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American Civil War

Edited by: Robert Guisepi

2002

 

Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

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There have been many explanations as to the cause of the Civil War:  States rights and slavery are often put forth as the main reasons.  The answer is much simpler then that.  The primary cause of the American Civil War was economics.  The South tried to elevate the discussion by claiming their right as individual, free states were being ignored but that was not what the fight was about.  People were getting rich using slave labor. It was labor that they didn't have to pay for and they didn't want that to change.  It is likely that the South would have opposed any threat to their wealth...it didn't have to be slavery!

But that doesn't explain why the average young American joined the war when his chances of being killed or wounded were so great.  Early in the War, Union soldiers captured a lone confederate soldier.  The soldier was obviously poor and uneducated therefore, he had little interest in the constitution and certainly didn't own slaves.  When asked why he was fighting he quickly responded "I'm fightin' cuz you' all come down here."  What he was saying was that he felt his homeland was being invaded, his crops were being burnt, his land pillaged and his way of life disrupted.  He sought to defend his home from the invaders.

One Union soldier said in a letter home to his mother, "Madam, please understand that America must be free ground and I intend to help make it that way."

So, governments fought for control of the continent, free navigation of the Mississippi and economics but the average American citizen fought for freedom; his own and that of other men.

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At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery in Charleston, S.C., opened fire on Fort Sumter, which was held by the United States Army. The bombardment set off a savage four-year war between two great geographic sections of the United States. One section was the North--23 Northern and Western states that supported the federal government. The other section was the South--11 Southern states that had seceded (withdrawn) from the Union and formed an independent government called the Confederate States of America. The struggle between these two combatants is the American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States or the War of the Rebellion.

The war aims of both sides were simple. At the beginning the North fought only to preserve the Union. The South fought to win recognition as an independent nation. After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the long-troublesome slavery problem took on vast importance. A Northern victory would mean ultimate freedom for slaves; a Southern victory would insure the protection of slavery in all Confederate states.

Civil War

Prelude to war, 1850-60

Before the Civil War the United States experienced a whole generation of nearly unremitting political crisis. Underlying the problem was the fact that America in the early 19th century had been a country, not a nation. The major functions of government--those relating to education, transportation, health, and public order--were performed on the state or local level, and little more than a loose allegiance to the government in Washington, a few national institutions such as churches and political parties, and a shared memory of the Founding Fathers of the republic tied the country together. Within this loosely structured society every section, every state, every locality, every group could pretty much go its own way.

Gradually, however, changes in technology and in the economy were bringing all the elements of the country into steady and close contact. Improvements in transportation--first canals, then toll roads, and especially railroads--broke down isolation and encouraged the boy from the country to wander to the city, the farmer from New Hampshire to migrate to Iowa. Improvements in the printing press, which permitted the publication of penny newspapers, and the development of the telegraph system broke through the barriers of intellectual provincialism and made everybody almost instantaneously aware of what was going on throughout the country. As the railroad network proliferated, it had to have central direction and control; and national railroad corporations--the first true "big businesses" in the United States--emerged to provide order and stability.

For many Americans the wrench from a largely rural, slow-moving, fragmented society in the early 1800s to a bustling, integrated, national social order in the mid-century was an abrupt and painful one, and they often resisted it. Sometimes resentment against change manifested itself in harsh attacks upon those who appeared to be the agents of change--especially immigrants, who seemed to personify the forces that were altering the older America. Vigorous nativist movements appeared in most cities during the 1840s; but not until the 1850s, when the huge numbers of Irish and German immigrants of the previous decade became eligible to vote, did the anti-foreign fever reach its peak. Directed both against immigrants and against the Roman Catholic church, to which so many of them belonged, the so-called Know-Nothings emerged as a powerful political force in 1854 and increased the resistance to change.

Sectionalism and slavery
A more enduring manifestation of hostility toward the nationalizing tendencies in American life was the reassertion of strong feelings of sectional loyalty. New Englanders felt threatened by the West, which drained off the ablest and most vigorous members of the labor force and also, once the railroad network was complete, produced wool and grain that undersold the products of the poor New England hill country. The West, too, developed a strong sectional feeling, blending its sense of its uniqueness, its feeling of being looked down upon as raw and uncultured, and its awareness that it was being exploited by the businessmen of the East.

The most conspicuous and distinctive section, however, was the South--an area set apart by climate; by a plantation system designed for the production of such staple crops as cotton, tobacco, and sugar; and, especially, by the persistence of Negro slavery, which had been abolished or prohibited in all other parts of the United States. It should not be thought that all or even most white Southerners were directly involved in the section's "peculiar institution." Indeed, in 1850 there were only 347,525 slaveholders in a total white population of about 6,000,000 in the slave states. Half of these owned four slaves or fewer and could not be considered planters. In the entire South there were fewer than 1,800 persons who owned more than 100 slaves.

