THE CIVIL WAR
SUBJECTS — U.S./1860 – 1865;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage in War;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness.
AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating;
Documentary; 1989; Nine Episodes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This engrossing documentary employs still pictures from the period and photographs of places, letters, objects and works of art, interspersed with interviews of historians. These films show the horror of war and capture the pathos of America’s bloodiest conflict. Every child should see them.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“The Civil War” is a work of scholarship that ties together the historical conflicts and trends that led to the bloodiest war in American history. They include states rights vs. a strong central government; the development of the technology of warfare; abolition vs. slavery; and the different economies of the North and South.
If your child is interested in the Civil War, a few episodes of this film will increase his or her understanding of this period of American history. Ask and lead your child through the answers to a few of the Discussion Questions about the episodes that you have seen.
1. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why was Abraham Lincoln willing to see ten thousand men and boys die or be maimed in a morning? What was his primary goal in fighting the Civil War?
At the beginning of the war, as Lincoln expressed it, he was fighting to keep the only government of the people and by the people from falling apart. He felt that the cause of democracy would be set back hundreds of years if the South were permitted to secede. A majority of the soldiers in the Union Army agreed with him. Only a radical minority wanted to use the war to abolish slavery. However, as the losses became truly horrific and as the Union Army began to use black regiments in battle, Lincoln began to see the Civil War as a war against slavery as well as a war to save the Union. Finally, in his Second Inaugural, he described the war and its massive loss of life as punishment to the nation for the sin of slavery. See portions of the Second Inaugural quoted at the Learning Guide to “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided”.
2. Was John Brown right to try to start a slave revolt?
Usually, revolution is not the answer. For example, for the United States revolution was the answer only once in 200 years (during the American Revolution) and hopefully, we won’t need a revolution for another 200 years. However, the evil of slavery was so great that there is a question of whether the revolution was justified. Certainly, from the point of view of the slaves, it was justified. A human being held in slavery has the right of insurrection. (See the Declaration of Independence, Second paragraph, and Learning Guide to “Amistad“.)
3. The abolitionists, people who believed that slavery was wrong and that it had to be eliminated at all costs, were considered radicals by most of the people in the Union during the Civil War. Would you consider them to be radicals?
No. They were right. The abolitionist position is considered the minimum ethical standard today. It was adopted by the U.S. in the 13th Amendment. We are all abolitionists now.
4. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
What was McClellan’s fatal flaw as a Union general?
McClellan was overly cautious and repeatedly overestimated the strength of his adversaries. He missed many opportunities to crush a much smaller force. This may have come from his strong love for the Army of the Potomac. He built it, trained the men to be soldiers, and had difficulty bringing himself to engage in battles in which they would be killed by the thousands.
5. Since most Southerners didn’t own slaves, what were the Confederate soldiers fighting for?
State loyalties were very strong in those days. The Southerners didn’t want someone from outside their state dictating what their laws should be. They saw slavery as a local matter. Robert E. Lee is an excellent example. He didn’t like slavery, and he was against secession. However, his primary loyalty was to his home state of Virginia and despite the fact that President Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Armies, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission and went home to Virginia. He became a military adviser to Jefferson Davis and eventually the General of the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army.
6. What were the Union soldiers fighting for? Why would they obey the orders of incompetent generals and be cut down like a scythe cuts wheat and yet the survivors would often regroup and march again?
Most were fighting to keep the Union whole, which for them was synonymous with the cause of democracy in the world. At that time, the U.S. was one of perhaps only two democratic states in the world. (The only other possibility was England where Parliament, although plagued with rotten boroughs and other anti-democratic features, was asserting more and more power at the expense of the Crown.) If the strongest democracy in the world could not hold itself together, then the cause of democracy would be set back for hundreds of years.
7. Why were the casualty rates so much higher in this war than in any past war? Which weapon has dominated the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War?
