By the time the Civil War started in 1860, slavery had been a part of American life for more than 200 years. There had never been a time during the existence of the United States when slaves had not lived in the “Land of the Free.”
But slavery had not always been welcomed. The Founding Fathers had grappled with the question of slavery. Northerners had already in the 1770s and 1780s wanted to find ways to end slavery, but decided that compromising in order to declare independence and ratify the Constitution was more important. In effect, they made a deal with the Devil – trading the creation of the country for the continuation of slavery.
In the Antebellum Period, as the 1800s progressed, calls for the abolition of slavery increased and questions about the spread of slavery into new western territories divided the nation between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South. Although a series of political compromises preserved unity for a time, in 1860 all efforts failed, 11 southern states seceded, and four years of civil war ensued.
In 1865 as the war was coming to a close, President Abraham Lincoln wondered if the death and destruction wrought by the war was God’s way of punishing Americans, that perhaps God would let the war continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
And that is the question for you. Did America deserve this war? Was slavery such a terrible sin that the only way to make things right was to pay with blood? Was the Civil War, in which more Americans died than any other in our nation’s history, as Lincoln called it, a righteous punishment for slavery?
America was getting rich growing and selling cotton. Northern manufacturers produced textiles made from southern cotton and the South exported cotton to both the North and to Europe. It was so important to the overall economy that it was called King Cotton, and slaves did all the work cultivating it.
In the early years of the republic, the Founding Fathers had thought that slavery would die out. However, the invention of the cotton gin made processing cotton lucrative, and expansion into the Deep South increased the demand for slaves. Instead of disappearing, slavery became so central to the economy that few leaders in either the North or South could imagine a way to reasonably end it without massive disruption to the entire nation.
Slavery was central to the social order of the South. There were only a few wealthy Whites who owned slaves, so for the vast majority of other Whites, superiority to African Americans and having the possibility of someday being rich enough to purchase a slave was a mark of social standing.
Southerners argued that slaves were actually better off than the free workers of the industrial North since they were guaranteed housing, food, and work. Few were volunteering to trade places with the slaves, however, which is evidence that they probably didn’t believe their own arguments.
CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR
The abolition movement grew in the early 1800s alongside the temperance movement, transcendentalism and the other reform efforts that were inspired by the Second Great Awakening. Some had proposed purchasing slaves and sending them to Africa. The most vocal abolitionists were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Abolition was not popular at first, and many abolitionists faced violence for their views. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bestseller and convinced many Northerners that slavery was an evil institution. Her book was banned in the South.
In an effort to find freedom, some slaves ran away along a system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. As part of a larger compromise, Congress passed a law that required Northerners to help captured runaway slaves. This infuriated moralistic Northerners.
Expansion of settlement greatly increased tensions that led to the Civil War because it made the question of expansion of slavery an issue politicians could not ignore. Central to this question was the balance of power between slave states and free states in the Senate. The House of Representatives would always be unbalanced because the North was so much more populous, but for the 40 years leading up to the war, maintaining an equal number of slave and free states was essential to keeping the nation together.
The Missouri Compromise was brokered by Henry Clay in 1820. It banned slavery in new territories north of Missouri, while admitting Missouri and Maine as slave and free states. It was the first in a series of such compromises.
After the Mexican-American War, the greatest question was whether or not to allow slavery into the Mexican Cession. The Wilmot Proviso specifically banned this, but it was not adopted. The fight over the Proviso led Northerners to believe that “slave power” was taking over the federal government.
The three great senators of the early 1800s, Clay, Calhoun and Webster forged the Compromise of 1850 to keep the nation together. It preserved the Union, but in the end, it made no one happy.
Primary Source: Photograph
A photograph of a family of slaves working the cotton fields in the 1850s.
The idea of popular sovereignty was proposed as a way of taking the fight over the expansion of slavery out of Congress and giving it to the people. Under this proposal, the people of each new state would vote for themselves about the question of being a slave or free state. This was put to the test with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and led to a period of violence called Bleeding Kansas, a precursor to the Civil War. John Brown and Jesse James both got their first taste of violence in Kansas.
The Fugitive Slave Act required Northerners to help Southerners catch and return slaves trying to escape along the Underground Railroad. It was part of the Compromise of 1850. One slave, Dred Scott, went to court against his owner after having been brought to the North. He argued that because he was not in a free state, he was free. The Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that he was not. This ruling effectively made slavery legal in all states and territories. It was terrifying for Northerners.
John Brown attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to launch a general slavery uprising. His effort failed and he was captured, tried and executed for treason. In the process he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Northerners might have seen the Dred Scott case as evidence that slave power had taken over Washington, but Southerners believed John Brown’s raid showed that abolitionists were willing to ignore the law and use violence to take away their slaves.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln won as the first Republican President. He did not appear on the ballot in any southern state. Southerners viewed his victory as evidence that the North would do anything to get its way and that the less populous South would be the losers in the end.
