The American Revolutionary War, sometimes known as the American War for Independence, was a war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 colonies, from 1775 to 1783. Caused by colonial resentment of British taxes and strict, impractical rules and regulations, it eventually led to the development of the United States as an independent nation. Fought from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War was a war between the Union (almost all northern and western states) and the Confederate States of America (almost all southern states), primarily over the practice of slavery. To date, the Civil War remains the deadliest conflict in U.S. history.
Causes of Revolutionary War and Civil War
In the wake of the Seven Years' War, Britain had accumulated a considerable amount of war debt. Seeking revenue, the country increased taxes on the colonies and cracked down on smuggling and tax evasion. Colonists, who were often struggling with their own economic depressions, chafed at these harsh tax acts (e.g., the Sugar Act and Stamp Act). Other laws, such as the Currency Act, which impractically regulated paper money, and the Quartering Acts, which forced colonists to house and feed British troops, caused additional discord between the 13 colonies and the crown abroad.
Although not all of the 13 colonies were fully willing to declare independence from England, the general reaction to having to pay more taxes, especially for once duty-free goods, and the requirement to house British soldiers, galvanized rebellion. Protests and boycotts eventually led to outbreaks of physical violence and Britain's punitive Townshend Acts. These events, coupled with a rising wave of anti-English publications and the geographical distance between England and the colonies, carved a path to war.
There is significant overlap between the American Revolutionary War and the events that led up to the Civil War. For example, African American slaves often fought on one side or another in the Revolution in hopes of gaining freedom and took up arms again during the Civil War for the same reason. And following the development of state constitutions which promised equality for all, some slaves sought freedom via the legal system in as early as 1773, prior even to the battles of the Revolutionary War; these same constitutions would occasionally and increasingly make northerners question the morality of slavery in the years to come. In other words, the idea of whether freedom in the colonies applied only to some or to all — the key sticking point of the Civil War — was intricately entwined with the identity colonists created for themselves during their separation from Britain.
Prior to 1784, when some northern states began passing "gradual emancipation" laws, slavery was relatively common in all of the states. Lawyers, doctors, and ministers of the North used slaves, even as slaves were forced to work fields in the South. The main difference between the two regions came down to how their climates affected their economies, which in turn affected whether some felt they "needed" slavery to maintain their power and success. The South, which had long growing seasons and relied on farming crops like tobacco and cotton, had large slave populations, while the North, which had widely diversified economies that included industry, had small (and decreasing) free black and black slave populations by comparison.
The North changed its stance on slavery likely for two main reasons: First, precisely because the African slave population was relatively small, emancipation did not greatly affect "business as usual," which was much less agrarian than in the South; this made abolition palatable to the region. Second, many northerners were afraid the African slaves who were around them would violently rebel if freedom was not granted to them soon. Northern religious groups, such as the Quakers, who were strongly opposed to slavery, also played important roles in furthering the cause of abolition in the region.
Tensions grew between the North and South as the North became increasingly bold in its anti-slavery movements (e.g., the Northwest Ordinance of 1789). This tension came to a head in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president with only 40% of the vote. Lincoln, who was outspoken against slavery, was deeply unpopular in the South.
In the months following Lincoln's election, southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, where the practice of slavery would be upheld. Fewer than six months later, Confederate soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter, thus beginning the Civil War.
The playlist below includes videos about the lead-up to the Civil War, the major political events of the Civil War, and the aftermath of the war.
The Revolutionary War pitted the strongest army in the world (at the time) against fledgling colonial armies that often lacked equipment and military training. The differences between the North and South armies in the Civil War were less striking, but the North had major advantages in terms of its industry, large Navy, and comparatively large government and population.
During the American Revolution, the largest British military advantages of manpower and experience were never fully deployed. For one, it was very expensive and difficult to convey troops from England to the colonies. A second reason is that neither King George III nor Parliament thought that the "ragged colonials" could last long against their military might. Colonial military leaders, such as General George Washington, made excellent use of allied French troops to bolster limited manpower and had the advantage of fighting on their own territory.
