The Civil War marked a defining moment in United States history. Long simmering sectional tensions reached a critical stage in 1860–1861 when eleven slaveholding states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Political disagreement gave way to war in April 1861, as Confederates insisted on their right to leave the Union and the loyal states refused to allow them to go. Four years of fighting claimed almost 1.5 million casualties (killed, dead from disease, wounded, or taken prisoner, and of whom at least 620,000 died) directly affected untold civilians, and freed four million enslaved African Americans.
The social and economic system based on chattel slavery that the seceding states had sought to protect lay in ruins. The inviolability of the Union, most of the loyal citizenry’s pre-eminent concern throughout the conflict, was confirmed on the battlefield. In the longer term, preservation of the Union made possible the American economic and political colossus of the next century.
HIDE FULL ESSAY
Before the outbreak of war in April 1861, the American republic had survived diplomatic and military crises and internal stresses. It weathered tensions with France in the late 1790s, a second war with Britain in 1812–1815, and disputes regarding international boundaries. Political wrangling over economic issues such as the tariff, a national bank, and government-supported public works (called internal improvements in the nineteenth century) proved divisive but posed no serious threat to the integrity of the Union. Despite fissures along ethnic and class lines, the majority of Americans had much in common. They were white, Christian, spoke English, and shared a heritage forged in the crucible of the Revolutionary War.
Questions relating to the institution of slavery set the stage for secession and war. Most men and women at the time would have agreed with Abraham Lincoln’s assertion in his Second Inaugural Address that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, minced no words when he proclaimed in March 1861 that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” to establish southern independence. The framers of the United States Constitution had compromised regarding slavery, creating a democratic republic that sought to ensure its citizenry’s freedoms while also reassuring the South that individual states would have the power to maintain and regulate slavery within their boundaries. The paradox of white liberty that rested in part on a foundation of black slavery was thus imbedded in the origins of the United States.
Debates over the expansion of slavery into federal territories, which were tied to the South’s effort to maintain an equal number of free and slave states, created turmoil in national politics. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 (which sought to prohibit slavery in lands acquired as a result of the Mexican-American War), the establishment of the Free Soil movement in 1848, the Compromise of 1850 (which ended parity in the Senate with California’s admission as a free state), the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which helped foster deadly territorial violence), and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 marked mileposts along the road to sectional disruption. Outside the arena of national politics, the rise of the abolition movement, Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 fed fears in the South that their slave-based social and economic systems might be in jeopardy.
As sectional divisions deepened, important institutions failed to act as stabilizing forces. Several Protestant denominations, including the Baptists and Methodists, split into northern and southern branches. The national political parties, which from the...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document