After reading this chapter and completing the Freewritings, you will be able to:

  • identify “Lost Cause mythology”
  • explain how and why the 1860 presidential election led to the secession of Southern states
  • define “the Confederacy”
  • define and identify the “border states”
  • name several key turning points of the Civil War
  • explain some of the ways in which the Civil War affected ordinary people in the North and South
  • iterate three ways in which the Civil War was important in American History


Studying the history of the Civil War can be a bit tricky, but not because of lack of interest in the subject or sources of information. The Civil War is one of the most studied topics in all of American history. Academic historians, popular histories, museums, monuments, documentaries and fictional and non-fictional books, movies, and even video games about this momentous event abound. Rather, what can be tricky is the ongoing task of the historian to separate what we actually know about the War from what we think we know or even what we wish were true. The historical memory of the Civil War is very much wrapped up in how Americans think about all sorts of issues today, including issues related to how state laws interact with federal laws, regional identity of the American north and south, and, perhaps most poignantly, how we think about race in the American past and present. You may recall that Chapter One of this text asked you to think about recent controversies surrounding the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and memorials. This chapter will delve further into the War itself to give additional perspective on these questions.

The Civil War: Causes

In the years after the Civil War, a very powerful mythology about the War arose. This “Lost Cause” mythology held that the Civil War had never really been about slavery at all, and that the Confederate States of America had been attempting to uphold the true vision of the Founders of the United States of America. This mythology is not historically accurate; however, it is important to understand because so much of how the Civil War has been remembered in the subsequent 150 years has been influenced by the “Lost Cause” mythology.

There is no doubt that the most important long-term cause of the Civil War was slavery. The immediate, short-term cause of the War was Abraham Lincoln’s election to the office of President of the United States of America. As discussed in the previous chapters, economic interdependence between the North and South had increased at the same time that they grew culturally farther apart. This, combined with the political polarization of the 1850s, helped lead to a presidential election that ran along purely section (North/South) lines.

1860 Presidential Election Results1

CandidatePartyElectoral VotesPopular Votes
John C. BreckinridgeDemocratic72847,953
John BellConstitutional Union39592,906
Stephen A. DouglasDemocratic12138,2713

Figure 1: Distribution of electoral college votes, 1860 presidential election, by Andy Hogan, public domain file,

As the map and table of the 1860 electoral college votes demonstrates, the 1860 presidential election divided along purely sectional lines. Abraham Lincoln won the electoral college and popular vote by a large margin; even if all the other states had gone for just one other candidate (which they did not), Lincoln still would have handily won – with no Southern state electoral college votes.

Lincoln’s election prompted the beginning of the secession of the Southern states and formation of the Confederate States of America – sometimes abbreviated as “CSA” or “Confederacy.” Occasionally you may also see the military forces of the Confederacy referred to as “the grays” because many (though not all) of their uniforms were gray. The Confederacy is also sometimes referred to as “the South” when we study the Civil War. On the other hand, “the North” or “the Union” or, sometimes “the Yankees” refers to the United States of America, the states which did not secede from the Union; sometimes the military forces of the USA are called “the blues” after their blue uniforms. It is a bit more complicated than simply “the North” and “the South,” though, because four slaveholding states – Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, sometimes referred to the “border states” – did not secede from the Union and stayed in the United States of America. The western part of Virginia seceded from Virginia during the Civil War and was admitted into the Union in 1863, thus forming a fifth “border state.”

Freewriting: Why do you think the people living in West Virginia might have chosen to form their own state and ally with the Union rather than the Confederacy during the Civil War?

The documents passed by the various Southern state conventions at the time of secession clearly demonstrate that their concern was specifically for the continuity of slavery. The first state to secede, South Carolina, held a convention for that purpose. The December 24, 1860, “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” quoted at length from the Declaration of Independence and asserted that:

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a many to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” Later, the document states that once Abraham Lincoln takes office, “the guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”2

Freewriting. Is the above quoted document a primary or secondary source? Explain. Also, according to this document, did South Carolina secede due to states rights, slavery, both, or another reason? Explain your answer.

