We like to apply meaning to important events. We look back at the Revolution and say that it was about independence, standing up for our right to self-determination, to be represented in government, and to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We apply meaning to wars as well. World War Two was about defeating hatred in the form of Nazi Germany.

Often, in the face of tragedy, especially disasters and war, we look for some greater meaning that will help us understand the events. Earthquakes offer lessons about safe construction practices. Sometimes, events are cautionary tales – “don’t try that again.”

What was the Civil War about? Was it a moral crusade to end the evils of slavery? Was it about preserving the Union that the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary Generation had worked so hard to establish? Was it about preserving the rights of people to elect their leaders? Was it a punishment from God? Was it a terrible mistake that shows us how not to deal with crisis?

What do you think? What did the war mean?


Popular culture – poetry, books, television, film – as well as the interests of politicians have often distorted the motivations of individual soldiers. Sometimes they have been portrayed as heroic liberators of slaves struggling to be free, or alternatively evil planters wishing to maintain chattel slavery. Like many things however, the truth is far more complicated than the simplistic summaries provided by politicians, poets and screen writers.

In recent years historians have been able to read over thousands of letters that soldiers from both the North and the South sent home during the War and we are now able to more accurately describe what motivated so many thousands of people to risk their lives.

For some, the war was about ideology. Northerners believed that secession was unconstitutional and fought to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union. And across the battle lines from them there were Southerners who believed in states’ rights, that the Northern government was tyrannical, and that the right of the South to secede was as absolute as had been the right of the 13 Colonies to declare independence in 1776.

For others, the war was about slavery. Undoubtedly for Southern political leaders – the slaveholding elite – the war was a means to preserve their wealth and way of life. But for infantrymen of the South who owned few or no slaves, slavery was important all the same. They believed that African Americans were inferior to whites and the North’s efforts to end slavery was a threat to their sense of self-worth.

Slavery was important for Northern troops as well, especially for those who were believers in the fight to abolish slavery. As the war went on, the struggle was seen more and more as an epic moral battle against a terrible evil. Some Northerners cast themselves as instruments of God, punishing the South and liberating souls. For free African Americans in the North, and for slaves who escaped and joined the Union armies, the destruction of slavery can hardly be overstated.

For others, the war was more personal. Many men fought for their homes and their families. Especially in the South, where most of the fighting took place, soldiers did not see their sacrifice in terms of ideological, political or moral terms, but simply as protecting their loved ones.

Sullivan Ballou, a major in the Union army eloquently summarized the feelings of many who fought in the war in a letter he wrote to his wife, just before he was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. He wrote, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar — that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”

Whatever their reasons, the men and women who struggled through the four terrible years of war demonstrated tremendous devotion. In all, over one million Americans died, more than three percent of the entire population of the country at that time.


Looking back at the Civil War with the benefit of more than 150 years of hindsight, it is easy to say that the war was about ending slavery and that emancipation was going to be the obvious outcome of the war. This was not at all obvious then.

Prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln attempted to abstain from the debate over slavery, arguing that he had no constitutional authority to intervene. As the war progressed, emancipation remained a risky political act that had little public support. Lincoln faced strong opposition from Copperhead Democrats, who demanded an immediate peace settlement with the Confederacy. They believed that it would be much better to simply let the South secede and avoid war altogether. Many recent immigrants in the North also opposed emancipation, viewing freed slaves as competition for scarce jobs.

Within the Republican Party, however, the Radical Republicans, led by House Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, put strong pressure on Lincoln to end slavery quickly. One of the Radical Republicans’ most persuasive arguments was that the South’s economy would be destroyed were it to lose slave labor.

Congress passed several laws between 1861 and 1863 that aided the growing movement toward emancipation. Despite his concerns that premature attempts at emancipation would weaken his support and entail the loss of crucial border states – the slave states that had decided to remain in the Union, Lincoln signed these acts into law. The first of these laws to be implemented was the First Confiscation Act of August 1861, which authorized the confiscation of any Confederate property, including slaves, by Union forces. In March 1862, Congress approved a law which forbade Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves to their owners. The laws had their intended effect. As Union armies moved through the South, thousands of slaves left their homes and fled to the approaching Union troops and the South’s economy suffered.

