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Civil War (SE): Writing Topics

Ideas for writing papers about the Civil War

Suggested Topics for Writing About the Civil War

These ideas for discussing and writing about the Civil War are adapted from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in support of the exhibition, Civil War 150.

Coming of the Civil War: 

  • Secession and the Election of 1860
    • Discuss the legality of secession from the point of view of the Union and Confederacy. How did Southern and Northern understandings of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence differ? How did these different perspectives shape the question of secession and of slaveholding?
    • The institution of slavery had been a source of contention since the founding era. Prior to the secession of Southern slaveholding states in 1861, however, a number of compromises were reached between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Consider issues such as the Compromise of 1850, the Wilmot Proviso, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision. What role did these events play in the secession of the Southern states? Was secession inevitable or was a compromise still possible? Is it possible to imagine circumstances in which the system of slavery could have continued in the American South?
    • Why did Southern states secede following the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln? How did this change in power alter the politics between Democrats and Republicans during the nineteenth century?
    • Consider important figures that impacted the outcome of compromises regarding slavery.

The Union Divided: 

  • The Abolition Movement
    • The nation’s early republican ideals did not extend to tens of thousands of slaves. Treat this as a national and/or local issue. In your area, how did people feel about slavery in the nineteenth century? Was there public debate surrounding this contentious issue? If so, what did each side believe?
    • What were Lincoln’s views on slaves and slavery? How, if at all, did they change throughout the war?
    • Consider prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, and Lucretia Mott. What did they want from Lincoln? What opposition did they face and from whom? How were their views were similar and how were they were different?
    • What were the international dimensions of the abolition movement? How was the movement in the US affected by or how did it influence freedom movements in other slaveholding areas, such as Latin America or the Caribbean?
  • The lives of African Americans in the Nineteenth Century
    • Examine the lives and occupations of African Americans in free states in the nineteenth century. Compare this to the lives of African Americans, enslaved and free, in slave states. How were the experiences of African Americans across the United States different or the same?
  • Preparing for War
    • What role did the Border States and the western territories play in deciding the Civil War? Why were they significant?
    • How did soldiers and their families perceive the reasons for going to war, and how did those perceptions change as the war progressed?
    • How did each side mobilize for war? How do these experiences reflect the challenges of fighting wars in a democracy? 

This Cruel War

  • War on the Home Front
    • Initially, Americans in both the Union and the Confederacy believed that the war would be a short, nearly bloodless fight. After the initial years of the war, however, it became clear that neither of these assumptions would come to fruition. How did families deal with the worsening of the war? How were the Confederate and Union reactions similar? How were they different?
    • What role did the development of new technology, such as the railroad and telegraph, play in the changing role of families at home during war?
  • Soldiers on the Battle Front
    • Consider major battles such as the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Shiloh, the Seven Days’ Battle, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. How did these battles affect public opinion about the war? How did newspapers of the period report the events of the war? How did this affect public perception of the Union and Confederate successes and failures?
    • Discuss major military figures of this period like William T. Sherman, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, and Ulysses S. Grant on the Union side. Also discuss Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston, and James Longstreet on the Confederate side. What role did these figures play in the successes or failures of the Union and the Confederacy? How were they perceived by the public at the time? How are they remembered today?
    • How did the experience of combat change for soldiers as the intensity and cost of fighting continued to exceed both expectation and previous experience? How did understandings of courage, loyalty, and honor evolve as the death toll rose?
    • How did soldiers and families deal with the new realities of war and death that surrounded them? What effect did these changes have on attitudes about mortality, the functions of the state, and the duties of the citizen? How did these changes shape or alter the moral implications of the war and soldiers’ own conduct in it?
    • What effect did the Union “hard war” of 1864–1865, with its deliberate destruction of the economic underpinnings of Southern life, have on soldiers and civilians? How was this viewed in both the North and South? What effect did this military plan have on the South following the war’s end?
  • Gender and War
    • What was the role of women in the Civil War? How did war change the role of women in society as a whole?
    • Consider important female figures like Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, the Grimke sisters, and Harriet Tubman. What roles did they play in the Civil War? What views did they express about the role of women in the war and society as a whole? How did they affect the way that women were perceived in the nineteenth century?
    • What was the state of medicine in the last half of the nineteenth century in America? How were Civil War hospitals set up? How did women contribute to changes in the area of medicine and sanitation?

Turning Points

  • Public Opinion
    • In popular memory, the Civil War is often seen as having been fought solely between the North and the South. During the course of the war, however, both the Union and Confederacy faced numerous internal divisions. They were divided by fierce controversies over conscription, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the unequal economic burdens of war. What were the similarities and differences between Union and Confederate viewpoints, and what do these perceptions reveal about mid-nineteenth-century attitudes regarding citizens and government? Examine events like the New York City draft riots in the Union and bread riots in the Confederacy.
    • In the early years of his presidency, Lincoln often said that his main war aim was the preservation of the Union. How then were Union politics affected by the continuation of the war and growing public dissent?
  • Emancipation and Black Soldiers
    • In terms of military strategy, was the emancipation of African Americans a “top down” or “bottom-up” change? Consider the role of figures like Henry Halleck, Benjamin Butler, and John C. Frémont as well as Abraham Lincoln in the development of the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamation. What role did they play in the freeing of African Americans?
    • The Emancipation Proclamation is often remembered as a major turning point in the lives of African Americans throughout the United States. It applied almost exclusively to states and regions in rebellion, however, failing to extend to slaves in the four Border States or West Virginia. To what extent then was the Emancipation Proclamation meant to change the freedom of African Americans? Was it simply a military tactic or was it meant to have a more permanent, social impact?
    • Was the Emancipation Proclamation a radical or moderate document?
    • The final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 committed the Union to the abolition of slavery. How did the adoption of emancipation as a war goal and the raising of black troops change the meaning and the experience of the war in the Union and in the Confederacy? How did the Emancipation Proclamation change public opinion regarding the war in the North and the South?
    • Examine the contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War effort. How were the Union and Confederacy different or similar in their use of African American combatants before and after the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation?
    • How did the course of the war and the various roles played by African Americans during it affect race relations and perceptions of racial possibilities in American society?
  • Military Turning Points
    • Consider the great military victories of both the Union and Confederacy. What did the general public think of these battles? What effect did they have on public morale and public opinion?

Union Victory and the Legacy of Lincoln

  • Changes in Federal Government
    • Discuss presidential leadership in times of crisis, with emphasis on Lincoln. How did he shape the presidency? Did he set a precedent for future American leaders?
    • How was Lincoln perceived in the rest of the world during his presidency? What was the European reaction to the Civil War?
    • What was the reaction in Texas to Lincoln’s assassination? How did the assassination of President Lincoln change the course of the war and of Reconstruction?
    • How did the Civil War shape national and regional identity as well as the connections between the two? How did the relationship between the states and the federal government change?
    • Using Civil War-era newspapers (NewsBank is a great source for this--consult a librarian to learn how to find historical newspaper articles in the library databases), compare how they covered Lincoln’s presidency and personal life with how newspapers covered presidents in later periods, e.g. World War II, the 1990s, or today.