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Teenaged soldiers — both Black and white — in the Union Army.Wikimedia Commons
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This photograph, taken circa 1862, was titled "Contrabands at Headquarters of General Lafayette." The term "contrabands" was used during the Civil War to describe enslaved people who had escaped their slaveholders.
Mathew B. Brady/Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University
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One of the first photos of the Union Army during the Civil War. Circa 1861.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Bodies on the battlefield at Antietam, Maryland in September 1862.Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
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Capt. George A. Custer, of the 5th Cavalry in the Union Army, with a Confederate prisoner, Lt. James B. Washington, who happened to be Custer's former classmate. Library of Congress
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A soldier lies dead in the "Devil's Den" after the Battle of Gettysburg. July 1863.Library of Congress
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Following the Battle of Antietam, a soldier looks down upon a Union grave. Next to him, a Confederate soldier lies unburied. 1862.Library of Congress
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President Abraham Lincoln stands on the battlefield at Antietam, Maryland with Allan Pinkerton (the famed military intelligence operative who essentially invented the Secret Service, left) and Major General John A. McClernand (right) on October 3, 1862.Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress
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Another perspective of Abraham Lincoln at Antietam. October 1862.National Archives and Records Administration
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A Black soldier and his family. Circa 1863-1865.Library of Congress
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Dead soldiers lie on the battlefield following the First Battle of Bull Run. July 1861.Library of Congress
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A soldier from the 8th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment holds up a tattered American flag. Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Union soldiers guarding Confederate prisoners. Circa 1861-1865.National Archives
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The USS Cairo on the Mississippi River in 1862.U.S. Naval Historical Center
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Artillery at Yorktown, Virginia. Circa 1862.James F. Gibson/Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
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Entrenched along the west bank of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, these Union soldiers were about to take part in the pivotal Battle of Chancellorsville, beginning on April 30, 1863.A. J. Russell/National Archives
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Confederate President Jefferson Davis.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.Alexander Gardner/U.S. Library of Congress via Getty Images
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The CSS Atlanta on the James River after Union forces had captured the ironclad Confederate ship in June 1863.Mathew Brady/Library of Congress
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African Americans collect the bones of soldiers killed in battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia. June 1864.John Reekie/Library of Congress
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Partially titled "A harvest of death," this photo depicts just a few of the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania following the historic battle there in July 1863.Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress
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Three Confederate soldiers who were captured at Gettysburg. Summer 1863. Library of Congress
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Abraham Lincoln (indicated by red arrow) arrives at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, not long before delivering his Gettysburg Address.Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
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Crewmembers of the USS Wissahickon standing by the ship's gun. Circa 1863.U.S. Naval Historical Center
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Union General Phil Sheridan.
Sheridan gave the photographer the hat he is wearing here, but workmen would later steal it from a trunk in the photography studio's cellar.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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Dead Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. May 1864.Wikimedia Commons
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On June 18, 1864, a cannon shot took both arms of Alfred Stratton. He was just 19 years old at the time. Overall, one in 13 Civil War soldiers would become amputees.Mütter Museum
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Union soldiers from Company D, U.S. Engineer Battalion, pose during the siege in August 1864 in Petersburg, Virginia.Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Union General Ulysses S. Grant in City Point, Virginia. August 1864. U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Union soldier Francis E. Brownell, wearing a Zouave uniform, with a bayoneted musket. In this image, the Medal of Honor recipient has a black crape tied to his left arm in mourning for Col. E. E. Ellsworth.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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Union General Ulysses S. Grant (center) and his staff pose in the summer of 1864 in City Point, Virginia.U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Union officers and enlisted men stand around a 13-inch mortar, the "Dictator," on the platform of a flatbed railroad car in October 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia.David Knox/Library of Congress/Getty Images
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A young soldier lies dead in a trench in Petersburg, Virginia.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Union General William T. Sherman sits on a horse at Federal Fort No. 7. September-November 1864. Atlanta, Georgia.George N. Barnard/U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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The Ponder House stands shell-damaged in Atlanta, Georgia. September-November 1864.George N. Barnard/U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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African American Union troops at Dutch Gap, Virginia in November 1864.Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
