*The American Yawp is currently in beta draft. Please click here to help improve this chapter*
The American Civil War, the bloodiest in the nation’s history, resulted in approximately 750,000 deaths, the abolition of slavery, and the dissolution of the Confederate States of America. Although the vast majority of northerners considered preservation of the Union to be the paramount object of the Civil War, emancipation emerged as a crucial war aim of the North. For Confederates, the war represented an opportunity to defend not only the institution of slavery but their communities, families, and ways of life. African Americans, both enslaved and free, refused to simply watch the conflict unfold and they participated in a variety of ways. 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: hope and despair arrived with the dawning of each new day.
II. The Election of 1860 and Secession
As the fall of 1860 approached, a four-way race for the Presidency—and the future of America—emerged. The ghost of John Brown, the militant abolitionist hung after his actions at Harper’s Ferry, loomed large in early 1860. In April, the Democratic Party convened in Charleston, South Carolina, acknowledged bastion of secessionist thought in the South. The goal was to nominate a single candidate for the party ticket, but it became very clear that the Democratic convention would be one marked by hostility and division. The northern and southern wings of the party could not agree on any one man. Northern Democrats pulled for Senator Stephen Douglas, a pro-slavery moderate championing popular sovereignty, while Southern Democrats were intent on endorsing someone other than Douglas. The failure to include a pro-slavery platform resulted in Southern delegates walking out of the convention, preventing Douglas from gaining the two-thirds majority required for a nomination. A subsequent convention in Baltimore nominated Douglas for the Democratic ticket, while southerners nominated current Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky as their presidential candidate. The nation’s oldest party had split into two over differences in policy toward slavery.
Certainly, few Americans expected a strong showing from the Republican Party. Indeed, the Republicans were hardly unified themselves. The leading men of the party all vied for their party’s nomination at the Chicago convention in May 1860. There was a growing recognition among the conveners that the party’s nominee would need to be someone who would be able to carry all the free states—only in that situation could a Republican nominee potentially win. Such an electoral reality meant that the early favorite, New York Senator William Seward, came under attack during the convention. Some believed his pro-immigrant position would prevent him from carrying Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a general election. Abraham Lincoln, as a relatively unknown but likable politician, rose from a pool of potential candidates, and was selected by the delegates on the third ballot.
The electoral landscape was further complicated through the emergence of a fourth candidate, Tennessee’s John Bell, heading the Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln carried all free states with the exception of New Jersey (which he split with Douglas). 81.2% of the voting electorate came out to vote—at that point the highest ever for a presidential election. But, Lincoln’s 180 electoral votes came with under 40% of the popular vote. Lincoln was trailed by Breckenridge with his 72 electoral votes, carrying 11 of the 15 slave states, Bell came in third with 39 electoral votes, with Douglas coming in last, only able to garner twelve electoral votes despite carrying almost 30% of the popular vote. All future Confederate states, with the exception of Virginia, excluded Lincoln’s name from their ballots, making the victory even more remarkable.
South Carolina acted almost immediately, calling a convention to declare secession. On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina convention voted unanimously 169-0 to dissolve their Union with the United States. The other states across the Deep South soon followed suit. Mississippi adopted their own resolution on January 9, 1861, Florida followed on January 10, Alabama January 11, Georgia on January 19, Louisiana on January 26, and Texas on February 1. While Texas was the only state to put the issue up for vote amongst the entire voting population, most other states hovered around an 80% vote in favor of secession at their respective conventions.
President James Buchanan would not directly address the issue of secession prior to his term’s end in early March. Any effort to try and solve the issue therefore fell upon Congress, specifically a “Committee of Thirteen” including prominent men such as Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Robert Toombs, and John Crittenden. In what became known as “Crittenden’s Compromise,” Senator Crittenden proposed a series of Constitutional Amendments that guaranteed slavery in southern states states/territories, denied the Federal Government interstate slave trade regulatory power, and offered to compensate slave owners of unrecovered fugitive slaves. The Committee of Thirteen ultimately voted down the measure and it likewise failed in the full Senate vote (25-23). Prospects for reconciliation appeared grim.
The seven seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4th to organize a new nation. The delegates selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and established a capital in Montgomery, Alabama (it would move to Richmond in May). When Davis received the telegram, his wife later wrote, “he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.” Out of a sense of duty, Davis accepted. Whether the states of the Upper South would join the Confederacy remained uncertain. By the early spring of 1861, North Carolina and Tennessee had not held secession conventions, while others in Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas initially voted down secession. Despite this boost to the Union, it became abundantly clear that these acts of loyalty in the Upper South were highly conditional and relied on a clear lack of intervention on the part of the Federal government. This was the situation facing Abraham Lincoln on his inauguration in March 4, 1861.
