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The State of the Union Before The Civil War: North Versus South

Updated on January 30, 2015


The year 1861 was a divisive one for the United States. There were thirty-three states in the Union at the time. It would be the year for the start of the most significant and bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, the American Civil War. The war would ultimately last for four years with a lost of about 600,000 lives. The years and decades preceding 1861 were full of events that will eventually forced the Confederate States to light the fuse on April 12, 1861, at 4:30 in the morning. This lit fuse started the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. At the time there was a big divide in many aspects between the North and South just before war begin. Here is a look at the state of the Union at the time.

President-elect Lincoln as he appeared in 1861.
President-elect Lincoln as he appeared in 1861.

The Imbalance

By 1861 the young country was perilously off balance for many reasons. The biggest reason being the North and South were just very different in everything from their respective economies to the issue of slavery. There was also the matter of who will become the next President after President Buchanan and a course we all know who won the next presidential election and his victory unfortunately will put the final stone on the heavier side of the balance.

Slavery Versus Immigrants

The imbalance between the North and The South started many years before 1861. Cotton was becoming a very important and critical commodity in the southern states with the continuing expansion of slave labor while the northern states were becoming more industrialized in the same time span. However, most of the cotton form the South was shipped to the North.

By 1861 the North, with about 23 million people, owned about 90 percent of the country’s industrial capacity and controlled 80 percent of the industrial capital. The South with a smaller population of about 9 million was basically an agricultural region depending heavily on slave labor. By 1860 it was estimated that the value of all slaves in the South was worth 3 billion dollars and the gross national product for the entire country was 4 billion dollars. Slavery was 75 percent of the total gross product for the country. Obviously it was a very profitable and sensitive issue for the southerners.

To get a feel for how important slavery was to South, in 1810 there were only 1 million slaves in the country and that number increase to 4 million by 1860. Of the Southerners that own slaves, twenty-two of them own more than 500 slaves, 2,300 Southerners owned 100 or more and 10,000 owners own more than 50 slaves on their plantations. Considering all of this 75% of the Southerners did not own any slaves because many of them did not support slavery.

A Few Significant Images of 1861

The dome of Capitol Building was not completed in 1861.
The dome of Capitol Building was not completed in 1861.
The start of the Civil War, bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861
The start of the Civil War, bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861
Slave auction in 1861
Slave auction in 1861
Lincoln's Inauguration in front of the incomplete Capitol Building.
Lincoln's Inauguration in front of the incomplete Capitol Building.

Miles of Railroads

The North, being an industrialized region attracted more immigrants from Germany, Ireland and other European countries as skilled workers than the South. Between 1820 and 1860 only 400,000 immigrants settled in the South while 3.6 million of them settled in the North mainly in the New York area. As a result of this influx of immigrants, the North had 96% of the combined country’s railroad equipment, coal mines and canals.

This advantage of the North over the South ultimately helped the North win the war four years later. For instance, there were 22,000 miles of railroads in the North and West compared to 9,000 miles in the South. This made it a lot easier for the North than the South to transport soldiers and equipment from one place to another during the war.

North Was Financially Better than The South

The North was financially better off than the South. The North had 189 million dollars in bank deposits and 56 million dollars in gold coins. The South had 47 million dollars in bank deposits and 37 million dollars in gold coins. Eventually, the Confederate States will begin printing their own money to boost their economy during the war. The South other source of wealth was the export of cotton. By 1860 over half of the country’s exports were cotton from the South bringing in 190 million dollars that year.

Disagreement on the Choice of the Next President

But the biggest gap in the differences between the North And the South happened after the Presidential election of 1860. Lincoln won with less than half the Northerners voting for him to become the first Republican President but the South was not happy with the outcome of the election. The North still celebrated Lincoln’s victory despite the fact that he did not win the election by a large popular vote.

By the time Lincoln was elected, there were thirty-three states in the Union and Kansas was about to become the thirty-fourth state. The South was so displeased by Lincoln’s victory that eleven southern states would eventually secede from the Union and form a new government called the Confederate States and Jefferson Davis would be elected President of the newly form government in February of 1861. Ironically, the North and the South still celebrated Washington’s Birthday as a national holiday on February 22 of that year but by March only twenty-seven states remained in the Union. The four year civil war will begin the following month on April 12th with the first shots on Fort Sumter.

The end results of the North and South differences
The end results of the North and South differences


The 1860 U.S. census

The Civi War by Geoffrey C. Ward

The Civil War, A Visual Encyclopedia by Angus Konstam

© 2011 Melvin Porter


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    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 

      8 years ago from Space Coast

      Excuse ne, the Yankees shelled Charleston on Sunday morning when they knew everyone would be on their way to church.

      That Mad General Butler launched a campaign of terror aginst the civilian population in Louisiana that they still haven't recovered from. I am not talking about honest skirmishes on farms. Like I said . . . Northerners forget.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      8 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      WD Curry, thanks for your comment. The Civil War was fought in the backyards of civilians because many of the open areas unfortunately, were farms belonging to civilians. The war was barbaric at the beginning but gradually evolved into a more modern day type of fighting with the introduction of modern military weapons during those four years of fighting.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 

      8 years ago from Space Coast

      Alright melpor - great hub! How did you pack all of that in? It would have taken me 25 pages. I am glad to see the true balance of the issues. Why distort history. I have a box full of confederate money from my great grandpa. The way it looks, it might be good that I hung on to it. The south won't have to rise again if the north falls.

      Slavery was not the main issue in Florida. We just don't like Yankees telling us what to do.

      Seriously, one thing that is always left out. Military around the world met on battlefields away from the civilian population to settle the dispute. The American army re-introduced a barbaric strategy from the distant past. They attacked the civilian population with full force. That's hard to forget, but Northerners usually do.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      9 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Credence, this is the perception that most people thought that all Southerners supported slavery but that is not true. Owning slaves was a rich man privilege at the time. Most Southerners were poor they couldn't afford to own slaves so they did all their labor themselves. As I mentioned in the hub slavery was 75% of the country's gross national product at the time. The rich were pretty much supporting slavery and running the South's economy.

      I believed slavery would have ended a few years later after the Civil War due to changing times. The invention of the cotton grin later decreased the time it took to harvest cotton. Farm machinery was gradually replacing human labor and the demand for slave labor was falling. Unfortunately, slavery continued for a while in the British colonies even though it was abolished in the U.S. after the Civil War.

    • Credence2 profile image


      9 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Melpor, I was under the impression that more southerners supported slavery, even those that did not own slaves, as an alternative to a large free black population competing with them in conventional labor markets. I never thought that the idea of abolition was ever really a serious concern in the South.

      What do you think would have happened if the South had won, how long do you think slavery would have continued? I have always wondered if the practice would have become economically impractical after the turn of the 20th century at the latest. Great Hub, thanks Cred2


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