The American Civil War

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The American Civil War

The American Civil War

By Dean Swift

Like all civil wars, none of which are the least civil, the American Civil War was a murderous and bloody conflict between brothers, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews and cousins. In other words, it was fratricidal. It lasted four years, and had to take place basically because eleven Southern states wished to leave the Union. The war was fought between the United States’ federal government and the Confederate States of America.

The conflict started on April 12th, 1861. After a bombardment mostly without casualties, Federal leader Robert Anderson surrended Fort Sumter in the harbour mouth of Charleston, South Carolina. His garrison consisted of around 85 soldiers. He had been besieged by around 5,500 Confederate troops under Beauregard.

Union President Abraham Lincoln rightly considered this to be provocation, and called for 75,000 militiamen using presidential powers. When he got them he declared war against the ‘rebel’ Confederate states, starting with a naval blockade. He also directed the US Treasury to supply $2 million dollars to pay the troops, as well as suspending the right of Habeas Corpus. At the same time the newly set up Confederate Government had ordered a call for 100,000 soldiers for at least six months service in the War, but this figure was rapidly raised to around 400,000.

Comparison of North and South

At first the shocked world assumed that the 23 states of the Union would prove more than a match for the eleven seceding Southern states – North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee. The population in the North was around 21 million, and there were some 9 million people in the South (of whom about 3,500,000 were black slaves). More than 70% of the railways were in the North. The Union could show a 30-to-1 superiority in arms production and distribution, but only a 2-to-1 advantage in available manpower, but the North commanded a great preponderance in financial and commercial resource. Add to this that the North had a functioning (and not squabbling) government, and a small, but efficient regular army and navy.

Nevertheless the South was by no means powerless, or predestined to being defeated. The armies of the South had the advantage of a fine military tradition that had been established well before 1860. More, how could the US Government successfully blockade more than 3,500 miles of ‘rebel’ coastline? In addition, President Jefferson Davis of the South expected decisive foreign aid and intervention. Moreover the southern soldiers (in grey uniforms) would fight with their own white supremacy in mind, and in defence of their home and property. The soldiers of the North (in blue uniforms) would be fighting for motives that were cloudy to them, very little money, and none of the hatred in their soul so prominent in the Confederate troops. As all wars have shown, uninspired warriors are seldom warlike.

High Commands

Throughout the War command problems plagued both sides. In 1861 most people thought Davis an abler man than Lincoln. Jefferson Davis was a graduate of West Point and a hero of the Mexican wars. He had been a capable Secretary of War under President Pierce, and he was the US Senator from Mississippi. Lincoln was a small-town lawyer who had served in the Illinois state legislature, and had been a not-over-distinguished member of the House of Representatives. As for uniform, he had served practically unnoticed in the Black Hawk War.

Davis had many fine qualities, which endeared him to the South and his troops: patience, reserve, courage, dignity, energy. But unfortunately, he was extremely proud, couldn’t bear criticism, and was quite unable to delegate resonsibilities to subordinates. He stayed as his own secretary of war, and also general-in-chief of the Confederate armies until he named Robert E. Lee as his successor in 1865 (when the Confederacy was collapsing).

Lincoln, on the other hand, grew in stature as the War progressed, to the surprise of many. It could be said that by 1864 he had become an able and experienced director of war. At first, he had much to learn, especially in his curious judgement when choosing army commanders, and a notably ineffective first secretary of war – Simon Cameron. Lincoln made up for this by insinuating himself directly into the daily business of war, as did Winston Churchill in the Second World War. Nothing happened that these two consummate war leaders did not know about, down to the smallest detail.

The first effective Federal general was young George B. McClellan, a conscientious and able soldier with a severe problem – he had great difficulty in establishing a harmonious relationship with Lincoln. He was relieved of his post in March, 1862. He was replaced by the inept Halleck, until at last he too was replaced by Ulysses S. Grant on March 9th, 1864. Grant served famously, and effectively, as general in chief throughout the rest of the Civil War.

