The War Between the States: The American Civil War

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The War Between the States: The American Civil War

The American Civil War is sometimes called the War Between the States, the War of Rebellion, or the War for Southern Independence. It began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and lasted until May 26, 1865, when the last Confederate army surrendered. The war took more than 600,000 lives, destroyed property valued at $5 billion, brought freedom to 4 million black slaves, and opened wounds that have not yet completely healed more than 125 years later.

The chief and immediate cause of the war was slavery. Southern states, including the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, depended on slavery to support their economy. Southerners used slave labor to produce crops, especially cotton. Although slavery was illegal in the Northern states, only a small proportion of Northerners actively opposed it. The main debate between the North and the South on the eve of the war was whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories recently acquired during the Mexican War (1846-1848), including New Mexico, part of California, and Utah. Opponents of slavery were concerned about its expansion, in part because they did not want to compete against slave labor. By 1860, the North and the South had developed into two very different regions. Divergent social, economic, and political points of view, dating from colonial times, gradually drove the two sections farther and farther apart. Each tried to impose its point of view on the country as a whole. Although compromises had kept the Union together for many years, in 1860 the situation was explosive. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president was viewed by the South as a threat to slavery and ignited the war. During the first half of the 19th century, economic differences between the regions also increased. By 1860 cotton was the chief crop of the South, and it represented 57 percent of all U.S. exports. The profitability of cotton, known as King Cotton, completed the South's dependence on the plantation system and its essential component, slavery.

The North was by then firmly established as an industrial society. Labor was needed, but not slave labor. Immigration was encouraged. Immigrants from Europe worked in factories, built the railroads of the North, and settled the West. Very few settled in the South.

The South, resisting industrialization, manufactured little. Almost all manufactured goods had to be imported. Southerners therefore opposed high tariffs, or taxes that were placed on imported goods and increased the price of manufactured articles. The manufacturing economy of the North, on the other hand, demanded high tariffs to protect its own products from cheap foreign competition.

Before the Civil War, the federal government's chief source of revenue was the tariff. There were few other sources of revenue, for example, neither personal nor corporate income taxes existed. The tariff paid for most improvements made by the federal government, such as roads, turnpikes, and canals. To keep tariffs low, the South preferred to do without these improvements.

The expanding Northwest Territory, which was made up of the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, was far from the markets for its grain and cattle. It needed such internal improvements for survival, and so supported the Northeast's demands for high tariffs. In return, the Northeast supported most federally financed improvements in the Northwest Territory.

As a result, although both the South and the West were agricultural, the West allied itself with the Northern, rather than the Southern, point of view. Economic needs sharpened sectional differences, adding to the interregional hostility. As the Southern states seceded, they seized and occupied most of the federal forts within their borders or off their shores. Only four remained in the hands of the Union. Fort Sumter stood guard in the mouth of the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The other three forts were in Florida: Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, and Fort Taylor at Key West. Of the four, Sumter was the most important.

Technological advances helped both sides deal with the great distances over which the armies fought. The Civil War was the first large conflict that featured railroads and the telegraph. Railroads rapidly moved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and vast quantities of supplies; the North contained almost twice as many miles of railroad lines as the South. Telegraphic communication permitted both governments to coordinate military movements on sprawling geographical fronts.

The combatants also took advantage of numerous other recent advances in military technology. The most important was the rifle musket carried by most of the infantrymen on both sides. Prior to the Civil War, infantry generally had been armed with smoothbore muskets, weapons without rifling in the barrels. These muskets had an effective range of less than 90 m (300 ft). As a result, massed attacks had a good chance of success because one side could launch an assault and not take serious casualties until they were almost on top of the defenders. The rifle musket, with an effective range of 225 to 275 m (750 to 900 ft), allowed defenders to break up attacks long before they reached the defenders' positions. Combined with field fortifications, which were widely used during the war, the rifle musket changed military tactics by making charges against defensive positions more difficult. It also gave a significant advantage to the defending force.

Other new technologies included ironclad warships, which were used by both sides; the deployment of manned balloons for aerial reconnaissance on battlefields, used mainly by the North; the first sinking of a warship by the South's submarine, known as the CSS Hunley; and the arming of significant numbers of soldiers with repeating weapons, carried mainly by the northern cavalry. The technology for all of these weapons had been present before the Civil War, but never before had armies applied the technology so widely.

Looking backward, anyone must marvel at the fact that the war lasted four years. All the advantages seemed to favor the North. In 1860 the 22 states that would remain in the Union (three more would come in before 1865) had a combined population of 22 million. The 11 states that made up the Confederacy could count only 9 million inhabitants, including almost 4 million black slaves. Most of the factories capable of producing war materials were located in the North, and the section was well equipped with railroads. It had a merchant marine and could maintain worldwide commerce. The South, on the other hand, was a region of farms. Although these farms produced products that Europe wanted, particularly cotton, the South had few ships, and its principal ports were soon closed. Much has been made of the superiority of Southern commanders. Although Lee was more than a match for every opponent except Grant, Grant overcame the Confederate general by force of numbers and determination of will. Neither side had another corps commander equal to Stonewall Jackson, but Jackson was killed before the war was half over. In the West, the Union commanders clearly outmatched their opposites. No Confederate leader could stand comparison with Grant, Sherman, or Thomas. In naval operations, Foote, Farragut, and Porter had no Confederate rivals.

Little distinction can be made between Northern and Southern morale. Desertion was common on both sides. The North had its Copperheads, its bounty jumpers, and its draft rioters, and millions of Northerners were weary of the war long before its end. In the South, draft dodging and tax evasion were common, and fortunes were made by profiteers who preferred to run luxuries, instead of war supplies, through the blockade.

The South had two important advantages. First, it did not need to conquer the North. It could win the war simply by defending its soil and by waiting for the North to become so discouraged by repeated failures that it would grant independence. Second, the South could operate with shorter interior lines, thus making better use of its fewer men.

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