Ken Burns Classroom

The Union’s Grand Strategy

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: Geography US History

Grade Level: 5-12

Run Time: 1 class period

Map of Union Civil War strategy
As envisioned by General George McClellan, the Union grand strategy for defeating the rebellious states called for three simultaneous overland assaults combined with a blockade of southern ports and naval thrusts up and down the Mississippi.

Overview

This activity works well as an introduction to learning about the Civil War. It sets the stage for student understanding of why the war was fought, the objectives and strategies of both sides, and the sectional differences that augmented the debate over the direction of the country. Students will view three video clips from The Civil War and analyze a map of the Union’s “Grand Strategy” to defeat the Confederacy. Student questions provided here can be used for general class discussion or individual assessment. Answers to the questions are included.

Lesson Standards

McREL 

U.S. History 

  • Standard 13: Understands the causes of the Civil War
    • Level II (Grades 5-6)
      • Knows the locations of the southern and northern states and their economic resources (e.g., the industries and small family farms of the industrial North, the agricultural economy and slavery of the South).
    • Level III (Grade 7-8)
      • Understands issues other than slavery that led to the Civil War (e.g., the appeal of the northern “free labor” ideology in preventing the further extension of slavery in the new territories; cultural differences, conflicting economic issues, opposing constitutional perspectives).
  • Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people
    • Level II (Grades 5-6)
      • Understands the technological, social, and strategic aspects of the Civil War (e.g., the impact of innovations in military technology; turning points of the war; leaders of the Confederacy and Union; conditions, characteristics, and armies of the Confederacy and Union; major areas of Civil War combat).
    • Level IV (Grade 9-12)
      • Understands military events that influenced the outcome of the Civil War (e.g., the “hammering campaigns” of Generals Grant and Sherman, the wartime leadership of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln).

Geography

  • Standard 17:Understands how geography is used to interpret the past
    • Level II (Grades 5-6)
      • Knows the geographic factors that have influenced people and events in the past (e.g., the effects of the site of a Civil War battle on the course of the conflict).

Common Core

Key Ideas and Details

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2
    • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source;
      provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the
      course of the text.

Craft and Structure

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4
    • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: Question Sheet: For Students

Questions from the Video

  1. By the 1800s, the country was deeply divided. Describe the fears that Southerners and Northerners faced. How did the country’s expansion west threaten to upset the delicate balance of power between free and slave states?
  2. Lincoln described the United States as a “house divided.” Discuss what he meant by this and how the country was at odds over the economic system of the South and the principles of the nation.
  3. Why do you think President-elect Lincoln felt so strongly about preserving the Union? Conversely, why might Southerners have believed that secession was justified?

Questions from the Map

  1. Look at the map of the Union’s “Grand Strategy” and answer the following questions:
    • What role did the Union Navy play in this strategy?
    • What was the purpose of the Union campaign along the Mississippi?
    • Why did the Union want to start with exerting pressure on Tennessee?
    • What was the Union strategy in the East?
  2. As you look at the positions of the Northern forces, why do you think the Union strategy was nicknamed the “Anaconda” strategy?
  3. If you had been given an opportunity to develop this strategy, what changes or additions would you make and why?
  4. Presume you’re a Confederate General, asked by President Jefferson Davis to develop a Southern strategy to combat McClellan’s. What advice could you give the Confederate leadership in developing a battle strategy of its own?
  5. Based on what you’ve researched and know about the Civil War, which particular aspect of the Union strategy do you feel was the most effective in ending the war? Which was the least? Explain your answer.

Handout: Question Sheet: For Educators

Questions from the Video

  1. By the 1800s, the country was deeply divided. Describe the fears that Southerners and Northerners faced. How did the country’s expansion west threaten to upset the delicate balance of power between free and slave states?
    Southerners feared that the North would outlaw slavery, whereas Northerners feared that slavery would spread westward. The Compromise of 1820 set up a procedure so that whenever a slave state entered the Union, a free state followed, keeping the representation for slave and free in Congress the same. As more states entered the Union it was difficult to maintain this balance.
  2. Lincoln described the United States as a “house divided.” Discuss what he meant by this and how the country was at odds over the economic system of the South and the principles of the nation.
    Lincoln did not expect the Union to be dissolved nor for the government to fail. He felt a country half slave and half free could not stand, and that it would eventually cease to be divided. The metaphor of a house divided stems from the South’s economic system of slavery in a country where a fundamental principle is freedom and equality.
  3. Why do you think President-elect Lincoln felt so strongly about preserving the Union? Conversely, why might Southerners have believed that secession was justified?
    Lincoln felt the nation could not survive as half slave and half free and also felt that the Southern states did not have the legal right to secede from the country. Only by preserving the union of the two sections, could differences be worked out. Southern states believed they had entered into the Union voluntarily, thus could leave it to protect their property.