The War

As the war inevitably lengthened and grew worse, both sides could do nothing else but raise huge armies of volunteers, who could be of any age from 16 to 60. Local prominent citizens with cash could and did raise virtually private armies from their lands, on the Southern side including freed slaves. There were already black soldiers in the Northern armies; indeed one famous regiment consisted only of black soldiers. These armies were uniformed and armed by the Union and Confederate governments. Both embraced released convicts, sharpshooters and ex-bandits who were no better than they should be, and this unthinking barbarism caused countless unnecessary deaths, bullying, rape and casualties among civilians as the carnage increased. Later, both sides had to introduce conscription, as the battles became bloodier, and ranks became ominously thinner.


Davis preferred defensive strategy, permitting only occasional attacks in Northern territory. Historians consider this tactic a weak one. The ‘rebels’ would have stood a much greater chance of winning had they moved offensively into the Northern states before Lincoln could replace his mostly ineffectual generals, and bring the powerful resources (men and machines) into the War.

Lincoln, on the other hand, had to direct his armies to invade, capture and hold most of the vital areas of the Confederacy. It was only means of re-establishing the authority of the Federal Government. His strategy was based on General Winfield Scott’s so-called Anaconda Plan, a design that evolved from strategic ideas discussed in messages between generals Scott and McClellan during 1861. The plan called for a blockade of the Confederacy’s enormous littoral as well as a determined thrust down the Mississippi River, and an ensuring choking of the South by Federal land and naval forces. This is one of the principal reasons why four years of unrelenting, devastating and eventually debilitating war were needed before the ‘rebels’ could be defeated and the Union preserved.

Cost and significance

The North proved to have had superior land and naval forces, plus industrial and financial resources, but the War was won mainly because of Lincoln’s leadership and statesmanship. It was also obvious that the Federal officers’ corps had by 1864 become masterful, skilful and confident. The Confederate Army had been condemned from the first day to an argumentative Southern Government, failing transportation of material and men, and weak political leadership, though the soldiers fought valiantly from the beginning.

There were a few desertions on both sides, but only a few. The quite unacceptable statistics of casualties continue to astound and horrify military historians. Based on the 3-year standard of enlistment, some 1,556,000 served on the Federal side, suffering a total of 634,703 casualties (359,528 dead and 275,175 wounded). Some 800,000 men served in the Confederate forces, with the death of around 258,000 and perhaps 225,000 wounded.

The financial cost for both sides was of course staggering. Both governments, after an attempt to make war by increasing taxation and floating loans resorted to printing money. It has been estimated that the War cost the United States over $15,000,000,000, worth more than eleven times that amount today. To sum up, though the Union was saved and preserved, the cost in physical and moral suffering is incalculable. It should also be made clear that some more spiritual wounds caused by the outrage of this Civil War have certainly not healed.

By | 2010-10-31T10:25:05+00:00 October 31st, 2010|English History, US History, World History|6 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. belle September 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    what about the genarals

    • Dean Swift September 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      I assume you mean ‘generals’. Not wishing to appear stupid, I do not understand the comment. Can you make your question clearer? Thank you and best regards, Dean.

      • andrew October 29, 2014 at 9:17 pm - Reply

        so much info my brain exploded

        • Dean Swift January 4, 2015 at 5:35 pm - Reply

          Andrew, I do hope you have managed, like Humpty Dumpty, to put your brain together again. Was your comment ironic? If you foreshorten a long English word such as ‘information’, always put a point immediately after the shortened word, i.e. info.
          Best wishes, Dean.

  2. andrew October 30, 2014 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    how long ago was this written?

    • Dean Swift January 4, 2015 at 5:32 pm - Reply

      Andrew, the answer to your question I quote ‘How long ago was this written?’ is about one hour before I posted the article. Best wishes, Dean.

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