The Early Phase of the War

Origins of the War

The origins of the Civil War were rooted in the fundamentally different economic and social structures of the North and South.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the origins of the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Northern economy was based on a mix of small farming, industry, mining, and shipping, whereas the Southern economy was based on plantation -system agriculture, which depended heavily upon slavery.
  • Northern and Southern states differed demographically, with the North receiving seven out of every eight immigrants to the United States and therefore experiencing much faster population growth.
  • Southern society had a distinctive social structure based upon slavery and the uncontested political hegemony of the elite planter class.
  • Southern states feared threats to their way of life by a federal government potentially dominated by Northern politicians.
  • Slavery polarized the public. Abolitionists passionately fought to end the institution while leaders in the South worked to preserve it (though support for and against slavery could be found on both sides).
  • The conflicting demands and beliefs of states in the North and South were precariously balanced through a series of political compromises established to avoid confrontation between the two regions.
  • As mass political participation soared in the 1850s, political parties proliferated, eroding the two-party system and splitting existing political parties such as the Democrats into opposing groups. Political organization in the United States during this time, as a result, lacked the unifying institutions it had as recently as the 1820s.
  • The Republican Party was the first U.S. political party with a strictly sectional appeal, making “free labor” an explicit part of its platform.

Key Terms

  • secession: The act of separating from the Union.
  • states’ rights: In U.S. politics, a term that refers to political powers reserved for U.S. state governments rather than for the federal government.

One of the main causes for the Civil War was slavery. A contentious issue between North and South was the expansion of slavery into western territories. Southern slave owners held that restricting slavery would violate the principle of states’ rights, whereas many Northerners believed popular sovereignty should serve as a barometer for the expansion of slavery, and some even believed slavery should be abolished completely.

Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election without being on the ballot in 10 Southern states. Lincoln’s victory triggered declarations of secession by seven slave states in the Deep South even before he took office. Nationalists refused to recognize the secessions, and the U.S. government in Washington refused to abandon its forts in Confederate territory. War began in April 1861 when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, a major U.S. fortress in South Carolina.

Disunion Sparks War

As a panel of historians emphasized in 2011, “while slavery and its various and multifaceted discontents were the primary cause of disunion, it was disunion itself that sparked the war.” States’ rights and the tariff issue became entangled in—and intensified by—the slavery issue. Other important factors were party politics, Southern and Northern nationalism, expansionism, sectionalism, economics, and modernization during the antebellum period.

The United States had become a nation of two distinct regions. The free states in New England, the Northeast, and the Midwest had rapidly growing economies based on family farms, industry, mining, commerce, and transportation, with a large and quickly growing urban population. Their growth was fed by a high birth rate and large numbers of European immigrants, especially Irish, British, and Germans.

The Southern economy, on the other hand, was dominated by the plantation system, which in turn relied heavily upon the continued institution of slavery. The Southwest experienced some rapid growth due to high birth rates and high migration from the Southeast, but it had a much lower immigration rate from Europe. The South also had fewer large cities and few manufacturing hubs, except in border areas. Slave owners controlled the politics and economics of the region, though about 70 percent of Southern whites owned no slaves and were primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Overall, the Northern population was growing more quickly than the Southern population, which made it increasingly difficult for the South to continue to exert influence over the national government. By the time of the 1860 election, the heavily agricultural Southern states as a group had fewer Electoral College votes than the rapidly industrializing Northern states. Southerners felt a loss of federal interest in their proslavery political demands. This provided the very real basis for Southerners’ concern over the relative political decline of their region in relation to the North’s growing population and industrial output.

As sectional politics became increasingly virulent and hostile, the collapse of the old Second Party System in the 1850s hampered efforts of politicians to reach further compromises. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 outraged too many Northerners and led to the formation of the Republican Party, the first major party with no appeal in the South. Meanwhile, the industrializing North and agrarian Midwest became increasingly committed to the economic ethos of industrial capitalism.

Private citizens and politicians, including some prominent Southerners, had long been vocal about the caustic damage that the institution of slavery had on the nation. In 1840, the leaders of the newly formed Republican Party denounced slavery as morally repugnant and downright evil. Defenders of slavery, conversely, contended that slavery was a necessity and that slaves actually benefited from the arrangement. Increasingly, these ideological lines were perceived as ones that could not be reconciled peacefully, and the specter of war loomed larger over the country.

Attack on Fort Sumter

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first armed conflict of the Civil War.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Battle of Fort Sumter

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The governments of South Carolina and the Confederacy regarded Fort Sumter as the rightful property of South Carolina.
  • The administrations in both Washington, D.C., and Montgomery, Alabama, wanted to avoid being seen as the aggressor in the Battle of Fort Sumter for fear of alienating the border states yet to secede.
  • Fort Sumter, outgunned by a large margin, surrendered on the third day of bombardment.
  • Confederate actions during the attack were dictated by the central government in Montgomery, not by the South Carolina militia, establishing supremacy of the central government in war-related decisions.