In the Civil War, defensive weapons had a distinct advantage. Soldiers shielded by an earthen work defensive position or a strong fence could resist assaults by a much larger force and kill most of the attackers. Their main weapon was the rifle. Its accuracy, range and the speed of fire had recently been improved. Attackers would be killed before they reached the defensive lines. The Battle of Gettysburg was a prime example of this. Massed Confederate troops were destroyed when they attacked an entrenched Union position located on the high ground. Up to that point in the war, it had usually been Union forces that had been decimated by the defensive power of Confederate rifles fired from protected positions on the high ground.
The history of warfare shows that in certain periods offensive weapons or methods of attack have been more powerful than defensive weapons. At other times, defensive tactics or weapons have held the edge. The machine gun, primarily a defensive weapon, was a key to the First World War. It allowed a few men with a machine gun to kill hundreds of attackers. See Gallipoli. In WWII, the battle tank and air power made offensive operations easier and redressed the balance. The next major development occurred at the end of WWII and still dominates strategic thinking today. The offensive weapon of the nuclear bomb on an airplane or a missile is more powerful than any defense. There was (and still is) nothing that can protect against it. Thus, in the Cold War, the only way to stop one side from blowing the other up was the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction in which neither party wanted to start a nuclear war because it knew that it could not defend against the atomic bombs of its opponent.
8. See also discussion questions in the Learning Guide for “Gettysburg“.
9. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why did President Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation?
This was a war measure to encourage slaves to leave the areas in revolt and to prevent England from coming into the war on the side of the South. (Strong elements of the English government were pro-Southern and wanted to see the break-up of the U.S. However, the English people were strongly against slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation ensured that they were strongly pro-Union.) Because it was limited in scope to areas in rebellion in which the federal government had no practical control, the Proclamation had little immediate practical effect. However, it was an immensely important symbolic statement and a clear indication of what the federal government would do if and when it took control of any area in rebellion.
10. What would have happened had Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists not pushed so hard to add the goal of eradicating slavery to the Union cause in the war? Would Lincoln and the North have come to this conclusion any way?
There is no way to tell. Many in the North did not oppose slavery in the South and would have been content to let it remain there so long as it did not expand to the new states in the West. They would not have fought a war to eradicate slavery. However, the massive casualties propelled people to look for a reason for the war beyond merely saving the Union and the cause of democracy in the world, as important as that was. Lincoln exemplified this search. You can see in his speeches, in particular in the Second Inaugural, the search for that reason.
11. Which slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and which were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution?
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in the parts of the U.S. that were then in rebellion. However, the Federal government had little control in those areas and freedom came only as Union troops conquered parts of the South. The Thirteenth Amendment freed all slaves subject to U.S. jurisdiction, including the slaves in the border states that had stayed loyal to the Union.
12. Assume that the South had won and slavery had been preserved. What would have happened to the South and slaves when mechanization came and large numbers of slaves were no longer needed?
Slavery would have died out. It is not economically feasible in the modern world.
13. What difference would modern medicine have made in the number of Union and Confederate soldiers who died while they were serving in their armies?
It would have reduced casualty rates greatly. During the Civil War medicine was very crude. Doctors, for example, knew little about how to prevent diseases among soldiers in camp and hundreds of thousands died before they got to the battlefield. Then, when a soldier was wounded, he would very likely die because there was no understanding of sanitation and antibiotics had not yet been invented.
14. Were there any Southerners fighting for the Union?
Yes. For example, an entire state, West Virginia, succeeded from Virginia and joined the Union.
15. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why was the North able to win the war despite the fact that most of its generals were incompetent?
The North had an overwhelming advantage in men and industrial capacity.
16. See also discussion questions in the Learning Guide for “Glory“.
17. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why was Grant the general for whom Lincoln had been looking?
He was competent and didn’t make large mistakes. He was not afraid to take casualties (tens of thousands of them in a morning), and he relentlessly pursued his adversaries.
18. Had the South won, would America have been able to save the West during World War I and World War II?
No. We would have had no call upon the better impulses of the world and of our own people had the ethical cancer of slavery not been wiped out. In addition, the federal government would not have been strong enough to mobilize the country for war.
