5.8 Military Conflict in the Civil War

7 min readdecember 23, 2022

Milo Chang

Milo Chang

AP US History 🇺🇸

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🎥Watch: AP US History - The Road to the Civil War
For the United States, the Civil War saw the unprecedented mobilization of manpower and materials alongside unprecedented carnage on the battlefield. The Civil War was a total war because it involved every aspect of society.
Total war is a term used to describe a conflict in which all of the resources and capabilities of a society are mobilized for the purpose of achieving military victory. It involves the use of all available economic, political, and social resources, including the conscription of soldiers, the mobilization of industry, and the use of propaganda to support the war effort.
The South wanted a short war and needed European support. They were sure that Great Britain would support them because of their need for southern cotton. Unfortunately for them, the British just got their cotton from Egypt and India instead.
The North had more resources and thus could afford a longer war, especially since their Anaconda Plan could strangle the South’s ability to trade or receive resources through its naval blockade of Southern ports and coastline. The idea was to blockade all the ocean ports on the Atlantic and Gulf as well as the ports on the Mississippi, literally constricting the South (like an Anaconda).


The Union hoped that its population of 22 million against the Confederate population of only 5.5 million free white would work to its favor in a war of attrition.
Strong military leadership under Robert E. Lee, something that the North did not have at the beginning of the war.
The Union dominated the nation’s economy, controlling most of the banking and capital of the country, more than 85% of the factories, more than 70% of the railroads, and even 65% of the farmlands.
The Southern economy was less adaptable because of the weakness of the industrial base. The South depended on the outside world for most of its manufactured goods.

Union Timidity

During the early years of the American Civil War, many Union generals were criticized for their timidity and lack of aggressive action on the battlefield. This was particularly evident in the Eastern Theater of the war, where Union commanders were often hesitant to engage the Confederate Army in open battle and preferred to rely on defensive tactics and fortifications.
One of the main reasons for this timidity was the Union's lack of experienced military leadership at the start of the war. Many of the Union's senior generals, such as Winfield Scott and Robert E. Lee, had resigned their commissions to join the Confederacy, leaving the Union Army with a leadership vacuum. The Union's remaining generals were largely inexperienced and untested, and they were often hesitant to take risks or engage in aggressive action for fear of failure.
Another factor contributing to the timidity of Union generals was the Union Army's overall lack of preparedness for the war. The Union Army was poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly organized at the start of the conflict, and many of its generals were overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the fighting. As a result, they were often reluctant to take the initiative or engage in offensive operations, preferring instead to defend their positions and wait for the Confederates to attack.
Overall, the timidity of Union generals at the start of the Civil War was a significant factor in the Union's slow and often ineffective response to the Confederate threat. It was not until later in the war, when more experienced and aggressive generals such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman took command, that the Union began to achieve more decisive victories on the battlefield.
In fact, other Union generals often criticized Grant for being too aggressive and too willing to take risks on the battlefield. Some of his peers, such as General George B. McClellan, believed that he was too quick to engage the Confederate Army in open battle and too slow to retreat or regroup when necessary. They also accused him of being too focused on defeating the enemy at any cost, regardless of the number of casualties sustained.
Yet after firing many of his previous generals for their timidity, including General McClellan, Lincoln was excited by General Grant's leadership, strategic vision, and determination to win the war. When told to fire General Grant, Lincoln reportedly retorted, "I can’t spare this man. He fights."

Civil War Turning Points


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The South won many early battles under General Robert E. Lee, but as the war dragged on, improving leadership (such as the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman) and superior resources helped the North win key turning points that changed the tide of the war and the United States as a whole:
  • Antietam (1862) was/is the bloodiest day in US history and led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, keeping Europe out of the war and changing the Union Army into an army of liberation: it now freed slaves as contraband or property taken from those breaking the law. This also added African American manpower to the US Army (example: 54th Massachusetts).
  • Gettysburg (1863) again kept Europe out of the war and was the Confederate high water mark. The Confederacy was on the defensive after this, especially since Lee lost ⅓ of his army. This also led to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s statement that the US would have a “new birth of freedom” as the war would end slavery. This and Vicksburg were the turning points of the war.
  • Vicksburg (1863) occurring at the exact same time as Gettysburg, it allowed the Union to gain control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy. General Grant was promoted after this too, giving the Union better leadership in higher positions.
  • Atlanta (1864) was a well-timed victory that led to Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 and thus allowed the US to finish the war with the eradication of slavery.
  • Sherman’s March (1864) Leading a force of 100,000 men, Sherman set out from Chattanooga, Tennessee on a campaign of deliberate destruction that went clear across the state of Georgia and then swept north into South Carolina. Marching relentlessly though Georgia, his troops destroyed everything in their path, burning cotton fields, barns, and houses; everything the enemy might use to survive. It was total warfare. This was called a scorched-earth policy.
  • Appomattox (1865) The Confederate government tried to negotiate for peace, but Lincoln would accept nothing short of restoration of the Union, and Jefferson Davis still demanded nothing less than independence. Lee retreated from Richmond with less than 30,000 men and tried to escape to the mountains, only to be cut off and forced to surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
🎥Watch: AP US History - The Civil War

Modern Warfare

The Civil War was a modern war in many ways, and it saw the introduction and use of many new technologies and tactics that would later become commonplace in future wars. One of the most significant innovations of the Civil War was the ironclad warship, which changed the face of naval warfare and paved the way for the development of the modern battleship.
Ironclads were armored steam-powered ships with iron or steel hulls and decks that were heavily fortified with iron or steel plates. They were designed to be able to withstand the impact of cannonballs and other artillery, and they were much more difficult to sink than traditional wooden ships.
The first ironclad warship was the USS Monitor, which was built for the Union Navy during the Civil War. It saw its first action in March 1862, when it fought the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) in the Battle of Hampton Roads. The battle ended in a draw, but it demonstrated the effectiveness of ironclads and their potential to revolutionize naval warfare.
Other ironclads were built and used by both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, and they played a significant role in the outcome of the conflict. The Union Navy used ironclads to blockade the Southern coast and disrupt Confederate trade, while the Confederacy used ironclads to defend its ports and rivers.
The Civil War also saw the use of new weapons, such as the repeating rifle and the Gatling gun, as well as the development of new tactics, such as total war and trench warfare.
  • The repeating rifle was a type of firearm that allowed a shooter to fire multiple rounds without reloading. It was designed to be more efficient and effective than traditional single-shot rifles, which required the shooter to manually load each round into the barrel before firing.
  • The Gatling gun was a type of machine gun that was invented by Richard Gatling in the 1860s. It was one of the first practical machine guns to be developed. The Gatling gun was a revolving-barrel machine gun that used a crank handle to rotate a series of barrels, which allowed it to fire a continuous stream of bullets without the need for manual reloading. It was highly accurate and could fire up to 1,000 rounds per minute, making it a formidable weapon on the battlefield.
  • Both the Union and the Confederacy engaged in total war, as they mobilized all of their resources and capabilities to fight the conflict. This included the use of conscription, the mass production of weapons and other military supplies, and the implementation of economic policies to support the war effort.
  • Trench warfare is a type of warfare where soldiers fight from trenches or fortified positions rather than engaging in open battle. It is characterized by the use of heavy fortifications, such as earthworks and sandbags, and the use of artillery and machine guns to defend against enemy attacks. Trench warfare was a major feature of the Civil War, particularly in the Eastern Theater, where both the Union and the Confederacy constructed elaborate trench systems to defend against attacks.
All of these innovations had a lasting impact on the way wars were fought and would shape the course of military history for decades to come.
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