Civil War Historical Background
From: National Archives and Records Administration
Prior to and during the Civil War, the North and South differed greatly in the resources that they could use. Documents held by the National Archives can aid in the understanding of the factors that influenced the eventual outcome of the War Between the States.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, the states of the southern United States broke away from the federal union that had existed since the ratification of the Constitution. Believing that Lincoln would restrict their rights to own slaves, Southerners decided that secession was a better choice than to give up their economic system and their way of life. President Lincoln and the North opposed the South's withdrawal; the president steadfastly maintained throughout the war that the secession was illegal and that the newly formed Confederate States of America was not valid as a new nation to the world. Despite Lincoln's hopes that the secession would end without conflict, the two regions fought a war that exploited the advantages and opportunities that each held over the other before their differences could be resolved.
The North held many advantages over the South during the Civil War. Its population was several times that of the South, a potential source for military enlistees and civilian manpower. The South lacked the substantial number of factories and industries of the North that produced needed war materials. The North had a better transportation network, mainly highways, canals, and railroads, which could be easily used to resupply military forces in the field. At sea, the Union navy was more capable and dominant, while the army was better trained and better supplied. The rest of the world also recognized the United States as a legitimate government, allowing U.S. diplomats to obtain loans and other trade concessions.
The South had fewer advantages, but it held several that would pose great threats to attempts by their Northern neighbors to end the rebellion. The South was able to fight on its home terrain, and it could win the war simply by continuing to exist after the hostilities ended later. The South also had a military tradition that encouraged young men to serve in the armed forces or attend a military school; many had served the U.S. military prior to the Civil War, only to resign and fight for their states and family. In addition, the South had the leadership of great commanders, including Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and "Stonewall" Jackson.
As disadvantages, the South had to worry about its slave population, which posed the threat of rebellion and assistance to the Northern cause. Actions by the North to promote this fear included the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in all territories held by Union troops, but not in all areas of the North, such as loyal, but slave-owning, states along the borders of the two powers. Had the North tried to free slaves in these areas, more aid would have been generated for the South, and slave-owning Maryland's secession would leave the U.S. capital in Confederate hands. In addition, the North suffered because a series of senior generals did not successfully exploit the weaknesses of the South, nor did they act upon the suggestions of their commander-in-chief. President Lincoln finally got his desired general in Ulysses S. Grant, who had solidified the Union's control of the West in parts of the Mississippi River Basin. Grant directed the defeat of Southern forces and strongholds and held off determined advances northward by the Confederates on several occasions before the surrender by Lee to Grant took place in 1865.
To defeat the South, the North had to achieve several goals. First, control of the Mississippi River had to be secured to allow unimpeded movement of needed Western goods. Second, the South had to be cut off from international traders and smugglers that could aid the Southern war effort. Third, the Confederate army had to be incapacitated to prevent further northward attacks such as that at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and to ease the battle losses of the North. Fourth, the South's ability to produce needed goods and war materials had to be curtailed. It was these measures that the South had to counter with their own plans to capitalize on early victories that weakened the Northern resolve to fight, to attain international recognition as a sovereign state, and to keep Union forces from seizing Confederate territory.
The South ultimately did not achieve its goals, and after four years of fighting the North won the war. The devisive, destructive conflict cast a shadow on the successes of the United States during the 19th century, however. The country had to find ways to heal the wounds of war during Reconstruction.
Civil War Curiosities: Strange Stories, Oddities, Events, and Coincidences Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994.
Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860
A rich new perspective on the events leading up to the Civil War and will prove an invaluable tool for understanding the central crisis in American politics.
A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy
An account of Southern dissidents in the Civil War, at times labeled as traitors, Tories, deserters, or mossbacks during the war and loyalists, Lincoln loyalists, and Unionists by historians of the war
Meade: Victor At Gettysburg
Meade took command only hours before his forces stumbled upon Robert E. Lee's Confederates at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. He led his men to victory in one of the most famous battles in history, but Meade was soon embroiled in political battles with fellow generals and Washington politicians
Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, General United States Army
Philip H. Sheridan earned the enmity of many Virginians for laying waste to the Shenandoah Valley. His date and place of birth is uncertain, but he himself claimed to have been born in New York in 1831
Sherman's March to the Sea
The destruction spanned more than sixty miles in width and virtually cut the South in two, disabling the flow of supplies to the Confederate army. He led more than 60,000 Union troops to blaze a path from Atlanta to Savannah, ordering his men to burn crops, kill livestock, and decimate everything that fed the Rebel war machine
Army Life in a Black Regiment: and Other Writings
In 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was commissioned as a colonel to head the first regiment of emancipated slaves. A Civil War memoir written by an abolitionist, this text is the stirring history of the first regiment of emancipated slaves formed to fight in the Civil War
Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era
The processes by which black men enlisted and were trained, the history of each regiment, the lives of the soldiers' families during the war, and the experiences of the colored veterans and their families living in an ex-Confederate state
The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union
In this classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War
Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
The evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution
Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860
An analysis of all aspects and particularly of the commercialism of black slaveowning debunks the myth that black slaveholding was a benevolent institution based on kinship, and explains the transition of black masters from slavery to paid labor.
Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South
Firsthand accounts of Black "sisters of the spirit" is the only way to truly gain a feel for what they endured and the larger cultural evils.
A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
A mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication
Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery
Previously untapped documents and period photographs casts a dazzling, fresh light on the way that abolitionists, educators, missionaries, planters, politicians, and free children of color envisioned the status of African Americans after emancipation
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