Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of one of America’s greatest conflicts: the Civil War. It was an epic struggle, the culmination of tensions that had festered from the beginning of the Republic. Much debate has taken place over the last century and a half concerning the cause for this war, the scars of which still shape the contours of American culture and politics. Many have argued that the Southern secession and resulting war was solely for States’ rights; others say they were for economic reasons. I contend that the Civil War was fought for States’ rights only insofar as Southern states believed that they should have the right to maintain slavery and for economic reasons to the extent that slavery was very profitable to the South’s planter/ruling class. I come to this conclusion only because slavery is what the legislatures in those states focused on as a central reason for leaving the Union. For example, my state’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union states early on, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” As with any historical examination, primary sources are the best sources. I want to look at what the people from both sides saw and heard during the lead up to the War Between the States. They are the best sources of knowledge about one of the world’s most historic struggles.
“There was never a moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitution Convention…thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.” -John Jay Chapman
Indeed slavery was a major issue from the time of the founding through the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson had made remarks on several occasions suggesting that maintaining slavery was like having a “wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” So the Founders did nothing. They thought that slavery would eventually work its way out of existence. At the time of the nation’s founding, slavery was all but gone in the North and on the decline even in the South. But all that changed in the 1790’s. It was then that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (cotton engine), making slavery very profitable. Prior to the cotton gin, a slave labored mainly to plant, cultivate and harvest rice, tobacco, indigo and occasionally cotton. With cotton, a slave could work 10 hours and produce only about 1 pound of lint. The cotton gin could more easily separate the seeds from cotton, increasing the output of a single slave from 1 pound to 55 pounds. This rejuvenated slavery and greatly increased demand for slaves; it’s what made cotton king and made a king’s fortune for many southern plantation owners.
In the mid nineteenth century, one out of every seven people living in the United States belonged to another. It was a deplorable condition in which to live. If a slave born in the U.S. survived to age twelve, it was then that they were sent to work the fields. A slave could expect to be sold at least once in his/her lifetime. Fewer than 4 in 100 lived to be age 60. Marriages between slaves had no legal standing; preachers would often amend the vows to say “until death or distance do you part.” Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, learned to read and write, wrote an autobiography which detailed his slave life, and went on to become a powerful voice for abolition. He voiced the feelings of many Americans with these words:
In thinking of America I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields, her beautiful rivers, her mighty lakes and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slave-holding and wrong, when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, that her most fertile fields drink daily the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.
Many Americans, then and now, recognize that slavery was the great stain for our nation that proclaimed the liberty and equality of all men. Before his election, Lincoln wrote to a friend:
As a nation we began by declaring ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes’…it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty–to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. 
Still, nothing began to change until the 1850’s. The decade began with the Compromise of 1850 which brought in free California, allowed popular sovereignty (voters would decide whether to allow slavery or not) in western territories, strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act and banned the slave trade in the nation’s capital. The period was marked by a strengthening of the abolitionist movement and fear among some Southerners that their way of life was about to change. Some remembered the warnings of Former Vice President and South Carolina native John Calhoun who said that the abolitionists “would raise the negroes to a social and political equality with the whites. And that being effected we would soon see the present condition of the two races reversed. They and their northern allies would be the masters and we the slaves.” If you think the behavior in Congress today is ridiculous, consider that in 1856, on the floor of the United States Senate, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina brutally beat abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane. Southern supporters sent Brooks new canes. Members of Congress began carrying guns and knives into the chamber. Even with all of this happening, many Southerners thought that secession was madness. One politician went so far as to say that “South Carolina was too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” That changed in 1859 when abolitionist John Brown violently attempted to begin a slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The effort failed miserably in sparking a revolt, but it did make some Southern politicians begin to seriously contemplate leaving the Union.
Then Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. He did not appear on the ballot in nearly one third of the states (10 southern states did not include him) and won only 40% of the popular vote. Some in the South saw this as a final straw. For them, as the New York Express newspaper (reprinted in Richmond (Virginia) Whig) put it, “the election of Mr. Lincoln is undoubtedly the greatest evil that has ever befallen this country.” They thought that the Union was about to be radicalized, that abolitionists, led by Lincoln and the new Republicans in Congress, would take their property (slaves) and way of life.
