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North Vs South Civil War Essay Prompts

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions


In your opinion, was the Civil War inevitable? Were the North and the South doomed from the beginning to battle each other eventually over the slavery issue?

The Civil War was essentially inevitable. Ever since Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, the South had been on a completely different economic and social path from the North. In the 1850s, social and political developments, including the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Fugitive Slave Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, drove the regions further apart. Although the North and the South tried to reconcile their differences with major political compromises in 1820 and in 1850, both attempts failed.

The cotton gin transformed the slave South completely in the early 1800s, when plantation owners abandoned almost all other crops in favor of the newly profitable cotton. To raise more cotton, planters also purchased more slaves from Africa and the West Indies before the slave trade was banned in 1808. Thousands of blacks were brought into the United States during these years to tend to cotton fields. The size of plantations increased from relatively small plots to huge farms with as many as several hundred slaves each. Because the entire Southern economy became dependent on cotton, it also became dependent on slavery. Although Northern factories certainly benefited indirectly from slavery, Northern social customs were not tied to slavery as Southern customs were.

Events in the 1850s proved that the North-South slavery divide was irreconcilable. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which awakened Northerners to the plight of Southern slaves, became an overnight bestseller in the North but was banned in the South. The book was particularly powerful in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which forbade both Northerners and Southerners to assist runaway slaves—a law that troubled even those who had shown little sympathy for the abolitionist cause. The “Bleeding Kansas” violence of 1856 between proslavery groups and Free-Soilers shocked people in the North and in the South and demonstrated just how strongly the opposing camps felt about their beliefs. In 1857, the Dred Scott decision outraged Northerners because it declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and effectively opened the North to slavery. Finally, John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and subsequent execution proved to be the last straw for many on both sides. Northerners mourned the “martyr” Brown, while Southerners celebrated his death as a great victory. These events of the 1850s convinced Americans in both the North and South that there could be no compromise on the slavery issue.

Both sides had tried to resolve the issue on numerous occasions, but to no avail. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established the 36˚ 30' parallel as the border between the slave states and the free states. This compromise satisfied both sides for a while but eventually became too restrictive for the South. The Compromise of 1850 likewise sought to end the slavery debate after the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso raised the question of slavery in the West—but in the end these peaceful resolutions were also unsatisfactory. As a result, in light of the deep political, economic, and social divides, as well as the failure of compromise attempts, armed conflict was thus inevitable.


Why were the border states so important to Lincoln?

When South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, four of the other fourteen slave states—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri—chose to remain in the Union rather than join the Confederacy. West Virginia eventually seceded from Virginia in 1863 to become a nonslave state in the Union, too. These five border states were crucial to the North both geographically and economically. As a result, Lincoln was careful to maintain the border states’ allegiance and refrained from pursuing any policies that might be too bold and potentially alienating to slave owners in those states. Ultimately, the North’s possession of the border states directly affected the outcome of the war.

First and foremost, the border states provided a physical and ideological buffer between the North and South: if Maryland had seceded, Washington, D.C., would have been entirely surrounded by Confederate territory. Lincoln was acutely aware of Maryland’s importance: in the spring of 1861, he even turned to military force and instituted martial law in the state to keep it loyal to the Union.

The border states were just as important economically, especially because Maryland and Delaware contained many factories and industrial complexes. Had just those two states joined the Confederacy, they would have doubled the South’s manufacturing capability. Lacking these factories, though, the South ended up starving under the Union’s naval blockade. Indeed, the Civil War was in many ways an economic war, and doubling Southern manufacturing output could have seriously altered the duration and even the outcome of the conflict.

Finally, the border states’ loyalty to the Union showed that slave states had an alternative to secession. The South, for its part, had justified secession by claiming that slave states had to secede to save their “peculiar institution” and their way of life. The fact that the border states—where slavery was practiced—remained in the Union severely weakened this claim.

For all these reasons, Lincoln remained careful not to offend slave owners in the border states. The most notable example of his sensitivity to this issue is the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves free in only the secessionist states—not the loyal border states. Ultimately, Lincoln’s measures were effective, and the continued loyalty of the border states was a major factor in the Union’s eventual victory.


Compare the North and the South in 1860 and then again in 1864. Why did the North win the war?

