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American Civil War: Why?

Updated on March 27, 2018
Scott Gese profile image

Born East of the Dakota's, raised in the American West. I'm a writer of books, blog posts, magazine articles and short stories.

Prelude to War

The U. S. Civil War lasted four years. Thousands of stories and articles have been written on the subject. Usually it's about the war itself. Battles, strategies and major players. Front line type stories.

This article will look at events leading up to the war. What were they? Where did they happen and most importantly, why did they happen? Let's take a look.

From the very beginnings of this countries history, the slavery issue was a major point of contention...but it wasn't the only issue.

Washington Constitutional convention
Washington Constitutional convention | Source

The Stage is Set

Most history books will tell you that the U.S. Civil war officially began with an attack on Fort Sumter in North Carolina. Confederate forces attacked the fort on April 12, 1861. This may well be when the first shell was thrown. But unofficially, events that led up to this point started as far back as 1787.

The Constitutional Congress was under pressure and threat from Southern delegates. They made it clear that “dire consequences” would ensue should the committee fail to include protections for the south. Protections that would bar the congress from ever interfering with the slave trade or impose the taxation of Southern agricultural exports. The threats were heeded and provisions were added. Southern delegates were delighted. The opponents of slavery were outraged. [1]

Wall Street Bankers took advantage of the situation

Wall Street Bankers invested in slavery
Wall Street Bankers invested in slavery | Source

Slavery was a moral issue, but it goes much deeper than that

Slavery wasn't exclusive to the South. Slaves were owned by men in Northern states as well. As this country developed, the Northern states were becoming more industrialized. Slave labor used to work the land was becoming less of a necessity. But slavery was still important to the North in many other ways. From domestic servants to skilled laborers. Slave labor was used to pamper the rich and help fuel the industrialization of the North.

Businesses in the North made millions of dollars through a variety of avenues developed to cater to the slave holding South.

Wall Street bankers had a keen eye on the economy and took advantage of the situation. They invested in plantations, supplied loan capital to manufacturers who sold tools and machinery used to grow cotton and tobacco. They financed the businesses that made and sold the goods and textiles used to support the growing slave population. They also supplied the loan capital owners of Southern plantations needed to expanded their land and slave holdings. Bankers even financed the shipping companies and exporters of raw cotton.

Sixty percent of the worlds cotton was grown in the United States. It had become this countries largest export to the rest of the world. The bulk of it was shipped to British textile mills, but it was not shipped directly from the South. It first had to be shipped to New York. From there it was shipped to Europe. Most likely transferred shipping lines financed by Wall Street bankers. [2]

Western Expansion
Western Expansion | Source

Western Expansion

As this country looked to expand its land holdings to the west, there was a realization by some that the slavery issue would expand as well. The South envisioned using slaves as more than just field hands. They had visions of using slave labor to mine and harvest natural resources. Slaves could be used to build infrastructure such as bridges and railroads. Slavery was an economic engine for the south and a huge financial asset for this country as a whole. Even before the Civil War, the slave trade was estimated to be worth three and a half billion dollars.

The south wanted to expand its holdings into the western territories on the backs of slave laborers. They controlled a large percentage of both human and financial assets in the forms of slave labor and cotton exports. Both were considered a hugely important and valuable commodity. The intention was to leverage both of them to their full advantage.

Talk of Southern Rebellion
Talk of Southern Rebellion | Source

Rebellion at the Loss of Influence

Was the Civil War fought over the issue of slavery? Yes, but not exclusively over the moral issues as some would contend. Since both the North and South used slave labor, the war was fought more over the economic issues of slavery. Mainly who would have political and financial control over that system.

The Southern states didn't like the idea of the Federal Government holding its authority over them. They wanted to enhance their position by having the right to abolish laws that they didn't support.

They wanted the freedom to take their slaves wherever they wanted. This was becoming more difficult as the Federal Government allowed more slavery free states to join the Union.

Free states were becoming an obstacle in the way of Southern expansion into the new territories of the west.

On the political front, as more free states were added to the Union, Southern states were becoming more concerned about their growing loss of political influence in Washington.

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln was a clear signal to Southern states that they had indeed lost most if not all of their political influence in Washington. With their exclusion from the political system, the South knew it was only a matter of time before the growing anti-slavery movement would begin to infiltrate their states.

They viewed slavery as an essential element to their very survival and desperately searched for a solution. The alternative that seemed to be in their best interest was to outright secede from the Union. It was a purely political decision that would physically divide a country which had already become morally, economically and politically divided over the issue. Abolitionists used the secession decision to escalated the issue even further.

