Civil War at 150

On April 12, 1861, shots were fired at Fort Sumter. To commemorate this anniversary, see the best Civil War photography, including portraits of Lincoln, Grant, and Lee.

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First Shots

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, months after seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, a single mortar was fired by Confederate soldiers at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. After a brief battle, during which no one from either side was killed, Major Robert Anderson surrendered on April 13 and evacuated the fort, carrying the flag with him. Responding to the rebellion, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops to be mustered in the next 90 days, and the American Civil War was under way. In this photograph, taken by Samuel A. Cooley, Union troops aimed mortars at Fort Sumter in an effort to reclaim it in September 1863. On April 14, 1865, Anderson returned to the fort and raised the flag once more.

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“And the War Came”

In this photograph (attributed to the acclaimed photographer Mathew Brady) Abraham Lincoln poses a month after the attack on Fort Sumter—he had barely been president two months. Four years later, in March 1865, during his second inaugural address, Lincoln looked back on the events of 1861, saying: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war, rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war, rather than let it perish. And the war came."

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A Second President

Jefferson Davis had a distinguished political career—as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce and as a two-time senator from Mississippi—but with the election of Lincoln in November 1860, the South’s leader in the Senate resigned. During a gracious farewell speech in January 1861, he told his colleagues: “I am sure I feel no hostility to you, senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well.” In November 1861, he was elected the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, but following the South’s surrender in April 1865, Davis (seen here in a Mathew Brady portrait) was imprisoned and indicted for treason. The charges were dropped after four years and Davis lived out his days writing his memoirs and giving speeches at “Lost Cause” events throughout the South.

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“Unconditional Surrender” Grant

Though Ulysses S. Grant graduated 21st out of 39 cadets at West Point, his successful military career during the early years of the Civil War—including victories at Shiloh and the Battle of Chattanooga—prompted Lincoln to put him in command of the Union Army in 1864. Three years after defeating the South, Grant was elected 18th president of the United States. He was reelected in 1872, but by the time he left office in 1876, his reputation had been severely damaged by several corruption and fraud scandals in his administration.

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“The Marble Man”

Robert E. Lee had such a celebrated military career—the son of a Revolutionary War hero, he graduated top of his class at West Point and distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War—that Abraham Lincoln asked him to head the Union Army in 1861. But as a Virginia man, Lee resigned when his home state seceded, eventually becoming commander of the Confederate Army. Though Lee (seen here in an 1864 portrait by Julian Vannerson) was ultimately defeated in the Civil War, his reputation as a military tactician grew during the conflict. Following the war, he supported President Andrew Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction and became president of Washington College in Virginia, which was renamed Washington and Lee University after his death in 1870.

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Brothers in Arms

In these photos, two unidentified Union soldiers hold each other’s cigars, while Private Henry Luther and First Sergeant Herbert E. Larrabee of Company B, 17th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, pose affectionately. In what is often described as a conflict that pitted brother against brother, few families were affected by the Civil War quite like Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden’s. The senator, whose state was neutral at the start of the war, had unsuccessfully proposed the Crittenden Compromise to end the secession crisis in 1860. His son George Crittenden ultimately became a general in the Confederate Army, while his younger brother Thomas Crittenden was a Union general.

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“Fighting Rebels With Only One Hand”

“Why does the Government reject the Negro?” Frederick Douglass famously asked the Lincoln administration in 1861, echoing Shakespeare. “Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other? … We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed to take up arms in defense of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in every way add to the national power.” Thanks to the effort of Douglass and others, black soldiers were finally allowed to enlist in 1862, and by the war’s end, they comprised a tenth of the Union Army.

