When the Civil War began, most observers thought it would be a short war. Southerners were confident of their soldiers’ superior valor and devotion to their cause, doubting that Northerners would tolerate much bloodshed for the causes of Union and opposition to slavery. Meanwhile, Northern observers believed that their much larger population and industrial base gave them an insurmountable advantage.
In a way, both sides were right. Confederate soldiers did fight bravely and fiercely (as did Union soldiers), and initially the Southern forces were led by more skilled and decisive battlefield generals. But the Union was able to muster a much larger army and keep it better supplied.
Rather than handing either side a quick victory, those factors instead combined to create a long, drawn-out war in which the casualty levels were staggering. In the first two years of the Civil War, scores of large and small engagements were fought, including four separate battles in which more than 3,000 men died in combat. In just those four battles (Shiloh, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Chancellorsville), more Americans were killed than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War combined—and the worst was still to come.
The Civil War was also America’s first extensively photographed war. Matthew Brady and other photographers followed the armies, capturing images of battlefield dead that horrified people back home and fed anti-war sentiment.
Leading up to the war, President Abraham Lincoln had often stated that his goal was simply to preserve the Union. But when faced with the unprecedented carnage, he came to believe that those deaths would be meaningless if the end result was a return to the status quo, with slavery outlawed in the North, entrenched in the South, and disputed in each new territory. Soon after the Battle of Antietam, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order freeing the slaves in any territory currently in rebellion against the United States, which would be effective on January 1, 1863. Though largely symbolic in effect, since it freed slaves only in places that considered themselves no longer subject to U.S. law, the proclamation elevated the aims of the war by making the abolition of slavery one of its goals.
Even in the North, that goal was not universally popular. Racism and the notion of white supremacy were firmly entrenched throughout 19th-century America, and the proclamation brought Lincoln both praise and condemnation. Some Union soldiers deserted rather than fight for the rights of African Americans, and some of Lincoln’s political opponents stepped up their calls for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.
In the early summer of 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to invade Union territory. His aims were both military and political: He hoped to threaten the capital at Washington and to fuel anti-war sentiment in the North by bringing the destruction closer to home. The campaign would culminate in the deadliest battle of the entire war, fought over three days at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Several months later, Lincoln went to Gettysburg to speak at the dedication of a military cemetery there. Though just a few minutes long, the speech would become one of the most famous in American history, eloquently summing up both the events that had led to Gettysburg and the larger cause for which it was fought.