Brief History of the World Wiki
American Civil War
Period Late Modern Ages
Dates 1861-1882 AD
Preceded by
Year of Revolutions and Unifications
Followed by
New Imperialism
If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

–Abraham Lincoln

The era of the American Civil War lasted from about 1861 AD until 1882 AD. It began when the long-standing controversy over slavery erupted into the American Civil War. It then ended after the American Reconstruction era, on the eve of the last great era of colonialism; the Scramble for Africa.

While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be. Northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery that had divided the country from its founding; these achievements came at the cost of 625,000 lives. Meanwhile in Europe, the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany, upset the balance of power and prompted the gradual polarisation of Europe that would eventually tear the continent apart in World War I.


Abolitionist Movement[]

Build-up to the American Civil War[]

US Slave Free 1861.jpg

Slavery had been the cause of simmering tension within the United States ever since the foundation of the nation. By the 19th century, the abolitionist movement was on the rise all over the western world: Britain abolished slavery throughout her empire in 1833, the French colonies abolished it in 1848, and it was abolished in most of Latin America during the Independence Wars (1810–1826). Meanwhile by the 1830s, while the Southern economy was still principally based on large cotton and tobacco plantations dependent on slaves, in the Northern states agriculture was limited to small-scale farms with free labour, and the economy was rapidly modernizing and diversifying, with industrialisation well-established. Growing abolitionist sentiment in the north had caused local friction ever since the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Law (1793), which allowed southern slave owners to reclaim escaped slaves found in the north. Northern magistrates often deliberately frustrated their efforts. Meanwhile slavery became a particularly contentious political issue whenever new states were admitted to the Union. Yet through a series of compromises the United States continued to maintain an even number of “free” and “slave” state in the Union, until California joined the Union as a free state in 1850. The new compromise that followed, the Kansas–Nebraska Act (1854), allowed the settlers themselves to exercise “popular sovereignty” in deciding whether to allow slavery. Yet this led to a virtual civil war between pro and anti-slavery factions when Kansas sought admittance to the Union.

President Abraham Lincoln in November 1863

The election of Abraham Lincoln on an explicitly anti-slavery platform in November 1860 was the final straw. Lincoln provided a stirring image of a new kind of American president; a man of the people, representing the vigorous self-improving ideals of America. Born to a poor Kentucky farming family, he passed the bar exams in 1836, and built-up one of the Illinois’ leading legal practices over the next twenty years. Then entering politics, Lincoln became the Republican candidate for president in 1860 on a platform of banning slavery in all new territories admitted to the Union, defeating the bitterly divided Democrats who had put forward both a northern and southern candidate. The national divide could not have been more painfully evident; he carried every northern state and not a single state in the south. Lincoln’s election had immediate repercussions, convincing more and more in the south that the backbone of their economy and the “southern way of life” was under threat. Within days, a state convention was summoned in South Carolina, and within three months South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had seceded from the Union as the Confederate States of America. Historical revisionists have tried to offer a variety of reasons for the war, such the southern state's right to protect themselves from big federal government, but both northerners and southerners at the time recognised slavery as the immediate cause of the civil war.

American Civil War[]


Just over a month after Lincoln formally took office, the first shots of the American Civil War (1861–65) came in April 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Many of the federal forces in the south had withdrawn to the fort, which was bombarded into submission by the Confederates. Lincoln responded by calling for a 75,000-man volunteer militia, a demand that had the effect of conclusively drawing the line between the warring sides; North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas declared themselves for the Confederacy, while Virginia split in two. On paper, all the advantages seemed to be on the side of the Union: 23 northern states confronted 11 in the south; the rich industrial north was more capable of manufacturing the necessities of war; and the Union was the rump of an existing nation confronting a newcomer seeking recognition. Yet the Confederates had advantages too: the south had a strong military tradition, along with many of the best commanders of the day including the brilliant Robert E. Lee; the Confederate president Jefferson Davis had himself been a distinguished officer while Lincoln had no military experience; and for the south survival would mean victory as there was every chance that the north would grow war-weary. In 1861, after establishing a naval blockade of all Confederate ports to apply economic pressure, the Union army moved to capture Richmond, Virginia the capital of the Confederacy. The first full-scale engagement of the war was a clear Confederate victory, forcing the Union forces to retreat at the Battle of Bull Run Creek (July 1861), where the Confederate general Thomas Jackson won his nickname, Stonewall Jackson. In the aftermath, both sides’ initial call for troops had to be widened after it became clear that the war would not be a short conflict.


