A Growing Fissure


“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

—Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858

The United States capitol as it appeared in 1846. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, America’s political leaders struggled to mend the widening breach between the North and the South.

In 1860, New York was the most populous city in America. Broadway bustled with activity.

Demand for American cotton soared in 1860. Increasing exports to the Northern states and Britain boosted production and greatly increased the value of slaves on Southern cotton plantations.

America in 1860: High Hopes and a Widening Divide


In 1860, the United States was a youthful, vibrant, and rapidly growing nation. Only 84 years had passed since the founding fathers crafted the Declaration of Independence, yet in that time, America had become a vast nation that sprawled across the entire continent. The population had swelled from less than 4 million to more than 31 million, thanks largely to immigration. Although increasing numbers of Americans were taking up urban trades, most were still farmers, especially in the South and the Western territories.

The economy enjoyed steady growth too, fueled by a parade of recent inventions including the sewing machine, the electric locomotive, the hydraulic turbine, the Bessemer steel process, and the Otis elevator. A golden age of shipbuilding enabled the United States to produce almost as much tonnage as Great Britain and all its colonies combined. Major cities such as New York—which boasted more than 800,000 residents in 1860—emerged from an era where pigs wandered dirt streets to an era of horse-drawn streetcars, paved streets, and city waterworks systems.

In the single decade of the 1850s, the amount of railroad track in the United States increased from approximately 9,000 miles to more than 30,000. Americans were eyewitnesses to a nation on the move, if not participants in it.

And yet, a cultural and political chasm was widening across the country, and no one seemed able to heal it. Soon, that chasm would claim the lives of more than 620,000 Americans.

Steamboats lined the levee along the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

Keeping Count

The Largest American Cities in 1860

The 1860 U.S. Census ranked these as the top ten cities in the United States, according to population. Seven were located in the North; Baltimore and St. Louis were in border states. Only New Orleans was in the South.





















Manufacturing and government-supported works projects, along with the development of the railroad system, fueled an economic boom in Northern cities. Railroad expansion proved particularly vital to the war effort on both sides of the conflict.

In the prewar years, the South remained an agrarian culture, as its agricultural production—most notably of cotton—was extremely profitable and precluded the need for significant industrial expansion.

Two Nations in One: North vs. South


Despite having much in common, Northerners and Southerners had drifted apart because of politics, but also because the regions had two distinctively different cultures. The South was an agricultural society, controlled by the owners of large plantations. Southerners, generally traditional and conservative, were suspicious of a large national government. They favored states’ rights and opposed taxation on imported goods. The South grew almost all of the nation’s cotton, produced a majority of the country’s military leaders, and had provided 9 of the first 15 American presidents.

The North, in contrast, was increasingly urban, progressive, and industrial. It held almost 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing, most of its railroads, and two-thirds of its population. The region’s political leaders generally favored tariffs on imports to protect Northern business and industry, championed government-supported projects, and advocated a strong national government.

Fuel on the Smoldering Fire

The North’s push for higher tariffs on imports incensed Southerners, who imported most manufactured items and feared higher prices.

They believed that Northern leaders, if unchecked, would eventually rule not only the states, but also the daily lives of individual Americans. In turn, many Northerners saw Southern politicians as demanding, obstructionist, unpatriotic, and self-serving.

The issue of slavery was like fuel tossed on a smoldering fire of sectional rivalry. As Northern criticism of slavery increased, Southerners felt condemned and a nationalist movement steadily emerged. Many were alarmed when Northern newspapers hailed abolitionist John Brown as a hero for attempting to launch a slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. Their sense of isolation deepened further the next year when Abraham Lincoln and the fledgling Republican Party—both of which were viewed as anti-Southern and antislavery—carried the presidential election.

A Divisive National Issue

In the United States, there was little consensus on the slavery question from the time the first Africans were brought ashore in 1619 to the day South Carolina seceded in 1860.

1619 Slavery introduced to America in the colony of Virginia.

1787 Northwest Ordinance enacted by Congress restricted slavery in Northern territories.

1793 First Fugitive Slave Act required return of escaped slaves.

1794 Eli Whitney’s cotton gin spurred demand for slave labor.

1807: Congress outlawed the importation of slaves from abroad.

