Widelythought of as the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, the CivilWar lasted from 1861 to 1865. The seeds of struggle started well before 1861 asmany events occurred during the preceding fifteen years to cause seven states,known as “cotton states”, to secede from the Union.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, theraid on Harper’s Ferry, Uncle Tom’s Cabin being released, the Mexican-AmericanWar ending, the Dred Scott Decision and the Lincoln Election in 1860 areseveral of the factors leading to the secession and the beginning of the CivilWar. These events strengthened either the abolitionist cause, pro-slavery causeor both respectively and made southerners wish to get out of the Union whilenortherners insisted on war to keep the Union intact. The United States won theterritories, wholly or partially, of Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas,Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming after the Mexican-American Warvictory in 1848. The question was whether to bring these new states into theUnion as slave or free states. The Compromise of 1850 was penned by Henry Clay,a Whig, and Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, to try and curb the conflict betweenthe slaving South and free North. Itscreation didn’t have the desired effect as it seemed to cause more controversyand increase the likelihood that a war would be waged between the two factions.The Compromise of 1850was met with mixed feelings from the people of both sides.
In 1848, the Senate consistedof fifteen states for both the free and slave states; therefore, any state to beentered into the Union would unbalance the power in one sides favor or the other.It consisted of five bills. The first stated California was to enter the Unionas a free state; the second abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C; thethird allowed the people of New Mexico and Utah to decide if they wanted toenter the Union as a slave or free state (popular sovereignty); the fourth billpassed the Fugitive Slave Act; the fifth bill decreased the size of Texas (trimmedoff the western land), the purpose of which was to lessen some of their debt.This was the most controversial bill, and also the one with the most impact.The Fugitive Slave Act forced federal officials to return runaway slaves, or becharged a fine. Abolitionists doubled down on their efforts to get rid of slavery,as they considered this act to be favoring the pro-slavery crowd.
The UndergroundRailroad was spawned from the backlash and helped many slaves find their way tofreedom in the North and beyond to Canada. Those in the South were angered sincethey felt not enough was being done by the government to protect their property.Lincoln called herthe “little lady who started this Great War.” Harriet Beecher Stowe was,indeed, one of the most prominent people behind the cause of the Civil War.Stowe’s brother, father and husband were evangelical priests who supportedabolitionism. Having been captivated by the Second Great Awakening, Stowepreached how slavery undercut the Christian values of both whites and blacks.Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published in 1852) was one of the most significantresponses to the Fugitive Slave Act; it was a pivotal example of pre-Civil Warpropaganda—it empowered the abolitionist cause, but also infuriated thesoutherners. In her book, Stowe revealed the ghastly lives of slaves onsouthern plantations, which caused many northerners to draw upon their disgust ofslavery that had been previously ignored, or never thought about, in an out ofsight out of mind mentality.
The fight against slavery now became a moralcrusade rather than a constitutional one. Her book was widely popular, mostlybecause of the captivating characters she created. The lifelike situations,like Tom being whipped to death, upset many Northerners. However, consideringthe fact that she was an abolitionist, many southerners believed that heropinion was unfairly biased—they though she would say anything bad aboutslavery in order to further her cause. Many States in the South even banned herbook from being produced or sold; however, the fact that the book was illegalmade it even more appealing to people. Some southerners tried to reverse theeffects of the book by writing about Christian masters that did no harm totheir slaves.
The Northerners, however, were already fired up over theinstitution of slavery, and soon, the fight to end slavery became an underlyingmotive of the Northerners during the Civil War.With the addition ofthe Territories of Kansas and Nebraska, people began to wonder, just like theydid with the western territories won after the Mexican-American War, whether ornot they would be free states or slave states. Stephen Douglas drafted theKansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which, just like the Missouri Compromise of 1820and the Compromise of 1850, became one of the most controversial acts passedbefore the Civil War. The original purpose of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was tohelp further the Mideastern Transcontinental Railroad. However, the idea ofpopular sovereignty was written into the act, which allowed for Kansas andNebraska to choose whether or not they would allow slavery. Douglas thoughtthat the act would ease tensions between the Northerners and the Southernersbecause the Southerners could further slavery to new states, while Northernerscould still disallow slavery in their states. However, the Republican Party,which emerged from the opposition to the act, thought that the Kansas-NebraskaAct was helping the Southerners to extend slavery to the whole nation.
Soon, in1858, former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln engaged in a series ofdebates with Senator Stephen Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (known as theLincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858). Lincoln argued against slavery, citing manymoral, religious, economical, etc. reasons. Douglas, however, was much moretolerant toward slavery (he thought it was fair that Kansas and Nebraska wereable to choose). However, by 1856, Kansas was known as Bleeding Kansas becauseof the constant fighting between pro- and anti-slavery activists, who werearguing over the future of Kansas (whether it will be a free or slave state).
