56 Amazing Vintage Colorized Photos of the American Civil War

The Civil War is the central event in America’s historical consciousness. While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be. The war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution: whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world.

Northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery that had divided the country from its beginning. But these achievements came at the cost of 625,000 lives–nearly as many American soldiers as died in all the other wars in which this country has fought combined. The American Civil War was the largest and most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914.

The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, seven slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The incoming Lincoln administration and most of the Northern people refused to recognize the legitimacy of secession. They feared that it would discredit democracy and create a fatal precedent that would eventually fragment the no-longer United States into several small, squabbling countries.

The event that triggered war came at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Claiming this United States fort as their own, the Confederate army on that day opened fire on the federal garrison and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this “insurrection.” Four more slave states seceded and joined the Confederacy. By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men confronted each other along a line stretching 1200 miles from Virginia to Missouri. Several battles had already taken place–near Manassas Junction in Virginia, in the mountains of western Virginia where Union victories paved the way for creation of the new state of West Virginia, at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and at Port Royal in South Carolina where the Union navy established a base for a blockade to shut off the Confederacy’s access to the outside world.

But the real fighting began in 1862. Huge battles like Shiloh in Tennessee, Gaines’ Mill, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland foreshadowed even bigger campaigns and battles in subsequent years, from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to Vicksburg on the Mississippi to Chickamauga and Atlanta in Georgia. By 1864 the original Northern goal of a limited war to restore the Union had given way to a new strategy of “total war” to destroy the Old South and its basic institution of slavery and to give the restored Union a “new birth of freedom,” as President Lincoln put it in his address at Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the battle there.

For three long years, from 1862 to 1865, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia staved off invasions and attacks by the Union Army of the Potomac commanded by a series of ineffective generals until Ulysses S. Grant came to Virginia from the Western theater to become general in chief of all Union armies in 1864. After bloody battles at places with names like The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, Grant finally brought Lee to bay at Appomattox in April 1865. In the meantime Union armies and river fleets in the theater of war comprising the slave states west of the Appalachian Mountain chain won a long series of victories over Confederate armies commanded by hapless or unlucky Confederate generals. In 1864-1865 General William Tecumseh Sherman led his army deep into the Confederate heartland of Georgia and South Carolina, destroying their economic infrastructure while General George Thomas virtually destroyed the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee at the battle of Nashville.

By the spring of 1865 all the principal Confederate armies surrendered, and when Union cavalry captured the fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Georgia on May 10, 1865, resistance collapsed and the war ended. The long, painful process of rebuilding a united nation free of slavery began. (battlefields.org)

General Aldred Torbert and his staff during the American Civil War on the vine-covered veranda of a Virginia mansion occupied as their headquarters.
Surgeons of the 4th Division of the 9th Corps are pictured in Petersburg, Virginia in 1864.
A group of officers relax away from the battlefront at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, 1863.
Major General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) was a US Army officer and cavalry commander in the Civil War and the American-Indian Wars.
Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, of the Confederates (1813–1892) was a civil engineer and industrialist.
Lieutenant Colonel A.B. Elder of the 10th New York Infantry.
This portrait shows a General posing sternly against a sombre grey backdrop.
Major General George Edward Pickett of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War.
An unidentified African American woman is pictured in 1861 in this stunning framed photograph.
An unidentified soldier in first lieutenant’s uniform, red sash, leather gauntlets, and spurs with cavalry sword, 1861.
A Confederate sergeant in uniform – sometime between 1861 and 1865.
Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand; at the main eastern theater of the war, Battle of Antietam, Sept.-Oct. 1862
Surgeons of the 3rd Division before hospital tent in Petersburg, Va., Aug. 1864.
John L. Burns, the “old hero of Gettysburg,” with gun and crutches in Gettysburg, Penn., July, 1863.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, his friend Brigadier General John Rawlins (left), and an unknown lieutenant colonel in 1865.
Union Captain Cunningham poses next to the command tent in Bealeton, Va., 1863.
Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, 1863
Three Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg, Pa. in 1863.
Union Colonel James H. Childs (middle, standing) and several other officers at Westover Landing, Va. in 1862.
General James Longstreet
Confederate Colonel John Shackleford ‘Shac’ Green of the 6th Virginia Volunteer Cavalry
Washington, District of Columbia. Tent life of the 31st Penn. Inf. (later, 82d Penn. Inf.) at Queen’s farm, vicinity of Fort Slocum, 1861
Allan Pinkerton (“E. J. Allen”) of the Secret Service on horseback in Antietam, Md., Oct. 1862.
Major General Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He is best known for leading the army to a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and for his distinctive facial hair, which later became known as the sideburn.
The staff of Brigadier General Andrew Porter in 1862. George Custer (of the Battle of Little Bighorn fame) is shown reclining next to a dog on the right.
General William Tecumseh Sherman in civilian clothes.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee at his home in Richmond, Va. less than a week after surrendering.
Cock fighting at Gen. Orlando B. Willcox’s headquarters in Petersburg, Va., 1864.
Portrait of Rear Adm. David D. Porter, officer of the Federal Navy, 1860
Artillery Officers, Fair Oaks, VA, June 1862
Union Officers, Westover Landing, August 1862
General Robert E. Lee
Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg sitting with his senior staff, taken in June 1862, possibly near Fredericksburg, Virginia
Major General George E. Pickett, who led the ill-fated ‘Pickett’s Charge’ at the behest of Robert E. Lee, against whom he bore a grudge for the rest of his life
Major General George H. Thomas pulled an arrow out of his own chest during battle.
Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley was dismissed from the army after several blunders indirectly related to his alcoholism
Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
Capt. Custer of the 5th Cavalry is seen with Lt. Washington, a prisoner and former classmate
Soldier Next to Sling Cart, Drewry’s Bluff, VA, 1865
Powder Monkey, Charleston, SC, 1865
Dead Union Soldiers, Gettsyburg, July 1863
General William T. Sherman, November 1864
General Joseph Hooker, 1862
Col. J.B. Duman, C.S.A.
General Joseph R. Anderson, C.S.A.
Edwin Francis Jemison (December 1, 1844 – July 1, 1862) was a Private in the Confederate States Army who was killed in action on July 1, 1862 at the Battle of Malvern Hill reportedly by a direct hit from a cannonball, which decapitated him.
Union Engineering Company
Bealeton, Virginia. Officer’s mess, Company E, 93d New York Volunteers, Aug., 1863
Private Francis Brownell, Recipient of the First Medal of Honor Awarded During the Civil War, 1865
Union Buried, Confederate Unburied, Antietam, 1862
Ulysses S. Grant and His War Council, May 21, 1864
Union Soldiers, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, 1861-1865
Union Generals, Sheridan’s Valley Campaign, 1864
Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby aka ‘The Gray Ghost’ of the 43rd Virginia Volunteer Cavalry Battalion
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, 1863-1865
Confederate soldier and family, 1861-1865

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