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Exploring How the Civil War Began

Wars have many causes. No one should ever forget that wars are fought for political reasons and objectives. Essentially, people or nations go to war to protect a vital interest, defend territory from an aggressor, or to achieve a moral purpose (such as defending the innocent and punishing an evil). The Civil War included all of these rationales. Each side used all three justifications for fighting the other during the four years of war. And, interestingly enough, each side had a strong, valid, substantial argument. Ironically, the war never really decided who was ultimately right or wrong.

What's a civil war?

You hear the word civil in such terms as civil rights, civilian, and civil liberty. All are related to the concept of a common citizen, a member of society. So, a civil war is a war between citizens representing different groups or sections of the same country. Civil wars just don't happen. They are unique in the history of warfare and usually quite difficult to start. After they do start, though, they are quite bloody and often extreme. People have to be pretty angry and threatened to take this kind of drastic step.

The setting: 1820-1860

To understand the causes of the Civil War, you must be aware of some important events in American history — from roughly 1820 (the Missouri Compromise) to 1860 (the election of Abraham Lincoln) — that culminated in the secession of 11 Southern states. Don't let the academic-sounding language fool you, though; the point here is to illustrate how specific events during this decade raised fears and made Americans so angry at their countrymen that they were willing to kill each other as a result.

The North and South: Two different worlds

Until the expansion of the population into the rich lands of the lower South, slavery had been a dying institution. The North had slaves, but freed most of them (except New Jersey) because the institution was too expensive to maintain. With the growing demand for cotton on the world market, the availability of an easy way to separate seeds (via the cotton gin), and a vast new region now available for growing the crop, slavery became essential for the South's economic future.

In the nineteenth century, before mechanization, the growing and harvesting of cotton required the labor of many people. From the time the seed is put into the ground until the time the cotton boll is picked, run through a gin, and baled, the crop requires almost constant attention. To produce any sizable cotton crop, slaves were essential. As the most available source of labor, slaves themselves became more and more valuable, allowing fewer and fewer people to own them. Out of 5.5 million Southerners in 1860, only 46,000 planters owned 20 slaves, less than 3,000 owned 100 or more slaves, and only 12 Southerners owned 500 or more slaves. Thus, only a tiny minority of people owned slaves in the South. Why, then, did the South feel tied so closely to slavery?

The two most likely reasons for the South's connection with slavery are as follows:

  • The slave owners were the men of social and political power. They were the ones who ran the state legislatures and elected men of their kind to Congress.
  • Slave owning became the road to status and success for Southerners who were ambitious for wealth and power.

A small farmer, if he was so inclined (and many were not), could make enough money from a small cotton farm to buy one or two slaves. With this extra manpower, he could put more land into production, make more profit in the booming cotton market, and buy more slaves. With 20 slaves, he could become a planter, and rise to social and political influence. The father of Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, began this way and became one of the richest and most powerful men in Mississippi. The South chose to remain an agricultural region; therefore, it had strong reasons for seeing that slavery as an institution continued without limits or interference.

The North, during this same time period, was setting the stage for the industrial revolution that would transform the nation in the next hundred years. Technology harnessed to both agriculture and industry, plus a huge influx of immigrants to serve as a ready labor force, created a new dynamic economy. Textile mills (run on Southern cotton), steam engines, railroads and canals, and iron and steel factories came to dominate the landscape of New England, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. In 1860, the North held about 140,000 factories, which employed nearly 1.5 million workers who produced almost $2 billion worth of goods. New cities in the northwest, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, became the engines of change in the national economy. St. Louis and New Orleans became the centers of a dynamic interregional trade. Within this atmosphere of economic change and readjustment, the controversy of slavery grew to become first a political, then a moral reform issue.

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