The Civil War in Fifty Minutes, Part 1 (History Lesson Plans, 12)

[Note:  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my approach to the Civil War has had its ups and downs.  By the time the Civil War Centennial opened in 1960, I had become interested in the conflict; so interested that, by the time I graduated from high school in 1962, I was suffering a case of “Civil War burnout.” 

In college, I spent my time trying to learn as much as I could about history worldwide, without actually studying the American Civil War in any detail.  My trip into the past was interrupted by two years of active duty in the U.S. Army following my graduation from college, during what we now know was the turning point of the War in Vietnam (1966-1968).

Then, in grad school, I wound up in a year-long course on the Civil War, taught by a recognized expert in the lives of the war’s common soldiers.  Although it was an interesting course, we didn’t get much beyond the battle of Gettysburg, if memory serves.

Once I began teaching Advanced Placement (and “Regular”) American History at an Atlanta “prep school” in 1973, I had changed my mind about the war that had been, according to my grad school professor, the “watershed” in this nation’s history.  I no longer wished to approach America’s wars from the viewpoint of “drums and trumpets history.” 

What follows is my attempt to teach about the Civil War in my high school American History courses, in the form of a lecture brazenly entitled “The Civil War in 50 Minutes.”  I used it after we had looked in some detail at the history of the United States from the end of the Mexican-American War through the Confederate assault on Ft. Sumter, in Charleston (S.C.) harbor (1848-1861).  My approach to the coming of the Civil War emphasized the role of slavery as the most important cause of the war.]

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Comparative Resources in 1861

The number of men available to serve was a definite Northern advantage:  twenty-three Northern states (including Kentucky and Missouri, which were Northern slave states) had a population of 22,000,000; the eleven Southern states had a population of 9,000,000, but of these, 3,500,000 were slaves and another 150,000 were free Negroes. 

The North also had the edge when it came to material resources.  For example, between 1830 and 1860, the North had become more and more industrialized, and so those states were much better prepared for the all-important conversion to wartime production required by the outbreak of hostilities.  5,100,000 urban residents in the North were engaged in manufacturing in 1860.

The South developed a few textile factories, but it had become increasingly committed to agriculture between 1830 and 1860.  As a result, in 1860, only 166,803 urban residents in the South were engaged in manufacturing. 

The North enjoyed a similar edge in the development of natural resources, for the simple reason that the South’s coal and iron deposits were largely untapped by 1860.  Moreover, the nation’s financial resources (money, credit, and banking facilities), were located almost exclusively in the North.  Lacking hard currency, the South had to depend upon paper money, with a few loans.  By the end of the war, Southern currency was almost worthless, with one dollar in paper equal to one cent in hard money.  (By early 1962, both governments had resorted to paper money, though, which meant that the North also worried about inflation.) 

Another Northern advantage was in the naval and merchant marine vessels at its disposal.  The Union navy had seven hundred ships, including shallow-draft gunboats that were supposed to provide effective collaboration with the Union army in the west.  At its peak, on the other hand, the Confederate navy had about forty vessels.  It was obvious that, when war broke out and major European powers recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent, the Union would be required under international law to impose a blockade of the Southern coastline, and the size of the Union navy would give the North an edge.

Yet another Northern advantage was in the area of transportation and communications.  At the outbreak of war, there were 22,000 miles of railroad tracks in the North.  The North also possessed an ample supply of rolling stock (locomotives and train cars) as well as better facilities to repair and replace them. 

In the Confederacy in 1860, there were about 9,000 miles of railroad tracks, but of an inferior quality to those of the Union, and with less rolling stock available.  The sole repair and replacement facility in the South, Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, was diverted early on to the manufacture of cannons, iron plate, and munitions. 

The number of trained mechanics in the Northern states far exceeded those in the South.  The Union also had a constant influx of immigrants, including 180,000 males of military age during the war. 

There also was greater diversity of talent among the people of the North.  Not only were there more Northerners with technical and mechanical skills, but there also were more Northerners who were experienced in organization and administration.  Southerners, on the other hand, were mostly experienced in running plantations, few of which were models of organizational efficiency. 

The South did have the advantage of interior lines.  This meant that, to win the war, Union forces would have to invade Confederate territory and defeat Rebel armies, while the Southerners would be able to shift their forces to meet attacks at various points, using their railroads. 