Eleven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four slave states chose not to secede and remained in the Union. Lincoln took office hoping the keep the nation together but warned the South that if they insisted on leaving, it would mean war. When Southerners bombed Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Civil War began.
FIGHTING THE CIVIL WAR
The North and South each had strengths and weaknesses going into the Civil War. The North was more populous, industrialized and wealthy. However, the North had to take the fight to the South and win. The South simply had to hold out until the North gave up. The Southerners saw themselves as fighting for their freedom, which was an ideological advantage in the beginning. Later in the war, Northerners saw their armies as marching to end slavery, a moral crusade of their own. Most of the nation’s best generals were from the South. The lack of effective leadership made the North’s efforts in the first years of the war mostly ineffective.
To prevent the South from exporting its cotton to Europe, the North implemented a blockade of Southern ports.
Both sides believed it would be a short war. After the first battles, it became clear that this would not be the case. Although the Union general McClellan was an excellent organizer and trained a professional army, he was hesitant to take it into battle and failed to destroy the smaller Confederate army early in the war even when he had the chance.
In the North, the war led some to become rich. Vast federal expenditures led to an increase in industrial output. Although many men volunteered at the start of the war, Lincoln instituted a draft as the war dragged on which led to rioting. In the South, the blockade choked off trade and led to hunger and food riots by southern women. In both the North and South, the wealthy found ways to avoid the fighting, while women found new roles in industry, farming, and the war effort. The Red Cross was founded during the war.
The turning point of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg. Although neither side won, Robert E. Lee lost more men than he could replace, and it was the last time he would attempt to take his army into the North or try to capture Washington, DC. At that same time, Union armies in the South captured Vicksburg, thus gaining control of the Mississippi River and divided the South in half.
It took two more years of fighting after Gettysburg to finally destroy the South. General William T. Sherman marched his Union army through Georgia, destroying everything he could in the first example of modern total warfare. General Ulysses S. Grant eventually destroyed the Confederate capital of Richmond and forced Lee to surrender.
THE MEANING OF THE WAR
The North and the South both believed their side was fighting for the right cause. Northerners fought the war to preserve the Union, and later to end slavery. Southerners believed they were fighting for freedom from a tyrannical North that was trying to take away their right to govern themselves. Both sides thought God was on their side.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to start the end of slavery. It actually only freed slaves in territory that was actively rebelling, so it did nothing for slaves in the four border states, or in territory that the Union army had already captured. However, it inspired slaves in the South to run away, and gave the North a moral purpose for the war.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is remembered as one of the great speeches of American history. In it, he explained how the Civil War was an extension of the Revolution by connecting the present to the work of the Founding Fathers. The phrase “Four score and seven years ago…” refers to the Declaration of Independence.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln demonstrated his sense of forgiveness and a desire for a generous reconstruction of the South. He described the war as a punishment by God for the evils of slavery, and questioned whether anyone could truly claim to have God on their side.
Lincoln was assassinated two days after Lee surrendered. Instead of restarting the war, as those who conspired to kill him had hoped, it left a dangerous vacuum of leadership. Andrew Johnson, the vice president who took over, was from Tennessee and was hated by the Republicans who dominated Congress. They clashed repeatedly about the proper way to rebuild the South.
Primary Source: Photograph
The last known photograph of President Lincoln, taken just a few days before his assassination in 1865.
After the war, Northerners got on with their lives. There was little evidence in the North that the war had even happened. In the South, most cities had been destroyed. Southerners were surrounded by newly freed former slaves. Reconstruction was very difficult for the South.
African Americans celebrated the end of the Civil War but faced hardship. Many began looking for lost loved ones. Some hoped to have simple things such as a little land to live on. During the war General Sherman had promised “forty acres and a mule” but this did not happen. Most became sharecroppers, working land they did as slaves and giving a portion of their harvests as rent. Others worked someone else’s land and paid rent. This new system was only a small step above slavery.
Leaders in the North had different ideas about the proper way to rebuild the South. Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, the new president, wanted to quickly bring the South back into the Union and forgive Southerners who had fought for the Confederacy. He pardoned Southern leaders and returned their property, except for their slaves.
Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to punish Southern leaders and do more to change the social order of the South. They promoted African Americans and spent money to open schools to teach freedmen. They impeached President Johnson when he tried to stop them. He kept his job by one vote, but leadership of Reconstruction switched from the White House to Congress.
Primary Source: Illustration
An illustration of “The Misses Cooke’s school room,” one of many schools operated the South by the Freedman’s Bureau. This illustration appeared in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1866.
Three amendments to the Constitution resulted from the Civil War. The 13th Amendment ended slavery. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States. The 15th Amendment gave all men the right to vote.