Key Terms

  • Fort Sumter: A Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired.
  • Robert Anderson: (June 14, 1805–October 26, 1871) An American military leader. He served as a Union Army officer in the American Civil War and is known for his command of Fort Sumter at the start of the war.
  • Fort Moultrie: Fort Moultrie is the name of a series of citadels on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, built to protect the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Federal Forts Around Charleston Harbor

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first battle of the American Civil War. Sumter was an imposing facility, designed to be one of the world’s strongest fortresses. By the fall of 1860, its construction was almost complete. The fort was not garrisoned, housing only a single soldier, who functioned as a lighthouse keeper, and a small party of civilian construction workers. After seceding from the United States, Southern states began seizing federal property in the South. By 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was one of two federal possessions remaining in Southern territory. South Carolina demanded that the U.S. federal government abandon its facilities in Charleston Harbor. Under the cover of darkness on December 26, six days after South Carolina declared its secession, Major Robert Anderson received orders from the federal government to abandon the indefensible Fort Moultrie and relocate his command to Fort Sumter.

Conditions at the fort were difficult during the winter of 1860–1861. Rations were short and fuel for heat was limited. Because the garrison’s supplies were limited, President James Buchanan authorized a relief expedition for supplies, small arms, and 200 soldiers. To appear less provocative, federal supplies were sent on an unarmed civilian merchant ship, Star of the West. On January 9, 1861, as the Star of the West approached Charleston Harbor, batteries at Morris Island and Fort Moultrie opened fire, forcing it to withdraw. Major Anderson, unaware of the Star’s approach, declined to fire on the Confederate batteries.

The Fort Sumter crisis was waiting for President Lincoln upon his inauguration on March 4, 1861. He received news that Fort Sumter had only six weeks of rations left. Lincoln and his new cabinet were thus faced with the decision of reinforcing or evacuating Sumter. Lincoln decided to continue to reinforce the fort and demand the Confederates cease contact with it.

The South sent delegations to Washington, D.C., and offered to pay for the federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with the Confederate agents because he did not consider the Confederacy a legitimate nation, and making any treaty with it would be tantamount to recognition of it as a sovereign government. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who wished to give up Sumter as a gesture of goodwill, engaged in unauthorized and indirect negotiations that failed.

Having received notification from Lincoln, Governor Pickens consulted with General Beauregard. President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to repeat the demand for Sumter’s surrender and authorized the use of force to complete surrender before the relief expedition arrived. The Confederate cabinet endorsed Davis’s order on April 9. Only Secretary of State Robert Toombs opposed out of concern for appearing as the aggressor and alienating undecided parties.

Preparations for the Attack

On March 1, President Davis appointed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard to command South Carolinian forces in Charleston. Beauregard was an expert in siege operations and believed a siege of Fort Sumter might soon be required. Ironically, Major Anderson was a particularly close friend of Beauregard’s and previously served as his artillery instructor at West Point. Beauregard, in turn, had served as Major Anderson’s assistant in the Mexican-American War.

On April 4, as Fort Sumter’s lack of supplies became critical, President Lincoln ordered the delivery of relief supplies. The relief expedition was to be led by Gustavus V. Fox (future assistant secretary of the navy) and involve the landing of small vessels at Fort Sumter under the cover of night.

Fort Sumter Attack

On Friday, April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire, firing for 34 straight hours on the fort. No attempt was made to return the fire for more than two hours. The fort’s supply of ammunition was not suited for the task; in addition, there were no fuses for explosive shells. Only solid balls could be used against the rebel batteries. At about 7:00 a.m., Captain Abner Doubleday, the fort’s second in command, was given the honor of firing the first shot in defense of the fort. The shot was ineffective, in part because Major Anderson did not use the guns mounted on the highest tier where the gun detachments would be more exposed to Confederate fire. The firing continued all day. The Union fired slowly to conserve ammunition. At night the fire from the fort stopped, but the Confederates still lobbed an occasional shell at Sumter. On Saturday, April 13, the fort was surrendered and evacuated by the Union. During the attack, the Union colors fell.

The following day, President Lincoln formally declared that the Confederate states were in a state of rebellion.

The Battle of Bull Run

The Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War, demonstrated to the public that the conflict would not be resolved quickly or easily.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the significance of the Battle of Bull Run

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political pressure forced Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to attack the Confederate Army before he deemed his troops ready.
  • Inexperience hampered the battle efforts of both the Union and Confederate forces.
  • The Confederates made a successful stand at Henry House Hill, forcing the Union Army into a disorganized retreat.

Key Terms

  • Bull Run: A battle, also known as the “Battle of First Manassas” (the name used by Confederate forces), fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas.
  • Army of the Potomac: The major Union Army in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.

The First Battle of Bull Run, called the “Battle of First Manassas” by the Confederacy, was fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas. It was the first major land battle of the American Civil War, but is also significant for demonstrating to the wider public the inexperience of both armies and the intractable nature of the conflict given the inability of either side to achieve a quick or decisive victory.

Political pressure forced Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, head of the Army of the Potomac, to launch a campaign against the Confederate Army of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard camped near Manassas Junction. McDowell’s ambitious plan for a surprise attack on Beauregard’s left flank met with initial success; however, the Confederates made a successful stand at Henry House Hill reinforced by Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston and benefited from the ingenious tactics of Colonel Thomas J. Jackson.

Confederate reinforcements under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad and the course of the battle quickly changed. A brigade of Virginians under a relatively unknown colonel from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, stood their ground giving rise to Jackson’s famous nickname, “Stonewall Jackson.” The Confederates then launched a strong counterattack, and as the Union troops began withdrawing under fire, many panicked, turning the battle into a rout as McDowell’s men frantically ran without order in the direction of Washington, D.C. The operations of each side were undermined by the inexperience of soldiers and officers. Additionally, both sides were sobered by the fierce fighting and many casualties, giving rise to the realization throughout the country that the conflict would not be settled by a short, decisive campaign.