Another advantage enjoyed by the South, at least initially, was in military leadership, especially on the all-important regimental and company levels.  Upper-class Southerners attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in greater numbers than did their Northern counterparts.  Once in the army, Southerners tended to remain longer than did Northerners, who were more likely to be attracted by the alluring prospects of the business world. 

Moreover, the military profession was popular in the South, where there were numerous militia units, not to mention the slave patrols used to restrict the freedom of movement of the region’s slaves. 

Officers of the ranks of colonel and below were elected in both armies.  Those chosen usually had raised and equipped their units.  In the South, these officers tended to be planters or their sons, most of whom were recognized as leaders and possessed at least a modicum of military training.  In the North, on the other hand, officers elected were usually the most prosperous community leaders or the most popular politicians, but they possessed little military experience. 

The odds in 1861 were not so much in favor of the Union as the listing above might indicate.  The South might very well succeed if it could parlay its initial military advantages into early victories on the battlefield, and combine them with diplomatic recognition by one of more of the major European powers.  On the other hand, if the conflict became protracted, for whatever reason, the odds would increasingly favor the North.

* * * * *

Military Campaigns, 1861-1862

The first real battle of the Civil War occurred at Manassas (Bull Run), on July 21, 1861, and it was a Confederate victory.  As a result, Southerners believed that the completion of their drive for independence was within their grasp.  On the other hand, Northerners suddenly realized that war was a serious business. 

In 1862, the war saw initial Union victories in the West, and a standoff in the East. 

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (

In the West, the most important development was the rise to command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who began with three victories in the western theatre.  In February 1862, a combined land and river force under Grant took Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, which opened a water route into the heartland of the Confederacy. 

On April 6-7, Confederate forces under Albert Sidney Johnston caught Grant by surprise at Shiloh, but the Union commander recovered his poise and succeeded in driving the Confederates from the field.  Total casualties (killed, wounded, missing, for both armies) at Shiloh were over 23,000, exceeding the combined totals of the Revolutionary War, the Mexican-American War, and the War of 1812.  Finally, on April 27, 1862, New Orleans fell to the Union, which gave the Northern forces control of the mouth of the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two. 

Meanwhile, in the Eastern theatre, a series of hapless Union generals demonstrated a common failing—the inability to defeat the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.


Gen. Robert E. Lee (wikipedia)

In June, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan landed forces on Virginia’s James River Peninsula, but suffered defeat in a series of battles known as the Seven Days’, and then returned to Washington, D.C.  McClellan’s successor, General John Pope, lost to Lee at Second Manassas (Bull Run) on August 29-30. 

Following Pope’s disgrace, McClellan returned to command the Union forces in the East.  Although he was lucky enough to obtain a copy of General Lee’s battle plan, the unhappy McClellan could do no better than a draw at Sharpsburg (Antietam) on September 17.  Antietam was the bloodiest single day in the Civil War, with 23,000 total casualties, including  Six thousand American (Union and Confederate) dead, almost as many colonial troops as were killed during the Revolutionary War.

Lee, who had hoped to tip the balance in favor of European recognition of the Confederacy by a strong showing in Maryland, retreated into Virginia.  President Abraham Lincoln used this occasion, which was as close to a victory as his forces would get for a while, to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22.  The final version of the Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, but it only affected slaves in areas still under Confederate control.  This had little immediate effect on Southern slaves.  There was neither a flood of refugee slaves nor insurrections on Southern plantations.

Antietam did deal a permanent setback to the Confederacy’s hopes for foreign recognition, because antislavery feeling was quite strong in Europe, especially in England. 

Then, in December, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s forces were bloodily repulsed by the Confederates of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Fredericksburg.

End of Part I

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:


Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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4 Responses to The Civil War in Fifty Minutes, Part 1 (History Lesson Plans, 12)

  1. Thanks for posting this. It gives me a much better understanding of the Civil War. I look forward to Part 2.

  2. Merrilyn Eastham says:

    George, I enjoyed reading this so much. I loved it when you taught Old Testament, but I would like to have been in one of your history classes as well. Best wishes to you and to Faith. Stay well, be safe and spread HOPE!!! Love, Merrilyn

  3. Thanks very much, Merrilyn, for taking the time to comment. We’re both well, and we hope that you are. Please keep in touch.

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