Civil War: A "Terrible Swift Sword"

1964 Civil War Centennial Issue - Battle of the Wilderness - 5-cent U.S. stamp.
Photo caption

1964 Civil War Centennial Issue - Battle of the Wilderness - 5-cent U.S. stamp.

Whether it be called the Civil War, the War between the States, the War of the Rebellion, or the War for Southern Independence, the events of the years 1861-1865 were the most traumatic in the nation's history. The secession of the southern states, and President Lincoln's decision to prevent them forcibly from leaving the Union, triggered a conflict that would see fighting on battlefields as far apart as Pennsylvania and Texas, Missouri and Florida, and would leave nearly a million Americans on both sides dead or wounded. Indeed, casualties in the Civil War exceeded those of every other war in which the United States has ever participated, combined.

This curriculum unit will introduce students to several important questions pertaining to the war. In the first, they will examine original documents and statistics in an attempt to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each side at the start of the conflict. The second addresses the two turning points of the war-the concurrent battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg-as well as the morality of the Union's use of "total war" tactics against the population of the South. Finally, in the third lesson students will examine a series of case studies in Abraham Lincoln's wartime leadership; by using primary sources they will be asked to assess whether, based on his performance during his first term of office, he deserved a second.

Guiding Questions

Which side possessed the overall advantage at the start of the Civil War?

How did the Union win the war?


Did Lincoln's performance as a wartime president during his first term of office justify his reelection in 1864?

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of the North and South using various primary source documents.

Analyze the economic advantages possessed by both sides on the eve of the Civil War.

Compare and contrast each side's strategic objectives for the war.

Explain Great Britain's interests in the Civil War, and how they might have affected the balance of forces between the two sides.

Explain why the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the turning points of the war.

Evaluate the role of Sherman's "total war" tactics in bringing about a Union victory.

Argue whether it was necessary for Abraham Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus.

Assess whether the Emancipation Proclamation was sound wartime policy.

Explain why the decision to arm slaves was so controversial in the North.

Evaluate Lincoln's refusal to conclude a compromise peace with the Confederacy.

Identify the major issues in the 1864 presidential election, and make an overall judgment as to whether Lincoln deserved a second term.