Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: On the Eve of War: North vs. South

A We The People Resource
Created July 17, 2010


The Lesson


A Confederate artillery battery at Charleston, South Carolina

A Confederate artillery battery at Charleston, South Carolina, with Fort Sumter in the background across the water (April, 1861). The bombardment and capture of this fort by the Confederates was the beginning of major hostilities between the States.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

In December of 1860, after Lincoln won the presidential election, Southern states began seceding from the United States in an effort to preserve their way of life. What was it exactly about that way of life that southerners were so determined to preserve? For decades prior to the war, tensions between the North and South continued to escalate as both regions traveled down different paths of advancement. The North, fueled by an immigration boom, industrialized, whereas Southern reliance on "King Cotton" kept them agriculturally tied to the land, and dependent on the institution of chattel slavery.

This lesson will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the North and South on the eve of the war. In making this comparison, students will decide which side, if any, had an advantage at the start of the Civil War. During the course of this lesson, students will read original documents to explore Northern and Southern strengths and weaknesses in 1861.

Guiding Questions

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

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.


As hostilities broke out between the North and South, both sides believed that they would prevail in short order. Few on either side, envisioned a bloody four-year war that would pit brother against brother. In retrospect, it is very easy to say that the North possessed the advantage, but in 1861, that distinction was not as clear.

At the outset, the South seemed to have great advantages. First and foremost, Southerners were fighting a defensive war on their own soil. They knew the terrain and the most efficient means to traverse it. In addition, when fighting a defensive war, the standard of victory is considerably lower. Defenders need not capture and hold enemy territory, but survive long enough to wear out their opponents. The North's war goal of reoccupying the South would be more difficult to accomplish than the Southern goal of surviving. This defensive fighting also gave the South an important advantage in morale. These men were fighting on their own soil for their own institutions. They had a more immediate and passionate reason for fighting than most enlisted Northerners.

On the other hand, fighting on one's own soil can be a disadvantage, especially if the invader is successful. The loss of territory can adversely affect the morale of both soldiers and citizens. As the war progressed, this disadvantage would become all the more apparent, especially in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Union successes in western and central Tennessee also deprived the Confederacy of important resources, both agricultural and industrial.

Militarily, the South had the service of many talented military leaders. Southerners had long prized careers in the military as a proper background for a gentleman. For generations, the sons of wealthy southerners had gone north to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to return as highly-trained military men. Among those who went with their states when they seceded included such notable generals such as Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, James Longstreet and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. While overall less than one-third of West Point graduates of the appropriate age joined the Confederacy, most of the Union's truly successful commanders held lower ranks at the beginning of the war, and would only gradually rise to the top.

In addition, southerners believed that there was an excellent chance that they could draw on assistance from abroad, particularly from Great Britain. As early as 1858 Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina told his Senate colleagues that no country would dare to make war on the South. The world was so dependent on cotton, he claimed, that Southerners could coerce any foreign country into coming to their aid merely by threatening not to sell it. Moreover, many British elites tended to sympathize with the Confederate cause, perhaps even seeing a long-term strategic advantage in the dissolution of the American Union. If the British were to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy, or even provide substantial aid, the North's chances would have been bleak, indeed.

In terms of material factors, however, the Confederacy was at a significant disadvantage. The South simply lacked the industrial base and the capital to fight a long, drawn-out, modern war. Major industrial areas within the Confederacy were limited to Richmond and Atlanta. In 1861, the seceded states were able to seize Federal arsenals and armories located within their borders. The combination of limited industrial resources and the seizure of Federal installations permitted the Confederacy to do a better-than-expected job of equipping and supplying its forces in the field. Nonetheless, the Confederacy was chronically short of just about every kind of material necessary to fight a war. On the eve of the conflict, the North controlled three-fourths of both the nation's wealth and the nation's railways. The South did have some railroads, but they were sparse and often of different gauges, making travel on them quite cumbersome.

During the early 1800s, while the South was planting more and more cotton, the North turned to industrialization. The North, of course, also produced agricultural goods. Indeed, during the war, Northern farms produced enough surplus crops to sell to European countries. But a problem in the South, nearly as bad as a lack of industrialization, was its lack of agricultural diversification. Land that might have been used to produce foodstuffs was devoted to cotton. The Northern advantage in industrialization was substantial. Nearly all of the nation's manufactured goods, including 94 percent of the nation's cloth, and 91 percent of its footwear, were produced in the northern states. This enabled the U.S. Army to feed, clothe, and transport its troops much more efficiently than that of the Confederacy.

