American Civil War (Summary): History, Causes, Events

The American Civil War Summary: The United States has a short history. It is dominated by two interconnected events, which are both wars. The first was the late-eighteenth century Revolutionary War, and the second was the mid-nineteenth-century Civil War. Although the first event is celebrated widely for providing the country with its independence, the American Civil War that was fought between 1861 and 1865 is also a significant part of U.S. history as it resulted in the end of slavery. The Civil War was a product of long-standing sectional differences and questions not fully resolved when the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, primarily the issue of slavery and states’ rights (Keegan, 2011); and attempting to maintain the Union when the South seceded from the North, owing to their wish for slavery.

American Civil War Summary

The American Civil War was named differently by both parties and neutrals after the war. Northerners have also called the Civil War the “war to preserve the Union,” the “war of the rebellion”, and the “war to make men free.” Southerners may refer to it as the “war between the States” or the “war of Northern aggression.”(History net)

American Civil War: Background and Causes

While the United States was enjoying unprecedented development in the mid-nineteenth century, a major economic divide persisted between the north and south territories of the country. Industrial production and commerce were quite well developed in the North, and farming was mainly restricted to small farms, but the South’s economy was centred on a massive farming system that relied on the labour of black slaves to cultivate specific crops, particularly cotton and tobacco.

Rising abolitionist feelings in the northern region after the 1830s, as well as northern hostility to the spread of slavery into the new western lands, caused most southerners to believe that the survival of slavery in America, and therefore the foundation of their economy, was in jeopardy. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, approved by the US Congress in 1854, basically exposed all fresh states to slavery by establishing the primacy of popular sovereignty above the congressional mandate. In “Bleeding Kansas,” pro-and anti-slavery factions clashed brutally, while resistance to the act in the North resulted in the establishment of the Republican Party, a modern political organisation founded on the idea of resisting slavery’s expansion into western regions.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857, which confirmed the legitimacy of slavery in the western territories, and the raid of abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, it convinced an increasing number of southerners that their northern neighbours were fixated on destroying the “peculiar institution” of slavery which sustained them. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 was the last straw, and seven southern states–South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas–had withdrawn from the Union within three months. (Finkelman, 2011)

Well before Lincoln took office in March 1861, Confederates threatened the federally controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. On the 12th of April, when Lincoln ordered the navy to resupply Sumter, the Confederate artillery discharged the opening shots of the Civil War. After the capture of the fort, four additional southern states Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee– joined the Confederate states. Frontier southern slave states such as Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland did not separate, but most of their population sympathised with the Confederacy.

Major events

  • The first battle of Bull Run: The first major combat of the Civil War happened in Virginia when popular and political pressures forced an untrained Union army into action. The arrival of additional Confederate forces on the battlefield assures a Confederate victory and a quick withdrawal to Washington, D.C. for the Union troops.
  • Second Battle of Bull Run: Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee overpowered Union forces led by Maj. Gen. John Pope, delaying the Federals’ withdrawal to their strongholds in Washington and allowing Lee to move his army beyond the Potomac River further into the Northern region.
  • Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves within the rebellious Confederacy were ‘thenceforward, and forever free,’ affecting roughly three million of the nearly four million slaves in America at the time of the war. The Proclamation only extended to the Confederacy, not to the slave states that remained in the Union or to territories under Union Army control; emancipation would not be given until 1865. The eradication of slavery was added to Lincoln’s objective of reuniting the Union in the Proclamation.
  • Battle of Gettysburg: Confederate General Robert E. Lee invades Pennsylvania, attempting to carry the Southern fight to the North, but is defeated by the Union army. Lee’s failure to seize on early military opportunities led to his defeat by an infantry charge. Both forces are fatigued; the Union is unable to capitalise on Lee’s retreat. For the remainder of the war, Confederate armies are held out of Union territory.
  • Siege of Vicksburg: General Ulysses S Grant turns around his ill fortunes at Vicksburg, Mississippi, by risking detachment from the supply lines to exploit a Confederate disadvantage. The operation and ensuing siege were effective, as Grant divided the Confederate force on the day after Lee’s loss at Gettysburg.
  • The capture of Atlanta: The Union army, under Gen. Sherman, captures the Confederate stronghold of Atlanta and launches a mission of damage designed to weaken the Confederate army’s resolve.
  • Lincoln’s re-election: Military victories bolstered Lincoln’s presidential candidacy against the dovish Democrat, Gen. McClellan. Lincoln was re-elected with an electoral college majority and a slight majority in popular votes.
  • Fort Fisher and ending days of Confederacy: Union soldiers seize Fort Fisher in North Carolina, reinforcing a Union blockade that had already resulted in severe food and clothing scarcity in the South. To prevent Confederate desertions, laws against conspiracy are strengthened and habeas corpus is suspended; Jefferson Davis also tries a desperate effort to arm slaves, which is denied by his Congress.
  • Surrender of Confederate forces: Union troops arrive in Appomattox, Virginia, and acquire General Lee’s surrender. This effectively brings the Civil War to a conclusion.


