Not unlike today’s tumultuous political landscape, the Civil War was one of the most divisive, horrific and bloodiest periods in U.S. history.

Fought from 1861-1865, the war, which pitted free states against slave states, took place between two opposing factions, the Union and the Confederate armies. It involved more than 2 million soldiers and ended with over 350,000 deaths both on the battlefields and due to subsequent related deaths from disease. In fact, the Civil War cost as many American soldiers’ lives as almost all other American wars combined.

Spanning across America, the Civil War occurred in literally thousands of locations, with the 10 bloodiest battles taking place in Gettysburg (Pennsylvania); Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Second Manassas (Virginia); Stones River, Chickamauga and Chattanooga (Tennessee); Vicksburg (Mississippi); Shiloh (Tennessee); and Antietam (Maryland).

AFRICAN-AMERICAN CONTRIBUTIONS

African-American were more than just the pawns for the winners in the Civil War. Bolstered by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, both free and runaway slaves made significant contributions for the Union.

According to some historians, at the onset of the war in 1861, almost half of the slave population–estimated to be about 4 million–were living in the South. By 1863, almost 200,000 served in the Army and Navy.

Blacks voluntarily formed, or were assigned by the government after enlisting, their own troops and fighting factions demonstrating a wide range of skills and heroism in numerous battles. Some of the most noteworthy were New Market Heights (Virginia), Port Hudson (Louisiana), Fort Wagner (South Carolina) and Honey Springs (Oklahoma).

Despite their bravery and contributions, African-American soldiers, not surprisingly, were denied equal pay and treatment, earning less than half the monthly wages of white soldiers. The government used the Militia Act of 1862 as justification to classify Black soldiers as laborers, hence the lower rate of pay.

After much protest by the soldiers, their families and some sympathizers in Congress and other areas of government who disagreed with the policy, Congress eventually passed legislation that not only afforded Black soldiers equal pay, but made it retroactive for those who had been free at the time of enlistment.

A great deal more about Black Civil War soldiers can be found at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which last year moved into a new 5,000 -square-foot facility in a former school building. The museum’s mission is “to preserve and tell the stories of the United States Colored Troops and African-American involvement in the American Civil War,” which they accomplish through a variety of exhibits, online forums, programming, special projects and events and more.

PLACES TO COMMEMORATE

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of this historic war, and there are numerous locations where Civil War buffs, those with a general interest in history and others, from age 8 to 80 can learn more about this pivotal era in American history.

To help you along this journey, the National Park Service has launched a Civil War-themed website. The site (www.nps.gov/civilwar) provides a detailed overview of the war while also focusing on those Civil War sites that the National Park Service has in their preservation and administration purview.

The website offers a wide array of interesting features, including an interactive and comprehensive timeline encompassing nearly 400 years of American history that include many of the events and causes; an interactive planning tool with 100-plus national parks with Civil War themes and more than 1,700 Civil War sites; and for the kids, a “Civil War Reporter” feature that follows, according to the website, “the adventures of Beglan O’Brien, a fictional Civil War era correspondent whose daily reports on events from 150 years ago are streamed to the website via Twitter.”

RESOURCE LIST

  • African-American Civil War Memorial:(202) 667-2667, www.afroamcivilwar.org
  • Battle of Springfield Driving Tour: (417) 881-5300, www.springfieldmo.org/things-to-do/cat/12/menu/121/client/65695
  • Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: (706) 866-9241, www.nps.gov/chch
  • Civil War Trust: (202) 367-1861, www.civilwar.org/150th-anniversary/
  • Gettysburg National Military Park: (717) 334-1124, www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm
  • National Park Service Civil War Website: www.nps.gov/civilwar
  • Stones River National Battlefield: www.nps.gov/stri