This industrialization also gave the North an even greater resource: a seemingly unlimited supply of manpower. The immigration waves of the 1830s through the 1850s had doubled the population of the North. On the eve of the war, there were an estimated 22 million people in Northern states, compared to the South's nine million. Of that nine million, 3.5 million were slaves. Slaves were both a resource and a burden to the South. On the one hand, they provided a great deal of labor that benefited the Confederate cause. While never armed as soldiers, as in the North, they did serve as teamsters, foragers, and cooks, thereby freeing up white soldiers for front line duty. On the other hand, the longstanding fear of a slave revolt remained with Southerners throughout the war. Accordingly, the Confederacy never enlisted slaves in the Army. A large slave population among white Southerners also, meant the establishment of severe police policies at home to prevent a slave uprising and ensure that slaves did not attempt to escape their masters. As we know, the latter effort failed as thousands of slaves took advantage of the presence of Union armies to escape into Federal lines.

Perhaps the greatest Southern disadvantage was geography. Long coastlines and many navigable rivers made the Confederacy vulnerable to an overwhelming Northern advantage—naval power. In conjunction with the Union Army, the Union Navy was able to seize many major Southern ports. Those the Navy did not seize, it blockaded. While blockades did not close them completely, they did reduce the importation of goods necessary for the war effort. This Naval power also permitted the Union to exploit the navigable inland waters of the Confederacy, especially the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, permitting Union armies to penetrate deep into the South fairly early in the war.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say that the North held the overall advantage going into the Civil War, but in 1861 the picture was far from clear. All of these factors—economic, military, and diplomatic, made the war's outcome difficult to predict. In any case, these factors guaranteed that it would be a long, bloody conflict.

For more background information on opening moves of the Civil War, see the following EDSITEment-reviewed resources:

Preparation Instructions

One activity accompanies this lesson. Review the activity and bookmark websites and primary documents that you will use, or download and print out the corresponding worksheets from the attached Text Document, making enough copies for the entire class.

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

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. North versus South

In this activity students will consider the economic, military, and diplomatic balance of the North and South in 1861. Based on their examination of these factors, they will make a judgment as to which side possessed the overall advantage at the outset of the war.

Begin by dividing the class into two sides, the Northerners and the Southerners. Hand out the project description on page 1 of the PDF Document "North versus South" and discuss the project and all of its steps to complete with the class. The members of each side should then divide themselves equally into three subgroups. One subgroup will look at the economic balance, another subgroup will look at the military balance, and the third subgroup will research the diplomatic balance for their side. To do so each subgroup will consult a set of documents from EDSITEment-reviewed resources, available on pages 2-11 of the PDF Document that accompanies this lesson.

North and South Group #1: The Economic Balance (pages 2-3 of the PDF)

These subgroups will consider material factors such as population and industrial production. Using the following sources-from the EDSITEment-reviewed websites Teaching American History and the Gilder-Lehman Institute for American History-their job is to determine which side held the advantage in each of the following areas: wealth, manufacturing, food production, cotton production, railroads, slaves, and immigrants. They will do so by completing a worksheet located on pages 2-3 of the PDF. Note that for many of these factors a case could be made that the advantage lies with either side. For example, the Northern side might argue that its larger number of immigrants is an advantage, because it enhances the manpower pool. On the other hand, the Southern side might claim that it gives them the advantage, based on the greater ethnic cohesiveness of the Confederate states. In any case, students should be reminded to cite specific evidence from the sources to back up their claims.

North and South Group #2: The Military Balance (pages 4-7 of the PDF)

These subgroups will consider which side had the overall military advantage in 1861, first by comparing the top-ranking field commanders on each side, and then by determining what each side would have to do in order to achieve victory. The sources for this purpose are from the EDSITEment-reviewed sites Teaching American History and The Avalon Project, as well as the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Lincoln/Net. Excerpts of the documents may be found on pages 5-7 of the PDF.

As they study these sources, they should answer the following questions, citing specific evidence from the documents to support their answers. The questions are located in worksheet form on pages 4-5, 6, and 7 of the PDF.