By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, only 27 (of 33) states remained in the Union. South Carolina led the exiting states, seceding on December 20, 1860. Six days later, the federal troops that remained in the capital relocated to Fort Sumter. Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana left the Union in January 1861. In Texas, legendary Gov. Sam Houston tried to stop his state from joining the Confederacy. He presciently stated:
Let me tell you what is coming…after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence; but I doubt it…The North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates, but when they begin to move in a given direction…they move with a steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche.
He failed to sway the state. It joined the Confederacy in February 1861; Houston resigned his office. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee joined the Confederate cause in the days and weeks following the beginning of the conflict (April-June 1861).
Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, a former U.S. senator and Secretary of War, was chosen to lead the Confederate States of America. Upon notification, Davis remarked, “Upon my head were showered smiles, plaudits and flowers, but beyond them, I saw troubles innumerable.” When he took his oath of office on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, the crowds cheered; they sang Farewell to the Star Spangled Banner and Dixie, which ironically, most sources attribute to Ohioan Daniel Decatur Emmett. Shortly after his election as Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens praised the formation of the Confederacy as history’s only bloodless “revolution” and proclaimed that “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man.” I bet he rolled over in his grave a few times at Obama’s election.
Though Lincoln prepared for war, he held out hope to avoid a great conflict. In closing his inaugural address, Lincoln spoke directly to the Southern states:
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 
A little more than a month later, Rebel forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, initiating the American Civil War. The battle saw no casualties and Union forces surrendered. After Sumter, Americans drew lines in the sand; people who had once fought as countrymen would now face each other in battle as enemies. Ulysses S. Grant, the man who would go on to command the Union Army, proclaimed “There are but two parties now: traitors and patriots, and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter.” Grant would face Robert E. Lee, a man who could anticipate “no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union.” Lincoln had offered Lee command of the entire Union Army, but the Virginia general whose estate would later be home to America’s national cemetery could not fight against his home, and so resigned from the U.S. Army and went on to become commander of the Confederate Army.
Most thought that the conflict would be short, perhaps a few weeks or months, though not everyone agreed. At the outset of the war, William T. Sherman, the man who would later be known for his fiery march to the sea said, “You might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun. I think this is to be a long war, very long, much longer than any politician thinks.” Indeed the war lasted some four years. More than 3 million Americans fought in the Civil War. More than 600,000 people (~2% of the total population) were killed. What began nominally as a bitter dispute over Federal and States’ rights ended as an epic struggle over the meaning of freedom in America.
Growing up here in the South, I’ve heard references to the Civil War throughout my life. I have heard some of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances recount the storied tales of the gallantry of their ancestors, and I don’t begrudge them for that. It’s hard though to fully understand the admiration that some have for the Confederate cause. Some these same people tout the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and slap their fellow citizens in the face with patriotism, yet they venerate those whom Grant convincingly called traitors. I guess this is just another mark of human nature. I know that everyone who fought for the South was not fighting for slavery (in fact, most Southerners, civilians and soldiers, did not own slaves), but many of the leaders who represented them were fighting for it. Sometimes honorable men fight for dishonorable causes.
It’s been 150 years since the start of the American Civil War (though sometimes it looks and sounds like it’s 1861 with all the Confederate flags and talk of Yankees and federal government tyranny). It should be looked back on for its significance as the war that finished the Founders’ work and, as Lincoln said, gave this nation “a new birth of freedom.”
I’d love to hear your perspectives, thoughts and opinions. Join the Discourse.
- Confederate Secession Documents: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/csapage.asp
- Thomas Jefferson Letter to John Holmes: http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/wolf-ears
- Abraham Lincoln Letter to Joshua Speed: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/documents/documents_p2.cfm?doc=126
- John C. Calhoun Abolition Statement: http://www.wfu.edu/~zulick/340/calhoun2.html
- New York Express Lincoln Quote: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/news/rv1861/va.au.rv.1861.03.01.xml#01
- Alexander Stephens Cornerstone Speech: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1861stephens.html
- Lincoln First Inaugural Address: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp
- Gettysburg Address: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp