Days Battle and later that summer at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee then invaded Maryland but was checked at Antietam on September 17, 1862.
Lincoln despaired at the poor leadership demonstrated by the commanders of the Army of the Potomac. He replaced General George B. McClellan with General A. E. (Ambrose Everett) Burnside, but when Burnside faltered, Lincoln appointed General Joseph Hooker commander. Hooker proved no better. His attempt to out-maneuver Lee's forces at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863 led to defeat, retreat, and Hooker's dismissal as commander. Lee then invaded Pennsylvania, where a chance encounter of small units led to the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1. The new Union commander, General George G. Meade, directed a successful defense at Gettysburg, forcing Lee to return to Virginia.
In March 1864 Lincoln gave Grant command of the Union armies. Grant planned a campaign of attrition that would rely on the Union's overwhelming superiority in numbers and supplies. Though Union forces would suffer enormous casualties as a result of this strategy, he concluded that the devastation experienced by the Confederate troops would be even greater.
In the late summer of 1864, Grant sent General William T. Sherman and his troops into Georgia. Sherman captured and burned the city of Atlanta in September and then set out on his march through Georgia, destroying everything in his path. He reached Savannah on December 10 and soon captured the city.
In the spring of 1864, Grant commanded the Army of the Potomac against Lee's forces in the Wilderness Campaign, a series of violent battles
that took place in Virginia. Battles at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor extracted heavy Union casualties, but Lee's smaller army was, as Grant had hoped, devastated. Grant laid siege to Petersburg for ten months, pinning down Lee's troops and slowly destroying their morale.
By March 1865 Lee's army had suffered numerous casualties and desertions. Grant began the final advance on April 1 and captured Richmond on April 3. On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his Confederate forces, signaling an end to the Civil War.
The casualties had been enormous for both sides. More than 359,000 Union soldiers had died, while the Confederate dead numbered 258,000.
The war ended slavery. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln had announced the abolition of slavery in areas occupied by the Confederacy effective January 1, 1863. The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation on that date had made clear that slavery was still to be tolerated in the border states and areas occupied by Union troops so as not to jeopardize the war effort. Lincoln was uncertain that the Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of his action, so he lobbied Congress to adopt the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.
Lincoln's wartime suspension of the writ of habeas corpus meant that military commanders could arrest persons suspected of being sympathetic to the Confederacy and have them imprisoned indefinitely. After the war the Supreme Court, in ex parte milligan, 71 U.S. 2, 18 L. Ed. 281 (1866), condemned Lincoln's directive establishing military jurisdiction over civilians outside the immediate war zone. The Court strongly affirmed the fundamental right of a civilian to be tried in a regular court of law with all the required procedural safeguards.