III. From Soil to Shore: Military War on the Ground and in the Water
In his inaugural address, Lincoln declared secession “legally void.” While he did not intend to invade Southern states, he would use force to maintain possession of federal property within seceded states. Union forces, led by U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, held Charleston, South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter in April 1861. The fort was in need of supplies, and Lincoln intended to resupply it. South Carolina called for U.S. soldiers to evacuate the fort. Major Anderson refused. “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen…you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal,” cautioned Georgia senator Robert Toombs to Jefferson Davis prior to an attack on Fort Sumter. Afterdecades of sectional tension, official hostilities erupted on April 12, 1861, when Confederate Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard fired on the fort. Anderson surrendered on April 13th and the Union troops evacuated. In response to the Confederate attack, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. The American Civil War had begun.
The assault on Fort Sumter, and subsequent call for troops, provoked the Upper South into alliance with the Confederacy. In total, eleven states joined the new nation. Unionists refused to accept this new southern nation and responded with a vigorous military campaign to reduce its armies, property, and economy.
Shortly after Lincoln’s call for troops, the Union adopted General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan and established a naval blockade around the Confederate states. This strategy intended to strangle the Confederacy by cutting off access to coastal ports and inland waterways. Like an anaconda snake, they planned to surround and squeeze the Confederacy.
With geographic, social, political, and economic connections to both the North and the South, the Border States—Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky—were critical to the outcome of the war. Lincoln and his military advisors realized that the loss of the Border States could mean a significant decrease in Union resources. Consequently, Lincoln hoped to foster loyalty among their citizens, so that Union forces could minimize their occupation in the regions. In spite of terrible guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Kentucky, the four Border States remained loyal to the Union throughout the war.
Also that spring, Confederate strategists, like their Federal counterparts, prepared for what they believed would be a short war. This belief crumbled on July 21, 1861. Three months after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Union and Confederate forces met at the Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia, officially opening the war’s Eastern Theater. While not particularly deadly, the Confederate victory proved that the Civil War would be long and costly. Furthermore, in response to the embarrassing Union rout, Lincoln removed Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell of command and promoted Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to commander of the newly formed Army of the Potomac. For nearly a year after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Eastern Theater remained relatively silent. Skirmishes only resulted in a bloody stalemate. Unlike the First Battle of Bull Run, ensuing campaigns resulted in major casualties.
Union military leaders sought to expand the war into the West in hopes of crushing the rebellion. In February 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson along the Tennessee River marked the opening of the Western Theater. Fighting in the West greatly differed from that in the East. At the First Battle of Bull Run, for example, two large armies fought for control of the nations’ capitals; while in the West, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of the rivers, since the Mississippi River and its tributaries were a key tenet of the Union’s Anaconda Plan. One of the deadliest of these clashes occurred along the Tennessee River at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. This battle, lasting only two days, was the costliest single battle in American history up to that time. The Union victory shocked both the Union and the Confederacy with approximately 23,000 casualties, a number that exceeded casualties from all of the United States’ previous wars combined.
In the fall of that year, casualty numbers would again shock the nation as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland (a border state loyal to the Union) on September 3, 1862. Emboldened by their success in the previous spring and summer, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis planned to win a decisive victory in Union territory and end the war. On September 17, 1862, McClellan and Lee’s forces collided at the Battle of Antietam near the town of Sharpsburg. This battle was the first major battle of the Civil War to occur on Union soil and it remains the bloodiest single day in American history with over 20,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in just twelve hours.Despite the Confederate withdrawal and the high death toll, the Battle of Antietam was not a decisive Union victory. It did, however, result in two significant events. First, McClellan’s failure to crush Lee resulted in his removal. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Second, and more importantly, the Confederate withdrawal gave Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in the ten states in rebellion. Framing it as a war measure, Lincoln and his Cabinet hoped that stripping the Confederacy of their labor force would not only debilitate the Southern economy, but also weaken Confederate morale. Nevertheless, Confederates continued fighting; and Union and Confederate forces clashed again at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory that resulted in staggering Union casualties.
Following their success at Fredericksburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued its offensive strategy in the East. One of the war’s major battles occurred near the village of Chancellorsville, Virginia between April 30 and May 6, 1863. While the Battle of Chancellorsville was an outstanding Confederate victory against Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (who replaced Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac after his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg), it also resulted in heavy casualties and the mortal wounding of Major General “Stonewall” Jackson.
In spite of Jackson’s death, Lee continued his offensive against Federal forces and invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. During the three-day battle (July 1-3) at Gettysburg, heavy casualties crippled both sides. Yet, the devastating July 3 infantry assault on the Union center, also known as Pickett’s Charge, caused Lee to retreat from Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Campaign was Lee’s final northern incursion and the Battle of Gettysburg remains as the bloodiest battle of the war, and in American history, with 51,000 casualties.
Concurrently in the West, Union forces continued their movement along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, capturing New Orleans on May 1, 1862. With New Orleans occupied and with help from the U. S. Navy, Grant launched his campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi in the winter of 1862. His Vicksburg Campaign, which lasted until July 4, 1863, ended with the city’s surrender and split the Confederacy in two.
The Union and Confederate navies helped or hindered army movements around the many marine environments of the southern United States. And each navy employed the latest technology to outmatch the other. The Confederate Navy, led by Stephen Russell Mallory, had the unenviable task of constructing a fleet from scratch and trying to fend off a vastly better equipped Union Navy. Led by Gideon Welles of Connecticut, the Union Navy successfully implemented General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan.
