Its population was about 22 million, compared to the South's 9 million.
The North was both richer and more technologically advanced than the South. About 90 percent of the nation's manufacturing, and most of its banks, were in the North.
It had more farms than the South to provide food for troops.
Its land contained most of the country's iron, coal, copper, and gold.
The North controlled the seas, and its 21,000 miles of railroad track allowed troops and supplies to be transported wherever they were needed.
The North's greatest weakness was its military leadership. At the start of the war, about one-third of the nation's military officers resigned and returned to their homes in the South. During much of the war, Lincoln searched for effective generals who could lead the Union to victory.
General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces, sent his troops across the Potomac River into Maryland, a slave state that remained in the Union. Lee hoped this show of strength might persuade Maryland to join the Confederacy. He also hoped that a Confederate victory on Union soil would convince European nations to support the South.
On a crisp September day in 1862, Confederate and Union armies met near the Maryland town of Sharpsburg along Antietam Creek. All day long, McClellan's troops pounded Lee's badly outnumbered forces. The following day, Lee retreated to Virginia.
McClellan claimed Antietam as a Union victory. But many who fought there saw the battle as a defeat for both armies. Of the 75,000 Union troops who fought at Antietam, about 2,100 were killed. About 10,300 were wounded or missing. Of the 52,000 Confederates who fought at Antietam, about 2,770 lost their lives, while 11,000 were wounded or missing. In that single day of fighting, more Americans were killed than in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War combined. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day of the war.
The horrifying death toll at Antietam reflected the new realities of warfare. In past wars, battles had been fought in hand-to-hand combat using bayonets. During the Civil War, improved weapons made killing from a distance much easier. Rifles, which replaced muskets, were accurate over long distances. Improved cannons and artillery also made it easier for armies to attack forces some distance away. As a result, armies could meet, fight, die, and part without either side winning a clear victory.
Medical care was not as advanced as weaponry. Civil War doctors had no understanding of the causes of infections. Surgeons operated in dirty hospital tents with basic instruments. Few bothered to wash their hands between patients. As a result, infections spread rapidly from patient to patient. The hospital death rate was so high that soldiers often refused medical care. An injured Ohio soldier wrote that he chose to return to battle rather than see a doctor, "thinking that [he] had better die by rebel bullets than Union quackery [unskilled medical care]."
As staggering as the battle death tolls were, far more soldiers died of diseases than wounds. Unsanitary conditions in army camps were so bad that about three men died of typhoid, pneumonia, and other diseases for every one who died in battle. As one soldier observed, "these big battles [are] not as bad as the fever."
In the summer of 1863, Lee felt confident enough to risk another invasion of the North. He hoped to capture a Northern city and help convince the weary North to seek peace.
Union and Confederate troops met on July 1, 1863, west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union troops, about 90,000 strong, were led by newly appointed General George C. Meade. After a brief skirmish, they occupied four miles of high ground along an area known as Cemetery Ridge. About a mile to the west, some 75,000 Confederate troops gathered behind Seminary Ridge.
The following day, the Confederates attempted to find weak spots in the Union position. The Union lines held firm. On the third day, Lee ordered an all-out attack on the center of the Union line. Cannons filled the air with smoke and thunder. George Pickett led 15,000 Confederate soldiers in a charge across the low ground separating the two forces.
Pickett's charge marked the northernmost point reached by Southern troops during the war. But as Confederate troops pressed forward, Union gunners opened great holes in their advancing lines. Those men who managed to make their way to Cemetery Ridge were struck down by Union soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
Although Gettysburg was a victory for the Union, the losses on both sides were staggering. More than 17,500 Union soldiers and 23,000 Confederate troops were killed or wounded in three days of battle. Lee, who lost about a third of his army, withdrew to Virginia. From this point on, he would only wage a defensive war on Southern soil.
