American Civil War: A Turning Point for Democracy

Democracy Preserved - The Civil War's Lasting Impact

The American Civil War, stretching from 1861 to 1865, stands as a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. This monumental conflict not only confirmed the structure of the nation as a united union with a sovereign federal government, but also resolved the divisive issue of slavery that had long overwhelmed the country.  

The American Civil War was a clash between the Union and the Confederacy for the preservation or abolition of slavery. The Union referred to the northern states that remained loyal to the federal government of the United States of America. The Confederacy consisted of the southern states that had seceded from the United States and formed their own breakaway nation, the Confederate States of America. Notably, during the American Civil War, the Union included several states where slavery was still permitted. These states, known as the "Border States," were slave states that did not separate from the Union. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and after 1863, West Virginia, were Border States allowing slavery. Geographically, these states separated the North from the South during the Civil War.

Even though the official name of the country was still the United States of America, people commonly used the term "Union" to distinguish the northern states fighting against the breakaway Confederacy. This helped clarify the two opposing sides in the Civil War - the Union representing the original, unified United States, and the Confederacy representing the separatist southern states.

Rooted in the conflicts between free and slave states over the national government's authority to prohibit slavery in new territories, the war was catalyzed by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which upset southern politicians and led to the separation of seven states.

An American 19th century Civil War battle scene depicts the conflict between the Union's vision of equality and the Confederacy's defense of the slave system.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, American Civil War Battle

The formation of the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as president, and the subsequent attack on Fort Sumter marked the outbreak of the Civil War. As the Confederacy quickly raised a military force, four more states - Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas - joined their ranks, making a total of 11 Confederate states. Meanwhile, the Union, comprising the 20 Free states that remained part of the United States under Lincoln's leadership, stood resolute in preserving the nation's unity.

The outcome of this epic struggle not only decided the fate of slavery, but also paved the United States' ascendancy as a powerful, united nation. The Union's triumph, achieved through the sacrifices of countless soldiers on both sides, solidified the federal government's authority and protected the principles of democracy that had long been the country's guiding ideals. This momentous chapter in American history would have far-reaching consequences, shaping the nation's direction for generations to come.

💻 Table of Contents:

The Evolution and Legacy of Slavery in America:

Many Americans first learn about US history with the story of the 102 Mayflower passengers in 1620. But, a year earlier in 1619, a Dutch ship had brought 20 enslaved Africans to the British colonies against their will - a fact that history has often overlooked. Throughout the seventeenth century, Europeans continued to settle in North America, and during this time, the legitimacy of caste-based laws gradually increased. Especially in the 1640s and 1660s, colonies passed laws that systematically stripped Africans and African Americans of all rights. 

The first (legal) mention of slavery in Virginia occurs in 1640 when the court sentenced one “Negro” to lifetime servitude. The court case shows how the English authorities used law enforcement to create division and distance between African and English social communities.

A notable law passed in Virginia in 1662 stated that the children of a slave mother would also be slaves, thus enshrining slavery based on caste and clan. The 1660s were a particularly terrible decade for slavery in colonial America. Maryland legalized slavery in 1663, and New York and New Jersey followed suit in 1664. Meanwhile, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia passed laws legalizing lifelong slavery, and a law was enacted to prevent black people from owning firearms.

Slavery was most common throughout the South due to the fertile land, which reduced the demand for labor for agricultural work, making slaves a cheap labor source for the production of indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton. When the importation of slaves was prohibited in 1830, the internal slave trade expanded, resulting in the number of slaves growing from about 900,000 in 1800 to over 4 million by 1860. The transportation of slaves over long distances by river, sea, or train led to many deaths, and slaves endured inhuman torture.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the practice of slavery gradually declined, and anti-slavery movements gained momentum. Northern states were the first to support the abolition of slavery, incorporating antislavery laws into their constitutions, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1785, and Massachusetts in 1783 and 1786. Congress's 1807 law, which called slave traders pirates punishable by death, hastened the decline of slavery in the North.

In contrast, the abolition of slavery in the South proceeded slowly due to the region's economic dependence on slavery. Slavery was the backbone of the largely agricultural Southern economy, leading landowners to strongly oppose the anti-slavery movement, igniting regional crises and culminating in the Civil War. The war began with the Confederate forces' attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Confederacy, which legalized slavery, was ultimately defeated by the North, establishing the United States as a single nation and ending the system of slavery.

