I fear if S[outh] C[arolina] and some of the other states are hurrying our whole country into civil war. I fear if S.C. takes Fort Sumter, by force, and gives the first shot, then the South will commence the war, and if there is any war, I want the North to have all the blame.


This book has been concerned with broadening the usual, rather narrow, political approach to discussing the origins of the American Civil War. It has argued that we should treat this complex question in relation not only to political events, important though these are, but also to geography, social and cultural forces, economic vicissitudes, and how men thought and acted towards the possibility of war. The study of war origins cannot be divorced from the military factors that give wars their shape and finally precipitate them. Thus close attention must be accorded to the immediate origins of the conflict because it is only these that actually produce war at a given date in a specific form; the more distant origins of conflict – which, as this book has argued, may be traced back to the very foundation of the American Republic – are significant in establishing the vital preconditions that render war possible. But they provide no answer to the tricky question of why war broke out when it did. Only the immediate origins can provide the answer to this question, and military considerations come to the fore. So at what point did civil war in 1861 become likely?

Let us first review the distant origins to give perspective to the discussion. It was inevitable that in a country like the United States, its ‘destiny’ would be the subject of much discussion and disagreement. The Hartford Convention (1814) and the Nullification Crisis (1832–33) indicated that such discussion had the potential to generate armed conflict. This was accentuated by the ‘unstable pluralism’ of American democracy, the tiny size of the Federal Administration, an over-reliance on legal niceties and interpretations, and the weakness of the central government vis-à-vis the states. The Federal government could not deter the threat of rebellion by force because it had no force to mobilize. This did not have severe repercussions until the southern states began to act in concert, especially after 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 was a conditional compromise. It demonstrated that compromises with the southern states were invariably pro-slavery in character. The Democratic Administrations of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were dedicated to protecting the Compromise. Their policy was, therefore, consistently pro-southern and alienated large sections of northern opinion who believed that the price extracted by those pro-slavery compromises was too high and that the growth of the ‘slave power’ had important, serious implications for the continuance of northern liberties. The Pierce–Buchanan policy was counterproductive and contributed to a profound sense of domestic ‘political crisis’. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was perhaps the most significant political manoeuvre of the decade: the year 1854 was a major turning point, and most southerners were eager to turn.

But which way should the South turn? The South was far from being a coherent, unified entity; it was the Deep South that forced the pace, the Upper South was reluctant to follow. The 1830s had seen the development of a pro-slavery ideology which argued that the South’s peculiar institution was a positive good. By the 1850s these ideas were generally accepted and widely popularized. This ideology increasingly bound the slave states together. It sought the modernization of slavery, so that it could compete more effectively with free labour. The institution of slavery was central to the sense of cultural divergence between the North and South, even if this has been exaggerated. Certainly this sense of cultural separateness was accentuated by large-scale immigration to the North after 1840. Hence the attempt to coordinate action among southern states. If we accept that centrifugal tendencies – separatism – were inherent in the American experiment, this does not mean that they inevitably led to civil war and at a particular date. Certainly a sense of confrontation was sharpened by the rise of the Republican Party after 1854, even though its origins had far less to do with the slavery controversy, and much more to do with ethnic-cultural tensions within the North, than earlier historians believed.

Nonetheless, the rise of a sectional, northern party dedicated to the restriction of slavery, not only gave point to differences over the peculiar institution and the tariff question, but also signalled an end to a desire to compromise on a basis that secured, or prolonged, the evolution of slavery in North America, in contradistinction to all other western, liberal opinion. By 1850 slavery survived elsewhere only in Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico.2

All of these factors contributed powerfully to the disintegration of the Second Party System and its replacement with one that responded to sectional interests. But the import of these events essentially provides an indirect explanation of the origins of the American Civil War. However fearful and inflamed southern opinion became by 1859, especially after John Brown’s ‘raid’, northern opinion remained pacific and hoped, for the most part, that a further compromise would be forthcoming. Republican leaders were prepared to accept a compromise only if the restriction of slavery was conceded; this was never likely. Leading planters explained secession in 1860–61, not in terms of cultural differences but of the defence of slavery. The election of a Republican president, in Alexander H. Stephen’s words, put to the test ‘the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization’.3

Of course, the immediate origins of the Civil War grew out of the sense of a political crisis in the 1850s. Yet it is they, and not the political crisis itself, which explain why the war came in 1861 and the way it came. The prime reason for the coming of war in that year was the southern decision not to accept the choice made by a majority of voters (almost all in the North) who had supported the Republican Party. Where the two-party system had disintegrated secessionist fervour advanced – especially in the Deep South, much less so in the Upper South. It was 1860, and not 18574 (the year of Lecompton, Kansas violence, and Dred Scott) that was the crucial year of decision. It is the presidential election that triggers off the secession crisis that provides the issue between the secessionists and the Federal government.

