Conclusion: Reasons for Union Victory
The Union’s advantages as a large industrial power and its leaders’ political skills contributed to decisive wins on the battlefield and ultimately victory against the Confederates in the American Civil War.
Summarize the reasons the Union won, and identify crucial turning points in the Civil War
- Some historians believe that the Confederacy would have had a chance at victory had they attempted to outlast the Union by maintaining a defensive, rather than an offensive, overall strategy.
- Abraham Lincoln ’s reelection as president in 1864 and his eloquence as a wartime leader killed any Southern hopes of winning over Northerners to the Confederacy’s political cause on a large scale.
- The Union’s long-term advantages as an industrial power with a large population to draw upon rivaled the strength of the Southern plantation-centered, agricultural economy.
- The Battle of Gettysburg, often considered the war’s turning point, caused the Confederate Army to retreat following a bold campaign that had the Confederates advancing further north than they had ventured previously in the war.
- The fall and occupation of Atlanta and Sherman’s March that followed wore down Confederate psychological, economic, and strategic resolve.
- General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
- Sherman’s March: The name commonly given to the Savannah Campaign conducted through Georgia from November 15, 1864, to December 21, 1864, by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army in the American Civil War. The campaign began with Sherman's troops leaving the captured city of Atlanta on November 16 and ended with the capture of the port of Savannah on December 21. It inflicted significant damage, particularly to industry and infrastructure (per the doctrine of total war), and also to civilian property.
- The Battle of Gettysburg: A battle fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, resulting in the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War and often described as the war's turning point.
- scorched earth: A military strategy or operational method that involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area.
Historians have long debated whether there was ever a chance of Confederate victory in the American Civil War. Northern public opinion would not have supported a long or costly war, so it follows that if the Confederate Army had managed to outlast its opponents in defensive battles rather than invade Union territory, the Confederacy might have had a chance at overall victory. However, there are various reasons the Union prevailed, including a handful of turning points during the war at which point the Confederate cause seemed practically unsalvageable.
1864 was a watershed year for President Abraham Lincoln and the Union war effort. During that year, Lincoln defeated George McClellan to secure reelection in the presidential election, signaling approval and support from Republicans, War Democrats, border states, and newly emancipated slaves. That, combined with the stated neutrality of Britain and France, all but silenced opposing perspectives from Democrats and Copperheads in the North, reducing overall Northern political support for the Confederate cause. Lincoln’s eloquence went a long way toward securing these political victories. He was skilled at rationalizing the Union’s national purpose in fighting against the Confederate rebels to keep the country together and deftly managed to keep the border states committed to that purpose. Lincoln also utilized his war powers appropriately in releasing the Emancipation Proclamation at a time when it would have the most long-lasting effects against Confederates while also being received favorably within the Union and around the world.
Military Advantages and Victories
The reality of the Union’s many long-term military advantages was also significant in creating a Union victory. Though the Confederates believed that their agricultural (especially cotton) production was crucial to wartime success and ultimately diplomatic recognition from the outside world, the Union’s industrial strength and much larger population proved to be just as, if not more, central. Historian Shelby Foote has even compared the Union war effort, given its greater store of resources, to a fight in which an opponent has one hand tied behind its back: Had the South been more victorious on the battlefield, the North still would have had resources to draw upon to squash the rebellion, whereas the South fought with all it had to offer and still could not exact a decisive victory against its opponent.
The Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1–3, 1863, is often considered the turning point of the war itself. During the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee’s troops were advancing further north than they had ventured previously during the war, but the Union Army was able to reverse their advance after defeating the Confederates in the Battle of Gettysburg. President Lincoln and his advisors at the time believed that had the Union been successful in completely destroying Lee’s forces, the war could have been ended then and there. That didn’t happen, however, and the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the bloodiest battle of the war, resulting in 51,000 casualties out of the 160,000 soldiers who fought. As such, it captured the imaginations of Northerners and Southerners alike, highlighting the popular importance of the eastern theater of the American Civil War in any future cessation of hostilities.
The fall and occupation of Atlanta in the autumn of 1864, and Sherman’s March to the Sea that followed, were also turning points in the war, breaking the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for further warfare. Sherman’s scorched earth policies throughout the Atlanta Campaign traumatized the South. Union troops burned crops, killed livestock, and took supplies, leaving a desolate path of destruction in their wake. That, combined with years of a successful naval blockade leveled against the South, took a heavy psychological and economic toll that was not easily reversed, even after the war ended.
In early April 1865, Lee’s army was fighting Grant’s forces in a series of battles in the Appomattox Campaign that stretched Lee’s lines of defenses very thin. Being too spread out to effectively defend against Grant’s attacks along a 30-mile front, the troops became exhausted and increasingly vulnerable. At 8:30 a.m. the morning of April 9, Lee requested a meeting with Grant, and during that meeting he surrendered his troops, leading to a series of surrenders across theaters. On May 10, 1865, Union cavalrymen captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the last land battle of the Civil War took place two days later near Brownsville, Texas. A federal victory was secured and the Union was made whole again.