American Civil War: Facts, Causes & Effects

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  • 0:04 American Civil War Background
  • 1:46 Civil War Causes
  • 3:46 Key Battles & Developments
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll examine the American Civil War. We'll explore the causes leading to the outbreak of war, examine key battles and developments, and analyze the impact of this horrible war.

American Civil War Background

Imagine for a moment that you and a neighbor have different political views. In most cases, neighbors can agree to disagree, and it is not that big of a deal. However, if you had been living in the 1860s, you and your neighbor might very well find yourselves on different sides of a battlefield. The American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, was a horrible war between the Northern United States (often called the Union) and a group of Southern 'rebel' states known as the Confederate States of America (often called the Confederacy).

It began following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 when a group of Southern states decided to break away, or secede, from the United States. The Civil War was America's deadliest war, killing roughly 2% of the entire population at that time, or some 600,000 men. The war pitted families against one another, neighbor against neighbor, and even brother against brother.

Confederate forces wore mostly gray uniforms while Union troops wore mostly dark blue. Union forces were often called 'Yankees' or 'Yanks,' while Confederates were known as 'Rebels.' The Union had more men and was better equipped than the CSA, but the CSA had brilliant generals and officers.

A host of brilliant military leaders took part in the Civil War, such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson. The Civil War made Abraham Lincoln an American icon and ultimately resulted in his assassination in 1865. The Civil War shaped the political direction of the United States and determined the economic, social, and moral policies of the country for decades.

Civil War Causes

Let's begin by looking at the causes of the Civil War. The underlying cause of the war was sectionalism. We can think of sectionalism as a particular region uniting in opposition against another. Throughout the 19th century, the northern U.S. and the southern U.S. drifted away from one another. Instead of citizens identifying themselves as 'Americans,' many people chose to see themselves firstly as 'Northerners' or 'Southerners.' Cultural differences and economic differences fueled sectionalism in antebellum America.

One significant ideological disagreement between the North and South was over the issue of slavery. The Southern economy was agrarian and relied heavily on enslaved Africans, whereas the Northern economy was industrial. Abolitionism, the belief that slavery should be made illegal, was strong throughout the North. So basically think of it this way: the North was anti-slavery, and the South was pro-slavery. The South felt threatened by the possibility of abolition. Many in the South perceived the North as trying to destroy their way of life.

During this time many Americans believed that it was America's destiny to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This view is called Manifest Destiny. With America's westward expansion, the question of whether or not western territories and states would allow slavery came to the forefront. Slavery in new territories and states became a particularly heated debate and created further tension between the North and South.

The trigger that finally sparked the Civil War in America was the election of 16th president of the United States ,Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. The Southern states had talked about secession before, but now with the election of Lincoln, a man opposed to slavery and committed to preserving the union of states, they were ready to act. In March 1861, even before Lincoln took office, seven states seceded to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America (or CSA). Jefferson Davis served as the President of the CSA throughout the war.

Key Battles & Developments

The first battle of the Civil War was the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Confederate forces surrounded the Union island fort off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and after two days of bombardment, captured the fort from Union soldiers.

The first major land battle of the war was the First Battle of Bull Run, fought outside of Washington, D.C., in July 1861. It was an early Confederate victory, and it was there that Thomas Jackson received the nickname 'Stonewall' because the men under his command stood their ground like a 'stone wall.'

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