The following month, Congress declared that the federal government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. Moderate Republicans accepted Lincoln’s plan for gradual, compensated emancipation, which was put into effect in the District of Columbia. In June 1862, Congress passed a law to emancipate slaves in the territories of the West. What Lincoln really needed, however, was a major military victory that would demonstrate to the country, and to France and Britain, that the North was going to win on the battlefield and that emancipation would be a moral justification for the bloodshed that the war had unleashed.

That victory came in September of 1862 at Antietam. No foreign country wants to ally with a potential losing power. By achieving victory, the Union demonstrated that the South would probably lose. As a result, the British did not recognize the Confederate States of America, and Antietam became one of the war’s most important diplomatic battles, as well as one of the bloodiest. Five days after the battle, Lincoln decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863. Unless the Confederate States returned to the Union by that day, he proclaimed their slaves “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

It is sometimes said that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves. In a way, this is true. The proclamation would only apply to the Confederate States, as an act to seize enemy resources. By freeing slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln was actually freeing people he did not directly control. The way he explained the Proclamation made it acceptable to much of the Union army. He emphasized emancipation as a way to shorten the war by taking Southern resources and hence reducing Confederate strength. Even McClellan supported the policy as a soldier. Lincoln made no such offer of freedom to the slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware that were still in the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation created a climate where the destruction of slavery was seen as one of the major objectives of the war. Overseas, the North now seemed to have the greatest moral cause. Even if a foreign government wanted to intervene on behalf of the South, its population might object. The Proclamation itself freed very few slaves, but it was the death knell for slavery in the United States. Eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation led to the proposal and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery throughout the land.

Secondary Source: Painting

Henry Louis Stephens’s 1963 painting of a man reading the Emancipation Proclamation.

Predictably, the Confederates were initially outraged by the Emancipation Proclamation and used it as further justification for their rebellion. The Proclamation was also immediately denounced by Copperhead Democrats, a more extreme wing of the Northern Democratic faction of the Democratic Party that opposed the war and hoped to restore the Union peacefully via federal acceptance of the institution of slavery. Additionally, these Democrats viewed the Proclamation as an unconstitutional abuse of Presidential power. Controversy surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as military defeats suffered by the Union, caused many moderate Democrats to abandon Lincoln and join the more extreme Copperheads in the 1862 elections. Democrats gained 28 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1862 election cycle, as well as the governorship of New York. The outcome of the elections showed that abolition was still not the primary factor that motivated most Northerners to continue fighting.

Some Copperheads advocated violent resistance to the wartime effort, which greatly increased tensions between pro-war and anti-war factions. Though no organized attacks ever materialized, sensationalist politics did give rise to the Charleston Riot in Illinois during March 1864. Many Copperhead leaders were arrested and held in military prisons without trial, sometimes for months at a time.

In 1863, General Order Number 38 was issued in Ohio, which made it an offense to criticize the war in any way. The order was then used to arrest a congressman from Ohio, Clement Vallandigham, when he criticized the order itself. Additionally, a number of Copperheads were accused of treason for criticizing the war by Republicans in a series of trials that took place during 1864. As has been the case in many wars, the right of free speech was severely limited during the Civil War by Lincoln and his supporters. At one point, Lincoln even suspended the writ of habeas corpus which meant that he could hold people in prison without a trial. The Supreme Court overturned this action as clearly unconstitutional, but the campaign to suppress opposition to the war is remembered as a stain on Lincoln’s record.


After the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, work began to move the bodies of the fallen soldiers from their makeshift graves scattered across the expansive battlefield to a single cemetery. As part of a ceremony to formally dedicate the cemetery, President Lincoln was invited “to formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Primary Source: Photograph

The only known photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. He is in the center looking down to the left.