The Union attack came from the North; the Confederate attack came from the South.

First Battle of Bull Run: This figure shows the direction of Union attack and Confederate reinforcement at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Naval Actions

The naval actions of the Civil War revolved around the Union Navy’s blockades of Confederate ports.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the role of naval power during the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Both the Union and Confederate navies started the Civil War with small, ill-purposed fleets, but they grew and made impressive innovations in naval technology during the war, setting the stage for the next generation of warships.
  • The primary missions of the Union Navy were to enforce the blockade of Confederate ports, combat war vessels of the Confederate States Navy, carry the war to places inaccessible by land, and support the Union Army by providing transport, communication, and gunfire.
  • Confederate naval operations were mostly comprised of blockade running and privateering.
  • The Union Blockade, or the Blockade of the South, took place between 1861 and 1865. Part of the Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott, it required the closure of 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline and 12 major ports.
  • By the war’s end, imports in the Confederacy had been choked to a trickle as the number of Union naval captures increased to about 50 percent of Confederate blockade runners.

Key Terms

  • privateer: A privately owned warship that had official sanction to attack enemy ships and take possession of their cargo.

The first shots of the naval battles of the Civil War were fired on April 13, 1861, during the Battle of Fort Sumter, by the Revenue Service cutter USRC Harriet Lane. The final shots were fired in the Bering Strait by the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, on June 22, 1865, more than two months after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Confederate Army.

Both the Union and Confederate navies started the Civil War with small, ill-purposed fleets, but they made impressive innovations in naval technology during the war, setting the stage for the next generation of warships. Over the course of the war, both sides’ navies grew and possessed increasingly well-developed technology. For example, the Civil War saw the first clash of ironclad warships. Though neither the Union nor the Confederates began the war with ironclads in their arsenals, the Confederacy moved quickly to obtain ironclads from overseas to gain a competitive advantage. On October 12, 1861, the CSS Manassas entered combat against Union warships on the Mississippi during the Battle of the Head of Passes. By March 9, 1862, the Union ironclad Monitor entered a fray with Confederate warships, marking the first-ever clash between two ironclad ships. Both sides continued to build ironclads for use in the war, with many of the Union ironclads seeing action in Confederate ports and in the rivers along the western front. The Union ironclads were particularly effective along the Mississippi and its tributaries where they were able to direct heavy fire against Confederate forts and strongholds with limited return fire.

By the end of 1861, the Union Navy had grown to 24,000 officers and enlisted men, over 15,000 more than during the antebellum period. Four squadrons of ships were deployed during the war: two in the Atlantic and two in the Gulf of Mexico. The primary missions of the Union Navy were to accomplish the following:

  1. Maintain the blockade of Confederate ports by restraining all blockade runners as declared by the president on April 19, 1861.
  2. Meet in combat the war vessels of the Confederate States Navy.
  3. Carry the war to places in the seceded states that were inaccessible to the Union Army but could be reached by water.
  4. Support the Union Army by providing both gunfire support and rapid transport and communications on the rivers of the interior.
An image of the CSS Virginia

The CSS Virginia: The CSS Virginia was the Confederate’s ironclad warship. It met with great success at the Battle of Hampton Roads despite being the target of most of the Union’s firepower. It famously dueled with the USS Monitor, signaling the beginning of a new age of ironclad naval combat.

The Union Blockade, or the Blockade of the South, took place between 1861 and 1865. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the blockade on April 19, 1861. His strategy, part of the Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott, required the closure of 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline and 12 major ports. These included New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama, the top two cotton-exporting ports prior to the outbreak of the war, as well as the Atlantic ports of Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Wilmington, North Carolina. The Union commissioned 500 ships to enforce this blockade, and they destroyed or captured approximately 1,500 blockade runners over the course of the war. Confederate “blockade runners” that did manage to get through the blockade carried only a small fraction of the usual cargo.

Early battles in support of the Anaconda Plan included the Blockade of the Chesapeake Bay (May–June 1861) and the Blockade of the Carolina Coast (August–December 1861). Both enabled the Union Navy to gradually extend its blockade southward along the Atlantic seaboard. As the Union fleet grew in size, speed, and sophistication, more ports came under federal control. After 1862, only three ports—Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mobile, Alabama—remained open for the 75 to 100 blockade runners still operating. Charleston was shut down by Admiral John A. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863. Mobile Bay was captured in August 1864 by Admiral David Farragut. Blockade runners faced an increasing risk of capture—in 1861 and 1862, one ship in nine was captured; in 1863 and 1864, this number increased to one in three. By war’s end, imports had been choked to a trickle as the number of captures increased to about 50 percent of Confederate ships.

Forming Armies

Both the Confederacy and Union formed massive, elaborately organized armies through volunteerism and conscription.

Learning Objectives

Identify how the Union and Confederacy formed their armies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Many former commanders of the U.S. Army and Navy defected to the Confederacy when their states seceded.
  • The Union Army included about 200,000 black soldiers; the Confederacy refused to enlist blacks until the last year of the war, when it incorporated two black companies.
  • The Confederate Army suffered from chronic under-supplying, a factor that contributed to its failures.
  • Both sides faced high rates of desertion, with the Union’s desertion rate estimated at 15 percent.

