Eight major factors in the Civil War helped give the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln’s administration much-needed advantages and ultimate victory. Despite several key losses on the battlefield (due in part to Lincoln’s poor choices of generals prior to the rise of Grant and Sherman), these other events worked in Lincoln’s favor.
First, when the eleven Confederate states seceded between December 1860 and May 1861, four other slaveholding states did not join the Confederacy – Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. In addition, Virginia’s northwestern mountain counties (where secession had little support) refused to follow the rest of the state and, in 1863, formed the pro-Union state of West Virginia.
Not only did this prevent Washington, D.C., from being completely surrounded by the Confederacy, but it also kept a significant Southern population loyal and helped Lincoln’s initial claim that the war was more against secession than slavery. (Still, both sides had units from Kentucky and Missouri, showing their divided sentiments.)
The first battle of Bull Run (or first Manassas), in early 1861, was a decisive Confederate victory which convinced many that the war would be much longer and bloodier than had been anticipated. It was the war’s first major battle and demonstrated both Southern determination and fighting ability (since many talented Southern-born generals had left the United States Army to fight for the Confederacy). In the wake of the Union rout, the federal government expanded and strengthened the army, replacing incompetent commanders and improving troops’ training.
The Trent affair of late 1861 (when two Confederate diplomats on the British mail ship Trent were detained by the crew of the U.S.S. San Jacinto) mattered because it showed Lincoln’s awareness of the international situation. Knowing that the United Kingdom and France could possibly recognize and assist the Confederacy, the two Southern diplomats were quietly released, thus avoiding further strains on American-British relations. European recognition would have blunted Lincoln’s efforts to treat the war as a regional uprising, and British/French material support for the Confederacy would have strengthened it considerably.
The Battle of Antietam in 1862, the bloodiest single day in the history of the war, marked a turning point because much of that year had seen humiliating Union military reverses. Also, General George McClellan’s overly cautious approach had cost the Union Army several earlier opportunities to strike a decisive blow at Lee’s army. While McClellan did not strike a decisive blow here, either, Antietam provided the Union with a much-needed (if not complete) victory and gave Lincoln enough confidence to revise the war’s aims and attack slavery itself.
The Emancipation Proclamation (effective on 1 January 1863) did not directly or immediately free any slaves, since it did not affect those in the loyal border states and could not be effectively enforced in unconquered Confederate territory. However, it was a sort of promise of future freedom, to be fulfilled when the Union had the ability to enforce it. More importantly, it broadened the war’s purpose from an effort to quell a rebellion to a war to end slavery and spread freedom.
The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the war’s zenith, as well as the Confederacy’s peak. Robert E. Lee, already a far more creative and successful general than the North had to date, invaded Pennsylvania and planned to attack Philadelphia when intercepted by Union forces.
Having gained an advantage on the first day, Lee faced some reverses on the second when his troops lost Big and Little Round Tops, key hills that would have given him a strategic advantage. On the third day, his effort to take the well-defended Union positions (the so-called “Pickett’s Charge”) was a debacle, drastically reducing army and forcing him to retreat back into Virginia. At this point, the Union Army’s numerical and material superiority became clear, tilting the balance further in favor of a Union victory.
At roughly the same time, the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg fell to Ulysses S. Grant after a months-long siege. Prior to this, the Union Navy controlled only from Memphis northward and from below Vicksburg to the Gulf of Mexico. The town was the only obstacle preventing Union ships from being able to navigate the river; with its capture, the Confederacy was bisected and its control over the Southern states diminished even further. In addition, Lincoln more clearly recognized Grant’s value to the Union cause and later gave him command of the entire Union Army, pitting him directly against Lee and forcing Lee’s surrender in April 1865.
Finally, Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864 (over the Democratic challenger, the ineffective former Union general George McClellan) showed the public’ confidence in Lincoln’s conduct of the war and in his vision for a United States without slavery. Helped by recent Union victories in Georgia under General William T. Sherman and by signs that the undermanned, undersupplied Confederacy would soon collapse, Lincoln’s notion that the nation should not “change horses in mid-stream” was widely shared.
On the whole, these eight key events in the Civil War demonstrate how Lincoln’s government reacted to circumstances and took actions conducive to victory. By keeping a buffer of loyal Southern states, preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy, recognizing the magnitude of the conflict, and revising the war’s aims once key victories were attained, Lincoln was able to keep public confidence and implement his war plans effectively.