Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The Battles of the Civil War

A We The People Resource
Created July 17, 2010


The Lesson


"A Harvest of Death."

“A Harvest of Death.” Dead Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, one of the two turning-point battles of the American Civil War.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress—Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer.

After the first shots at Fort Sumter, both the North and South rushed to mobilize for war. Few had any notion that this war would last four grueling years. Most northerners believed that their advantages in men and materiel would bring a quick victory; nevertheless, the first two years proved to be quite trying for the Union as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia scored a number of spectacular victories in the Eastern theater of the war. It was only after the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that the tide of the war turned; thereafter the war became a slow grind that ultimately exhausted not only the Confederacy's army, but its economy and society as well.

Through the use of maps and original documents, this lesson will focus on the key battles of the war and how they contributed to its outcome. It will also examine the "total war" strategy of General Sherman, and the role of naval warfare in bringing about a Union victory.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Union win the war?

Learning Objectives

  • 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.


The first major clash of the Civil War in the East took place in July 1861, in Northern Virginia. This battle, called Bull Run by Northerners and Manassas by Southerners, pitted a Union force commanded by General McDowell against a Confederate army under Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. What was expected to be a quick Union triumph, however, ended in a Union defeat as McDowell's forces were routed. The Confederate victory greatly enhanced Southern confidence and morale, and indicated that the war would not be as quick and easy as previously imagined.

While things were looking grim for the Union forces in Virginia, further west Union armies under the overall command of Gen. Henry Halleck were advancing. The primary goal in the West was to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland, opening the way to Chattanooga and Atlanta and gaining control of the Mississippi River. A Union army under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant and a naval flotilla under Flag Officer Andrew Foote began this process by capturing Forts Henry and Donelson, on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively, in February of 1862. Grant continued to move south toward the critical rail center of Corinth, Mississippi. However, before Grant could reach Corinth, a Confederate army under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston surprised him near Shiloh, Tennessee. Union forces were mauled on the first day of the battle but after reinforcement arrived that evening, they drove the Confederates from the field. Both sides suffered unprecedented casualties at Shiloh—indeed, more soldiers died in this battle than in all of the nation's previous wars. But Shiloh was only a taste of things to come.

Nonetheless, the Union victory at Shiloh led to the capture of Corinth. The way was now open toward both Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Chattanooga—the gap through the Appalachian barrier necessary to the capture of Atlanta. Coupled with the capture of New Orleans by Admiral David Farragut, 1862 began well for the Union in the West. However in the fall, the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Braxton Bragg launched a counteroffensive into Kentucky in an attempt to draw Union forces out of Western Tennessee. The effort was turned back at Perryville, Kentucky in October.

In the East, the Union army found itself with new leadership after the defeat at Manassas/Bull Run. Lincoln appointed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November 1861, and he succeeded in turning a ragtag collection of recruits into an organized fighting machine. But although he was a superb organizer, he was extremely cautious in the field. This extreme cautiousness was illustrated during the brilliantly conceived but poorly executed Peninsula Campaign, McClellan's attempt to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, by advancing from the southeast. Unreliable reports that exaggerated the size of the Confederate force contributed to McClellan's caution. In nearly every interaction between McClellan's forces and the Confederate army, McClellan failed to seize the advantage. Many of the additional forces that McClellan asked for were held back to deal with the threat created by Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley

After driving McClellan from the Virginia Peninsula in June and July, then defeating another Union force near the old battlefield of Manassas/Bull Run in August, Confederate General Robert E. Lee took the offensive, marching north into Maryland in September of 1862. Once again, McClellan's caution provided Lee the time he needed to concentrate his much smaller force near Antietam Creek, just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history, but what could have been a decisive Union victory was instead merely a tactical draw, and Lee successfully retreated across the Potomac. It was, however, enough of a Union success that President Lincoln could issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the character of the war. Frustrated by McClellan's failure to secure a decisive victory at Sharpsburg/Antietam, or to follow Lee immediately after the battle, Lincoln relieved him of command.