Nevertheless, slavery did give a distinctive tone to the whole pattern of Southern life. If the large planters were few, they were also wealthy, prestigious, and powerful; often they were the political as well as the economic leaders of their section; and their values pervaded every stratum of Southern society. Far from opposing slavery, small farmers thought only of the possibility that they too might, with hard work and good fortune, some day join the ranks of the planter class--to which they were closely connected by ties of blood, marriage, and friendship. Behind this virtually unanimous support of slavery lay the universal belief--shared by many whites in the North and West as well--that blacks were an innately inferior people who had risen only to a state of barbarism in their native Africa and who could live in a civilized society only if disciplined through slavery. Though by 1860 there were in fact about 250,000 free blacks in the South, most Southern whites resolutely refused to believe that the slaves, if freed, could ever coexist peacefully with their former masters. With shuddering horror they pointed to an insurrection of blacks that had occurred in Santo Domingo, to a brief slave rebellion led by the Negro Gabriel in Virginia in 1800, to a plot of Charleston, S.C., blacks headed by Denmark Vesey in 1822, and, especially, to a bloody and determined Virginia insurrection led by Nat Turner in 1831 as evidence that black persons had to be kept under iron control. Facing increasing opposition to slavery outside their section, Southerners developed an elaborate proslavery argument, defending the institution on biblical, economic, and sociological grounds.

A decade of political crises
In the early years of the republic, sectional differences had existed, but it had been possible to reconcile or ignore them because distances were great, communication was difficult, and the powerless national government had almost nothing to do. The revolution in transportation and communication, however, eliminated much of the isolation, and the victory of the United States in its brief war with Mexico left the national government with problems that required action.

Missouri Compromise: Compromises over extension of slavery into the territories.
Popular sovereignty
The Compromise of 1850 was an uneasy patchwork of concessions to all sides that began to fall apart as soon as it was enacted. Most unsatisfactory of all in the long run would be the principle of popular sovereignty, which was bound to make of each territory a battleground where the supporters of the South would contend with the defenders of the North and West.

The seriousness of those conflicts became clear in 1854, when Stephen A. Douglas introduced his Kansas bill in Congress, establishing a territorial government for the vast region that lay between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. In the Senate the bill was amended to create not one but two territories--Kansas and Nebraska--from the part of the Louisiana Purchase from which the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had forever excluded slavery. Douglas, who was unconcerned over the moral issue of slavery and desirous of getting on with the settling of the West and the construction of a transcontinental railroad, knew that the Southern senators would block the organization of Kansas as a free territory. The Southerners, recognizing that the North and West had outstripped their section in population and hence in the House of Representatives, clung desperately to an equality of votes in the Senate and were not disposed to welcome any new free territories, which would inevitably become additional free states. Accordingly, Douglas thought that the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which had been applied to the territories gained from Mexico, would avoid a political contest over the Kansas territory: it would permit Southern slaveholders to move into the area, but, since the region was unsuited for plantation slavery, it would inevitably result in the formation of additional free states. His bill therefore allowed the inhabitants of the territory self-government in all matters of domestic importance, including the slavery issue. This provision in effect allowed the territorial legislatures to mandate slavery in their areas and was directly contrary to the Missouri Compromise. With the backing of President Franklin Pierce (served 1853-57), Douglas bullied, wheedled, and bluffed congressmen into passing his bill.

Polarization over slavery
Northern sensibilities were outraged. Disliking slavery, Northerners had made few efforts to change the South's "peculiar institution" so long as the republic was loosely articulated. (Indeed, when William Lloyd Garrison began his Liberator in 1831, urging the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all slaves, he had only a tiny following; and a few years later he had actually been mobbed in Boston.) But with the sections, perforce, being drawn closely together, Northerners could no longer profess indifference to the South and its institutions. Sectional differences, centering on the issue of slavery, began to appear in every American institution. During the 1840s the major national religious denominations, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians, split over the slavery question. The Whig Party, which had once allied the conservative businessmen of the North and West with the planters of the South, divided and virtually disappeared after the election of 1852. When Douglas' bill opened up to slavery Kansas and Nebraska--land that had long been reserved for the westward expansion of the free states--Northerners began to organize into an antislavery political party, called in some states the Anti-Nebraska Democratic Party, in others the People's Party, but in most places, the Republican Party.

Events of 1855 and 1856 further exacerbated relations between the sections and strengthened this new party. Kansas, once organized by Congress, became the field of battle between the free and the slave states in a contest in which concern over slavery was mixed with land speculation and office seeking. A virtual civil war broke out, with rival free- and slave-state legislatures both claiming legitimacy. Disputes between individual settlers sometimes erupted into violence. A proslavery mob sacked the town of Lawrence, an antislavery stronghold, on May 21, 1856. On May 24-25 John Brown, a free-state partisan, led a small party in a raid upon some proslavery settlers on Pottawatomie Creek, murdered five men in cold blood, and left their gashed and mutilated bodies as a warning to the slaveholders. Not even the U.S. Capitol was safe from the violence. On May 22 a South Carolina congressman brutally attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts at his desk in the Senate chamber because he had presumably insulted the Carolinian's "honor" in a speech he had given in support of Kansas abolitionists. The 1856 presidential election made it clear that voting was becoming polarized along sectional lines. Though James Buchanan, the Democratic nominee, was elected, John C. Frémont, the Republican candidate, received a majority of the votes in the free states.