In the Civil War, many of the army leaders were West Point classmates, and like their solders, ended up fighting friend against friend, even brother against brother. The Confederate Army of the South was acknowledged to have better officers, including generals, but the North had the advantage of a larger population to draw soldiers from and an industrial base for cannons, rifles, and bullets. Despite some European support, the Confederacy was unable to sustain a prolonged war and eventually succumbed to the Union Army of the North.
Where the Revolutionary War and Civil War Were Fought
The Revolutionary War was fought mainly in the colonies of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island, though some battles were fought in other colonial territories. In naval action, British and colonial ships fought in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, off the coast of Spain, and in several other sea skirmishes, largely the result of British attempts to blockade or impede trade to and from the colonies.
The U.S. Civil War was fought mainly along a wide swath of territory ranging from Virginia-Maryland to territories west of the Mississippi River, but ultimately saw bloodshed in 23 states. Naval battles occurred along the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi River. Many of the battle sites are now national parks.
Major Battles and Casualties
The Revolutionary War was not fought using traditional lines of battle, for the colonial armies fought differently. The first battle, at Lexington, saw the British Army allow the 77 minutemen to leave quietly, only to have the colonials double back and attack. The second battle, at Concord, was another "running gunfight" with the British soldiers holding the field. In fact, most battles in this war were won by British forces, with the tide of the war only turning after a colonial alliance with France and a de facto alliance with Spain. Major set battles were those of Bunker Hill, Trenton, Fort Cumberland, Boonesborough, and the Battle of Yorktown, where the British ultimately lost and surrendered.
The list of major battles of the Civil War is extensive, with at least 55-65 of them resulting in major casualties or strategic changes for one or both sides. The most famous battles include Antietam, First and Second Bull Run (also known as First and Second Manassas), Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Corinth, Fort Sumter (launching the Civil War), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Wilson's Creek and the Battle of Appomattox, ending the Civil War.
During the Revolutionary War, estimates of colonial dead range between 18,000 and 27,000, many through illness and exposure, while the wounded were estimated to be between 20,000 and 35,000 men. For the Civil War, the Union Army (North) was estimated to have suffered about 110,000-145,000 soldiers killed, while Confederate deaths numbered about 74,000-95,000. Of wounded soldiers, the Union suffered around 275,000-290,000 wounded, while the Confederacy had about 215,000- 235,000. Per capita, far more were killed and wounded in the South.
Aftermath of Revolutionary War and Civil War
Though the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 gave the colonies a sense of separation from the British Empire, it took until 1781 for the Revolutionary War to end in favor of the former colonials. The Continental Congress went on to form a Constitutional Convention and issue the United States Constitution, followed by the Bill of Rights, establishing a new form of democratic government. The first elected president was the former General of the Army, George Washington.
The end of the Civil War reunited the seceding states with the rest of the Union. However, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth made the reunification an even more strained effort. The Southern states suffered under Reconstruction, preyed upon by Northern speculators and conmen. Though slavery was abolished, the states retained the right to impose segregationist laws and the southern states did so, severely curtailing the rights of former slaves to own property, work, vote or even leave their home states.
Lead-Up to Revolutionary War
- The Seven Years' War ends with Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain signing the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Most involved in deep debt from the war and fall into economic recessions and depressions. This war debt is part of what leads Great Britain to more heavily tax — and more carefully enforce taxation of — the colonies.
- April: Britain issues the Sugar Act to raise revenue after years of struggling to successfully tax molasses in the colonies (see Molasses Act). Some colonists blame the economic depression on this tax; protesting such taxes begins in earnest.
- September: Great Britain issues an update to its Currency Act, further regulating the use of paper money. This causes strife in the colonies, which largely depend on paper currency, rather than gold or silver.