While the situation remained bleak for the Union on land, the North from the very beginning held a serious advantage at sea. In the opening weeks of the war the U.S. Navy—vastly superior in numbers to its Confederate counterpart—imposed a blockade of southern ports. This blockade not only prevented the Confederates from capitalizing on their most important export—cotton—but it also prevented them from importing much-needed arms and supplies from abroad. Although southerners cheered the exploits of blockade-runners and commerce raiders, which preyed on northern shipping, the blockade continued throughout the war, leading to the slow strangulation of the Confederate economy.

In retrospect, 1863 constitutes a watershed. In May of that year, General Robert E. Lee won a major victory at the battle of Chancellorsville, which was nonetheless marred by the death of the incomparable "Stonewall" Jackson. Lee believed the time was right to launch a second invasion of the North, reasoning that a victory on Northern soil would cause the Union to sue for peace and grant independence to the Confederacy. Lee's campaign culminated in the greatest battle on North American soil when his Army of Northern Virginia clashed with the Union Army of the Potomac under Gen. George Meade near the small Pennsylvania at the little town of Gettysburg on July 13. After three brutal days of fighting, with numerous casualties on both sides, the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to retreat back into Virginia, never to undertake a major offensive action again. For more detailed information about the battle of Gettysburg see the Virtual Tour of the Gettysburg National Military Park, accessible via "Links to the Past," the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the National Park Service.

At the same time as the battle was raging in Pennsylvania, Union General U.S. Grant was concluding his siege of Vicksburg. On July 4, 1863, the day after the victory at Gettysburg, the port surrendered to Grant. This reopened the Mississippi river to northern commerce and split the Confederacy in half. The capture of Vicksburg on July 4 was the culmination of a campaign that had begun in December of the previous year. Grant's bold decision to march down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross the river south of Vicksburg, cut his own supply lines, and invest the city from the east places him at the forefront of great military commanders. For more information, see "The Campaign for Vicksburg" from the Vicksburg National Military Park, also accessible through "Links to the Past." These twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg dashed all hopes of foreign intervention for the Confederacy and provided a much-needed boost to northern morale.

After his victory at Vicksburg, Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the West. In November, he oversaw the defeat of Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which opened the way to Atlanta. In March 1864 Lincoln placed General Grant in command of all Union forces. On May 4, 1864, a year after the bloodletting at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac under command of Meade, but with Grant making his headquarters "in the field" with the army, once again plunged into The Wilderness, initiating a bloody campaign unlike any that had gone before. For the next month, the two armies were constantly in contact.

Grant believed that up to that point, Union armies in different theaters had "acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together." Accordingly, his strategic plan for 1864 called for putting five Union armies into motion simultaneously against the Confederacy. While three smaller armies in peripheral theaters (Nathaniel Banks against Mobile, Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; and Ben Butler moving toward Richmond via the James River) tied down significant Confederate forces, preventing them from shifting troops from one theater to another, the two main armies, Meade's Army of the Potomac and William Tecumseh Sherman's army group at Chattanooga would lock horns respectively with Lee in Virginia and Joe Johnson's Army of Tennessee on the road to Atlanta. The simultaneous advance of several armies is called "concentration in time."

The battle of the Wilderness was a tactical Confederate victory, but the Army of the Potomac did not behave as it had in the past when previous Union commanders had pulled back after being defeated, giving both sides an opportunity to rest and regroup. The Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 reflected Grant's military philosophy. "The art of war," he maintained, "is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on." Grant continued to press Lee, accepting massive casualties as long as the Army of the Potomac continued to inflict losses on the Confederates. In this new war of attrition, Grant knew that the South lacked the manpower to keep up the fight indefinitely. Therefore, over the next month, Grant was in constant contact with Lee—at Spotsylvania, North Ana, and Cold Harbor. While Lee, operating on interior lines, was able to parry each blow, he could never wrest the initiative from his adversary. Eventually Grant and Meade were able to sidestep Lee once more, cross the James River, and besiege Petersburg.