Key Terms

  • Confederate States Army: The army of the Confederate States of America (or “Confederacy”) while the Confederacy existed during the American Civil War.

Recruitment and Training

In April 1861, at the beginning of the American Civil War, there were only 16,000 men in the U.S. Army. Of these, many Southern officers resigned and joined the Confederate States Army. The U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canadian border and on the Atlantic coast.

Union Recruitment and Conscription

With the secession of the Southern states, and with this drastic shortage of men in the army, President Abraham Lincoln called on the states to raise a force of 75,000 men for three months to put down the “insurrection.” Lincoln’s call forced the border states to choose sides. Four seceded, making the Confederacy 11 states strong.

The war proved to be longer and more extensive than anyone, North or South, had expected. On July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men. Initially, the call for volunteers was easily met by patriotic Northerners, abolitionists, and even immigrants who enlisted for a steady income and meals. More than 10,000 Germans from New York and Pennsylvania immediately responded to Lincoln’s call, and the French also were quick to volunteer. As more men were needed, however, the number of volunteers fell, and both money bounties and forced conscription became necessary.

On March 3, 1863, Congress enacted the Enrollment Act, also known as the “Civil War Military Draft Act,” to bolster the manpower of the Union Army. The act required every male citizen and male immigrant who had filed for citizenship between the ages of 20 and 45 to enroll in the army. The act was very controversial and led to a number of riots, including the infamous New York City draft riots during what was known as Draft Week (July 13–16, 1863). The New York City draft riots were the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history aside from the Civil War. The unrest was primarily driven by the working-class population and particularly Irish immigrants. A provision in the act allowed those who paid a $300 substitution fee to be exempt from service.

While the New York City draft riots began an an expression of discontent over the draft, the violence was also directed toward African Americans with death tolls reaching 119. Conditions were such within the city that President Lincoln was forced to redirect militia and volunteer troops from the recent Battle of Gettysburg up to New York in order to contain the situation. The forces arrived after the first day of rioting, at which point significant damage had already been done to several buildings, churches, African-American homes, and other institutions such as the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was completely burned to the ground. As a result of the racially driven violence, many African Americans left Manhattan permanently. Yet despite the controversial Enrollment Act and the outcry that followed, at least 2.5 million men—the majority of whom were volunteers—served in the Union Army between April 1861 and April 1865.

The Confederates also conscripted soldiers for their army. The Conscription Act, passed in April 1862, was the first of its kind in U.S. history. It called for all able-bodied white men between the ages of 18 and 35 to enroll in the army for a three-year term. It also extended the term of service for those who had previously enrolled from one year to three. Men who worked in industries considered critical to the Confederate cause, such as railroad and river workers, miners, and teachers, were exempt from the draft. The act was amended twice within the year. On September 27, the maximum age of conscription was extended to 45. On October 11, the “Twenty Nigger Law” provided an exemption from service for men who owned 20 or more slaves. As the Confederates suffered losses in battle and struggled in the face of a much larger Union force, the act was amended further, disallowing wealthy men to pay a substitution fee in order to avoid service and extending the lower and upper age limits to 17 and 50 respectively.

Proportions of Professionals on Both Sides

It is a misconception that the South held an advantage because of the large percentage of professional officers who resigned to join the Confederate States Army. At the start of the war, there were 824 graduates of the U.S. Military Academy on the active list; of these, 296 resigned or were dismissed, and 184 of those became Confederate officers. Of the approximately 900 West Point graduates who were then civilians, 400 returned to the Union Army and 99 to the Confederate. Therefore, the ratio of Union to Confederate professional officers was 642 to 283.

Portrait of Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee: General Lee had been offered the command of Union armies but declined when his home state of Virginia seceded. His superior generalship was an important factor in Confederate victories in the eastern theater. He was lionized as the embodiment of what had been most noble in the Confederacy.

One of the resigning officers was Robert E. Lee, who had initially been offered the assignment as commander of a field army to suppress the rebellion. Lee disapproved of secession, but refused to bear arms against his native state, Virginia, and resigned to accept the position as commander of Virginia forces. He eventually became the commander of the Confederate States Army. The South did have the advantage of being home to other military colleges, such as The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, but these institutions produced fewer officers. Only 26 enlisted men and noncommissioned officers are known to have left the regular U.S. Army to join the Confederate Army, all by desertion.

Participation of African-American Soldiers

The inclusion of African Americans as combat soldiers became a major issue. Eventually, it was realized, especially given the valiant efforts of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, that African Americans were fully able to serve as competent and reliable soldiers. The 54th Regiment was an infantry regiment that saw extensive service with the Union Army throughout the Civil War and was one of the first official African-American units in the United States. The assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, helped raise their regiment to prominence. Of the 600 men who charged on the fort, 272 were either killed, wounded, or captured: the highest casualty count for the 54th in a single engagement during the war. Though the Union did not prevail in taking and holding the fort, word of the 54th Regiment’s valor spread quickly and received great praise.

Another notable story of African-American service to the Union involved Robert Smalls, who, while still a slave, won fame by defecting from the Confederacy and commandeering a Confederate transport ship he was piloting to Union hands. He later met with Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, to argue for including African Americans in combat units. This led to the formation of the first combat unit for black soldiers, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.

