The Civil War Introduction | Shmoop (2023)

The Civil War Introduction

The American Civil War was the most deadly and arguably the most important event in the nation's history. Sectional tensions enshrined in the Constitution erupted into a brutal war that cost over 600,000 lives and cleaved a nation in two.

It was a war that would come to define America—that would answer the "slavery question" once and for all. Were we a nation committed to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" or were we really two separate nations that should just go their separate ways and cut their losses?

When the South peaced out and created its own country, the Confederate States of America, it didn't take long for Lincoln to protest. His idea was to try and settle this without any bloodshed.

Oh, what a cute thought, Abe.

Once the first shots were fired and war was official, people thought it was going to be a quick and easy war, over in a matter of weeks.

Oh, what a cute thought, Americans.

After the bloodshed at the First Battle of Bull Run, Americans realized they were in for something else entirely. In fact, they were in for the bloodiest war in history to date. Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better. The war touched every aspect of American life, for both soldiers and civilians, and its effects are still being seen today.

Slavery was a root cause of the conflict, and while the 13th Amendment ended the practice at war's end, race relations continued to dominate American politics and society well into the future. The war also increased American economic power until it rivaled, and then surpassed, that of all other countries.

But it wasn't—and arguably, still isn't—a pretty journey.

What is The Civil War About and Why Should I Care?

The Civil War is one of the most—if not the most—important event in the history of the United States.

The American Revolution? Sure, we got some freedom. The creation of the U.S.Constitution? Yeah, that's key. The last episode of The Sopranos? Up there.

(Video) The Civil War | A Film By Ken Burns | PBS America

But few things in American history changed this country like the Civil War. We're not being too bold when we say that everything in American history leading up to 1860 was a cause of the Civil War, and everything that's happened since was caused by the Civil War.

Every part of American society was fundamentally changed, from the role of the federal government to the status of African Americans to the art, music, and culture of a nation. Over 600,000 Americans died in the conflict, more than in all other American wars combined except for the Vietnam War. And all of them died on American soil.

Brothers fought brothers. Fathers shot sons. What began as a small-scale bombardment of an average fort in Charleston, South Carolina, grew and grew, ultimately killing more than 2% of the population and reforming the United States in ways big and small.

But the Civil War and all of its causes and effects can't be absorbed easily. After all, it was a huge conflict, brought about by deep-seated forces and fought across the entirety of the American continent, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, and Savannah to San Francisco.

So, how do you get your mind around an event of this magnitude? How do you try to understand what the Civil War was all about?

Well, you start here, and as you read, you think big. Imagine 150,000 men attacking each other in a place like Maryland. Consider the noise, the fear, the terror, and the death. Imagine yourself listening to the cries of the wounded in dirty hospitals, doctors operating without anesthesia, and more wounded men flooding in all the time.

Think about the joy of newly emancipated slaves, who had labored their entire lives under the watchful eyes and often violent hands of white Southern planters, finally free to determine their own destinies.

And think about the very meaning of the country. Is the United States one nation, indivisible? Or is the United States a collection of linked but autonomous states?

The Civil War changed even the language we use to describe the nation. Before the Civil War, Americans used the phrase, "The United States are..." but after the war, that phrase became, as it is today, "The United States is..."

(Video) The American Civil War - OverSimplified (Part 1)

A cataclysmic conflagration like the Civil War profoundly changed the way in which Americans envisioned their own nation, seeing it no longer as a grouping of autonomous states but as one nation, indivisible. For better or for worse, the Civil War altered the fabric of the idea that is the United States.

And that's definitely food for thought.

The Civil War Resources


Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
Published in 1852, this book's depiction of slavery and loss in the Old South was monumentally influential in driving the North and South apart during the 1850s. It's worth reading not only for a better appreciation of the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War, but also to see how Stowe, a white Northerner, imagined the lives of Southern slaves despite the fact that she'd never visited the South. Today,Uncle Tom's Cabin remains one of the most influential and controversial texts in American literature.

Bruce Catton, The Civil War (1961, 1962, 1965)
Catton was one of the foremost scholars of the war, and his Civil War trilogy—The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat—is excellent. They're slightly dated but worth reading for their brilliant insight and clear writing.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Written in 1895, Crane's novel about the life of a young soldier in the Civil War is the most famous American war novel. It includes fantastically detailed battle scenes, and its powerful prose paved the way for many of America's great authors of the 20th century.

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958)
This three-part history of the Civil War is the authority on the subject, although its length makes it hard to digest. Still, for those who want the entire story of the war in clear and exciting detail, this is the perfect series to read.

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988)
First published in 1988, this is the best single-volume history of the Civil War. It's clearly-written and authoritative, and McPherson is able to make the entire war—from its origins to its battles to its aftermath—easily accessible.