- March 22: Britain introduces the Stamp Act of 1765, which directly taxes colonies by requiring books, pamphlets, and official documents to carry an embossed revenue stamp. The act also allows for violators to be tried in admiralty courts directly controlled by the British government instead of local courts controlled by the colonies. The slogan "no taxation without representation" gains traction, as colonists grow angry that they have no representation in the British parliament that voted unanimously for the Stamp Act.
- March 24: Great Britain amends its Quartering Act. New rules require colonists to house and feed British troops, as needed, even during peacetime, with no promises of remuneration.
- May: The Virginia House of Burgesses passes a series of resolutions that declare Virginians cannot be subjected to taxes without elected representation, as per traditional British law. These resolutions more or less declare the Stamp Act is not legally binding.
- October: The Stamp Act Congress meets in protest of the Stamp Act. Delegates at the meeting draw up a Declaration of Rights and Grievances.
- Townshend Acts, which include more taxes and methods to enforce regulations, go into effect. Several colonies send letters and petitions to King George in response, and boycotts of British imports are widespread.
- British soldiers kill 5 civilians and injure 6 others in what is known as the Boston Massacre.
- January and April: Slaves in Massachusetts petition for their freedom, which the state government denies them.
- May: Great Britain issues the Tea Act to cut down on tea smuggling and boost sales of its East India Company, which has a tea surplus. Colonists in several areas successfully prevent ships from docking and delivering shipments of this tea.
- December: In Boston, colonists destroy an entire shipment of tea in protest of the Tea Act in what is known as the Boston Tea Party.
- March to June: Britain issues a series of punitive laws against the colonies in an attempt to regain control.
- September: Violent rebellion breaks out in Boston, Massachusetts. The First Continental Congress, consisting of delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies, meets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Delegates discuss banning British imports and ending the slave trade by December of this year.
The American Revolutionary War
Major political events are listed below. For a list of Revolutionary War battles, see here.
- April: The American Revolutionary War begins with the first battles between colonists and British soldiers taking place in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.
- May: The Second Continental Congress meets to discuss the war effort and independence. Meanwhile, militias from Connecticut and Massachusetts overtake the British-held Fort Ticonderoga, which they loot for supplies.
- June 15: George Washington becomes Commander in Chief of the 13 colonies.
- June: George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which serves as a foundational document for works such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
- July to August: The Continental Congress declares independence from King George III with the Declaration of Independence. All members of Congress sign the document.
- August through December: Colonial armies and the British Army continue to clash in the colonies, particularly in New York and North Carolina. Both sides experience victories and losses; however, Britain has a series of notable victories, particularly in New York, from this year.
- Vermont becomes the first state to abolish slavery for all individuals over the ages of 18 (female) and 21 (male). It allows for slavery/servitude as a form of punishment.
- Congress sends Benjamin Franklin to France to request help from the country. An alliance between France and the colonies is formed. France sends aid, equipment, and troops to help colonials fight the British.
- June: France convinces Spain to declare war on Great Britain, making Spain a de facto ally to the colonists.
End of Revolutionary War, Lead-Up to Civil War
- March: The Articles of Confederation are ratified and become the states' first constitution.
- August: In the case Brom and Bett vs. Ashley, Elizabeth Freeman becomes the first African American woman to be set free under the state constitution of Massachusetts.
- The American Revolutionary War ends with Great Britain and the states signing the 1783 Treaty of Paris. British troops withdraw from New York, and Washington resigns as Commander in Chief.
- "Gradual emancipation" laws begin to go into effect in parts of the North, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island. They free "Negro and Mulatto" children born after a particular date, once they reach a specific age (usually between 18 and 25).
1787 to 1788
- The U.S. Constitution is written, signed, and adopted by the states. Some states, like South Carolina, only agree to adopt the document if it will not outlaw slavery. See also the arguments between Anti-Federalists and Federalists.
- August: The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 passes with an article that prohibits slavery in several northern states with some notable exceptions regarding the treatment of runaway slaves.
