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Dive into the study of America’s bloodiest war, the Civil War, fought between Union States in the north and the Confederate states in the south between 1861 and 1865. The war was the result of a political and moral divide concerning slavery, states’ rights, and the westward expansion of the United States that had been simmering for decades prior to the secession of what would eventually be 11 Southern states from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, under the political leadership of Jefferson Davis in 1861. The Union responded with military force to quell the rebellion, eventually negotiating the South’s surrender, but not before more than 600,000 soldiers had lost their lives.
Leading up to the war, abolitionists in the industrialized North became increasingly vocal about abolishing slavery, which they felt was morally wrong. They advocated against its expansion into western states that were entering the Union, and established the Republican Party in 1854 to promote this agenda. Southern states, which relied on slave labor to support their agrarian economies, resented these efforts, and felt their way of life was being threatened by the federal government. Those in the North advocated for a strong central government, while those in the South preferred state sovereignty.
When Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the South responded by seceding from the Union to form an independent country. While the North had the advantage in its manufacturing sector, railroad system, and size of its population, the South had superior military leaders, including Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and a belief that they were defending their homeland against “Northern aggression.” The result was a series of battles in which there were tremendous casualties on both sides, including the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia (1861), and battles at Antietam in Maryland (1862), Chancellorsville in Virginia (1863), and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania (1863).
The loss of so many fighting men weakened the Confederacy’s military as the war dragged on. Lincoln hoped to further weaken the Confederacy by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which ordered that all slaves be freed in the rebellious states, starting in 1863. The proclamation allowed African Americans to join the Union Army, prompting more than 186,000 to volunteer.
In 1864, Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to take command of the Union armies. While Grant kept Lee’s army tied up in the defense of the Confederate capital of Richmond, his generals William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip H. Sheridan ravaged the Confederacy in brutal campaigns designed to weaken the South’s armies, supplies, and morale. The strategy was effective. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. It would take another month before the Confederacy officially ended, with the capture of Jefferson Davis in Georgia on May 10, 1865.
The end of the war marked the beginning of a long process of rebuilding the United States of America, which included integrating African Americans as full citizens, with the abolishment of slavery on December 18, 1865. Known as Reconstruction, efforts involved the physical reconstruction of the ruined South as well as the restoration of political unity.
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