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Union soldiers sit by the guns of a captured fort in 1864 in Atlanta, Georgia. George N. Barnard/U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Union Colonel E. Olcott.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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Soldiers sit in trenches near Petersburg, Virginia. Circa 1864.Library of Congress/Getty Images
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A Union wagon train enters Petersburg, Virginia in April 1865.John Reekie/U.S. Library of Congress via Getty Images
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The ruins of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in April 1865.Andrew J. Russell/Wikimedia Commons
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The ruins of Haxalls (or Gallego) Mills in Richmond, Virginia. April 1865.U.S. National Archives/Getty Images
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Ruins stand in front of the Confederate Capitol Building. Circa 1865. Richmond, Virginia. U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Confederate Major Gihl.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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The body of a dead Confederate soldier lies in a trench at Fort Mahone on April 3, 1865 in Petersburg, Virginia.U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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The Anaconda Plan, proposed at the beginning of the Civil War, consisted of two main objectives: Set up a naval blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports that were controlled by the Confederacy, and transport roughly 60,000 Union troops in 40 steam transports down the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the soldiers would capture and hold forts and towns along the way.Library of Congress
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The ruins of the State Arsenal and Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Bridge are seen here in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia. Alexander Gardner/U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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Soldiers wait outside Appomattox Court House, Virginia as the higher-ups work out the official terms of surrender at the end of the Civil War in April 1865. Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress
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Two unidentified soldiers in a Union captain's uniform and a Union lieutenant's uniform, holding foot officers' swords and wearing frock coats, an over-the-shoulder belt for sword attachment, and red sashes.Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs/Library of Congress
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In this photo, taken sometime in 1884 or 1885, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his family, and his servant pose for a portrait in Beauvoir, Mississippi. Wikimedia Commons
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Soldiers at a field hospital following the Battle of Savage's Station. June 1862.Library of Congress
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Confederate soldiers who were killed during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. May 1863.Public Domain
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U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Circa 1860-1865.Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
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Wilmer McLean and his family sit on the porch of his house, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 in Appomattox Court House, Virginia.Timothy H. O'Sullivan/U.S. Library of Congress via Getty Images
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The funeral procession for U.S. President Abraham Lincoln slowly moves down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. on April 19, 1865, five days after he was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth and 10 days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.Library of Congress
55 Images That Reveal The Devastation Of The U.S. Civil War
The Civil War stands as the bloodiest conflict in American history. From 1861 to 1865, the country tore itself apart in fierce battles that pitted brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor. At least 620,000 people died — a more recent estimate suggests that up to 850,000 perished — as the Union and the Confederacy fought to gain the upper hand.
Though the conflict officially started on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, tensions between North and South had been deepening for decades. When it came to slavery, the agricultural South was eager to preserve its "peculiar institution" while many in the industrial North sought to stop its spread to new territories.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 proved to be a tipping point. Though Lincoln was no abolitionist — he was opposed to slavery but did not initially advocate for its outright elimination — many in the South believed that he would be unsympathetic to their views. Southern states seceded one by one in the weeks leading up to Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, and the new president quickly made it his mission to preserve the Union.
Lincoln would prevail in the end with a Union victory, but at a great cost. The president would lose his life to an assassin's bullet in April 1865, mere days after the conflict came to a close. And though the end of the Civil War also led to the end of American slavery, the failures of Reconstruction meant that the United States would long be wrestling with its impact.
See some of the most impactful Civil War photos in the gallery above.
The Series Of Events That Led To The Civil War
Library of CongressThe Missouri Compromise effectively divided the country into "slave" and "free" states in 1820, but the question of other territories' status remained painfully open in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Though the Civil War officially began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, tensions between North and South had been building for some time. As the country expanded during the 19th century, fierce debates emerged over whether newly added territories should be "slave" or "free."
