Causes of the Civil War Part I: Slavery

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US History I Name:
Causes of the Civil War
Part I: Slavery
Slavery had been a part of American culture almost since the beginning. The first African slaves in the American colonies were brought to Virginia in 1619. By that point, African slaves had been used as laborers in the Caribbean for over a century, and American tobacco farmers who were desperately short of labor, and equally desperate to get rich, willingly bought slaves to farm their crops.

Using slave labor for farming was much more profitable than the alternatives. Growing tobacco required a tremendous amount of physical labor and plantation owners wanted to grow as much as possible to make a large profit, so doing all the work themselves was out of the question. Hiring laborers to work for wages was expensive, and most workers would quit if the conditions were too harsh. Indentured servants—Europeans or Africans who signed a contract agreeing to work for an employer for 5 – 7 years in exchange for payment—were used, but they were not ideal. Indentured servants only worked for a set number of years and then the plantation owner would have to buy a new servant, unlike slaves who worked for their entire life. They also went on to become members of the community when they were freed, so although their master could legally beat them and whip them as a punishment, being too mean to indentured servants was not a great idea. One event, Bacon’s Rebellion, proved this point. An ambitious but disgruntled planter named Nathaniel Bacon led a group of former indentured servants to rebel against the government of Virginia. The former indentured servants remembered how cruelly their former masters treated them and were also angry that they were still poor, so they armed themselves and followed Bacon’s plan to attack the capital and killed several planters. Although the rebellion failed, it made many plantation owners hesitant to own indentured servants.

In the early years of English colonization, people owned slaves in all thirteen colonies. By the time the United States declared independence, slavery was quickly becoming a uniquely Southern institution. Because of differences in climate and geography, the South was best suited for agriculture. Cash crops such as rice and tobacco were very profitable, but required a lot of labor, so plantation owners used slaves.

How Many White Southerners owned Slaves in 1860?

Percentage of White Southern Population

Owned more than 10 slaves


Owned 1 – 9 slaves


Owned no slaves


Called the South’s “peculiar institution,” slavery became one of the most influential elements in Southern culture. Although they were a small minority of the population, white plantation owners were the economic, political and social leaders of Southern society. They became wealthy because they owned land and slaves to work the land. When a slave had a child, it was considered the property of its mother’s owner, even if the father was a free man. A healthy young slave could sell for more than five hundred dollars—a tremendous amount of money in those days—so slaveholders became rich from their slaves’ work as well as by selling their children. Because many slaveholders hired white overseers to monitor the slaves, they were free to live a life of leisure or occupy themselves with other careers such as law or politics. Of the first twelve US presidents, eleven were slaveholders.


  1. Why did plantation owners want to own slaves rather than indentured servants? Explain your answer.

  1. Look at the table: “How Many White Southerners owned Slaves in 1860.” What percentage of white southerners owned slaves?

  1. Even though most slaves lived in the South, all Americans were aware of slavery. What do elections of the first twelve presidents say about typical Americans’ attitudes toward slavery?

On the plantations, slaves were brutally punished and psychologically tortured to force obedience. Slaves were the absolute bottom of American society, and any white person, no matter how poor or uneducated, was treated as superior to a black slave. More than half of American slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco, indigo or rice for their masters. Children as young as eight years old worked in the fields alongside adults. Slave worked from sun up to sun down in brutal conditions, being whipped or beaten as punishment for not working hard enough. This quote from Frederick Douglass, a former slave, explains the arbitrary violence toward slaves:

A mere look, word, or motion—a mistake, an accident, or want of power—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has a devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should for whipped for it.
House slaves—those who worked indoors cooking, cleaning and sewing—received some privileges, such as better food, but were also subject to equal brutality. They might be whipped for not working fast enough or wasting food. Punishments were often severe and cruel, as described by Harriet Jacobs, a house slave working in North Carolina:

Dr. Flint was an epicure1. The cook never sent a dinner to his table without fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to his liking, he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her to eat every mouthful of it in his presence. The poor, hungry creature might not have objected to eating it; but she did object to having her master cram it down her throat till she choked.

Harriet Jacobs’ account is rare, because slaves were not taught to read and write. Giving slaves an education was not only seen as unnecessary, but most slaveholders thought it was dangerous. Teaching a slave to read and write was a crime throughout the South.

