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The War that Defined a Nation

This year marks 150 years since the end of the bloodiest conflict ever fought by the United States of America; the war that has made Abraham Lincoln one of the most famous presidents of the USA ever. A conflict which claimed more American lives than Vietnam, the American Revolution, WW1 and WW2 combined. A war in which there were 680,000 to 800,000 American dead, wounded or missing. We in Britain don’t tend to learn much about this war as we had very little to do with it, but now it is coming back into the spotlight as one of its most lasting symbols is coming under scrutiny. This war is the American civil war.

The American civil war began at the battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on the 12th of April 1861. The war was between the Confederate States of America (the South also known as the CSA) and the United States of America (the North also known as the Union) and was mostly about the Southern institution of slavery. The South had a very agricultural economy which included the picking of cotton and tobacco; this had to be done by hand and so slavery was central to the Southern economy and way of life. The North’s economy was more industrial and so result didn’t need slavery. As a result the abolitionist movement in the North was strong. The Slave states (Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia,Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee)  were concerned that the Union would try to take their “property” and 11 of these states  seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America (Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee). The states of Missouri, Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky all stayed with the Union and western Virginia seceded from Virginia to create the state of West Virginia, which joined the Union. The stage was set for civil war. The war ended on The 9th of May 1865 when Confederate commander Robert E.Lee surrendered to the Union commander Ulysses S.Grant

The CSA was inferior to the North in industrial production, manpower, size, mechanisation and agricultural efficiency; but did have one distinct advantage over the Union, Leadership. The Southern generals of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee became brilliant military tacticians who gave the South a chance to perhaps win the war. The Confederate army was doing well in the east due to this. In 1862, after stopping a Union invasion of the South, Robert E. Lee began his invasion of the North. The battle of Antietam stopped the invasion however. But a year later, Robert E. Lee invaded the North again but was defeated at the battle of Gettysburg, The bloodiest battle not just of the war but in the whole of North American history. The battle of Gettysburg had ended the hope of a Confederate victory. Meanwhile the western front was dominated by the Union who managed to capture the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi on the 4th of July, 1863, one day after Robert E.Lee was defeated at Gettysburg.The loss of Vicksburg was an awful blow to the South, as cotton could no longer be moved along the Mississippi river. This, combined with the Union blockade, crippled the Southern cotton industry, as the South lost the ability to export their valuable cotton. Despite this huge loss the CSA kept fighting for 2 years before surrendering to the Union.

A common misconception about the American Civil War was the Confederate flag. The shooting in Charleston South Carolina earlier this year has brought the flag to national attention in the USA, as photos of shooter Dylan Roof have shown him pictured with a Confederate flag. This flag is known as the battle flag or the flag of the South and was used by the naval and Infantry forces of the Confederacy. This flag is seen by most Southerners as a symbol of Dixie (Southern) culture and a symbol of the South, whereas most Northerners see the flag as a symbol of a state which only existed to preserve slavery and promote white supremacy.

The South Carolina state legislature has passed a bill since the shooting in Charleston that will permit the removal of the flag from the flagpole outside the state capital. The reason the flag was there anyway was out of protest of the civil rights movement, which ended Segregation in the USA. The idea that a flag with simply inhumane and racist connotations had been allowed to fly outside a government building is a horrible thought, as every time a Black person walked past that flag, it reminds them of a country which fought to continue the enslavement of their people. And when that country failed to do so, the flag became a symbol of segregation and opposition to civil rights. And for the same reasons that the CSA had to be stopped, the flag of the South has to be removed from government buildings, commercial areas and public areas in the South.

The American Civil War has defined the people of the USA indefinitely. It has destroyed the institution of slavery in the USA and has been a solemn part of US history. When the war ended the Southern economy was in tatters, 10% of Union men of fighting age where killed, wounded or missing and 33% of Southern white males of the same age where killed, wounded or missing. Many Southerners didn’t fight for slavery. Many just felt a duty to protect their homes. Many Northerners too fought for house and home, and even though some people on both sides fought for devious motives, it was still a war of humans against humans, of brothers against brothers and fathers against sons. Despite the name, there was nothing civil about this war. And perhaps this is why civil war was the cruelest war of all.


By Archie Breare

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