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What Was the American Civil War?

By Eric Tallberg
Updated May 17, 2024
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In April of 1861, the South Carolina State Militia opened fire on Fort Sumter at the entrance to the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Thus began the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the American Civil War. Over 620,000 soldiers would be killed in this conflict, as well as an uncountable number of civilians.

Since the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1785, the issue of slavery had driven an inexorable wedge between the Northern and Southern regions of the United States. The agrarian Southern states claimed that they needed slaves to profitably work the large cotton, rice, and sugar plantations that dominated the southern economy. The more industrialized, more populated, and more economically powerful Northern states, on the other hand, felt that slavery was an evil that should be eradicated. However, though slavery was a major issue leading up to the conflict, the Southern states were also concerned about their rights in an increasingly northern-dominated Federal Government.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the U.S., in 1860, ultimately tipped the scales toward a Civil War. Led by South Carolina, seven Southern states, fearful that Lincoln would act on his vow to eliminate slavery during his tenure as President, thus trampling their States' Rights, summarily seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. By the time hostilities began, in 1861, four more Southern states had seceded, for a total of 11.

Known in the U.S. today as simply “The Civil War,” the American Civil War, during the four years of conflict, was called “The War Between the States” in the North, and “The War of Secession” in the South. Most of the major battles of the American Civil War were fought in the southern states. Indeed, many battles took place in the state of Virginia, where the Confederate capitol, Richmond, Virginia became a prime objective of northern forces.

After almost exactly four years of horrific conflict, in April of 1865, the Southern General Robert E. Lee surrendered his pitifully depleted Army of Northern Virginia, virtually the last viable Confederate force, to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Northern armies, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Though small skirmishes would go on for several weeks, Lee’s surrender effectively brought the American Civil War to a conclusion.

During the course of the American Civil War, slavery, a primary cause of the war, was finally eradicated from the United States by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Interestingly, slavery was not officially banned in the U.S. until December of 1865, some eight months after the end of the war, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the re-United States of America. The 13th Constitutional Amendment makes the ownership of slaves a Federal offense.

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Discussion Comments
By anon168833 — On Apr 18, 2011

It was so sad this history, but now we are together.

By anon71013 — On Mar 16, 2010

I don't mean to turn this into a back and forth, but I want to clarify some of what I said, because I feel that you might have misunderstood (don't mean for that to sound rude, sorry bro)

By saying 'a threat to labor wages' I meant from the average workers point of view. The average worker opposed slavery (in addition to possible moral issues) because it would hurt them personally. It was a threat to them and their (already meager) salaries.

By the maintenance of the agricultural way of life, I meant that as the viewpoint from the average southerner. True, only a few owned slaves, which is why I say that the majority of southerners simply wanted to, in a way, maintain the status-quo and agrarianism.

The powerful elite in the South had a vested interest in slavery because it's what kept them afloat and profitable.

From what I've read, the South was fearful of under-representation in the national government (concentration of government programs on growth of industry) and the powerful (in the South) needed more land to harvest cotton (or face the inevitable fate of bad soil due to overuse).

I'm basically trying to balance southern claims of 'states rights' and the textbook reason of 'slavery.'

By amypollick — On Mar 16, 2010

Please allow me to clarify. Only 2 percent of Southerners ever owned slaves. However, those 2 percent were also the wealthy landowners/lawmakers. The average, dirt-farming Southerner never owned slaves, and really had no desire to do so.

The average Southern man who joined the Confederate Army did so to protect his own land, not to defend slavery.

Something else: let's not forget that labor laws, child labor in particular, came about because of the terrible conditions prevailing in many factories in the North. Many of the most active Abolitionists were also active in labor reform.

People worked 16 hours a day at looms or other machines, for two cents a day. Children were often chained to their machines. Slavery really wasn't a threat to labor. In those days, it cost factory owners just a few dollars a day in wages for an entire factory. Slaves had to be fed, housed and clothed. They actually cost their owners more than the de facto slavery in the North.

Slavery was, and is, wrong, no question. However, implying that slavery was a threat to the paid labor system is not quite accurate. Neither side wanted to change, and neither one was willing to make any kind of compromise.

Slavery was on the way out by 1861, and everyone knew it. Certainly, it should have been outlawed long before, but everyone in the country (except the slaves, of course) was benefiting from its economic results. No one was terribly anxious to mess with what brought benefits. Finally, however, it became more politically advantageous to ban slavery, which is why it happened when it did.

The U.S. never should have allowed slavery. It is inhumane. However, we should never kid ourselves about its widespread support, nationwide.

By anon71004 — On Mar 16, 2010

One of the Civil War's main causes was slavery, yes. But more importantly, it was about the direction of the country. The Southern oligarchy (the few who controlled Southern politics and plantations) wanted to expand slavery to Western Territories, while Northern states opposed this strictly agrarian view of the nation's future. Slave labor would hurt factory workers' wages-a reason for the opposition. But not only factory workers, small farmers as well (who resided in vast numbers in the West). After all, slave labor is free while laborers have to be paid.

The South wanted to protect its system with slavery as its fuel and agricultural-ism as its output.

So yes, at its core, slavery is what fueled Southern agriculture and what fueled Southern concern. But the issue was bigger than simply slavery, it was the South trying to preserve its lifestyle.

With slave states came votes in the Senate that would assure their interests (not strictly slavery, but tariffs and trade) kept priority. The increasing population in the North and their representation in the H.O. Representatives worried Southerners.

Meanwhile, a combination of free labor, morality and a stance against the 'un-democratic' oligarchy provided a platform against slavery, but not necessarily the South.

When the South seceded, the cry of 'Unity' (after all, the Northern factory owners benefited from Slave labor and production of cotton to export) provided a platform for war in the North.

The cry of 'sustaining our agricultural lifestyle in the face of the federal government catering to the Northern industrialists' provided a platform to secede from the union.

So, at it's core, slavery was the *main* divisive issue, if only because it fueled the Southern economic and cultural lifestyle. But more than that, it was a fight with two sides. The Southern side being the preservation of their ways in the face of a Northern controlled Federal government; the North being the preservation of the Union and destruction of the southern oligarchy, with slavery as its power source.

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