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Causes of the Civil War

Updated on October 22, 2015
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Melvin is an avid reader and a retired chemist after working for a major pharmaceutical company for 32 years.

The American Civil War
The American Civil War | Source


The US civil war was one of the bloodiest events in American history and held the young nation in its grip for four years. It was one of the first historical event to be documented in photographs and documented by the thousands of soldiers who actually fought in it with some surviving the entire four years of the civil war. Today there are still many debates among historians of what preceding events caused the civil war.

Nonetheless, there are many but the general belief is that there were about five significant events that led the country into a war that literally split it into two countries for four years. It was a tragic event for the country. The civil war casualties were estimated to be as high as 700,000 killed. It wiped out a sizable portion of the male population from 1861 to 1865 because of several pre-war events centered around a couple of central issues.The concerns were about the growing slaves population and the fighting among politicians on the issue of state rights that the Southern states so strongly supported.

The citizens of both the North and South saw very clearly that the growing slave population was a problem that they could no longer ignore. According to the 1860 U.S. census, the young nation had a population of 31 million near the outbreak of the war in 1861. Slaves accounted for about 4 million, approximately 13% of the population of the people living in the United States at that time. Basically, for every 10 American living in the country in 1861, one of them was a slave.

Slaves in Cumberland Landing were considered contrabands before the war even begin
Slaves in Cumberland Landing were considered contrabands before the war even begin | Source


The growing movement by the North for the abolition of slavery in the South was the main cause of the civil war even thought there were many other events that ultimately started the war. The population of slavery had reach a tipping point and at the same time the country was undergoing a rapid expansion with the annexation of land from the vast western territory. Furthermore, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean slavery was banned in European countries before 1860. However, slavery was not abolished until the 1880s in Cuba and Brazil.

Many Northerners were against slavery despite the fact their economy depended on it thanks to the synergy of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. However, some of them felt that it violated the moral principles set in place by the founders of the thirteen original colonies. On the other hand, Southerners were totally against abolishing slavery since their livelihood depended on the labor provided by slaves. The differences between the North and the South that existed since the beginning of the nation was amplified by the institution of slavery.

These differences also created tension among the politicians from both sides with some of the infighting starting in the1850s when New York Senator William wrote "A storm is rising and such a one our country has never yet seen". He was referring to the turmoil the country experienced in the decade before the civil war. During that period there were dozens of heated debates in the state legislature and in both houses of Congress concerning the spread of slavery in the newly annexed territory.

Politicians splitting the the map of the Union
Politicians splitting the the map of the Union | Source

Economic Differences Between the North and the South

The North and the South were already divided from an economic perspective. The South was mostly an agrarian or farming society while the North was industrial. Most of the Southern wealth was tied up in land for plantations and speculation in crops; namely tobacco, cotton and sugar. The South had to rely on cheap labor to make their money and owning slaves was the cheapest labor. Despite the fact that this was an inefficient industry, there was a high demand for cotton by the British for their booming textile industry and the South saw this crop with limitless economic possibilities. As a result, cotton became the main crop exported from the United States.

There were other reasons why the North and the South were so different economically. On one hand, the Northerners had more access to higher education. Most of the well-known colleges and universities were established there in the previous century. Also, since the North was more industrialized than the South, more goods were produced there. Textiles, sewing machines, guns and farm equipments were some of the goods produced in the North while less than 10% of the nation's product was manufactured in the South.

Infrastructure like telecommunication and the railway system were more developed in the North. There were more than 20 thousand miles of railroad track in the North. On the other hand, the Southerners were less educated. The South was mostly rural with small farms and large plantations scattered here and there. Infrastructure was virtually non-existent in the South.

Other differences between the North and The South
Other differences between the North and The South | Source

Balance of Power

Every since the earliest days of the United States, political control had been in the hands of the South despite the fact the North had the advantage economically. When ever this delicate balance of power was threaten by politicians from the North, a compromise between the two sides was always made. But by the 1850s things were beginning to change. The balance of power between the North and the South was becoming more difficult to maintain. The rapidly industrializing North was beginning to tip the balance of power in their direction economically and demographically. As a result, the North was getting stronger in the political arena, especially with the formation of a new political party in 1854. This party became known as the Republican Party.