The Union blockade initially struggled to contain the Confederate blockade runners, especially at ports like Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina. The blockade was not particularly effective until halfway through the war. Major Confederate ports and financial trade centers, including those on the Mississippi River like New Orleans, had come under Union control by mid-1863.
Grant’s successes at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee (November 1863) and Meade’s cautious pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg prompted Lincoln to promote Grant to general-in-chief of the Union Army in early 1864. This change in command not only allowed for Grant’s second-in-command, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to launch his infamous March to the Sea, in which his men devastated Georgia and the Carolinas, but it also resulted in some of the bloodiest battles of the Eastern Theater. These battles, such as the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg, as part of Grant’s Overland Campaign would earn Grant his nickname “The Butcher.”
Incredibly deadly for both sides, these Union campaigns in both the West and the East, destroyed Confederate infrastructure and demonstrated the efficacy of the Union’s strategy of attrition and hard war. As a result of Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” a devastating hard war campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas, and Grant’s dogged pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The remaining Confederate forces surrendered that summer.
IV. Confederate Nationalism and Union War Aims
Elite southerners began conceiving of the South as distinct from the rest of the United States long before secession. Elite antebellum southerners feared that abolitionism would threaten slavery, leading southern politicians to advance the position of states’ rights. They argued that the ultimate power rested in the states rather than in the federal government. Cultural theories followed politics, as southern intellectuals developed the myth of the cavalier, which claimed that elite southerners, unlike northerners, descended from aristocratic Englishmen, and thus northerners and southerners were distinct and separate peoples. Although most antebellum southerners’ loyalty was still to the U.S., as early as 1850, radical secessionists known as fire-eaters called for a separate southern nation. The majority of southerners remained loyal to the Union until the fall of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, representing the new antislavery Republican Party, was elected president.
New Confederates quickly shed their American identity and adopted a new southern nationalism. Confederate nationalism was based on several ideals. Foremost among these was slavery. As Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens stated in his “Cornerstone Speech,” the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition.”
The election of Lincoln in 1860 demonstrated that the South’s was politically overwhelmed. Slavery was omnipresent in the pre-war South, and it served as the most common frame of reference for unequal power. To a Southern man, there was no fate more terrifying than the thought of being reduced to the level of a slave. Religion likewise shaped Confederate nationalism and identity, as southerners believed that the Confederacy was fulfilling God’s will. The Confederacy even veered from the American constitution by explicitly invoking Christianity in their founding document.
It is a common misconception that Civil War soldiers enlisted and fought for largely personal reasons such as camaraderie rather than for more abstract notions such as honor, patriotism, or their rights. However, to Americans during the mid-nineteenth century, these were not abstract concepts. This was an age of romanticism in literature and philosophy, and ideas like honor and duty held great sway. The men who fought in the Union and Confederate placed as much value on fighting and possibly dying for the cause as they did on unit cohesion and comradeship.
The heritage of the American Revolution provided an additional source of southern nationalism. Confederates claimed that northerners had betrayed the original intent of the Founding Fathers. The Confederacy was thus supposedly the true heir of the American Revolution, a belief that was made visibly apparent by the inclusion of an image of George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.
On March 4, 1861, when newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, he directly addressed the southern portion of his splintering constituency:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In the process of preserving the Union, friendship and diplomacy gave way to war. Like Lincoln, most northerners in the late-1850s and 1860s viewed the Union—that is, the constitutional compact between the states to form a federal government—as permanent. As such, the vast majority of men that answered President Lincoln’s call for troops did so with the fervent belief that they were taking up arms to save the Union. By saving the Union, these northern soldiers also viewed themselves as direct descendants of the Founding Fathers and protectors of their Revolutionary legacy.
For Union soldiers, the need to preserve the Union was paramount. The Revolution had purchased something truly unique with dear blood; a representative democracy. They feared that if a minority could dissolve part of the country whenever they lost a fair and open election, then this great experiment would collapse. By splitting over the 1860 election, the fear was a precedent would be established, and soon there would be another split, and another, until nothing remained of the United States but a series of small, warring factions. So many social commentators in Europe would be proven right and the Founders would have been proven wrong; a democratic people could not govern themselves. Additionally, Union soldiers viewed themselves as guardians of law and order. A rebellion and attempted secession against a properly elected government was treason.
Not all southerners participated in Confederate nationalism. Unionist southerners, most common in the upcountry, retained their loyalty to the Union, joining the Union army and working to defeat the Confederacy. Although sacrifice could enhance devotion to the Confederacy for some southerners, the suffering of war, combined with unpopular measures such as the draft, also weakened morale. Black southerners, most of whom were slaves, overwhelmingly supported the Union, often running away from plantations to follow the Union army. The weakening of southern nationalism, along with southern support for the Union, ultimately aided the eventual Union victory.