19. What is an “acoustic shadow”?
This occurs when sounds, as in sounds of a battle or of cannon, cannot be heard by persons a short distance from the source while they can be heard many miles, even a hundred miles, away. You can see how disastrous this would be to a general in a time of limited communications.
20. What error did Lee make in ordering Picket’s charge?
He thought his soldiers were invincible. He didn’t realize that he had won so many major battles against the Union because his superior generalship had been able to maneuver the inferior Union generals to attack entrenched forces on higher ground. At Gettysburg, it was Lee’s troops that were attacking entrenched forces on higher ground. The tide of the war turned then or soon after.
21. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Robert E. Lee was worshipped by his soldiers and by Southerners generally. He was respected by Northerners for his prowess as a general. But there is another less positive view of General Lee. Listen to the argument and tell us what you think. Lee had been a brilliant officer in the U.S. Army before the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, President Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union Armies, but Lee joined the rebellion because he felt that his highest duty was to his home state of Virginia. This was despite the fact that Lee did not agree with secession. In fact, the secession movement was a retrograde regionalism and an invalid political theory. This theory, in practice, would have done immense harm to the cause of democracy by demonstrating that the leading democratic nation in the world could not hold itself together. Lee had to have been aware of this when he joined the rebellion. In addition, the Confederacy that Lee fought to establish was dedicated to the barbaric, corrupt and utterly criminal institution of slavery. However, Lee himself disliked slavery. On the other hand, had Lee remained loyal to the Union, the rebellion would probably have been over in a matter of months. The argument continues that many hundreds of thousands of American boys, Northern and Southern, died horrible deaths because of Lee’s decision to defect to the Confederacy. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
We understand that some people would disagree, but the arguments that we feel to be the strongest are as follows. Lee was on the wrong side of history on the issue of a state’s right to secede. If the U.S. had fallen apart, it would have demonstrated that democracies could not hold themselves together and would have set back the cause of democratic government by generations, if not discredited it entirely. Note that in 1860, aristocracy was resurgent in Europe. Ethically, Lee was an aider and a bettor of slavery, a horrid crime. At the very least, one of the main reasons for the Confederate government was the maintenance of slavery. There is a difference between being a brilliant tactician and being a great general of an army. Generals, to be truly great, have to be statesmen. Lee’s actions, in service of a retrograde political theory and a social system based upon a great evil, were not the actions of a statesman. When you combine this analysis with the fact that had Lee taken command of the Union Armies, the federal government would have crushed the rebellion in a few months, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides, Lee’s decision is all the more regrettable.
22. What was the nickname of U.S. Grant?
23. What was the relationship of the military campaign of the Spring, 1864, to the presidential elections of November 1864?
If the war had continued to go badly for the North, Lincoln would have been defeated and a candidate elected who would have made peace with the South. This fact was important in the calculations of both sides.
24. What was the goal of the Union naval blockade on the South?
The goal was to deny to the South the ammunition and war material that its armies needed to fight the war.
25. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why did the South think that secession was the second American Revolution?
They saw the fight as being against an oppressive government and for the rights of states. They compared themselves to the colonists who fought for their rights against Great Britain.
26. Is assassination ever justified as a means of causing change? What if Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot had been assassinated? Would the world have been a better place? Was the assassination of Julius Caesar justified? Would Iraq or the U.S. have been better off if someone had assassinated Saddam Hussein instead of the U.S. mounting an invasion to topple his regime? See Julius Caesar.
We don’t know the answer to this question. Killing is immoral, but why should a leader be protected from assassination when his policies result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people? Killing a leader introduces great instability, but then so does war. Look at what has happened in Iraq.
27. How can it be said that the Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back?
The Union was not completely mobilized for war.
28. Did the South ever really have a chance? Justify your answer.
So long as the Union had the will to fight and to take casualties until Lincoln found a good general, the South had no chance. However, if the South could have broken the morale of the North, then it did stand a chance. In fact, that almost occurred, and had the South managed to stave off the Union Armies in the summer of 1864 through the fall elections, the North may have gotten weary of the fight.
29. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Was the federal government (read that Lincoln) justified in having General Sherman make his march to the sea, targeting Southern civilians and laying waste to great swathes of the South?
