The Origins and Outbreak of the Civil War

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1860, South Carolina secedes from the Union. In 1861, Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter, and the First Battle of Bull Run occurs; a painting of the attack on Fort Sumter and a painting of the Union forces in disarray at Bull Run are shown. In 1862, Confederate forces retreat after the Battle of Shiloh, General Robert E. Lee defends Richmond, and the Battle of Antietam occurs; a print of the Battle of Antietam is shown. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, racially motivated riots break out in New York, General Ulysses S. Grant leads the Vicksburg campaign, and the Battle of Gettysburg occurs; an image of the Emancipation Proclamation is shown. In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman invades the South, Atlanta falls to Sherman’s forces, and Lincoln is reelected; a portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman is shown. In 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrenders; a painting of Robert E. Lee signing a document before Ulysses S. Grant and a group of Union soldiers is shown.
(credit “1865”: modification of work by “Alaskan Dude”/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln was a turning point for the United States. Throughout the tumultuous 1850s, the Fire-Eaters of the southern states had been threatening to leave the Union. With Lincoln’s election, they prepared to make good on their threats. Indeed, the Republican president-elect appeared to be their worst nightmare. The Republican Party committed itself to keeping slavery out of the territories as the country expanded westward, a position that shocked southern sensibilities. Meanwhile, southern leaders suspected that Republican abolitionists would employ the violent tactics of John Brown to deprive southerners of their slave property. The threat posed by the Republican victory in the election of 1860 spurred eleven southern states to leave the Union to form the Confederate States of America, a new republic dedicated to maintaining and expanding slavery. The Union, led by President Lincoln, was unwilling to accept the departure of these states and committed itself to restoring the country. Beginning in 1861 and continuing until 1865, the United States engaged in a brutal Civil War that claimed the lives of over 600,000 soldiers. By 1863, the conflict had become not only a war to save the Union, but also a war to end slavery in the United States. Only after four years of fighting did the North prevail. The Union was preserved, and the institution of slavery had been destroyed in the nation.