The American Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the hardest-fought and most bloody wars in the history of the United States of America and served both to divide and eventually re-unite the nation. With a death toll up to 51,000 casualties in a single battle the war also claimed the lives of civilians. In total, some two per cent of the US population lost their lives during the conflict. The Union General William Sherman (1820-1891) commented 1880 in Columbus (Ohio) "Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you boys, it is all hell".

1. The descent into war

The constitution of the Southern Confederacy in late 1860 drew the battle-lines for the military conflict. In the Spring of 1861, the Confederacy began to impound government military hardware; resistance by units of the US Army stationed in Fort Sumter (Charleston, South Carolina) led to the first military engagement of the Civil War.

The first battle

A wave of enthusiasm for the war led thousands of volunteers to the colours. Seeking to resolve the conflict in a single decisive engagement, the armies of the two sides met 40 km south of Washington on 21 July 1861 to fight the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). Drawing crowds of spectators, the battle ended with a rout for the Union. Both High Commands saw that they would have to revise their plans for victory within 90 days.

The first year of the war 1861

Concentrated on the East Coast, the first engagements of the war ended with defeat for the Union. As the North had the larger Navy, it soon launched a blockade of the Southern states with the aim of starving them of military supplies and closing off their cotton exports.


This strategy was a part of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s (1786 – 1866) Anaconda plan. Scott hoped to suffocate the South through a naval blockade., thereby denying them the resources required to fight the war, whilst cutting the Confederacy in two by an advance up the Mississippi. The Union Navy failed to establish a complete blockade along the entire 4800 km of the East coast.


  • The Union: re-conquest of the South and its re-integration in the Union.
  • The South: independence through attrition.


  • New rifles (Springfield and Enfield) and ammunition (Minié Balls) bringing greater accuracy and range.
  • Railway transport permitted speedier logistics, especially for the Union.
  • Telegraphs helped the co-ordination of military units, especially for the Union.


  • The Union tended to name battles after nearby rivers or other waterways.
  • The Confederacy named the battle after cities.
  • The name by which the battle was eventually known depended on a range of factors such as the victor, the media and public opinion.

2. The second year of the war

"a long way ahead"

1862 saw the Union adopt a new strategy, seeking to exercise control over the transport routes, rivers and harbours of the USA. This involved a relocation of the military campaign to the Mid-West. The union sought to control the Mississippi – the lifeline of the Confederacy.

The battle for the Mississippi

  • The Union advance along the Tennessee River was met by Confederate resistance and battle was given at the Shiloh Creek on 6-7 April. The largest battle in the West to date was won by the Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), who was then able to advance on and capture Memphis.
  • The Partisan Ranger Act (12 April 1862) integrated guerrilla units into the Confederate Army. This resulted into an increase in the number of partisan attacks on Union communications.
  • Union troops landed in the Mississippi delta at the end of April and occupied New Orleans.
  • Heavily-armoured steam ships were deployed on the Mississippi River.

The fight for Richmond

In the East, the Union Army sought to capture Richmond, the headquarters of the Confederacy.

  • Failing to capture Richmond after seven days of heavy fighting to the South-East of Richmond, the Union had to acknowledge the failure of this strategy. The Seven Days Battle was the longest battle of the war.
  • General Robert E. Lee (1807 –1870) led the Army of Northern Virginia in a successful counter-attack, winning the Second Battle of Bull Run 28 - 30 August 1862.
  • Although subject to heavy pressure in the East, the Union managed to win a resounding victory at Antietam on 19 September 1862.
  • Despite its military and economic superiority, the Union recognized that it would have to occupy the whole of the South.

3. 1863

"The military decision"

Passing the Emancipation Proclamation on 1. January 1863, President Lincoln declared that all the slaves in the Southern states were henceforth free. This extended the original war aims of the North (the restoration of the Union) to include the end of slavery.

The Union launched universal conscription in March 1863. Some cities on the East Coast witnessed large-scale rioting and protests, as the rich were able to purchase exemption from the draft.

Invading the North

After winning the Battle of Chancellorsville (2 - 6 May 1863) the Confederacy decided to carry the fight to the North. June 1863 saw General Lee lead the Army of Northern Virginia across the border, pursued by the Union Army of the Potomac under General Meade (1815-1872).