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Civil War Wives

While both armies forbade the enlistment of women, some female soldiers did disguise themselves to serve secretly in the Civil War. Most wives, sisters, mothers, and aunts acted as nurses or sewed uniforms—and some were even spies. The woman shown here is the wife of a soldier in New Hampshire’s 12th Infantry Regiment, the famed “Mountaineers” who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Air Forces

In July 1861, Thaddeus Lowe, a professor of aeronautics, demonstrated the effectiveness of aerial reconnaissance with his balloon, Enterprise, across the street from the White House. Abraham Lincoln was so impressed that he appointed Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Shown here observing the Battle of Fair Oaks aboard Intrepid in May 1862, Lowe commanded the Balloon Corps until he resigned in 1863 over a cut in his pay.

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The Bloodiest Day

On September 17, 1862, the first major battle on Northern soil was fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest day in American history, with more than 23,000 casualties, and neither side was victorious. In this photograph by Alexander Gardner, Abraham Lincoln stands near the battlefield with General John A. McClernand and Allen Pinkerton, who served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service. Following the war, Pinkerton, who created America’s first detective agency, pursued train robbers, most notably Jesse James.

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The Morgan Rifles

The non-commissioned officers’ mess of Company D, 93rd New York Infantry photographed in 1863. Known as the Morgan Rifles because of its sharpshooters, the 93rd Infantry fought at Antietam and Gettysburg.

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Glory

On May 22, 1863, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. Among the 175 regiments created was Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, shown here, which saw action in Virginia and North Carolina. The 1989 Denzel Washington movie Glory tells the story of a similar regiment—the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

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“…Never Forget What They Did Here”

The Battle of Gettysburg proved to be a major turning point in the war. In July 1863, over the course of three days, 150,000 Union and Confederate troops—led by George Meade and Robert E. Lee, respectively—fought in the small Pennsylvania town. In the end, the Union army prevailed, but the total casualties were the largest in Civil War history—more than 51,000. (In this photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, Confederate soldiers are gathered for burial at the edge of Rose Woods.) Four months after the battle, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he declared “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

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Les Zouaves

Inspired by the French light infantry known for their quick drills and colorful uniforms, a number of volunteer regiments on both sides adopted the Zouave name. In this photograph from 1863, a Zouave ambulance unit demonstrates the removal of the wounded from the battlefield.

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Doing Their Part

In June 1861, Abraham Lincoln created the United States Sanitary Commission for women who wanted to contribute to the war effort. USSC volunteers—including Louisa May Alcott, who worked as a nurse—raised money, ran kitchens and hospitals, and made uniforms for troops. In this 1864 photograph by James Gardner, nurses and officers in the USSC pose in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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The Wilderness Campaign

During May and June 1864, Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee fought in a series of bloody conflicts in Virginia known as the Wilderness Campaign. The Union Army severely outnumbered the Confederate troops and Grant used this to his advantage as he waged aggressive battles despite incurring enormous losses. The North prevailed and following the victory, Grant set his sights on Petersburg, Virginia, and the Confederate capital, Richmond. In this photograph by John Reekle, the bones of the war dead are collected in Cold Harbor, Virginia.

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The Fall of Charleston

The Civil War began near Charleston, South Carolina, and the area proved critical throughout the four-year conflict. The U.S. Navy made several failed attempts to seize control of Charleston’s harbor, but in late 1863 and early 1864, they began a series of bombardments that destroyed most of the Holy City. When General Sherman marched through South Carolina in January 1865, the fall of Charleston seemed inevitable—and on February 17, the city surrendered. This George Barnard photograph from April 1865 depicts the rubble of Charleston’s Circular Church and other buildings.

Mathew B. Brady / Corbis

Surrender at Last

In one of the final battles of the war, Lee and Grant fought at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. On April 9, 1865 with his forces heavily depleted and his escape blocked by the Union army, Robert E. Lee famously said, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths." This portrait, taken by Mathew Brady, depicts Lee with his oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, and Col. Walter Taylor on the day of the surrender at Appomattox. After accepting Grant’s generous terms, Lee left the McLean House and addressed his troops. With tears streaming down his face, he told them, “Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done the best that I could for you.”

Five days later, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.