Historiographical Essay on the Civil War
The Civil War is the defining
event in American history. No previous American war came anywhere
close to it in scale or in the casualties it caused. Its social
and political consequences were vast. It preserved the Union,
led to slavery's abolition, and dramatically altered the relationship
between the states and the federal government.
But the war has also generated
ongoing debates about the conflict's causes and outcome. Among
the most bitterly contested issues are why the Southern states
seceded and the extent to which it was slavery that motivated
secession and why the North did not let the Confederacy peacefully
secede. Historians continue to debate how to evaluate military
leadership and strategy during the Civil War and the reasons
for the North's victory and the South's defeat.
The Causes of the Civil
At the beginning of his Second
Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln looked back to the start of
his presidency. "All thoughts," he said, "were
anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it,
all sought to avert it." "Both parties," he went
on, "deprecated war." Nonetheless, "the war came."
Historians continue to debate
why the country's tradition of compromise broke down in 1861.
Several factors contributed to the outbreak of civil war. One
was a growing divergence between the North and South-economically,
socially, and ideologically. At the new nation's founding, the
two regions were superficially quite similar. Slavery could be
found in each of the thirteen states and each region had a predominantly
agricultural economy. But except in parts of Rhode Island, New
Jersey, and New York's Hudson River Valley, slavery was a marginal
institution in the North, and following the Revolution, each
Northern state either abolished slavery or adopted a gradual
A related factor was the South's
growing sense of isolation. By 1850, slavery was becoming an
exception in the world and the South came to see itself as ringed
around by enemies. It grew increasingly defensive as it was attacked
as an economic backwater.
Yet another factor was the
breakdown of the party system, which had suppressed the slavery
issue for more than half a century. During the 1850s, the Whig
Party collapsed, the Democratic Party split into Northern and
Southern factions, and a new sectional party, the Republic Party,
arose which was committed to blocking the westward expansion
of slavery. The breakdown of the party system took place for
reasons not entirely attributable to slavery. Massive foreign
immigration, heated debates over temperance and prohibition,
and many divisive local political issues also weakened the political
parties. Without the discipline of a strong party system, more
outspoken views on slavery and secession began to be heard.
The polarization of political
opinion further contributed to the coming of the civil war. The
most vivid signs of polarization could be seen in the eruption
of violence in the mid-1850s in Kansas and even in the halls
of Congress, where South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks
attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane. The
Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision aggrevated this situation
by ruling that certain possible compromise solutions to the slavery
issue, including the doctrine of popular sovereignty were unconstitutional.
But perhaps the deepest factor
that contributed to war was the way people perceived and interpreted
events. By the 1850s, a growing number of Northerners were convinced
that a Southern Slave Power was willing to stop at nothing to
expand southern slavery and that it would undercut the civil
liberties of Northerners if necessary to achieve that end. Meanwhile,
a growing number of white Southerners were convinced that
In the months preceding the
attack on Fort Sumter, there were a number of major efforts inside
and outside Congress to forge a compromise that would avert war.
President-Elect Lincoln was willing to compromise, but not if
it required the Republican Party to retreat from its commitment
to blocking the expansion of slavery.
Why the North Won
Both the Union and the Confederacy
expected a quick victory. Both sides felt that they possessed
many advantages. The Confederacy could point to the dependence
of foreign economies on Southern cotton; the superior training
of Southern generals; the fact that many white Southerners were
familiar with horses and firearms; and the fact that South only
had to wage a defensive war. The North, in turn, could point
to its overwhelming superiority in industrial production and
Historians have attributed
the war's outcome to many factors, including the Lincoln's superior
political leadership, internal conflicts within the South (including
the Southern emphasis on states' rights), the South's diplomatic
failure to secure foreign intervention in the conflict, and the
North's superiority in resources. Especially important in the
outcome was the breakdown of the institution of slavery during
the war, which devastated the Southern economy.
In the end, the outcome ultimately
hinged on battlefield victories and defeats and on the adoption
of a military strategy that would persuade one side or the other
that the war was not worth the human and material cost.
Victory depended on devising
an effective military strategy and finding commanders who could
implement it. There is now little doubt that Confederate General
Robert E. Lee's successes prolonged the war long enough to transform
it from a war over the preservation of the Union into a war over
slavery. In recent years, some scholars have argued that his
daring offensive tactics and his focus on Virginia had the practical
affect of depleting the Confederacy's limited manpower and denying
resources to armies in other parts of the South.
It took the Union several years
before it adopted a strategy that would ultimately win the war.
This strategy of total war, which was implemented by General
Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan,
entailed destroying the Confederate armies and the South's economic
infrastructure, including the institution of slavery.
African American troops played an absolutely essential role in
securing a Northern victory. It was ultimately the availability
of black troops that allowed Lincoln not to compromise on the
issue of emancipation.
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