The story of the American Civil War is so complex that it could easily fill hundreds of these pages. The election of anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860 quickly led to a boiling over of north south tensions. Even before Lincoln’s inauguration in March of 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, soon joined by Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia. These states formed the Confederate States of America (the “Confederacy”). Prior to this time, no state had ever tried to break from the Union, but many states asserted the right. The bloody war to come would test that right. Former American Secretary of War Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederacy.
When north and south split, the north had commanding superiority in industrial production, population, transportation networks, and military power. Much of the northern population, however, was either apathetic to the cause or happy to let the south go on its independent course. War erupted in April 1861. At first, people on both sides thought the war would be over by Christmas, but battle after battle proved them wrong. In the east, the north (the “Federals” or the “Union”) despite its greater numbers, better arms and better supplies, suffered serious setbacks at the hands of southern generals like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson. In the Mississippi River area to the west, however, Federal power slowly extended a stranglehold on the south’s transportation systems and economy. The July 1863 Federal capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi gave the north control of the entire river system. The nearly simultaneous Federal victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania snapped a long losing streak, and sent the south reeling into a defensive position.
The war, which would eventually claim at least 620,000 American lives, was by no means over in July 1863, however. With its horrendous casualties, the war became extremely unpopular in the north. The north needed to subdue the south militarily to win, but the south only needed to see the north lose its will to fight. Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 was by no means a given. Two northern generals exercised their will to victory during this period. Ulysses S. Grant ground down the Confederates in Virginia, while William Tecumseh Sherman, after taking the strategic southern city of Atlanta, Georgia, made his famous “March to the Sea.” The swath of destruction cut by Sherman’s army in Georgia and South Carolina presaged modern total war. Sherman’s victories led to Lincoln’s reelection, and, with Grant’s bulldog tenacity, to the eventual collapse of the Confederate cause in April of 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in that same month came too late to save the Confederacy.
Today, thousands of amateur re-enactors go to great lengths to reproduce authentic Civil War uniforms (blue for the Union, gray for the Confederacy), weapons, equipment, and even musical instruments. Many southerners still feel pride in the great military achievements of the Confederacy, as well as hatred for General Sherman and the Federal armies who laid waste to their land. Most northerners (other than the re-enactors) give the war little thought. The legacy of the war is still felt today in terms of race relations. Northerners and southerners today prefer different foods, speak differently, and have certain cultural differences. For the most part, however, American culture, especially given America’s mobility, has moved away from interregional conflict.
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