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The Civil War: 10 Things You Should Know (but probably don't)

By Edward L. Ayers in Richmond, Virginia

You probably know that the Civil War began 150 years ago this month at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Maybe you can even name the major players, battles, and issues at stake for both the Union and the Confederacy. And maybe you're aware of the staggering loss of life on both sides.

But to really understand the war, you have to put yourself in the mind-set of Americans at the time, who were by no means convinced that war was inevitable—or the answer to the nation's most intractable problems.

Americans of the 1850s took peace and growth for granted. While other countries had to fight off enemies at their borders, the United States had no adversaries in any direction. Mexico had been defeated in the Mexican-American War in 1848, British-ruled Canada posed no threat, and tens of thousands of American Indians had been moved to territories west of the Mississippi. Vast oceans to the east and west brought only trade and immigrants, not warships. Americans couldn't imagine a war that would envelop the nation.

Slavery as an economic institution was the strongest it had ever been in 1860 because the cotton produced by enslaved people in the South was selling for record prices on the international market. The entire nation benefited from cotton, which accounted for more than 60 percent of American exports. The 4 million people who lived in bondage had no reason to believe that would change in their lifetimes. Even abolitionists, who hated slavery and fought against it, did not imagine that it would be destroyed over the next five years.

One compromise after another—from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Compromise of 1850—had patched over the differences between slave and free states since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Americans expected that new compromises of one sort or another would save the nation again in the 1860s.

But as often happens, events unfolded in ways that hadn't been anticipated. For starters, no one would have guessed that Abraham Lincoln—a relative unknown in the election of 1860 from a brand-new party, the Republicans—would be elected President. He received virtually no votes in the South and only about 40 percent nationwide in a four-man race.

But as the 1860 election approached, it had become clear that Lincoln was going to win despite his lack of Southern support, so secessionists began to plan their next steps. Once war broke out, it took turn after turn that no one had foreseen.

Here are 10 aspects of the Civil War that surprised people at the time—and still surprise people today:

1. Secession took a long time to unfold, and slavery almost became a constitutional right.
Seven slave states left the Union between Lincoln's victory in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, while the other slave states argued among themselves about what to do.

Lincoln called for the states that had not seceded to provide troops to put down the rebellion in South Carolina following the Battle of Fort Sumter in April. Four of the remaining slave states—including the largest one, Virginia, along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—decided to join the Confederacy. The other four—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri—remained in the Union throughout the war and were often called "border states."

But before the states started seceding, Senators and Congressmen looked for ways to pacify the South. In 1860, they hammered together a compromise—a proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution—that would have protected slavery forever. Had the amendment been ratified, it would have extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, guaranteeing the right of slaveholders to move, with the people they enslaved, into any of those territories; prohibited the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; and prevented federal interference with the domestic slave trade. The compromise was supported by many Southerners and their Democratic allies in the North and South but opposed by Lincoln and other Republicans; it was tabled in December 1860.

2. Who was loyal to what and to whom was very confused.
The men who would become the Confederacy's leaders, both political and military, had been leaders in the United States right up to the moment of secession. Jefferson Davis was a Senator from Mississippi before becoming President of the Confederacy, and President Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee of Virginia command over Union forces just weeks before Lee declared his loyalty to the new Confederacy and took command of its armies. Many of the officers on both sides had been friends at West Point before the war.

The rest of the world just watched. The two superpowers of the time—Great Britain and France—refused to take sides. They were unsure of who would win, profited from trade with both, and were not unhappy to see the United States weakened. Their entry on either side could have changed the course of the war. Particularly after the Confederacy was driven back after its invasion of Maryland in 1862, both France and Great Britain decided to let the war unfold without getting involved.

3. Once the fighting began, nothing about the war played out as expected.
Northerners and Southerners thought a few battles would settle the conflict, but the first battle, at Bull Run in Virginia in July 1861, was a fiasco for both sides. In April 1862, the battle at Shiloh, near the border of Mississippi and Tennessee, was far more horrible than anyone could have imagined, with 13,000 casualties for the Union and nearly as many for the Confederacy. No one planned to fight at Gettysburg, which had no real strategic importance but happened to be the place where Union forces confronted the Confederate army that invaded Pennsylvania. Appomattox, in Virginia, became the final battle only because that was where the Union army caught the Confederate army as it was trying to make its way elsewhere.

Throughout the war, both sides predicted that victory was just around the corner; no one foresaw that it would last four long years.

