Why It Matters: The Civil War

Why learn about the Civil War?

A photograph shows several African American men collecting the bones from a battleground in Virginia. In the foreground, one man prepares to carry away a pile of skulls and body parts.

Figure 1. This photograph by John Reekie, entitled, “A burial party on the battle-field of Cold Harbor,” drives home the brutality and devastation wrought by the Civil War. Here, in April 1865, African Americans collect the bones of soldiers killed in Virginia during General Ulysses S. Grant’s Wilderness Campaign of May–June 1864.

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln was a turning point for the United States. Throughout the tumultuous 1850s, the Fire-Eaters of the southern states had been threatening to leave the Union, and the Republican president-elect appeared to be their worst nightmare.  The menace posed by the Republican victory in the election spurred eleven southern states to leave the Union to form the Confederate States of America, a new republic dedicated to maintaining and expanding slavery. The Union, led by President Lincoln, was unwilling to accept the departure of these states and committed itself to restoring the country.

And so, the nation was thrust into the Civil War. Southerners called it the “War between the States,” while Northerners dubbed it the “War of the Rebellion.” Regardless of its name, the conflict brought bloodshed, violence, disruption, and death as never before seen on U.S. soil. More than 750,000 lost their lives to the conflict–a death toll higher than in all the country’s subsequent wars put together.

The war touched the life of nearly every American as military mobilization reached levels never seen before or since. Most northern soldiers went to war to preserve the Union, but the war ultimately transformed into a struggle to eradicate slavery. African Americans, both enslaved and free, pressed the issue of emancipation and nurtured this transformation. Simultaneously, women thrust themselves into critical wartime roles while navigating a world without many men of military age. The Civil War was a defining event in the history of the United States and, for the Americans thrust into it, a wrenching one.