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Overview of the Civil War
Digital History ID 2914

The American Civil War was the largest military conflict in the Western world between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. It cost 600,000 American lives, more than in World War I and World War II combined. Its social consequences were especially far-reaching. The war resulted in the emancipation of four million enslaved African Americans. It also brought vast changes to the nation's financial system, fundamentally altered the relationship between the states and the federal government, and became modern history's first total war. It is truly the central event in American history.

This section describes the problems that contributed to the breakup of the Democratic Party in 1860; why Abraham Lincoln's election as president prompted secession; compares and contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of the North and South as the Civil War started as well as the military leaders and strategies of the North and the Confederacy. It also describes the circumstances that led President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; the military history of the war; as well as the dramatic political, economic, and social changes that the war produced.


The election of a Republican president opposed to the expansion of slavery into the western territories led seven states in the lower South to secede from the Union and to establish the Confederate States of America. After Lincoln notified South Carolina’s governor that he intended to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the Confederacy fired on the installation, leading the President to declare that an insurrection existed in the South.

Early in the war, the Union succeeded in blockading Confederate harbors, and by mid-July 1862 it had divided the Confederacy in two by wresting control of Kentucky, Missouri, and much of Tennessee, as well as the Mississippi River. In the Eastern Theater in 1861 and 1862, the Confederacy stopped Union attempts to capture its capital in Richmond, Virginia. In September 1862 (at Antietam in Maryland) and July 1863 (at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania), Robert E. Lee tried and failed to provoke European powers intervention in the war by winning a victory on Northern soil.

After futile pleas to the border states to free slaves voluntarily, Lincoln in the summer of 1862 decided that emancipation was a military and political necessity. The Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war from a conflict to save the Union to a war to abolish slavery. It also authorized the enlistment of African Americans. During the war Congress enacted the Homestead Act, which offered free public land to western settlers; and land grants, that supported construction of a transcontinental railroad. The government also raised the tariff, enacted the first income tax, and established a system of federally-chartered banks.


1. During the war Congress adopted policies that altered American society. The Homestead Act offered free public land to western settlers. Huge land grants supported construction of a transcontinental railroad. The government raised the tariff, imposed new taxes, enacted the first income tax, and established a system of federally-chartered banks.

2. The Union lost about 360,000 troops during the Civil War and the Confederacy about 260,000. This is almost as many soldiers as have died in all other American wars combined.

3. The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, ended slavery in the United States.