So it was, that on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most remembered and quoted speeches in history. Actually, President Lincoln’s carefully crafted address was not the day’s main event. His speech was just over two minutes long and came after a two-hour speech by famed orator Edward Everett. Even Lincoln said that people “would not long remember” what he had to say, but today it is Lincoln’s ten sentences, and not Everett’s words that remain important.

Beginning with the now-iconic phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” a reference to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Founding Fathers. He looked back to the Revolution and cast the Civil War as “a new birth of freedom.” Indeed, many historians agree with him, noting that while the Revolution of the 1770s produced an independent United States, the Civil War demonstrated that it could survive.

But Lincoln also redefined the War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality, thus tying together his initial stated purpose for the war – to preserve the Union – with the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln ended his short address with a reminder that the war was a test of the strength of the Founding Fathers’ trust in representative democracy, saying that victory would show that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. At a time when victory over secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery in all of the Union was near an end, Lincoln’s speech was not celebratory, boastful or proud. Instead, he was filled with sadness. He rejected triumphalism and reminded his audience of the unmistakable evil of slavery. Throughout his speech he made numerous references to the Bible and to how he saw God at work in the war. It is considered one of the finest speeches in American history.

Lincoln wondered what God’s will might have been in allowing the war to happen and why it had assumed the terrible dimensions it had taken. He reiterated the cause of the war, slavery, in saying “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” But Lincoln was cautious not to cast blame entirely on the South. He alluded to the New Testament saying, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged” and reminded Northerners that before the war their own textile mills had grown wealthy processing cotton that slaves had picked.

Lincoln suggested that the death and destruction wrought by the war was God’s way of punishing Americans for having embraced slavery, wondering if God might be imposing an eye-for-an-eye punishment and letting the war continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Lincoln believed it is impossible for humans to know exactly what God’s purposes are but that it was his, and everyone’s role to move forward to rebuild the country in the best way they knew how. In closing his address, Lincoln looked forward to his vision of Reconstruction. He believed that punishing the South would be counterproductive, and was the wrong course of action. Again he alluded to scripture saying, “let us strive on to… bind up the nation’s wounds… to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln’s sense that God’s will was unknowable, however, stood in marked contrast to sentiments at the time. In most people’s minds, both sides of the Civil War assumed that they could read God’s will and assumed that he supported their causes. Julia Ward Howe’s popular song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” expressed sentiments common in the North, that the Union was waging a righteous war – that the Union armies were acting as the Hand of God to destroy the evils of secession and slavery.

Like many of his earlier speeches, in his last major address Lincoln was eloquent, succinct, and modest. He described Reconstruction as compassionate rather than punishing, but ultimately it was Republicans in Congress, not Lincoln who would determine the fate of the effort to rebuild the South.


On April 11, 1865, two days after Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln delivered a speech outlining his plans for peace and reconstruction. In the audience was John Wilkes Booth, a successful actor, born and raised in Maryland. Booth was a fervent believer in slavery and white supremacy. Upon hearing Lincoln’s words, he said to a companion, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

After failing in two attempts earlier in the year to kidnap the President, Booth decided Lincoln must be killed. His conspiracy was grand in design. Booth and his collaborators decided to assassinate the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward all in the same evening. Lincoln decided to attend a British comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theater. Ulysses S. Grant had planned to accompany the President and his wife, but during the day he decided to see his son in New Jersey. Attending the play that night with the Lincolns were Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, the daughter of a prominent Senator.

Primary Source: Photograph

The last known photograph of President Lincoln, taken just a few days before his assassination in 1865.

In the middle of the play that night, Booth slipped into the entryway to the President’s box, holding a dagger in his left hand and a Derringer pistol in his right. He fired the pistol six inches from Lincoln and slashed Rathbone’s arm with his knife. Booth then vaulted over the front of the President’s box, caught his right leg in a flag and landed on the stage, breaking his leg. He waved his dagger and shouted what is reported to be sic semper tyrannis — Latin for “thus always to tyrants.” Some reported that he said, “The South is avenged.” He then ran limping out of the theater, jumped on his horse, and rode off towards Virginia.

