The Civil War

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13521

By the election of 1860, the economies and interests of Northern and Southern states had fully diverged. This division culminated in the Civil War, but we are still not sure what or who caused it.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

The Civil War separated those states that relied economically on agriculture and those that didn't.

  • How did this division expand into a four-year-long war?

The Republican Party

Republican emblem

The Republican Party was a brand new political party in the mid-1850s that rose in popularity due to its anti-slavery stance.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 as the first president of this party, many Southern states were concerned he might try to abolish slavery, which would destroy its plantation economy.

Read this excerpt from the 1860 Republican Platform regarding slavery.

"That the new dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries Slavery into any or all of the Territories of the United States, is a dangerous political heresy, at variance with the explicit provisions of that instrument itself, with contemporaneous exposition, and with legislative and judicial precedent; is revolutionary in its tendency, and subversive of the peace and harmony of the country."

  • Does it sound like Republicans planned to abolish slavery?

Although they may not have liked slavery, Republicans were strictly concerned with not expanding slavery beyond the states that already had it.

Look at this map of America before the Civil War broke out.

Civil War map

  • Do you see all the territories in the country's center?

These territories were destined for statehood. Republicans ran on stopping the expansion of slavery into these lands as they became states.

This would also prevent cotton plantations in these new states because slavery was essential to cotton production.

However, it would not affect the plantations in the Southern states where cotton comprised the primary source of income. Without slavery as a cheap source of labor, the Southern economies would crumble.

So, while Republicans did not like slavery, they did not set out to abolish it. They recognized its importance in slave states but did not want it to expand unnecessarily.

State's Rights

For many people in the South, the Republican Party stood for much more than the restriction of slavery.

Southerners feared large-scale federal intervention in the Southern states' rights. They recognized their unique position in the United States.

Yes, the South depended on slavery; however, it was the Republican Party's idea that the federal government could control a major decision such as slavery that upset many Southerners.

Up until this point, the question of slavery was up to each state, and the Southern states felt it should be left to the states to decide if they wanted to practice it.

  • If the Republican-led federal government was willing to intervene on this issue, where would it stop?
  • How far might they infringe upon the rights and privileges of all citizens?

For many Southerners, the Republican Party's resistance to slavery showed that they did not understand the Southern economy and would be willing to overstep the authority enumerated in the Constitution.

Southern 7

Civil War map

Between Lincoln's presidential victory and his inauguration, the lower seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina) left the Union before Abraham Lincoln could even do anything as president.

This tension culminated in April 1861 when Confederate soldiers attacked the Union-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Watch the video below to see how it became the site of the first battle of the Civil War.

Image - Video

Lincoln's Volunteer Army


After this attack on Fort Sumter, it became clear to Lincoln that reconciliation was not an option. He used his executive power to raise a volunteer army for 90 days to gain control of the situation.

However, doing this convinced four more slave states (Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia) to join the Confederacy, making it 11 states strong. The 90-day army was not going to be enough.

As a result, Lincoln had to go to Congress to request even more soldiers.

To find out more, watch the video below.

Image - Video

Lincoln decided that, because slavery created such a volatile country, it would need to be abolished if the Union were victorious. His decision was based on how best to preserve the Union rather than the morality of the institution.

In a Letter to Horace Greeley, the president wrote the following.

"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Lincoln realized that his views on ending slavery would not matter if he no longer controlled the states that practiced it.

Southern Gains

Confederate flag

Watch a portion of the time-lapse video below to see the first year of the war and pay attention to who you think is winning.

Image - Video

Through 1861, the Confederate States of America were unequivocally winning the war.

They had expanded their territory and had won the first major battles of the war. One of those was the First Battle of Bull Run, only 20 miles away from Washington D.C.

The Confederates were heavily undertrained, so many locals came to picnic on the battleground to watch the Union soldiers defeat the Rebels. However, this was not the case. The Union had not sent for reinforcements, thinking they would win instantly.

After initially pushing the Confederates back many miles, Southern reinforcements allowed for a full push and decisive victory against the Union.

Union Gains


Although the North was better funded and trained, Lincoln could not find a competent general to lead the Union army.

The Southern General Robert E. Lee was well-decorated and respected. Lincoln could find no general who could compete with Lee's strategy. This was until he appointed Ulysses S. Grant in March of 1864.

Between the South's height in 1861 and the appointment of Grant in 1864, both sides fought aggressively. The Union made a few gains further west; however, there was no clear path to victory.

In reality, this war period was fraught with death and destruction as both sides sought to gain an advantage. The new invention of photography captured much of this.

Watch the following video to see photographs from the Civil War.

Image - Video

Between March 1864 and April 1865, Ulysses S. Grant focused the Union army on Virginia. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and it was the wealthiest state.

Further west, meanwhile, the Union captured the Mississippi River, which cut the Confederacy in half and severed supply lines.

Appomattox Courthouse

Appomattox Courthouse

By April of 1865, it became clear to Robert E. Lee that the war was lost.

On the 9th of the month, Grant and Lee met in the Appomattox Courthouse, where they laid out the terms of surrender for the Confederate States. While Lee did not speak for the entirety of the Southern states, he formally surrendered all 28,000 of his troops to the Union army.

Two days later, Virginia surrendered to the United States. By the end of May, all the other states followed.

Continue on to the Got It? section to explore how different the war was for each side.

Image - Button Next