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 War

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 emancipation plan.

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 manpower.

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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