1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia alarmed Southerners.

1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published.

1855 Violent attacks in Kansas occurred as antislavery factions and proslavery raiders clashed.

1856 The newly formed, antislavery Republican Party held its first presidential-nominating convention in Philadelphia.

1857 Dred Scott decision by U.S. Supreme Court upheld constitutionality of slavery.

1859 John Brown led an unsuccessful abolitionist raid on U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

1860 Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president; South Carolina seceded from the Union.

Slavery Comes to America


Slave owners often split up families. In spite of this practice, slaves forged strong family ties, and strangers stepped in to care for children separated from their blood relatives.

The first African slaves in America were brought to Virginia’s Jamestown Colony in 1619 aboard an English ship sailing under a Dutch flag. There were approximately 20 of them.

In the decades that followed, America’s slave population expanded dramatically and slavery became a national institution that was both allowed by the U.S. Constitution and endorsed in rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. The North, with its shipping centers like Newport, Rhode Island, served as the slave trade’s commercial heart until 1808, when Congress banned the importation of slaves. Slavery, however, remained legal in many states. In the North, the practice was allowed in New York until 1827, and in New Jersey until 1846, then eventually began to fade.

Not so in the agricultural South where slave labor was considered critical to the region’s economy. In 1793, the invention of the cotton gin boosted the crop’s profitability and increased the demand for slave labor to produce it. By 1860, most of the 4 million slaves in the United States were held in the Southern states.

As the institution grew, however, so did opposition to it. An increasing number of Americans, including some in the South, believed the institution was harmful to slave owners as well as to slaves. “In the order of divine Providence, the man who puts one end of a chain around the ankle of his fellow man will find the other end around his own neck,” said Frederick Douglass, the leading nineteenth century African-American opponent of slavery.

Robert Purvis


Robert Purvis was a leading American antislavery advocate during the antebellum era. Born in Charleston, South Carolina to a Jewish businessman and a free black woman, he and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator newspaper, were influential in establishing the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833.

Stoking Southern Fears

While some Southerners wished to see slavery abolished, most slave owners did not, so the abolitionist movement drew its strength from the North. There, public sentiment against slavery gradually increased. By midcentury, Northern abolitionism had become a significant political force, and public criticism of slavery and Southern slave holders had acquired a harsh tone. Meanwhile, unsuccessful slave uprisings, such as Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia in 1832, stoked Southern fears that Northerners were stirring discontent. In response, Southerners became increasingly defensive and viewed those who were antislavery to also be anti-Southern.

During the colonial period, slavery was banned in Georgia. However, by the late 18th century, slaves were crucial to Georgia’s economy, cultivating vast amounts of rice and cotton.

Sarah Grimke


Angelina Grimke


Southern sisters fight slavery.

Raised in a prominent family in Charleston, South Carolina, Sarah Grimke, top, and her sister Angelina, bottom, were leading Southern abolitionists in the antebellum era. They eventually moved to Philadelphia, where their views were more acceptable. During the 1830s, the Grimkes became the most popular antislavery speakers.

Before slaves were put on the auction block, they were held in pens like these in Alexandria, Virginia. The city flourished as an auction center due to its location on the railroad and Potomac River.

On plantations, slaves were packed into clusters of poorly constructed, largely unfurnished cabins with dirt floors. In an attempt to appease abolitionists, some slave owners built better housing, raising cabins off the ground and providing slaves with more space.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

A novel changes public perception.

As tensions between North and South reached a fever pitch, a novel by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe stoked the sectional rivalry.

Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sympathetically depicted the plight of American slaves. It sold more than 300,000 copies and inspired countless Northerners to adopt the antislavery position. Many Southerners, however, believed the North also shared the responsibility for slavery and felt unfairly attacked by Stowe’s powerful prose.

Laws in the South condoned and often required violence perpetrated against slaves. Slave owners could be fined and risked forfeiting their slaves for not punishing them enough.

