On This Date in History: The Civil War Begins

Getty Battery A, Fourth US Artillery, Robertson's Brigade.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 and lasted until May 13, 1865. Over three million soldiers were engaged. There were approximately 640,000 casualties in total.

The Civil War started after tensions escalated between the North and the South over the issue of slavery in the United States following the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Soldiers fought for either the Confederacy, eleven slave states in the South which seceded, or the Union, the states that remained loyal to the US Constitution.

Here’s what you need to know.


1. The Civil War Answered The Two Fundamental Questions Raised By The American Revolution

The Virginia Dead

GettyDead Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Chancellorsville

The American Revolution lasted from 1776-1783 and resulted in the creation of the United States. The Civil War would determine two questions: if the United States was to be a confederation of sovereign states that could be dissolved or an indivisible nation with one government; and if, under a declaration that states that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, the United States should continue to allow slavery.

As of 1860, there were approximately 3.9 million slaves in the US, making up roughly 12% of the total population. Many plantation owners believed that slavery was critical to the economy.

Seven states in the South initially seceded and four more would soon follow, joining forces against any effort to change the states’ rights to own slaves.

2. Tensions Escalated Following The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

Christian Commission

GettyPredecessors of the Red Cross, the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission.

Lincoln was, by and large, unpopular among the Southern states. During his inaugural address to the nation, he pledged that he would maintain the union of the country as a whole, warning the Southern states not to secede.

In the same address. Lincoln promised that he would not interfere with slavery on a state by state basis. A full transcript of President Lincoln’s address is available here.

Despite efforts to mitigate the tensions between the North and the South, the conflict continued to escalate in early 1861. Things would soon come to a head in April at the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.


3. The Civil War Started on April 12, 1861

American Civil War

GettyGun boats.

President Lincoln was informed that Fort Sumter, located South Carolina, needed to be resupplied. Lincoln was faced with a difficult decision because South Carolina was a slave state, but Lincoln had vowed not to relinquish control of any federal territories, including Fort Sumter.

Supplies were restocked and the soldiers sent by Lincoln refused to abandon it. On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Sumter. Confederate forces claimed that the fort belonged to them. This marks the official start of the Civil War. An overview of the battles that would follow is outlined here.

The war would continue for the next four years. The most lives were lost in the infamous Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. This would prompt President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.


4. Over 600,000 Lives Were Lost in The War

Petersburg Casualty

GettyThe corpse of a dead soldier after the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia.

It is estimated that 2.1 million Union soldiers and 1 million Confederates fought in the Civil War. The total number of casualties remains unknown, but most estimates put the figure at between 640,000 and 700,000.

The bloodiest battles of the Civil War are as follows:

Battle Of Gettysburg: Over 50,000 casualties
Seven Days Battle: Over 35,000 casualties
Battle Of Chickamauga: Over 34,000 casualties
Battle Of Chancellorsville: Over 29,000 casualties
Battle Of The Wilderness: Over 24,000 casualties
Battle Of Antietam: Over 22,000 casualties
Second Battle Of Bull Run: Over 24,000 casualties
Battle Of Shiloh: Over 23,000 casualties
Battle Of Fredericksburg: Over 18,000 casualties
Cold Harbor: Over 18,000 casualties

As a result of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned. This led to the establishment of orphanages across the United States. State-run institutions and schools for children were opened for orphaned and abandoned children; some better than others, with so many children in need of care.


5. The War Ended on May 13, 1865

Lookout Battle

GettyUnion soldiers advancing on the Confederates at the Battle of Lookout Mountain.

The Civil War officially ended on May 13, 1864 when General Robert E. Lee (Confederate) surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant (Union). A series of surrenders would follow across the battle lines. This event followed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves as of January 1, 1863.

President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, a pro-slavery Confederate sympathizer who was able to shoot Lincoln in the head while at the theater. Lincoln died the following morning. Booth would be shot while trying to evade capture. His co-conspirators would all be hanged.

“On Christmas Day, 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation to all former Confederates, including Jefferson Davis. Only one Confederate was executed, Henry Wirtz, commander of the notorious prison camp at Andersonville. Officially known as Fort Sumter, Andersonville was the largest prison camp in the south and was infamous for its ill treatment of Union prisoners who lacked adequate food and medicine. Southerners have long protested that the death rate in Northern prison camps was higher than that of Andersonville, and Wirtz should not have been punished for war crimes,” reports historynet.com.

As such, after the war, slavery was officially abolished and the Constitution was amended. The country would remain united; the South would not secede. As of 1868, all former Confederate soldiers were granted amnesty and were freed.

While both sides suffered devastating losses, it would take the South years to recover. The period of time immediately following the end of the war is often referred to as the Reconstruction Period. “The Reconstruction Period generally refers to the period just after the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877. Reconstruction period was as harsh as the war on the Southern states and that they never fully regained their standing. The period of Reconstruction was important to build equal standing among the states and to regain trust,” historynet.com reports.