Cut off from their southern brethren, the northern branches of the Democratic Party divided. War Democrats largely stood behind President Lincoln and their support was necessary for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. “Peace Democrats”—also known as “Copperheads”—clashed frequently with both War Democrats and Republicans. Copperheads were sympathetic to the Confederacy; they exploited public anti-war sentiment (often the result of a lost battle or mounting casualties) and tried to push President Lincoln to negotiate an immediate peace, regardless of political leverage or bargaining power. Had the Copperheads succeeded in bringing about immediate peace, the Union would have been forced to recognize the Confederacy as a separate and legitimate government while the institution of slavery would have remained intact. With a Union victory in sight following General William T. Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign in 1864, Copperhead support largely evaporated.
V. Experiences of Soldiers and Civilians
Daily life for a Civil War soldier was one of routine. A typical day began around 6am and involved drill, marching, lunch break, and more drilling followed by policing the camp. Weapon inspection and cleaning followed, perhaps one final drill, dinner, and taps around 9 or 9:30 pm. Soldiers in both armies grew weary of the routine. Picketing or foraging afforded welcome distractions to the monotony.
Soldiers devised clever ways of dealing with the boredom of camp life. The most common activity was writing. These were highly literate armies; nine out of every ten Federals and four out of every five Confederates could read and write. Letters home served as a tether linking soldiers to their loved ones. Soldiers also read; newspapers were in high demand. News from other theatres of war, events in Europe, politics in Washington and Richmond, and local concerns were voraciously sought and traded.
While there were nurses, camp followers, and some women who disguised themselves as men, camp life was overwhelmingly male. Soldiers drank liquor, smoked tobacco, gambled, and swore. Social commentators feared was that when these men returned home, with their hard-drinking and irreligious ways, all decency, faith, and temperance would depart. But not all methods of distraction were detrimental. Soldiers also organized debate societies, composed music, sang songs, wrestled, raced horses, boxed, and played sports.
Neither side could consistently provide supplies for their soldiers, so it was not uncommon, though officially forbidden, for common soldiers to trade with the enemy. Confederate soldiers prized northern newspapers and coffee. Northerners were glad to exchange these for southern tobacco. Supply shortages and poor sanitation were synonymous with Civil War armies. The close proximity of thousands of men bred disease. Lice were soldiers’ daily companions.
As early as 1861, black Americans implored the Lincoln administration to serve in the army and navy. Lincoln, who initially waged a conservative, limited war, believed that the presence of African American troops would threaten the loyalty of slaveholding Border States, and white volunteers who might refuse to serve alongside black men. However, army commanders could not ignore the growing populations of formerly enslaved people who escaped to freedom behind Union army lines. As the number of refugees ballooned, some generals considered commissioning African Americans as laborers and cooks.
As United States armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy, requiring increased numbers of troops to occupy the South and battle rebel armies, politicians and the Union high command came to understand the necessity, and benefit, of enlisting African American men into the army and navy. Although a few commanders began forming black units in 1862, such as Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s First South Carolina Volunteers (the first regiment of black soldiers), widespread enlistment did not occur until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. “And I further declare and make known,” Lincoln’s Proclamation read, “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
The language describing black enlistment indicated Lincoln’s implicit desire to segregate African American troops from the main campaigning armies of white soldiers. “I believe it is a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us,” Lincoln remarked in July 1863 about black soldiering. Although more than 180,000 black men (10 percent of the Union army) served during the war, the majority of United States Colored Troops (USCT) remained stationed behind the lines as garrison forces, often laboring and performing non-combat roles. Inequality, more than glory, defined the black soldiering experience.
African American soldiers in the Union army endured rampant discrimination and earned less pay than white soldiers. Black soldiers also faced the possibility of being murdered or sold into slavery if captured by Confederate forces. James Henry Gooding, a black corporal in the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote to Abraham Lincoln in September 1863, questioning why he and his fellow volunteers were paid less than white men. Gooding argued that, because he and his brethren were born in the United States and selflessly left their private lives and to enter the army, they should be treated “as American SOLDIERS, not as menial hirelings.”
African American soldiers defied the inequality of military service and used their positions in the army to reshape society, North and South. The majority of USCT had once been enslaved, and their presence as armed, blue-clad soldiers sent shockwaves throughout the Confederacy. To their friends and families, African American soldiers symbolized the embodiment of liberation and the destruction of slavery. To white southerners, they represented the utter disruption of the Old South’s racial and social hierarchy. As members of armies of occupation, black soldiers wielded martial authority in towns and plantations. At the end of the war, as a black soldier marched by a cluster of Confederate prisoners, he noticed his former master among the group. “Hello, massa,” the soldier exclaimed, “bottom rail on top dis time!”