The violence in Kansas was only a small glimpse of what the violence of the CivilWar would be like.Known as the lawsuitthat helped cause the Civil War, the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 helped furtherthe abolitionist cause. Dred Scott was a slave that lived in Missouri with hismaster, Dr. John F. A. Sandford.
However, Dr. Sandford soon moved his family(and his slave) to Northern states, which were deemed free almost a hundredyears earlier. Upon reaching a free state, Dred Scott sued his master for hisfreedom in 1856, which sparked one of the most controversial Supreme Court casesin American history. Aided by abolitionist lawyers, Scott claimed that, sincehe was brought on to free soil, he should no longer be considered a slave (heclaimed that the Northern states he lived in did not allow slavery). However,in March of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled (7-2) that Dred Scott could not suefor his freedom in court because of the fact that he was a non-citizen, andtherefore, had no rights. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that any slave,or descendant of a slave, could not be (nor could they ever have been) a UnitedStates citizen. Furthermore, they ruled that Congress could not stop slavery innew territories, and, they subsequently ruled the Missouri Compromise of 1820(which stated than any states north of the Missouri Compromise line were free)unconstitutional; according to them, their Fifth Amendment was being violated becauseCongress was trying to keep them from their property because slaves werenothing more than property. The Dred Scott decision furthered the gap betweenthe North and the South, for obvious reasons.
The Northern anti-slaveryactivists thought that the decision was unduly biased, considering the factthat most of the Supreme Court Justices were pro-slavery; in fact, the ChiefJustice of the Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, was a former slave owner inMaryland. Also, many abolitionists believed that the decision allowedSoutherners to spread slavery all throughout the nation. On the other hand,Southerners thought that the decision was just because Congress had no rightsto prohibit slavery in the new territories. In addition, pro-slavery activistsbelieved that, since slaves were property, they could be taken anywhere,including being taken to free states. The abolitionists furthered their effortsin order to stop slavery from being extended throughout the country.Two years after theDred Scott Decision (in 1859), a radical abolitionist, named John Brown,executed one of the largest raids in American history on the nation’s arsenalat Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
His goal was to arm slaveswith the nation’s weapons in order to start a massive slave rebellion. However,after capturing a couple of buildings, troops led by Colonel Robert E. Leesurrounded and captured John Brown, as well as many of his men. Later, Brownwas tried and hanged for treason against the United States.
His radicaluprising against slavery in the South caused a lot of controversy in the coupleof years following it. Many Northerners and slaves thought of him as a martyrfor dying to end slavery, while many Southerners thought of him as a terrorist.The fact that an abolitionist participated in open warfare against those whowere pro-slavery made many Southerners further their efforts to stop theNortherners from trying to end their “way of life” (i.e. slavery in the South).The last event that helped cause the Civil War was thePresidential Election of 1860. Although there were four candidates, StephenDouglas (Democrat) and Abraham Lincoln (Republican) were the two candidatesthat everyone was turning their eyes to because of their longstanding conflictwith one another (other two candidates were John Bell (Constitutional Union)and John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat)).
All the states knew, per theirdebates years earlier, where Lincoln and Douglas stood on the politicalspectrum (specifically, where they stood on the argument of slavery). Althoughhe didn’t receive any electoral votes from any southern state, Abraham Lincolnwas declared President of the United States on Tuesday, November 6, 1860,having received 180 electoral votes (out of 303). Though his views on slaverywere not harsh during his nomination and election, South Carolina still threatenedto secede from the Union if Lincoln won. This is not surprising consideringLincoln’s stance on slavery.
For example, Lincoln publicly spoke out againstthe Dred Scott Decision, as well as against slavery and Stephen Douglas in1858. Lincoln also spoke about how powerful the Southern states were becoming,and he made it known that he would not allow slavery to be extended to any moreareas, or any new territories (or states) admitted to the US. Indeed, SouthCarolina, whose beliefs obviously conflicted with Lincoln’s, seceded from theUnion on December 20, 1860. Six other states, which included Mississippi,Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, followed in suit by secedingfrom the Union. With South Carolina, they formed the Confederate States ofAmerica.
The circumstances andevents that occurred in the fifteen years prior to the Civil War — TheKansas-Nebraska Act, the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Uncle Tom’s Cabin beingreleased, the Mexican-American War ending, the Dred Scott Decision and theLincoln Election in 1860 —producedconditions that Southerners felt that seceding from the United States (becauseit threatened their “way of life”) was the best option. Also, it producedconditions that Northerners considered going to war with the SouthernConfederacy to keep the Union intact. The Civil War comes as no surpriseconsidering the North was powered by the industrial revolution, and the Southdriven by the agricultural way of life. Had the two halves of the countryattempted to resolve the differing issues, instead of trying to force feedtheir beliefs down the others throat, the bloodiest war this country has everseen could have possibly been prevented.