After the seizure of Fort Sumter in April 1861, both the North and the South prepared for war. The North had a distinct economic advantage because almost all of the nation’s factories were been located in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The Union also had nearly twice the South’s population and thus a larger pool of young men to serve in the army.
However, the North’s new recruits were largely untrained, and most of the best military commanders had been from the South. Abraham Lincoln offered command of the main Union army to Robert E. Lee, but Lee, though he disapproved of secession, felt compelled to fight for his home state of Virginia.
Lincoln therefore ended up putting General George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac. “Little Mac,” as he was called, though still only in his thirties, was probably the most popular man in the army in his day. Despite McClellan’s popularity with the troops, however, he was poorly regarded among civilian leaders in Washington and had a reputation for having a rather large ego. Throughout the war, McClellan proved timid, and he always made some excuse to avoid engaging Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
War preparations took some time, so it was not until three months after Fort Sumter that Union and Confederate troops met again at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Still believing that the war was a trifling matter that would be over quickly, a number of government officials and spectators from both sides came to “observe” the battle, some even packing picnic lunches. By the end of the day, Union forces had lost and were forced to retreat. The loss shocked Northerners out of their complacency and prompted them to prepare more seriously for the struggle ahead. Meanwhile, many Southerners interpreted the victory as an indicator of an early end to the war and as decisive proof that most Northerners didn’t have the will to fight.
Just as Northerners were shocked into reality by the First Battle of Bull Run, so too were Southerners by the Battle of Shiloh. In April 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant engaged Confederate forces at Shiloh, Tennessee, in an incredibly bloody battle. Tens of thousands of men died. By the end of the bloodbath, Grant had won and demonstrated to the Confederates that Lincoln was serious about maintaining the Union. Southerners got the message and dug in for a longer war.
Rather than wait around for the enemy to attack him, Lee made an aggressive push into the border states to try to defeat the Union on its own turf. He also hoped that a Confederate victory in Maryland would convince the state legislature to secede. In September 1862, Lee’s army met General George McClellan’s troops at the Battle of Antietam, which resulted in more than 23,000 casualties—the bloodiest single day of battle of the entire war. Lee was forced to retreat back to Confederate territory.
However, the overly cautious McClellan refused to pursue Lee into Virginia and deliver a fatal blow to the Confederate army. Lincoln was so angry at McClellan for passing up a chance to end the war that he fired McClellan and replaced him with another general. After terminating McClellan, Lincoln had to sift through a couple more generals before he finally settled on Ulysses S. Grant, who, unlike McClellan, knew that time was of the essence and that the war could not be allowed to drag on.
Despite McClellan’s failure to follow up, Lincoln nonetheless capitalized on the Antietam victory by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in the Confederacy. The immediate practical effects of the proclamation were limited: since it declared that slaves only in the secessionist states were free (not the border states, for Lincoln did not want to provoke them into secession), it was effectively unenforceable.
The proclamation did have a large political impact, though, because it tied the issue of slavery to the restoration of the Union. Indeed, reunification, not emancipation, remained Lincoln’s most important goal by far. He once remarked, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” Lincoln received a lot of criticism from the Peace Democrats and other groups for wedding the goals of emancipation and reunification.
Despite the priority Lincoln placed on reunification, he knew that a reunified nation would not survive long if slavery still existed. Slavery had been at the root of every major sectional conflict since the 1780s, and the issue had to be addressed. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation failed to ban slavery in the border states, it did mark the symbolic beginning of the end for the “peculiar institution” for every state in the Union.
While the armies battled on land, the Union and Confederate navies clashed on the high seas. At the very beginning of the war, Lincoln bypassed Congress and ordered a naval blockade of all Southern ports. The South’s economy relied almost entirely on cotton trade with Britain, so Lincoln hoped the blockade would strangle the Confederacy financially.
The Confederate navy, though small, proved a formidable adversary. The British-built Confederate warship Alabama sank more than sixty Union ships before it was finally defeated. The South also created a major new naval weapon—the ironclad—when ingenious Confederate shipbuilders refitted the old warship USS Merrimack with a steam engine and iron plates to make it impervious to bullets and cannonballs. The ship, renamed the Virginia, easily destroyed several Union ships and broke through the blockade. In response, the Union built an ironclad of its own, the USS Monitor , that featured an innovative gun turret. The two ships met in March 1862 at the Battle of the Ironclads, which ended in a draw.
Undaunted by his failure at Antietam, Lee marched into Northern territory again in the summer of 1863, this time into Pennsylvania. There, he met Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg in early July. At the end of a bloody three-day struggle in which more than 50,000 died, Lee was once again forced to retreat. The battle was a resounding victory for the North and a catastrophe for the South.
At the same time Lee was losing in the North, Grant was besieging the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the West. Eventually, the trapped Confederates caved in to Grant’s demand for an unconditional surrender. This major victory at the Battle of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and thus split the Confederacy in half.
Lincoln commemorated the Union victory at Gettysburg several months after the battle with a speech at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site. Though very brief, the Gettysburg Address was poignant and eloquent. In the speech, Lincoln argued that the Civil War was a test not only for the Union but for the entire world, for it would determine whether a nation conceived in democracy could “long endure.”