Leading Figures of the Civil War

Throughout the Civil War, there were prominent figures on both the Union side and the Confederate side whose contributions paved the way for the major historical events of this era.

Of course, the most notable figure of this time period is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Elected in 1860, President Lincoln’s feelings toward slavery created tension between him and his Southern counterparts. His election in 1860 spurred 11 Southern states to secede for fear that he would abolish slavery.

The Confederate States of America elected Jefferson Davis to be their president in 1861. Davis previously served as a Congressman and Senator from Mississippi and held over 100 people in slavery on his large cotton plantation in Mississippi. Many historians attribute some of the Confederacy's weaknesses to his poor leadership. His preoccupation with detail, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of popular appeal, feuds with state governors and generals, favoritism toward old friends, inability to get along with people who disagreed with him, neglect of civil matters in favor of military ones, and resistance to public opinion all worked against him.

On the matter of slavery, Lincoln solidified his position when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This measure changed the status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states from slave to free. After this, any enslaved person escaping across Union lines or through the advance of federal troops would be permanently free.

Lincoln, however, did not act alone in making his decisions. He took sound advice from Frederick Douglass, a well-known abolitionist who escaped from slavery as a young man. Douglass encouraged Lincoln to recruit African Americans to fight in the Union Army. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln would rely on Douglass as a confidant, especially when he established that the ultimate goal of the Civil War should be the abolition of slavery

From a military standpoint, many important generals rose to fame due to their tactics and strategy. Stonewall Jackson, whose real first name is Thomas, was a leading Confederate general who earned his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run. During this battle, General Jackson had his troops race forward so that they may close a gap that Jackson saw, through which the Union troops could formulate an attack. Due to his bravery in pushing forward in what could have been the line of fire, another general commented that he was “standing like a stone wall”, and the name stuck.

Jackson was wounded and died in 1863. The top general for the South was General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who led the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was able to command his troops to a handful of victories despite the overwhelming size and strength of the Union Army. Among his wins, he counted the Second Battle of Bull Run (during which he also found with General Jackson), the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Despite General Lee’s ability to effectively lead and organize his troops, it was ultimately General Ulysses S. Grant who saw more victories during the Civil War. Grant, who was born in Ohio, was a leading Union General and was later named the top General of the entire Union army. Among his decisive battles are the Battle of Vicksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Antietam. After the war, Grant would go on to be elected president of the US in 1868.