  • Lincoln assassination: In an attempt to destabilise the Union, a handful of Confederate supporters from Maryland plotted the assassination of President Lincoln, his Vice-President, and his Secretary of War. John Wilkes Booth assassinates Lincoln in his box at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., and he dies early the next morning. His secretaries are spared the same fate. The conspirators were apprehended and sentenced to death. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President.
  • 13th Amendment: In December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. It abolished slavery in the United States.
  • Reconstruction: Reconstruction marks the time immediately following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877, when successive US administrations attempted to rebuild society in the former Confederate states, particularly by recognizing and securing the legal rights of the just liberated black people. Historians believe Reconstruction to be a tragic failure since the former Confederate states could not revive economically from the war’s destruction and the black community was relegated to a second-class life with restricted rights imposed via force and prejudice.
  • The Ten per cent plan: Abraham Lincoln proposed the Ten Percent Plan for Reconstruction in the South in 1863. The plan’s main premise was that a state would be allowed to return if 10% of its voting population in 1860 took an oath of loyalty to the United States and approved the abolition of slavery. Only high-ranking Confederates, such as army commanders and government leaders, would be exempt from a blanket pardon for their actions during the war. Radical Republicans in Congress were upset by the idea, believing it was far too generous to the Confederates.
  • Radical Republicans: Following the Civil War, the Radical Republicans were a group of the Republican Party who intended to enforce a severe version of Reconstruction on the former Confederate states. They were also strongly in favour of creating and safeguarding the newly liberated black population of the South’s civil and voting rights. Following Lincoln’s assassination, and especially during Andrew Johnson’s administration, the Radical Republicans had a significant influence on the development of Reconstruction. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, they separated as a political force within the Republican Party.
  • Black Codes: In the years 1865 and 1866, southern states enacted “Black Codes,” laws that limited the freedom of the black population in the region. In the North, these codes were regarded as a method to circumvent the 13th amendment and enable slavery to continue under a different label. The vagrancy laws that permitted the newly liberated black people to be imprisoned and punished to forced labour were a distinguishing element of the Black Codes.
  • 14th Amendment: In July 1868, the United States Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment was enacted. The amendment handles concerns of equal legal protection and judicial review. The amendment legally defines citizenship in the U.S. and protects citizens’ civil rights from federal and state governments. Enactment of the amendment was a prerequisite for reintegration into the Union, and the amendment was heavily debated before it was eventually enacted.
  • 15th Amendment: In February 1870, the United States Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. It makes it illegal for the states and the federal government to deny citizens the right to vote based on their race.
  • Jim Crows Laws: Racial segregation laws were enacted following the end of Reconstruction. These laws have come to be known as the Jim Crow laws. They were in effect from the conclusion of the Reconstruction in 1877 until 1965. The rules required racial segregation in all public institutions across the southern states. The institutions were meant to be “separate but equal,” but they were actually inferior, resulting in an economic and social handicap. President Woodrow Wilson expanded segregation into the military and federal employees in 1913.
  • Compromise of 1877: The Compromise of 1877 was a political agreement between the two parties wherein Democrats consented not to oppose the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden, on the condition that military control in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana would be ended. Following his election as President, Hayes ordered the withdrawal of the troops. This marked the official conclusion of Reconstruction.

Conclusion: American Civil War

The Civil War is one of the most significant events in American history, leading to the country’s current glory. Every event related to racism is a reminder of this great conflict that took place more than a century ago. The enduring impacts of the Civil War include the abolition of slavery in America and the solid definition of the United States as one, the indivisible country instead of a loosely linked assemblage of autonomous states. It provided new perspectives on liberty, socio-economic and cultural relations among its citizens. The political impact of the civil war is significant as it resulted in the political inclusion of the black population and modified the government structure of the United States.


Egnal, M. (2011). The Economic Origins of the Civil War. OAH Magazine of History, 25(2), 29-33.

Finkelman, P. (2011). Slavery, the Constitution, and the Origins of the Civil War. OAH Magazine of History, 25(2), 14-18.

SHEEHAN-DEAN, A. (2011). The Long Civil War: A Historiography of the Consequences of the Civil War. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 119(2), 106-153.

Keegan, J. (2011). The American civil war. Random House.

Ayers, E. (2006). The American Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction on the World Stage. OAH Magazine of History, 20(1), 54-61.

Horwitz, J., & Anderson, C. (2009). THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION. In Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea (pp. 118-136). ANN ARBOR: University of Michigan Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv3znzcm.9

NA. Other names for civil war. Historynet.

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Ruthu is a student of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing interdisciplinary studies in international relations, political science and sociology. She is passionate about current affairs, public policies, sustainable development, human rights and quality education. She aspires to have a career in research and academia that allow observation of social reality by combining her subjects and passions in writing.