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American Civil War Essay Sample

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American Civil War Essay Sample


            The American Civil War was four-year armed conflict between northern and southern sections of the United States.  It also is called the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War for the Union, and the War for Southern Independence. Many Civil War battles also have more than one name; in the following discussion, the more common names are used, with alternative names in parentheses. The fighting began April 12, 1861, and lasted until April and May, 1865. There was neither a formal declaration of war nor a formal armistice (Boothe, 1999).

            The Civil War cost more American lives than any other war in history. What began for many as a romantic adventure soon became a heartbreaking bitter struggle between the two parts of a divided country. Families were divided, sometimes with brother fighting against brother.

            The North far surpassed the South in population, wealth, industrial capacity, and natural resources. The South, however, had the advantage of fighting a defensive war. It did not have to conquer the North to win, but had merely to wear it out.

The Causes of Civil War

        Historically, the primary cause of the Civil War has been viewed as slavery. According to the author Kenneth M. Stampp slavery was enabled by the belief among pro-slavery supporters that it “was a civilizing institution made necessary by the racial inferiority of Afro-Americans.”  However, conditions in the South made it hard to imagine any other way to maintain the agrarian-based culture which was threatened, not only by Northern abolitionist thought and political movements, but by Northern industrialization. Those in the South her feared the abolition of slavery realized “that once one abandoned the notion that slaves were an inferior race in need of civilizing influences, the entire edifice of the traditional viewpoint must fall to the ground”. (Stampp, 1956) Stampp depicted the plantation as an arena of persistent conflict between masters concerned mainly with maximizing their income and slaves in a constant state of semi rebellion.

            Another scholar, Stanley Elkins exposed the historical nature of the slave experience itself. Impressed by studies arguing that other societies that had known slavery, such as Brazil, were marked by significantly less racial prejudice than the United States (an argument subsequently challenged by other scholars), Elkins asserted that bondage in this country had taken a particularly oppressive form, for which the best analogy was the Nazi concentration camp. A more devastating critique of American slavery could hardly be imagined, but Elkins was less concerned with the physical conditions of slave life than with the psychological impact of “total institutions” upon their victims, whether white or black. He concluded that the culture and self-respect of the slave had been stripped away, leaving an “infantilized” personality incapable of rebellion and psychologically dependent upon the master.

Elkins’ comparative approach inspired subsequent historians to place the South’s peculiar institution within the broad context of the hemisphere as a whole, thus counteracting the insular “American exceptionalism” that underpins so many accounts of this nation’s history. At the same time, comparative analysis has underscored the unique qualities of the old South’s slave society in which, unlike that of the Caribbean, the white population considerably outnumbered the black. But most strikingly, even though few subsequent writers agreed entirely with his conclusions. (The New American History, 1999)

Inferring the values and motives of blacks and whites alike from the aggregate economic data, Fogel and Engerman concluded that planters and slaves behaved toward one another in terms of rational calculation: the former concerned primarily with maximizing production, efficiency, and profit; the latter, equally imbued with the capitalist ethic, aspiring to social mobility within the slave system (for example, the ability to rise from field hand to driver). Other historians argued that antebellum North and South shared not only a common value structure but also the common experiences of territorial expansion and (for whites) political democratization. This emphasis on shared values made the Civil War itself rather difficult to explain, but the actual degree of southern distinctiveness remains a point of continuing debate. It is no longer possible to view the peculiar institution as some kind of aberration, existing outside the mainstream of American development. Rather, slavery was intimately bound up with the settlement of the Western Hemisphere, the economic development of the antebellum nation, and the structure of national politics. And as Lincoln observed in his second inaugural address, everyone who lived through that era understood that slavery was “somehow” the cause of the Civil War.

The American Civil War was a mixture of four decades of forceful social clashes and reflects economic, social and political differences between the Northern and the Southern states. Northern states were required to forbid slavery in the Western regions they would ultimately turn into new states in the 1840s and ’50s.  Through 1850s, some Northerners had started calling for the entire elimination of slavery. Yet, Congress could not stop slavery until the number of free states exceeded the number of slave states and they could come first a majority in the Senate.

To constancy for  the number of free ones, slave states were added to the Union. The South felt the House had been plagued by the North’s volatile expansion. They provided further information for keeping equality in the Senate North and the South started to feel resistance, when the amount of land was obtainable for growth, they got limited portion but they thought that they could manage more states. The South wanted more slave states, and the North wanted more free states, to provide them more land and power in the Senate. The more land and as a result power the South gained, the more afraid the North became; as a result the more the North felt they must put off the south from expanding. The expansion of growth for the southern, in terms of politically, socially and economically, and it proved that they had more power as compare to Northern.

During the 19th century, America became increasingly alienated by economic structure. In the North, they had developed an industrialized sector, which created robust trade and financial activity. By contrast, the South was an agrarian society, where slaves labor grew cotton-crop. They had no knowledge of the industrial expansion as the North had. What continued to set the South from the North was its “peculiar institution” Negro slavery. Actually the South had small consideration in the urban life of the North, of which they became progressively more detached.

Military Conflict

Nearly all the fighting took place on Southern soil, so that section suffered heavy war damage. Some regions, such as central Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, were deliberately ravaged. Freeing of the slaves added a property loss estimated at $2 billion. The Federal government spent more than $6 billion on the war; the Confederacy, perhaps $ 2 billion. Both sides sustained heavy casualties. There were far more deaths caused by disease than by combat. Estimated total deaths are 360,000 for the union army and 260,000 for the Confederate army (Smith, 1999).

            The Civil War is often called “the first modern war.” It saw the introduction of rapid-fire weapons. Trenches were first used extensively in battle. The railway and the telegraph were first used in a large-scale war. The campaigns of Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, and Joseph E. Johnston were studied aboard for new concepts of strategy and tactics. At sea, ironclad ships and rifled cannon had made the wooden navies of the world obsolete.

            Few observers at the start of the American Civil War imagined the ultimate de-evolution of the war from its psuedo-Napoleonic beginnings with armies in formation maneuvering along classical military lines to achieve a tactical advantage. Because so many of the generals on both sides of the war derived their knowledge of battlefield tactics from the same sources, particularly Jomini, and also because many of the generals on either side received training at West Point, the war’s beginning gave but a small hint of the “total war” which would be achieved by the close of 1865. In fact “high spirits and overconfidence on both sides fostered the popular belief that the war would be short and glorious” (Ades, 63). The realization that much more than battlefield victory would be necessary to put down the Southern rebellion was slow to be reached by Lincoln’s generals.

            It was Sherman, perhaps, who first understood the underlying economic nature of the war, realizing that the Union with its superior material and financial power would ultimately prevail. However, his conception of how to convince the South of this truth was founded on a concept of “total war,” a strategic approach first used on the famous “march to the sea.” During this late period of the war, Sherman envisioned a “dazzling campaign– to march his army across Georgia to the sea, tearing the Confederacy asunder, and destroying everything in his path.” (Ades, 226)  The ensuing destruction wrought havoc and despair on the civilian population of the South and undermined the South’s economic and psychological ability to survive. The idea of war as a psychological tool of destruction was both new and devastatingly powerful. Sherman’s troops “looted houses, stole food and burnt rebel supplies “like Demons.” It turned out that the Georgia countryside had an abundance of supplies for Sherman’s 62,000 strong army. And what they did not eat, they destroyed.” (Ades, 227)

            Interest in the campaigns, and in the personalities of Lincoln, Lee, and other leaders, made the Civil War one of the most studied periods in American history (Smith, 1999). It has been a subject for many best-selling novels and much poetry. Its story continues to fascinate historians, writers, and hobbyists.


Association entitled The New American History, Revised and Expanded Editions, series ed. Eric Foner (American Historical Association, 1997).

Boothe, F. Norton. Great Generals of the American Civil War and their Battles. London: Hamlyn, 1999.

Revised edition by Kenneth M. Stampp the Peculiar institution: Slavery in the   Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Smith, Carter, ed. The Civil War. New York; Oxford: Facts on File, 1999.

Ades, Harry.  The Little Book of the Civil War. New York; Barnes and Noble Books, 2001.

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