The story of the American Civil War: 32 key moments in the landmark conflict

With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, 13 former British colonies became the United States of America, but by the 1830s it was clear the new nation was divided. Adam IP Smith explains how the issue of slavery, above all, created discord between north and south, and forced political tension to rise...

With fighting concentrated in the southern states, the Union army waged all-out war, aimed at destroying the Confederacy’s morale and crushing its capacity to wage war. As the conflict entered its final phase and the South put up determined opposition, both sides suffered huge losses.


New York City draft riots, 1863

Northerners on the home front may have been far from the sound of gunfire, but they still felt the impact of conflict. Few northerners opposed the war at the outset but, by 1862, two issues – emancipation and conscription – aroused fierce opposition. To many Democrats Lincoln was a tyrant, crushing the freedoms of Americans by pressing them into an abolitionist crusade.

The most dramatic incident of violent discontent took place in New York City on 13–16 July 1863. In some of the worst rioting in American history, thousands of workers, most of them poor Irish immigrants, rampaged through the city in a howl of rage against attempts to implement the draft. They targeted the visible property of the rich and the offices of Lincoln-supporting newspapers. They also launched indiscriminate attacks on the black population of the city, lynching them and burning an orphan asylum. The rioters’ targets reflected their perception of the Republicans destroying the white man’s republic as they had known it. The total death toll is unknown but was probably over a hundred. Order was restored by troops who marched north after the battle of Gettysburg.

George G Meade, best known for defeating Confederate General Robert E Lee at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. (Photo by Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

In retrospect, the riots were a watershed. In mainstream magazines such as Harper’s, images of white men rioting to avoid fighting for the North in New York were deliberately contrasted with black Union soldiers launching a heroic failed assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston.

The old race-based conception of citizenship, to which many northerners still clung, had never faced such a severe challenge.


Gettysburg address

The most famous of Lincoln’s speeches was a two-minute address to dedicate the military cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863. Lincoln was not even the main speaker – he wound up proceedings after a two-hour oration from Edward Everett. But it’s Lincoln’s words that endure: “Four score 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.” The effect of this was to date the origins of the republic to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, with its grand preamble authored by Jefferson and appealing to the universal ideal of equality, rather than the more prosaic Federal Constitution of 1787. Lincoln was implying that the Constitution merely gave form to the nation, and that the nation mattered not as an end in itself, but as an embodiment of the ideals of equality and liberty. Echoing in secular language the Christian idea of a trial of faith, Lincoln went on to claim the civil war was a test of “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”. In little under 300 words, he went on to explain why the struggle and the sacrifice had a dignity and a purpose of universal and transcendent significance: “That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s eloquence was noted at the time, but the reputation of his Gettysburg address has grown over the years, as Americans have sought to find an uplifting meaning in the slaughter of the war.

Last photograph of Abraham Lincoln, (1809-1865), April 1865.


General Grant’s spring campaign, 1864

General Ulysses S Grant took command of all Union armies in early 1864 and adopted a harsh strategy designed to destroy the Confederacy’s capacity to wage war. The spring campaign of 1864 differed from those of the previous three years in two ways. Firstly, Union forces now had an even greater advantage of numbers in most confrontations. In addition, rather than retreating after a setback, Grant ordered his men forward. Experienced soldiers used to long periods in camp followed by occasional terrifying battles now faced what seemed like continuous marching and fighting.

In the battle of the Wilderness, which took place from 5 to 7 May near the site of Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville in Virginia, Union forces failed to dislodge Lee from his position. Sparks from the muzzles of thousands of rifles set the woods on fire and thousands of wounded men burned to death. In two days of fighting, the Union army suffered more than 17,000 casualties and the Confederates around 11,000.

At the battle of the Wilderness and in the bloody engagements of the following three months, the losses on the Union side were horrendous, but proportionally less than the South suffered. Grant, dubbed Butcher Grant by some in the north, had made the grim calculation that his Union army could withstand its losses more easily than the Confederacy.