In 1862, the Union army turn to isolating the Confederates, by gaining control of the Mississippi river system. Ulysses S. Grant took two key river forts in Tennessee, while the Union navy captured New Orleans, leaving the Confederates in control only of the middle section of the great river. Meanwhile, Union forces approached the Confederate capital again, this time from the sea. After a fierce naval battle between opposing new steam-propelled ironclad warships, the Union successfully landed 100,000 men, and took Yorktown. Moving up the peninsula, they confront General Lee’s army at the Seven Days Battle (June 1862), which brought heavy casualties but ended in stalemate, forcing the Union to withdraw. From the north another Union army marched south towards Richmond, repeating the tactic of the previous year, and with the same result at Bull Run Creek (August 1862). On the heels of his victory, General Lee went on the offensive, pressing north into Kentucky and Maryland, but Lee was forced back into Virginia after a reversal at the Battle of Antietam (September 1862); the war’s bloodiest single day of fighting with 26,000 casualties.


After two costly and inconclusive years of war, Lincoln’s opinion on slavery had hardened. Both to refresh the flagging Union acceptance of the war by adding a moral dimension and discourage liberal Britain from supporting the south, on 1 January 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves in the rebel states were now free. It prompted many southern slaves to take the opportunity to flee to the north, and by the end of the war about 180,000 African-Americans had joined the Union army; 38,000 lost their lives. In 1863, the Union had victories on two fronts which would prove the turning point in the war. First, General Grant besieged the Vicksburg, the key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, which surrendered six weeks later in July 1863. The second arose out of what was virtually a chance encounter. Robert E. Lee had moved north again into Pennsylvania, eager to move the hostilities away from war-ravaged Virginia. Approaching the small town of Gettysburg, a squadron of Union troopers unexpectedly came across them. The result was the three day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863). The Union forces took-up a strong defensive position on Cemetery Hill south of the town. The Confederates flung themselves against this hill, with massive losses and to no avail. On the third day, 15,000 Confederate infantrymen marched across 1400 yards of open fields towards the Union artillery and muskets, the famous Pickett’s Charge; only 5000 survived this reckless endeavour. After more than 50,000 casualties on both sides, General Lee and his army were allowed to limp back to Virginia. Four months later, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg and delivered the ringing Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

A print showing Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant accepting Confederate general Robert E. Lee's surrender in 1865.

In 1864, General Grant took-up supreme command of the Union armies, and advanced into Virginia yet again, this time more successfully largely due his willingness to accept more casualties than his two predecessors. He progressed as far as Petersburg, only a few miles from Richmond, and the key to railway links with the Confederate capital. Meanwhile in the west, General William T. Sherman was creating havoc in Georgia, where most of the south’s grain was grown, winning three battles in quick succession and burning a swathe through Georgia and South Carolina; the March to the Sea (November-December 1864). In April 1865, Grant captured the vital railway connections, and the Confederate government fled from Richmond. With his army on the brink of starvation, General Robert E. Lee, recognizing that any further fighting was futile, offered his surrender. On 9 April 1865 at the Appomattox Court House, the two great generals met in one of the few civilised moments of the Civil War, and Lee hands over his sword. Everything looked ready for the start of the difficult process of peace and reconciliation, but an event elsewhere shattered the prospects for a constructive peace. On 14 April at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathiser, shot Lincoln in the head. Perhaps Lincoln might have been capable of reuniting the two splintered halves of the United States, but his successors in Washington proved inadequate for a daunting task. Over 625,000 people died in the American Civil War. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified officially abolishing slavery in the United States.

American Reconstruction[]

A Harper's Magazine cartoon from October 24th, 1874 by Thomas Nast depicting members of the KKK and White League joining hands over a terrorized black family titled "Worse than slavery".

In the aftermath of the war, the physical ruin and starvation in the south where nearly all the fighting had taken place, was exacerbated by crippling inflation and the fact that the whole economic basis of southern life had been transformed; some four million slaves had been freed and the productivity of the great cotton plantations reduced by a third. By contrast, the industries in the north had enjoyed a boom period servicing the war effort. Vice-president Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency on Lincoln’s assassination and Ulysses S. Grant from 1868 were immediately confronted with the problems of Reconstruction. There were brief experiments with land redistribution to freed African-Americans, as promised in the General Sherman's Field Order 15, but instead all land was returned to its former white owners, so that the new southern society looked suspiciously like the old with slavery replaced by quasi serfdom. Southern governments immediately began passing measures to protect white supremacy; segregation laws applying only to African-Americans in relation to employment, possession of alcohol and firearms, and even the imposition of curfews. At the same time, reinforcement of the message through terror was never far away; the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865. Attitudes to the reconstruction in the victorious north hardened when federal legislation against segregation was largely ignored, so instead the Republicans tried to enforce their will through the franchise: suffrage was extended to African-Americans, and anyone who took up arms against the Union cause during the war was now disenfranchised. The resulting state governments during the 1870s were made up of three groups: African-American community leaders; northerners who moved south as part of the Reconstruction known as “Carpetbaggers”; and southerners loyal to the Union. Nevertheless by 1877, the Democrats had regained control in every southern state. Although the 15th Amendment outlaws discrimination by colour, it allows each state its own requirements on the vote, which was cunningly subverted in the south; for instance Louisiana introduced a literacy test but excused anyone whose grandfather was on the electoral register in 1867, typically poor whites. In 1883, the US Supreme Court rejected a case declaring segregation in the south to be unconstitutional. In the aftermath, the Republicans essentially abandoned civil rights for African-Americans in favour of big business. This gave the southern state governments all they needed to pass legislation requiring segregation in everything from hospitals to public transport, and even cemeteries. The effective abandonment of the southern African-Americans to their fate, plunged them into a century of resentful misery and poverty, until the African-American civil rights struggles of the later 20th century.

