The End of the American Civil War

To mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the war between the states, we explore its legacy through the History Today archive.

Fern Riddell | Published 08 April 2015

Soldiers near Dutch Gap, Virginia. Library of Congress

'Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security are to be endangered … Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed …I do but quote from one of these speeches when I declare "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so… One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended".'

These words are taken from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address as president, in Washington, on March 4th, 1861; he was now the head of a nation that was rapidly falling apart. His success in the 1860 election, as candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party, had caused an immediate division between the Northern and Southern states – already in conflict over the issue of slavery since the late 18th century. But Lincoln’s election was a turning point, seen by many as the opportunity to resolve decades of conflict over individual freedom and the rights of man.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, which concluded when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865. The war between the States of the Union and the States of the Confederacy helped mould the identity and political language of the modern US. Historians have been investigating the reality and impact of the civil war for decades and as, John Spicer argues in The Cause’ of the US Civil War, there is little doubt that slavery, its abolition and its supporters were one of the key reasons for the war. The seven states that broke away from the Union to form the Confederacy – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas – all belonged to the slave states: large-scale cotton producers who relied on the labour of slaves for their success. The economics of the war are explored in Tim Stanley’s article A North-South Divide, in which he draws attention to the motivations of the North, not solely as a moral war against the horrific actions of slavery, but also as struggle for control between landowning industrialists. 

In Why Men Joined Up for the US Civil War, Susan-Mary Grant compares the American Civil War with the two global conflicts of the 20th century. Grant draws attention to new historical research, as the personal reasons for soldiers joining either the Union or Confederate armies are revealed through diaries, letters and personal testimonies . She also describes the mixed reaction in the North to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed any slaves held in the states that were rebelling against the Union. Frustratingly, it did not free the slaves held in pro-Union states and so, in essence, was impossible to enforce during the campaign.

Slavery is a complicated issue. As Lincoln’s first address states, he initially attempted to reassure the rebellious southern states that, as president, he would not interfere with their property (slaves) as the law protected their rights of ownership. The language used to discuss slaves, by both the North and South, is eternally linked to the concept of property and ownership, as Albert E Cowdry sets out in Slave into Soldier, describing the moment three fugitive slaves crossed enemy lines into the Union camp at Fort Monroe in May 1861. The commander refused to give them back to their Confederate owner, a colonel, who appeared at the gate demanding the return of his property, declaring that they would be held at the fort as ‘the contraband of war’.

By the end of the war 186,000 black men, both freemen and ‘fugitive’ slaves, had joined the Union’s army, forming regiments that were derided both by southerners and northerners alike. Although the abolition of slavery has become the popular perception of the war, the historical reality is much more complicated and, in many cases, much more uncomfortable and less clear cut than we might like.

The war led to the greatest loss of American life in conflict to date. Recent research places the total casualty count as high as 850,000 – more than the combined loss of every other conflict the US has fought in for the last two centuries. It also saw an unprecedented level of destruction, most famously under General Sherman's March to the Sea of 1864.

The confederacy was finally defeated on April 9th, 1865, after years of bloodshed and inhuman attacks by both sides. In Why was the Confederacy Defeated? Alan Farmer outlines the reasons for the North’s eventual success and the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. On April 11th, Lincoln addressed a jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House and outlined his plan to extend universal suffrage, declaring it was:

 ‘…unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.’

He was assassinated three days later. 

Fern Riddell is a contributing editor at History Today

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