  • Which side's commanders were more likely to have attended the U.S. military academy at West Point? Why might this make a difference in determining the overall military balance?
  • Which side's commanders, on average, performed better at West Point? Why might this matter?
  • Which side's commanders, on average, were older? How might this make a difference?
  • Which side's commanders, on average, had more military experience? Why might this be important?
  • What does Lincoln believe to be the overall goal of this war?
  • Based on your reading of this document, what will Union troops have to do in order to win the war?
  • What does Davis believe to be the overall goal of this war?
  • Based on your reading of this document, what will Confederate troops have to do in order to win the war?
  • Comparing the two documents above, which side do you think has the easier task ahead of it, and why?

North and South Group 3: The Diplomatic Balance (pages 8-11 of the PDF)

These subgroups are charged with determining which side, if any, has the better chance of obtaining assistance from abroad, specifically from Great Britain. It might be useful to inform students in this group that Britain was the world's most powerful country at the time, with a global empire and a massive navy. If it were to enter the war it would certainly give a tremendous advantage to whichever side with which it chose to align itself. Students in these groups will read the following documents, located at "Lincoln and the Civil War" (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site HarpWeek) and at Teaching American History. Excerpts are available on pages 8-11 of the PDF Document.

As they study these sources, they should answer the following questions, citing specific evidence from the documents in their answers. The questions are located in worksheet form on pages 8 and 10 of the PDF Document.

  • Why, according to Hammond, was the South's cotton production so important?
  • How did Hammond think that cotton gives the South an advantage over the North in terms of its relations with other countries (Great Britain in particular)?
  • What reason does this editorial give for the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas?
  • Why, according to the editorial, did Lincoln decide to attempt to relieve the garrison at Fort Sumter?
  • Which side does this editorial seem to favor—the North or the South?
  • Assuming that the Illustrated London News is a fair gauge of elite public opinion in Great Britain, what does this suggest about where British sympathies lay?

Each subgroup should be assigned the above material, and the associated worksheets, as homework. During the following class period have the students reconvene into their large Northern and Southern groups. The subgroups on each side will then collaborate in coming up with a class presentation in which they demonstrate why they believe their side is likely to win the war. In doing so, they must address their side's particular strengths and weaknesses, but they should also develop an overall argument as to why their side's advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In addition, each side will need to define its victory conditions; that, is, how will they be able to tell if their side has won the war?

These presentations may take a variety of forms. Depending on the size and composition of the class, they could design a PowerPoint presentation or a poster, or they could perform a skit or a reenactment of a cabinet meeting. Encourage students to be creative in how they present their material. Each subgroup is responsible for making sure that their information is included into the larger presentation. Provide students one class period to prepare for their presentation, having students ready to present the following day. Students are expected to take notes on the opposite presentation.

Once both sides have presented their case for winning the war, conclude by having the class as a whole discuss the two sides' advantages and disadvantages. What did they discover about the two regions that they did not previously know? Based on what they may already know about the outcome of the Civil War, how accurate did their predictions prove to be? How important were these advantages in predicting the result of war? What were the most important advantages in 1861? Had each side been privy to the information you learned, would they have been more likely to accept a compromise?


Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to write a five-paragraph essay answering the following question:

Based on what you have learned in this lesson, which side would you say possessed the overall advantage at the start of the Civil War?

Students should also be able to identify Union and Confederate states on a blank map of the United States, which can be found on the EDSITEment-approved site National Geographic Xpeditions (click United States under Atlas).

Extending The Lesson

Comparing the Constitutions

Have students examine the critical differences between the Constitution of the United States and that of the Confederacy. The full documents may be found at the Avalon Project (U.S. Constitution and the Confederate Constitution), but the relevant excerpts are available on pages 12-14 of the Text Document. Following the excerpts, on pages 14-15, of the PDF document is a chart on which students should summarize in their own words the main areas of difference between the two constitutions. Either individually or in small groups, have the students complete this chart.

Fort Sumter

Often in the excitement to discuss the major battles of the war, the standoff at Fort Sumter tends to get overlooked. If time permits, there is an excellent interactive activity on Fort Sumter located at "Lincoln and the Civil War" (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site HarpWeek). Direct students to the website and follow the directions on the page. To conclude, have students discuss, or write a five paragraph essay, in how they would have handled the situation at Fort Sumter had they been President Lincoln.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • 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 > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • 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
  • 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