Although both the North and the South thought they would easily win the Civil War, the South was in many ways doomed from the start. Indeed, by 1864 the South was in ruins, its economy destroyed by blockade, hyperinflation, and the North’s campaign of total warfare. In the end, it was the Northern economy and deficiencies in the Southern political system that won and lost the war.

When war broke out in 1861, both sides thought they would win quickly and easily. The Union had experience and international recognition, a robust industrial economy, a strong federal government, twice the population of the South, and twice as many young men for its army. On the other hand, the new Confederacy had cotton (which it believed to be superior to industry), had better military commanders, and believed it could bring Britain into the war on its side. Just as important, however, was the South’s feeling of righteousness that followed secession: Southerners felt they were carrying on the tradition of overthrowing tyrannous governments that the founding fathers of the United States had begun. In addition, Southern soldiers, fighting on their home territory, also had an intense desire to fight to protect their homes and families.

By the end of 1864, however, the South lay in ruins, and very little remained of the once-proud Cotton Kingdom. The price of goods was so high and money was so worthless that it cost Southerners in some places several hundred Confederate dollars to buy a single loaf of bread. As a result, hunger and malnutrition became rampant. In addition, much of the landscape from Tennessee to Georgia and up to South Carolina had been razed by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops on their March to the Sea. Many slaves in the South effectively emancipated themselves by refusing to work and flocking to Union lines in droves. The North, meanwhile, was in many ways better off in 1864 than it had been before the war, for the economy had experienced an enormous boom during the war years and had set the industrial machine into high gear.

This industrial boom in the North, coupled with the Richmond government’s inability to provide cohesive leadership, won the war for the Union. Virtually all the effective measures passed by the Union government went unanswered by the Confederacy. Congress in Washington, D.C., for example, stabilized the Northern economy early on in the war by passing the Legal Tender Act, replacing the hundreds of different state and private bank currencies with a single federal dollar. Because this “greenback” currency was supported by the U.S. Treasury, investors knew it was safe and reliable. The National Banking Act also gave the federal government unprecedented control over the banking system and the economy as a whole. The Confederate government, on the other hand, dominated by states’ righters, never enacted any such federal laws but instead continued to reserve most powers for the individual states. This inaction, combined with the devastating economic effects of the Union’s naval blockade of the South, left the Confederate war effort doomed early on.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Which side benefited more from the Compromise of 1850, the North or the South?

2. In 1850, most Northerners would never have dreamed they would be fighting a war against the South. Why did Northern public opinion change?

3. Some historians have claimed that the Mexican War was the first battle of the Civil War. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. What effect did the Bleeding Kansas crisis have on the slavery debate in the years immediately before the war?

5. Compare and contrast Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as wartime presidents. What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Who, in your opinion, was the better leader, and why?

6. What was Britain’s role in the Civil War?

7. What was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation? What effect did it have on the North and on the South?

Military Strategy

When the Civil War began, there were fewer than 20,000 soldiers in the national army, and thousands of those troops soon moved south to fight for the Confederacy. The secession of Virginia also prompted a large exodus of some of the military’s most experienced officers. President Lincoln quickly called for northern states to send volunteers, totaling 75,000, to join the Union army. The Confederacy did not have an established army or navy and also turned to militia groups from the southern states to supply soldiers.

As leaders for both sides mobilized their troops, strategic plans began to take shape. It became obvious that politics would play a major role in military tactics. Southerners sought their independence and prepared for a defensive battle while Northerners developed offensive campaigns to preserve the Union. Lincoln believed that the time to negotiate had passed and Northerners would have to physically overpower the Confederates to win control of the southern states.

The Union’s attention focused directly on Richmond, Virginia, the new capital of the Confederacy. During the spring of 1861, the Confederate government voted to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to the larger city in Virginia where railroad transportation was more readily available. The move also underscored the Confederacy’s dedication to defend the Upper South. The new location placed the Northern and Southern capitals within 100 miles of each other. As events unfolded, the area became one of the war’s most active theaters of operation.

When Lincoln announced the call for troops, he requested that the men sign three-month service agreements. Neither side figured the war would last that long. Southerners hoped that Northerners would tire of the war and give in to the Confederacy’s demands. However, Southerners misjudged the Union’s commitment to reunite the nation, and Northerners failed to realize the difficulty of subduing the Confederate army.

When Southerners attacked Fort Sumter, many northern politicians rallied around Lincoln. Democrat Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln defeated for the presidency, offered the Republican leader his support. "There can be no neutrals in this war," said Douglas, "only patriots or traitors."

