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Timeline of the American Civil War

The timeline below provides some of the key events in the build-up to the outbreak of fighting in April 1861, as well as important moments in the conflict itself.


Rhode Island abolishes slavery

13 June

Rhode Island becomes the first of the original Thirteen Colonies to introduce anti-slavery laws that would accentuate the divide between Northern and Southern states.


The Declaration of Independence

4 July

Thomas Jefferson draws up the Declaration of Independence to assert the sovereign rights of the American colonists. In approving the Declaration, Congress set a precedent that outlined the rights of a people to abandon their former political allegiances and 'to institute new government.'


The Cotton Gin


Eli Whitney’s invention revolutionises cotton production in the South, eventually leading to cotton succeeding tobacco as the most profitable trade commodity in the United States.


The Louisiana Purchase

30 April


The western territories, a vast expanse of land stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, are acquired by the United States from France for over eleven million dollars. Several decades of debate and compromise over slavery’s expansion westwards follow.


Abolishment of slave importation

1 January

The United States bans the import and export of slaves, one year after Great Britain abolished the slave trade. Northern states begin a gradual process of ending slavery, but the institution strengthens in the South as cotton production expands. The internal trade grows as Northern owners sell their slaves, creating what historians have labelled a ‘Second Middle Passage’ within America.


The Missouri Compromise

3 March

Since the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the political balance between North and South had been maintained by admitting alternately slave and free states. The more populous North had come to dominate the House of Representatives and the South now sought to redress the balance. Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state but in the future, states north of Missouri and the 36°30′ latitude line would be admitted only if they were free (except for California, which was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state despite the parallel divide).


Fugitive Slave Act

18 September

Congress is denied interference in the slave trade between states, enabling Southern slave-owners to take free blacks from the North. The act galvanises abolitionists as it implicated free states in maintaining the slave system by including clauses that meant anyone aiding runaway slaves would be subject to fines and imprisonment. Many abolitionist tracts and slave narratives make reference to the act to highlight Northern complicity towards the institution of slavery. One famous example from 1852 was Mary Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which gained tremendous readership and publicity for the abolitionist cause.

1854 – 1856

Conflict over Kansas


The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act overturns the Missouri Compromise by ceding rights to individual states to decide whether to be free or slave-holding through the process of Popular Sovereignty. Slave-holders flock into Kansas to secure their allegiance, sparking clashes with free-state Northerners on a scale that threatens civil war.


Lincoln-Douglas debates

August  October

In Illinois, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln engage in a seven debates during the Senate election campaign. Their speeches were circulated beyond the state and serve as a nuanced discussion of the problem of slavery and its future. Although he lost the election, much of what Lincoln said in the debates went on to form his presidential campaign in 1860. 


Raid on Harpers Ferry

16 18 October

John Brown attempts to lead an armed slave insurrection by seizing a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He believed slavery could only be ended by violent means. The raid sparked a national outcry both for and against Brown’s actions. Contemporary Southern accounts blamed the recently-formed Republican Party and their anti-slavery platform for inspiring violence. U.S. Marines, under the command of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee, suppress the insurrectionists. Brown was caught and sentenced to death; his hanging witnessed by Abraham Lincoln’s assassinator John Wilkes Booth. This event is often seen as the last notable flashpoint of sectional tension before the outbreak of the Civil War.


Abraham Lincoln elected President

6 November

Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln becomes the 16th President of the United States. He wins the presidential election without carrying a single Southern vote.


South Carolina secedes

20 December

South Carolina, one of the richest states in the country, is the first to secede in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s election. The Ordinance of Secession cites Northern hostility to slavery and the election of a sectional party as reasons for the state’s action.


Extension of secession and the formation of the Confederacy

January – February

Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all commit to secession in 1861. These states form the Confederate States of America, elect Jefferson Davis as their president and draft a constitution which mimics that of the United States except for an explicit endorsement of slavery.


Lincoln’s first inaugural address

4 March

Lincoln calls for peace with the erring seceding states, stating that 'though passions may have strained' the North and South 'must not be enemies' but friends. Appealing to 'the better angels of our nature' in an attempt to pacify growing concerns about possible conflict, he declares, 'I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists'. He argues that the Union is perpetual and must be maintained.


Fort Sumter

12 April

The first exchange of fire in the Civil War takes place off the coast of South Carolina at Fort Sumter, a garrison that had been occupied by Kentuckian Unionists. Lincoln, under public pressure, sends provisions to the previously unmanned garrison and notifies the Secessionists of his intentions. Jefferson Davis takes the decision to fire on the unarmed boat which leads to the surrender and evacuation of the Federal troops.


Lincoln summons the troops

15 April

Lincoln calls on the Northern states to supply a 75,000 strong militia that would serve for three months, enough time, he believes, to restore the Union. Lincoln justifies this resort to force by stating that the issue had become 'too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.' That day, minor skirmishes occur in western Virginia.