During the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, President Abraham Lincoln initiated the process of outlawing slavery. In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, which is in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."- Source: National Archives.

The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and then ratified on December 6, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the congressional resolution to submit the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. By December 6, 1865, the required three-fourths of states had ratified the 13th Amendment. With its adoption, the United States found a final constitutional solution to the issue of slavery. 

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Slavery has existed for thousands of years, and the United Nations outlawed it with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Despite the abolition of slavery, its remnants persist in modern America, with racism still evident, notably within police forces. Major protests like Black Lives Matter highlight ongoing issues, exemplified by the U.S. Department of Justice's findings of illegal discrimination by police against Black people and Native Americans.

Slavery is now universally condemned, but this dark chapter in U.S. history remains a stain. The question lingers: has the system of slavery been completely abolished, or has it merely transformed its form? In certain countries, the way child laborers are mistreated is no less than slavery in terms of the development of human civilization.

The Arrival and Impact of Enslaved Africans in Colonial America:

The presence of enslaved Africans in the Americas profoundly shaped the establishment and development of colonial societies. And the roots of slavery in the United States can be traced back to 1619, when a privateer ship called the White Lion brought approximately 20 enslaved Africans ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. This marked one of the earliest documented arrivals of captive Africans to the American colonies, signaling the start of the widespread practice of slavery in what would become the United States, one year before the Mayflower. 

This image depicts the collective cooperation of African and European merchants, recalling the tragic history of the transatlantic slave trade.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Transatlantic Slave Trade

Notably, the forced labor had already begun to leave its mark on the regions like Florida nearly a century earlier. European settlers, seeking a cheap and abundant labor force, turned to enslaved Africans as an alternative to Indigenous populations and indentured servants, primarily poor Europeans, during the 17th century.

The transatlantic slave trade played a central role in this system of exploitation, with estimates indicating that nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas by European and American slave traders according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which period spanned from around 1525 to 1866.

Despite the harrowing conditions of the voyage, approximately 10.7 million individuals survived the journey, fueling the labor demands of the New World. This forced migration exacted a Heavy Toll on the African continent, depriving it of some of its healthiest and most able men and women. In this context, the phrase "Heavy Toll" is a metaphorical means used to describe the enormous, devastating damage that the transatlantic slave trade caused to Africa and its people. It underscores just how devastating and costly this forced migration was for the source countries and communities.

Enslaved Africans became integral to the economies of the southern Atlantic colonies, working predominantly on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations from Maryland and Virginia to Georgia throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Their labor not only contributed to the economic prosperity of the colonies but also laid the groundwork for the racial and social hierarchies that would define American society for centuries to come.

The Growth of the Anti-Slavery Movement in America:

Before 1833, the anti-slavery movement in America was not well-organized, with only a few local groups like the New York City Manumission Society (founded 1785) and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (founded April 14, 1775). The first national group was the American Colonization Society, started in 1817, which set up a colony in Liberia for freed slaves, despite opposition from abolitionists. The purpose of this initiative was to help free African Americans migrate and settle in the country of Liberia, which was a colony on the coast of West Africa. The goal was to facilitate the movement of free Black people from the United States to this overseas territory. It was founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, an American Presbyterian (Reformed Protestant) religious leader and educator.

In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison started the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator and founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833, he helped create the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833–70), which quickly grew to have many local chapters and hundreds of thousands of members. They produced a lot of anti-slavery materials like pamphlets and petitions. However, the society split in 1839 because Garrison’s radical views, such as criticizing churches and politics and supporting women's involvement, upset more moderate members.

Lewis Tappan started the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the Liberty Party was formed, nominating James Birney for president. Many abolitionists hoped existing political parties would oppose slavery, but in 1848, the Free Soil Party was created by former Democrats and Whigs. This party eventually joined with anti-slavery Whigs to form the Republican Party, which succeeded when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

Historian Richard Hofstadter described abolitionism as a religious movement that was part of a larger reform movement including women's rights and temperance. The anti-slavery publications played a key role in this movement, especially in the North, where they were widely read. Theodore Weld's book, "American Slavery as It Is," sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first year, and newspapers like The Liberator had large print runs, helping spread anti-slavery ideas.