The bullet entered Lincoln’s head just behind his left ear, tore through his brain and lodged just behind his right eye. The injury was mortal. Lincoln was brought to a boarding house across the street, where he died the next morning. The other targets escaped death. Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s accomplices, went to Seward’s house, stabbed and seriously wounded the Secretary of State, but Seward survived. Another accomplice, George Atzerodt, could not bring himself to attempt to assassinate Vice President Johnson.

Two weeks later, on April 26, Union cavalry trapped Booth in a Virginia tobacco barn. The soldiers had orders not to shoot and decided to burn him out of the barn. A fire was started. Before Booth could even react, Sergeant Boston Corbett took aim and fatally shot Booth. The dying assassin was dragged to a porch where his last words uttered were, “Useless … useless!”

A train carried Lincoln’s body on a circuitous path back home for burial in Springfield, Illinois. A mourning nation turned out by the hundreds of thousands to bid farewell to their President, the first to fall by an assassin’s bullet.


The Civil War was the bitterest war in American history by almost any definition. It has been called the “brothers’ war,” the “War between the States,” or the “War of Northern Aggression.” Strong feelings about the background, causes, fighting, and meaning of the Civil War continue to this day. For a long time, the number of deaths on both sides in the Civil War was estimated at slightly over 600,000, with another 400,000 suffering grievous wounds. Recently that estimate has been revised upward to 750,000, a figure upon which many preeminent historians now agree. In addition, millions of dollars’ worth of property were destroyed, families were disrupted, fortunes were made and lost, and the country that emerged from the war in 1865 was very different from the country that had existed in 1860. Myths about the causes conduct and results of the war also persist into modern times. It is often difficult to separate the mythological from the factual history of the war, about which much is still being written.

In the immediate aftermath of the war its most serious consequence was undoubtedly the rage that swept across the South, manifesting itself in bitterness and hatred of all things associated with the Union. “Yankee” was a pejorative term, and “damn Yankee” was one of the milder epithets applied to anyone who came from the far side of the Mason-Dixon line. Not only had the South seen a huge portion of its young male population destroyed, along with homesteads, farms, factories and railroads, but after all the sacrifice and suffering that Southerners felt they had to endure, they were back in that hated Union. Furthermore, slavery, which had an indisputable role in secession and thus in the causes of the Civil War itself was, as a result of the Thirteenth Amendment, decreed to be gone forever.

Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be America’s greatest president, was viewed in the South as an enemy at best, and at worst as a “bloodthirsty tyrant.” One Virginia woman expressed feelings very common at the end of the Civil War when she wrote in her diary: “I stood in the street in Richmond and watched the Yankees raise the flag over the capitol with tears running down my face, because I could remember a time when I loved that flag, and now I hate the very sight of it!” As Southerners viewed the history of the prewar years, secession and the war itself, they began the process of writing their own history of those terrible events, and came to adopt what is called the “Lost Cause,” the idea that in the end the South had been right in its desire to govern itself and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The idea, or as some term it, the myth of the Lost Cause is still present.

Reconstruction, the process of rebuilding the South, would have been difficult under the best of circumstances and with the best of leadership. But Abraham Lincoln, whose attitude toward the South was encapsulated in his Second Inaugural Address “with charity for all and malice toward none” was dead. And Andrew Johnson, a Southerner, was far from the best man for the job. The Republican radicals in the United States Congress, who dominated the government, and whose good intentions may have been heartfelt, nevertheless dictated strict terms under which the South could rejoin the Union, terms that were virtually impossible for the South to swallow without choking on them. Reconstruction was, in the words of one historian, a “states’ righter’s nightmare.”

Naturally the rage and frustration felt by many Southerners needed a target or outlet, and unsurprisingly, that target was the Freedmen and women, the former slaves who now walked unfettered in the streets of Charleston, Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans. Their very presence as free men and women further aggravated feelings of Southerners like salt in a wound, and their wrath was often bloody and violent.