Even whites in the South were not unaware of how terrible slavery was. Many slaveholders tried to justify it by saying that slaves didn’t mind the conditions on plantations, and that brutal punishment was only needed for the few slaves that were troublemakers. Some slaveholders argued that Africans were not capable of being independent, and that slavery was the best life for them. The following passage is from a speech by Angelina Grimke, a Southern woman who grew up on a plantation. Her speech caused tremendous protest from the community:

As a Southerner I feel that it is my duty to stand up here to-night and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it -- I have seen it. I know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing: I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences, and its destructiveness to human happiness. It is admitted by some that the slave is not happy under the worst forms of slavery. But I have never seen a happy slave. I have seen him dance in his chains, it is true; but he was not happy. There is a wide difference between happiness and mirth. Man cannot enjoy the former while his manhood is destroyed, and that part of the being which is necessary to the making, and to the enjoyment of happiness, is completely blotted out. The slaves, however, may be, and sometimes are, mirthful. When hope is extinguished, they say, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."


  1. How/why were slaves punished?

  1. Why do you think slave-owners thought it was dangerous to teach slaves to read and write?

  1. Do you think Angelina Grimke is a reliable source to learn about slavery? Why/why not?

  1. Read the speech by Angelina Grimke. Why does she say slaves sometimes appear to be happy? Why aren’t they really happy?

  1. Do you think Grimke’s views were popular in the South? Why or why not?

During the 1830s, a religious revival called the Second Great Awakening spread throughout the country and many plantation owners wanted their slaves to become Christians, but their religious education was very limited. Slaves were not taught to read, so they could not personally read the Bible. Slaves were also not permitted to preach to other slaves. When they attended church with their masters, only whites were allowed to sit near the pulpit; all blacks had to sit in the balcony. Throughout the slaveholding south, ministers emphasized the parts of the Bible that served the needs of the slave-owning churchgoers. One commonly used passage read:

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

The message that obeying one’s earthly master was a way to obey one’s heavenly master was oft-repeated in the hopes that slaves would believe it. Slaves did not always draw the same messages from the Bible that their masters wanted them to. Many slaves found the story of the Israelites being led out of oppression to the Promised Land compelling, and believed that although they were suffering physically, God watched after them and they would someday achieve their freedom.

Although it was rare, some slaves did gain their freedom. Since the 1600s, there had been free blacks living in America, mostly in cities along the coast, who had come to the U.S. as indentured servants and had remained after their term of service. Their descendants lived on as free men and women. For slaves, there were a few ways to become free. They could purchase their own freedom if they were able to earn money in the little free time they had by doing odd-jobs for hire or sewing small items to sell. Another way some slaves gained freedom was through manumission: when a master chose to free their slaves. This was rare, but some slaveholders, including as George Washington, freed their slaves after their death. Others were able to convince a free person, such as a relative or a lover, to purchase their freedom.

Another way to become free was running away to a state where slavery was illegal, which by 1800 was most of the Northern states. To escape, a slave had to not only leave their own plantation, but escape the watchful eye of neighbors and community members who would recognize them as a runaway. Lucky slaves had a freed friend or relative to hide them until they could safely be transported to a free state. Other slaves had to hide in the wilderness until they could make it to the coast, where they could be smuggled on a ship and sailed to the free North. Successfully escaping was very difficult to do, and slaves were severely punished for attempting to run away. Some plantation owners cut off slaves’ fingers and toes for attempting to escape; others sold the slave to a more brutal plantation as punishment. Other masters killed attempted runaways as a warning to other slaves.

Slaves did not stop trying to run away, however, which prompted controversial fugitive slave laws which regulated how former slaves would be identified, captured and returned to their owners. Some owners hired slave catchers to track down a runaway and return them to slavery, which was a very expensive process and could take months. It was common to see slave catchers patrolling mainly-black neighborhoods in cities such as Boston and New York to find new arrivals who might be runaway slaves. If suspected of being a runaway slave, slaves were arrested, put on trial, and taken to the South. The Supreme Court ruled that this was a legal practice, because slaves were legally considered property. Anyone suspected of helping a runaway could be arrested as well. Local churches and community organizations helped people accused of being a runaway slave get a lawyer so they could defend themselves, but this was not always enough. In 1850 the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it easier for slaveholders to claim a person was their slave and take them back to their plantation. Slave catchers made a fortune kidnapping legitimately free black people and delivering them to southern plantation owners.


