The Civil War was the most severe disaster the United States has ever faced; it tore the young nation in two. The struggle was not only a constitutional crisis, it also doomed more than 600,000 Americans to their deaths and wounded an additional 400,000. It ravaged a generation of the South, and it crushed the Southern economy so badly that its recovery took half a century. It is important, therefore, to understand the Civil War, its causes, its course, its dominant personalities, its outcome, and its lasting effects.
The Civil War had many aspects. Most often remembered are the land battles, namely the thrust and parry of warfare in Virginia and the inexorable press of Union armies down the Mississippi and into Georgia. However, the land battles compose only one aspect of the conflict. There was also the naval aspect of the war, most notably the Union blockade as the Union navy worked to hamper New Orleans and other vital ports of the Southern states, and there were struggles between armed boats on the Southern rivers, which were critical to Southern transportation and trade.
And there was the war on the home front, the struggle not only to raise the armies by recruiting the young men but also to supply them with uniforms, food, ammunition, and medical care. There was the struggle to maintain the morale of the families who sent their loved ones to dangerous duties and unmarked graves. There was the struggle to win — or deny — recognition of the Confederacy by the major European powers. Economic matters were also an important part of the war, something both sides understood from the start. If the North could cripple the Southern economy, the South would not be able to support its armies in the field and thus would not survive as a nation. The blockade was meant to deny the South cash from cotton that it could use to equip its armies. As the war went on, the North used increasingly brutal means to devastate the Confederacy's farming potential. William Sherman's March to the Sea and Philip Sheridan's depredations in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 were meant in part to cripple the supply of food to Southern armies.
And, of course, there was the aspect of slavery. Slavery was introduced to the American continent in the seventeenth century. Over the next 200 years, it became so ingrained in American culture that the South believed it could not exist without it. The North largely tolerated it, though abolitionists grew stronger and more vocal as the conflict approached, calling for full and swift emancipation, a call that itself embittered Southerners and hardened their hearts against sharing a country with their Northern cousins. Millions of African Americans lived in the South. Some were already freed and others were willing enough to work for whites with whom they had grown up, but far more were thirsting for freedom from lives of remorseless toil and corporal punishment. All across the South their lot was crushing labor and legal subjugation, yet they knew they toiled without liberty in a land whose people had themselves rebelled against legal subjugation by extolling liberty and declaring “all men are created equal.”
As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, “slavery was somehow the cause of the war.” How America would struggle over and resolve the terrible institution of slavery is the principal story of the Civil War. Tragic it is, but there is more than a streak of triumph. The nation, as Lincoln foretold at Gettysburg in 1863, did “have a new birth in freedom” at war's end and started on its way to something new, a nation of different races, all free — something novel on the face of the earth.