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The American Civil War: A Guide for Kids

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The American Civil War was fought between the South (Confederate states) and the North (Union states). It lasted from 1861 to 1865 and was triggered by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Learn more about the American Civil War, its causes, the people involved, and the aftermath.

Q: What was the American Civil War?
A: The American Civil War was a conflict between the United States government and eleven southern slave states. These eleven southern states declared their secession from the U.S. and formed the Confederate States of America, or “Confederacy”.

Q: When did the civil war take place? How long?
A: Hostilities began on April 12, 1861 with the attack on U.S. military installation by Confederate forces at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The civil war lasted four years and ended in 1865.

Q: What were the main causes of the war?
A: The primary cause of the American Civil War was the slavery issue. About 43% of Southern families owned slaves and they viewed slaves as their property, and feared the idea of racial equality. As an institution, slavery was important to the agricultural economy of the South. In the North, there was an abolitionist movement by writers and social reformers who called for an end to slavery on religious and ethical grounds .

Another major economic point was tariffs, as the South despised the tariffs that hurt their economy while the North was for the tariffs that strengthened their industries. Abraham Lincoln was not liked by many in the South, as he claimed that anyone who supported secession, such as the South did, would be convicted of treason.

Q: What was the Confederacy?
A: The Confederacy was made up of eleven southern states that seceded from the United States. It was called the Confederacy as it used a confederate form of government rather than the federal public which was used in the rest of the United States. A confederacy has members that form a common form an association and coordinate certain activities together while maintaining their independence in other ways.

Q: Who were the abolitionists?
A: The abolitionists were a minority of American citizens who sought to abolish slavery. They were for equal rights for African-Americans and wanted to end the slave trade. Prominent abolitionists included: journalist William Lloyd Garrison; social reformer and writer Frederick Douglas, who was also an ex-slave; writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and poet Walt Whitman. While many in the North opposed slavery and most Northern states had abolished slavery before the Civil War, most individuals in the North did not favor racial equality between the races and there was widespread segregation in the North.

Q: How many people were slaves in the United States during this period?
A: There were nearly 200,000 slaves in the United States during the American Civil War. These included African American men, women, and children of all ages and 95% of African-Americans lived in the South, making them one third of the population there.

Q: Who was Lincoln?
A: Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States from March of 1861 until his assassination in April of 1865. He led the country through the American Civil War and ended slavery. He sought to preserve the nation but his election triggered succession because he had been such an outspoken opponent of slavery during his campaign for the Presidency. He was a gifted public speaker and a figure who provoked fierce opinions on either side of the issues of his time.

Q: Who was General Lee?
A: General Robert Edward Lee was a United States Army officer and became the commanding general of the Confederate army during the American Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln asked General Lee to join the Union forces in early 1861, Lee rejected the offer as he could not dishonor his home state of Virginia. Privately, he wrote letters condemning secession but was drawn into the conflict to protect his home state.

Q: Who was General Grant?
A: General Ulysses S. Grant was a military commander during the Civil War, as well as during the post-war Reconstruction periods. He defeated the Confederate military through aggressive campaigns and a strategy of “total war.” He and President Lincoln grew to become close friends as well as political allies. Later, he became the 18th President of the United States and served from 1869 to 1877.

Q: What were the three major battles of the war?
A: The first significant battle of the civil war was the First Battle of Bull Run, which the South carried. On April 6 and 7th, 1862, the battle of Shiloh was both the bloodiest single-day and two-day battle in American history. The Gettysburg battle led to the Union victory that ended General Lee’s belief that a single victory could defeat the Army of the Potomac.

Q: Were children involved in the war?
A: Children played a role in the American Civil War as more than 300 Northern Soldiers were under the age of thirteen. Many children lied about their age or used fake names to fight in the war as it seemed like an adventure in their eyes. Many boys became drummer boys who led the marching troops into battle. Boy soldiers were not even ten years of age but still received guns and gun powder. They were treated the same as the older soldiers as they were considered mature for signing up for their army.

Q: How were women involved?
A: When men went off to fight in the American Civil War, women took over their jobs back at home. Women who had once held clerk positions became government workers. They also became involved in the industrial business. Many women accompanied their husbands into battle by posing as male soldiers. Some women even took on dangerous spy missions.

Q: How many people died as a result?
A: The American Civil War was the deadliest war in American History. The war resulted in nearly 620,000 deaths. These included 260,000 Confederate deaths of which 93,000 were killed in combat. Union deaths totaled 360,000 deaths in which 110,000 were in combat. Disease caused the remaining deaths during the civil war.

Q: What is the Gettysburg Address?
A: The Gettysburg Address was a speech given by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. This speech was delivered on Thursday, November 19, 1863 nearly four and a half months after the Union armies had defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Q: What was the aftermath of the war?
A: Reconstruction began during the war and continued until 1877. The war totaled billions of dollars and fed hatreds and intolerances. Nearly every battlefield in which civil war battles were fought now remains a national or state park.

Q: What are some movies and books to watch about the war?
A: There are several great films based on the American Civil War, such as Cold Mountain, Gone with the Wind, Gettysburg, and Glory. Recommended civil war literature includes Thunder at Gettysburg, Diary of a Drummer Boy, and Behind the Blue and Gray: The Soldier’s Life in the Civil War.


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