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American Civil War Life: The Union's Path To War - Introduction and The Situation Pre-Nov 1860

Updated on April 12, 2014
Painting - the 4th MN Volunteers
Painting - the 4th MN Volunteers

Introduction

Just over one hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was plunged into a war with itself. The American Civil War lasted four years, with the human cost totaling at least 600,000 lives, possibly as high as 850,000, and it purged our nation of slavery. The sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War was April of 2011, with many more similar anniversary celebrations continuing through 2015. This fact, along with so many new discoveries and new sources of knowledge about that time period, has catapulted interest in the American Civil War to perhaps an all-time high.

In all of the material that has accumulated about this period, however, most of it is general overviews, or about persons and events of world renown: successful or incompetent generals and politicians, great or infamous battles and campaigns, etc. These are all great, and absolutely add value to anyone’s American Civil War library, but comparatively little information exists to give American Civil War enthusiasts a sense of the experiences of those who truly shaped this period: the common man. Those materials that do exist are not always “user-friendly”, often being diaries that are written in the language of the 19th century and include terminology that is not common knowledge today.

It is for this reason that I have decided to create several series of articles which, I sincerely hope, will bring a tad bit closer to life the everyday experiences of those that lived in, and supported, the Union through the months of uncertainty up to the eruption of war.

The Author - Gary Tameling (photograph taken Sep 2013)
The Author - Gary Tameling (photograph taken Sep 2013)

About The Author

A little about the author (myself): I have been studying the American Civil War for over 30 years. I have also been a member of the American Civil War Living History community since 1995. In this volunteer capacity, and my research, I have come to learn many facets of the American Civil War, and I wish to impart this knowledge on to you in order to make this fascinating period in American History more comprehensive, interesting, and understandable.



American Civil War Life: The Union's Path To War

This first series is called The Union’s Path To War.

I shall detail for you, in this series:


The Situation Pre-Nov 1860

The Situation Nov 1860 – Mar 1861

Northern Reaction to Secession

The Situation Apr 1861

Northern Reaction to War

The Call To Arms

Those Who Volunteered (North)


I hope you enjoy what you read and that you all learn something interesting about this subject. I also hope this spurs you on to do some research and scholarship of your own.

One-room Slave Quarters on a Southern Plantation
One-room Slave Quarters on a Southern Plantation
Slaves hand-pick cotton on a Southern Plantation with a mounted overseer nearby
Slaves hand-pick cotton on a Southern Plantation with a mounted overseer nearby
Slaves pause in their work for a photograph in the plantation's cotton field
Slaves pause in their work for a photograph in the plantation's cotton field
Slaves gather around their quarters at the end of the workday
Slaves gather around their quarters at the end of the workday
Lashing scars cover the back of this slave; punishments and their severity varied, but lashing was common for perceived insubordination
Lashing scars cover the back of this slave; punishments and their severity varied, but lashing was common for perceived insubordination
A Southern Plantation at Christmas 1860
A Southern Plantation at Christmas 1860

Slavery

Slavery was still legally practiced, in the southern half of the United States, in late 1860, and the desire was strong to expand this practice into the western territories annexed from Mexico after the Mexican War from 1846-48. By contrast, most states in the northern half of the country had already banned the institution of slavery within their borders, and these citizens most certainly did not want slavery to expand into the new territories.

The City of New York ~1860.
The City of New York ~1860.
Painting of an unidentified northern factory - 1860's.
Painting of an unidentified northern factory - 1860's.
Cartoon of a northern machine shop. A clerk sits in the foreground..
Cartoon of a northern machine shop. A clerk sits in the foreground..

Resistance To Slavery

The North was less agricultural than the South (though farming was still the occupation of nearly half the population), partly due to the climate and terrain, and many of the farms were somewhat small by comparison to the Southern plantations. Instead, the North was becoming more and more industrialized, and factories were becoming a dominant feature in its cities’ landscapes. The workers in these factories, as well as the hired hands on the farms, were poor white men, and they were very concerned about any possibility of slave labor taking their places in the workshops and in the fields.

Considering the smaller number of large farms and the growing dominance of industrial labor, slavery in the North was, thus, seen as a bit superfluous, as well as unwelcome, for the most part. Many others believed it was also immoral and inhuman. A small number of such citizens, in fact, were in favor of banning the institution in ALL states and territories AND in favor of freeing the slaves. These citizens, called “abolitionists”, were in the minority, but they were a very vocal and determined group, often casting their views in newspapers and in public speeches. Their ranks were growing, slowly but surely, giving them greater political strength.

A modern map of the United States in 1860 which shows the annexed territories from Mexico and the Louisiana Purchase territories
A modern map of the United States in 1860 which shows the annexed territories from Mexico and the Louisiana Purchase territories
Abraham Lincoln, Republican Presidential nominee in 1860
Abraham Lincoln, Republican Presidential nominee in 1860
A campaign poster for the Republican Party - Abraham Lincoln for president, Hannibal Hamlin for vice-president
A campaign poster for the Republican Party - Abraham Lincoln for president, Hannibal Hamlin for vice-president
A poster that advertises an open meeting on the subject of abolition of slavery
A poster that advertises an open meeting on the subject of abolition of slavery
A poster that advertises an anti-Abolitionist meeting in 1831; Abolitionists were considered too extreme in their views by both sides of the slavery issue
A poster that advertises an anti-Abolitionist meeting in 1831; Abolitionists were considered too extreme in their views by both sides of the slavery issue
A poster that advertises anti-Slavery meetings
A poster that advertises anti-Slavery meetings

Political Ramifications of Slavery

Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, was not an abolitionist. However, his party was in favor of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Slavery, they maintained, interfered with the free market economy of the country. That Republican stance alone, apparently, was enough to convince much of the pro-slavery faction that, if Lincoln won the election, slavery would soon be restrained, and then abolished.