In addition to a majority of USCT garrisoning and occupying the South, other African American soldiers performed admirably on the battlefield, shattering white myths that docile, cowardly black men would fold in the maelstrom of war. Black troops fought in more than 400 battles and skirmishes, including Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson, Louisiana; Fort Wagner, South Carolina; Nashville; and the final campaigns to capture Richmond, Virginia. Fifteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed for military heroism. Through their voluntarism, service, battlefield contributions, and even death, African American soldiers laid their claims for citizenship. “Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.” Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, proclaimed, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Women also played a major role in the Civil War. According to a Congressional Report, “Franklin Thompson shar[ed] in all [the regiment’s] toils and privations, marching and fighting in the various engagements in which it participated . . . [he was] never absent from duty, obeying all orders with intelligence and alacrity, his whole aim and desire to render zealous and efficient aid to the Union cause.” It was not until after the war that the government and Thompson’s comrades in arms discovered that “he” was actually a woman by the name of Sarah Emma Edmonds. Edmonds was not the only woman who joined the army during the Civil War. Cousins Mary and Mollie Bell served in the Confederate Army under the aliases Tom Parker and Bob Martin. An article in the Indianapolis Daily Ledger stated that “romantic young ladies of late are frequently found in the military service,” indicating that these cases were not isolated incidents.
When South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Mary Chesnut was in Charleston. She reported in her diary that after the cannons began to fire, “The women were wild there on the housetop.” This excitement increased the willingness of women to do what they could for the war effort, including strongly encouraging their husbands to join the army. Gertrude Clanton Thompson wrote that “When Duty and Honor called him it would be strange if I would influence him to remain ‘in the lap of inglorious ease’ when so much is at stake. Our country is invaded – our homes are in danger – We are deprived or they are attempting to deprive us of that glorious liberty for which our Fathers fought and bled and shall we tamely submit to this? Never!” However, there were many women who did not support the war, particularly as it wore on. One of these women wrote a letter to North Carolina Governor, Zebulon Vance, saying “Especially for they sake of suffering women and children, do try and stop this cruel war.”
For some women, the best way to support their cause was spying on the enemy. When the war broke out, Rose O’Neal Greenhow was living in Washington D.C., where she travelled in high social circles, gathering information for her Confederate contact. Suspecting Greenhow of espionage, Allan Pinkerton placed her under surveillance, instigated a raid on her house to gather evidence, and then placed her under house arrest, after which she was incarcerated in Old Capitol prison. Upon her release, she was sent, under guard, to Baltimore, Maryland. From there Greenhow went to Europe to attempt to bring support to the Confederacy. Failing in her efforts, Greenhow decided to return to America, boarding the blockade runner Condor, which ran aground near Wilmington, North Carolina. Subsequently, she drowned after her lifeboat capsized in a storm. Greenhow gave her life for the Confederate cause, while Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew sacrificed her social standing for the Union. Van Lew was from a very prominent Richmond, Virginia family and spied on the Confederacy, leading to her being “held in contempt & scorn by the narrow minded men and women of my city for my loyalty.” Indeed, when General Ulysses Grant took control of Richmond, he placed a special guard on Van Lew. In addition to her espionage activities, Van Lew also acted as a nurse to Union prisoners in Libby Prison.
Van Lew was not alone in nursing wounded or ill soldiers. The publisher’s notice for Nurse and Spy in the Union Army states, “In the opinion of many, it is the privilege of woman to minister to the sick and soothe the sorrowing – and in the present crisis of our country’s history, to aid our brothers to the extent of her capacity.” Mary Chesnut wrote, “Every woman in the house is ready to rush into the Florence Nightingale business.” However, she indicated that after she visited the hospital “I can never again shut out of view the sights that I saw there of human misery. I sit thinking, shut my eyes, and see it all.” Hospital conditions were often so bad that many volunteer nurses quit soon after beginning. Kate Cumming volunteered as a nurse shortly after the war began. She, and other volunteers, travelled with the Army of Tennessee. However, all but one of the women who volunteered with Cumming quit within a week.
In the North, the conditions in hospitals were somewhat superior. This was partly due to the organizational skills of women like Dorothea Dix, who was the Union’s Superintendent for Army Nurses. Additionally, many women were members of the United States Sanitary Commission and helped to staff and supply hospitals in the North, helping to prevent supply shortages more often than in southern hospitals.
There were other women who travelled with the armies as well. Some of them were the wives or daughters of officers, while others were cooks or laundresses. A third group, prostitutes, sometimes travelled with the army, and sometimes congregated in nearby cities, making them relatively easy for the men in both armies to patronize. In Washington D.C. alone, there were at least 450 brothels, with names like “Headquarters U.S.A.,” “The Wolf’s Den,” and “Madam Russel’s Bake Oven.” Many prostitutes suffered from venereal diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, which they transmitted to soldiers. The treatment for these diseases in the 1860s was a urethral shot of salts of mercury – leading to the saying “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”
Northern women often found it difficult to prove their loyalty, since the enemy was far away. For pro-Confederate Southern women, there were more opportunities to show their scorn for the enemy. Some women in New Orleans took these demonstrations to the level of dumping their chamber pots onto the heads of unsuspecting Federal soldiers who stood underneath their balconies, leading to Benjamin Butler’s infamous General Order Number 28, which arrested all rebellious women as prostitutes.
Many women who were enthusiastic at the beginning of the war became increasingly disillusioned by death and destruction. Others spent four years supporting the war effort. There was no single, unified women’s experience during the Civil War.
Most African Americans pragmatically hoped that a Union victory would result in their freedom. Though generally suspicious of whites, slaves reasoned that their enemy’s enemy was their friend. Slaves overheard their masters cursing the North and the Republican Party; why would their masters speak that way unless the North somehow threatened slavery? Rumors of sectional crisis, the 1860 election, secession, and civil war spread along the “grapevine telegraph,” an informal chain of communication that brought news to even the remotest slave communities. Many slaves rightly doubted that the white North had their interests at heart, but they hoped the North would liberate them to deprive the South of a huge source of capital, labor, and status.
Though the U.S. government and military understood the war was about slavery in the abstract, they did not intend for the war to involve actual slaves. Their intentions, however, did not matter, because African American forced the Union army to deal with them. Almost as soon as the war began, runaway slaves appeared at Union camps, asking for refuge.
Fugitive slaves posed a dilemma for the Union military. Soldiers were forbidden to interfere with slavery or assist runaways, but many soldiers found such a policy unchristian. Even those indifferent to slavery were reluctant to turn away potential laborers or help the enemy by returning his property. Also, fugitive slaves could provide useful information on the local terrain and the movements of Confederate troops. Union officers became particularly reluctant to turn away fugitive slaves when Confederate commanders began impressing slaves to work on fortifications. Every slave who escaped to Union lines was a loss to the Confederate war effort.
In May 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler went over his superiors’ heads and began accepting fugitive slaves who came to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. In order to avoid the issue of the slaves’ freedom, Butler reasoned that runaway slaves were “contraband of war,” and he had as much a right to seize them as he did to seize enemy horses or cannons. Later that summer Congress affirmed Butler’s policy in the First Confiscation Act.
The act left “contrabands,” as these runaways were called, in a state of limbo. Once a slave escaped to Union lines, her master’s claim was nullified. She was not, however, a free citizen of the United States. Runaways huddled together in “contraband camps,” where disease and malnutrition were rampant. The men were impressed to perform the drudge work of war: raising fortifications, cooking meals, and laying railroad tracks.
Still, life as a contraband offered a potential path to freedom, and thousands of slaves seized the opportunity. Panicked slaveholders abandoned their land at the news of an approaching Union army, while their slaves awaited Yankee liberators. One slave, beloved by her owners as their “mammy,” helped her owners load their belongings and then, to their surprise, told them she was not coming with them. Some slaves moved out of their small cabins and into their old masters’ homes. Others simply left, perhaps to search for a long-lost child, parent, or spouse.
It would be untrue, however, to say that every slave welcomed the Union army with open arms. War brought destruction and chaos, and many slaves preferred the devil they knew to the devil they didn’t. Yankee soldiers raided plantations for food and other supplies, leaving slaves without many of the necessities of life. For slaves living far from the war and Union lines, the northern army loomed like a distant stormcloud; it could bring death or freedom, and slaves could only guess at the outcome.
Many slaves accompanied their masters in the Confederate army. They served their masters as “camp servants,” cooking their meals, raising their tents, and carrying their supplies. The Confederacy also impressed slaves to perform manual labor.
There are three important points to make about these “Confederate” slaves. First, their labor was almost always coerced. Second, people are complicated and have varying, often contradictory loyalties. A slave could hope in general that the Confederacy would lose but at the same time be concerned for the safety of his master and the Confederate soldiers he saw on a daily basis.
Finally, white Confederates did not see African Americans as their equals, much less as soldiers. There was never any doubt that black laborers and camp servants were property. Though historians disagree on the matter, it is a stretch to claim that not a single African American ever fired a gun for the Confederacy; a camp servant whose master died in battle might well pick up his dead master’s gun and continue firing, if for no other reason than to protect himself. But this was always on an informal basis. The Confederate government did, in an act of desperation, pass a law in March 1865 allowing for the enlistment of black soldiers, but only a few dozen African Americans (mostly Richmond hospital workers) had enlisted by the war’s end.
A different picture emerges when we examine the slave’s impact on Union decision making. Slaves forced the Union to see them as people rather than property. Their very presence in contraband camps and fortification works drove the federal government to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and call for black soldiers and sailors. The enslaved people of the South refused to let the United States ignore them.
VI. Music, Medicine, and Mourning
In 1862, a New York Herald reporter wrote that “All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money; and money has been called the sinews of war.” Music was popular among the soldiers of both armies, creating a diversion from the boredom and horror of the war. As a result, soldiers often sang on fatigue duty and while in camp. Favorite songs, including “Lorena,” “Home, Sweet Home,” and “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” often reminded the soldiers of home. Dances held in camp offered another way to enjoy music. Since there were often very few women nearby, soldiers would dance with one another.
When the Civil War broke out, one of the most popular songs among soldiers and civilians was “John Brown’s Body” which began “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” Started as a Union anthem praising John Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, then used by Confederates to vilify Brown, both sides’ version of the song stressed that they were on the right side. Eventually the words to Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” were set to the melody, further implying Union success.