While Grant kept Lee occupied in Virginia, General William Tecumseh Sherman, overall commander of Union armies in the West, began his march from Chattanooga to Atlanta, capturing that city in September of 1864. Subsequently, Sherman launched his famous "march to the sea," abandoning any reliance on lines of supply and living off the land. He cut a swath through Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, capturing that city in December. On the way, he destroyed rail lines and other resources that might sustain the Confederate war effort. This brutal "total war" strategy was designed to break southerner's will to resist. Indeed, Confederate desertion rates rose as it became clear that the neither the Confederate government nor the state of Georgia could protect the civilian population. While this total war policy was effective in bringing the South to its knees, many have questioned the morality of this way of war. It was a grim preview of the way in which wars would commonly be fought in the twentieth century.

By April 1865, it was impossible for the South to put off the inevitable. Confederate forces were merely a shadow of what they had been at the beginning of the war, and morale was at an all-time low. After Union forces broke the Confederate lines defending Petersburg, Lee abandoned Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and made a bid to escape to the west in the hope of linking up with what remained of Joe Johnston's Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. However, the Army of the Potomac cut off his escape and on April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Not long afterwards, Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina. The war was finally over.

For more information on this topic, you may consult the Civil War Timeline, part of the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project.

Preparation Instructions

Two activities accompany this lesson. Review the activities, making sure to bookmark websites and primary documents that you will use. Remember to download and print out the documents necessary for the activities. You will also need to print out the corresponding worksheets from the attached Text Documents, making enough copies for the entire class.

In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Turning Points: Gettysburg and Vicksburg

The military history of the Civil War has fascinated Americans since the end of the war. Two of the most famous campaigns of the war are Gettysburg and Vicksburg, both of which took place during the summer of 1863. In this activity, students will create a promotional guide for either the Vicksburg or Gettysburg National Military Park, explaining why that particular campaign deserves to be considered the true turning point of the Civil War.

To begin, ask students what is meant by "turning point." Briefly discuss with students the campaigns of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Basic information about these campaigns is located in the "Background for the Teacher" section.

Break the class into groups of 3–4 students. Assign half of the groups Gettysburg and the other half Vicksburg. Tell students that they are to research their campaign to make a travel brochure for their park. This brochure should, in a visually attractive manner, answer the questions below and explain why their campaign marked the turning point of the Civil War. This travel brochure can be created in various different ways, from computer software to construction paper and glue, depending on the resources available. At the minimum it should be one page tri-folded. In addition to answering the questions below and explaining why the campaign marked the turning point in the Civil War, students should place 4–6 images of their battlefield into their brochure. Remind students that the purpose of travel brochures is to make people want to visit that site for its historical significance. Therefore not only does their brochure have to be informative, but eye-catching as well.

Depending on which campaign they are to study, students should be directed to one of the following sites, both of which are accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Links to the Past, the website of the National Park Service:

Following the directions in the PDF "The Turning Points: Gettysburg and Vicksburg" that accompanies this activity, students will prepare for their brochures by answering (as homework) the following questions about their campaign:

  • What were each side's objectives going into the campaign?
  • Who were the commanders on each side?
  • What were the most noteworthy features of the campaign?
  • What factors enabled the North to win?
  • What factors hindered the South?
  • How did the result of this campaign contribute to the overall victory of the Union in the Civil War?
  • How might the course of the war have been different if the Confederates had won this campaign?

Once students have completed this assessment, have a "gallery walk" of the brochures. Students will place their brochures around the room and be given approximately 15 minutes to walk around and look at their classmates' brochures. If time permits, you may wish to have students peer evaluate each other's brochures.

To conclude, as a large group have students discuss which of the two campaigns really turned the tide of the war. Is it really possible to argue that one battle was more significant than the other? What psychological effect did the dates of the campaigns play on each side? (In other words, the fact that the victories occurred not only at about the same time in two different theatres of war, but also the symbolism of the Northern victory at Vicksburg happening on July 4.)

Activity 2. Total War

By 1864 the war had clearly turned in favor of the North. However, in order to bring about final victory, William Tecumseh Sherman believed that it would be necessary to resort to "total war"—in other words, to bring the war directly to southern civilians.