After a few failed attempts by Northerners to advance into enemy territory in Virginia, Lincoln gathered his advisors to discuss their options. The president then decided to initiate a blockade on all southern ports and gain control of the Mississippi River. Referred to as the Anaconda Plan, Lincoln intended to cut off all routes to the south, essentially placing a stranglehold on imports and exports. If the Union could stop weapons, food, and clothing from entering the southern states, and prevent cotton and tobacco sales, Lincoln rationalized that he could starve the Southerners into surrendering.

The fighting was not always limited to the battlefield. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats clashed over legislation to support the war, and not everyone agreed on how to finance the campaign. A group of Democrats, called the "Copperheads," opposed any effort to support the fighting. Some say they got their name from the copper pennies they wore around their necks; others claim their enemies named them after the poisonous snake. The group planned to get enough followers elected to win control of Congress and force peace negotiations. Although they were not considered disloyal to the Union, they did not generate much support from Northerners who had friends and family members in the military.

Many Southerners theorized that European nations would support their independence. They believed that England would like to see the United States split to eliminate the threat to their economic and territorial ambitions. However, a wholesale endorsement never materialized because the majority of Britons detested slavery. England and France did declare themselves neutral and allowed merchants from the two countries to trade with both Southern and Northern forces. The Confederacy, however, never received exclusive support from foreign nations.

The high-level military strategies for the North and South continued to be attack and defend. Union soldiers attempted to advance on southern soil to capture Confederate land, while Southerners entrenched themselves in key locations to defend their territory.

The Battles

With the beginning of the war still fresh in their minds, and expectations that fighting would be intense but short, Union troops were eager for action. Cries of “On to Richmond” echoed across the hills surrounding Washington as the troops advanced on Confederate forces near Bull Run, approximately 30 miles southwest of the northern capital. President Lincoln believed an attack on a smaller Confederate unit would boost morale and clear a path to Richmond, where he hoped to capture the Confederate capital. A quick end to the war would save the Union and avoid severe damage to the economy.

The inexperienced Union troops, however, encountered determined Confederate soldiers who refused to give up their ground. On July 21, 1861, a Virginia brigade led by Thomas J. Jackson blocked the Yankee advance like a stone wall. Jackson became a southern war hero and the nickname “Stonewall” Jackson stuck. The counterattack by the Southerners effectively pushed back the Union troops. Many Yankee soldiers even dropped their guns and supplies in their hasty retreat.

The impressive win at Bull Run greatly boosted the Confederates soldiers’ confidence—and egos. Southerners bragged about their victory and believed they had proven their military superiority. A feeling of pride swept through the south and many thought the war was over. Southern enlistment numbers dropped sharply, and plans to advance through northern territory to capture Washington were slow to materialize. Although the victory over the Union army at Bull Run was a mighty success, it would later be discovered that it actually harmed the cause of the Confederacy.

The humbling defeat at Bull Run required the Union army to regroup. The Yankees made plans for a longer and more difficult struggle. Congress authorized the enlistment of 500,000 troops. This time, however, they were signed to three year agreements to make sure there was enough manpower to survive an extended war.

In late 1861, Lincoln appointed General George McClellan to lead a major Union force called the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln believed that McClellan, a well-liked and passionate leader, would be able to drill the Union troops into battle-ready shape. McClellan worked on raising the morale of his troops and preparing them for war. But the red-haired general was overly cautious and believed that the Confederate army heavily outnumbered him. He expanded the training for the Yankee troops for several more months. The Union army’s inactivity worried Lincoln. The Commander-in-Chief wanted to engage the enemy and move ahead with his plans to capture Richmond and divide the Confederacy by marching through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Lincoln finally ordered McClellan to advance. The general formulated a plan to bypass the difficult terrain of Virginia and use a water route to approach Richmond. The capital city rested on the western portion of a narrow peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. The Peninsula Campaign called for McClellan and about 100,000 troops to slowly work their way up the James River toward Richmond. In the spring of 1862, as the Union soldiers moved along the eastern coastline toward the peninsula, fighting in the area moved to the water. The USS Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack participated in history’s first fight between armored ships. The powerful ironclads battled to a standstill when the Merrimack began taking on water and returned to Norfolk.