Music was intrinsic to both soldiers’ and civilians’ lives throughout the war. In 1863, “When This Cruel War Is Over,” sometimes referred to by part of its chorus, “weeping, sad and lonely,” became popular as both soldiers and civilians recognized the probability that they would never see their loved ones again. Referring to the “lonely, wounded, even dying, calling but in vain,” the song dwelled on battlefield horrors, causing some commanders to restrict its use. The themes of popular songs changed over the course of the war, as feelings of inevitable success alternated with feelings of terror and despair.
Disease haunted both armies, and accounted for over half of all Civil War casualties. Sometimes as many as half of the men in a company could be sick. The overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers came from rural areas, where there was less exposure to diseases, meaning that these soldiers lacked immunities. Vaccines for diseases such as smallpox were largely unavailable to those not in cities or towns. Despite the common nineteenth-century tendency to see city-men as weak or soft, soldiers from urban environments tended to succumb to fewer diseases than their rural counterparts. Tuberculosis, measles, rheumatism, typhoid, malaria, and smallpox spread almost unchecked among the armies.
Civil War medicine focused almost exclusively on curing the patient rather than preventing disease. Many soldiers attempted to cure themselves by concocting elixirs and medicines themselves. These ineffective “home-remedies” were often made from various plants the men found in woods or fields. There was no understanding of germ theory so many soldiers did things that we would consider unsanitary today. They ate food that was improperly cooked and handled, and practiced what we would consider poor personal hygiene. They didn’t take appropriate steps to ensure that the water they drank was free from bacteria. Diarrhea and dysentery were common. These diseases were especially dangerous, as Civil War soldiers did not understand the value of replacing fluids as they were lost. As such, men affected by these conditions would weaken, and become unable to fight or march, and as they became dehydrated their immune system became less effective, inviting other infections to attack the body.
Through trial and error soldiers began to protect themselves from some of the more preventable sources of infection. Around 1862 both armies began to dig latrines rather than rely upon the local waterways. Burying human and animal waste cut down on exposure to diseases considerably.
Medical surgery was limited and brutal. If a soldier was wounded in the torso, throat, or head there was little surgeons could do. Invasive procedures to repair damaged organs or stem blood loss invariably resulted in death. Luckily for soldiers, only approximately one-in-six combat wounds were to one of those parts. The remaining were to limbs, which was treatable by amputation. Soldiers had the highest chance of survival if the limb was removed within 48 hours of injury. A skilled surgeon could amputate a limb around three to five minutes from start to finish. While the lack of germ theory again caused several unsafe practices, such as using the same tools on multiple patients, wiping hands on filthy gowns, or placing hands in communal buckets of water, there is evidence that amputation offered the best chance of survival.
It is a common misconception that amputation was accompanied without anesthesia and against a patient’s wishes. Since the 1830s Americans understood the benefits of Nitrous Oxide and Ether on easing pain. Chloroform and opium were also used to either render patients unconscious or to dull pain during the procedure. Also, surgeons would not amputate without the patient’s consent.
In the Union army alone, 2.8 million ounces of opium and over 5.2 million opium pills were administered. In 1862 William Alexander Hammon was appointed Surgeon General for the US. He sought to regulate dosages and manage supplies of available medicines, both to prevent overdosing and to ensure that an ample supply remained for the next engagement. However, his guidelines tended to apply only to the regular federal army. The majority of Union soldiers were in volunteer units and organized at the state level. Their surgeons often ignored posted limits on medicines, or worse experimented with their own concoctions made from local flora.
Death came in many forms—disease, prisons, bullets, even lightning and bee stings, took men slowly or suddenly. Their deaths, however, affected more than their regiments. Before the war, a wife expected to sit at her husband’s bed, holding his hand, and ministering to him after a long, fulfilling life. This type of death, the Good Death, changed during the Civil War as men died often far from home among strangers. Casualty reporting was inconsistent, so women were often at the mercy of the men who fought alongside her husband to learn not only the details of his death, but even that the death had occurred.
“Now I’m a widow. Ah! That mournful word. Little the world think of the agony it contains!” wrote Sally Randle Perry in her diary. After her husband’s death at Sharpsburg, Sally received the label of she would share with more than 200,000 other white women. The death of a husband and loss of financial, physical, and emotional support could shatter lives. It also had the perverse power to free women from bad marriages and open doors to financial and psychological independence.
Widows had an important role to play in the conflict. The ideal widow wore black, mourned for a minimum of two and a half years, resigned herself to God’s will, focused on her children, devoted herself to her husband’s memory, and brought his body home for burial. Many tried, but not all widows were able to live up to the ideal. Many were unable to purchase proper mourning garb. Silk black dresses, heavy veils, and other features of antebellum mourning were expensive and in short supply. Because most of these women were in their childbearing years, the war created an unprecedented number of widows who were pregnant or still nursing infants. In a time when the average woman gave birth to eight to ten children in her lifetime, it is perhaps not surprising that the Civil War created so many widows who were also young mothers with little free time for formal mourning.