The Missouri Compromise in 1820 attempted to quell the conflict. It made Maine a free state and Missouri a slave state, and declared that all states above the 36º 30' latitude would ban slavery. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 challenged this careful balance. It decreed that the territory encompassing Kansas and Nebraska would decide their slave/free status based on "popular sovereignty" — or whatever its residents decided.
Pro- and anti-slavery factions battled in order to decide the future of the territories. One of the anti-slavery guerrillas was an abolitionist named John Brown, who raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 in hopes of inciting a slave rebellion in Virginia. Brown failed and was hanged, but his raid is considered a "dress rehearsal" for the Civil War today. Many in the North saw Brown as a martyr; many in the South saw him as a madman.
And such divisions only deepened as the country prepared for the presidential election of 1860. When Abraham Lincoln of the newly established, anti-slavery Republican Party prevailed, Southern states began to secede from the Union. South Carolina was first in December 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
Four additional states would later secede after the American Civil War began: Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The Civil War: From Fort Sumter To Appomattox
Public DomainThe attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 marked the beginning of the Civil War.
At his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried to stop the country from going to war. "We are not enemies, but friends," he said. But nothing could be done. The Civil War officially began roughly a month later, when the newly formed Confederate States of America attacked the United States military garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
Initially, both sides hoped that the Civil War would end quickly. Lincoln activated troops for only 90 days, and the Confederacy believed that they could win the war with just one decisive victory. But at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, it became clear that both sides were in for a bloody, drawn-out conflict. The Union troops were forced to retreat, and Lincoln promptly called for 500,000 more recruits to join the army.
From there, the war grew bloodier and bloodier. Both sides had lost hundreds of men at the First Battle of Bull Run (the National Park Service reports that the Union had 2,708 casualties to the Confederacy's 1,982 casualties) but the number of dead and wounded would soon balloon.
The Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 saw 23,746 casualties. The Battle of Antietam that September had 22,717 casualties. And the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 dwarfed them all with 51,000 casualties. For comparison, some 58,000 American troops died during the Vietnam War, and about 36,500 American soldiers perished while fighting in the Korean War.
And since the American Civil War was one of the first military conflicts to be documented in photos, the images of dead bodies on the battlefield shocked and horrified many civilians who'd never seen such violence. At times, it seemed to many as though the bloodshed would never end.
But the tide began to turn in the Union's favor between 1864 and 1865. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's "March to the Sea" burned through the South at the end of 1864, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee quickly lost ground to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. In April of that year, Lee abandoned the crucial Confederate strongholds of Richmond and Petersburg, and Grant suggested that his only avenue was surrender.
Fatefully, Lee agreed. "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths," he declared.
The End Of America's Bloodiest Conflict
MPI/Getty ImagesLee's surrender to Grant in Virginia on April 9, 1865 marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
On April 9, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met at the home of grocer Wilmer McLean near Appomattox, Virginia. (Ironically, McLean had fled his previous home near Bull Run earlier on in the Civil War to avoid the conflict.) The two generals agreed to terms, and Lee surrendered.
"The war is over," Grant said. "The rebels are our countrymen again."
By then, hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been killed on both sides. While historians generally agree that at least 620,000 men died during the Civil War, more recent estimates have suggested that the true number could be much higher, perhaps even up to 850,000 deaths.
And even though the conflict came to a close following Lee and Grant's meeting, the bloodshed didn't end there. On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln's vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, was an unenthusiastic supporter of Reconstruction, which was meant to help rebuild the South, readmit the rebel states back into the Union, and define how Black and white people would live together in a society without the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, Johnson's failures would soon put millions of recently freed Black Americans and their new rights in danger.
It's little wonder why the Civil War remains one of the most important eras in American history. Take a look at the Civil War photos above for a close look at the conflict — one with a legacy that looms large even today.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.