Tearing at the threads of a United States, the American Civil War was the bloodiest in history. Raging from 1841 until 1845, an estimated three-quarters of a million American soldiers died. These numbers do not account for civilian casualty, or unreported fatalities. A divide between the Northern Union and Southern Confederacy pitted brothers, friends, states, and territories against one another. While many believe that the divide was caused solely on the basis of slavery, there were many additional factors that are to blame for the causation of this pivotal point in American History. What was the causes of the Civil War?
The many reasons that one could blame for the underlying cause of the Civil War included states’ rights, slavery, farming vs industry, expansion, ideology of Abraham Lincoln, bleeding Kansas, and secession. While both sides fought with what were thought to be worthy intentions, the North fought to create an expanding country, while the South fought to preserve a way of life.
Stemming from the very first days of a United States, there have been discussions on which entity should be held responsible for maintaining law. These discussions came to a head during the Civil War. The Union believed that a central entity, a government, should be responsible in determining federally binding laws. Fearing that their power was being taken away, the Confederate states believed that decision making should lie with each state, individually. They further argued that each state should have the autonomy to reject federal laws, if they did no coincide with state beliefs. This is one example of how Northern states pushed for a unified country in which there was one main authoritarian figure to create law and order.
One major topic, that almost anyone could agree upon, is that slavery was at the root of the Civil War. Tying into many other aspects of the causes of the Civil War, slavery was a subject in which neither the North or South could agree. Many in the North came to believe that slavery was immoral, that no man should be owned. According to James Macpherson, “The sale of young children apart from parents while not the normal pattern occurred with alarming frequency.” Abolitionists fought the idea of slavery, making this a critical issue in the minds of most. Southerners, on the other hand, had come to rely on slavery. Slaves were a source of farming, which was the life blood of many southerners. With the abolishment of slavery, the North was essentially threatening to take away the way of life and revenue for those in the South.
A central issue that divided the two sides was that of farming versus industry. Built on the backs of slaves, the South had prospered in regard to farming. Fearing the loss of slavery, the farming way of life that had helped the South prosper was being threatened. While this was of major concern for the majority of the South, the North had minimized their farming efforts and focused on the future of machinery and industry. According to Keegan, “In the North the proportion of farmworkers in the labor force had fallen below 40 percent, while it remained above 80 percent in the South.” It seemed to be another battle in which one half of the country wanted to focus on preserving a way of life that worked, while the other half was focused on expansion.
Expansion was another major cause that led to the Civil War, with both slavery and farming at the heart. Expansion became a multi-faceted issue on two major fronts. The first being that the Union had the intent to expand westward. This horizontal move focusing on innovation, industry, and growing the country. The South, however, wanted to expand southerly into the Caribbean and Mexico. Their primary goal to expand farmable land. The other issue arose during westward expansion, in which both sides realized that each new territory and state was a battleground that would give one side more power in the war.
Being elected right before the initial battle at Fort Sumner, which was the recognized start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln also became a major proponent for abolition, as well as a key figure that both sides would focus heavily on. While not an abolitionist from the start, Lincoln was opposed to spreading slavery, while expanding into the west. According to Foner, “Lincoln was strongly antislavery, but he was not an abolitionist or a Radical Republican and never claimed to be one”. This created the feeling, within Southerners, that Lincoln was against slavery, the South, and their way of life. Many exclaimed that they were in favor of succession due to the election of Lincoln.
Tying into both the key argument of slavery, as well as expansion, Kansas became one of the first staging points for the battle of control of new states. The introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave the people of the state the power to decide whether Kansas would become a free state or a slave state. According to Etcheson, “The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act sought to expand the political liberties of the territory’s white men by giving them the power at the local level to pronounce on the most contentious issue of the time, black slavery”. This was a pivotal decision as either way Kansas would be siding with the North or the South. After years of fighting, and many smaller skirmishes, the Union finally claimed Kansas as a free state.
One of the final causes to the start of the Civil War was succession. Starting after the election of President Lincoln, many of the southern states followed through with their threats and succeeded from the Union. This rift between the North and South began with the state of South Carolina. Following on their heels, several other states made the decision to break away from the Union. A total of 11 states left, and formed the Confederate States. This split caused Lincoln to proclaim these individual states did not have the right to leave. Sending in troops to Fort Sumner, this could be seen as the official start of the Civil War.
On the whole, there were many causes that fueled the Civil War. The primary reason, as most know, was the belief that some men thought they should have the right to own slaves as their own. Many of the other issues spiraled around this one central point, but all were deeply rooted to a disagreement on whether to expand and evolve, or stay true to the past. In the end, industry and growth conquered over tradition and stagnation.
Throughout the course of the war, Lincoln grew fonder of the idea of abolition. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was given, freeing slaves of the Confederacy. In a letter to A.G. Hodges in 1864, Lincoln wrote ‘I am naturally Anti-Slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel…’. In 1865, after years of fighting, Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth. The following month, the final battle of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch. The North had won. Now began the long and arduous process of incorporating the South back into a united country. A decade of arguments, fighting, death, and rebuilding created by an unwillingness to change.