Apush Essay Questions Civil War

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions


In your opinion, was the Civil War inevitable? Were the North and the South doomed from the beginning to battle each other eventually over the slavery issue?

The Civil War was essentially inevitable. Ever since Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, the South had been on a completely different economic and social path from the North. In the 1850s, social and political developments, including the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Fugitive Slave Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, drove the regions further apart. Although the North and the South tried to reconcile their differences with major political compromises in 1820 and in 1850, both attempts failed.

The cotton gin transformed the slave South completely in the early 1800s, when plantation owners abandoned almost all other crops in favor of the newly profitable cotton. To raise more cotton, planters also purchased more slaves from Africa and the West Indies before the slave trade was banned in 1808. Thousands of blacks were brought into the United States during these years to tend to cotton fields. The size of plantations increased from relatively small plots to huge farms with as many as several hundred slaves each. Because the entire Southern economy became dependent on cotton, it also became dependent on slavery. Although Northern factories certainly benefited indirectly from slavery, Northern social customs were not tied to slavery as Southern customs were.

Events in the 1850s proved that the North-South slavery divide was irreconcilable. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which awakened Northerners to the plight of Southern slaves, became an overnight bestseller in the North but was banned in the South. The book was particularly powerful in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which forbade both Northerners and Southerners to assist runaway slaves—a law that troubled even those who had shown little sympathy for the abolitionist cause. The “Bleeding Kansas” violence of 1856 between proslavery groups and Free-Soilers shocked people in the North and in the South and demonstrated just how strongly the opposing camps felt about their beliefs. In 1857, the Dred Scott decision outraged Northerners because it declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and effectively opened the North to slavery. Finally, John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and subsequent execution proved to be the last straw for many on both sides. Northerners mourned the “martyr” Brown, while Southerners celebrated his death as a great victory. These events of the 1850s convinced Americans in both the North and South that there could be no compromise on the slavery issue.

Both sides had tried to resolve the issue on numerous occasions, but to no avail. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established the 36˚ 30' parallel as the border between the slave states and the free states. This compromise satisfied both sides for a while but eventually became too restrictive for the South. The Compromise of 1850 likewise sought to end the slavery debate after the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso raised the question of slavery in the West—but in the end these peaceful resolutions were also unsatisfactory. As a result, in light of the deep political, economic, and social divides, as well as the failure of compromise attempts, armed conflict was thus inevitable.


Why were the border states so important to Lincoln?

When South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, four of the other fourteen slave states—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri—chose to remain in the Union rather than join the Confederacy. West Virginia eventually seceded from Virginia in 1863 to become a nonslave state in the Union, too. These five border states were crucial to the North both geographically and economically. As a result, Lincoln was careful to maintain the border states’ allegiance and refrained from pursuing any policies that might be too bold and potentially alienating to slave owners in those states. Ultimately, the North’s possession of the border states directly affected the outcome of the war.

First and foremost, the border states provided a physical and ideological buffer between the North and South: if Maryland had seceded, Washington, D.C., would have been entirely surrounded by Confederate territory. Lincoln was acutely aware of Maryland’s importance: in the spring of 1861, he even turned to military force and instituted martial law in the state to keep it loyal to the Union.

The border states were just as important economically, especially because Maryland and Delaware contained many factories and industrial complexes. Had just those two states joined the Confederacy, they would have doubled the South’s manufacturing capability. Lacking these factories, though, the South ended up starving under the Union’s naval blockade. Indeed, the Civil War was in many ways an economic war, and doubling Southern manufacturing output could have seriously altered the duration and even the outcome of the conflict.

Finally, the border states’ loyalty to the Union showed that slave states had an alternative to secession. The South, for its part, had justified secession by claiming that slave states had to secede to save their “peculiar institution” and their way of life. The fact that the border states—where slavery was practiced—remained in the Union severely weakened this claim.

For all these reasons, Lincoln remained careful not to offend slave owners in the border states. The most notable example of his sensitivity to this issue is the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves free in only the secessionist states—not the loyal border states. Ultimately, Lincoln’s measures were effective, and the continued loyalty of the border states was a major factor in the Union’s eventual victory.


Compare the North and the South in 1860 and then again in 1864. Why did the North win the war?

Although both the North and the South thought they would easily win the Civil War, the South was in many ways doomed from the start. Indeed, by 1864 the South was in ruins, its economy destroyed by blockade, hyperinflation, and the North’s campaign of total warfare. In the end, it was the Northern economy and deficiencies in the Southern political system that won and lost the war.

When war broke out in 1861, both sides thought they would win quickly and easily. The Union had experience and international recognition, a robust industrial economy, a strong federal government, twice the population of the South, and twice as many young men for its army. On the other hand, the new Confederacy had cotton (which it believed to be superior to industry), had better military commanders, and believed it could bring Britain into the war on its side. Just as important, however, was the South’s feeling of righteousness that followed secession: Southerners felt they were carrying on the tradition of overthrowing tyrannous governments that the founding fathers of the United States had begun. In addition, Southern soldiers, fighting on their home territory, also had an intense desire to fight to protect their homes and families.

By the end of 1864, however, the South lay in ruins, and very little remained of the once-proud Cotton Kingdom. The price of goods was so high and money was so worthless that it cost Southerners in some places several hundred Confederate dollars to buy a single loaf of bread. As a result, hunger and malnutrition became rampant. In addition, much of the landscape from Tennessee to Georgia and up to South Carolina had been razed by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops on their March to the Sea. Many slaves in the South effectively emancipated themselves by refusing to work and flocking to Union lines in droves. The North, meanwhile, was in many ways better off in 1864 than it had been before the war, for the economy had experienced an enormous boom during the war years and had set the industrial machine into high gear.

This industrial boom in the North, coupled with the Richmond government’s inability to provide cohesive leadership, won the war for the Union. Virtually all the effective measures passed by the Union government went unanswered by the Confederacy. Congress in Washington, D.C., for example, stabilized the Northern economy early on in the war by passing the Legal Tender Act, replacing the hundreds of different state and private bank currencies with a single federal dollar. Because this “greenback” currency was supported by the U.S. Treasury, investors knew it was safe and reliable. The National Banking Act also gave the federal government unprecedented control over the banking system and the economy as a whole. The Confederate government, on the other hand, dominated by states’ righters, never enacted any such federal laws but instead continued to reserve most powers for the individual states. This inaction, combined with the devastating economic effects of the Union’s naval blockade of the South, left the Confederate war effort doomed early on.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Which side benefited more from the Compromise of 1850, the North or the South?

2. In 1850, most Northerners would never have dreamed they would be fighting a war against the South. Why did Northern public opinion change?

3. Some historians have claimed that the Mexican War was the first battle of the Civil War. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. What effect did the Bleeding Kansas crisis have on the slavery debate in the years immediately before the war?

5. Compare and contrast Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as wartime presidents. What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Who, in your opinion, was the better leader, and why?

6. What was Britain’s role in the Civil War?

7. What was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation? What effect did it have on the North and on the South?

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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