55 Images That Reveal The Devastation Of The U.S. Civil War

Published July 16, 2023
Updated November 7, 2023

One of the first wars photographed in history, these images captured the brutality of the conflict that killed almost three percent of the American population.

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55 Images That Reveal The Devastation Of The U.S. Civil War
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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

Civil War Photos

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

Attack On Fort Sumter

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

Lee's Surrender To Grant

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.

After looking through these striking photos of the Civil War, read about the Civil War-era cannonballs that washed up on a South Carolina beach. Then, learn about the five most fascinating women of the Civil War.

Kaleena Fraga
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.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "55 Images That Reveal The Devastation Of The U.S. Civil War." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 16, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/civil-war-photos. Accessed May 25, 2024.