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974)
The Killer Angels is a powerful work of historical fiction based on the Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for the book, and after his death, his son Jeff finished the proposed trilogy on the war with Gods and General and The Last Full Measure. For an engaging introduction to the Civil War, The Killer Angels can't be beat.


Chris Vallillo, Abraham Lincoln in Song (2007)
Contemporary roots singer-songwriter Chris Vallillo honors his fellow Illinois-ian as well as his state's deep musical traditions with this masterpiece of slide guitar twang and mesmerizing vocals.

Second South Carolina String Band, Southern Soldier: Favorite Camp Songs of the Civil War (1996)
Although this disc's title implies that its tracks were heard only in Confederate camps, some of the selections here were familiar to soldiers in both the North and the South. In fact, the Second South Carolina String Band performs songs like "Boatman's Dance," "Zip Coon," and "Palmetto Quickstep," that were known to people throughout the country during the fighting years as well as in the tumultuous time leading up to the war.

Various Artists, Songs of the Civil War (1991)
Inspired by the release of director Ken Burns' epic Civil War documentary, a group of contemporary rock, soul, and blues singers collaborated to perform their own renditions of war-era compositions. Don't miss Sweet Honey in the Rock's performing "No More Auction Block For Me," Kathy Mattea singing "The Southern Soldier Boy," Judy Collins' interpretation of "Battle Hymn of the Republic (John Brown's Body)," and so many more.

(Video) The Civil War, Part I: Crash Course US History #20

Various Artists, The Civil War: Traditional American Songs and Instrumental Music Featured in the Film by Ken Burns (1990)
Check out this soundtrack, complete with gripping war-era gems, from the Emmy Award-winning television documentary series about this pivotal period in American history.

James Horner, Glory: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1990)
Composer James Horner crafted this thunderous backdrop to director Edward Zwick's Civil War drama about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first all-Black unit to serve the United States Army.


General Grant
Major General Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army to victory.

General Burnside
Major General Ambrose Burnside, with sideburns.

USS Monitor, first Union ironclad warship, in James River, 1862.

President & General
President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan in McClellan's tent at Antietam, Maryland after battle, September 1862.

Cost of War
Ruins of Harper's Ferry, Virginia after battle in 1862.

Worst Cost of War
Confederate dead at Antietam, Maryland, September 17th, 1862.

In the Devil's Den
Confederate dead in "Devil's Den," Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3rd, 1863.

Early Aerial Recon
Union reconnaissance balloon, 1862.

"War is Hell"
Atlanta in ruins after an attack by Union General Sherman's Army, November 1864.

Movies & TV

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Christian Bale plays a Civil War veteran who may lose his farm if he can't find a way to pay his debts. When he's offered a large sum to detain and escort a dangerous outlaw to a train headed to a federal court in Yuma, he must accept. Scenes in this riveting action film present the post-Civil War West as a place where life remained tough, unpredictable, and wild.

(Video) Introduction to the Civil War

Ride with the Devil (1999)
Before he became Spider-Man, actor Tobey Maguire played a young guerrilla soldier loyal to the South in this Civil War drama. This tale about the Missouri bushwackers, a little-known group of non-uniformed fighting men, reminds us that this war wasn't simply a North-versus-South, or a slave-versus-free, affair.

Gettysburg (1993)
Based on Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, this is one of the longest films ever released by a Hollywood studio at 4 hours, 15 minutes. Despite its length, it's intensely engaging and does an excellent job of recreating the famous battle of Gettysburg. Plus, the portrayal of Pickett's Charge is one of the most impressive war sequences in any movie.

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (1990)
An 11-part miniseries that first aired on PBS in 1990, The Civil War is the most complete and moving documentary retelling of the war to date. Burns uses still photos and firsthand accounts of those who lived through the war to narrate this story.

Glory (1989)
Arguably the best movie made about the Civil War, Glory stars Matthew Broderick as Union General Robert Gould Shaw, and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as members of the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The film's screenplay is based largely on the letters of the regiment's white captain, Robert Gould Shaw, and although at times historically inaccurate, it offers a compelling view of the African-American experience on the Civil War battlefield.

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Based on the best-selling novel by Georgia-born author Margaret Matchell, this hit Hollywood romance about the American South during and after the Civil War did a great deal to shape 20th-century attitudes about race and the legacies of slavery, the war, and Radical Reconstruction. Keep in mind, though, historical accuracy isn't its strong suit.


Photographs of the Civil War
This Library of Congress site has photographs arranged in chronological order and by subject. Plus, it contains excellent information about many facets of the war.

The Civil War by the Library of Congress
This Library of Congress' Civil War site includes maps, charts, and other documents from the period.

Civil War Music
Visit this site which features a large number of recordings of popular Civil War music, including "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Taps."

War Poems
The Civil War was told in poetry and music, as well as through photos and diaries. This site has dozens of poems written by the men who fought on each side of the conflict.

