[Note: This is the second of a two-part post, “The Civil War in Fifty Minutes,” that I gave to my AP United States History students at the prep school where I taught for nearly forty years. As I’ve explained elsewhere, my approach to war in general, not just the Civil War, had undergone a sea change between the beginning of the Civil War Centennial (1960) and my arrival at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta (Fall, 1973).
What I presented to my seniors was a version of the Civil War without the “trumpets and drums” approach I was familiar with from my reading during the Civil War Centennial (1960-1965). Instead, I stressed the causes of the war (in the previous unit, which charted the course of the nation’s history from the end of the Mexican-American War through the presidential election of 1860 and the tense months leading to the Confederate assault on Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor [1848-1861], I already had offered my belief that the main cause of the war was slavery); turning points of the conflict; and its short and long-term consequences .
In Part 1, I took the story from the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run), July 27, 1861, through the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
This post follows the course of the war from its turning point, the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), through the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox (April 12, 1865); examines why the North won (or, if you prefer, why the South lost); and, finally, looks at the impact of the conflict on the United States.]
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Military Campaigns, 1863-1865
The turning point of the Civil War occurred in the summer of 1863. (The prelude was the death of Lee’s “good right arm,” Stonewall Jackson, at the battle of Chancellorsville in May.)
The military “turning point(s)” of the war occurred in July. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania was stopped by Union forces at Gettysburg (July 1-3), but the failure of the Union commander, General George Meade, to pursue Lee allowed the Confederate forces to retreat across the Potomac River, for, as it turned out, the last time.
Then, on July 4, 1863, after forty-seven days of siege, the fall of the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, cut the Confederacy in two, transferring control of the Mississippi River to the Union. Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas essentially were detached from the Confederacy. The Vicksburg campaign had been the brainchild of General U.S. Grant, who followed this exploit with additional victories in the Chattanooga campaign in November.
Following the success of the Chattanooga campaign, General Grant moved North to take over supreme command of the Union armies, leaving General William T. Sherman in Georgia to deal with a numerically inferior Confederate force under General Joseph E. Johnston.
Meanwhile, General Sherman took Atlanta after a protracted siege (August, 1864). Then, in mid-November, Sherman set out on his (in)famous “March to the Sea,” reaching Savannah in time to present that city to President Lincoln as a “Christmas present.” Then Sherman turned North, in hopes of effecting a junction with Grant in Virginia.
Back in Virginia, even the usually stolid Grant was beginning to wonder whether the meager progress he had made was worth the staggering losses he had suffered. Grant decided to strike out across the James River in order to seize Petersburg, thus severing one of the main Confederate supply arteries. The move was a bold one, but Grant couldn’t quite pull it off. Once more, battle-weary troops faced one another from opposing trenches.
In order to approach Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, in May 1864, Grant led the Army of the Potomac into an area of dense undergrowth and swampland known as the Wilderness. He moved his troops remorselessly to the left in an attempt to interpose them between Lee and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee frustrated those efforts, but at a terrible cost to both sides. Battles followed one another with grim regularity—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor.
With the steady approach of General Sherman from the South in the Spring of 1865, the situation of Lee’s army became truly desperate. He managed to evacuate both Richmond and Petersburg, but his attempts to break through the ring of steel forged by General Grant proved futile. The end came on April 9, 1865, at tiny Appomattox Court House, with formal surrender ceremonies on April 12, 1865.
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Why did the North win, or, why did the South lose, the Civil War?
The Confederacy failed to obtain European, especially British, recognition of their independence. Why? First, the Union had superior diplomacy, thanks to Charles Francis Adams, minister to Great Britain. Moreover, cotton was not king, as events proved. England had accumulated huge surpluses of cotton by the start of the war, supplemented later by cotton from Egypt and India.
Moreover, England made money selling to both sides during the war, and needed Northern wheat. And, unfortunately for their cause, the Confederate forces failed to win victories at the right moment as the war wound down (e.g., Antietam, Gettysburg).
The tremendous material advantages of the Union enumerated earlier, which became greater as the war dragged on, were further solidified because the Union enjoyed superior political leadership on presidential, congressional, and state levels.
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It wasn’t simply the strengths of the North that determined the outcome, but also the weaknesses of the South that came into play as the war progressed. For example, the Confederacy suffered from second-rate political leadership. Confederate leaders were simply too quarrelsome (President Davis vs. the Confederate cabinet; Davis vs. his Vice President, Alexander Stephens; Davis vs. the Confederate Congress; Davis vs. Confederate state governors). This dissension was probably the result of the individualism nurtured by the plantation system, frustration over the failure to win a final victory, and, maybe, a sense of guilt about slavery.
The Confederacy also was afflicted by a lack of flexibility: neither the economy, nor the popular mind, could adjust to the requirements of modern warfare. (Here were planted the seeds of the “Lost Cause” myth that proved so harmful in the post-war era.) The South also was guilty of bad judgment. Southerners overestimated their own strength and the importance of Southern cotton to England, and they underestimated the deep devotion of the people of the North to the concept of the Union. Finally, Southerners were not properly prepared for defeat, and, hence, morale became very low as the people of the Confederacy lost the will to win.
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The Impact of Civil War on the United States
The Civil War ended slavery, although it certainly did not settle the race question in the United States. The war also determined the nation’s character: hereafter, the United States would be one nation, not two or more competing aggregations of states, each claiming to be sovereign.
The Civil War was, in the words of Emory University History professor Bell Wiley, who taught an incredibly popular course on the Civil War that I took in graduate school, “the watershed of American history.” Before the war, Wiley contended, the United States still was predominately agrarian, rural, and innocent. After the Civil War, the nation was increasingly industrialized, urbanized, and a lot less innocent.
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The Human Costs of War, 1861-1865
More Americans (remember, soldiers on both sides of the Civil War were Americans) were killed in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined, from the American Revolution through the Korean conflict, inclusive:
618,000 (Civil War) v. 606,000 (all other wars from the Revolution through the Korean conflict. But, the Vietnam War [1961-1973] added 58,000 deaths):
360,000 (Union ,1½ % of total population in the Union states)
258,000 (Confederates) (4% of white population in the Confederate states)
Also, perhaps 425,000 Americans were disabled, physically, mentally, or both during the Civil War:
End of Part 2
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: