Overview of the American Civil War

The American Civil War was one of the defining periods of US history. Many students will cover the American Civil War for A level History, but it can seem a complex and difficult topic for new students. We’ve put together this guide to the American Civil War to help you. Below you’ll find an overview of the causes of conflict, the context for both sides, and a timeline of events. You can skip straight to timeline here if you’d prefer. This guide provides a narrative history of the war to help you improve your knowledge. In the exam you will need to use this knowledge to reach your own clear judgements. Make sure you practice plenty of exam style questions as well. Follow these links for past papers from AQA, OCR and Edexcel.

The War itself was a titanic struggle between the northern states, that supported the Union, and the southern states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The war took place between 1861 and 1865. The main cause of the war centred around slavery. As the war progressed it was clear the outcome would decide the economic, political and moral structure of North America.

It was the first major industrialised war. Both sides used railways, telegram communications and mass manufacturing to further their war effort. On paper the Union had all of the advantages. It had a much bigger economy, substantial manufacturing base, better infrastructure and much more manpower. The Confederates, however, had a number of skilled generals and a determined army. They surprised many in doing very well in the early years of the war. The Civil War was the most deadly conflict in US history. Casualties and deaths surpassed even the First and Second World Wars.

Causes of the American Civil War

The immediate cause of the American Civil War was the secession of southern slave states from the union. They were angered by the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, as his Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery in new western territories. The northern states determined to maintain the union intact. A string of southern states declared their secession early in1861 and eventually opened fire on the federal military bases in their territory (beginning at Fort Sumter).

The long term causes of secession are more complex and reach back through the early history of the USA. The main cause, however, was the issue of slavery. Slavery had divided Americans since the Declaration of Independence. In the following decades the new nation developed into two blocks, with slave states in the south and free states in the north. North and south diverged politically and economically based around the issue of slavery.

As the USA expanded westwards in the first half of the nineteenth century, slavery became an increasingly divisive issue. North and south argued bitterly over whether the new territories should permit slavery or be free. Beyond the economic opportunities, this issue was crucial to the balance of power in the federal government. The southern slave states feared that a free west would further tip the balance of power against them in Congress. There had been many attempts at compromise between the two sides up to 1861, but nothing resolved the issue. Slavery, therefore was central to all other causes of division, including arguments over states rights, and the diverging southern society and economy.

American Civil War for A Level History

Overview of the Two Sides

The Union

The northern and western states that remained within the union had all of the advantages on paper. They had a larger population, a more industrialised and larger economy, as well as political and financial institutions already established. They also had much more advanced infrastructure and controlled vital military assets including most of the US navy.

Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party was President of the USA. Indeed it was his election that had triggered the secession of the first southern states. Slave holding southern states hated that the Republicans’ aimed for the newly acquired western territories to be free. Over the course of the war Lincoln’s increasingly strong leadership was pivotal to winning the war and ensuring the abolition of slavery would eventually become a war aim. He also generally dealt well with challenges to his power and even won a second election in 1864 as war continued. His opponent in that election, George McClellan, would have sought to end the war with a negotiated peace.

Despite all of the apparent advantages, it took the Union three years to find and appoint its best generals to the right positions. Lincoln had to go through a succession of poor or average generals in the crucial eastern theatre of war, including George Mclellan (yes, the same one), Burnside and Hooker. Eventually he was able to appoint more able generals, including Grant and Sherman, who ensured final victory.

The initial aim for Lincoln was to defeat the rebel Confederates as quickly as possible and restore the Union. It wasn’t until September 1862 that ending slavery became a war aim, following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The Confederacy

The 11 Confederate states were immediately at a disadvantage. They had to establish a new country from scratch while preparing for war. They had to set up a government, a finance system and an army very quickly. The Confederates also had a smaller population; a smaller, more rural economy; and less infrastructure than the north.

The main political leader was President Jefferson Davis. He had to try to mould a new nation and deal with a group of states who had started the conflict partly to promote their individual state rights. This made it difficult for Davis to act with the central control with which Lincoln was able to. Armies in different Confederate states, for example, often operated independently of each other, making coordinated strategy difficult. Historians have also debated whether Davis’s personality weakened Confederate chances. He struggled to deal with strong state leaders and liked to control small details of policy. Certainly he was less effective than Lincoln.