Why did the restriction of slavery to its current boundaries cause concern for the pro-slavery faction, and why did the idea of expanding slavery into the western territories cause concern for the anti-slavery faction? It all had to do with legislation. At the time, pro-slave and anti-slave states were very nearly equal in number. Any proposed federal bills, created to affect slavery one way or the other, were generally defeated by opponents in Congress simply voting along the lines of their faction. The western territories, however, were where the slavery issue would tilt in favor of one side or the other. These territories were going to be organized into states, including proper representation in both Houses of Congress. If either faction controlled a majority of the territories, that faction would then get greater representation in Congress when the territories became states. Any proposed federal bills regarding slavery could then be introduced and either passed or defeated in Congress by the faction with the simple majority of representation. If the pro-slave faction was the majority, then federal bills could be created and passed allowing slavery in all states, even those in the North that had banned it. If the anti-slavery faction was the majority, then federal bills could be created and passed to ban slavery, and free the slaves, throughout the nation.

The pro-slavery faction very much feared the possibility of the abolition of slavery. Slave-owners made large investments in slave labor: the cost of purchasing slaves, wages to slave overseers in the fields, expenses of housing and feeding slaves, purchasing or processing seeds, purchasing farming equipment, etc. The perceived threat of abolition meant these investments, for which there was not yet any plan of reimbursement from the state governments, would evaporate, leaving the plantation fields empty of field hands and yielding no crops for sale to the market.

Lincoln himself was very much in favor of, and encouraged state legislation toward, compensating slave-owners for emancipating their slaves. However, by the time this proposal was introduced as an act to state legislatures (1862), it was too late, leaving only the District of Columbia to embrace it and see it come to fruition. At least two other state legislatures defeated this act while the others ignored it.

Hiring free field hands by the Southern planters would have only increased expenses due to the need to pay these workers wages. Slaves were expensive as well – remember, they needed to be fed and housed – but at least they were not owed wages for their labor. Slave owners and supporters, naturally, elected representatives and senators that upheld the institution of slavery. Those citizens that did not own slaves were generally no more eager than slave owners to see the institution abolished. They grew up with it, and the prejudices of the day held that the slave, and the Negro race as a whole, was inferior to all. A poor white Southern man did not have much, but at least he could say he was not a slave. Similar to their Northern counterparts, poor white Southerners also believed that freed slaves meant job competition for them. White laborers did not want competition for wage labor with those that would almost certainly accept much less (previously working for none) for the same work.

The anti-slavery faction, on the other hand, feared the possibility of the expansion of slavery into all states. As mentioned, the Northern half of the country had a labor market of free white men, enabling white laborers to find jobs and earn wages. The introduction (or re-introduction, as it were) of slavery into the North, and into this labor market, would throw the market into chaos. White wage laborers could be replaced with much less expensive slave labor, leaving these white laborers with little hope of obtaining jobs and supporting their families.

A British cartoon that depicts the escalating American regional crisis (c. 1860)
A British cartoon that depicts the escalating American regional crisis (c. 1860)

Afterword

As can readily be seen, each faction had nearly inflexible arguments against the views of the other faction, and the western territories were the point in conflict for these opposing ideologies. The Presidential Election of 1860 thus became the hinging point as to whether or not the conflict between the factions remained rhetorical, or became worse.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union's Path To War - The Situation Nov 1860 – Mar 1861

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    • garytameling profile image
      Author

      Gary Tameling 4 years ago from Islip, NY

      Hi Nick. Thank you very much for your comments.

      When I originally set out to write these series of Hubs, I planned to give very little historical background in favor of sticking to my original plan (which will be revealed in the next series). However, I did need to provide at least SOME background, but how much? Oh, I EASILY could have referenced the Colonial America period among others! However, I made the decision to limit the historical background so that I may concentrate more fully on my intended subject matter. With that said, you are absolutely correct in that "Bleeding Kansas" was a polarizing event in American History and would have been completely appropriate to this series.

      Thanks again, and please keep reading! :-)

    • Nick Burchett profile image

      Nick Burchett 4 years ago from IL, MO & KS

      Nice hub, but I think you really need too further back to the Bleeding Kansas era of the mid 1850s to get a real grasp of the situation in America that would lead to Civil War. It really was the match that lit the fuse that caused the southern states to secede.

    • Schoolmom24 profile image

      Schoolmom24 4 years ago from Oregon

      Very interesting...I love American history and as a newlywed, my husband and toured Gettysburg, a place we will never forget. I just wrote a very short fiction story here on Hubpages, in fact, that has to do somewhat with the Civil War.

      I will be sure to return and read the next article in your series. Voted up!