In 1863, President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg. Thousands of the men who died there had been buried in a new cemetery. Lincoln was among those invited to speak at the dedication of this new burial ground. The nation would never forget Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
The president deliberately spoke of the war in words that echoed the Declaration of Independence. The "great civil war," he said, was testing whether a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure." He spoke of the brave men, "living and dead," who had fought to defend that ideal. "The world . . . can never forget what they did here." Finally, he called on Americans to remain
dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these
honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which
they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly
resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—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.
Early in the war, Union forces withdrew from the navy yard in Norfolk, Virginia. They left behind a warship named the Merrimac. The Confederacy began the war with no navy. They covered the wooden Merrimac with iron plates and added a powerful ram to its prow.
In response, the Union navy built its own ironclad ship called the Monitor. Completed in less than 100 days, the Monitor had a flat deck and two heavy guns in a revolving turret. It was said to resemble a "cheese box on a raft."
In March 1862, the Merrimac, which the Confederates had renamed the Virginia, steamed into Chesapeake Bay to attack Union ships. With cannonballs harmlessly bouncing off its sides, the iron monster destroyed three wooden ships and threatened the entire Union blockade fleet.
The next morning, the Virginia was met by the Monitor. The two ironclads exchanged shots for hours before withdrawing. Neither could claim victory, and neither was harmed.
The battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor showed that ironclad ships were superior to wooden vessels. After that, both sides added ironclads to their navies. The South, however, was never able to build enough ships to end the Union blockade of Southern harbors.
The town of Vicksburg was located on a bluff above a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River. The city was easy to defend and difficult to capture. Whoever held Vicksburg could, with a few well-placed cannons, control movement along the Mississippi. But even Farragut had to admit with fellow officer David Porter that ships "cannot crawl up hills 300 feet high." An army would be needed to take Vicksburg.
In May 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant battled his way to Vicksburg with the needed army. For six weeks, Union gunboats shelled the city from the river while Grant's army bombarded it from land. Slowly but surely, the Union troops burrowed toward the city in trenches and tunnels.
As shells pounded the city, people in Vicksburg dug caves into the hillsides for protection. To survive, they ate horses, mules, and bread made of corn and dried peas. "It had the properties of Indian rubber," said one Confederate soldier, "and was worse than leather to digest."
Low on food and supplies, Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863. The Mississippi was now a Union waterway, and the Confederacy was cut in two.
As the war raged on, life in the South became grim. Because of the blockade, imported goods disappeared from stores. What few items were available were extremely expensive.
Unable to sell their tobacco and cotton to the North or to other countries, farmers planted food crops instead. Still, the South was often hungry. Invading Union armies destroyed crops. They also cut rail lines, making it difficult to move food and supplies to Southern cities and army camps.
As clothing wore out, Southerners made do with patches and homespun cloth. At the beginning of the war, Mary Boykin Chesnut had written in her journal of well-dressed Confederate troops. By 1863, she was writing of soldiers dressed in "rags and tags."
By 1864, Southerners were writing letters like this one to soldiers on the battlefront: "We haven't got nothing in the house to eat but a little bit o' meal. I don't want to you to stop fighten them Yankees . . . but try and get off and come home and fix us all up some." Many soldiers found it hard to resist such pleas, even if going home meant deserting their units.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to organize black regiments. The most famous was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Two of the 54th Infantry's 1,000 soldiers were sons of Frederick Douglass.
The men of the Massachusetts 54th were paid less than white soldiers. When the black soldiers learned this, they protested the unequal treatment by refusing to accept any pay at all. In a letter to Lincoln, Corporal James Henry Gooding asked, "Are we Soldiers, or are we Laborers? . . . We have done a Soldier's duty. Why can't we have a Soldier's pay?" At Lincoln's urging, Congress finally granted black soldiers equal pay.
After three months of training, the Massachusetts 54th was sent to South Carolina to take part in an attack on Fort Wagner outside of Charleston. As they prepared for battle, the men of the 54th faced the usual worries of untested troops. But they also faced the added fear that if captured, they might be sold into slavery.
