From February 1861 through the waning hours of April 9th, 1865, the United States grappled with the defining act of its relatively brief existence. Tensions that started building with the country’s Declaration of Independence reached a violent zenith. The Civil War was more than a struggle for land; it was a struggle for the country’s identity. The south’s plantation economy, based on cotton and maintained by slavery, remains the reason often cited for America’s civil war. However, several friction points led to armed conflict.
The Multicultural North
Northern residents lived in close quarters and traded with merchants from faraway places. Northerners accepted cultural, ethnic and aesthetic differences with an ease not found in the south. The industrial revolution’s impact was felt most in the north, with factories producing goods more cheaply than in previous decades. There was also a shift from skilled craftsmen to skilled laborers. Some historians cite industrialization as one of the war’s triggers. After all, factories eliminated the need for slaves. Pressure from the north grew with abolitionists from many regions of the United States calling for slavery’s end.
The Southern Plantation System
On the other hand, some historians argue that the south’s slave-driven, rural economy triggered the conflict. Plantation owners made their living from the land instead of investments and products. Their economy was rural, plantation-based and labor-intensive.
Historians have blamed the cotton gin for slavery, but the first slaves arrived during the 1600s, before the gin’s invention. For the most part, these slaves served on tobacco and sugar plantations in Virginia. Cotton did not become the south’s most profitable crop until some time during the 1800s. However, slavery threatened to spread.
The Compromise of 1850
Slavery’s supporters wanted its established boundaries to expand with the country, while abolitionists continued thwarting their efforts. The senate formed a Select Committee to address major points of contention, resulting in the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise is a set of five provisions spelling out expansion guidelines and agreements.
Texas relinquished New Mexico and its claims to regions north of the Missouri Compromise’s Line but kept the panhandle region. The Utah and New Mexico territories, under the principle of popular sovereignty, could choose whether to allow slavery within their boundaries. California gained admittance to the union as a free state, and the District of Columbia banned the slave trade while preserving slavery.
Most points in the compromise eased tensions, except for one. The Fugitive Slave Law passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 required all states, free or slaveholding, to support the capture and return of all escaped slaves. This forced anti-slavery states to support the practice until Vermont passed the “Habeas Corpus Law”. Once passed, the law required state officials to assist escaped slaves. As the controversy gained speed and heat, President Millard Fillmore threatened to use troops to enforce the fugitive slave law in Vermont. Some say the Fugitive Slave Law, coupled with President Fillmore’s threat, may have triggered the Civil War’s opening salvos. However, many cite Abraham Lincoln, his antislavery views and his election as president.
When Abraham Lincoln became president on November 6, 1860, secessionist states promised to leave the union before he took office. South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia joined the exodus and crafted a constitution declaring themselves the Confederate States of America. Outgoing President Buchanan and President-Elect Lincoln refused to recognize the new nation, while Jefferson Davis became the Confederacy’s provisional president. Confederate forces fired on the Union army’s Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, forcing its surrender. The Civil War had begun.
Battles of Consequence
The war claimed 8,037 soldiers between April and November of 1861. By the end, it may have claimed between 620,000 and 850,000 soldiers during battles, but many died from starvation and two-thirds of them died from diseases. Typhoid fever, lung inflammations and dysentery spread quickly through field hospitals, while prisoner of war camps starved 56,000 soldiers to death. During more than 50 major battles, a broken bone or severe wound often meant amputation and surgery was not sterile. Beyond ether, chloroform or whiskey, there was no anesthetic.
The Battle of Antietam, deemed the bloodiest of the entire war, was the clash between Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan. This was an important turning point. McClellan’s victory over Lee on September 17, 1862, justified Lincoln’s announcing the Emancipation Proclamation while it ended Lee’s northward advance. In addition to freeing slaves, the proclamation kept Britain from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate government, removing any support the Confederacy may have enjoyed from The United Kingdom. Without an important ally, the Confederacy was left to ponder its nonexistent relationship with France.
“War is a hellish way to settle a disagreement”
Antietam saw the war’s bloodiest battle, even though combat ended by 5:30 p.m. More than 250 battles followed, but historians consider the Battle of Appomattox Court House to be the war’s last great battle. On the morning of April 9, 1865, General Lee’s Confederate forces found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered as General Grant’s Union forces surrounded them at Appomattox. Realizing he could not prevail against Grant’s superior numbers, Lee surrendered to Grant at Wilmer McLean’s house that afternoon. Formal surrender ceremonies followed on April 12th, triggering subsequent surrenders throughout the Confederacy.
The Civil War was much more than a country’s struggle to expand. The south’s efforts to preserve slavery required cooperation from citizens who found the practice abhorrent. While not quite the same as taxation without representation, slavery’s chipping away at the north’s stance against it might have been the ultimate trigger for abolitionists. For southern slave owners, Lincoln gaining the presidency was viewed as a threat to their way of life. Slaveholding states saw Lincoln’s Republican party as a revolutionary organization that was dedicated to ending slavery.
With the war’s end came rebuilding and enforcing new laws against slavery. Southern plantation owners and their cohorts focused their resentment on former slaves and their descendants and segregation. Jim Crow laws kept former slaves shackled, denying them the dignity and services that most citizens enjoyed. Domestic terrorism grew, with the KKK burning crosses on lawns and civil rights workers fighting for voting rights.
Slavery and its expansion were catalysts for a much deeper discussion about states’ rights. However, slavery’s existence would have fueled divisions and disagreements for centuries without decisive action. The war ended slavery, but questions about states’ rights still assert themselves when the practices and laws of conservative states impact their socially progressive neighbors.