Questions from the Map

  1. Look at the map of the Union’s “Grand Strategy” and answer the following questions:
    • What role did the Union Navy play in this strategy?
      Since the Confederacy had little industry, it was required to import most war materials and supplies it needed. The Union navy provided a blockade that made it difficult for Confederates to get the goods needed from foreign nations. In addition, the navy could pressure the Southern coast and force the Confederacy to place men and supplies along the coast that might be more effectively used against the Union in other areas.
    • What was the purpose of the Union campaign along the Mississippi?
      First, the Union sought to gain control of the Mississippi River, and thereby split the Confederacy. Second, to gain control of the Mississippi would be an effective method to prevent goods from being shipped to the Confederacy, and a practical way to get Union supplies and men to the fighting more in the interior areas. Third, if the Union captured New Orleans, it would control one of the largest cities in the Confederacy.
    • Why did the Union want to start with exerting pressure on Tennessee?
      By exerting pressure on Tennessee, the Union might be able to strike at the heart of the Confederacy, as well as control two major rivers, the Tennessee and Cumberland. In addition, if the Union controlled this area, it could protect the Border States — Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and West Virginia– from attack by Confederate forces. Moreover, the loss of two large cities, Nashville and Memphis, if captured by the Union, would further cripple the Confederacy.
    • What was the Union strategy in the East?
      The Union strategy in the East revolved around the capture of the city of Richmond. Not only would this disrupt the Confederate government, it would be a major psychological victory for the Union.
  2. As you look at the positions of the Northern forces, why do you think the Union strategy was nicknamed the “Anaconda” strategy?
    Answers will vary. However, if the student knows an Anaconda is a large snake that kills its prey by wrapping itself around its victim and squeezing, the student might be able to deduce that the Union strategy was designed to accomplish the same… by applying pressure along various frontlines, the Union could force the Confederacy into submission.
  3. If you had been given an opportunity to develop this strategy, what changes or additions would you make and why?
    Most students might look at the Union’s lack of pressure on some major cities or areas. For example, in the map, there is no mention of an attack on Atlanta or Charleston, two of the Confederacy’s most major cities. In addition, while the Mississippi was a major target, there is no major action contemplated west of the Mississippi, in states such as Arkansas and Texas. Nor was any naval action, other than the blockade and the capture of New Orleans, targeted along the Atlantic or Gulf Coast.
  4. Presume you’re a Confederate General, asked by President Jefferson Davis to develop a Southern strategy to combat McClellan’s. What advice could you give the Confederate leadership in developing a battle strategy of its own?
    Answers will vary. Some students may note that one way to eliminate pressure in various parts of the Confederacy would be to put pressure on Washington, D.C. Others may note that as long as the Confederacy maintained a defensive strategy (kept an army in the field), they could maintain resistance to the Union and possibly get foreign recognition. Still other students may note that Lee invaded the North twice (Antietam and Gettysburg), and while both are considered defeats for his forces, they may note that “the best defense is a good offense.”
  5. Based on what you’ve researched and know about the Civil War, which particular aspect of the Union strategy do you feel was the most effective in ending the war? Which was the least? Explain your answer.
    Answers will vary. Depending on the level of research into the war students may have completed, some may say the blockade was most important because of the lack of southern industry. Since a great deal of what the South needed had to be imported, the blockade significantly limited the South’s ability to wage war. Other students may look at the Eastern strategy, noting the proximity of Richmond, Virginia and to Washington, D.C. It would be imperative for both sides to keep their capitals free from harassment and possible capture, so that part of the strategy may have been significant. Others may look at the Western strategy because where Union forces were most effective there in the early days of the war, and where Union generals such as Ulysses S. Grant became well-know.