The American Civil War (1861-1865) is widely-recognized as one of the most significant conflicts of the 19th century. Shaping the political and cultural development of the young nation, it has become part of a rich fabric of popular commemoration - re-enactments, histories, popular genealogy – which form the political culture of the modern USA. Beginning with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the war was the result of a gradual process of division between North and South and the development of two almost parallel societies. The increasingly liberal industrialized North and the agricultural, slave-owning society in the South had failed to reach any form of social consensus which could translate into a shared political culture.

The increasing divergences crystalized in the attitude towards the institution of slavery, which developed into a serious issue of division after 1830. Coming to a head following the election in November 1860 of Abraham Lincoln to the office of President, the Southern states began to fear that the new President would move to abolish slavery. South Carolina seceded from the United States even before Lincoln’s inauguration. This course of action was soon matched by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. The ensuing war between the 11-million strong Confederacy under President Jefferson Davis and the more populous North (the 23 states had a population of 22 million) was fought over the political future of the Republic: its restoration was the guiding aim of the North, whilst the South fought to maintain its independence. The resulting Civil War was fought predominantly on the territory of the Southern States, with the military campaigns concentrated in Virginia on the fault line of the Union.

Although enjoying a considerable superiority in resources, manpower and infrastructure, the Union was virtually unprepared for a long war; for its part, the South first had to assemble its entire military establishment from scratch. Nevertheless, the conflict eventually extended over five years and claimed the lives of some 620,000 soldiers and civilians (360,000 from the North and 260,000 from the South), amounting to 2 per cent of the total US population. The fighting devastated large swathes of Virginia, the Mississippi valley and Georgia. In view of the bloody nature of the war, post-war politics was dominated by the attempt to reconcile the two halves of the nation. A further monumental consequence was the freeing of the slaves with the Declaration of Emancipation promulgated in January 1863. Although opening new opportunities – such as the right to join the armed forces – the end of the institution of slavery did not lead to complete racial equality. Americans of European heritage continued to consider the former slaves as a racial and national out group and the newly-devised system of segregation maintained African-Americans as second-class citizens until well into the 1960s. The war preserved the existence of the Union, but it was maintained as an exclusive racial settlement, excluding not only the African Americans but the Native Americans from the enjoyment of full political rights.

Although hostilities were restricted to the confines of the USA, it was fought within a global context. Formed and shaped by international influences, the USA also exerted a strong pull on the rest of the world. For example, the disruption brought by the fighting meant the loss of world dominance in the cotton trade, with India and East Africa moving in to take the lead in the manufacture and sale of cotton goods. The interest in the conflict exhibited by France and Great Britain and the close ties between the North and the two former colonial rivals were a further aspect in the global nature of the American Civil War. Although sympathizing with the South on economic grounds, Paris and London nonetheless established close ties with Washington after 1863.

The nature of the military campaign underlined the global nature of the war. With both sides deploying armies largely made up of European immigrants, the Union Army even raised a number of ethnically-homogenous immigrant battalions, recruiting first generation Irish and German combatants. The conflict involved some 200,000 recruits of German origin.

The deployment of state-of-the-art military technology, communications and logistics produced a war of great proportions and long duration, as neither side were able to land a “knock-out blow”. With the advantage on the side of defence, the war degenerated into a campaign of static warfare, presaging many features of the First World War, including trench warfare and the maltreatment of the civilian population. The announcement of the “Hard War” in 1864 deployed the instruments of plundering, the destruction of transport links and houses and the terrorization of the civilian population. As such, many observers regard the American Civil War as the first total war, affecting civilians and combatants alike.

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind from 1935 described war as “men’s business”. Although the history of the Civil War serves largely to confirm this thesis, women were involved in its conduct and suffered under its impact. Assuming a range of roles hitherto reserved for their menfolk – nursing, farming, industry and management – this change was reflected in the literature produced by a small number of female authors, both white and black and from both sides of the conflict. The assumption of new roles maintained existing class hierarchies, with middle and upper-class women engaged predominantly as nurses, whilst their working class sisters worked as washerwomen, cooks, prostitutes and even spies.

This role reversal found its height in the (albeit low) number of women who took up arms and fought on the front line. Female non-combatants in the Southern States also suffered from the advance of the armies. Forced to flee, they suffered hunger, robbery and rape. This wide experience of participation in war undermined the established gender hierarchy and served to merge the former separate spheres of gender life.

The American Civil War took part during a period of general social upheaval, during which the feudal society of orders underwent a transition into a racially and gender segregated industrial society. The “politicization of gender” – a term coined by Ute Frevert to describe Europe of the 1830s – transcended racial divisions, and a women’s movement emerged which engaged women from across the racial divide. Denied the vote and stripped of their property and family rights upon marriage, the woman’s movement found themselves articulating similar grievances as the anti-slavery movement. This phenomenon was given expression in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Although challenging traditional conceptions of gender the American Civil War did not undermine traditional society in this respect; it did however accelerate an existing process of social re-negotiation. The extension of universal manhood suffrage in 1868 – to African-American men but not white women – the American suffragette movement redoubled their efforts and even exported their concerns to Europe. The history of the Civil War is thus interlinked with that of the feminist movement.

The decision to analyse the American Civil War through the prism of Gender Studies and summarize the results in an exhibition grew out of a seminar focusing on “Men and Women in the American Civil War” which I led at the PH Freiburg in the Summer of 2015. My students soon realized that European conceptions of this key event is still heavily influenced by the classic film Gone with the Wind. Presented as a love story between the two protagonists, the students saw that the film obscured the true story of the men and women fighting in and feeling the impact of this gruelling military conflict. Of especial interest to the students was the variety of female experience within the war as conditioned by differences in race and class.

The exhibition produced by the seminar participants was made possible by the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Pädagogischen Hochschule Freiburg, the Carl-Schurz-Haus and the Freiburg Institute for American Studies. Displayed in Freiburg in the Autumn of 2015, the exhibition was launched by an international workshop, thereby realizing the traditional German alliance between teaching and research. The fruits of the workshop will be published in an edition of the Militärgeschichtlichen Zeitschrift 2017. The project as a whole was awarded the Genderpreis 2016 of the Pädagogischen Hochschule Freiburg.

The online presentation of the exhibition seeks to make the results of this research project available to a wider audience for teaching purposes. Providing a view of events beyond that usually found in traditional German publications, it seeks to incorporate up-to-date research and new perspectives of Gender. The translation of the exhibition into English seeks to make a contribution to the international academic discourse.

The realization of both exhibitions was the achievement of the students Antonio Berardis, Sarah Huber, Linda Kern, Marlene Probst and Till Sondermann. Chapter Five of this exhibition Postwar politics and Reconstruction was based on a further seminar focussing on the history of the post-war period.

The illustrative material used in the exhibition was drawn from publically accessible materials from institutions such as the Library of Congress. All maps are originals. None of the comics reflect the opinions of the authors of this exhibition, but speak for themselves and the period in which they were generated. All internet sources were accessed on 27 and 28 February 2017. I should like to thank Andrew Smith for the translation of the online exhibition, Friedrich Dreves, for the correction of the German text and Fionn Grosse for all the photographs. Especial thanks are due to Wolfgang Hochbruck for loaning the exhibits shown in the presentation from his private collection.