The slavery issue had grown to the point of drawing blood in Kansas

Kansas-Nebraska act added fuel to the fire
Kansas-Nebraska act added fuel to the fire | Source

Unofficially, the War Started in Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in 1854. The act allowed those living within the boundaries of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide the slavery issue for themselves. This caused a mad dash by both pro and anti slavery supporters to settle the area hoping to gain a favorable outcome in local elections.

Pro-slavery supporters carried the first elections. Anti-slavery supporters cried foul and refused to accept the results. Fighting between the two factions ensued and as the death toll rose the territory earned the nickname “Bleeding Kansas”. Federal troops were finally sent in to squelch the violence. Another election was held and the results were the same. Again pro-slavery supporters were charged with fraud.

Because of the turmoil in Kansas, Congress refused to recognize the constitution adopted by the pro-slavery supporters. As a result, Kansas was not allowed to become a state.

In 1856, a pro slavery army laid waste to Lawrence, Kansas, an anti-slavery stronghold. It was said that this was to teach them a “Southern lesson”.

At this very same time, a U.S. Senator and anti slavery leader in Washington named Charles Sumner, was beaten with a club to the brink of death by a South Carolina Congressman named Preston Brooks

John Brown, an abolitionist who happened to be in Lawrence at the time, heard the news. That night he led a small group, including four of his sons, to a pro slavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek. Announcing themselves as the “Northern army," They rousted five men, led them into the darkness and hacked them to death with swords. [3]

Two contending armies had drawn blood in both Lawrence, Kansas and the U.S. Senate.

This was the unofficial beginning of this countries Civil War.

Battle of fort Sumter
Battle of fort Sumter | Source

Officially, the South started the Civil War

With Southern states submitting articles of secession, Federal garrisons in Southern states suddenly found themselves in a predicament. They had become enemy outposts susceptible to attack. Lincoln, needing to find a way to bring Southern states back into the fold and preserve the Union devised a strategy that forced a confrontation.

He ordered supplies to be sent to Fort Sumter in South Carolina knowing they would be turned back by Confederate warships. Not only were they turned back, but as expected, (or possibly hoped for) the Southern warships began to bombard the fort hoping to capture the strategically located garrison. On April 14, 1861, they did just that. Lincoln's goal was achieved. He had forced the South to fire the first shot. The Civil war was now officially underway. [4]

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln | Source

Why we went to war

There are a number of reasons as to why this country went to war with itself. Many believe it was the moral issue of slavery. It's true that morality played a big part, but I don't believe it was the main issue. The reasons went much deeper than that. There were huge financial and economic considerations at stake. Trade, taxes, tariffs and states rights were a part of it. Power and political motives were also involved. Truth is, both sides owned slaves and both sides were reaping the benefits of the slave trade as a whole.

The election of Abraham Lincoln may have been the last straw for for the South as they watched their political and economic influence deteriorate. They were being relegated to the 'back forty' so to speak. Their effort to secede, if successful, would have allowed them to compete with their new neighbors to the north. It would also tear the country in two. This was politically and financially unacceptable to many in the north.

The secession effort was the straw that broke the camels back and finally brought about the official beginning of Civil War. Unofficially, events were already in play long before 1860.

Southern cotton plantation
Southern cotton plantation | Source

It was a bloody four years that claimed the lives of close to 700,000 U.S. Citizens. The country remained intact and with the addition of the thirteenth amendment, slavery was officially abolished.

Who do you think benefited the most from the Civil War?

See results

© 2018 Scott Gese


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    • Scott Gese profile image

      Scott Gese 3 weeks ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      James C Moore

      Thank you for the comment.

      You are so right. Things are slow to change in this country. The players might be different, but cultural differences don't seem to have changed much. The policy makers in this country seem to be as blind as they've always been.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 3 weeks ago from The Great Midwest

      The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, we live in a politically divisive climate that is as much about cultural and regional division than as it is about policy. This hub seems to suggest the history leading to the Civil War show the same cultural, regional clashes were in play then.

    • Scott Gese profile image

      Scott Gese 3 weeks ago from Brownsville, Oregon


      Just goes to show you, man's inhumanity to his fellow man is colorblind.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Digging behind the scenes always uncovers a fact or two you may never have heard of. Greed, money and power are usually at the root of it.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 3 weeks ago

      Excellent article. I enjoyed reading this. There are so many things we don't know about the Civil War. I was amazed to discover at the time that hundreds of blacks owned thousands of black slaves. Some were even plantation owners. A black plantation owner in South Carolina named William Ellison owned 63 slaves and was one of over 170 black slave owners in just South Carolina..