Historical Documents

A House Divided
We have an entire learning guide devoted to Abraham Lincoln's 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican Convention. This speech got him nominated for a seat on the United States Senate, and is known as the "House Divided" speech because Lincoln used that phrase to express his views about the coming crisis between the North and the South.

13th Amendment
The text of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery.

Lincoln's War Message
Abraham Lincoln's address to Congress, July 4th, 1861, in which he called for huge numbers of troops to fight the war.

(Video) Introduction to Civil War by Tiqqun

Suspending Habeas
Abraham Lincoln's proclamation that suspended the writ of habeas corpus, September 24th, 1862.

Ex Parte Merryman
Chief Justice Roger Taney's (the same judge who presided over the Dred Scott Case) ruling in Ex parte Merryman, which stated that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was illegal.


What is a good introduction about the Civil War? ›

The Civil War in the United States began in 1861, after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states' rights and westward expansion.

How did the Civil War start summary? ›

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. Traditionally, this event has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War.

What is Civil War summary? ›

The American Civil War was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, a collection of eleven southern states that left the Union in 1860 and 1861. The conflict began primarily as a result of the long-standing disagreement over the institution of slavery.

What is the main reason for the start of the Civil War? ›

What led to the outbreak of the bloodiest conflict in the history of North America? A common explanation is that the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery. In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.

What is civil war in your own words? ›

A civil war is a conflict between groups within a single country, like the American Civil War between the north and south. Most wars are fought between different countries. However, in a civil war, a country has become divided, and factions within the country are battling each other.

Which is the best description of a civil war? ›

civil war, a violent conflict between a state and one or more organized non-state actors in the state's territory.

Why the Civil War is important? ›

The Civil War had a greater impact on American society and the polity than any other event in the country's history. It was also the most traumatic experience endured by any generation of Americans. At least 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war, 2 percent of the American population in 1861.

What are the 3 main causes of a civil war? ›

The Civil War was a war between the Union (Northern US States) and the Confederacy (Southern US States) lasting from 1861-1865. The reasons for the Civil War were disagreements over slavery, states vs. federal rights, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the economy.

What was the most important part of the Civil War? ›

Gettysburg — July 1863

Routinely considered the most important engagement of the entire war, it not only incurred the most casualties but also kept Lee out of the North for good.

What is a good thesis statement for the Civil War? ›

The cliché thesis: The U.S. Civil War proved that war is hell. The list thesis: The death of civilians, the destruction of cities, and the devastation of countrysides showed the extent to which the U.S. Civil War severely damaged the entire nation.

What are 3 common themes about the Civil War? ›

Lincoln used the tools the Constitution gave him to confront three intertwined issues of the Civil War—the secession of Southern states, slavery and wartime civil liberties.

What are good topics of the Civil War? ›

🏆 Best Civil War Topic Ideas & Essay Examples
  • Industrialization after the Civil War. ...
  • Letters from the Civil War. ...
  • Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction. ...
  • The Aftermath of the American Civil War. ...
  • The Most Disastrous Civil Conflict in American History. ...
  • The United States Civil war. ...
  • Why Confederate and Union Soldiers Fought?
3 Sept 2022

What caused the Civil War short essay? ›

The Civil War was caused by the state's rights and their need to escape the Union, slavery which poised a great threat to the breakable United States, and the economic differences that identified the strength and weaknesses of the North and South.

What is a good thesis statement starter? ›

For these, we recommend using one of the following sentence starters to write your thesis with: In this essay, I will … [Subject] is interesting/relevant/my favorite because … Through my research, I learned that …

How do I begin a thesis statement? ›

Follow these four steps to come up with a thesis statement:
  1. Ask a question about your topic.
  2. Write your initial answer.
  3. Develop your answer by including reasons.
  4. Refine your answer, adding more detail and nuance.
11 Jan 2019

What are the main events of the Civil War? ›

Significant Civil War Battles
  • April 12, 1861: Battle of Fort Sumter. ...
  • June 30, 1861: Battle of Philippi. ...
  • July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run/First Battle of Manassas. ...
  • August 28-29, 1861: Battle of Hatteras Inlet Batteries. ...
  • October 21, 1861: Battle of Ball's Bluff. ...
  • November 7, 1861: Battle of Belmont.

What were the 5 causes of the Civil War? ›

  • Top Five Causes of the Civil War.
  • Economic and social differences between the North and the South.
  • States versus federal rights.
  • The fight between Slave and Non-Slave State Proponents.
  • Growth of the Abolition Movement.
  • Dred Scott Decision.
  • The election of Abraham Lincoln.

What are the 4 main causes of the Civil War? ›

For nearly a century, the people and politicians of the Northern and Southern states had been clashing over the issues that finally led to war: economic interests, cultural values, the power of the federal government to control the states, and, most importantly, slavery in American society.


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