American Civil War: Conclusion

Back: The West

The Union won the American Civil War in the west. While successive Union generals attempted to capture Richmond, the western Confederacy was dismantled, state by state, city by city, until Sherman’s army was able to march through the heart of the Confederacy and threaten Richmond from the south.

In some ways the Virginia front of 1864 foreshadowed the Western Front. However, while the battle between Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia saw prolonged periods of fighting, often against well entrenched positions and with heavy casualties on both sides, Grant’s attacks were concentrated against relatively small sections of the thirty miles of fortifications around Richmond and Petersburg. The deadlock came because Lee was able to move his troops around within the defences to deal with Grant’s attacks. Only when Lee’s army was exhausted at the start of 1865 was Grant willing to launch an attack on a wide front.

More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined. Combined casualties came to at least 620,000 dead, with over a million casualties in all. In the Second World War, a similar number of casualties included 407,316 deaths (due largely to a massive increase in the ability of battlefield medicine to save the wounded).

These high casualty figures are in part due to the nature of a civil war – all the casualties are suffered by the same country (although even taken separately the 360,000 Union dead come close to the Second World War figure) – and partly due to the particularly lethal nature of the Civil War battlefield. The rifled musket had greatly increased the killing power of the infantryman, especially on the defensive, making it much harder to achieve a decisive victory. An incredibly high percentage of all available men of military age served during the civil war – some three and a quarter million men in all, representing about one in four of all white men in the south, and not a much lower population of the male population of the north (not to mention a good many men from the black and white populations of the south who fought for the Union).

Perhaps most importantly, the Civil War freed around four million slaves across the United States. Just how long an independent Confederacy would have been able to maintain slavery against near universal international condemnation is impossible to say, but it is hard to imagine any post-war Confederate leader being willing to voluntarily dismantle the institution that the south had gone to war for. The American Civil War is thus one of the few wars that can clearly be seen to having achieved something worthwhile. The 360,000 Union dead died for a good cause.

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A Great Civil WarA Great Civil War, Russel F. Wiegley, Indiana University Press, 2004, 648 pages. This is a superb account of the civil war years. Weigley has produced a book that combines a good understanding of the military aspects of the war with a clear grasp of the wider issues at stake. [see more]
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Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]
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Battles and LeadersBattles and Leaders of the Civil War (1 volume selection), ed. Ned Bradford. Less than twenty years after the end of the war, most of the surviving commanders contributed to the original four volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. This single volume edition picks out articles on the most important battles of the war, as well as an interesting selection of articles from civilians and private soldiers. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: Conclusion ,

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