The American Civil War lasted four years. More than 600,000 soldiers were killed, flourishing cities razed to the ground, and entire regions devastated. A high price, but there was also a lot at stake: the unity of the country and the abolition of slavery.
The independence of the USA
In 1773 there was unrest in the British colonies of North America. The population rebelled against taxes that were to be imposed on them by the government in London. The protest turned into a fight for civil liberty.
On 4 July 1776, the 13 North American colonies declared their independence and founded the United States of America – the date is still celebrated in the USA today as “Independence Day”. The British sent troops to put a military end to the uprising. The struggle for freedom raged for seven years, during which the British finally lost.
In 1788 the Constitution of the United States of America came into force. A nation was created whose constitution granted sovereignty to the individual states. Also the decision for or against slavery was up to the states.
Lured by the dream of great happiness, numerous immigrants reached the USA. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had become a world power, but within its borders it was beginning to go through a crisis.
Slavery – yes or no?
In the northern states lived 20 million inhabitants, in the south almost seven million. The people in the North were progressive, while in the South they thought conservatively. The North had developed into a booming industrial conurbation, the South was agricultural.
The rich landowners in the South earned their money primarily through the cultivation and export of cotton. However, they could only run the huge farms profitably because they had cheap labour.
Almost four million black slaves had to work in the cotton fields. In the North, slavery had been abolished and had followed the example of the modern world.
With great political pressure the North wanted to get the South to abolish slavery as well. But the renunciation of slave labour would have plunged the farmers of the South into an economic fiasco.
Lincoln’s inauguration as president
In the US Senate there were fierce debates about the slave question. In the South, voices were raised calling for secession from the Union. The conflict was also fuelled by the upcoming presidential elections. Abraham Lincoln was one of the most promising candidates and an opponent of slavery.
When Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States in November 1860, political consequences were immediately drawn in the South. Still in December South Carolina declared its withdrawal from the Confederation.
In February 1861 the representatives of six slave states met and decided to form the “Confederate States of America”. Five more states joined this confederation shortly afterwards.
The beginning of the war
Richmond (Virginia) became the capital of the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis was appointed President. The breakaway states drafted a constitution that in most respects corresponded to that of the Union. However, the ownership of slaves was explicitly put under protection.
In the south, they began to expropriate federal property, including military installations. The Unionist occupation of Fort Sumter, a fortress in the port of Charleston, South Carolina, resisted the transfer to the South.
On April 12, 1861, Southern troops took the fort under artillery fire. This military action was the prelude to the bloodiest conflict on American soil to this day.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln raised an army of 75,000 volunteers and advanced toward the south. He had hopes of bringing the rebels to their knees with a swift victory. But the South was prepared for a military confrontation.
The Confederates not only had highly motivated troops, but also better trained officers. Therefore the Southern Army was able to win the first battles of the civil war. But the tide soon turned in favour of the North.
Technology as a decisive factor
After the first lost battles Lincoln had set his war machine in motion. New recruits were constantly being trained and brought to the front. In addition, the powerful armaments industry of the north supplied the troops with supplies and new weapons. The railway proved to be an extremely important means of transport.
Soon the South was no longer able to compete with the technical advantage of the North. In addition, the Confederates were cut off from supplies by a sea blockade.
After the Union troops had also taken control of the Mississippi, another important supply artery of the South, the defeat of the Confederates was inevitable. July 1863 brought a decisive victory for the North with the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania).
The War of Annihilation
The longer the war raged, the harder and more relentlessly the fighting became. The fight man against man had turned into an iron war, in which the most modern technology was used.
To gain control of the Mississippi, both sides developed armored gunboats. Precursors of submarines were also used. Victims among the civilian population were also deliberately accepted.
On their advance through southern territory, troops from the northern states cut a nearly 100-kilometer-wide swath of devastation. People and livestock were killed, farms set on fire, cities like Atlanta and Charleston destroyed.
The American Civil War had become a war of annihilation waged by all means.
The end and the consequences
The south was finally bled dry. The last decisive battle was fought for the Confederate capital. The commander-in-chief of the Union forces, General Ulysses S. Grant, had fought his way to Richmond with his troops and besieged the city.
General Robert Edward Lee, commander in chief of the Southern Army, decided to surrender on April 9, 1865. This officially ended the war. In the end, 600,000 people had lost their lives, tens of thousands were maimed. The economic damage caused by the destruction was enormous.
Lincoln, re-elected president in 1864, had saved the Union. But he had not conquered the hatred between the North and South. He died on April 15th, 1865 by the bullets of a fanatical Southerner.
Lincoln’s goal to enforce the abolition of slavery in all states of the Union was realized shortly after his death.
It took until well into the 1870s for the Southern states to recover economically from the consequences of the war and to be re-integrated into the Union on an equal footing socially and politically.
The Ku Klux Klan formed shortly after the war. Members of this racist secret society took action after the end of the war against entrepreneurs from the North who were said to want to profit from the defeat of the South.
The clan also hunted down former slaves who had been given political offices in the South. Even today there is a noticeable gap between the North and the South.