The Confederacy did have one big advantage over the Union, especially in the early years of the war. They had some excellent military leaders. Robert E. Lee was the most influential and famous. He won a string of remarkable victories over much larger Union armies. He also commanded some very capable generals like Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. The Confederate armies were also determined to defend their home territory.

Davis’s initial aim was to hold as much of the territory of his 11 states as possible, gain recognition abroad and force a negotiated peace. The leadership expected European powers to formally recognise the Confederacy to secure the cotton trade in which the southern states dominated. With international recognition and successful defence of territory, they thought the Union would have to negotiate.

Theatres of War

Fighting took place across many of the states and territories of the USA. There were two main theatres of war in the East and West. 

The Western theatre of war usually refers to action west of the Appalachian Mountains up to and around the Mississippi River. Here the Union looked to gain control of the Mississippi River and, therefore, cut the Confederacy in two (which they achieved by 1863). 

The Eastern theatre was always going to be the decisive one. Here we are referring to the action east of the Appalachian mountains. Most of the fighting took place in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The two capital cities, Washington DC and Richmond were geographically very close together and much of the fighting took place in northern Virginia between the two cities. The Union looked to capture Richmond and decapitate the Confederacy, while the Confederates invaded the north twice to put pressure on Washington and force a negotiated end to the war.   

There was also an important naval aspect to the war. The Union was able to develop by far the bigger navy. Both sides experimented with the first “ironclad” and steam powered ships that began to modernise naval warfare. The Union was able to gain control of the crucial rivers, take important Confederate ports like New Orleans, and blockade the Confederacy. These successes were very important in securing overall victory. 

American Civil War Map

Timeline of the American Civil War for A level History

A difficult start for the Union, 1861

Hostilities began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861. Confederate Forces shelled the small garrison of the federal fort until they inevitably surrendered. The attack galvanised support for the Union in the north and – with the subsequent call from Lincoln for volunteer soldiers from each state – prompted the secession of four more states, most notably Virginia. Both sides prepared for what they thought would be a short and decisive conflict. 

The first major battle of the war took place at Bull Run, Virginia in July 1861. Union troops marched south from Washington with the aim of taking Richmond and ending the war quickly. A confederate army blocked them in northern Virginia. The battle was fierce and bloody, with inexperienced troops on both sides. The Confederates managed to beat back the Union attack and ultimately force a chaotic Union retreat all the way to Washington. 

The battle ended the naïve views on both sides about the war ending quickly. Well off civilians from Washington had even travelled south to watch the battle (and the expected easy victory) from surrounding hills as a ‘day out’. They were shocked by the violence and couldn’t believe that the Union forces had been driven back. The war would drag on.

A high point for the Confederacy, 1862

The fighting started in earnest in 1862. Union forces began wide ranging attacks on the Confederacy, with General McClellan’s ‘Peninsular Campaign’ aiming to capture Richmond; Union troops marching into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and movements to control the major waterways in the west. The navy also looked to gain control of Confederate coastal waters to tighten their blockade. 

The Peninsular Campaign

The campaigns of 1862 demonstrated the weaknesses of the Union generals in the East. George McClellan was the most notable for his failings. After successfully retraining and disciplining the Army of the Potomac over the winter, McClellan was reluctant to attack and Lincoln had to force him onto the offensive. McClellan devised an elaborate strategy to attack Richmond via an amphibious landing on the peninsula between the James and York rivers. As the campaign got underway – and despite overwhelming Union superiority of numbers – McClellan dithered. A much smaller Confederate force was able to hold McClellan up for weeks as he continually demanded more men and resources from Lincoln.  One Confederate General, with a theatrical background before the war, even delayed McClellan by marching his small army around firing at intervals to give the impression of a much larger force. McClellan completely fell for the deception.

McClellan was eventually stopped in his tracks outside Richmond. At this point Robert E Lee was given his first field command of the war as he took over Confederate forces around Richmond. Lee convincingly defeated McClellan in the Seven Days Battles in June 1862. McClellan was forced to retreat. Further southern victories came in the Shenandoah Valley and at the Second Battle of Bill Run. 

Robert E Lee Dominates Proceedings

Following the successes in Virginia, Lee determined to invade the north in the Maryland Campaign to try to force an end to the war. Lee was, however, forced to retreat himself after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, which was the bloodiest single day in US military history. Following Antietam, Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation and made ending slavery a war aim at last. 