What is called the Reconstruction period lasted about a dozen years, but its effects went on for decades, and indeed the legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath, Reconstruction, remain with us to this day. The results of the Civil War included the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that ended slavery, created national citizenship for the first time, amplified the meaning of the Bill of Rights, and attempted to provide access to the democratic process for all adult male Americans. They were, at least for more than a generation only partially successful at best.


At Gettysburg Lincoln said, “that these here dead shall not have died in vain.” But what did all those who perished in the Civil War die for? Did they die to end slavery, or preserve the Union? Was the war a terrible mistake in which millions of men died simply to defend a homeland, no matter what its faults? Was the war a holy crusade to make the world right?

What do you think? What did the war mean?



BIG IDEA: Northerners led by President Lincoln originally were fighting to preserve the Union. By the end of the war Lincoln had made ending slavery a part of the North’s mission, giving the war a moral purpose.

The North and the South both believed their side was fighting for the right cause.  Northerners fought the war to preserve the Union, and later to end slavery.  Southerners believed they were fighting for freedom from a tyrannical North that was trying to take away their right to govern themselves.  Both sides thought God was on their side.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to start the end of slavery. It actually only freed slaves in territory that was actively rebelling, so it did nothing for slaves in the four border states, or in territory that the Union army had already captured. However, it inspired slaves in the South to run away, and gave the North a moral purpose for the war.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is remembered as one of the great speeches of American history. In it, he explained how the Civil War was an extension of the Revolution by connecting the present to the work of the Founding Fathers. The phrase “Four score and seven years ago…” refers to the Declaration of Independence.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln demonstrated his sense of forgiveness and a desire for a generous reconstruction of the South. He described the war as a punishment by god for the evils of slavery, and questioned whether anyone could truly claim to have god on their side.

Lincoln was assassinated two days after Lee surrendered. Instead of restarting the war, as those who conspired to kill him had hoped, it left a dangerous vacuum of leadership. Andrew Johnson, the vice president who took over, was from Tennessee and was hated by the Republicans who dominated Congress. They clashed repeatedly about the proper way to rebuild the South.

The Civil War had an enormous impact on the nation and its history.  Never again would any state attempt to leave the Union.  Millions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.  The war was fought mostly in the South, which was devastated.  In contrast, the North grew and the industrial revolution went into overdrive.  Most importantly, slavery ended.  For the next decade, the North and South argued that the future of the South would look like and what would happen to the new freedmen and women.



Copperhead Democrats: Sometimes called the Peace Democrats, they were Northerners who wanted to end the war and make a peace treaty that allowed the South to secede.

Freedmen: Former slaves

John Wilkes Booth: An actor from Virginia who assassinated President Lincoln in the vain hope that it might inspire the South to continue fighting.

Orator: A person who gives speeches.

Radical Republicans: Members of the Republican Party who were strong abolitionists.

Thaddeus Stevens: Leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Tyrant: A terrible leader.


Compensate: To pay for something that is lost or taken away.

Divine Providence: God

Ideology: Beliefs about what is important or true.

Lost Cause: I idea that the South was right to secede and should have maintained slavery and that the fight for Southern independence should go on.

Sic Semper Tyrannis: The motto of the State of Virginia. It is Latin for “Thus Always to Tyrants.” John Wilkes Booth shouted it after assassinating President Lincoln.

Writ of Habeas Corpus: A legal term that means “Show me the Body.” It means that the government cannot accuse you of a crime and then hold you in jail indefinitely before giving you a trial.


Emancipation Proclamation: President Lincoln’s official order freeing all slaves in the rebelling territories (but not in the Border States that had remained in the Union).


Ford’s Theater: The theater in Washington, DC where President Lincoln was assassinated.


Reconstruction: The period of time from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1877 when the victorious North tried to rebuild the South and deal with the problems the war created, including passing legislation related to former slaves.


Gettysburg Address: Lincoln’s famous speech in 1863 in which he outlined the purpose of the war.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Lincoln’s speech in 1865 in which he outlined his beliefs about the war and his view of Reconstruction.

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