Regiments for black soldiers were eventually referred to as “United States Colored Troops.” African Americans were paid less than white soldiers until late in the war and were, in general, treated harshly. Even after the end of the war, they were not permitted (by Sherman’s order) to march in the great victory parade through Washington, D.C. In general, the Union Army was composed of many different ethnic groups, including large numbers of immigrants. About 25 percent of the white people who served in the Union Army were foreign-born.

Confederate Diplomacy

Both the Union and countries in Europe refused to recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation.

Learning Objectives

Describe Confederate diplomacy during the Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Union defined the Confederacy as a rebellion.
  • In 1863, British and French recognition of the Confederacy seemed possible and likely due to the European countries’ need for cotton.
  • Britain was prevented from recognizing the Confederacy by a mix of economic and humanitarian considerations, including economic ties to the Union, the Union’s threats of war, and abolitionist sentiment.
  • The British government did assist the Confederacy in blockade running.

Key Terms

  • Emancipation Proclamation: An executive order issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln using his war powers on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War. It proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the 10 states then in rebellion, making it applicable to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the United States at that time.
  • official recognition: Also known as “diplomatic recognition”; in international law, a unilateral political act with domestic and international legal consequences whereby a state acknowledges an act or status of another state or government in control of a state (also may be an unrecognized state). Recognition can be accorded either de facto or de jure, usually by a statement of the recognizing government.

During its four-year existence, the Confederate States of America actively sought official recognition and aid from European powers, particularly Britain and France. Despite the Confederacy’s efforts at diplomacy, the European states in large part refused to recognize or aid the Confederacy, for a combination of economic and humanitarian reasons. Recognizing the Confederacy meant conflict with the Union and associated economic costs, such as loss of Northern grain and Northern import markets as well as potential involvement in an expensive war. Moreover, abolitionist sentiment, ascendant in Europe, was mobilized on behalf of the Union by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. These considerations outweighed the European powers’ interest in Southern cotton. No European states recognized the Confederacy, although Britain did aid the Confederacy’s blockade running.

Diplomatic Relations Between the Union and Confederacy

The United States government considered the Southern states to be in rebellion and refused to grant formal recognition of the Confederacy as a sovereign state. Sovereign status was important in terms of the rights and obligations accorded to a government under military and international law, so nonrecognition had important implications for the South.

The Union maintained that the Confederacy was a rebellion rather than a legitimate government throughout the war. In fact, the U.S. government never actually declared war on the Confederacy, instead merely expressing a need to recapture federal forts and suppress an ongoing rebellion, as in Lincoln’s proclamation on April 15, 1861. Lincoln’s calls for troops referenced an “insurrection” or “rebellion” rather than war with a hostile nation. Mid-war parlays between the two sides occurred without formal political recognition despite the fact that laws of international war governed military relationships on the ground.

By contrast, the Confederacy declared their sovereignty and considered the Union a hostile, invading nation. Immediately following the Battle of Fort Sumter, the Confederate Congress proclaimed, “war exists between the Confederate States and the Government of the United States, and the States and Territories thereof.” Formally, the state of war was restricted to exclude the Union states and territories that allowed slavery, although Confederate rangers did carry out operations there throughout the war.

The legal status of the Confederate States of America remained a subject of controversy after the war. In 1869, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White that Texas’s declaration of secession was legally null and void. Arguments on behalf of the Confederacy’s sovereign status and the legality of secession were published by Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, and Alexander Stephens, its former vice president. Particularly notable was Davis’s book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.

Confederate Diplomacy in Europe

After the war with the United States began, the Confederacy pinned its hopes for survival on military intervention by Britain and France. The Confederates relied on European interest in Southern cotton exports, believing that “cotton is king.” The Confederate government sent repeated delegations to Europe, although historians give them low marks for their poor diplomacy. James M. Mason went to London and John Slidell traveled to Paris. They were unofficially interviewed, but neither secured official recognition for the Confederacy.

The image shows the two ships involved in the Trent Affair, the Trent and the San Jacinto.

The “San Jacinto” Stopping The “Trent”: The Trent Affair involved the illegal boarding of a British ship in an attempt to enforce the Union’s blockade of the Confederacy. Britain reacted strongly and for a moment seemed likely to aid the Confederacy; however, tensions soon cooled.

Throughout the early years of the war, British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell, Emperor Napoleon III of France, and, to a lesser extent, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, showed interest in recognition of the Confederacy or at least in mediation of the war. The Confederacy was seen internationally as a serious attempt at nationhood, and European governments sent military observers to assess the de facto establishment of independence. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the European countries also had economic incentives not to aid the Confederacy. Moreover, the military situation worsened for the Confederacy. Abolitionist sentiment provided a third disincentive to recognize the Confederacy throughout Europe.

The Confederacy had overestimated British demand for Southern cotton. In fact, Britain had stocks to last more than a year and had been developing alternative sources of cotton, most notably India and Egypt. Moreover, Britain had much to lose by recognizing the Confederacy. Even before Fort Sumter, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had made clear the Union’s intention to declare war on nations recognizing the Confederacy. A war with the United States would be costly to Britain, resulting in the immediate loss of American grain shipments, the end of exports to the United States, and the seizure of billions of pounds invested in American securities. War meant higher taxes, another invasion of Canada, and full-scale attacks on the British merchant fleet.

Moreover, the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam undermined the Confederacy’s claims to be on the verge of victory. Shortly after Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, shifting the war from a mission to preserve the Union to a mission to free the slaves. This shift mobilized abolitionist sentiment, which was ascendant in Europe, on behalf of the Union.

