The Civil War was the most violent and fateful experience in American history. At least 620,000 soldiers were killed in the war, 2% of the American population in 1860. If the same percentage of Americans were to be killed in a war fought in the 1990s, the number of American war dead would exceed five million. An unknown number of civilians, nearly all of them in the South, died from causes such as disease, hunger or exposure inflicted during the conflict. As a consequence, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all of the country's other wars combined. The number of casualties incurred in a single day at the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was four times the number of Americans killed or wounded on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. More Americans were killed in action that September day near Sharpsburg, Maryland, than were killed in combat in all the other wars fought by the United States in the 19th century.
How did this happen? Why did Americans fight each other with a ferocity unmatched in the Western world during the century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of World War I in 1914? The origins of the American Civil War lay in the outcome of another war fought by America fifteen years earlier: the Mexican War. The peace treaty signed with Mexico in 1848 transferred 700,000 square miles of Mexican territory to the United States. However, the dramatic victory of American forces in the Mexican War fulfilled the prediction made by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846 at the war's outset: "The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us."
The poison was slavery, which many Southern politicians wanted to introduce into the new territories; anti-slavery Northerners wanted to keep slavery out of them. In the House of Representatives, they had the votes to pass the Wilmot Proviso (offered by Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania) stating that slavery should be excluded from all territories acquired from Mexico. In the Senate, Southern strength defeated this Proviso. South Carolina Senator, John C. Calhoun, introduced instead a series of resolutions affirming that slaveholders had the constitutional right to take their slave property into any United States territory they so wished.
These opposing views set the scene for a crisis when gold was discovered in California in 1848. Eighty thousand gold seekers poured into the region in 1849. To achieve some degree of law and order, the Forty-niners organized a state government and petitioned Congress for admission to the Union as the thirty-first state. As California's new constitution prohibited slavery, this request met with fierce resistance
Prologue from Southerners. The crisis escalated when the American President, Zachary Taylor, encouraged the huge territory of New Mexico (embracing the rest of the cession from Mexico) also to apply for statehood without slavery.
Pro-slavery Southerners threatened to secede from the Union if they were denied their "right" to take slaves into these territories. "If, by your legislation, you seek to drive us from the territories of California and Mexico," Congressman Robert Toombs of Georgia informed Northern lawmakers, "I am for disunion." The controversy in Congress became so heated that Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi flourished a loaded revolver during a debate, and his colleague Jefferson Davis challenged an Illinois congressman to a duel. In 1850 the American nation seemed held together by a mere thread, with armed conflict between free and slave states an alarming possibility.
But cooler heads prevailed. The Compromise of 1850 averted a showdown. This series of laws admitted California as a free state, divided the remainder of the Mexican cession into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, and left to their residents the question as to whether or not they would have slavery. (In fact, both territories did legalize slavery, but few slaves were taken there.) At the same time, Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, ending the shame - in Northern eyes - of the buying and selling of human beings within sight of the White House and the Capital. But the Compromise of 1850 compensated the South with a tough new fugitive slave law that empowered federal marshals, backed by the army, to recover slaves who had escaped into free states. It thus postponed, but did not resolve, the sectional crisis.
During the 1850s, polarization between North and South intensified. The fugitive slave law embittered Northerners compelled to watch black people - some of whom had lived in their communities for years - being forcibly returned in chains to slavery. Southern anxiety grew as settlers poured into those Northern territories that were sure to join the Union as free states, thereby tipping the sectional balance of power against the South in Congress and the electoral college. In an attempt to bring more slave states into the Union, Southerners agitated for the purchase of Cuba from Spain and the acquisition of additional territory in Central America. Private armies of "filibusters," composed mainly of Southerners, even tried to invade Cuba and Nicaragua to overthrow their governments and bring these regions into the United States - with slavery.
Nothing did more to divide North and South than the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the subsequent guerrilla war between pro- and anti-slavery partisans in Kansas territory. The region that became the territories of Kansas and
Nebraska was part of the Louisiana Purchase, acquired by the United States from France in 1803. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise had divided this territory at latitude 36° 30', with slavery permitted south of that line and prohibited north of it. Regarded by Northerners as an inviolable compact, the Missouri Compromise lasted for 34 years. But in 1854, Southerners broke it by forcing Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, and leader of the Northern Democrats, to agree to the repeal of the ban on slavery north of 36° 30' as the price of Southern support for the formal organization of Kansas and Nebraska territories.
Douglas capitulated under Southern pressure, even though he expected it to "raise a hell of a storm" in the North. It did. The storm was so powerful that it swept away many Northern Democrats and gave rise to the Republican party, which pledged to keep slavery out of Kansas and all other territories. One of the most eloquent spokesmen for this new party was an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who believed that "there can be no moral right in the enslaving of one man by another." Lincoln and other Republicans recognized that the United States Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed. But they intended to prevent its further expansion as the first step toward bringing it eventually to an end. The United States, said Lincoln at the beginning of his famous campaign against Douglas in 1858 for election to the Senate, was a house divided between slavery and freedom '"A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." By preventing the further expansion of slavery, Lincoln hoped to "place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction."
Douglas won the senatorial election in 1858. But two years later, running against a Democratic party split into Northern and Southern halves, Lincoln won the presidency by carrying every Northern state. This was the first time in more than a generation that the South had lost effective control of the national government. Southerners saw the writing on the wall. A substantial and growing majority of the American population lived in the North. The pro-slavery forces had little prospect of winning any future national elections. Thus, to preserve slavery as the basis of their "way of life," during the winter of 1860-1861 the seven lower-south states seceded one by one Before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, delegates from these seven states had met at Montgomery, Alabama, adopted a Constitution for the Confederate States of America, and formed a provisional government with Jefferson Davis as president. As they seceded, these states seized the national arsenals, forts, and
other property within their borders - with the significant exception of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. When Lincoln took his oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the United States and its Constitution, the "united" states had already ceased to exist.
Secession transformed the principal issue of the sectional conflict from the future of slavery to the survival of the Union itself Lincoln and most of the Northern people refused to accept the constitutional legitimacy of secession. "The central idea pervading this struggle," Lincoln declared after war had broken out in 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose." Four years later, looking back over the bloody chasm of war, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address that one side in the controversy of 1861 "would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
James M. McPherson
Key to Maps
Was this article helpful?