Meeting outside Gettysburg on 1 July 1863, the Confederate Army managed to repel the Union Army, which regrouped on an area of high ground. The second day saw inconclusive fighting. The third day of the battle witnessed General Lee’s famous Picket Charge, a head-on attack into the massed fire of the Union Army. Facing the destruction of his forces, Lee retreated. Although managing to maintain the integrity of his army, General Lee had lost his aura of invincibility.

Union victory at Gettysburg did not end the war, but ensured that the Confederacy would never again be able to take the initiative and remained on the defensive for the remainder of the conflict.


  • The American Civil War was the first war to be recorded by photography.
  • Public opinion was subject to strong influence by press reports and photographs.
  • Generals responded with news blackouts to maintain military secrecy.

The divided South

As early as 1863, President Lincoln declared the capture of Vicksburg to be the key to any Union victory. After repelling a number of attacks, the Confederate stronghold was faced by a systematic siege led by General Grant, which began on 25 May 1863. Only a few days after the defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate garrison surrendered Vicksburg on 4 July 1863, after 74 days under siege. Having lost control of the Mississippi River, the Confederacy was now cut in two.

“No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted”

Keegan, John. Der Amerikanische Bürgerkrieg. 1. Aufl. Berlin: Rowohlt Berlin, 2010, S. 218

Grant’s capitulation demands had remained unchanged since the engagement at Fort Donelson.


1863 saw the turn of the tide in the West in favour of the Union. Nevertheless, public attention remained focussed on Virginia, where little had changed. President Lincoln was facing re-election in 1864, the outcome of which would decide the settlement of the war.


At the outset of the war, the armies of both sides employed the traditional tactics of advance in formation and the exchange of volley fire. The developments in artillery and musketry rendered such tactics obsolete, involving as they did, carnage on a mass scale. Recognizing the developments, the commanders of both sides moved to embrace new tactics, involving the pursuit of fixed aims by mobile formations.

The Gettysburg Address

Holding what was to become his most famous address to mark the opening of the soldier’s cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, President Lincoln reflected on the 51,000 casualties – dead, injured and missing – of the recent battle, and restated the ideals of the Union. Although only 272 words long (and delivered in two minutes) his speech has become as integral a part of US national identity as the constitution itself.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address: Abraham Lincoln. London: Penguin, 2009

4. Campaigns of 1864

"The year of decision"

1864 witnessed bloody battles in the East and a new strategy in the West.

War on many fronts

Whilst General Grant, the new supreme commander of Union forces, continued the war in the East, General Lee confounded repeated Union attempts to take Richmond. With both sides suffering horrendous losses, the armies met at the town of Petersburg. With both sides digging in, the conflict entered its longest period of static warfare.

The “hard war”

The previous war of armies assumed a new character in 1864.

In November, General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), with the support of Grant and Lincoln, began a campaign designed to break the resistance of the South. Roaming across Georgia, he destroyed everything in his path. With poor supplies, his army also plundered in order to survive.

Atlanta, the “heart of the South” fell in September. The Confederacy evacuated the civilian population and destroyed all militarily-relevant industry and infrastructure.

(CA. 1883)

“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out”,

Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General William T Sherman: By Himself; in two Volumes. New York: Appleton, 1875, S. 600.

General Sherman wrote these lines to James Calhoun the Mayor of Atlanta on 12 September 1864.

5. 1865

"The last steps towards peace"

Wilmington, the last major port in the South, fell to the Union at the beginning of February 1865. The South was now entirely cut off from the sea: the Union blockade was complete.

The last march

General Sherman wasted no time in advancing from Savannah and set out for South Carolina at the start of the year. Seizing Columbia, the state capital went up in flames on the first day of the occupation. Pursuing one of the last Confederate armies, he crossed into North Carolina and won the last battle of the campaign close to Bentonville, fought between 19 – 21 March 1865.

(BETWEEN 1861-1865)

The end

Grant maintained the siege of Petersburg until 2 April 1865, forcing General Lee to retreat westwards and leave Richmond unprotected. He was unable to avoid full encirclements and was forced to surrender on 9 April 1865 after losing the battle of Appomattox.


 The Union needed four full years to translate its material and military superiority into strategic success. That success came at a high cost to the civilian population, involving as it did, much bloodshed and destruction. In the final analysis, some 620,000 people (2 per cent of the American population) died during the Civil War.

