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America's History in the Making

A Nation Divided

Theme 1

Although Americans today view the Civil War through the lens of the Union’s ultimate defeat of the Confederacy, for much of the war, the Union victory was far from certain.

Many historians have argued that the North’s victory was the inevitable result of more soldiers, food, miles of railroad track, and industrial output. The Civil War was a modern war, and modern wars have been won by the efficient use of superior material, not by gallant infantry or cavalry charges.

The South’s optimism was not entirely misplaced. They needed only to repel an enemy, not to conquer it. In addition, a significant fraction of the Northern public—far from united behind its new president—resented and resisted the war. The Confederacy also hoped that European nations dependent on its cotton might formally recognize it. The South had the best generals and a few early victories might prove decisive. Its economy, moreover, modernized during the war and gave it staying power.

Both sides hoped for a quick victory. But the war’s outcome hung in the balance until late in the four-year contest.

Primary Sources