The Union’s naval technology and perseverance secured the waterway for the North and helped the Yankees capture Yorktown. McClellan proceeded up the river where he was scheduled to meet up with reinforcements before attacking the capital. Lincoln, however, diverted the reinforcements to attack Stonewall Jackson’s regiment that was raising havoc in the Shenandoah Valley and threatening the security of Washington, D.C.

With the unexpected change in plans, McClellan’s group stalled near Richmond. The delay gave Robert E. Lee time to launch an attack on the Union troops. The Seven Days’ battles took place between June 26 and July 2, 1862 and eventually forced McClellan back to the coast. More than 10,000 Union soldiers died and nearly 20,000 Southerners lost their lives in the week-long fighting. Once again, the Confederacy pinned an embarrassing loss on the North and forced Union leaders to re-evaluate their plans.

Lincoln grew tired of McClellan’s leisurely pace and intense focus on capturing Richmond without demolishing the army protecting it. The president realized that to win the war, enemy forces had to be dismantled. McClellan’s vision of war as a chess game featuring more strategy than fighting, did not appeal to Lincoln or Congress. Consequently, the president relieved the general of his authority and placed him under General Henry Halleck.

Many historians believe that if McClellan had not surrendered his position outside Richmond and had captured the city when he had the chance, the war might have ended, the Union might have been saved, and slavery might have remained as it was before fighting began. Up to that point, Northerners were still fighting to save the Union, not to eliminate slavery. However, by losing another battle to the South, the war was prolonged. Lincoln, who was determined to make the Confederacy pay for the damage it had caused to the Union, focused more attention on freeing the slaves and began work on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now in charge of Union troops in Virginia, General Halleck decided to pull back his forces. Robert E. Lee took advantage of the Yankee regrouping to quickly advance his men north. The group overpowered General John Pope’s regiment and forced them to retreat from Bull Run, the same site where 13 months earlier Union forces suffered their first Civil War defeat.

Reeling from the incompetence of his military leaders, Lincoln again turned to McClellan to get the Union army back on track. As Lee boldly moved his Confederate forces northward, McClellan gained information from captured Confederate communications that provided details of Lee’s position. In the fall of 1862, McClellan revised his strategy and eventually cornered Lee and approximately 40,000 Confederate troops between the Potomac and Antietam Creek. McClellan maneuvered his men to end the battle and capture Lee. He still had reserves available and Union troops arrived by the hour to lend their support. But darkness fell and McClellan held his positions. When morning broke, Lee anticipated an aggressive attack from the Northerners but none ever came. An entire day passed and McClellan still refused to order his men to advance on the trapped Southerners. As night fell, the Confederate soldiers scampered across the Potomac and back into Virginia.

McClellan had successfully prevented the Confederates from carrying out their mission, but again the general failed to claim a victory on the battlefield. And, even worse, he allowed Lee to escape to rebuild his army for another day. Lincoln angrily dismissed McClellan from his command for a second and final time. Although he was furious that the Union army did not destroy the Confederate regiments, Lincoln played up the fact that the Southerners were forced to retreat. He took the opportunity to announce to the public the Emancipation Proclamation.

Southern forces continued to tally victories. But during a battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in 1863, the Confederate army suffered a severe blow—Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men when he returned from a reconnaissance mission. The loss of Jackson’s exceptional leadership and battlefield experience forced the Confederate army to re-evaluate its strategy.

After Antietam, Lincoln appointed a series of generals to lead the Army of the Potomac, and each commander was just as successful in failure as his predecessor. In late June, 1863, General George Meade was handed the reins of the army. He and Lee were friends and served together during the Mexican War. When Lee heard of Meade’s promotion, he knew he was up against a formidable opponent. Meade took command of nearly 100,000 men at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the soldiers were battling 76,000 Confederate troops. For three days, between July 1 and July 3, momentum shifted from the South to the North and back to the South.

On July 3, when Union guns went silent and Confederate soldiers thought they had the upper hand, Southern General George Pickett led a charge against Union lines. However, as the Confederates marched closer and closer, Union forces sprang back to life and annihilated the advancing divisions. The Union suffered more than 23,000 casualties, the South 28,000. The Battle of Gettysburg became the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Later that year on a cold autumn day, President Lincoln visited the site where so many men lost their lives. He was scheduled to dedicate the cemetery and offer a short speech. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was quickly branded as “ludicrous” and “silly” by critics, but it would become one of the most famous speeches ever spoken.