Slaves were sold to the highest bidder at auction houses like this one in Atlanta. During these events, men were often inspected and then sold first, followed by women and children—a process that broke apart families.

Built to house large numbers of people, slave pens in Alexandria, Virginia, were larger than those elsewhere in the South. This complex featured a tailor to clothe slaves before auction, as well as an infirmary to help ensure slaves were healthy enough to fetch high prices.

Sexual abuse of slaves was pervasive, and slave owners were protected under the law. Slaves were also forced to reproduce, either with each other or with their male owners.

Frederick Douglass wrote three autobiographies, classics in American literature, and served, on two occasions, as an advisor to President Lincoln.

The Underground Railroad

In the decades leading to the Civil War, untold numbers of slaves escaped to the North and Canada through the Underground Railroad.

This loosely organized system provided temporary shelter and transportation for escaped slaves through Northern states to Canada.

While white Northerners managed the railroad, it was the fortitude of escaped slaves that made it successful. Escaped slave and renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass made his way north through the Underground Railroad in 1838. Harriett Tubman was a Maryland field hand who took the railroad to freedom in 1849, and helped as many as three hundred slaves escape in the following years. At its peak, the Underground Railroad enabled as many as two thousand slaves a year to escape bondage.

In addition to her work on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was also a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union army.

Congress Fails to Find a Lasting Compromise between Northern and Southern Ideals


As the U.S. Capitol was expanded to accommodate senators and representatives from newly added states, the dome was rebuilt to suit the building’s new dimensions. Construction began in 1856.

As the North and the South competed for control of the nation, the U. S. Congress became the conflict’s chief battleground. To promote their vision of a progressive, industrial society, Northern representatives pushed for a federal government that would support canals, national highways, and railroads. Southern lawmakers resisted, defending state sovereignty and promoting an agricultural society. Increasingly, the issue of slavery came to define the differences in the two regions.

As the nation expanded westward, both sides fought to make slavery legal or illegal in the new states. The 1820 Missouri Compromise admitted Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state and abolished the slave trade in the nation’s capital, while requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed residents of those two territories to decide whether they wanted their territory to be slave or free. The deals delayed but did not resolve the disagreements over slavery and the bitter public rhetoric in Congress widened the breach between North and South.

John C. Calhoun


South Carolinian John C. Calhoun served as a U.S. congressman, a U.S. senator, the U.S. secretary of war, the U.S. secretary of state, and as vice president of the United States under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The Yale-educated Calhoun became a leading Southern defender of state’s rights and slavery during the decades leading to the Civil War.

Debate became so heated over the admission of California as a free state that Mississippi senator Henry S. Foote, above, threatened to shoot Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

U.S. senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi emerged as an ardent supporter of both the South and the Union.

Control of the House of Representatives was held by free states, whose population outgrew slave states. Slave states then needed to control the Senate in order to maintain a veto over federal law. Through a series of complicated compromises, balance was maintained until 1850.

Tariff of Abominations

The last straw for the South

In the early 1800s, tariffs—taxes on imported foreign goods—became a core conflict between the North and South. Northerners favored tariffs to protect American business and industry, most of which were located in the North. The agricultural South imported many manufactured items, and resented Northern leaders pushing for tariffs that raised prices for Southerners.

The most controversial was the Tariff of Abominations, a tax on foreign goods passed in 1828 that drastically raised the cost of living in the Southern states. The tariff was declared invalid in South Carolina where elected officials said it violated the Constitution. The standoff that followed—called the Nullification Crisis—sowed the seeds of a secession movement in South Carolina thirty years before the Civil War.

Bleeding Kansas


Tensions between antislavery settlers, like those pictured above, and proslavery factions resulted in election fraud and violence as both sides worked to intimidate the other.

In 1854, Northern and Southern political leaders were at odds about how to build a transcontinental railroad. A majority in Congress agreed that the federal government should promote the project by selling public land to railroad companies, but Northern leaders wanted a northern route and Southerners wanted a southern route.

Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, a leading Democrat, proposed a central route starting in Chicago. To obtain Southern support in Congress, Douglas authored the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of those territories to vote on whether they wanted the state to become slave or free.