The West and the Civil War

Western states and territories witnessed major military campaigns by Confederate and Union forces.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Civil War in the western states and territories

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1861, the Confederates’ southwestern campaign initially succeeded in taking possession of Arizona and New Mexico before Union victories in 1862 ensured Union supremacy in the southwest and California.
  • Although Missouri voted not to secede, its secessionist governor aided Confederate troops in taking the state. They were defeated in 1862 by Union troops.
  • Rebel and Union insurgents engaged in guerrilla conflict in Missouri, which continued in some parts of the state long after the conclusion of the war.
  • The Union Red River Campaign was unsuccessful in its attempt to close Confederate shipping operations in Louisiana and Texas.
  • Native Americans in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) fought on both sides of the war, particularly during Union attempts to secure the territory.
  • The Union Army fought other engagements against Native Americans during the Civil War, including the Sioux Wars in Minnesota (1862) and campaigns against the Navajo in Arizona (1864).

Key Terms

  • Indian Territory: Also known as “Indian Territories” or “Indian Country”; an evolving land area set aside by the U.S. government for the relocation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas who held aboriginal title to their land.
  • bushwhacker: A guerrilla (on either side) during the American Civil War.
  • bivouac: An improvised style of outdoor shelter or campsite, sometimes composed of items found in the surrounding area such as tree branches, leaves, or dirt.

The Western Theater

The western theater of the U.S. Civil War involved military operations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and areas of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. The areas west of the Mississippi, excluding states and territories bordered by the Pacific Ocean, were known as the “Trans-Mississippi Theater” of the war. The Pacific states were known as the “Pacific Coast Theater.” The western theater witnessed several important campaigns.

The Union engaged in a number of offensive military operations in the western theater, forcing the Confederates to defend their positions with limited resources. The Union began campaigns in the western theater by securing Kentucky in June 1861. During this time, and in subsequent clashes over the Tennessee-Kentucky region, Ulysses S. Grant won recognition from President Lincoln for his willingness to fight and was given approval from Major General Henry W. Halleck to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, which had been claimed by Confederates. Before Grant’s forces could attack, Admiral Andrew H. Foote’s naval flotilla, which consisted of both ironclads and wooden ships, bombarded the fort into surrender. The fall of Fort Henry opened the Union campaign in Tennessee and Alabama and provided the opportunity for Grant’s forces to move 12 miles east to capture Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.

Fort Donelson did not fall as easily to Union forces. On February 14, Foote’s naval flotilla arrived along the Cumberland River, but was repulsed by Donelson’s water batteries. The next day, Confederate General Gideon J. Pillow attacked Union forces in an attempt to open up an escape route from Donelson to Nashville. Though at first the attack caused Union forces to retreat, the Confederate push forward was stalled for long enough to allow Grant’s forces to rally and prevent the southerners from escaping. Fort Donelson surrendered to the Union the next day, February 16, in what was considered a tremendous victory for the Union in terms of rebels captured and arms seized. The surrender was particularly significant for Grant’s demand that the Confederates agree to, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.” From then on, he was colloquially referred to as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

The Battle of Shiloh, or the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was another major battle in the western theater of the U.S. Civil War. It was fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee and was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Grant’s forces moved to an encampment at Pittsburg Landing near a small log church named “Shiloh” following the successful campaign at Fort Donelson. Their camp was set up in bivouac style without entrenchments or any planned defensive measures. The Confederates became aware of their encampment and launched a surprise attack, being fairly successful in their first day of fighting. Ultimately the Confederates lost to the Union forces on the second day when General Don Carlos Buell’s forces reached Grant’s and they launched a successful counterattack. As a result, the Confederates retreated, unable to stop the Union advance into northern Mississippi.

The Confederacy ‘s Southwestern Campaigns

The Confederacy launched initially successful campaigns in the territory of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. The campaigns were instigated by the secessionist desires of the citizens of Texas and southern Arizona. In Texas, local troops took over the federal arsenal in San Antonio with the intention of taking the territories of northern New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and California. Residents in southern Arizona adopted a secession ordinance and requested aid from Confederate forces in Texas, both to oust the Union Army forces in Arizona and to resist raids by Apaches after U.S. Army units were moved out.

In 1861, the Confederate States Army launched a successful campaign into Arizona and New Mexico. After Confederate victories, Colonel John Baylor proclaimed the creation of the Confederate territory of Arizona. Confederate soldiers and militia continued to fight against Apaches with battles peaking in 1861.

Confederate troops were unsuccessful in attempts to press northward from their acquisitions in Arizona. In 1862, Union reinforcements arrived from California. Union forces won an important victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (March 26–28, 1862). The battle was small in terms of troops engaged and casualties inflicted, but important in that it effectively stopped the Confederacy’s northward advance. A Confederate victory would have eased the advance to Fort Union in New Mexico and to Denver.

In April, the California Column of the Union Army drove the Confederates from Tucson after the Battle of Picacho Pass. After a small skirmish, Confederate forces withdrew due to a lack of supplies. The conflict ended the Confederate campaign in the Southwest, leaving the area west of Texas in Union hands for the remainder of the war. The Battle of Pichaco Pass was also the westernmost engagement of the War.