In battles taking place in the west, Lincoln finally found a general he could rely on. General Ulysses S. Grant was a hard drinking West Point graduate who was commonly stationed at remote frontier posts. Grant’s first success in the Civil War happened in February, 1862, when he led the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

After northern forces seized New Orleans, Grant led his army to attack Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Confederacy used an area between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana to transport cattle and other supplies from the west to southern cities. After intense fighting, Grant seized Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Less than a week later, he dealt the Confederates a significant blow with the capture of Port Hudson. Grant’s victories coupled with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg shifted the tide of momentum in the Union’s favor. The change of events forced England and France to cancel major contracts to supply weapons and ships to the South.

By the summer of 1864, the North had General Lee on the ropes several times but they could never deliver the knockout punch. As Union forces continued to chase Lee and his company throughout the Upper South, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched his troops through Georgia to the sea. In his wake he left Confederate cities and towns in ruins so Southerners would not have anything left to use against the Union troops.

Sherman told Grant that if a regiment of Northern soldiers could march through the south, Confederates would realize that the Union could do whatever it wanted. Sherman’s march marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The South’s resistance began to weaken as Confederate soldiers grew weary of being outnumbered. On December 22, 1864, Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia, and in February overpowered southern troops in Columbia, South Carolina.

Southern forces continued to deteriorate as Union troops conquered more Confederate cities. Then, on April 3, 1865, Grant ordered more than 100,000 troops to surrounded Lee and his 30,000 men outside Richmond. The decorated Confederate leader realized the end was near and resistance was futile. On April 9, 1865, Lee and Grant met at Appomattox Court House to agree to the terms of surrender. Per Lincoln’s orders, the Union’s only requirement was to have the Confederate soldiers lay down their arms.

After fours years of fighting and 600,000 soldiers killed—totaling nearly as many lives lost than all American wars combined—the Civil War finally ended. One out of every four Confederate soldiers died or suffered debilitating injuries while one in ten Union troops lost their lives. The year following the surrender, Mississippi allocated one-fifth of its budget to buy artificial limbs for its veterans. The South, which lost one-fourth of its white male population between the ages of 20 and 40, vowed to rebuild its land and remember its heroes.

The Economy During the Civil War

The Civil War affected northern and southern economies differently. When the war began, the north, with its large factories and well-established companies, generated a great deal of the country’s business. After the first volleys of battle, the north experienced a slight depression due to the uncertainty of the war and the loss of southern business associations. However, after the initial shock passed, the northern economy flourished. The federal government moved quickly to plan for its financial future. Congress increased excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, tariffs were created to protect manufactures from foreign competition, and an income tax was introduced for the first time in the history of the nation.

Congress also passed a series of measures that were long desired by the north but consistently killed by southern opposition. In 1862, the Homestead Act provided 160 acres to settlers who agreed to farm the land for five years. Also passed was the Morrill Land Grant Act which offered states land, approximately 30,000 acres for each Congressman, to support agricultural colleges.

In 1863, the National Banking Act was authorized by Congress to stimulate the sale of government bonds and to establish a uniform currency. Banks that joined the National Banking System could issue reliable paper money and buy government bonds. The system functioned until 1913 when it was replaced by the Federal Reserve System.

As Northerners prospered, Southerners experienced an abundance of financial difficulties. The blockades ordered by Lincoln cut off money generated from the import and export goods. Since the South relied heavily on revenue from the sale of cotton and tobacco, the backbone of their financial system collapsed. In many instances, Southerners were forced to recycle goods because they had no way to receive new products. For example, as the condition of railroad tracks declined, Southerners were forced to pull rails from one line to repair another. Metal items, like the weights from windows, were melted down to create bullets for the troops.

The harsh times did not deter citizens from trying to improve the conditions. When hundreds of thousands of men were called to duty, women in the north and south stepped up to take their places in the farms and factories. Many women also trained as nurses to tend to the growing number of injured soldiers.

The huge armies created a massive demand for clothing, shoes, and blankets. Companies raced to keep up with production orders and turned to machines to lend support. Since most of the manufacturing industry was located in the north, and tight blockades choked Southern trade, Yankee businessmen grew wealthy while Confederate farmers grew hungry. With each passing day, the war slowly squeezed the life from the once proud southern states.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "The Civil War" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/the-civil-war/>.

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