A.P Us History Essay On Civil War

You would be hard pressed to find many more important events in the history of the United States than the Civil War. It pitted brother against brother and tore the young nation apart. At the heart of the conflict was slavery. Even though there were many other cultural and political differences between the north and the south, many believe that the Civil War started because of the inflexible differences between the free and slave states and the role of the federal government in prohibiting slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. It all boiled down to slavery and “states’ rights”.

In this AP US History review, we will discuss how to prepare for the APUSH exam as it pertains to the Civil War. The Civil War is heavily tested on the exam, but it is not possible to cover every aspect of the conflict. So, to get you as prepared as possible, we will cover several key concepts that will be instrumental in developing a thorough understanding.

Expansionism and Slavery

As America expanded its borders to the west, the issue of slavery was at the forefront. The U.S. had just gone to war with Mexico after Texas was admitted to the Union as a slave state. The controversy over the issue of slavery was now raging in the nation’s capital and all over the country. This burning question would eventually lead to the breakup of the union. That breakup would lead to a war where the Northern and Western states and territories fought to keep the Union, and the South fought for independence as a new confederation of states with its own constitution.

Compromise Fails

There were early attempts at compromise to settle the differences between the two sides. The Free-Soil Party (made up of antislavery advocates for all parties) nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate. Democrat Lewis Cass came on the scene supporting states’ right to decide the slavery issue. In the end, Whig Zachary Taylor won the election of 1848, putting slavery on the back-burner again.

The Compromise of 1850 bought time for the Union when California was admitted to the Union as a free state. But tougher slave laws and popular sovereignty (rule by the people) became difficult for Northerners to take. Other events, like the Dred Scott decision, divided the nation and further fanned the flames of war.

Dred Scott was a slave who sought citizenship. His case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The 1857 decision denied Scott’s his request by stating that African Americans were not citizens. The ruling also overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had forbade slavery in certain U.S. territories.

At that point, many Americans believed that the Union was on the verge of breaking apart. At the Democratic convention, Southerners walked out in protest over the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas, whom they saw as a traitor. The party split in two and made way for the moderate Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, who ran on the message that slavery should be contained where it currently existed. Lincoln won the election with about 40 percent of the vote, but with the South still in control of the other two branches of government, secession seemed inevitable.

The South Secedes

Less than a week after election votes were counted, the South Carolina legislature voted to secede from the Union. Six more Southern states followed suit in the ensuing weeks. In February of 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed, and Jefferson Davis named its president. Attempts to find a compromise failed, and in April of 1861, the war began with shots fired at the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston.

War-Drums Sound

Each side was now making preparations for war and looked to take advantage of its own strengths while exploiting the enemies’ weaknesses. The North’s with a huge population had an early advantage in the size of its army. The number would grow later in the war thanks to emancipated slaves who joined the war effort on the side of the Union. Northerners also controlled the banks, railroads, and factories. But it came at a cost, for they had to levy the first-ever income tax to pay for the war.

The South was mainly an agrarian economy and was at a disadvantage, lacking basic resources needed to wage war. They lacked equipment and had limited means to transport men, supplies or goods for manufacture. Even their hopes for using cotton to bolster their economy failed because the British and French saw the Confederates as a liability for a future relationship with the U.S. Demand for cotton plunged and the South had to issue bonds to pay for the war and overprint their paper currency.

Both sides found it difficult to find soldiers to fight the war. Desertion was widespread. Initially, the Union army was made up primarily of volunteers but had to resort to conscription in 1863 to draft young men into service. This move caused unrest and riots in the North.

The South used volunteers as well, but with a small population to draw on, they too had to employ conscription to fill the needs of a fighting force. Class and wealth were an influence on who this hit hardest. Wealthy plantation owners would bribe others to serve for them. Fear of arming slaves kept the South from using African-Americans until the war was almost over.

Military Engagements

The Union had hoped to strike quickly and deal a mortal blow to the South in Virginia. The South was, however, more dogged than the Union had expected. The first battle of the Civil War would sober the North into realizing that this was going to be a long, bloody, and bitter fight.

In July of 1861, the North marched from Washington D.C. to Bull Run (Manassas) where Confederate troops were massed for the oncoming attack. At first, the Union seemed to be in control of the battlefield, but reinforcements led by General “Stonewall” Jackson arrived. Southern forces engaged and sent the Union forces in retreat to D.C. This battle reminded the North that this was not going to be a quick war. The South were emboldened by their victory, but grew complacent.

It was General Winfield Scott who led efforts to devise a four-phased plan to wear down the Confederate army. The first phase would have the Union Navy blockade all Southern ports, cutting off their supplies. The second phase would involve taking control of the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in two. The third step would involve slicing through the heart of the South by marching through Georgia, then winding up the southeast coast to the Carolina’s. The final phase would be to capture the Southern capital at Richmond and finishing off the last of the Confederate army.

The Second Battle of Bull Run

President Lincoln was losing his patience with the pace of the war. With troops finally trained for battle, General McClellan sent his troops into the Virginia Peninsula in March of 1862 to engage Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his forces. Union forces were once again forced to retreat quickly. Lee took advantage of Northern indecisiveness and engaged Union forces again in the Second Battle of Bull Run. It was Union general John Pope who was sent running back across the Potomac in retreat.

The Bloody Battle of Antietam

Lee was now in control, or so he thought. He had two victories under his belt and knew that a third could bring the South much-needed foreign aid. Lee did not know that McClellan had advance knowledge of his battle plans. In September of 1862, Lee led his men into Northern-controlled Maryland, but Union forces were able to cut Lee off at Antietam Creek. This was the bloodiest day of the Civil War, with more than 22,000 men killed or wounded. Lee was forced to retreat to Virginia, but McClellan made the mistake of not pursuing the retreating Southern forces. Enraged by his inaction, Lincoln replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside.

Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln carried out the promise he made shortly after the Battle of Antietam and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation stated that slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. Even though this only applied to slaves in the rebellious states, Lincoln’s bold act was a crucial turning point in the war because it transformed the fight to preserve the Union into a battle for human freedom.

Control of the Mississippi and the Battle of Gettysburg

The Union plan to control the Mississippi was working. General Ulysses S. Grant was able to fight his way through Kentucky and Tennessee, including a bloody battle at Shiloh in Tennessee in April of 1862. By the spring of 1863, Grant controlled New Orleans and most of the Mississippi region. In a final push, he launched an attack at Vicksburg, Mississippi, taking it after a seven-week siege. The Union now controlled all of the Mississippi.

After three years of fighting, Southern troops were still able to keep battling. General Jackson defeated the Union at Chancellorsville, but sadly, Jackson was killed by friendly fire in the battle, along with 13,000 of his men. In a last-ditch effort to invade the North, General Lee launched an invasion of the North at the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This was the deadliest and most costly battle of the war. It lasted from July 1 to 3, 1863, and some 53,000 men were killed or wounded. Lee would not recover and retreated to Virginia.

Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, 15,000 people attended the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of the battle. President Lincoln was invited to make a few remarks at the cemetery’s consecration. In his address, Lincoln honored the fallen dead and reminded those there that those soldiers’ sacrifices and the war itself were necessary to the survival of the nation. This became his inspiring and historic Gettysburg Address. The speech only lasted two minutes, but his words live on today.

Sherman’s March on Atlanta

William Tecumseh Sherman was picked to lead the Northern troops through the South. The Union army captured Atlanta in September of 1864, but not before the Confederates burned it in retreat. Sherman used a scorched-earth policy to try and inflict as much misery on the Southerners as possible in an attempt to get them to surrender. He was able to subsequently capture Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina by February of 1865. The war was about to come to an end, with the Union victorious.

Lee Surrenders and Lincoln’s Assassination

Lee abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond in April of 1865 and sued for peace with President Lincoln. Lincoln wanted nothing short of unconditional surrender and restoration of the Union. Surrounded by Grant’s forces, Lee agreed to surrender and on April 9, 1865, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia official surrendered at the Appomattox Court House.

Tragically, President Lincoln would only be able to enjoy the North’s victory for a few days. He was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while attending a play at Ford’s theater.

Slavery is Abolished

The only remaining obstacle to the end of slavery was the Constitution. Since its inception, those who interpreted the document either ignored the slavery issue or supported the institution. President Lincoln need the amendment to fully realize freedom for all slaves. He worked relentlessly to get enough support in Congress to pass what would become the Thirteenth Amendment. Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated before he could see the amendment ratified in March of 1866.


Before his assassination, Lincoln had formulated a plan for the rebuilding of the Union. He issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863. This was a way to bring Southern states back into the Union under a federal government. There was no clear agreement on how to rebuild the Union, but many important pieces of legislation resulted from earlier efforts. The Reconstruction period lasted from the end of the Civil War until 1877 when the Democrats were restored to power in the South.

The Civil War and the AP US History Exam

The Civil War is a key event to understand for the AP US History Exam. To prepare for a possible essay question on the exam concerning the Civil War, you will need to focus on some key areas. Understand that expansion, slavery, and states’ rights were at the heart of the tensions that divided the nation.

You should also be able to explain how the North and South attempted to find common ground, but in the end, their differences could not be reconciled, and in 1861, the Civil War began. Knowing the key leaders and battles discussed in the APUSH review will help you see how the war progressed and the strategy and politics behind the military campaigns. Being able to tie it all together with how the war ended, how the slaves were freed, and the daunting task of reconstruction will help you prepare for the AP US History exam.

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Civil War PowerPoint Presentations


The Civil War was followed by a twelve year period of Reconstruction, as Presidents Lincoln and Johnson attempted to bring the Confederate states back into the Union under generous terms while the Radical Republicans in Congress advocated that these states should be treated like "conquered provinces." Reconstruction ended with Compromise of 1877, which restored white Democratic rule in the South in return for Southern acquiescence to a Republican victory in the 1876 presidential election.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 led to the secession of the Deep South and the formation of the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began in 1861 as a limited war between Union forces seeking to preserve the Union and Confederate forces seeking to preserve their independence and domestic institutions. Over time, Lincoln's limited war to preserve the Union grew into a total war whose objectives included the abolition of slavery. The war ended with the surrender of Confederate forces in 1865.

The process of Reconstruction lasted longer than the war, itself. While Lincoln attempted to implement a lenient Presidential Reconstruction policy, after his assassination, the national mood favored the Radical Reconstruction policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress. The former Confederate states would not be completely restored until 1877, when the last federal troops were removed from South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida as part of a compromise to settle the 1876 presidential election.

APUSH Period 5

The content of this unit spans the first part of Period 5 in the AP US History curriculum framework.

Unit Guide and Primary Sources

"What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!"
                                                                              -- Robert E. Lee

Causes of the Civil War

Lecture Outline

Click the image for a link to my lecture outline on the Causes of the Civil War. This is a work in progress but may still be helpful to students.

Union and Confederate Advantages

Although the Union enjoyed many material advantages at the outset of the Civil War, the Confederates had some advantages, as well.
This music video by MrBettsClass is a great and fun way to review the advantages of the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The Civil War

The Emancipation Proclamation

The Gettysburg Address

YouTube Videos

HipHughes' "Hugs and Slugs" lecture is a great short overview of Reconstruction.
Here's a Reconstruction music video from MrBettsClass just for fun!
Reconstruction: Part I
​US History EOC Review
Reconstruction: Part II
​US History EOC Review

PowerPoint Presentations

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