The battles of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, 1864

Time and again as Grant attacked through rural Virginia, Lee moved his army quickly before establishing powerful defensive lines. The action moved in an arc east and south as Grant tried to get through Lee’s defences and Lee manoeuvred to keep his heavily outnumbered and outgunned army between Richmond and Union forces. At Spotsylvania Court House on 12 May 1864, the South repulsed the North in a particularly vicious battle. Both sides fought intensely, especially around the ‘bloody angle’, a U-shaped line of Confederate trenches that, by the end of the day, were filled with a mixture of blood, mud and corpses. Spotsylvania was essentially yet another defeat for the North. Grant had attempted to seize an important crossroads; Lee had beaten him to it and had then successfully, albeit bloodily, held off the Union’s assault.

But Grant refused to treat it as a defeat. Instead, he attempted another large-scale flanking movement to try to get between Lee and Richmond. Again, Lee anticipated the move. On 3 June, the Army of the Potomac was hurled against well-entrenched Confederate fortifications at Cold Harbor. More than any other civil war conflict, Cold Harbor was a harbinger of the horrific first day of the battle of the Somme. Most of the 7,000 Union soldiers who fell that day did so in less than an hour, as wave after wave of attacking troops were cut down.


The siege of Petersburg, 1864–85

The Army of the Potomac moved south from Cold Harbor and crossed the James River in another attempt to force Lee out from his trenches by flanking his army and seizing the key railroad junction at Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond. Once again, before an assault took place, Lee realised what was happening and marched his army to thinly defended Petersburg with astonishing speed. Thousands of Union soldiers fell in futile efforts to dislodge the rebels from their earthwork entrenchments.

The siege of Petersburg, which lasted from June 1864 until March 1865. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The siege of Petersburg, which lasted from June 1864 until March 1865. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

For the third year in a row, a Union army that set out in the spring with high hopes of crushing Confederate resistance in Virginia appeared by mid-summer to have stalled. Lee still had fewer troops, but Grant had lost more men – 64,000 casualties in two months – and morale sank. After numerous failed assaults in June, July and August 1864, the Union army bedded in for a siege of Petersburg, extending a line of trenches south and west around the city. Romantic notions of valour were tested against the ever-present danger of being shot by snipers and constant artillery bombardment. Reflecting that reality, troops built ‘bomb-proof’ shelters and zigzag trenches. As one Ohio soldier put it, “The spade is more powerful than the cannon.”

But battlefield defences could aid attackers, too, since they enabled forces to be pushed close to the enemy lines, from where an overwhelming raid could be launched. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2 April 1865 that Petersburg surrendered, on the same day the Confederates evacuated Richmond.


The fall of Atlanta and Sherman’s March

While Grant was entrenching outside Petersburg, Union forces under the command of General William T Sherman made a momentous breakthrough at Atlanta, which fell to Union forces on 2 September 1864. Under Grant’s command, Sherman had helped to rout the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg in the Chattanooga campaign which took place the previous October and November. Since then, Sherman had been pushing further into the Confederate heartland.

After Atlanta fell, Sherman’s army embarked on a march to Savannah on the Georgia coast and from there, in the new year of 1865, turned north into South Carolina. This march was in line with Grant’s strategic plan to move on all fronts simultaneously, thus stretching the South’s limited resources. Its purpose was to destroy not only the crops, factories and railroads that sustained the Confederate war effort, but also to break the will of the southern people to keep on fighting with a demonstration of the military supremacy of the North.

Sherman was blunt: “We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South,” he wrote, “but we can make war so terrible… [and] make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” Sherman proposed to cut loose from his supply lines and “move through Georgia smashing things to the sea”.


A holy war?

The American Civil War took place in a highly religious society – one in which both sides interpreted victory and defeat in terms of God’s pleasure or displeasure.

This religiosity was an essential component in the capacity of both sides to endure horrendous losses. Clergymen told their congregations that war was a test of faith. And if it was a chastisement for sin, it was also an opportunity for national redemption and purification. Secular nationalist ideas about the sacrifice of war marking a coming of age for the American republic – or the creation of the Confederate nation – were reinforced by the religious notion of soil made sacred by a baptism of fraternal blood.

For many Confederates, faith was the basis of their nationalism. The Yankees were imagined to be infidels. Confederate suffering was evidence that God had singled them out as a specially chosen people. On the other side, many northerners came to believe that God’s purpose in creating such suffering must be as a punishment for slavery. In the great abolitionist anthem ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, Christ is seen in the “watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” and in the “burnished rows of steel” of the soldiers’ bayonets. The Union army was the army of the Lord.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln abjured any triumphalism and instead spoke of “this terrible war” as judgment on both sides for the offence of “American slavery”. Perhaps, he speculated, only when “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” would the war end.