There is no one correct answer. Here is one theory: Probably not. Once Grant was placed in control of the Union armies the end result was inevitable. All of the loss of civilian property and life that Sherman caused was therefore probably unnecessary. But then, Lincoln and the Union generals didn’t know this at that time.
30. How would the history of the country have changed if Lincoln had not been assassinated and had been able to serve his full second term?
Most people believe that Lincoln would have been able to restrain the radicals in the North who wanted to punish the South for the rebellion. The wounds of the Civil War and Reconstruction lasted through the 1960s. With Lincoln alive, the healing would have occurred much faster.
31. QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
What would have happened if the North had followed through with Reconstruction and made the South retain the progressive reforms such as universal education and voting rights for the former slaves?
Economic and social development in the South would not have lagged behind the rest of the country as much as it did.
32. Has the conflict between the North and South been resolved? Is it relevant any more?
We believe that the North/South division of what is now the eastern U.S. has been fully resolved. The country is fighting other battles. The divisions between U.S. citizens relate to other issues.
GENERAL QUESTIONS ON THE CIVIL WAR
33. Had Lee stayed in the Union Army, how long do you think the Civil War would have lasted?
It would have been years shorter. Union soldiers fought well and when they had good generals they often won. They had great advantages in numbers, in supplies, and in equipment. These advantages combined with a brilliant general would have made all the difference.
34. After the Battle of Gettysburg, General Meade was criticized for not following up on the victory and trying to crush Lee’s Army. This “failure” especially angered President Lincoln. However, most of General Meade’s officers agreed with him that the battle had been won and an attack on Lee’s army would have risked turning victory into defeat. What do you think?
A few of the possible arguments: For attack: The Army of Northern Virginia had lost 1/3rd of its men and must have been demoralized; Lee’s army was far from its supply lines. Against attack: as things stood, the Army of the Potomac had won a great victory, a counterattack would risk all that; in the war to that point, attacking had proved very risky, the advantage was with the defenders; Lee’s army was wounded but not smashed nor was its morale destroyed; the Union Army had been fighting for three days and needed to regroup.
35. What do you think would have happened if the Union had lost the battle of Gettysburg?
The pressures on Lincoln and the federal government to make an accommodation with the South would have intensified. However, General Grant had just taken Vicksburg. Lincoln would have persevered and would have called upon him. Grant would have begun to win as he did after he became the leader of the Army of the Potomac. So, the war would have gone on longer but the Union would still have won. The argument on the other side is that Lee would have done such damage to Pennsylvania and to Union morale that the federal government would have sued for peace.
36. Was the Battle of Gettysburg a turning point in the Civil War?
There is a debate about this among historians. It was clearly the high water mark of the Confederacy but the South fought on for the better part of a year. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox didn’t occur until April 9, 1865.
COURAGE IN WAR
1. In the Civil War, defensive technology (such as rifles with longer range and better accuracy and repeating rifles) gave defenders a great advantage. Can you explain why tens of thousands of soldiers on each side, in battle after battle, had the commitment and the courage to march in regular order against the withering fire of the defenders while those around them fell with hideous and usually fatal wounds?
There were several reasons but they appear to have been the following; (1) these were brave men; (2) they believed in democracy and knew the importance of maintaining the Union to the cause of democracy throughout the world; and (3) unit loyalty.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. Patriotism is the love of one’s own country. A civil war, however, fractures the concept of country. People on each side believe that their opponents have betrayed a principle that is vital to the nation and that they have become traitors as a result. What principles did each side of the Civil War espouse?
The South fought for the rights of states to control their own destiny. They saw themselves as the true ancestors of the Founding Fathers. Some, a minority, fought for slavery. On the Union side, it was a similar situation. Most fought to save the Union and for the cause of democracy worldwide. They understood that if the U.S., the leading democratic state of the time, could not keep itself together, then the cause of democracy would be set back for generations if not completely discredited.
BRIDGES TO READING
Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided is another PBS documentary about the Civil War.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War is excellent, comprehensive, and has links to many other valuable websites about the Civil War.