6. The war in numbers

It is not possible to reconstruct the exact number of engagements. The term “engagement” encompasses all forms of combat ranging from the smallest skirmish to large-scale sea battles, sieges and pitched battles conducted over a number of days. Estimates of the number of dead civilians and murdered slaves vary considerably. The following representative statistics give an idea of the scope and extent of the war:

Major engagements







 The Wilderness




 Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) 23.746

 Stone's River


 Antietam (Sharpsburg)


 Secound Bull Run
 (Secound Manassas)




In general




 boarder states*

  Total population




 Free population








 Finance (bank deposit and coined money) 234.000.000 74.000.000 29.000.000



750.000 - 1.227.890


 Total casualties 642.427 483.026

 Killed in action



 Deaths from illness








Deaths as prisoners of war 30.192 31.000

* Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri

7. Black soldiers

"War as the vehicle of emancipation"

Whilst black volunteers from across the Union joined the Northern cause, in the South, only those in Louisiana were free to combine to form military units.

Escaped slaves flocked to the North in the first weeks of the war. Without clear orders, their fate was decided by individual commanders. Some were returned to their owners, or put to work in the fields, others were set free.


The move to a new strategy of resource destruction meant that the Union began to discuss manumission as a tactic of warfare – removing the labour force could seriously weaken the economic resources of the South. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from January 1863 declared all slaves to be free and permitted their recruitment in the Union army. The Union raised a total of 166 black regiments, making up some ten per cent of its military strength. Led in the main by white officers, black soldiers were paid less and met with considerable prejudice.

Capture by the Southern forces meant certain death.


A total of 180,000-200,00 African-Americans served in the Union army and fought in a number of battles, including those of Vicksburg, Fort Wagner and Petersburg. They soon established a reputation as good fighters. For its part, the Confederacy only countenanced the recruitment of slave soldiers in 1864, comparatively late on in the war. Deployed only in supply regiments, they did not see much fighting.

8. German immigrants

"Integration through military service?"

The armies of both the Union and the Confederacy recruited immigrants from the outset of the conflict; German immigrants constituted 10 % of the Northern army.

The reasons for enlistment

The reasons for participation in the war were as diverse for German immigrants as other recruits. Before the introduction of compulsory military service (the draft) in 1863 volunteers flocked to the colours for reasons ranging from financial gain to idealism. A political motivation was especially pronounced amongst the “48ers”, those having fled Germany after the failure of the 1848 revolution. Examples included Carl Schurz (1829-1906) or General Franz Sigel (1824-1902).


Many of the German immigrants were Roman Catholics, and as such, Democrats. Although they tended to oppose the war, they opposed slavery on humanist grounds, but cannot generally be viewed as abolitionists. The majority of such immigrants saw that this cause endangered the natural social order.

Christian Häring inhabitant of Wilmington 1863:

„so for the workers there was no other way to earn a living except to enlist. And others who didn’t have to make their living as laborers found it a good opportunity to play the role of an officer, and so it went, nothing but a competition to raise one regiment after the next, just to make money”

Brigade order of Colonel Henry Bohlen (1862):

“The German fighter for the preservation of the Freedom and Union that Washington fought for and won will not stand back when tribute is to be paid to his memory”

Kamphoefner, Walter D. and Wolfgang Helbich, Ed. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, S. 21 a. 219.

Special experiences

The common belief that the American Civil War acted as a “melting pot”, a mechanism with which to integrate outsiders into American society, cannot be maintained. Although the war saw high levels of participation from foreigners, both as officers and men, these various groupings, such as the Germans tended to fight within nationally-homogenous formations. Some 30 German regiments saw service; formations of mixed nationality tended to form companies from each national group. This even led to certain national tensions between the various formations of the Union.  


For example, German soldiers were often viewed as cowardly and were often referred to by white Americans as Flying Dutchmen. This referred to the panic amongst the mainly German XI. Corps which then fled the engagements at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in May and July 1863 respectively. A well-known and much-recounted story was that of the German officer Alexander Schimmelfennig (1824 -1865), who was said to have hidden in a pig sty during the Battle of Gettysburg. This prejudice was matched by German beliefs that they were the best and most courageous soldiers of the entire Northern Army.

Sergant August Horstman (1862):

„And indeed the enemy has tremendous respect for German soldiers, so that even the farmers come running from all directions to see the flying Dutchman, as they call our German Division”

Kamphoefner, Walter D. and Wolfgang Helbich, Ed. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, S. 120 f..