The Civil War - An Introduction

Painting of 54th Massachusetts Infantry attacking Fort Wagner
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry attacking Fort Wagner

Painting by Rick Reeves

On June 16, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln made one of his rare wartime departures from Washington. He spoke in Philadelphia at a fund-raising fair for the United States Sanitary Commission, a national soldiers' aid society. The preceding six weeks had seen the bloodiest fighting in the Civil War so far, at the carnage-strewn Virginia battlefields of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. "War, at the best, is terrible," Lincoln told the crowd, "and this war of ours, in its magnitude and duration, is one of the most terrible. . . . It has destroyed property, and ruined homes. . . . It has carried mourning to almost every home, until it can almost be said that 'the heavens are hung in black.'" When would this cruel war be over? many were asking. "We accepted this war for an object," said the president, "a worthy object of restoring the national authority over the whole national domain." The war would end only "when that object is attained." During the battle of Spotsylvania, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had said that he intended to fight it out on that line if it took all summer. Lincoln added: "I say we are going through on this line if it takes three years more."

This grim determination to fight on to victory despite the cost characterized Lincoln's leadership in the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was no less determined. "We are fighting for INDEPENDENCE and that, or extermination, we will have," he told a Northern journalist in July 1864. "You may 'emancipate' every negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free. We will govern ourselves . . . if we have to see every Southern plantation sacked, and every Southern city in flames."

Many people in both North and South sometimes faltered in the face of the war's terrible cost in lives and resources. Others opposed the war altogether. But enough supported the contrasting goals of Lincoln and Davis that the war continued four long years, ending only when Southern resources and Confederate armies had been so eviscerated that they were no longer capable of fighting. The toll of more than a million casualties, 620,000 of them dead, was far greater than in any other war this country has fought. The 620,000 dead were 2 percent of the total American population (North and South) in 1861. By way of comparison, if 2 percent of the American people were to die in a war fought today, the number of American deaths would be more than six million. (Note: Recent scholarly studies suggest that at least 750,000 and possibly more died as a direct result of the Civil War.)

Both sides were willing to sustain such punishment and keep fighting because the stakes were so great: nationality and freedom. If the Confederacy lost the war, it would cease to exist. And by 1863 or 1864, when emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery became a Northern war aim, the institution of African-American bondage that was a cornerstone of Southern society would also cease to exist. "This country without slave labor would be completely worthless," wrote a Mississippi soldier to his wife. "We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to fight to the last." A clerk in the Confederate War Department declared in 1863 that "our men must prevail in combat, or lose their property, country, freedom, everything," while "the enemy, in yielding the contest, may retire into their own country, and possess everything they enjoyed before the war began."

But "the enemy"--Northerners--did not believe they could "retire into their own country" if they lost the war and "possess everything they enjoyed before the war began." Most believed they would no longer have a country worthy of the name. The words "United States" would become an oxymoron. The nation would become two nations, and a fatal precedent would have been created for its further division into several nations until there was no "nation" at all. Two Union infantry officers, one from New York and the other from New Jersey, agreed that "if we lose this war, the country is lost and if we win it is saved. There is no middle ground." Defeat would make the country a "sepulcher in which should be buried our institutions, our nationality, our flag."

For African Americans the stakes were freedom if the North won, or continued slavery if the Confederacy prevailed. Two hundred thousand of them, mostly former slaves, fought for the Union and for their own liberty. A growing number of Northern white soldiers also came to see freedom as a vital issue in the contest. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, a soldier from New York State exulted that "the contest is now between Slavery & freedom, & every honest man knows that he is fighting for," while an Iowa sergeant was confident that "the God of battle will be with us . . . now that we are fighting for Liberty and Union and not for Union and Slavery."

Northern victory in the war resolved two festering issues that had been left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787 that gave birth to the United States. The first was the nagging question whether this fragile republic, this precarious new democracy, would survive in a world bestrode by monarchs, czars, tyrants, and aristocrats. Americans were painfully aware that most republics through history had collapsed into anarchy or tyranny or had been overthrown by foreign invaders. Some Americans alive in 1860 had seen two French republics rise and fall. Latin American republics seemed to succumb regularly to dictators, military rulers, or anarchy. The hopes for the birth of democratic government in Europe during the revolutions of 1848 had been dashed by counterrevolutions that entrenched the Old Order of monarchy and aristocracy. Could the United States endure as one nation, indivisible, with a government based on majority rule? The secession of eleven states in 1861 represented the greatest challenge to survival. The nation met that challenge and prevailed in 1865. Since then no state has seriously and substantively (as opposed to rhetorically) threatened to secede.

Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century liked to boast of their country as "the land of liberty, a beacon of freedom to the oppressed of other lands." But by midcentury the United States had become the largest slaveholding country in the world. Lincoln took note of this paradox in 1854. "The monstrous injustice of slavery," he said in a speech at Peoria, "deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world--enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites." With the abolition of slavery by the Civil War, embodied in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, that particular monstrous injustice and hypocrisy existed no more.

The abolition of slavery, however, did not end racism, discrimination, and caste segregation of which slavery had been the most extreme manifestation. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, adopted in 1868 and 1870, implanted equal civil and political rights in the Constitution. But for generations the nation failed to live up the promises of these Amendments. The issue of racial justice that came to the fore in the Civil War era is still with us today.

In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 the words United States were usually rendered as a plural noun: "The United States are a large country." Since 1865 the United States is a large country. The North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by creating a nation. This transformation can be traced in Lincoln's wartime speeches. The first inaugural address contained the word Union twenty times and the word nation not once. In Lincoln's first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, he used Unionforty-nine times and nation only three times. But in the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, he did not refer to the Union at all but used the word nation five times. Looking back on the past four years in his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865, Lincoln spoke of one party seeking to dissolve the Union in 1861 and the other accepting the challenge of war to preserve the nation.

The decentralized antebellum republic, in which the post office was the only agency of the federal government that touched the average citizen, was transformed by the crucible of war into a centralized polity that taxed people directly and established an internal revenue bureau to collect the taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, enacted a national currency and a federally chartered banking system, drafted men into the army, and created a Freedmen's Bureau as the first national agency for social welfare. Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution had limited the powers of the national government. Six of the next seven, starting with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, radically expanded those powers at the expense of the states. Controversies over federal-state relations and the legitimate powers of the national government have echoed down the years since the Civil War, and are still very much alive today.

Before 1861 two socioeconomic and cultural systems had competed for dominance within the United States: a rural, agricultural, plantation society in the South based on slave labor and a diversified, industrializing, free-labor capitalist society in the North. Although in retrospect the triumph of free-labor capitalism seems to have been inevitable, that was by no means clear during most of the antebellum era. From 1789 to 1861 a Southern slaveholder had been president of the United States for two-thirds of those years. Likewise, two-thirds of the Speakers of the House and presidents pro tempore of the Senate had also been Southerners. Twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices during that period had been from the South, including the chief justice for sixty-one of those seventy-two years. At all times a majority of the Court were Southerners. The territory of the slave states considerably exceeded that of the free states before 1859 and the Southern drive for additional territorial expansion was more aggressive than that of the North. Most of the slave states seceded in 1861 not only because they feared the potential threat to the long-term survival of slavery posed by Lincoln's election, but also because they looked forward to the expansion of a dynamic, independent Confederacy into new territory by the acquisition of Cuba and perhaps more of Mexico and Central America. If the Confederacy had prevailed in the 1860s, it is quite possible that the emergence of the United States as the world's leading industrial, as well as agricultural producer by the end of the nineteenth century, and the world's most powerful nation in the twentieth century might never have happened.

The institutions and ideology of a plantation society and a slave system that had dominated half the country before 1861 and sought to dominate more went down with a great crash in 1865. They were replaced by the institutions and ideology of free-labor entrepreneurial capitalism. Writing eight years after the war, Mark Twain said it best: the great conflict "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." At the same time, however, the war left the South impoverished for those three generations, its agricultural economy in shambles, and the freed slaves in a limbo of second-class citizenship. America's postwar economic growth not only excluded the South, but also created new problems of air and water pollution, wasteful exploitation of natural resources, and the travails of an urban-industrial society. For better or for worse, the flames of Civil War forged the framework of modern America. The struggle to define America continues, and all paths to understanding this struggle pass through the cauldron of that conflict. The seventy-five National Park Service battlefields and other Civil War sites preserve many parts of those paths, which can be followed with enhanced understanding by visiting these sites.

This essay, by James McPherson (Professor Emeritus, Princeton University), is taken from The Civil War Remembered published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at

Last updated: August 5, 2013