Despite these legal gains for African Americans, White southern leaders retook control of their states. They passed laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Terrorist groups such as the KKK effectively stopped African Americans from exercising their new freedoms. Reconstruction ended in 1877 when Republicans and Democrats compromised. Hayes was elected president as a Republican and northern troops left the South. Without the army to enforce the ideas of the Radical Republicans, White southern leaders reasserted control and implement the Jim Crow system of segregation. Over time, Redeemers worked to change the meaning of the war. They deemphasized slavery and promoted the idea that Southerners were fighting for freedom. The South may have lost the war, but they won the peace.
So, there it is, the story of the struggle by millions of Americans to deal with the questions of slavery and secession. In the end, our leaders failed to preserve the peace, we fought our bloodiest war, which the North won, thus ending slavery and preserving the Union.
However, as you now know, the war, for all the changes that it caused, did not entirely remake the segregated social order of the South or bring real equality between the races. Since, as many historians have argued, the North may have won the war, but the South seemed to win the peace.
Slavery was indeed terrible, for both the slaves, and Whites who were stained by the terrible thing that they were doing. White Americans may have grown wealthy by the toil of millions of slaves, but in the end, there was a price to pay.
That price, President Lincoln argued, was the devastation and heartache of war. He believed in a just God who let the war come as a righteous punishment for slavery.
What do you think? Was the Civil War a righteous judgement for America’s embrace of slavery?
- Previous: Westward Expansion
- Next: Conclusion
BIG IDEA: In the 1800s, slavery divided America. In 1860 things fell apart and the northern states and southern states fought a long, bloody civil war. The North won, preserving the country, and ending slavery. However, southern White leaders were able to maintain the social hierarchy that kept African Americans at the bottom of the social structure.
Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. As the nation grew, slavery also grew and formed the basis for much of the nation’s wealth. The small abolition movement in the North slowly gained support and helped facilitate a system to help slaves escape to freedom in Canada.
Westward expansion increased conflicts about slavery as the addition of each new state threatened to upset the balance between free and slave states in the Senate. Politicians tried compromise and popular sovereignty to deal with this problem.
In the 1850s politicians tried but were unable to stop the increasingly divisive issue of slavery from leading to the outbreak of war between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North.
The North and South both had advantages and weaknesses in the Civil War, but eventually the North’s industrial might and willingness to persevere through a long and destructive war led to victory.
Northerners led by President Lincoln originally were fighting to preserve the Union. By the end of the war Lincoln had made ending slavery a part of the North’s mission, giving the war a moral purpose.
After the war ended in 1865, Northerners tried unsuccessfully to remake Southern society. Although it is often said that the South won Reconstruction, three constitutional amendments were passed that ended slavery, gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and guaranteed the right to vote to all men.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
John Brown: A fierce abolitionist who moved to Kansas with his family. He led the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre and later led an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in the hope of leading a slave rebellion that would bring about the end of slavery. He was hated by Southerners but became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.
Abraham Lincoln: President during the Civil War. He started the process to end slavery. Many people think he was our nation’s greatest president.
Ulysses S. Grant: General who led the Union armies at the end of the war. He won the Battle of Vicksburg and Lincoln promoted him to commander of all of the Union Armies. He accepted Lee’s surrender at the end of the war and later was elected president.
Sharecroppers: Farm workers who used land that belonged to someone else and paid by sharing some of what they grew.
Freedmen: Former slaves
Triangle Trade: The trade of slaves, raw materials and finished products between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the British Colonies.
King Cotton: The idea that the cotton industry was the key to the Southern, and more generally American economy.
Abolition: The movement to end slavery.
The Underground Railroad: The antebellum volunteer resistance movement that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom. Although it was not a railroad, the participants of the system used railroad terminology. Safe places for escaped slaves to stay were called stations and the people who guided the slaves were conductors.
Popular Sovereignty: The idea that the residents of each territory should decide for themselves if they would join the Union as a free or slave state. Stephen Douglas supported this idea and it was the heart of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Jim Crow: The nickname for a system of laws that enforced segregation. For example, African Americans had separate schools, rode in the backs of busses, could not drink from White drinking fountains, and could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels, etc.
Dred Scott v. Sanford: A landmark Supreme Court case in 1857 in which Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that the federal government did not have the power to regulate slavery, effectively allowing slavery in all states, North and South, as well as the territories. The outcome of the case infuriated abolitionists who saw it as a major expansion of the power of slave owners over the federal government.
Gettysburg Address: Lincoln’s famous speech in 1863 in which he outlined the purpose of the war.
Confederate States of America: Also called the Confederacy – the slave-holding states from the South that seceded.
Battle of Gettysburg: The turning point battle of the war. Lee led his army into Pennsylvania hoping to force the North to give up but lost the battle.
Reconstruction: The time period after the Civil War ended when the North tried to remake the society of the South. During this time important amendments were passed, but in the end many things didn’t change.
Emancipation Proclamation: President Lincoln’s official order freeing all slaves in the rebelling territories (but not in the Border States that had remained in the Union).
13th, 14th and 15th Amendments: The three amendments to the Constitution ratified after the Civil War during Reconstruction. They ended slavery, gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and gave voting rights to all men.