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American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War - Northern Reaction to Secession

Updated on July 23, 2018
garytameling profile image

I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

The North’s reaction to secession was mixed, to say the least.

Opinion of Secession: Lawful and Harmless

Many people in the North thought that the South either had the right to secede, or did not find secession all that disconcerting. New York City, in fact, thought about seceding from the Union as well, and becoming a Free City, due to the great amount of business it did with the South. It obviously wanted to continue such commerce, unimpeded by any possible actions by the remaining United States against the South.

Many Northerners did not find secession a threatening or dangerous situation. They did not believe that secession was, inevitably, going to result in war, either by the seceding states forcefully rejecting U.S. laws, or by the U.S. government forcefully subjugating the seceded states to the law.

Map of the City of New York 1861
Map of the City of New York 1861
Five Points in Manhattan, New York City
Five Points in Manhattan, New York City

Opinion of Secession: Relief

Not a few Northerners saw secession as a bit of relief from the tension over the question of slavery expansion. With most of the slave-holding states now out of the Union, the thought was that they had “gone their own way” (and good riddance). Those states no longer needed to worry about legislation being passed to ban slavery since they were going to pass their own legislation from then on. Thus, no more thought needed to be paid to possible slavery expansion in the U.S. There was legitimate concern about those slave-holding states, still within the Union (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), suddenly breaking away, but such a move toward secession was not completely unwelcome in the North. It would thus mean all slave states together in one nation, and all free states together in another nation. In theory, this “model” meant no more slave-holding controversy.

Questionable Fate of Western Territories

The view of Northerners in regard to the fate of westward expansion (forming states out of the western territories) was also mixed. The United States owned those territories. The fledgling Confederacy, by all rights, gave up any semblance of ownership of these territories when they seceded from the U.S. What is more, they no longer needed those territories for slavery expansion purposes and parity in number of slave states to free states. No slave abolition legislature from the U.S. affected them now.

However, one reason for the usurpation of these territories, after the Mexican War, and a reason why so many Southern politicians voted in favor of the war at the time, was for additional area in which to expand slavery. Southern men volunteered readily for Army service, and fought and died in that war, which thus gave to the Southern mindset a sort of blood equity on this new territory. Regardless of secession, the new Confederacy still had aims for a significant portion of this land mass. When the Confederate Territory of Arizona was created, via secession, out of the New Mexico Territory, it was not hard for the North to believe that similar scenarios would start to occur in at least the southern portion of the remaining annexed land. After all, Southerners moved west just as much, if not more so, than Northerners, so sympathies with the new Confederacy were already rooted in the West. Thus, it was fairly clear that the Confederacy could find a way to annex, or attempt to annex, portions of U.S.-owned territorial lands if any of them likewise moved toward secession. How that situation was going to be handled by the U.S. remained to be seen, but it was a very real concern.

Painting - Winfield Scott enters Mexico City during Mexican War
Painting - Winfield Scott enters Mexico City during Mexican War
Map that shows the considerable expanse of the Western Territories
Map that shows the considerable expanse of the Western Territories

Abolitionists to Blame?

Many Northern people blamed the abolitionist movement for the growing tensions over the previous years and for the resulting secession. Northerners often thought things like "See? I told you so! You abolitionists said slavery shouldn't continue to exist, or it should be restricted, etc, and here's what you get - secession. Are you happy now?” Abolitionists were seen as being very extreme in their views. Freedom for the slaves, while not unthinkable, was a step that most, North or South, didn’t quite fathom. Why should slaves be freed when the existing social structure of white superiority was perfectly acceptable to the country? Just because most Northerners didn’t want slavery where they lived did not mean that they believed in freedom for the slaves. It was more a pervasive feeling of “Slavery is fine, but don’t bring it here. We don’t want the labor competition.” A very similar thought process extended to abolition: freeing the slaves might be okay, but they need to go elsewhere as the Northern labor market does not want to compete with the freedmen’s tolerance for low wages in the job market. As for the abolitionists, they believed in freedom for the slaves, but that did not necessarily translate to equality, or even that the freed slaves should stay in the country. Movements to transplant freed slaves back to Africa, or to colonize them in the Caribbean islands, were very much alive and realistic ideas at the time. President Lincoln was in favor of such a policy. In fact, the African colony of Liberia had been founded two decades prior, and populated by freed and re-colonized slaves, under just such a policy.

Cartoon - Abolitionist publication called The Liberator
Cartoon - Abolitionist publication called The Liberator
Sketch - harbor in Liberia
Sketch - harbor in Liberia

Main Reaction to Secession: Chagrin

Whether or not they believed in the validity of secession, most Northerners were chagrined at the secession of these seven states, at least to a certain degree. They believed the nation should continue to be whole, not split apart because some states didn’t like the way things were going. However, it was not yet 50 years prior that the New England states strongly considered secession, and forming a confederacy, when “James Madison’s War”, aka the War of 1812, was declared. New England was strongly opposed to this war as they had a strong history of commerce and cultural similarities with England and their territories like Canada. It was also not yet 30 years since South Carolina made its first attempt to secede when they strongly disagreed over Federal tariff laws. Therefore, regardless of how much anyone, North or South, wanted the nation to be whole, there were federal policies, or imagined policies, that some considered too extreme to justify their remaining within it. In this latest case, the perceived threat of slavery’s extinction by federal legislation was too much for several Southern states to bear, leading to their secession. Most Northerners, chagrined or not, did not find this act too extreme to want to force its reversal.

Cartoon - view of secession
Cartoon - view of secession
Cartoon - secessionists about to fall off a cliff
Cartoon - secessionists about to fall off a cliff
Illustration and Poem: Wisconsin Chief
Illustration and Poem: Wisconsin Chief


Though opinions still varied at this time, there can be seen a rise in nationalism in the non-slave states of the Union after the secession of South Carolina. However, unfortunately, the same could be said of the slave-holding states, and this latter nationalism was in favor of a new nation.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War - The Situation Apr 1861

NY Daily Tribune anti-secession article
NY Daily Tribune anti-secession article

© 2013 Gary Tameling


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    • Nick Burchett profile image

      Nick Burchett 

      6 years ago from IL, MO & KS

      This is a great hub and presents some ideas that many who are so wrapped around slavery as being the cause of the war totally miss. The tangled legality of westward expansion being a HUGE part of the war. I particularly enjoyed the insight into the idea that once the states seceeded it basically would nullify any right to territory west of Missouri. However, in doing so it would do exactly what President Lincoln wanted to avoid - legitimize the Confederacy.

      Another important point presented is the actual view of slavery. More so in the slaves themselves - not the institution of slavery - and how both sides pretty much viewed blacks as inferior and while they abhored slavvery they were not happy about them being equal.

      Again, great hub. Hoepfully others will view it and grasp this touchy area of the Civil War.


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