In May 1864, General Grant invaded Virginia with a force of more than 100,000 men. They met Lee's army of 60,000 in a dense forest known as the Wilderness. In two days of fierce fighting, Grant lost 18,000 men. Still, Grant would not retreat. "I propose to fight it out along this line," he said, "if it takes all summer." He followed Lee's army to Cold Harbor, Virginia, where he lost 7,000 men in 15 minutes of fighting.
By the time the two forces reached Petersburg, a railroad center 20 miles south of Richmond, Grant's losses almost equaled Lee's entire army. But he was able to reinforce his army with fresh troops. Lee, who had also suffered heavy losses, could not.
After burning Atlanta, Sherman marched his army across the state toward Savannah, promising to "make Georgia howl." His purpose was to destroy the last untouched supply base for the Confederacy.
As they marched through Georgia, Sherman's troops destroyed everything that they found of value. They trampled or burned fields and stripped houses of their valuables. They burned supplies of hay and food. Dead horses, hogs, and cattle that his troops could not eat or carry away lined the roads. The troops destroyed everything useful in a 60-mile-wide path.
In December 1864, Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia. From there, he turned north and destroyed all opposition in the Carolinas. Marching 425 miles in 50 days, he reached Raleigh, North Carolina, by March 1865. There he waited for Grant's final attack on Richmond.
For nine months, Grant's forces battered Lee's army at Petersburg, the gateway to Richmond. On April 1, 1865, the Union forces finally broke through Confederate lines to capture the city. Two days later, Union troops marched into Richmond.
Grant's soldiers moved quickly to surround Lee's army. Lee told his officers, "There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
On April 9, 1865, General Lee, in full dress uniform, arrived at Wilmer McLean's house in the village of Appomattox Court House. He was there to surrender his army to General Grant. The Union general met him in a mud-splattered and crumpled uniform.
Grant's terms of surrender were generous. Confederate soldiers could go home if they promised to fight no longer. They could take with them their own horses and mules, which they would need for spring plowing. Officers could keep their swords and weapons. Grant also ordered that food be sent to Lee's men. Lee accepted the terms.
As Lee returned to his headquarters, Union troops began to shoot their guns and cheer wildly. Grant told them to stop celebrating. "The war is over," he said, "the rebels are our countrymen again."
No one who fought in the Civil War would ever forget the intensity of the experience. "In our youth," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "our hearts were touched by fire."
The nation, too, had been touched by fire. Many compared the Civil War to a great furnace that burned away one country and forged a new one in its place. In this new country, neither slavery nor the right to secession had any place. Just as Lincoln had said, the Union was a single whole, not a collection of sovereign states. Before the war, Americans tended to say "the United States are." After the war, they said "the United States is."
These momentous changes came at a horrifying cost. Billions of dollars had been spent on the conflict. Almost every family had lost a member or a friend. More than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were dead. Thousands more came home missing an arm or a leg. It would take generations for the South to recover from the environmental destruction wrought by the war. Croplands lay in ruins. Two-fifths of the South's livestock had been destroyed.
Many historians have called the Civil War the first truly modern war. It was the first war to reflect the technology of the Industrial Revolution: railroads, the telegraph, armored ships, more accurate and destructive weaponry. It also introduced total war—war between whole societies, not just uniformed armies.
As devastating as it was, the Civil War left many issues unsettled. The old society of the South had been destroyed, but the memory of it lingered. Thousands of white Southerners clung to a romantic picture of the prewar South. Decaying plantation houses became shrines. In the years to come, many in the South would try to re-create their vanished way of life. Secession and slavery were gone, but conflicts over states' rights and the status of African Americans would continue long into the future.
Gerald A. Danzer, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, Nancy Woloch
Deborah Gray White, William Deverell
Deborah Gray White, Edward L. Ayers, Jesús F. de la Teja, Robert D. Schulzinger