It was a formula for disaster. Proslavery and antislavery factions sent hordes of settlers into Kansas to determine the voting outcome, and the two sides clashed violently. In 1856, proslavery raiders sacked the free-state town of Lawrence, Kansas, wrecking newspaper offices and burning buildings.

A Nighttime Raid in Kansas

Vowing to “strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people,” John Brown, a militant abolitionist, retaliated three days later with a nighttime raid against Southern families on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. Using surplus artillery swords, Brown and his sons dragged five men and boys from their homes, then killed and dismembered them. It turned out that the victims owned no slaves and the murders sparked outrage in the South. The ensuing violence made compromise between the North and South seem impossible.

Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas sought Southern backing for a central rail route in exchange for his support of slavery in the Kansas territories.

Militant abolitionist John Brown and his sons killed five men from Kansas, sparking outrage in the South.

Daniel Webster


Daniel Webster was an outstanding Constitutional lawyer and served as the U.S. Secretary of State. He also represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Despite working doggedly with Southern colleagues John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay to avoid a North-South conflict, Webster remained unwavering in his support of the Union. He is remembered for his famous quotation, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Henry Clay


In the decades leading up to the Civil War, few in Congress worked harder to solve the conflicts between North and South than congressional leader Henry Clay of Kentucky. Although Clay’s efforts in the U.S. House and Senate eventually proved futile, he is remembered as the “Great Compromiser” because of his tireless attempts to avoid war between the North and South.

John Brown Strikes at Harpers Ferry


An illustration depicting John Brown’s capture at Harpers Ferry. After the episode, he was tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death.

On a Sunday evening in autumn 1859, militant abolitionist John Brown reappeared on the public stage. Leading an 18-man armed gang, he attempted to seize the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in order to arm a slave insurrection and set up an antislavery republic in the Appalachians.

The attack was a fiasco. The first man killed was a free black worker who got in the gang’s way and Brown himself was soon wounded. As the hours wore on, the raiders took a group of hostages and retreated to a nearby fire station. It took a contingent of U.S. Marines, lead by Robert E. Lee—then a colonel in the U.S. Army—to restore order and arrest the raiders.

Eventually Brown was tried and convicted of treason. On November 2, 1859, he was hauled to the gallows in a wagon, seated on his coffin. The events put Southerners on edge, especially when it was revealed that the raid had been funded by a half-dozen Northern businessmen.

Southern anger spilled into outrage when prominent Northerners publicly declared Brown as a martyr and compared him to Jesus Christ. Passion seemed to overtake caution in both the North and the South.

Antislavery fanatic John Brown, as he appeared in 1859.

The view of the armory at Harpers Ferry from the river side.

Brown and his raiders barricaded themselves and their hostages in this brick firehouse.

At the time of the Harpers Ferry Raid, Colonel Robert E. Lee was at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on leave from command of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry in Texas. He was ordered by his superiors to round up a contingent of U.S. Marines, take them to Harpers Ferry, and end the raid.

Harsh Words and Court Action Fuel the Fires


Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who sued for his freedom. The case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in support of slavery.

In the Dred Scott case, U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney wrote that black Americans, slave or free, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

By 1860, the distrust between the North and the South was nearing a climax, fueled by recurring controversy and heated public rhetoric.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 infuriated many Northerners by requiring local law enforcement officials to return escaped slaves. Southern leaders were angered when some Northern states defied federal law and refused. In the 1857 Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slavery was constitutional, could not be barred from the Western territories, and that persons of African descent could not become American citizens. Amid the controversies, Northern and Southern newspapers stirred emotions with angry editorials.

The tempers in Washington ran equally hot. As Congress struggled to find compromises over slavery and other issues between the North and the South, fiery rhetoric from both sides fueled passions and further pushed the factions apart. Northern congressman Thaddeus Stevens denounced a proslavery Democrat as a “skunk” on the floor of Congress, and accused Southerners of “tyranny” and “treason.” After Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner harshly criticized South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, Congressman Preston Brooks—a relative of Butler’s—beat Sumner almost senseless with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Southern business leader Isaac Trimble likewise denounced the North: “Our connection with you never had, from the early settlement of the colonies ’til now, any bond but that of political interest. Your bigotry & hatred of everything Southern drove us from you. . . .”

