6 of the Most Important Figures of the American Civil War | History Hit

6 of the Most Important Figures of the American Civil War

Shannon Callahan

19 Nov 2021
Jefferson Davis by Mathew Benjamin Brady, taken before 1861.
Image Credit: National Archives / Public Domain

After years of increased tensions between northern and southern states, the United States of America entered into a civil war from 1861-1865. Throughout these years, Union and Confederate armies would go to battle in the deadliest war ever fought on American soil, as decisions about slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion hung in the balance.

Here are 6 of the most prominent figures of the American Civil War.

1. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, who successfully campaigned against the expansion of slavery in western territories. His election is considered a major factor in the onset of the American Civil War, as several southern states seceded afterwards.

Lincoln began his political career in 1834 as a member of the Illinois state legislature, before serving a single term as a member of the US House of Representatives. After losing re-election, Lincoln did not run for office again until 1858. He lost this race, but he and his opponent had engaged in several highly publicised debates across Illinois, and the attention led political operatives to organize for a Lincoln presidential bid.

Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, and on 12 April, the southern US military base Fort Sumter was attacked, marking the start of the American Civil War.

Lincoln’s most infamous act in the Civil War was the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially abolished slavery in the US. After the commander of the Confederate Army surrendered in April 1865, Lincoln intended to reunite the country as quickly as possible, but his assassination on 14 April 1865 meant he had little opportunity to impact the post-war landscape.

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 2. Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Graduating from West Point, he fought in the US Army from 1828 to 1835. He began his political career in 1843 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1845. He became known for his passionate speeches and debates about tariffs and western expansion, and for his unwavering support of states’ rights.

On 18 February 1861, Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederate States of America, where he oversaw the war effort. In this role, he struggled to balance military strategy with the challenges of creating a new state, and these strategic failures contributed to the South’s defeat.

As the Union Army advanced on Richmond, Virginia, in April 1865, Davis fled the Confederate capital. In May 1865, Davis was captured and imprisoned. Upon release, he worked overseas and later published a book defending his politics.

3. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant served as commander of the Union army. Shy and reserved as a child, his father arranged his training at West Point, where his military career began, though he did not intend to stay enlisted. When he returned to civilian life, he failed to find a successful career, but the start of the Civil War reignited a patriotic spirit.

Early in the war, after commanding troops through one of the bloodiest clashes at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was initially demoted due to the number of casualties. He subsequently worked his way up the ranks to general, gaining a reputation as a relentless leader, battling Confederate General Robert E. Lee until he surrendered on 9 April 1865. As the two generals met to arrange a peace agreement, Grant allowed Lee’s army to leave, taking no prisoners of war.

Post-war, Grant oversaw the military portion of the Reconstruction Era and was elected the 18th President of the United States in 1868, despite being politically inexperienced.

Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States.

Image Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

4. Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee led the Southern army as an elite military strategist. A graduate of West Point, he was second in his class and achieved perfect scores in artillery, infantry and cavalry. Lee also served in the Mexican-American War and distinguished himself as a war hero, showcasing his tactical brilliance as a commander. In 1859, Lee was called upon to end a revolt at Harper’s Ferry, which he achieved in an hour.

Lee turned down an offer by President Lincoln to command the Union forces, as he was committed to his home state of Virginia, agreeing to lead them instead upon the state’s succession in 1861. Under Lee’s leadership, the Confederate troops found early success in the war, but key losses at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg led to large casualties in Lee’s army, halting his invasion of the North.

By the end of 1864, General Grant’s army had overtaken much of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, but on 2 April 1865, Lee was forced to abandon it, officially surrendering to Grant a week later.

Lee remains one of the most contested figures of the American Civil War, with many monuments erected to this ‘heroic’ figure of the South. It was the decision to remove a statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that brought international attention to the debate over the continued commemoration of Confederate leaders.

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5. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson

Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was a highly skilled military strategist, serving under Robert E. Lee in the Confederate army. His leadership was showcased at key battles in Manassas (AKA Bull Run), Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Jackson also attended West Point and participated in the Mexican-American War. Though he had hoped Virginia would remain a part of the Union, he enlisted in the Confederate Army when the state seceded.

He earned his famous nickname, Stonewall, at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, where he charged his army ahead to bridge a gap in the defensive line during a Union attack. A general remarked, “there is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” and the nickname stuck.

Jackson met his end after an explosive display at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, where his troops caused so many Union casualties, the army had no choice but to withdraw. He was shot by friendly fire from a nearby infantry regiment and died from complications two days later.

6. Clara Barton

Clara Barton was a nurse known as “the angel of the battlefield” for her assistance throughout the American Civil War. She collected and distributed supplies for the Union Army and later tended to soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.

A 1904 photograph of Clara Barton by James Edward Purdy.

Image Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

Barton provided critical assistance to wounded men in uniform, collected medical supplies for Union soldiers and distributed bandages, food and clothing through the Ladies’ Aid Society. In August 1862, Barton was granted permission by Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to attend to soldiers on the frontlines. She would travel to battlefields near Washington, DC, including Cedar Mountain, Manassas (Second Bull Run), Antietam and Fredericksburg to help both Union and Confederate soldiers by applying dressings, serving food and cleaning field hospitals.

After the war ended, Barton ran the Office of Missing Soldiers to answer thousands of letters from distraught relatives about the whereabouts of soldiers, many of whom had been buried in unmarked graves. Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 after a visit to Europe working with the International Red Cross.

Tags: Abraham Lincoln General Robert Lee Ulysses S. Grant

Shannon Callahan