top of page

The faces of the American Civil War

No event shaped our country quite like the American Civil War did. It is a conflict that still resonates throughout the nation, making its presence felt in so many ways - even in the 21st century. The lessons learned from the Civil War require us to look into the human stories that make up this often painful history.

For that reason, we are still so curious about the major personalities and the lives of everyday people during the Civil War. These are what I call the Faces of the American Civil War — those people, whether humble or famous, who lived through that time. Understanding them gives us a more profound understanding of the conflict, the era, and our nation. After all, these are the people who bore witness to the most extreme event in our history.

This article will explore the lives and contributions of key figures, including political and military leaders, ordinary soldiers, women and civilians, and African Americans, to give a more nuanced understanding of the experience of those years.

Political and Military Leaders of the Civil War

Military helmet for war combat

The Civil War was a gallery of titans — presenting us with an array of political and military leaders, each with their own interesting background, personality, and impact on the conflict. These key figures of the American Civil War have become legends, each in their own right.

The Presidents and Their Generals

  • Abraham Lincoln, as President of the United States, was the figurehead of the Union effort. He was known for his eloquence in public address and steely determination to preserve the Union, as well as his effective team leadership among his own circle in the White House.

  • Ulysses S. Grant was appointed General-in-Chief of the Union side in March 1864. He played a critical role in leading the North to victory, earning him a reputation that helped him win election as the 18th President of the United States. As President, he fought for the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed black men the right to vote.

  • Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy, known for being tireless, decisive, and principled. Davis had a military background and was known for his staunch defense of the institution of slavery and states' rights, which reflect the only differences between the Confederacy’s constitution and the Union’s.

  • Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general who is often regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in American history. Lee's tactical genius allowed him to win several key battles, even though he was often outnumbered.

Each of these figures played a significant role in the Civil War's political and military landscape.

The Soldiers of the Civil War

Today, we give most of our attention to those great political and military leaders of the Civil War — they’re the ones movies get made about! But it is just as crucial to remember that ordinary soldiers were the ones who fought and died in the conflict. They bore the largest human cost of the Civil War.

These soldiers came from all walks of life, ranging from farmers to lawyers, and were motivated by a range of factors, including a sense of duty to their country, a desire for adventure, and the need to provide for their families. They endured grueling conditions on the battlefield, including disease, hunger, and exposure to extreme weather.

The Hardship Faced by Ordinary Soldiers

The privations they suffered are now the stuff of legend. The fighting wasn’t always the worst part — of the estimated 660,000 soldier deaths, two-thirds were caused by disease. Poor sanitation combined with massive armies meant illness spread quickly. Soldiers also often lacked adequate shelter and provisions. This was especially true on the Southern side in the last days of the war.

Despite these challenges, ordinary soldiers had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. Their bravery and sacrifice helped to turn the tide of battles, and their sheer numbers allowed the Union to outlast the Confederacy.

The experiences of these soldiers provided valuable insights into the human cost of war, which helped to shape future military policies and practices. Their extreme hardship is now remembered in countless memorials spread throughout the country, as well as in programming at National Park-protected battlefields like Gettysburg.

Women and Civilian Experiences During the Civil War

World War 1 Women

While they might not always be on the frontlines, women and civilians played a major role. They also faced major consequences from the fighting even when they were directly in the line of fire.

Women’s roles in the Civil War included:

  • Nurses

  • Cooks

  • Spies

  • Messengers

Civilians, too, were impacted by the Civil War, facing shortages of food, clothing, and...

Be sure to check back on May 27th when we explore the often-overlooked roles of women and civilians during the Civil War, and the significant contributions of African Americans to the Union Army.

Want to be notified of when the next part comes out? Sign up for our newsletter!

Final Thoughts

To understand the Civil War, we must understand the people and personalities who fought in it and lived through it.

From the people who led the armies to the people who made up those armies, everyone played a part. Even those who did not fight directly were impacted in important ways, and they made their own contributions.

The motivations and experiences of all of these people are complex. There is no single, simple story we can tell about the American Civil War. But if we take the time to listen to their words and acknowledge their individual sacrifices, we get much closer to understanding our country.

Interested in Learning More?

If you are interested in learning more about the faces of the American Civil War, consider checking out the educational resources provided by the National Park Service.

Also, here is a link to the first of a two blog entry series on Generals John Buford and James Longstreet and their clash at Gettysburg.

bottom of page