4. Emancipation began as soon as the war started.
Tens of thousands of enslaved people freed themselves as soon as they could make their way to Union forces. The first to do so were three men who rowed a boat across the harbor near Hampton, Virginia, in May 1861 and volunteered their services to General Benjamin Butler. From then on, slaves rushed to every Union force, from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River.

As the war dragged on, Lincoln came to realize that without destroying slavery, the Confederacy would be able to fight for a long time. The millions of slaves at work on plantations permitted the South to put virtually all of its able-bodied white men on the battlefield. Some antislavery leaders, like Frederick Douglass, argued that the war must take on slavery to justify all the death and suffering it caused.

President Lincoln didn't issue the Emancipation Proclamation until January 1863—almost two years after the war began—and even then it applied only to slaves in states that had seceded but were under the control of Union forces. It didn't apply to either enslaved people in the South not under Union control or to those in the border states that stayed in the Union: Lincoln's first priority was to keep those states in the Union. Even when the war ended in April 1865, more than 3 million people still lived in slavery.

5. Far more men died of disease than from rifles.
The biggest killers in the war were conditions that children today are vaccinated against, such as measles and mumps, or commonly experience with no serious aftereffects, like diarrhea. But because so little was known about germs, unsanitary conditions in army and prisoner-of-war camps turned into breeding grounds for disease. In fact, the medical treatments of the time were hardly more advanced than medicine in the Revolutionary War eight decades earlier. Infection killed many men, especially those who had amputations or wounds in their torso. More than 600,000 people died in the Civil War—as a share of the population, the equivalent to 6 million people today.

6. Young people were swept up in the war.
In the North and the South, girls and boys worked to gather supplies for the men in the field. Some worked in munitions plants and government offices, while others kept farms going after their fathers and brothers left to fight. In the South, schools often shut down and food became scarce. Although the youngest legal age to fight was 17, boys in both the North and the South managed to get themselves into the army. By war's end, millions of children had been orphaned or had seen their fathers and brothers disabled for life.

7. 200,000 blacks fought for the Union—more than all the soldiers on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Blacks had wanted to fight early on, but the Union turned to them only when it needed more soldiers, two years after the war started. Black soldiers distinguished themselves in one battle after another, even winning the Medal of Honor. By contrast, only a few blacks fought for the Confederacy, often against their will.

8. New technologies played a critical role in the Civil War, and yet the war was very old-fashioned in some ways.
Many of the major battles of the war occurred at railroad junctions, strategic targets since trains transported arms, supplies, and food to troops across the North and South. Telegraph lines—newer at the time of the Civil War than the Internet is today—carried news of battles faster than would have been imaginable at the time most of the soldiers were born. By 1864, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters had telegraph lines supplying him with the latest information from his armies in Georgia. Muskets with spiraled grooves in the barrel—rifles—greatly extended the range of guns.

On the other hand, armies relied on mules and horses to move supplies anywhere the railroads didn't go. Because food preparation and preservation technologies were still relatively primitive, armies marched with thousands of cattle to feed the troops. Most boots and shoes at the time were the same for the left and right foot, often resulting in blisters for soldiers marching up to 40 miles a day.

9. Women were involved in every aspect of the war.
Many of the uniforms, flags, and tents the armies used were made by women. Women became nurses for the first time during the Civil War and helped save many lives with their brave service in horrifying hospitals in both the North and the South.

Beyond that, hundreds of women disguised themselves as men and fought on both sides. Others, such as Elizabeth Van Lew of Virginia, served as spies for the Union, conveying valuable information directly to the military command—sometimes in hollowed-out eggs. Everywhere, women ran farms and businesses while the men were off fighting.

10. After the war ended at Appomattox, the struggle continued.
After the war, and following President Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Southerners watched anxiously to see how the United States might act against them. When they were not severely punished, they pushed to regain as much power over former slaves as possible.

Faced with this challenge, Republicans in Congress launched Reconstruction in 1867, putting states that had seceded under military control. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was adopted, guaranteeing the rights of citizenship and due process of law to blacks. In 1870, the 15th Amendment provided that no male could be refused the right to vote based on his race or prior enslavement. Many black men, including those formerly enslaved, were even elected to Congress during that period.

Battles over Reconstruction stretched on through seven more years before white Southerners re-established control of their states. It would require the civil rights movement, nearly 100 years later, to complete the revolution for African-Americans that began with the Civil War.

This article was adapted from one in The New York Times Upfront magazine.

SPECIAL REPORT: Learn more about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in this special report.

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