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

Updated on April 24, 2014
A poster calls for a mass meeting at Union Square in the City of New York, NY
A poster calls for a mass meeting at Union Square in the City of New York, NY

The North United

Once Fort Sumter was fired upon and battered into submission, the Northern people became MUCH more united against the Confederacy. They condemned the South for this action, considering it an insult to the flag, the country, and to the elected government. Secession was one thing. Attacking the nation from which they seceded was quite another thing. Even New York City which, until the bombardment, was pro-South, was now as enraged as the rest of its Northern brethren, and young men began to call for action against the rebellious “secesh”.

Stereo Images of the immense Mass Meeting at Union Square in the City of New York in April 1861

There were, of course, significant Northern groups that did not believe in the subjugation of the seceded states even after the bombardment.

Chicago, IL in 1861
Chicago, IL in 1861
Main Street in Racine, IL 1860
Main Street in Racine, IL 1860
Rally in Detroit, MY in April, 1861 - officials take the oath of allegiance
Rally in Detroit, MY in April, 1861 - officials take the oath of allegiance

Anti-War Northerners: Old Northwest

The majority of Northern detractors were in the Old Northwest – what we today call the Midwest – and a big reason for their stance was the commerce down the Mississippi River. War would make the river extremely hazardous for commerce shipping, perhaps even close it off completely at the border between Union and Confederacy. Without war, trade could still be established between the Union and the Confederacy, and good relations would be needed in order to keep the Mississippi open down to the Gulf of Mexico. This would thus allow for continued trading in the Atlantic as well as in the Pacific Oceans, via the Isthmus of Darien (now called the Isthmus of Panama).

It is interesting to note that many of these same reasons were used by those seeking the subjugation of the seceded states. They believed the bombardment of Fort Sumter, justified or not, would lead to the closing of the Mississippi River at the Confederacy’s northern border. This meant commerce via the Atlantic OR the Pacific all needed to go through the east coast. Furthermore any Northern commerce ships, from the east coast, sailing off the Confederate Atlantic coast or in the Gulf of Mexico, would be under threat of Confederate raiders. This meant commerce to the Pacific could be brought to a near stand-still, leading to the isolation of the Union’s west coast states (California and Oregon) and territories (Colorado, Montana, etc). Overland commerce to the west would then be increasingly relied-upon, but it would continue to be hazardous as well. There was so much lawless and/or insecure territory to overcome. There was no completed transcontinental railroad at this time, and even if it did exist, train derailments were frequent. Rails could be broken up by pro-Confederate guerrillas or enterprising (or Confederate-trained) and hostile Native Americans. Only subduing the seceded states would ensure that the Mississippi River remained open to Midwest shipping and ensure that the Western States and Territories continued to be attached to the Union.

A street image in Massachusetts
A street image in Massachusetts
A poster calls for a rally in the New England town of Fairmont
A poster calls for a rally in the New England town of Fairmont
A poster calls for a rally in the Massachusetts town of Plumstead
A poster calls for a rally in the Massachusetts town of Plumstead

Anti-War Northerners: New England

Another significant Northern group that did not believe in subjugating the seceded states was in New England. A big reason for their stance was the cotton trade. War would make cotton (a staple crop of the South) nearly unobtainable. The cotton trade could still be established between the Union and the Confederacy if good relations continued.

Cotton was very important to the New England states due to the number of textile mills there. Cotton was needed in order to keep those mills operating. The finished goods from these mills were sold all over the country and even overseas, thus keeping the mills’ employees in paid labor.

A hostile Confederacy would disrupt the sale of cotton to the mills. It could also disrupt shipping of whatever finished goods were made (from whatever source of cotton was available) to overseas markets and to the Pacific coast states.

As with the Midwest, it is interesting to note that many of these same reasons were used by those seeking the subjugation of the seceded states. They believed the bombardment of Fort Sumter would lead to the elimination of cotton sales and a disruption of the shipping of the finished goods. This would lead to the closing of most or all of the textile mills and the forced unemployment of hundreds or thousands of textile workers.

Only subduing the seceded states would ensure that the sale of cotton to the mills continued.

Poster condemns "Traitors" of the Union
Poster condemns "Traitors" of the Union
Faculty at Albion College 1861
Faculty at Albion College 1861
Image of citizens of Carlisle, PA
Image of citizens of Carlisle, PA
Illustration of immigrants as they land in New York
Illustration of immigrants as they land in New York

The North's Immigrants

The recent immigrants to Northern states also were much affected, but most were very much in favor of defending the Union, through war if necessary. The Southern slave owners were seen as being very similar to the European land barons which, until relatively recently, had serf labor. One of the major reasons for the waves of immigration to the United States was the promise of socio-economic freedom. There was no aristocracy, no domination of landowners. The land was owned by those who purchased it and worked on it. The secession of most of the slave-holding states, and then the bombardment of Fort Sumter, was seen by pro-Union immigrants as a direct threat to their freedom. The Southern aristocracy had become aggressive in its secession movement. There was nothing saying that, if they were successful in fully establishing their newly founded country, they would not, eventually, begin a war of conquest of the North. Soon, their feudal way of life would be forced upon the whole country, most likely with European recognition and assistance. At the very least, this secession made the Union weaker in terms of total land, commerce, and resources. No immigrant wanted that, given how much they had already sacrificed to come to the U.S. They may have also feared that this free life, for which they left their homeland, would be threatened with extinction by the existence of an aggressively hostile sector in the same continent. Nothing takes away freedom faster than the desire to maintain security from a hostile sector. Other reasons, such as the hope of becoming more integrated into the nation, gaining more immediate citizenship, trust, and upholding their newly adopted nation, also played significant parts in immigrants’ pro-Unionism. In any case, a solid majority of immigrants, newly or lately arrived to the states still within the U.S., threw in their lot with the Union.

Painting - Our Banner In The Sky
Painting - Our Banner In The Sky

Afterword

Though there were the afore-mentioned detractors in the Old Northwest and in New England, the bombardment of Fort Sumter united the North against the seceded states. With the North's great advantage in manpower and industry, the South soon had cause to regret its action in Charleston Harbor.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War – The Call To Arms

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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