Border states secede

17 April – 21 May

Hostilities at Fort Sumter force Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina to side with the Confederacy. As the Confederacy expands, Jefferson Davis struggles to maintain social unity; its members seceding in order to assert their individual rights. For the rest of the conflict, Lincoln fights to hold onto the remaining Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri.


First Battle of Bull Run

21 July

The first major battle of the Civil War occurs when public and political demands push an unprepared Union army into battle in Virginia. The arrival of Confederate reinforcements ensures a Confederate victory and a rapid retreat to Washington, D.C. for the Union army.


The Trent Affair

8 November

British public opinion is divided over the Civil War, but economic ties with America are strong and the British are keen to regain an influence in the New World. Two Confederate commissioners, on their way to persuade the British to support the Southern cause, are halted by a Union naval commander. Britain reacts strongly, threatening a war that neither Britain nor the Union wants, but is eventually appeased by Union efforts.


Enlisting black soldiers

17 July

The thirty-seventh Congress approves of the enrolment of black troops in the Union militias out of a compulsion 'to use all the physical force' at their disposal. This constitutes a marked departure from a policy of turning away black soldiers keen to enlist.


Second Battle of Bull Run

28 30 August

Generals Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Robert E. Lee defeat the Union army and send them back to Washington, D.C. once more.


The Battle of Antietam

17 September

The bloodiest day of the Civil War is militarily inconclusive, but pivotal for the Union cause. An offer from Britain and France to mediate a peace on the basis of Confederate independence is dropped. Lincoln, who had been waiting for such a propitious moment of Union advantage, issues a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September. He warns the Confederacy that he would order slave emancipation unless the rebelling states return to the Union by the new year.


The Emancipation Proclamation

1 January

Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that slaves inside the rebelling Confederacy were 'thenceforward, and forever free', applying to over three million of the approximately four million slaves in the whole of America at the time of the conflict. The Proclamation only applied to the Confederacy, not the slave states still in the Union or the areas under Union Army authority; emancipation would not be granted until 1865. The Proclamation added the abolition of slavery to Lincoln’s goal of reuniting the Union.


The First Conscription Act

3 March

The nation’s first conscription act is passed by Congress. The wealthy take advantage of a three hundred dollar exemption fee to avoid serving.


Battle of Gettysburg

1 3 July

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in an attempt to bring the Southern cause to the North, invades Pennsylvania but is routed by the Union army. Lee fails to capitalise on early military advantages, leading an infantry charge to a decisive defeat. Both sides are exhausted; the Union fails to press advantage as Lee retreats. Confederate forces are kept out of Union territory for the rest of the war.


Siege of Vicksburg

4 July

General Ulysses S Grant reverses his ailing fortunes at Vicksburg, Mississippi, risking separation from his supply lines in order to exploit a Confederate vulnerability. The manoeuvre and subsequent siege is successful, and Grant splits the Confederate army the day after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg.


New York City draft riots

13 16 July

The arrival of draft officers in New York City spurs rioting. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, tensions rise amongst the urban poor in the North as they fear competition for work when the newly freed slaves migrate. There is also dislike about the war being centred on abolition instead of Union preservation. Working-class and mostly Irish men in New York, already frustrated with a severe fall in wages, refuse to be drafted to fight and three days of violent protest break out, particularly targeting black citizens and Republican newspapers. Troops from Gettysburg are sent to the city to restore order.


The Gettysburg Address

19 November

Lincoln arrives at Gettysburg to speak at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg war dead. The speech is only two minutes long, makes strong reference to the language of the Declaration of Independence and emphasises the unity of the nation. Later that year, Lincoln offers amnesty to Confederate soldiers who will pledge loyalty to the Union.


Capture of Atlanta

2 September

Under General William Sherman’s command, the Union army capture the Confederate stronghold of Atlanta and embark on a campaign of destruction aimed at breaking the will of the Confederate army.


Lincoln re-elected

8 November

Military successes strengthen Lincoln’s election campaign against the dovish Democrat General George McClellan. Lincoln is re-elected carrying the electoral college vote and a slim majority of the popular vote.


Fort Fisher and the last days of the Confederacy

January February

Union forces capture Fort Fisher in North Carolina, strengthening a Union blockade which has caused devastating food and clothing shortages in the South. Laws against conspiracy are tightened and habeas corpus suspended in order to stop Confederate desertions; Jefferson Davis even makes a desperate bid to arm the slaves which is rejected by his Congress.


Surrender at Appomattox Courthouse

9 April

Union reinforcements arrive at the Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia and secure General Lee’s surrender. This marks the effective end of the Civil War.


Assassination of Lincoln

14 April

In an attempt to throw the Union into electoral chaos, a group of Confederate sympathisers from Maryland plot to assassinate President Lincoln, his Vice-President and Secretary of War. Lincoln is shot in his box at the Ford Theatre in Washington D.C. by John Wilkes Booth and dies early the next morning. His secretaries escape a similar fate. The conspirators are arrested and hanged. Andrew Johnson becomes President.


The Thirteenth Amendment ratified

18 December

After a great deal of political wrangling, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery is ratified.

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