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What Are the Vital Factors That Led to a Union Victory in the Civil War?

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The Civil War that took place in the United States from 1861 to 1865 could have easily swung either way at several points during the conflict. There is however several reasons that the North would emerge victorious from this bloody war that pit brother against brother. Some of the main contributing factors are superior industrial capabilities, more efficient logistical support, greater naval power, and a largely lopsided population in favor of the Union. Also one of the advantages the Union had was that of an experienced government, an advantage that very well might have been one of the greatest contributing factors to their success.

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None of Lincoln’s wartime acts was more consequential than when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863. By declaring the freedom of all the slaves of the Confederacy, Lincoln transformed the American Civil War from what was originally a contest to maintain the Union into a struggle for freedom and democracy. This united the North in a moral purpose and gave solidity and resilience to the Union. Whilst Lincoln’s military decisions were often shrewd and decisive, it was his courageous legislative and constitutional decisions that contributed most to the North’s victory. Lincoln had campaigned for his presidency with the promise of pursuing democracy and legitimate government; yet the circumstances of the war forced him to threaten these beloved principles for the duration of the war. Lincoln put into abeyance habeas corpus, called-up the militia, manipulated the press, made declarations of martial law where it could not strictly be justified militarily, allocated finance before congressional approval, suppressed draft riots with soldiers, and issued many other measures like these. Lincoln’s made extraordinary use of these executive powers and yet was not seduced by them. Thus he had a perhaps unique resistance to the temptations of personal power and this shone out to his soldiers and citizens who viewed him as a noble commander for whom they would willingly fight and die. By this strong and vigorous leadership President Lincoln stood for many people as an emblem of the Union itself. Lincoln also had a genius to peer beyond the implications of the Civil War for the Union alone. He detected in the conflict — as few men could — the larger future issue of democracy in the civilized world. Lincoln understood that the Union represented to many Europeans and others a symbol of democratic expectation and promise: the defeat of the Union in America would threaten the growth of democracy elsewhere in the world. He wrote: ‘This is essentially a people’s contest … to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry out an election can suppress a rebellion; and ballots are the rightful successors to bullets’ and this conviction sustained his leadership through many crises. It is of course a conviction whose widest implications were known only to Lincoln himself.

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On April 10, 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to the soldiers of his army that began, “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been forced to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” At this moment, the Civil War essentially ended in victory for the Union, and the process of reuniting the United States of America began. Lee’s immediate view of the circumstances, that the Confederate armies had done everything possible but were overmatched by Northern numbers, provided a means by which his veterans could feel that they had served honorably, but it was challenged almost immediately by other Confederate military and political leaders who blamed instead such factors as incompetent government, social divisions, and political squabbling for their defeat (Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin, 1908). The Confederacy, many felt, would not have embarked on a war it could not win. Indeed, its success in repelling invasions over the first 2 years of the war led many to believe that the war had almost been won. A century and a half later, there remains considerable debate among historians as to the reasons for the outcome of the Civil War. Many explanations have been proposed for the Union victory: political, economic, military, social, even diplomatic. Strong cases can be made as to why each was important to the Confederacy’s downfall. Yet the key to victory was found in 1864, after President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant the commander of all Union forces (John Lewis Gaddis, 2011). In concert with Lincoln’s other strategic efforts to weaken the Confederate will to resist, Grant devised a military plan that ultimately gave Lee no choice but to surrender. Although there was no written plan, Lincoln and Grant combined the separate elements of Union power in a complementary way to make continuing the war more painful to the Confederate population than rejoining the Union. This comprehensive strategy, which included political, economic, and diplomatic elements as well as military operations, led to victory.

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In the final analysis, 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.

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Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin, A History of the American Nation (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908), 467.

Samuel Eagle Forman, First Lessons in American History (New York: The Century Co., 1916), 286.

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 261.

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What Are the Vital Factors That Led to a Union Victory in the Civil War?
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