Episode 46: The American Civil War

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 46: The American Civil War

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Less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, the US experienced perhaps its worst war, the American Civil War. It lasted from 1861 to 1865. It is also called the War Between the States. The main reason for the war was the issue of slavery. In slavery, white people owned black people and forced them to work for no pay.

Setting the Stage

In 1861, there were just 34 states, and Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president. Fifteen of the states, located in the South, permitted slavery and were known as slave states. The rest of the states, where slavery was illegal, were called free states. Because there were so many territories that would soon become states, there was a big political debate about whether these new states would be allowed to be slave states.

Lincoln was an abolitionist, which means he was against slavery. He wanted the United States government to make slavery illegal in the existing states and in the new states that would come. When he was elected, seven slave states declared they were no longer part of the United States. This was called seceding. They formed a new country called the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis was the Confederate president. In all, a total of 11 slave states seceded to make up the Confederacy. The northern states that did not secede made up the Union.

The War

In April of 1861, Confederate soldiers captured Ft. Sumter, SC. Four years of terrible war followed. About 625,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, with many more wounded. The South was in ruins by the end of it. Families were destroyed and people’s lives were torn apart.

Besides Ft. Sumter, there were many famous and decisive battles during the war. One of the most famous is the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 in which the Confederate General Thomas Jackson earned his nickname, “Stonewall”. Later, in 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops marched to Atlanta and burned it nearly to the ground.

Emancipation Proclamation

In 1863, during the war, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making slavery illegal throughout the United States. This freed all existing enslaved people, over three million in all.

End of the War

In the end, Confederate General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia in April of 1865. Only five days later, the Stars and Stripes was again raised over Ft. Sumter, SC, the site of the first Civil War battle.


From 1863 until 1877, the US entered the period of Reconstruction. This was a program to rebuild the South and to help newly-freed blacks become citizens. It was a difficult and troubled time. During Reconstruction, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the US Constitution, which officially defined citizenship and prohibited states from restricting personal rights.

Civil War Influence Today

The Civil War still influences American culture. Many people today are interested in its history, and they are called Civil War ‘buffs’. They visit battle sites, collect items from Civil War times and have Civil War battle re-enactments. In fact, you can still find Confederate uniforms, weapons and money in antique shops.

In 1936, Margaret Mitchel published a famous book called Gone with the Wind. It was set in the Civil War years. In 1939 it was made into a famous movie of the same name. Some of the scenes and phrases from the book and movie are still used in American English today.

Unfortunately, racism is also a leftover result of the Civil War in America. In addition to many race-related issues, there is a controversy about Confederate symbols such as flags and statues of Confederate heroes. It is common to see these in many southern places, including town squares and even private houses. The people claim they are displayed because of Southern heritage. Opponents say the symbols should be removed because they stand for slavery and racism.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.