Civil War History in a Nutshell


I’m not great at history, although I always felt like a genius compared to my confirmation classes (the kids were smart enough – just didn’t have any use for “ancient history” – anything before their birth year).  Tom and I had to do a lot of reading before we came to Chickamauga and Chattanooga so we would be prepared to work here, and I felt a little overwhelmed with everything I was reading.  So I ended up reading “The Civil War for Dummies” which turned out to be very helpful in laying out the basics in a way that was easy to understand.  In order to share our experiences at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park I need to start with a brief history of the events leading up to the battles at Chickamauga and Chattanooga.  This will be very simplistic and I’m not going to argue details with anyone.  There are a lot of people who know more about it than I do.

Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War – most of us learned that in history class – although some people in the south will argue that it was state’s rights.  But every state’s document of secession, and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural speech, mention slavery as the reason for secession.  Those who made the laws, had the money, and governed in the South were slave owners and they wanted to keep their wealth and their slaves.

President Lincoln was elected, not because he was against slavery, but because he was against the expansion of slavery into the new states west of the Mississippi.  One of the events that precipitated the Civil War was the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857 which said that African Americans, whether enslaved or free, could not be American citizens!  African Americans who had never been slaves, or those who had been legally freed, could not be American citizens.  The Supreme Court also declared that Congress could not prohibit the spread of slavery to any state, but each state should be allowed to vote for itself whether or not it would be a slave or free state.  You can probably imagine what a polarizing effect such a judgment had.  When Lincoln was elected, despite not being on the ballot in ten southern states, seven of those states wrote up documents of secession before he even took office.

The first shots fired in the Civil War were at Fort Sumter, a US fort located in off the shore of Charleston, South Carolina.  The Confederate government demanded the removal of the US forces on Southern land and President Lincoln refused.  So the Confederates fired on the Fort.  President Lincoln was determined to preserve the union of the states and the Confederates were determined to uphold the US Constitution which protected the institution of slavery (see the 3/5 compromise).

Most people thought the Civil War would be over quickly at the beginning.  Of course, each side thought they would easily be victorious because “God is on our side” and/or “we are in the right.”  Everyone learned differently in the First Battle of Bull Run / Manassas which was won by the Confederates at a great loss of life.  The bloody war that would last for four more years had truly begun.  The next major battle of the war was over a year later, in August 1862, in the same place and with the same results.  Although the Union forces had greater resources and greater numbers, Lincoln could not find a general who was willing to fight in a concerted way.

The Battle of Antietam followed in September, 1862, and was the single bloodiest battle in American history.  The Battle of Fredericksburg followed in December.  1863 saw both sides still fighting it out, pushing back and forth, essentially equal in wins and losses, but the Union was slowly pushing the Southerners back.  With the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863, the South was effectively cut in half and the North gained control of the Mississippi River.  That same week, Lee and the Army of Virginia were defeated at Gettysburg.  This week can be seen as the turning point in the Civil War.

Whew!  That’s enough history for now!  In fact, I think that is enough history for this week.  I will pick up this story next week by telling you about the two commanders of the armies of the North and South who met at Chickamauga.  I’m sure you will be sitting on the edge of your seats until then!