Franco-Prussian War[]


Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the resulting consolidation of northern Germany under Prussian leadership, inevitably destabilized the European balance of power. The growth of this ambitious neighbour especially threatened France, and Otto von Bismarck deliberately encouraged this growing rift, feeling war against France was both inevitable and necessary to arouse German nationalism in the southern German states to joining the national union. The tension dramatically escalated in 1870 when a prince of the Prussian Hohenzollern family was offered the vacant throne of Spain. With the prospect of being surrounded to south and east just as in the days of Charles V Habsburg, there was a public outcry in France. In the escalating crisis, French diplomatic pressure persuaded the Prussian King to withdraw the prince’s candidacy. Bismarck, irate at the collapse of his Spanish policy, published a telegram from the Prussian King that made it sound as if the French envoy had been demeaned. The telegram had precisely the effect on French public opinion that Bismarck had intended, and the French government declares war in July 1870; the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) the last of the three wars of German unification. True to Bismarck’s hopes, Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden regarded France as the aggressor and thus sided with Prussia.


France suffered as rapidly and as conclusively as Austria did four years earlier; again the significant period of warfare lasts less than seven weeks. The French were unable to stop the technologically superior and more disciplined German forces from crossing the border. In early encounters in eastern France, the French almost held their own, but were eventually forced to retreat to Metz which was besieged by the Prussians. French troops were sent to relieve Metz, but they too had to retreat to Sedan only to be surrounded and decisively defeated at the Battle of Sedan (early September). The French suffered 38,000 casualties, and another 83,000 prisoners-of-war including Emperor Napoleon III himself. Yet this did not immediately end the war, with the French parliament deposing Napoleon III and declaring a republic, the Third French Republic (1870-1940). Within a month the Germans had reached Paris, and laid siege to the city. To relieve the captial, government minister Léon Gambetta managed to escape Paris by hot-air-balloon; the first significant use of aeronautics in warfare. Gambetta orchestrated a campaign of guerrilla warfare which severely disrupts the smooth German military operation, but it could only delay the inevitable. In January 1871, the French capitulated. They found the Prussians in jubilant mood. Just five days previously, in the palace of Versailles, the Prussian king had been proclaimed emperor of a united Germany including the southern states. In the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 1871), France cedes Alsace and most of Lorraine to the new Germany, as well as paying a massive indemnity of 5000 million francs with the northern French provinces occupied until the indemnity was paid; a direct reference to the treaty imposed on Prussia by Napoleon Bonaparte. The French never forgot the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War, and French foreign policy for the next forty years was dominated by the idea of reclaiming this lost land. The mutual animosity between France and Germany proved to be one of the driving forces behind World War I.

Proclamation of the German Empire, painted by Anton von Werner

In Germany, the new German Reich established an elected federal parliament meeting in Berlin, the Reichstag, but it had little power over the rigidly centralised and authoritarian executive, the Prussian emperor and Chancellor Bismarck himself. Yet, Bismarck did introduce several liberal measures: removing restrictions on personal freedom, giving greater autonomy to municipal councils, and even freedom of the press. However in the election of 1877, the Marxists won eleven seats in the Reichstag, and in 1878 there were two assassination attempts on the emperor. A ban soon followed on Marxist activities, but Bismarck was not above making his own bid for working-class support, pioneering welfare policies only later imitated in other countries including insurance for workers against injury and illness, and a state pension.

A barricade on Rue Voltaire, after its capture by the regular army during the Bloody Week

In France, the Third Republic, originally intended as a provisional government, instead would become permanent. In the first years, there was much wrangling in parliament over the issue of restoring the Bourbon monarchy. With popular support for the republican form of government, Parisians rediscovered the heady mood of the French Revolution. An insurrection erupted in the city on 18 March 1871, and established a radical socialist municipal council over the capital which called itself the Paris Commune. A month later, Paris was again under siege, this time from the French government forces, and after a week of bloody street fighting, the Commune fell; Paris would remain under martial law for five years. Thus, the Third Republic had a violent birth and it proved extremely unstable with thirty governments in the first twenty years, but it lasted. The Constitution of 1875 defined its composition, consisting of an upper and lower house, and a president as head of state.

