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Chapter 11. The Union Divided: The Civil War (1861-1865)

The Civil War was the culmination of nearly 40 years of tensions between the North and the South. Northern abolitionists looked forward to the war with great anticipation: Victory over the South would finally allow the dreaded institution of slavery to be eliminated. Northern industrialists saw the war as an opportunity, at long last, to expand their control of American industry. The majority of Southerners rejoiced at the onset of war; they perceived that victory would allow the “Southern way of life” to continue without constant criticism from the North. As in many wars, politicians and generals on both sides predicted a quick victory. Newspapers in both the North and the South declared that the war would be over by Christmas of 1861.

To state that the Civil War was just about slavery is an oversimplification. Certainly, criticism by Northern abolitionists of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and Southern responses to that criticism, were important factors. However, other tensions between the North and the South also existed. The future of the American economy as seen by Northern industrialists differed drastically from the desires and needs of the leaders of Southern plantation society. Most importantly, the Southern view of “state’s rights” differed most dramatically from the view of the Union held in the North. By 1861, many political leaders in the South fervently espoused the views that John C. Calhoun had formulated decades earlier: It was up to the individual state to decided on the validity of any federal law or federal action for that state. This position was intolerable to President Lincoln and most political leaders in the North. If anything, it was debate over the state’s rights issue that made the Civil War inevitable.

Other factors increased the animosity between the North and the South. By this point slavery was synonymous with Southern identity; in Southern eyes any attack on slavery was an attack on the South as a whole. The fact that this struggle between the North and the South had gone on for 40 years served to harden positions on both sides. In addition, by this point the population of the North was greater than the population of the South, and the number of free states was greater than the number of slaves states. As a result, Southerners knew that Northern antislave interests would control the Congress (and the ability to influence Supreme Court appointments) and the Electoral College for the foreseeable future.


Many Southerners were very excited when the Civil War finally began, yet there were some harsh realities facing them as war commenced. Most of the nation’s wealth was situated in the North; the industrialization of the North would give Northerners an advantage in producing guns, bullets, and other materials needed for warfare. The Northern railway system was far superior to the existing railways in the South. Most influential banks and financial markets were located in the North. More people (by a nearly 3-to-1 margin) lived in the North. The South could at least say that they were larger than the North; conquering the South would be a formidable task. At the outset of the war. Southerners might also claim that their officer corps, led by men such as Robert E. Lee, was superior to the officer corps of the Union, led by Winfield Scott.

The Aftermath of Secession

As mentioned in the previous chapter, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and Alabama all voted to secede from the Union in late 1860 or early 1861. In February 1861, the Confederate States of America was officially created. States in the Upper South (such as Virginia and Kentucky) were not eager to join the secessionist movement (there were fewer slaves in these states). Leaders of Kentucky and Maryland proposed that Congress in Washington enact legislation that would protect slavery in any territory or state where it already existed; the desire of these leaders was the preservation of the Union. President James Buchanan did little to aid the situation. Buchanan stated in December of 1860 that secession from the Union was illegal, but that nowhere in the Constitution was it stated that any state could be forced to remain in the Union.

Politicians in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South interpreted Buchanan’s statement as, in essence, stating that he would do nothing to bring back the seceded states and that they were now independent. Leaders in South Carolina demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter, a federal fort located in Charleston harbor. To test the will of the leaders of South Carolina, Buchanan sent an unarmed merchant ship to bring supplies to the fort. When the ship was fired on, Buchanan did not send the navy in (which many in South Carolina was sure he would do); “patriots” in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South now felt certain that independence was theirs.

As the crisis continued at Fort Sumter, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky emerged with a compromise plan. The Crittenden Plan proposed that the federal government guarantee the existence of slavery in any state where it existed, and that the line of the Missouri Compromise be extended all the way to the Pacific, with territories to the north of the line being free from slavery and those south of the line having slavery. Republicans in Congress rejected this plan, since it went away from the concept of “free soil” that president-elect Lincoln had just been elected on.

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