Civil War Battles and Strategy

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 What did the Union soldiers believe they were fighting for? What did the Confederate soldiers believe they were fighting for? Did those understandings change over the course of the war (and if so, why)?

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At the start of the Civil War, most Union soldiers were fighting to keep the United States together. The Southern states had seceded, thus splitting the United States apart, and war was now the only way to prevent secession from becoming a permanent condition. The integrity of the United States was now at stake, and most Union soldiers joined up in the belief that they were fighting to preserve that integrity.

It's unlikely that this initial motivation changed all that much during the Civil War. Some soldiers will doubtless have been inspired by President Lincoln's stirring words in the Gettysburg Address, where he talked of a "new birth of freedom." But the vast majority will still have seen their role not so much as bringing about the end of slavery, but as putting down a treacherous secession that threatened the long-term integrity of the United States.

The motivations of Confederate soldiers were more mixed. Some believed it was their duty to defend their individual states. This was the main motivation behind General Lee's decision to stand with his home state of Virginia after it voted for secession. Others, however, had a more general commitment to the principle of states' rights, which they saw as being under threat from the recent election of Abraham Lincoln as president.

Still others will have fought to defend the institution of slavery. Though the vast majority of Confederate soldiers didn't own any slaves, they still understood that slavery underpinned the entire Southern economy and society—indeed, the whole Southern way of life.

As the Union army made deeper and deeper incursions into Confederate territory, Southern soldiers were mainly concerned with defending their homeland against what they saw as a foreign invader. The Confederacy was effectively a different country, so its troops believed that they were doing their patriotic duty in resisting Union forces.

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Soldiers on both sides of the conflict fought for various reasons. The majority of soldiers, both Union and Confederate, were volunteers, not draftees or professional soldiers. Therefore, it can be assumed that they had deeply held convictions that compelled them to fight in the war. Let's consider some of the common reasons for joining the conflict.

For Northern soldiers, the main motivation for enlisting was to preserve the Union. If the Southern states seceded, then it was very likely that the entire country might fall apart. This, in fact, was President Lincoln's rallying cry. Nothing less than the very existence of the country was at stake. Many Union soldiers were also motivated by a desire to end slavery. The struggle of emancipation had been going on for most of the 19th Century. Many who morally opposed the institution viewed the war as the chance to settle the matter once and for all. This became especially true after the Emancipation Proclamation was made in 1863.

Confederate soldiers also had their reasons for fighting. In the much more rural South, many saw the federal government as a threat to their state's sovereignty. States' rights was a major motivation to secede from the Union. Mostly this referred to a state's right to preserve the institution of slavery. The Southern economy was reliant on slavery. Many Southerners felt that Lincoln and the federal government would threaten the Southern way of life by opposing slavery and instituting their will upon the states.

As the war continued, it is likely that other motivations to fight came into play. Most of the Civil War was fought in the South. Many Southerners answered the call to arms as they felt their homes were directly under attack by a hostile army. The desire to defend their homes and family was a commonly cited motivation of Confederate soldiers. Most soldiers fought alongside members of their own communities, since most fighting companies were organized based on the region of the soldiers that it was composed of. As evidenced in many diaries and letters, a strong brotherhood developed among these soldiers, and as a result, many continued to fight in order to maintain and protect these fraternal ties.

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At the start of the Civil War, the Union soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union. President Lincoln knew that the secession of the southern states threatened the existence of the United States. His main goal was to preserve the Union. As the war continued, the main purposes of the Union and its soldiers increased. President Lincoln knew that if he said the Union was fighting to end in slavery in 1861, more states would have left the Union. By 1863, more northerners were against slavery, and several European countries had already ended slavery. As a result, the focus of the Union and the Union soldiers also included ending slavery in the last few years of the Civil War. President Lincoln knew by 1863 that winning the war would be difficult. As a result, an additional goal was needed. That goal was to end slavery.

The Confederate soldiers were fighting to preserve slavery. They were also fighting to promote the rights of the states over the power of the federal government, with the hopes of forming their own country. These goals remained the same throughout the war. The southerners did not want slavery to end, and they also wanted the states to have more power. They believed the only way to accomplish this after the election of 1860 was to create their own country.

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