Final Step in Italian Unification[]


The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War meant that the French garrisons in Rome to protect the Pope were hurriedly withdrawn in August 1870. Nothing now remained to deter the Kingdom of Italian from seizing the Holy City. In October a plebiscite in Rome and the surrounding region voted for union with Italy, though Pope Pius IX himself refused to accept it and remained in his palace, describing himself as a prisoner in the Vatican. Nevertheless, Rome became once again the capital of a Italy, containing the Vatican, a small parcel of land beyond national control; the Vatican was eventually formally recognized as an independent state in the Concordat of 1929.

The early decades of democratic rule proved extremely unstable, with governments remarkably brief, rarely lasting three years. The presiding theme was of a series of dominant politicians who would transform their alliances and even their policies in order to remain in power. The first was Agostino Depretis from the liberal wing of politics. Depretis signed the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria in 1882, agreeing to support each other if attacked, and maintain benevolent neutrality if any of the three declared war. The underlying theme of this alliance was antagonism with France, which was further developed when Francesco Crispi came to power in 1887. He repudiated commercial treaties with France in 1888, which would end up harming the Italian economy much more than France.

Late Victorian Britain[]

John Everett Millais' portraits of William Gladstone (left) and Benjamin Disraeli.

The years between 1867 and 1885 were personified in Britain by the hostility between the two outstanding politicians of the day; William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, prime ministers four times and twice respectively. Queen Victoria favoured the charming and opportunistic Disraeli, as well as his conservative politics and imperialist views on foreign policy. She detested Gladstone's liberal views, and his solemn and pious personality. Both administrations pushed through a great deal of social reform in their home policy. It was in foreign affairs that the difference between the protagonists was most clearly marked. The Ottoman Bulgarian Crisis of 1876 was a case in point. It was Gladstone who touched the conscience of Europe with his campaign against the Ottoman atrocities in the region. But it was the aggressive Disraeli who threatened the Russians with war for interfering in the region; compromise was reached before any conflict. The Suez Affair was another case. It was Disraeli who won the foreign policy triumph with his cavalier purchase of a controlling share in the Suez Canal in 1875, even before securing parliamentary approval, on hearing that the impoverished Egyptians needed to sell.

Keir Hardie, one of the Labour Party's founders and its first leader

Gladstone’s Liberal party was centre-right and Disraeli’s Conservative party was right-wing. The other change in British politics in this era was the gradual emergence of truly left-wing politics. The French Revolution had so alarmed the government that working-class political activities were illegal until 1824. Even in 1833, the government found a new repressive device to make an example of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The six farm labourers from a Dorset village were convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of a union and transported to Australia. With some valuable martyrs, the Trade Union movement progressed steadily in respectability to the point that the Trade Union Act (1871) gave them an assured legal status. Britain also gained her own left-wing political party when the Labour Party was founded in 1893, which by 1906 was a democratic power to be reckoned with. They even had a proto-Marxist party, the Fabian Society (1881), with the express purpose of working towards a democratic socialist state.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the "un-crowned King of Ireland"

Meanwhile, Irish grievances had been an urgent issue on and off for sixty years, since the abortive uprising of Robert Emmet. Recognizing the oppressive nature of Protestant rule in Ireland, Gladstone introduced the Irish Land Act (1870), at least granting peasant farmers secure tenure and compensation for improvements to their holdings. During the 1870s, support grew for a Home Rule Act that would grant limited to autonomy on internal affairs, led in the parliament by Isaac Butt. Progress was finally made when the much more dynamic figure, Charles Stewart Parnell, was elected in 1875, who introduced more vigorously disruptive policies. He actively obstructed parliament, to the extent that thirty-six Irish members were at various times suspended. He also fomented rural unrest through the Irish Land league (1879), founded by Michael Davitt, such as the predicament of Captain Boycott. When Boycott threated to evict farmers after a bad harvest, the tenants and surrounding villages refused to communicate in any way with the landlord or his agents; in the end 1,000 British troops helped bring in the harvest, costing the British government at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops. By 1885, Prime Minister Gladstone was converted to Home Rule for Ireland, partly from a sense of the justice and partly because the activities of Parnell were making government impossible. However, the Conservatives defeated his bill, and Gladstone was forced to resign. When Parnell’s affair with the married Kitty O’Shea was exposed, his Catholic political base collapsed, and Home Rule for Ireland was shelved for another 30 years, when the demand would instead be for the rupture of the Union itself; the Irish War of Independence (1916-21).