When the Civil War broke out in April 1861 after Confederate forces fired on Union forces at Fort Sumter in Charleston, no one expected the war to last more than a few months. Northerners thought they could quickly put down the southern rebellion; southerners believed they could quickly secure their independence. Unfortunately, the conflict dragged on for four years in which the South seemed initially poised for victory, but the North eventually turned the tide of war and marched to victory in 1865.
By the time Lincoln took the oath of office for a second time, much had changed in American life, as evidenced by the fact that blacks composed, according to some estimates, half of those at the inauguration. While Lincoln remained reluctant to speculate on the war’s end, he did take the opportunity to suggest what the postwar world might look like. He focused, according to historian Eric Foner, on the entire “nation’s obligation to the slaves” and “the process of reconciliation.” However, only after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox could Lincoln truly face the challenges of reuniting a broken nation. On April 11, 1865, the president addressed a Washington crowd celebrating the North’s victory. Lincoln gave no specifics about his postwar plans, but he seemingly supported extending the right to vote to black men. After the speech, most observers thought Lincoln remained unsure about what to do. However, one man in attendance that evening, John Wilkes Booth, concluded the president wanted to make former slaves citizens.
Booth and several other pro-Confederate sympathizers had for some time been planning an elaborate scheme to kidnap the president and other government leaders to exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. The idea that blacks might become citizens was too much for Booth to take, and he vowed to kill the president. On the evening of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln attended a production at the Ford’s Theater. Booth stepped out from behind the curtains in the presidential box, fired his derringer pistol, and mortally wounded Lincoln. After dropping the gun, Booth managed to escape. Meanwhile, a doctor in the audience took the president to a boarding house across the street where he tried to revive him. Unfortunately, the bullet entered the president’s brain and caused too much damage. Shortly after 7:00 the next morning, Abraham Lincoln died from his wounds.
A sense of mourning and anger swept over the nation. Millions of Americans viewed Lincoln’s remains as the funeral train snaked across the country to his home in Springfield, Illinois. Meanwhile, federal authorities tracked Booth to a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia. After giving him the option to surrender, the authorities set fire to the barn. They later found Booth dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The government then captured, tried, and executed several of his co-conspirators.
With Lincoln dead, Andrew Johnson, a unionist from Tennessee, became president. No one quite knew what the future would bring, but they certainly recognized the costs of the war had been great. Financially speaking, the war cost the two sides billions of dollars, with the South facing the worst property damage and loss. But the human toll seemed much worse. The South lost at least 260,000 people to battle death and disease; the North lost over 360,000 to the same. Collectively, approximately 472,000 people suffered from battle-related wounds. At the same time, the war freed the slaves and nothing in American life would really be the same again.
The Civil War brought significant changes to American life. Although the cause held people together, the war exposed political, economic, and social fissures in both the North and the South that would continue to play out during Reconstruction and beyond. Politically, the war ushered in an era where the federal government dominated the states. Economically, the war undermined the South’s plantation economy and strengthened the North’s industrial economy. Socially, the war created tensions between the rich and the poor, resulting in draft riots and bread riots. Moreover, it led to the emancipation of enslaved blacks. Little about American life was the same after the Civil War.