McClellan – cautious to the last – failed to follow up success at Antietam by pursuing and destroying Lee’s army. Lee was able to escape to Virginia with the remains of his army. Lincoln removed McClellan from command and so began a succession of unsuccessful Union generals. 

Ambrose Burnside was first, and quickly removed after the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg in December. General Joseph Hooker replaced him, but he too proved equally incapable of defeating Lee – losing badly to Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863. 

Turning Points, 1863

1863 saw several crucial moments in the American Civil War, which most historians agree were the main turning points. In the West, Union forces under Ulysses S Grant took the strategically important town of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in two. In the East, Robert E Lee was decisively defeated at Gettysburg and would never again have the strength to invade the north. After Vicksburg and Gettysburg the Confederates were hanging on for survival. 

Controlling the Mississippi

The Union strategy in the West had always been to control the major rivers and drive down the Mississippi River from Kentucky, and up from New Orleans. By 1863 only one Confederate stronghold on the river held out at Vicksburg. Ulysses S Grant cemented his reputation as the most able Union general by defeating multiple southern armies and taking Vicksburg after a prolonged siege in July 1863. With that victory the Union had cut the Confederacy in two and arguably it was the beginning of the end for the Confederate States. 

The bloodiest battle

While Vicksburg was under siege in the west, the Confederate government considered sending some of Lee’s troops from Virginia to try to relieve Vicksburg. Lee disagreed and – buoyed by his astonishing victory at Chancellorsville – proposed a bold plan to invade the north for a second time, pushing into Pennsylvania and threatening Washington DC. Lee’s aim was to draw pressure away from the beleaguered defenders at Vicksburg and to potentially force the north to the negotiating table. 

The decisive battle took place in July at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Over three days the bloodiest battle of the war raged and ultimately Lee was defeated by the Union general Meade. Lee retreated south quickly. Both sides lost around 30,000 soldiers, but the Confederates were not able to replace these soldiers. Their main army was fundamentally weakened and Robert E Lee’s aura of invincibility was broken. 

At around the same time, Vicksburg fell to Grant. The two victories ensured the Union was in a strong position going into 1864. The war, however, was far from over. 

Total War, 1864

Following his successes in the Western theatre of war, Grant was appointed as commander of all Union armies. Grant put his close ally Sherman in charge of most of the western armies. Grant developed a broad strategy to defeat the Confederacy. He would lead an invasion of Virginia to destroy Lee’s army and capture Richmond. Sherman was tasked with capturing Atlanta in Georgia and then “marching to the sea”. Another union army would march into the agricultural area of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Grant condoned a strategy of total war, ordering Sherman and other generals to destroy infrastructure and resources that enabled the Confederacy to continue fighting. 

A series of bloody battles ensued in northern Virginia as Grant pursued Lee. The Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor all saw horrendous casualties on both sides. Eventually Grant laid siege to Lee at Petersburg for 9 months as Lee tried desperately to protect Richmond. 

1864 also saw a remarkable presidential election in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln looked for re-election against the Democratic candidate George McClellan (yes the ineffectual general from earlier in the war). McClellan ran on a platform of ending the war through negotiation. The election could have offered the Confederacy a final way out of the war if the Democrats had won. 

Lincoln, however, won a landslide victory and could focus on winning the war in 1865. 

End Game, 1865

1865 saw the final disintegration of the Confederacy. Sherman continued destroying infrastructure and defeating Confederates in Georgia and the Carolinas. In April Lee withdrew from Petersburg and tried to make a break west with the remnants of his army. Grant pursued him closely and caught up with him at Appomattox Courthouse, where Lee surrendered. Richmond also fell to Union forces and the Confederacy fell apart. The war ended on 9 May 1865 with the final surrender. 

President Lincoln, however, was assassinated shortly after Lee’s surrender. 

With the end of the war the difficult period of “reconstruction” in the south began. Slavery was abolished, but many African Americans in southern states faced few improved opportunities in the decades to come.  

Further Work

The information in this guide should give you an excellent grounding in the American Civil War for A level history. Now read in further depth on each of the areas we’ve introduced. Then have a go at plenty of practice exam questions to take your revision to the next level. You can check out more A level history resources, and book a lesson with one of our expert tutors, on our A level History page.

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