The following year the Supreme Court of the United States tried to solve the sectional conflicts that had baffled both the Congress and the president. Hearing the case of Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who claimed freedom on the ground that his master had taken him to live in free territory, the majority of the court, headed by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, found that Negroes were not citizens of the United States and that Scott hence had no right to bring suit before the court. Taney also concluded that the U.S. laws prohibiting slavery in the territory were unconstitutional. Two Northern antislavery judges on the court bitterly attacked Taney's logic and his conclusions. Acclaimed in the South, the Dred Scott decision was condemned and repudiated throughout the North.

By this point many Americans, North and South, had come to the conclusion that slavery and freedom could not much longer coexist in the United States. For Southerners the answer was withdrawal from a Union that no longer protected their rights and interests; they had talked of it as early as the Nashville Convention of 1850, when the compromise measures were under consideration, and now more and more Southerners favoured secession. For Northerners the remedy was to change the social institutions of the South; few advocated immediate or complete emancipation of the slaves, but many felt that the South's "peculiar institution" must be contained. In 1858 William H. Seward, the leading Republican of New York, spoke of an "irrepressible conflict" between freedom and slavery; and in Illinois a rising Republican politician, Abraham Lincoln, who unsuccessfully contested Douglas for a seat in the Senate, announced that "this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

That it was not possible to end the agitation over slavery became further apparent in 1859 when on the night of October 16, John Brown, who had escaped punishment for the Pottawatomie massacre, staged a raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. (now in West Virginia), designed to free the slaves and, apparently, to help them begin a guerrilla war against the Southern whites. Even though Brown was promptly captured and Virginia slaves gave no heed to his appeals, Southerners feared that this was the beginning of organized Northern efforts to undermine their social system. The fact that Brown was a fanatic and an inept strategist whose actions were considered questionable even by abolitionists did not lessen Northern admiration for him.

The presidential election of 1860 occurred, therefore, in an atmosphere of great tension. Southerners, determined that their rights should be guaranteed by law, insisted upon a Democratic candidate willing to protect slavery in the territories; and they rejected Stephen A. Douglas, whose popular-sovereignty doctrine left the question in doubt, in favor of John C. Breckinridge. Douglas, backed by most of the Northern and border-state Democrats, ran on a separate Democratic ticket. Elderly conservatives, who deplored all agitation of the sectional questions but advanced no solutions, offered John Bell as candidate of the Constitutional Union Party. Republicans, confident of success, passed over the claims of Seward, who had accumulated too many liabilities in his long public career, and nominated Lincoln instead. Voting in the subsequent election was along markedly sectional patterns, with Republican strength confined almost completely to the North and West. Though Lincoln received only a plurality of the popular vote, he was an easy winner in the electoral college.

Secession and the politics of the Civil War, 1860-65

South, the: Vote on secession in the South by counties.

The coming of the war
In the South, Lincoln's election was taken as the signal for secession, and on December 20 South Carolina became the first state to withdraw from the Union. Promptly the other states of the lower South followed. Feeble efforts on the part of Buchanan's administration to check secession failed, and one by one most of the federal forts in the Southern states were taken over by secessionists. Meanwhile, strenuous efforts in Washington to work out another compromise failed. (The most promising plan was John J. Crittenden's proposal to extend the Missouri Compromise line, dividing free from slave states, to the Pacific.)

Neither extreme Southerners, now intent upon secession, nor Republicans, intent upon reaping the rewards of their hard-won election victory, were really interested in compromise. On Feb. 4, 1861--a month before Lincoln could be inaugurated in Washington--six Southern states (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana) sent representatives to Montgomery, Ala., to set up a new independent government. Delegates from Texas soon joined them. With Jefferson Davis of Mississippi at its head, the Confederate States of America came into being, set up its own bureaus and offices, issued its own money, raised its own taxes, and flew its own flag. Not until May 1861, after hostilities had broken out and Virginia had seceded, did the new government transfer its capital to Richmond.

Faced with a fait accompli, Lincoln when inaugurated was prepared to conciliate the South in every way but one: he would not recorgnize that the Union could be divided. The test of his determination came early in his administration, when he learned that the Federal troops under Major Robert Anderson in Fort Sumter, S.C.--then one of the few military installations in the South still in Federal hands--had to be promptly supplied or withdrawn. After agonized consultation with his Cabinet, Lincoln determined that supplies must be sent even if doing so provoked the Confederates into firing the first shot. On April 12, 1861, just before Federal supply ships could reach the beleaguered Anderson, Confederate guns in Charleston opened fire upon Fort Sumter, and the war began.
 

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