Civil War's Opening Stages: Lincoln's Election to Fort Sumter

The American Civil War started when Virginia and ten other southern states left the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. The Southern leaders, worried that Lincoln would end slavery, claimed they had the right to leave the Union. They formed a new country called the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as president and Richmond, Virginia, as the capital.

When Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861, the tension between the North and South was high. Confederate forces threatened Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.  On April 12, 1861, after Lincoln deployed a fleet to resupply and bolster the defenses of Fort Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War. The fort's commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after less than two days of bombardment, and Confederate forces took control.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, four more southern states—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee—joined the Confederacy. Border States like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland did not leave the Union, but many of their citizens supported the Confederacy.

The Union, with 23 states, had significant advantages in population, manufacturing, and railroads. However, the Confederates had a strong military tradition and some of the best soldiers and commanders. They were also deeply committed to their cause, which included preserving slavery.

The first major battle of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, saw 35,000 Confederate soldiers, led by Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, defeat a larger Union force. This battle destroyed hopes for a quick Union victory and led Lincoln to call for 500,000 more troops, realizing the war would be long and difficult.

Over the next four years, the war would rage, claiming the lives of more than 620,000 Americans. Yet, the Union's eventual victory would lead to the freedom of 3.9 million enslaved people, forever transforming the United States and setting the stage for a new era of unity and progress.

An American 19th century Civil War battle scene depicts the conflict between the Union's vision of equality and the Confederacy's defense of the slave system.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Lincoln's advocacy of equality and free labor

The Civil War's Climax: Union Triumph and Lincoln's Assassination

On August 29, 1862, Union troops led by John Pope attacked Confederate forces under Jackson in the Second Battle of Bull Run. The following day, Lee launched a massive assault that drove Pope’s men back towards Washington. Lee then initiated the first Confederate invasion of the North, but was halted by McClellan’s reorganized Union army at Antietam Creek in Maryland on September 17. The Battle of Antietam became the war's bloodiest single day, with heavy casualties on both sides. The Union's victory forced Lee to retreat into Virginia, but McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee led to his replacement by Ambrose Burnside.

After the Union won the battle at Antietam, Lincoln took that victory as the opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation (Executive Order or Instruction made by the President). The Emancipation Proclamation shifted international opinion in favor of the Union and deprived the Confederacy of its labor force, leading 186,000 Black soldiers to join the Union Army by the end of the war.

In spring 1863, Union General Hooker was surprised by Lee at Chancellorsville and suffered a costly defeat. Lee then invaded the North again, leading to the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. The three-day battle resulted in heavy Confederate losses and ended Lee’s northern invasion. Concurrently, Union forces under  Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, marking a turning point in the western theater.

In September, 1863, after a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek, Lincoln expanded Ulysses S. Grant’s command. Grant then led Union forces to victory at the Battle of Chattanooga in November, 1863, solidifying Union control in the western theater and setting the stage for further advances. In 1864, the Union gained the upper hand in the Civil War. President Lincoln put General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union armies. Grant led the Army of the Potomac against the Confederate forces of General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, though the battles were very bloody.

US map 1864 Civil War divisions

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, US map 1864 Civil War divisions

Meanwhile, General William Tecumseh Sherman led Union troops on a destructive march through Georgia and the Carolinas, capturing important cities like Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbia. This severely weakened the Confederacy. By early 1865, the Confederate capital of Richmond fell to the Union. Just days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer on April 14, 1865. However, the war was effectively over, with Union General Sherman accepting the surrender of the last major Confederate army soon after. The relentless Union strategy of attrition and maneuver had finally broken the Confederacy, leading to its defeat after four years of bloody civil war.


As President during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln played a crucial part in preserving the Union and abolishing slavery. He led the country's defense against the secessionist Confederacy, and his Emancipation Proclamation declared all enslaved people in Confederate territories to be free. Lincoln also oversaw an expansion of federal power and the modernization of the U.S. economy amidst the war's challenges. His steadfast leadership was vital in guiding the nation through this pivotal chapter in its history.

The American Civil War represented a pivotal moment in the history of American democracy. The Union's victory not only preserved the nation's democratic ideals, but also catalyzed a transformation that expanded the power and influence of democratic principles within the United States. This momentous turning point would have lasting reverberations, shaping the country's direction as an emerging global superpower committed to the principles of self-governance.