To begin, write "total war" on the board and ask students in pairs, to make a definition of what they think it means. As a class, make a list of definitions/ideas on the board. For further assistance, see the "Background" section for more information concerning Total War. Conclude the class discussion by explaining why Sherman employed total war tactics in 1864–1865. Read aloud the following quote from Sherman: "Until we can repopulate Georgia, it is useless to occupy it: but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources. By attempting to hold the roads we will lose a thousand men monthly, and will gain no result. I can make the march and make Georgia howl. ..."

Next, break the class into two groups: Northern soldiers and Southern civilians. Hand out the following documents (available in excerpted form on pages 1–5 of the PDF Document for this activity "Total War" ) related to Sherman's march through the South. Students should read these documents and write a one page diary entry from the point of view of their group assignment explaining their feelings or thoughts about this new concept of total war and the tactics being used.

All of the following documents are from the EDSITEment-reviewed sites "Documenting the American South" and Teaching American History.

When class begins again the next day, ask a few volunteers to read their diary entries. Have students, in their groups, make a list of the pros and cons of total war. Then, as a class, place these lists on the board. Discuss these with students pointing out that total war, while commonplace today, was a new and frightening part of war during this time period.


Both the travel brochure and the diary entries may be graded as assessment tools.

At the end of this lesson, students should be able to write brief (3-5 paragraphs) essays in response to the following questions:

  • What were the key battles of the war, and what made them important?
  • What was the purpose and implications of a total war strategy?

Students should also be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Robert E. Lee
  • Vicksburg
  • Gettysburg
  • U.S. Grant
  • William Tecumseh Sherman

Extending The Lesson

There have been numerous movies made about the Civil War. Students may wish to watch some of these popular movies, such as Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, or Glory. Students could watch one of these movies and compare it to the actual events on which the film is based. Here again, the sources linked from the locations on the interactive map will be useful for background.

Thousands of volumes have been written about the Civil War. And though it is nearly 150 years old, it is still the most-researched event in American History. Another possible activity would be to have students dig more deeply into some of the war's other battles. Using the interactive Civil War map, have students, in pairs, select a battle to research. Students can then create some visual presentation (PowerPoint, poster, etc.) in which they display to the class the information concerning their battle.

The Civil War at Sea

Although frequently overlooked, the naval battles of the Civil War played a critical role in determining the war's outcome. In this activity students will learn about several important engagements by studying the ships that participated in them.

Begin by dividing the class into six or eight groups (depending on class size), and have each one conduct online research about a particular naval vessel used by the Union or Confederate navies. The PDF document for this activity entitled " The Civil War at Sea" contains one-page handouts that include web links and directions for each group.

The ships to be studied—and the sites to which they should be directed-are as follows (omit the last two if only six groups are used). Note that all these links may be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Naval Historical Center.

Some of the sites use abbreviations that will be unfamiliar to students; they should be directed to the "Abbreviations and Symbols" page for explanations of these.

Group #1: U.S.S. Monitor:

Group #2: C.S.S. Virginia

Group #3: U.S.S. Housatonic

Group #4: C.S.S. H.L. Hunley:

Group #5: U.S.S. Kearsarge:

Group #6: C.S.S. Alabama:

Group #7: U.S.S. Wachusett:

Group #8: C.S.S. Florida:

With the help of these resources, each group should produce (either during class time or as homework) a poster-sized graphic presentation of the group's assigned ship and its history. Each poster should include the following:

  • A drawing of the ship
  • Basic information about the ship, including:
    • Type of vessel (commerce raider, ironclad, submarines, etc.)
    • Dimensions (tonnage, length, beam, etc.)
    • Armament
    • Name of commanding officer
  • A timeline of noteworthy events of the ship's history, including:
    • When the ship was launched
    • Important assignments
    • Battles in which the ship was engaged
    • When the ship was decommissioned or sunk

During the next class period each group should make a brief (5-minute) presentation explaining how its ship contributed to the outcome of the war. This should be followed by a discussion of the role that the naval war played in the Union victory. Although this should naturally come up in the discussion, teachers may have to remind students of the importance of the Union's blockade of southern ports, which severely hampered the ability of the Confederacy to sell its cotton abroad and to purchase arms and supplies from other countries.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources