U.S. Civil War

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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.

Further readings

Wagner, Margaret E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds. 2002. The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Johnson, Andrew; Military Government; Texas v. White.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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