On the floor of the U.S. senate, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner vilified Senator Stephen Douglas as “an animal” and accused South Carolina senator Andrew Butler of committing adultery with “the harlot slavery.”

After beating Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, Congressman Preston Brooks resigned his seat in the House of Representatives, but he was re-elected by the people of South Carolina who supported his act of violence.

A newspaper illustration depicted Brooks pounding Sumner with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Brooks became a hero in the South and Sumner became a martyr in the North.

The North Triumphs in the 1860 Election


Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas consistently advocated for a middle ground in the debate on slavery, believing in the principle of popular sovereignty.

Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge ran for the presidency on a proslavery platform. After the start of the war, he encouraged his home state of Kentucky to secede from the Union before he fled south.

Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell won support from the border states with his temperate stance on slavery and antisecessionist views.

Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln asserted that slavery was in direct opposition to the values of the founding fathers as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

As the 1860 presidential contest approached, America was bitterly divided. All the issues that had provoked conflict between the North and the South were now points of contention in the election—the role of the federal government, states’ rights, tariffs, the route of a transcontinental railroad, and, especially, slavery. The Democratic Party split under the pressure: Northern Democrats nominated proslavery Senator Stephen Douglas, while the Southern wing nominated its own proslavery candidate, John C. Breckinridge, who was vice president at the time. The hastily formed and short-lived Constitutional Union Party, composed mainly of members of the collapsed Whig Party, put forth U.S. senator John Bell of Tennessee.

A Republican campaign banner for Lincoln and Hamlin.

After prolonged convention banter, the fledgling Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, viewed as a compromise candidate. Lincoln opposed slavery, but was content to restrict it to existing slave states rather than abolish it everywhere. With so many choices, no candidate won a majority of the popular vote. Lincoln received less than 40 percent—a plurality—but he won a solid majority of 180 electoral votes, making him the first Republican president of the United States.

Southerners were disheartened. The winning party’s opposition to slavery as well as its support for tariffs and a strong federal government, meant the 1860 election was a triumph for the North and a disaster for the South.

Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was chosen as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

When Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas ran for reelection in 1858, he faced a formidable opponent in Abraham Lincoln, a former state legislator and one-term congressman who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The two engaged in a series of seven debates, with slavery as the chief topic. While Douglas favored the practice, Lincoln’s position was more nuanced. He denounced slavery but was also willing to allow it to continue in the existing slave states, and favored freeing the slaves over the course of about forty years through “gradual emancipation.” Douglas, who was better known and more influential, won the race. Lincoln, however, also profited. The debates made him a national figure and positioned him for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

The Union is Dissolved


As results from the presidential election of November 6, 1860 rolled in, the state legislature met in Charleston and remained in session for the day. When the news of Lincoln’s victory arrived, the lawmakers voted to convene an emergency state election.

On December 20, 1860, the delegates met in Charleston and unanimously voted for the ordinance of secession, declaring South Carolina to be an independent republic and no longer a part of the United States of America. Some South Carolinians received the news with despair; most, however, welcomed secession with joyful celebration.

The South Carolina Secession Convention

Charleston’s Institute Hall where South Carolina delegates signed the Ordinance of Secession declaring the state no longer part of the United States of America.

A Special Edition

When South Carolina’s secession convention voted to take the Palmetto State out of the Union, the staff at the Charleston Mercury was standing by their printing press to report the news. Fifteen minutes after the monumental vote, the 35-year-old newspaper was ready to distribute a special edition broadside topped by a giant headline: “The Union is Dissolved.”

On the street outside the newspaper office, the paper was read to a crowd of Charlestonians, which erupted in cheers. The text of the Mercury’s special edition:

Passed unanimously at 1.15 o’clock, P.M., December 20th, 1860. An ordinance to dissolve the Union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained,

That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention, on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also, all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved. The Union is dissolved.

Secessionists celebrated in Charleston.

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