Conflict over Missouri

Missouri was a border state whose loyalties were courted by both Union and Confederate leaders. Slavery was legal in the state, and Missouri had a well-organized and militant secessionist movement. Nevertheless, the Missouri legislature voted by a ratio of more than two-to-one to remain in the Union.

Missouri became a site of conflict when governor Claiborne F. Jackson, a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, led his small state guard to the federal arsenal at St. Louis. Jackson’s force soon joined with Confederate armies and waged a campaign to secure control of Missouri. The Confederates won initial victories at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. However, Confederate forces were driven back by the arrival of a large Union force in February 1862. Union control of Missouri was ensured by a victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 7–8.

Thereafter, a guerrilla conflict developed in Missouri. Gangs of Confederate insurgents, commonly known as “bushwhackers,” ambushed and battled Union troops and Unionist state militia forces. Fighting also occurred between pro- and anti-Union Missourians. Both sides carried out large-scale atrocities against civilians, ranging from forced resettlement to murder.

The Union’s Campaigns in Texas and Western Louisiana

Starting in 1862 and continuing through the end of the war, the Union mounted several attempts to capture the trans-Mississippi regions of Texas and Louisiana. With Atlantic ports blockaded, ports in Texas and Louisiana became havens for blockade running. Referred to as the “back door” of the Confederacy, ports in Texas and western Louisiana continued to ship cotton crops that could be transferred overland to Mexican border towns and then shipped to Europe in exchange for badly needed supplies. Determined to close this trade, the Union mounted several invasion attempts of Texas, each of them unsuccessful. The Union’s disastrous Red River Campaign in western Louisiana effectively ended the Union’s attempts to invade the region.

Isolated from events in the East, the Civil War continued at a low level in the Trans-Mississippi theater for several months after Lee’s surrender in April 1865. The last battle of the war occurred at Palmito Ranch in southern Texas—a Confederate victory.

Campaigns in Indian Territory

The land formally designated as “Indian Territory” covered most of present-day Oklahoma. This territory was an unorganized region, reserved for Native American tribes of the southeastern United States. Indian Territory hosted numerous skirmishes and seven officially recognized battles in which different Native American groups allied with the Union or Confederacy. Significant campaigns include the Sioux Wars in Minnesota (1862) and campaigns against the Navajo in Arizona (1864).


“Execution of the Thirty-Eight Sioux Indians”: The last act associated with the Sioux Wars in 1862: after the Union Army defeated the attacking Dakota tribes, the tribes’ leaders were tried and executed.

McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign

Union General George B. McClellan attempted to capture Richmond in the Peninsular Campaign, but numerous sieges forced his retreat.

Learning Objectives

Describe the tactics and significance of the Peninsular Campaign

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • General George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign was an attempt to achieve an early end to the war by capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond.
  • The campaign involved a number of indecisive battles, including the Union victory at the Battle of Williamsburg, the defeat of the Union Navy at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, and the inconclusive Battle of Seven Pines.
  • Taking over command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee launched the Seven Days Battles, which ended the Union’s Peninsular Campaign.
  • McClellan was repeatedly fooled by the feints of Confederate generals, believing the Confederate armies to be larger than they actually were on at least four occasions.
  • McClellan made tactical mistakes, including using excessive caution, being passive in the face of Confederate advances, maintaining distance from the battle lines during the Seven Days Battles, and failing to institute a clear chain of command to govern in his absence.

Key Terms

  • Army of Northern Virginia: The primary military force of the Confederate States of America in the eastern theater of the American Civil War as well as the primary command structure of the Department of Northern Virginia.
  • General Robert E. Lee: (January 19, 1807–October 12, 1870) A career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War.
  • Seven Days Battles: The Seven Days Battles was a series of six major battles over the seven days from June 25 to July 1, 1862, near Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War.

The Peninsular Campaign of the American Civil War was a major Union operation launched in southeastern Virginia from March through July 1862, and was the first large-scale offensive in the eastern theater. The operation, commanded by Major General George B. McClellan, was an amphibious turning movement against the Confederate States Army in northern Virginia intended to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. McClellan was initially successful against Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, but the emergence of aggressive General Robert E. Lee turned the subsequent Seven Days Battles into a humiliating Union defeat.

Portrait of General George B. McClellan

General George B. McClellan: General McClellan launched an invasion of Virginia, intending to take the Confederate capital of Richmond and bring an early end to the Civil War. The invasion failed, partly on account of McClellan’s shortcomings, including credulity, passivity, and excessive caution.

McClellan, recently having ascended to general chief of all Union armies in addition to remaining an army commander for the Army of the Potomac, revealed on January 12, 1862, a plan to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to Urbanna, Virginia, in order to outflank Confederate forces near Washington and capture Richmond. On January 27, President Lincoln issued orders that all armies begin offensive tactics by February 22, and four days later, he issued a supplementary decree that the Army of the Potomac specifically move to Manassas Junction and Centreville to attack Confederates there. McClellan rebutted this decision in a 22-page letter to the president, outlining his Urbanna plan. Although the president doubted the utility of the plan, he allowed McClellan to enact Urbanna and named specific officers as corps commanders to report under McClellan directly.

