American Civil War

GWonline Learning & Teaching Suggestions
The American Civil War (1861–1865)


The American Civil War was fought between the Northern states (the Union) and the Southern states that rebelled against the federal government and tried to form their own country (the Confederacy). The conflict was primarily motivated by disagreements over slavery and its inclusion in newly admitted states and, to a lesser extent, over the division of power between the federal government and individual states. The war began in April 1861 when Confederate forces fired on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Despite some early successes on the part of the Confederacy, the long term economic and manpower balance was heavily in favor of the Union. In addition, due to Southern ideas about slavery and racism, much of the manpower of the South was not mobilized to fight. Due to this, the Confederacy attempted to recruit foreign aid and repeatedly invaded the North in an effort to strike a knock-out blow and/or demonstrate their capabilities to potential allies. A series of failures in this ultimately led to a run of Union victories, including those fought at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, which, when combined, are commonly considered to be the turning points in the war. The Union also seized the moral high ground with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed the slaves in the Confederacy (pointedly not in the states that remained in the Union), and recruited African Americans for the Union armies. The conflict was a brutal one, and is often considered the first “modern” war because it was fought by mass conscript armies of citizen volunteers, railroads served as key distributors of war supplies, and telegraphs were used for military communication and in press reporting. New technologies also debuted during the war, including ironclad ships, early machine guns, and extensive trench lines. The war preserved the United States of America, served to end slavery, if not racial discrimination, and also enriched the industry of the Northern part of the United States.

The American Civil War was the deadliest conflict of its time, causing the deaths of between 660,000 and 850,000 Americans, or at least 2.5 percent of the overall U.S. population. Roughly 2.1 million Northerners and 880,000 Southerners fought in the war. Nearly a quarter of the North’s soldiers were immigrants, and the vast majority on both sides volunteered for the war. Best estimates project that six percent of Northern soldiers were conscripted, and perhaps 12 percent of the South’s soldiers were conscripts. The men who volunteered to fight on both sides were convinced that their opponents were less manly than themselves, and many were intent on winning honor through hand-to-hand combat. Without question, men believed that service in the war would prove their manhood. For no group was this more true than for African Americans, who lobbied the Union government tirelessly during the first two years of the war for the right to bear arms against the Confederacy. They were not only motivated by the desire to destroy slavery, but also recognized that battle offered a singular opportunity to prove their equality with white men.

For basic information see the Wikipedia page on the American Civil War.


Selected Suggestions for Learning & Teaching

Introductory Readings

Book Chapters and Journal Articles

General Literature 

Literature on Gender & War

Methodological Introductions

Websites with Timelines and Maps

Websites with Primary Sources

Women's Autobiographies

Documentaries and Movies


All linked titles of introductory readings, autobiographies, websites, documentaries and movies are connected to an entry in GWonline that provides an abstract and additional information.