7 things everyone needs to know about the Civil War

We all learn about the Civil War in history class, of course. For those of us who grew up in the South, Confederate cemeteries and monuments, among other things, are constant reminders that it didn’t happen all that long ago. When New Orleans began removing its Confederate statues recently, it caused a stir.

Even in other parts of the country, Civil War re-enactors make sure Americans don’t forget the war that caused President Lincoln to write the famous Gettysburg Address. And Civil War movies? There are so many to choose from (most of them all kinds of problematic) that we don’t know where to begin. But not all of us paid attention in history class, so in case you need a refresher, here are some things you need to know about America’s Civil War:

1South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.

Abraham Lincoln promised to end slavery if elected president, and South Carolina lawmakers warned that their state would secede if he won. He did win, and they did secede on December 20th, 1860. They were followed by Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter (which occurred on April 12th, 1861).

2The Civil War didn’t end with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.


Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865 is often considered the end of the Civil War (especially in high school history class), but battles were still being fought — like the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas. The final surrender of the war happened in Liverpool, England with the docking of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6th, 1865. Even then, skirmishes continued, especially in Texas. It wasn’t until August 20th, 1866 that President Andrew Johnson signed the proclamation announcing the end of the Civil War.

3The last Confederate general to surrender was Cherokee Gen. Stand Watie.

General Watie surrendered on June 23rd, 1865, a little more than a month after the last official battle of the war. In the 1830s, decades before the Civil War, the tribes of the Southeastern states had been forced to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) by order of President Andrew Jackson. (The Supreme Court ruled against this removal, but Jackson overrode them.)

At the time of the Civil War, Watie was in exile from his tribe, having signed the Treaty of New Echota that surrendered Cherokee lands. A slave-owner, Watie formed the first Cherokee regiment of the Confederate Army (which eventually included members of other tribes as well) and helped secure control of Indian Territory.

4Many African American soldiers fought in the Civil War.

In a 2011 article, Harvard historian John Stauffer said that the overwhelming majority of African Americans who fought in the Civil War were with the Union Army, contrary to a popular notion that many fought for the Confederacy. He estimated that “more than 3,000 but fewer than 10,000” fought for the Confederacy, while another article notes that around 180,000 African American men had served in the Union Army by the time the war ended. Though Union soldiers fought to end slavery, many (if not most) still believed that African Americans were inferior, so these soldiers endured poor treatment and training, low pay, and a host of indignities while fighting for a better life.

5Many women served in the Civil War.

Some dressed as men, like Mary Scaberry, who went by the name “Charles Freeman.” She fought until she was discharged for “sexual incompatibility and fever.” Sarah Edmonds was known in the Army as “Franklin Thompson.” She fought in several battles before she left the service after catching malaria. She feared she would be discovered if she were treated. After the war, she received a government pension for her service. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman fought as “Lyons Wakeman” in several battles. She wrote in a letter, “I enjoy myself first rate…I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldiering. I find just as good friends among strangers as I do at home.” She was never discovered, and she is buried at Chalmette National Cemetery with a soldier’s headstone.

Women also famously served as nurses, and they did other work: Those who were given the insulting name of “camp followers” often performed many necessary tasks, including teaching, cleaning, and maintaining weapons, along with chores like laundry and cooking.

6Some states still observe Confederate-related holidays.

While this is controversial, it’s still happening. Mississippi and Alabama close state offices for Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday in April, while Florida observes the day on April 26th, South Carolina on May 10th, and Louisiana on June 3rd. Georgia now calls it “State Holiday,” after taking Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day off their state holiday lists. Virginia commemorates Confederate leaders on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, while Texas observes Confederate Heroes Day around the same time.

7Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of the last slaves after the Civil War.


Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed over two years prior, slaves in Texas didn’t didn’t find out until June 19th, 1865, months after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, beginning the end of the war. Maj. Gen. George Granger’s proclamation wasn’t exactly a celebratory, or even respectful one, however. He wrote, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The country would have a long road ahead to true equality (one we’re still walking), but African Americans commemorate the day with events across the country, promoting culture and strength.

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