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The American Civil War: Forging a National Identity

Civil War

The American Civil War: Forging a National Identity

Looking back at the Battle of Gettysburg

The four tragic years of the American Civil War, fought 1861 to 1865, strengthened the Federal government and ended slavery in the United States.

by Mike Haskew

The American Civil War was the tragic culmination of divergent perspectives on the proper conduct of the government of the United States and socio-economic issues that had been frequently at the forefront of American political life for decades.

The war began when Confederate guns in Charleston Harbor fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1865, and is generally acknowledged to have come to an end with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Union armies under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Other Confederate forces, particularly General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, surrendered later, and sporadic fighting continued until early summer.

Slavery, Industrialization, States’ Rights

The central issues that brought about the Civil War included the theory of states’ rights versus a strong central government and the extension of the doctrine of nullification that proffered the right of an individual state to “nullify” Federal legislation that its leaders believed was not in the particular state’s best interests.

Complicating the situation was the industrialization of the Northern states while the South remained primarily agrarian. While the institution of slavery waned in the North, it became a significant source of manual labor in the South. As the nation grew, the extension of slavery into the Western territories became a significant bone of contention. During the first half of the 19th century, compromises managed to postpone the coming armed conflict.

Triggering the Secession

The election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, as President of the United States, triggered the secession of South Carolina from the Union in December 1860, followed by North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee. Theses 11 states declared themselves the Confederate States of America under President Jefferson Davis, with their capital first at Montgomery, Alabama, and then at Richmond, Virginia.

During the course of the war, the Union Navy exerted a strangling blockade of Confederate ports, restricting the flow of war materiel and stifling the cotton trade. On land, Union armies endured initial setbacks; however, the overwhelming superiority in manpower and industrial capacity made victory for the Union inevitable over the course of time. Major battles included First and Second Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, the siege of Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg.

The Country’s Most Costly Conflict

The American Civil War was the most costly armed conflict in the history of the United States, as more than 600,000 died, more due to rampant disease than on the battlefield. The institution of slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and following the harsh era of Reconstruction, the nation was again united. Issues concerning civil rights, however, persisted, and the legacy of the war is still influencing the nation today.

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One Comment

  1. Gerald McCloskey
    Posted July 15, 2015 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, The victors always get to write the history books. Any student or scholar of The Civil War giving it an honest and unbiased dig for the facts would discover the relentless persecution and condescending provocations that the southern states were subjected to by northern politicians for decades prior to the conflict.
    Lincoln called for 75,000 federal volunteers almost the same day as his inauguration, which was a knife pointed squarely at the throat of the south. He assured the Confederacy that Ft. Sumter would be evacuated following secession, all the while loading ships with troops and supplies to reinforce the fort. While the north might not have fired the first shots of the conflict, they definitely provoked it.
    Under the laws of that period, Federal troops were not permitted to be used in state military matters without a request for assistance by those state’s legislatures or Governors, which were never made. Lincoln was in clear violation of the constitution by his illegal invasion of the southern states, who by any interpretation had the right to secede.
    If the abolition of slavery had been accomplished through legislative means, the southern states would have accepted it. The southern planters did not initiate slavery and the portrayals of systemic widespread cruelty are grossly exaggerated but convenient and useful during the “Reconstruction”. Slaves, most of whom were trafficked by northern merchants, were bequeathed to the south by the British who saw no need to help clean up the mess before sailing back to England after The Revolution.
    Slavery was permitted in British colonies but not in England itself which to her, seemed adequate acquittal of any ethical or moral guilt. More than 75% of the Confederates who took up arms were not slave owners. So what were they fighting to preserve?, certainly not slavery. They were responding to what they interpreted as a tyrannical invader and trampler of states rights under the constitution. It could be argued that the true “rebels” were from north of the Potomac.

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