The manner in which unilateral state secessions were carried out was pregnant with war. Separatism itself does not lead to war; but secession almost always does. And in the case of 1860–61 secession led to anarchy in the United States with no coherent programme of government or plan. This was accompanied by a rapid increase in armaments among the seceded states. It is as well to recall that the Confederacy opened fire on Fort Sumter before Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas had seceded. This was a rash, ill-thought-out act of foolishness, but characteristic of the impetuosity that secession had brought in its train. The role of newspapers in contributing to the overwrought atmosphere, especially in the Deep South, should not be underestimated. The casual attitude of secessionists to the use of force (which so contrasts with the agonizing of both the Buchanan and Lincoln Administrations) and over-reliance on its efficacy, was the product of an attitude of mind that did not envisage war as a thing of armies and organized destruction, but of casual gatherings of romantic adventurers and warriors, who ‘whipped’ the enemy: and it was modelled on the wholly misleading example of Kansas. This is a supremely important factor that explains the coming of war in 1861. It is often overlooked.

Secession was based ultimately on force. It was enforced in the seceded states by local ‘vigilance’ committees and by state militias or vigilantes; it was secured by opening fire on Fort Sumter; it was extended into Kentucky and elsewhere by Confederate armies. Force and secession worked hand in hand in managing a highly aggressive coup d’état. On 1 October 1862, in the only state where secession had been confirmed by the popular vote, Texas state militia arrested more than 200 unionists; some 44 were executed, and many others lynched. Frontier violence and secession are clearly related; this does not mean that the South enjoyed a coherent military tradition. On the contrary, its casual and ill-informed attitude to violence led it to precipitate a suicidal civil war.5

There can be no doubting either, despite so much southern special pleading to the contrary, that the South was the aggressive party. One interesting feature that the American Civil War shares with other wars of the nineteenth century, is that the actual conflict was ignited by the side that was standing on the defensive.6 Lacking great armed forces to deter the war, the Lincoln Administration called upon the states to provide the manpower to restore the Union. The issue of Lincoln’s Proclamation of 15 April 1861 revealed that those who called for compromise on a pro-slavery basis reminiscent of 1850 – especially in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina – in the last resort, were prepared to side with the secessionists. Their loyalty was indeed conditional and points up the moral that, even if the Sumter crisis had been resolved by federal concessions, the problem would not have gone away. On the contrary, it would have boosted secessionist confidence and swagger, depressed the North and perhaps fatally damaged Lincoln’s prestige. Secessionists would have believed even more fervently that the North lacked resolve and that it could be intimidated further. Sumter was a symptom of this delusion; it was not the problem. It was southern conduct during the Sumter crisis that persuaded northern opinion that ‘standing up to the South’ was necessary even if this should lead to war. In a democracy the climate of public opinion was crucial in strengthening the resolve of statesmen.

Northern resolve to crush the Confederacy was also underestimated by outside powers, who failed to understand the complexity of the conflict. Two polities waging war in North America threatened to restore some semblance of the balance of power in this continent. If Great Britain and France had intervened on the side of the Confederacy, then the war would have been transformed into a general war that might have spread to Europe. Russia, still resentful of her defeat by Britain and France in the Crimea (1854–56), consistently pursued a pro-Union policy. But Britain and France did not intervene because they had no overwhelming reason to do so, and one would not act without the other.7 Only foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy would have restored a balance of power and counter-weighed the balance of forces and resources that favoured the Union.

It took time for these forces to be mobilized, distributed and organized. This was an act of policy, not the pursuit of a legal case or democratic ideals, important as these were in justifying the policy. Warfare was not, as so many assumed, a casual, dramatic and rapid affair, but a highly intricate business. The deadly error of supposing that war would be short was committed by both sides. Sometimes such an assumption is justified (as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71) but it is not justified when no military preparations have been undertaken by either side. It is this underestimation of what even a limited war – a police action – required that so impresses the twentieth-century reader. This profound miscalculation resulted in a terrible war of attrition unimagined in 1861 for all the soaring rhetoric. Many who suffered in the subsequent four years would utter words more prosaic than those of President Lincoln in his second inaugural address of March 1865, while sharing his heart-felt sentiments. ‘Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away’.

1. Mildred Sayre to Edmund Ruffin, 4 February 1861, quoted in David F. Allmendiger, Jr, Ruffin: Family and Reform in the Old South (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), p. 133.

2. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, 1995), p. 93.

3. Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992), pp. 227–8.

4. As argued by Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford UP, 1990).

5. Richard B. McCaslin, Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994).

6. See European examples in A. J. P. Taylor, From Napoleon to the Second International ed. C. Wrigley (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993), p. 336.

7. Howard Jones, Union in Peril (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp. 4, 8, 43, 89, 96, 152, 229–30.



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Map 1 The United States in 1860: slave states and free states


Map 2 The phases of southern Secession


Map 3 Charleston Harbour and Fort Sumter


Map 4 The layout of Fort Sumter

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