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Teacher Subject Knowledge: Year Six
The American Civil War
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President. In December 1860, South Carolina left
the United States. By February 1861, six other southern states had left too, and these states joined
together to form their own country named the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy.
These states demanded that U.S. soldiers leave the South. Lincoln did the opposite, and sent supply
ships to reinforce Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When the Southerners heard this, they began
shelling Fort Sumter - on April 12, 1861 the Civil War began.
More Southern states left the United States and joined the Confederacy. This new group of states
chose their own president, Jefferson Davis, created their own flag and built their own army.
The commander of the Confederate army was General Robert E. Lee. He was a hero of the
Mexican-American War, and had served the United States Army for over 30 years. He was asked to
command the Union forces, but, being from the South, he decided to command the Confederate
army instead. The Confederates won most of the major battles from 1861 to the summer of 1863.
Ulysses S. Grant had fought in the Mexican-American War, but left the army to work in his
father’s leather shop in Illinois. He entered the war as a colonel on the Unionist side. He was soon
promoted to general and, in 1864, Lincoln placed Grant in charge of the entire Union army. Grant
was not as experienced as Lee, but soon became his match.
Lincoln wanted slavery to end, but first he had to hold the nation together. He was careful how
he expressed opposition to slavery because some Union ‘border’ states –Delaware, Maryland,
Kentucky and Missouri – allowed slavery. Lincoln was concerned that if he strongly criticized slavery,
these states would join the Confederacy.
In 1862, the Union won their first major battle at Antietam in Maryland. Lincoln saw this as the
ideal opportunity to make an important speech. The Emancipation Proclamation announced that all
slaves under Confederate control were free, beginning 1 January 1863. Lincoln could not force
Southerners to free their slaves but news of the Proclamation brought hope to Southern slaves.
At first, neither the Union nor the Confederacy allowed black people to be soldiers. Many
believed that black people were not clever or brave enough to be good soldiers. However, as the
Union army needed more soldiers, in 1862 the law was changed to allow African-Americans to fight
in the army, and they rushed to volunteer.
By the summer of 1863, the Union was winning in the South, so General Lee made a last attempt to
fight back. He led 75,000 soldiers into Pennsylvania and on 1 July 1863, the armies met just outside
Gettysburg. 90,000 Union troops held hilltops which Lee attacked for two days. Each time the
Confederates charged, cannonballs and bullets killed many. On 4 July, 1863, Lee retreated back to
Virginia. Each side had suffered over 20,000 casualties.
On 19 November, Lincoln delivered a speech at Gettysburg to honour the fallen soldiers. It only
took two minutes, but is remembered as one of the greatest speeches in American history. It began:
‘Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation,
conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ This was an
important reminder that the United States had been founded on principals of freedom.
By 1864, Union troops controlled part of every Confederate state and they were very close to
winning the war. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Government fled their capital of Richmond.
On April 3, 1865, Grant’s army marched into the city led by black soldiers, where crowds of cheering
African-Americans, many of them slaves, greeted them.
President Lincoln insisted that the war should be won in a way that was not so brutal to make the
South resent the North after they re-joined. Lee and his weary soldiers retreated to a small town
called Appomattox, where they were surrounded by Union troops. General Grant allowed Lee’s
soldiers to surrender and return to their homes. Grant honoured Lee’s courage by removed his hat.
Union soldiers wanted to celebrate the surrender, but Grant stopped them. ‘The war is over,’ Grant
said. ‘The rebels are our countrymen again.’
Northerners were very happy when they heard the news of General Lee’s surrender, but the
celebrations would soon end. Only five days after Lee surrendered, President Lincoln and his wife
attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, near the White House. An actor named John Wilkes
Booth, who supported the Confederate cause, crept up behind the President and shot him. The Civil
War had ended, but so had the life of Abraham Lincoln.