Although, as mentioned above, it was clear from the secessionists’ point of view that they were seceding from the union because of the issue of slavery, at the beginning of the war, there was no political consensus in the North about the whether it was Constitutionally possible, or even desirable, to try to end slavery entirely. When Lincoln and other Republicans had addressed slavery in the 1860 election, they usually spoke about containing slavery – not allowing it to spread west into new states – not abolishing it altogether. The question is a bit tricky because Lincoln himself made multiple, sometimes contradictory statements about it. On the one hand, Lincoln repeatedly made anti-slavery statements over the course of his career; on the other hand, at the outset of the Civil War Lincoln also insisted that the war was about preserving the Union, not ending slavery.3

In any case, in the months between the November 1860 presidential election and the March 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, various Southern states held conventions, seceded from the Union, and, on February 4, 1861, formed the Confederate States of America.

The Civil War: Turning Points in the War

By April of 1861, following Lincoln’s inauguration, and despite attempts at compromise and conciliation, tensions came to a head at Fort Sumter, a sea fort in Charleston, South Carolina. As an Army fort, it was occupied by the United States Army. In the months since South Carolina had seceded, the fort had run low on supplies. After months of negotiations, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort on April 12, 1861, beginning the Civil War.4

A short text such as this cannot cover the entire history of the Civil War; those interested in learning more about the war may want to follow the Open Yale Course “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era,” by David Blight, one of the most noted professors in the field, or read William E. Gienapp’s collection of primary sources on the subject.5 There are many other books and shows that cover this important moment in American history. Here are just a few key turning points in the Civil War will be mentioned. In class we will briefly cover each turning point and why those moments were turning points.

Brief Civil War Timeline:

April 12, 1861 – Confederate forces open fire on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War

September 17, 1862 – Battle of Antietam6

January 1, 1863 – President Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation (announced September 1862)7

July 1-3, 1863 – Battle of Gettysburg8

November 19, 1863 – Gettysburg Address9

April 9, 1865 – surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House (see next chapter)

April 14, 1865 – assassination of Abraham Lincoln (see next chapter)

The Civil War and Ordinary People

Often when we think of the Civil War we tend to focus on figures like President Abraham Lincoln, Confederacy president Jefferson Thomas, or generals. As discussed in Chapter One, recent controversies over statues, particularly of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, has tended to focus the discussion toward such figures. Over the last several decades, however, historians have broadened the study of the Civil War to include the experiences of those whose names we may not know. This shift toward studying ordinary people’s experiences of the Civil War in particular and throughout all of history in general is sometimes known as “social history,” when the focus is on demographics, how people made a living, and so on, or “cultural history” when the focus is on what media people were producing or consuming and how it affected them. Here are some of the main insights from this newer type of history as related to the Civil War.

I. Death and the Civil War Drew Gilpin Faust and other historians have pointed out the the Civil War changed how Americans died, and how they dealt with death. At the beginning of the fighting, in April 1861, many Northerners and Southerners alike believed that the war would be brief. In July 1861, for example, sightseers, including Senators, Congressmen, and women selling pies from their carts to the hungry onlookers, followed the Union army from Washington, D.C. These sightseers believed they were in for an entertaining event – only to be caught in “a stampede of retreating Union troops” after the Confederates’ surprise victory that day.10 The Confederacy did surprisingly well in early months of fighting, disabusing those Northerners who had hoped the war would be over quickly and with relatively little bloodshed.

In fact, the Civil War was the bloodiest war ever in American history. About 620,000 soldiers died between 1861 and 1865, a number equal to the fatalities of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. “The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about two percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.” Because there were far more white men of fighting age in the North than in the South, “Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white southern men of military age did not survive the Civil War.” When we imagine the War today we tend to imagine romantic scenes of men dying bravely in battle. While this certainly did occur, medical and sanitation conditions of the era were such that “twice as many Civil War soldiers died from disease as from battle wounds.” This was common in all wars before the 20th century – consider what troop housing and hospital conditions would have been like in the centuries of human history before antibiotics or even the concept of “germs” or how diseases such as typhoid, typhus, and dysentery were transmitted. The sheer scale of young, able-bodied men’s deaths changed how death was perceived in American culture. “Death’s threat, proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared experience of the war’s duration. Americans were unprepared for the impact of these deaths; what to do with the bodies that covered fields of battle, how to mourn so many lost, how to remember, and how to understand.”11

Some of the challenges Americans faced were logistical – literally, what could and should be done with the many dead bodies left beind in battles such as Antietam – in which one day, the bloodiest day of fighting of the Civil War, left 23,000 men dead or wounded. There simply was not enough manpower to bury all the dead, much less properly identify who was who. “At least half the Civil War dead were never identified.” As the war dragged on, Americans worked to develop ways to identify the dead – merchants created identity makers for soldiers, some men pinned their names to their uniforms before battle, and voluntary organizations worked to systematically compile lists of killed and wounded, and notify families of the losses and burial sites of the dead. Other challenges were emotional and cultural – how to make sense of this scale of death? Large cemetaries were created at battlefileds such as Chattanooga, Stones River, Knoxville, and, most famously, Gettysburg. “The dedication of the Union cemetary at Gettysburg marked a new departure in the assumption of national responsibility for the dead and a new acknowledgment of their importance to the nation as well as to their individual families.”12 As anyone who has visited Gettysburg can attest, the cemetery there remains an important national symbol.

Another element to consider when thinking about death and the Civil War is the impact of a new form of technology – photography – in how Americans thought about the war. The war began just two decades after the first photographic image was ever produced. Consider how seeing images of battlefields and war dead is profoundly different than artists’ romantic renderings of battles in past wars. Antietam was the first battlefield photographed before the dead were buried; the photographer Andrew Gardner took many photographs of the battlefield. Newspapers could not yet reproduce photographs, but they could and did make woodcuts (prints) of Gardner’s photographs, and his original images were put on display in New York City. The New York Times said that these photographs brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”13

Freewriting: Consider the impact of information revolutions on how we think about fighting and warfare. Photographs of battlefields tremendously influenced how Americans thought about the carnage of the Civil War. The Vietnam War is sometimes called “the living room war” because, for the first time, Americans could watch live coverage of events at home on their televisions. Social media has played a prominent role in more recent conflicts. How do you think seeing such images or coverage first-hand affects how the public thinks about these conflicts?

1Table drawn from “1860 Presidential Election,” 270toWin,

2Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, December 24, 1860, online at The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library,; William E. Gienapp, The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection (New York: Norton, 2001)

3A good summary of recent historiographical debate on this topic may be found in Lindsay Peterson, “Expert Scholarship and Historiography,” Lincoln and Emancipation, Understanding Lincoln: Gilder Lerhman Institute, Summer 2016, See also Vanessa Varin, “Fracture and Reflection: Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial Events Offer a Window Into Current Historiography Debate,” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, February 5, 2013,

4See also Fergus M. Bordewich, “Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2011,

5David Blight, “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877,” Open Yale Courses,

6“The Bloodiest Day in American History – Hope for Freedom,” Antietam National Battlefield, National Park Service,

7“The Emancipation Proclamation,” Online Exhibits, National Archives,

8“Three Days in July 1863,” History and Culture, Gettysburg National Military Park, National Park Service,

9“Gettysburg Address: Exhibition Home,” The Gettysburg Address, Library of Congress, January 12-19, 1995,

10Jim Burgess, “Spectators Witness History at Manasass,” Hallowed Ground Magazine, American Battlefield Trust, Spring 2011,

11Drew Gilpin Faust, “Death and Dying,” Civil War Era National Cemetaries: Honoring Those Who Served: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary, National Park Service,

12Drew Gilpin Faust, “Death and Dying,” Civil War Era National Cemetaries: Honoring Those Who Served: Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary, National Park Service,

13“Photography at Antietam,” Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, National Park Service,