This persistent threat to the balance of power for the South forced a small group of Southern aristocrats to band together to strengthen their influence on the political stage. During the 1850s they began interpreting the United States constitution there way, specifically in the area of state rights. By 1854 things got worse for the South with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by congress. This act essentially allows the citizens to take matter into their own hands in deciding the fate of new territory, whether it should be admitted as a free state or a slave state.

Since both sides were attempted to decide on this issue in there favor, things eventually became violent and deadly at times; starting a civil war in Kansas called "Bleeding Kansas". This issue got so out of hand that violence even erupted in Congress when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was attacked by Preston Brooks from South Carolina after he delivered an anti-slavery speech in the Senate.

Number of free states versus slave states
Number of free states versus slave states | Source
The abolitionist, John Brown
The abolitionist, John Brown | Source

Abolitionist Movement

Occurrences of slave rebellion was becoming more prevalent in the country with the growing number of abolitionists. In 1831 Nat Turner, a slave, led an insurrection in Southampton County of Virginia stirring up fear among the Southerners. Turner and other slaves went from one small farm to another killing whites they encountered. By the time he was captured and executed two months later, his band of men had killed 70 people. Whites in retaliation started killing any person they believed was involved in the revolt before he was captured. After the revolt, the Virginia legislature debated on the issue of slavery but got nowhere with it. At one point they even thought of the idea of starting a gradual emancipation to free the slaves over time.

After the Nat Turner slave rebellion, many more slave rebellions by abolitionists would occurred between the "Bleeding Kansas" incident of 1854 and a few years before the civil war. In 1859 John Brown, an abolitionist who fought in Kansas in that incident a few years ago against pro-slavery groups, attempted to take over the Harper Ferry Arsenal with a handful of black and white followers. He was captured by Federal troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Although he was tried and hanged, the North saw his action as the spark they need to bring slavery to an end in the United States. The South saw this rebellion as a serious matter considering the fact that there were more slaves than free men in some of the Southern states.

Federal army led by Colonel Robert E. Lee moments before capturing John Brown at Harper Ferry
Federal army led by Colonel Robert E. Lee moments before capturing John Brown at Harper Ferry | Source

Election of 1860

Years of talks about state secession among the Southern politicians reached a feverish level after a senator from Illinois won the presidential election and after two new states, Minnesota and Oregon, were admitted to the Union as free states. The balance of power was now in favor of the North. This was the last straw for the South.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln won the election because the democrat votes were split by actions put in play by the "fire-eaters"when the delegates gathered in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1860 to nominate their candidate. The "fire-eaters" were a group of citizens that were hostile to the growing power of the North and committed to an independent South.Those among the Southern delegates did not want Stephen A. Douglas as the nominee on the ballot and things came to head when the Northern majority continued their support for popular sovereignty which allow the locals to decide on the legality of slavery in the territories. This decision enraged the Southern delegates to the point that they stormed out of the meeting. After 57 failed attempted to put a nominee on the ballot, a quick compromise by the remaining delegates, the convention was rescheduled to meet in Baltimore, Maryland.

In Baltimore the Southern "fire-eaters" delegates disrupted the meeting again and walked out. The remaining democratic delegates chose Stephen A. Douglas as the nominee on the ballot and the Southern delegates later reconvened in Richmond, Virginia and elected Vice President John Breckinridge as their nominee on the ballot.

The Republicans held their convention in mid-May in Chicago in a relatively new convention center called the Wigwam. It was a very large place with enough room to hold 12,000 attendees. They wasted no time selecting Abraham Lincoln on the third ballot. John Bell of Tennessee was nominated as the presidential nominee by The Constitutional Union Party and Stephen A. Douglas was the final nominee on the ballot for the 1860 Presidential election.

The Wigwam in Chicago where the Republican convention was held
The Wigwam in Chicago where the Republican convention was held | Source

On November 6, 1860, Lincoln wins the election by receiving 180 electoral votes, a majority of the votes. He only carried 40 percent of the national popular votes and 54 percent of the Northern votes to win. Lincoln's victory was the final blow to Southerners that their control of the United States was now a thing of the past. Subsequently,South Carolina becomes the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, after the state legislature voted unanimously to make this move. In the next six weeks Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed suite to form the The Confederacy and later raised an army, seized Federal forts, arsenals and custom houses.

Election of 1860 map

The 1860 Election results
The 1860 Election results | Source

In the months after being elected president, Lincoln makes several attempts with the newly formed Confederacy to come up with a compromise during the two month formal truce. It didn't last. On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 AM the first shot of the American Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.


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