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The American Civil War

Robert E LeeWas it a "war for Southern independence" or a rebellion against legitimate authority? Could a political solution yet be found? Would foreign countries recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation? Would the status of slaves change? These questions were on the minds of all Americans in 1861.

In the summer of 1861, the two sides tested their strength in the first large-scale battle near Manassas Junction (Bull Run), Virginia. Early Confederate successes in the East were countered by Union victories in the west. In the spring of 1862, the Union seemed on the verge of victory in both theaters. In July 1862, Lee and the Confederate army repulsed the Unionists from the gates of Richmond and strung together a series of successes in the east.

1st Battle ManassasThat string was broken when Lee and his army withdrew from Maryland after the bloody battle of Antietam in September. Lincoln chose that moment to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, transforming what in his view had been a war to preserve the Union into a war to end slavery as well. Thus, he placed freedom for the slaves squarely on the nation's agenda and implied commitments for the future with which the nation is still coming to terms.

This political transformation of the war by no means translated into immediate Union victory on the battlefield. After Antietam the Confederates resumed their mastery in the east. However, two stunning Union victories in July—at Vicksburg in the west and at Gettysburg in the east—reversed Confederate fortunes again.

Brothers in ArmsThat summer, too, black troops began to appear in Union ranks in significant numbers. More than 180,000 would eventually serve in the army and more than 20,000 in the navy. Up to 150,000 of these fighting men were former slaves. Tens of thousands of African Americans served as laborers and support personnel on both sides. On the Confederate side these were impressed slaves. Some blacks fought with the Confederates for various reasons.

In 1864, enlarged and improved Union forces with superior supply and transportation over matched dwindling Southern manpower and resources to produce key Union victories in a relentless war of attrition on land and at sea. Grant bottled up Lee in the east; Sherman captured Atlanta and marched to the sea; and the Union navy tightened its blockade of the Southern coast. Still, a Confederate force was able to attack the outer defenses of Washington, D. C. The war ended in the spring of 1865 after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of the two main Confederate armies. Paralleling battlefield developments, the United States Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would prohibit slavery everywhere in the United States. The cost of preserving the Union and ending slavery was approximately 620,000 American dead, making the Civil War by far the bloodiest in the entire history of the United States.
 
Causes
In 1860-1861, the United States split apart. Why did the Southern states leave the Union? Was war inevitable? What were the combatants fighting about? You can explore these and other questions at the Center and learn what motivated Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.

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War
Was it a "war for Southern independence" or a rebellion against legitimate authority? Could a political solution yet be found? Would foreign countries recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation? Would the status of slaves change?

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Legacies
What effects do you think the war continues to have on America? We hope that you will visit the American Civil War Center to learn more about how the Civil War and its aftermath shaped our country today.

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