The 1864 election

No one of prominence ever suggested suspending elections during the war: after all, northerners claimed to be fighting for free government. But at the same time, organised opposition to the administration was seen by Lincoln’s supporters as tantamount to treason.

In 1864, Lincoln ran for re-election against former general George B McClellan, whose Democratic supporters were united in opposition to emancipation but divided over whether to continue the war. For Republicans, the election was a test of loyalty to the national cause. “For four summers the loyal North has been firing bullets at the rebellion,” ran a typical editorial. “The time has now come to fire ballots.”

Lincoln gained 55 per cent of the popular vote in the November election. This was a convincing if hardly overwhelming endorsement. The strength of the Democratic vote, even in the face of a campaign branding support for McClellan as a vote for the rebels, was a measure of northerners’ discontent over the transformations the conflict had brought about.

But the victory was enough. It was a ratification of the policy of war until the South surrendered and a rejection of any alternative path of negotiations. What’s more, Lincoln had been elected on a platform that committed him to support the proposed Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery. It was the first time that a major party had run with what amounted to an abolitionist platform. Lincoln used the political capital from his victory to push Congress to pass the amendment before the war came to an end, thus clarifying the legal status of freed slaves and avoiding what would have been the legal challenges to the validity of the Emancipation Proclamation.


Southern surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, 1865

After one final fling at the Union trenches outside Petersburg, Lee’s men retreated from one line of trenches to the next and escaped west across the Appomattox river. On 2 April, in anticipation of the fall of Petersburg, the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, setting its offices on fire, loading its treasury and archives into railroad cars and fleeing west. The following day the Confederate capital was in Union hands.

The half-starved remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia, now grossly outnumbered by the Army of the Potomac, were chased into the remote south-west corner of Virginia. On 8 April, Union cavalry overtook Lee’s army and captured three trainloads of desperately needed rations at Appomattox station. Lee and his men had finally come to the end of the road.

Grant and Lee met in the drawing room of a private home in the village of Appomattox Court House on the afternoon of 9 April. For a few minutes the two generals exchanged pleasantries. Then Lee brought them to the business at hand. Grant wrote out the surrender terms and Lee signed them. The two generals shook hands. Most Americans shared the assumption that the surrender of Lee’s army signalled the effective end of the war, even though Jefferson Davis remained at large, as did several other Confederate forces. Not until 2 June in Texas did General Edmund Kirby-Smith formally surrender the last of the major Confederate forces, but in reality Appomattox was the end. It marked not just the defeat of the South’s four-year experiment in independence, but of freedom and republican government as they had understood it.


Lincoln’s assassination, 1865

On the evening of Good Friday, 14 April 1865, President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to Ford’s Theatre a few blocks from the White House to attend a benefit performance of a popular British comedy, Our American Cousin, raising money for the play’s producer, who also performed in the show.

Well-known actor John Wilkes Booth, scion of a famous family of Shakespearean actors, entered the theatre by the stage door and made his way to the corridor outside the presidential box. A man of strong Confederate sympathies, Booth had cast himself in the role of avenging angel. Together with a coterie of peculiar friends, several of whom appear to have been mentally ill, Booth had hatched a vainglorious plot. The plan was originally to kidnap Lincoln, bind and gag him, but after the fall of Richmond it was decided to assassinate the president instead.

Booth made his move at a quiet moment in the play. He fired a bullet into Lincoln’s head at close range, then leapt from the box onto the stage. Before the audience grasped what they had witnessed, Booth fled, only to die when Federal troops caught up with him.

Lincoln did not die instantly. He was carried across the road to a room in a boarding house where he lay until the early hours of the next morning, never regaining consciousness. With Mary convulsed with grief and news of the assassination spreading rapidly by telegraph, Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues gathered. They were present at his bedside when the president drew his last breath, at 7.22am on 15 April. Edwin Stanton broke the silence with the words, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Lincoln’s death allowed northerners to weep for all their dead. The slogans sewn on flags and black banners, “The memory of the just is blessed,” ensured that Lincoln stood in for many other private losses.

Adam IP Smith is professor of US history at University College London (UCL).


This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘American Civil War’ special edition