How did the U.S. Civil War begin?

The U.S. Civil War began primarily over the long-standing controversy surrounding the enslavement of Black people. The northern states largely opposed slavery, while the southern states had economies heavily dependent on the plantation system and slave labor.

Tension peaked after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election. President Lincoln was a member of the newly formed Republican Party, which opposed expanding slavery into the territories. And while he didn’t initially propose ending slavery where it already existed, many Southerners feared his presidency would lead to that outcome.

In response to the election, seven southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—seceded from the Union between December 1860 and February 1861, even before President-elect Lincoln took office. These states formed the Confederate States of America, electing Jefferson Davis as their President. President Lincoln viewed secession as illegal and refused to acknowledge the Confederate states as an independent country.

The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina. The fort, located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, was one of the few U.S. military installations in the South still held by Union forces after the secession of the Southern states.

Before the attack, the newly formed Confederate government demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter. Union Army commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused. The situation further escalated when President Lincoln announced he intended to provide needed supplies to the fort.

In response, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in the early morning of April 12, 1861. After a 34-hour bombardment, during which the fort sustained heavy damages, Major Anderson surrendered the fort on April 13.

The attack on Fort Sumter provoked outrage in the North, solidifying support for the war effort against the Confederacy. It also resulted in the four more slave states — Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina — joining the Confederacy, fully setting the stage for the Civil War.


Click here to read a snapshot biography of Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Regiment during the U.S. Civil War.

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