During this time, General Johnston moved his forces from the Washington area and assumed positions south of the Rappahannock River, thwarting the strategy underlying McClellan’s Urbanna plan. McClellan altered his plan so that his forces would land at Fort Monroe and move northwest up the Virginia Peninsula, but Congress and the press were highly critical of what was perceived as a missed opportunity to catch the Confederates in their previous positions near Washington. Another setback for the campaign was the emergence of the first Confederate ironclad ship, the CSS Virginia, which complicated further Union operations along the James River. In the subsequent Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8–9, 1862), the Virginia defeated several Union wooden ships, calling into question their usefulness in the age or the ironclad. The USS Monitor arrived on the scene the next day, leading to the world’s first clash between ironclads. Though the battle was inconclusive and neither ship was badly damaged, the clash was highly publicized around the world and did prevent the Virginia from continuing its attacks against Union wooden ships.

On March 11, President Lincoln removed McClellan from his position as general chief of the army, ostensibly so McClellan could focus on the Urbanna Plan, though later in his life McClellan would argue the decision was made to ensure the failure of his campaign. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder’s second defensive along the peninsula, the Warwick Line, caught McClellan by surprise. His hopes for a quick advance foiled, McClellan ordered his army to prepare for a siege of Yorktown. Just before the siege preparations were completed, the Confederates, now under the direct command of Johnston, began a withdrawal toward Richmond. The first heavy fighting of the campaign occurred in the Battle of Williamsburg, in which the Union troops managed some tactical victories, but the Confederates continued their withdrawal. An amphibious flanking movement to Eltham’s Landing was ineffective in cutting off the Confederate retreat. In the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, an attempt by the U.S. Navy to reach Richmond by way of the James River was repulsed.

As McClellan’s army reached the outskirts of Richmond, a minor battle occurred at Hanover Court House, and it was followed by a Confederate offense led by Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks. The battle was inconclusive with heavy casualties, but it had lasting effects on the campaign. Johnston was wounded and replaced on June 1 by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee, who reorganized the army and prepared for offensive action in the final battles of June 25 through July 1, popularly known as the “Seven Days Battles” and considered by historians to be the second phase of the Peninsular Campaign. Though none of the battles from these seven days resulted in significant Confederate tactical victories, the fierce fighting and sudden appearance of Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” on McClellan’s western flank became unnerving for Union forces, which were eventually forced back to their base at the James River. President Lincoln eventually ordered the Army of the Potomac back to the D.C. area to support Major General John Pope’s forces in the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties as a result of the Seven Days Battles. Even though they were victorious, many Confederates were stunned by the enormous losses they suffered. Nonetheless, Confederate morale was high following the battles, and Lee continued his aggressive strategies in the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Maryland Campaign. In turn, the Union’s morale was crushed following McClellan’s retreat and what was perceived to be poor strategic planning on the part of Union army leadership.

The Battle of Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg was one of the most one-sided battles and the first instance of urban combat during the American Civil War.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Battle of Fredericksburg

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • President Lincoln urged Ambrose Burnside to launch an offensive due to his need to retain the Northern public’s confidence in his administration.
  • Burnside intended to deceive Lee as to the Union Army’s destination, then surprise Lee near Richmond; however, delays allowed Lee to set up defensive positions at Fredericksburg.
  • Both sides were shocked by the destruction and looting of Fredericksburg as perpetrated by Union forces.
  • On December 13, 1862, a series of frontal assaults by Union forces on the well-fortified Confederate positions resulted in heavy Confederate losses.

Key Terms

  • Fredericksburg: A city in the northern part of the state of Virginia in the United States.
  • Rappahannock River: A river in eastern Virginia, in the United States, approximately 195 miles (314 km) in length.

Fredericksburg: A Union Defeat

In November 1862, President Abraham Lincoln needed to demonstrate the success of the Union war effort before the Northern public lost confidence in his administration. Confederate armies had been on the move earlier in the fall, invading Kentucky and Maryland, and although each had been turned back, those armies remained intact and capable of further action. Lincoln urged Major General Ulysses S. Grant to advance against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He replaced Major General Don Carlos Buell with Major General William S. Rosecrans, hoping for a more aggressive posture against the Confederates in Tennessee. On November 5, seeing that his replacement of Buell had not stimulated Major General George B. McClellan into action, he issued orders to replace McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. McClellan had stopped Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, but had not been able to destroy Lee’s army, nor did he pursue Lee back into Virginia aggressively enough for Lincoln.


Battle of Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rappahannock in the morning of December 13, 1862, under the command of Generals Burnside, Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin: Due to the Union Army’s logistical and bureaucratic delays, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had set up well-fortified positions by the time of Burnside’s attack. Burnside’s troops came under heavy fire while trying to cross the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought December 11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside. The Union Army’s futile frontal attacks on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city is considered one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War, with Union casualties more than twice as heavy as those suffered by the Confederates.

Burnside’s plan was to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in mid-November and race to the Confederate capital of Richmond before Lee’s army could stop him. Bureaucratic delays prevented Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges in time, and Lee moved his army to block the crossings. When the Union Army was finally able to build its bridges and cross under fire, urban combat began, and a battle raged in the city December 11–12. Union troops prepared to assault Confederate defensive positions south of the city and on a strongly fortified ridge just west of the city known as “Marye’s Heights.”

On December 13, the “grand division” of Major General William B. Franklin was able to pierce the first defensive line of Confederate Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson to the south, but was ultimately repulsed. Burnside ordered the grand divisions of Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and Joseph Hooker to make multiple frontal assaults against Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s position on Marye’s Heights, all of which were repulsed with heavy losses. On December 15, Burnside withdrew his army, ending another failed Union campaign in the eastern theater.