Prior to the presidential election of 1860, many Southern politicians had threatened to secede from the United States if a Republican were elected. As soon as Lincoln's victory was known to officials in South Carolina, they moved to make good on their threats. Calling a special convention, they took the official action of un-ratifying the U.S. Constitution. In theory, South Carolina became a separate nation on December 20, 1860, well in advance of Lincoln's inauguration, which would not take place until March 4, 1861. Between January 1 and February 1 of 1861, six other states joined South Carolina in seceding , and the seven of them together formed a new government of their own, which they called the Confederate States of America . The nation's other eight slave states, however, refused to join this preemptive action and waited to see what the new Republican administration would actually do.

Neither incumbent Democratic President James Buchanan nor the vast majority of American citizens in the North believed that states had the right to withdraw from the Union. Lincoln certainly shared that belief, but like Buchanan before him, he hoped to restore the Union without military confrontation. When the plight of the federal garrison holding out at Fort Sumter forced Lincoln's hand barely a month into his administration, armed conflict ensued. Faced with the reality of open warfare, four of the remaining eight slave states joined the Confederacy and four stayed in the Union. The first section of this module traces the process of secession.

The Lincoln administration was determined to restore the territorial integrity of the United States; Confederate leaders were equally adamant in defense of their new nation; and both sides mobilized for war. The second section of this module depicts the major fighting during the first two years of the Civil War that followed. The vast majority of that fighting took place in the relatively confined area between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, the respective capital cities. The general pattern featured Union offensives, one after another, successively blunted by victorious defensive stands on the part of the Confederates.

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