Historical Context

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The American Civil War pitted the United States federal government, under President Abraham Lincoln, against a group of initially seven southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) that seceded from the Union in February 1861, and formed the Confederate States of America, under President Jefferson Davis.

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The main cause of the Civil War was slavery; states’ rights were also an issue. The Confederate states believed they had a right to continue slavery and to expand the practice into the territories. Citing the Tenth Amendment, they argued that the federal government did not have the power to curtail states’ rights and so could not prevent slavery being exported to the territories. The South also argued that northern states were failing to honor their obligations to the Constitution by assisting slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad and refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the capture and return of slaves who escaped into northern free states. The South also feared long-term changes in the demographic and political structure of the United States. The northern population was growing and would soon control the federal government, leaving the South in a permanent minority.

Although abolitionist sentiment was strong in the North, the abolition of slavery was not an original goal of the federal government. The North regarded secession as an act of rebellion and initially fought simply to preserve the Union.

In the early months of 1861, the Confederacy took charge of federal forts within its boundaries, and in April, Confederate forces bombarded and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston, North Carolina. This marked the beginning of the Civil War. The North immediately moved to recapture Fort Sumter and other forts; Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers. The following month, four more states, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, joined the Confederacy. The Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.

In May 1861, Lincoln blockaded southern ports, cutting off exports vital to the South. On July 21, 1861, the Confederate army fought off Union forces at the first Battle of Bull Run. The following year, the war intensified. The Union Army of the Potomac, under Major General George B. McClellan, attacked Virginia but was halted at the Battle of Seven Pines and then defeated by General Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days’ Battles. Lee’s army recorded another victory, against General John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia, in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August. The Confederacy then invaded the North and fought the Union army at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. The result of the battle was inconclusive, but it did have the effect of halting the invasion and prompting Lee to return to Virginia.

Confederate successes followed, with victories for Lee’s army at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December, 12, 1862, and the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Lee then decided to once more invade the North.

The Battle of Gettysburg
Lee’s army began its invasion on June 15. He learned on June 28, 1863, that the Union army had crossed the Potomac in pursuit, and he concentrated his forces at Cashtown, eight miles west of Gettysburg. The stage was set for the most decisive battle of the war. On the first day of fighting, July 1, federal troops were outnumbered, since not all their forces were assembled. The rebels, led by Major Generals Robert E. Rodes and Jubal Early, forced the Union army to retreat from their positions just north and west of Gettysburg to the high ground known as Cemetery Hill, south of town. Lee ordered Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to take the hill if possible, but Ewell decided not to attempt it. That night Major General George Meade arrived with two divisions and...

(The entire section contains 3581 words.)

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Critical Essays