Civil War Understanding the American Civil War Essay

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The American Civil War represented the largest loss of life in the West during the 100-year period between the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and World War I in 1914 (McPherson, 2013). The number of Americans who lost their lives in this war is equivalent to the total American lives lost in all other conflicts in this nation's history. Any conflict of that magnitude is bound to reveal the worst and the best traits of its country's citizens.

The two main issues that led to the Civil War was states rights and slavery, with the latter representing the dominant issue by far (Holzer, 2011; Finkelman, 2011). At risk was whether the United States would remain an undivided nation or be broken up into different countries. The issue creating the conflict between states and the national government was the ability to legally engage in human bondage. At the time, the federal government under the recently-elected president Abraham Lincoln wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, while the slave holding states of the South sought to expand their economic system.

The battle over how a state could treat its own citizens continued after the war was over. Until just a few decades ago, Jim Crow was the law of the land in the former slave-holding states (Norton, 2001). Segregation was everywhere, from water fountains to seating arrangements in restaurants to voting booths. After the Supreme Court ruled public segregation unconstitutional in 1954, the next three presidents used their power to desegregate the South. These actions eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, not unlike the Emancipation Proclamation eventually led to passage of the 13th Amendment.

The battle over state rights was also resolved to some extent during the war. As Frank Williams (2011) points out, Lincoln expanded the powers of the executive branch in order to 'suppress the rebellion.' The Emancipation Proclamation was effectively the first executive order issued by the President of the United States in the country's history (Finkelman, 2011). President Obama recently issued an executive order allowing the children of illegal immigrants to remain in this country (Cohen, 2012), thus taking sides in the hotly debated immigration issue. In response, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed her own executive order denying the beneficiaries of Obama's executive order state public benefits, including the issuance of driver's licenses (Weinger, 2012). The battle over a state's ability to govern its own citizens therefore continues to be waged today.

The Civil War under Lincoln's leadership established a strong federal government sufficient to contain the secessionist aspirations of individual states or a confederacy of states. It also imposed the end of slavery on these same states. The 'American character' Foote referred to therefore probably represents the never-ending struggle between majority rule and individual rights, or in the case of the Civil War the struggle between the federal government, state rights, and individual rights.

Hyperbole and Winning the Civil War

Joseph Rich, a member of Company E. Of the 12th Iowa Regiment, was present during the two-day battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April of 1862 (Rich, 1911). He later assisted Major Reed, the secretary of the Shiloh National Military Park Commission, with his eyewitness accounts of the battle. At the beginning of his book on the battle he expounds at length upon the numerous inaccuracies and hyperbole contained in other accounts of what happened on April 6 and 7, variously favoring one side or the other. During the war, these inaccuracies could be considered propaganda designed to demoralize the enemy, but much of these over-exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies appeared after the war was over. Hyperbole of this kind could be forgiven if it merely represented an attempt to avoid painful truths, but many of these inaccurate accounts were written by academic historians and 'investigative' journalists.

President Lincoln, if he was serious about keeping the Union intact and ending slavery, could hardly engage in hyperbole or inaccuracies. He recognized that the South was a region with a great deal of wealth, which was provided by its international trade in agricultural products (Surdam, 2001). The cotton it produced dominated the world market, in part because the labor costs were so low. The amount of beef being produced in Texas was claimed to be sufficient to feed the world.

Since the world, especially Western European countries, were so dependent on the agricultural products produced by the slave-holding states, Lincoln could not prevent these trading partners from diplomatically recognizing the South (Woldman, 1952). He could, however, establish a naval blockade along the coast to prevent the export of these goods and the arrival of weapons and other goods that could help the confederate war effort (Surdam, 2001). While the South believed that cotton starvation would impel European countries to run the blockade, thus providing them with weapons and other critical industrial products, they underestimated how unfavorably these same countries viewed the practice of human bondage (Woldman, 1952).

Although the naval blockade of the south was incomplete, it was sufficient to increase the pressure on other forms of goods transportation in the south (Surdam, 2001). In the absence of a strong manufacturing sector or imports that could maintain the railways, roads, and waterways as viable transportation routes, the Confederate Army began to wither from a lack of weapons, ammunition, engines, and armor plating. Meanwhile, the North was able to maintain its trade with international partners, churn out arms and munitions, while its army put increasing pressure on the remaining domestic transportation routes. The Civil War was therefore won by the North in part because the Confederate Army was starved of the materials it needed to wage war against the North. Therefore, it would not have mattered if the Southern generals were more brilliant.


Cohen, Tom. (2012, Jun. 16). Obama administration to stop deporting some young illegal immigrants. CNN. Retrieved 8 May 2013 from

Finkelman, Paul. (2011, Apr.). The end of war and slavery yields a new racial order. In An inescapable conflict. ABA Journal, 97(4), 38-47.

Holzer, Harold. (2011, Apr.). The Civil War ended slavery and saved the Union, but many of its battles are still being fought. In An inescapable conflict. ABA Journal, 97(4), 38-47.

McPherson, James. (2013). A brief overview of the American Civil War. A defining time in our nation's history. Civil War Trust. Retrieved 8 May 2013 from

Norton, Mary Beth et al. (2001). A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., (pp. 856-858). Retrieved 8 May 2013 from

Rich, Joseph W. (1911). The Battle of Shiloh. Iowa City, IA: State Historical Society of Iowa.

Surdam, David G. (2001). Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Weinger, MacKenzie. (2012, Aug. 16). Gov. Jan Brewer defies W.H. On immigration. Retrieved 8 May, 2013 from

Williams, Frank J. (2011, Apr.). Lincoln's war powers: Part Constitution, part trust. In An inescapable conflict. ABA Journal, 97(4), 38-47.

Woldman, Albert A. (1952). Lincoln and the Russians. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Slide Notes

Slide 1 (Daniel, 1997, p. 25).

Up until the Battle of Shiloh, the opposing armies had engaged in limited battles, with the Confederates enjoying the control of a 1200-mile line from the Mississippi River to the coast of Virginia (Frank and Reaves, 1989). The Battle of Shiloh changed the character of the war from limited, 'Gentlemanly', skirmishes to one of attrition. The two armies that met on the killing fields of Shiloh learned how lethal the weapons had become. Approximately 18% of the more than 110,000 troops engaged in the battle were killed or wounded during the two days of conflict.

The transportation infrastructure supporting the Confederate Army's hold on this line was the network of rivers, railroads, and roads throughout the region. Of considerable importance were the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee Rivers. In an effort to weaken the Confederate Army, General Ulysses S. Grant sought to bring these rivers and the connecting railroads under his control (Frank and Reaves, 1989). He quickly captured Forts Henry, Heiman, and the strategically important Fort Donelson just north of Nashville in mid-February, 1862. The Confederate Army headed by General Johnston retreated to a line running from Chattanooga to Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River. As a result of these actions, the Union troops controlled the Tennessee River all the way into Alabama by virtue of its gunboats, in addition to Nashville, the capital of Tennessee.

Corinth, Mississippi was the location of a railroad junction for two railroad lines connecting Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee to Mobile and Decatur, Alabama (Daniel, 1997). Grant moved his troop to Savannah, Tennessee, just 9 miles downstream of Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, with the eventual goal of capturing and controlling Pittsburg Landing and thus Corinth (Frank and Reaves, 1989). General Buell, located in Bowling Green, Kentucky was ordered…

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