Why The Civil War Still Matters

The nation's leading authority on the conflict explains why the Civil War still fascinates us

One hundred and fifty years after the guns began shelling Fort Sumter this April, Americans remain fascinated with the Civil War. Why do we care about a war that ended so long ago? Read more »

In the Defense of the Republic

From Camp William Penn to the Grand Review

The American Civil War had cost more than 620,000 lives and had nearly torn the nation apart, but by May 1865 it was finally over. To celebrate, thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., to express their gratitude to the military forces that had made the Union victory possible. More than 200,000 Union troops paraded through the city in this Grand Review—but only white troops participated.Read more »

A Spirit and Power Far Beyond Its Letter

The Emancipation Proclamation opened the door for Pennsylvania's African-American soldiers

The scene was wild and grand.Read more »

The South’s Mighty Gamble On King Cotton

The highly lucrative cotton crop of 1860 emboldened the South to challenge the economic powerhouse of the North

In the mid- to late summer of 1860, billions of soft pink and white Gossypium hirsutum blooms broke out across South Carolina, Georgia, western Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, soon to morph into puffy white bolls. Nearly 3 million black slaves fanned across this flowery inland sea. By season’s end in early winter, their harvest totaled the largest on record: with the seeds ginned out, a crop of 4 million 500-pound bales. Read more »

A Graceful Exit

In one momentous decision, Robert E. Lee spared the United States years of divisive violence

As April 1865 neared, an exhausted Abraham Lincoln met with his two top generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to discuss the end of the Civil War, which finally seemed to be within reach. Nevertheless, the president—“having seen enough of the horrors of war”—remained deeply conflicted. To be sure, the endless sound of muddy boots tramping across City Point, Virginia, and the heavy ruts left by cannon wheels marked Grant’s preparations for a final all-out push to ensnare the Army of Northern Virginia. Yet Lincoln could not shake off his deep-seated fears that Robert E.Read more »

The First To Secede

South Carolina severed ties with the Union not out of concern for states' rights but because of slavery

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 20, 1860, some 170 men marched through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, walking from St. Andrews Hall to a new meetinghouse amid the cheers of onlookers. Half of them were more than 50 years old, most well-known. More than 60 percent were planters who owned at least 20 slaves. Five had been state governors, four U.S. senators. Read more »

A Rude Reception

A tall stranger, told to keep out of the general’s tent, turns out to be Lincoln

Gen. Grant having decided to transfer his army to the James River, preparations began at once. . . . On Tuesday morning, June 14th, Warren crossed [the Chickahominy] at Long Bridge, with Hancock following him. Burnside and Wright crossed at Jones’ Bridge four miles below Long Bridge. The advance of the army reached the James before night, and commenced laying pontons immediately. The crossing was effected near Charles City Court House on the north side, and Fort Powhattan on the south side of the James. Read more »

The Blockade That Failed

Not until the Civil War was about over did the U.S. Navy manage to put a halt to the South’s imports

 

The two outstanding facts concerning the blockade of the southern states by the United States Navy during the Civil War are, one, that it was, lor the first three and a half years, almost totally ineffective, insofar as preventing supplies from reaching the rebels was concerned, and, two, that by the end of 1864, when it did become effective, the war was already over, for all practical purposes.

 
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If Lincoln Hadn’t Died...

Would the disastrous Reconstruction era have taken a different course?

What would have happened had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated? Every time I lecture on Lincoln, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, someone in the audience is sure to pose this question—one, of course, perfectly natural to ask but equally impossible to answer. This has not, however, deterred historians from speculating about this “counterfactual” problem.

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“Strong Enough To Float An Iron Wedge”

How coffee helped win the Civil War

In the waning daylight of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, a tremendous cheer suddenly resounded from the 23rd Ohio Volunteers arrayed across a cornfield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The tired men could see the figure of their 19-year-old-commissary sergeant driving his mule team through shot and shell to their front lines bearing barrels of hot coffee and food. Every man in that regiment received a cup of hot java—and a second wind—courtesy of young William McKinley, who would later become the 25th president of the U.S. Read more »