11th Grade: The Civil War: Causes and Conclusion

For the coming test I want the students to think about the following question: ‘How did the causes of the war impact  how the war was fought, and how did these factors help lead to the ultimate victory of Union forces?’

The first thing they need to do is to discern what they believe to be the root cause of the war.  The three main options are:

1. Some say that slavery is the root cause of the war.  While slavery was not a direct issue in 1861, it influenced all the political controversies of the time, and all the previous political controversies, going back to the Declaration of Independence itself (where a section condemning slavery was removed from the original text).

2. Some say that the root cause of the war was growth of federal power that came to erode a proper constitutional balance between state and national government.  This theory sees the Confederacy not as radicals but as preservers of a truly American vision.

3. Both of the previous theories have good guys and bad guys (in the first, the South is the bad guy, in the second, the North), but there is another approach to the war that does not see good guys v. bad guys, what I will call ‘The Cultural Opposition Theory’ of the conflict’s origin (if nothing else, the name makes me sound smarter than I really am :).

This theory sees both sides drawing upon the founders vision.  We tend to think of the founders in 1787 having one coherent vision for the country, but this was not so.  The North latches on more to Alexander Hamilton’s idea of the U.S. having a strong national government with a manufacturing base.   The South adopts Jefferson’s vision of limited national power with an agricultural base.  Thus, both sides were right in a sense in claiming to be the inheritors of what it meant to be “American.”  These different ideas produce different societies that have different values, practices, and cultures.  These opposing cultures each have their merits, their strong and weak points.  But — they would inevitably come to blows at some point.  In this view the war doesn’t have a good guy or bad guy.  The conflict started because one of these visions had to win out in the end, though neither vision was “right” or “wrong” per se.

To the best of my knowledge these are the theories with the most prominence among historians.  There are a few others, such as those that historically see conflict inevitably associated with territorial expansion (in this case, the Civil War had its roots in the huge expansion after the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War) or those that use economics as the key to explaining human behavior.  If students are not satisfied with any of the suggestions I offered, they are welcome to come up with their own.

After making a case for the war, students then need to link the cause with how the war was fought, and then link again the fighting to the eventual Union victory.  This means that they have to synthesize what they know from 1800-1865 and create a unified narrative.  This is a challenge, but I hope that students will enjoy that challenge and rise to the occasion.

As always, students are welcome to show me any rough draft or outline of their thoughts before the test.

Dave Mathwin