- January: Congress passes a ban on the importation of slaves to the U.S., and President Thomas Jefferson signs it into law. Congress does not ban the practice of slavery, however, which results in an increase of the practice of "breeding" slaves to keep up with demand.
- September: Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, which requires runaway slaves be returned to their masters.
- March: The novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published. The book is highly popular and becomes a useful tool for abolitionists.
- March: Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which made the region neither clearly a free state nor a slave state, violent clashes break out between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups in a seven-year struggle known as Bleeding Kansas.
- May: Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner makes a speech against slavery and slaveholders, arguing that Kansas should be a free state. In response, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks brutally assaults him with a cane. The North is shocked and infuriated, while the South is largely in support of Brooks.
- In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that black people (free or otherwise) do not have the same rights as white people because they are "of an inferior order" and are therefore incapable of being citizens deserving of personal civil and human rights; slaves are determined to be private property. In response to the ruling, Abraham Lincoln addresses Republicans in the Illinois Hall of Representatives with his "House Divided" speech.
- October: 17 killed and 10 wounded in the raid on Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown attempts to start a slave revolt.
- November: Abraham Lincoln is elected president with a mere 40% of the vote due to the presence of other political parties in the election. In response to Lincoln being elected, South Carolina secedes from the Union.
The American Civil War
Major political events are listed. For a list of battles from the Civil War, see here.
- January: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi secede from the Union.
- February: Texas secedes, and the Confederate States of America is formed. Jefferson Davis is selected as president.
- April: The Civil War begins when Confederates capture Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Virginia secedes. Confederate dollars go into print with the $100 bill featuring black slaves working in a field.
- May: Arkansas and North Carolina join the Confederacy.
- June: Tennessee joins the Confederacy.
- November: Lincoln appoints George McClellan as general-in-chief of the Union Army.
- April: Thousands dead, wounded, and missing following the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.
- July: Ulysses S. Grant assumes command of the Union Army.
- September: The Battle of Harpers Ferry results in Union forces surrendering Harpers Ferry and over 12,000 Union soldiers; it is the largest surrender of the Civil War.
- January: Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation by executive order, thus banning slavery in 10 slave-holding states, but not across the nation as a whole. Exemptions exist in the order, leaving millions enslaved.
- June: West Virginia joins the Union.
- November: Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address.
- With Union forces overwhelming Confederates, the Confederate military proposes arming and training slaves for battle in exchange for emancipation.
- March: Ulysses S. Grant becomes the commander of the U.S. armies.
- November: Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln defeats Democrat George McClellan in presidential election.
- January: Robert E. Lee, who himself supports the abolishment of slavery, is promoted to general-in-chief of the Confederate Army.
- April: Lincoln is assassinated by pro-slavery Confederate-sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Vice President Andrew Johnson assumes the role of president.
- May: The remaining Confederate forces surrender, and the Civil War comes to an end. All states are reunited into a single union.
- December: The Thirteenth Amendment is added to the U.S. Constitution. It abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude but still allows for both as forms of punishment.
- July: The Fourteenth Amendment is added to the U.S. Constitution. It defines citizenship in a way that overturns the ruling of the Dred Scott case. All citizens, regardless of race, are deserving of equal legal rights and protections.
- February: The Fifteenth Amendment is added to the U.S. Constitution. It ensures the right to vote for all males (not females), regardless of race or former status as a slave.
- Myths of the American Revolution - Smithsonian magazine
- Causes of the American Revolution - RevolutionaryWar.net
- Civil War Timeline - Civil War Journeys
- Introduction to Slavery in the North - SlaveNorth.com
- Timeline of Connecticut Slavery - Fortune's Story
- Top Five Causes of the Civil War - About.com Education
- Wikipedia: American Civil War
- Wikipedia: American Revolutionary War
- Wikipedia: List of American Civil War battles
- Wikipedia: List of American Revolutionary War battles