Widowhood permeated American society. But in the end, it was up to each widow to navigate her own mourning. She joined the ranks of sisters, mothers, cousins, girlfriends, and communities in mourning men.
VII. The Election of 1864 and Emancipation
The presidential contest of 1864 featured a transformed electorate. Three new states (West Virginia, Nevada, and Kansas) had been added since 1860 while the eleven states of the Confederacy did not participate.
Lincoln and his Vice President, Andrew Johnson (Tennessee), ran as nominees of the National Union Party. The main competition came from his former commander, General George B. McClellan. Though McClellan himself was a “War Democrat,” the official platform of the Democratic Party in 1864 revolved around negotiating an immediate end to the Civil War. McClellan’s Vice Presidential nominee was George H. Pendleton of Ohio—a well-known “Peace Democrat.”
On Election Day—November 8, 1864—Lincoln and McClellan each needed 117 electoral votes (out of a possible 233) to win the presidency. For much of the ’64 campaign season, Lincoln downplayed his chances of reelection and McClellan assumed that large numbers of Union soldiers would grant him support. However, thanks in great part to William T. Sherman’s military victories in Georgia, which included the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and overwhelming support from Union troops, Lincoln won the election easily. Additionally, Lincoln received support from more radical Republican factions (such as John C. Fremont and members of the Radical Democracy Party) that demanded the end of slavery.
In the popular vote, Lincoln crushed McClellan by a margin of 55.1% to 44.9%. In the Electoral College, Lincoln’s victory was even more pronounced at a margin of 212 to 21. As Lincoln won twenty-two states, McClellan only managed to carry three: New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky.
In the wake of reelection, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 5, 1865, in which he concluded:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Emancipation played a major role in the election and the war. Yet, Abraham Lincoln did not abolish slavery with the stroke of his pen, nor should he be celebrated with the title of the “Great Emancipator.” While Lincoln played a leading role, the accolades bestowed upon him by contemporaries and subsequent generations obscure the elaborate process by which numerous actors in the Congress, the military, and enslaved people themselves brought about emancipation.
Of course, abolitionists had long struggled to obtain freedom for enslaved persons, but the war brought them unexpected allies. Politically, the roots of emancipation can be found in the First Confiscation Act of 1861. Republicans in Congress authorized military officials to do the actual work of freeing enslaved persons, a process called military emancipation. With each military victory, beginning with naval actions along the Atlantic seaboard, the U.S. military deployed constitutional measures to seize contraband. In August, General John C. Fremont declared all enslaved people in Missouri to be free, while General Benjamin Butler emancipated hundreds at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Lincoln condemned Fremont’s actions, but Butler’s became military policy.
Rank-and-file soldiers and sailors pushed beyond the mandate of the law. Most Union soldiers had never before encountered enslaved people. In their diaries and their sketchbooks, soldiers and sailors recorded their interactions with newly freed African Americans, legitimating an essential humanity that would find popular reverberations in newspapers and magazines. Moreover, the increasingly visual culture of the 1860s in the North relied on photographs and sketches of the freedmen to provide evidence not only of their abuse at the hand of southern slaveholders, but also of their resilience and determination to resist them.
Perhaps most important to bringing about emancipation were the enslaved people themselves, who remained ever vigilant for opportunities to gain freedom. This process unfolded unevenly and violently, with African American women often playing leading roles in community organization. In a sense, these efforts can be seen as extensions of earlier tactics of resistance, but the events of the Civil War presented unprecedented opportunities for new and more lasting forms of fighting back. Once free, African Americans continued to work of freedom by enlisting in the Union army, supporting military efforts of their liberators, and, in time, supporting political measures that enabled their full civil rights.
To ensure the permanent legal end of slavery, Republicans drafted the Thirteenth Amendment during the war. Yet the end of legal slavery did not mean the end of racial injustice. During the war, ex-slaves were often segregated into disease-ridden contraband camps. After the war, the Republican Reconstruction program of guaranteeing black rights succumbed to persistent racism and southern white violence. Long after 1865, most black southerners continued to labor on plantations, albeit as nominally free tenants or sharecroppers, while facing public segregation and voting discrimination. The effects of slavery persisted long after emancipation.
As battlefields fell silent in 1865, the question of secession had been answered, and America was once again territorially united. But, in many ways, the conclusion of the Civil War created more questions than answers. How would the nation ever become one again? Who was responsible for rebuilding the South? What role would African Americans occupy in this society? Northern and southern soldiers returned home with broken bodies, broken spirits, and broken minds. Plantation owners had land but not labor. Recently freed African Americans had their labor but no land. Former slaves faced a world of possibilities—legal marriage, reunited family members, employment, and fresh starts—but also a racist world of bitterness, violence, and limited opportunity. The war may have been over, but the battles for the peace were just beginning.
This chapter was edited by Angela Esco Elder, with content contributions by Thomas Balcerski, William Black, Frank Cirillo, Matthew C. Hulbert, Andrew F. Lang, John Riley, Angela Riotto, Gregory N. Stern, David Thomson, Ann Tucker, and Rebecca Zimmer.