  1. How was religion used to support slavery?

  1. How was religion used to oppose slavery?

  1. In what ways could slaves become free?

  1. Most slaves who ran away were young single men without children. Why do you think they were the most common runaways?

  1. Why do you think plantation owners spent so much time & money to get a runaway slave back?

  1. Why do you think many northerners were upset by fugitive slave laws?

Part II: the Abolition Movement
Not all Americans condoned slavery. Outraged by the harsh conditions under slavery and the unreasonable fugitive slave laws, black and white Americans joined abolitionist groups to fight against slavery. There are many individuals and organizations who contributed to this important cause. Your task is to research and explain how two of the following individuals helped fight for abolition, or the end of slavery. Your choices include:

  • Sarah Grimke

  • Harriet Tubman

  • Frederick Douglass

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • Angelina Grimke

  • Sojourner Truth

  • William Lloyd Garrison

  • Theodore Weld

Answer all of the following questions about your two abolitions in about 1-2 paragraphs each. Handwrite or type your answer on separate paper. This assignment will be worth 20 points.

  1. Why did this person become an abolitionist?

  2. Were they involved in any abolitionist organizations/groups?

  3. In what ways did they fight against slavery?

  4. How did they want to end slavery?

  5. Did they participate in any other social movements?

Then use your book or the internet to define the following terms & explain how they related to Abolition:

  1. Underground Railroad:

  1. The Liberator:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin::

Part III: Westward Expansion and Sectionalism
American farms and towns had been spreading steadily to the West for generations. Many Americans wanted to recreate their old lives in the West, bringing their most valued possessions, religious practices, and social customs from the East. So when Southern slaveholders traveled west, they wanted to bring slavery with them.

Moving slavery intro the West was controversial for several reasons. Abolitionists thought slavery was immoral and that continuing the sinful practice in the West was cruel and wrong. Many Americans did not feel comfortable asking Southerners to give up slavery entirely, but thought that allowing slavery to expand to another part of the country was wrong. Other Americans were more concerned about the economics of slavery. In the North, there was a large population of free white workers, many of them recent immigrants from Ireland. Many hoped to find jobs in the West building railroads and other large construction projects. These workers worried that if slavery expanded, their jobs would be taken by slaves who were forced to work for free, or that competing with slaves would drive down wages to almost nothing.

In spite of opposition, Southerners continued to try to bring slavery to the West, often with disastrous results. It also contributed to sectionalism: the growing differences between the North & the South.

  1. Why did Southerners want to bring slavery to the West?

  1. For what reasons did Northerners not want slavery in the West? (list as many as you can)

  1. What is sectionalism? How do you think slavery contributed to sectionalism?

Part IV: Failed Compromises
As the United States expanded, it had maintained a careful balance of free states, where slavery was not practiced, and slave states, where slavery was practiced. Congress faced a crisis in 1820 when Missouri applied to become a state: it would mean that slave states would outnumber free states in the senate. It was also controversial because Missouri was further north than other slave states. Congressmen from the North were relieved when they found a solution: Maine would become a state. Until the 1820s, Maine had been a part of Massachusetts, and it wanted its own independence. Like its New England neighbors, slavery was no longer practiced in Maine. Congress passed a series of resolutions known as the Missouri Compromise in 1820. Missouri would be admitted to the US as a slave state and Maine would be admitted as a free state. Congress also passed a law that there would be no slavery north of the southern border of Missouri—except for in Missouri itself—which became the Missouri Compromise Line.

While some hoped that the Missouri Compromise would provide a permanent solution to slavery and would limit sectionalism, it did not. The next major conflict occurred after the Mexican American War, when the US gained control over extensive amounts of land in the Southwest. Because this land was not part of the US when the Missouri Compromise was written, it was unclear whether the Missouri Compromise Line applied to the new territory in the southwest. Southerners did not care about losing the vast territory north of the Missouri Compromise Line because it was cold and a poor climate for growing cotton, but Texas and California seemed like ideal agricultural regions. Northerners, however, were worried that if slavery spread to California and Texas, free white laborers and farmers would not be able to compete with large slave-owning families. When California applied for statehood in 1850, Congress was forced to come up with a solution to make both sides of the argument happy: the Compromise of 1850. To make the North happy, it allowed California to be admitted as free state and banned the slave trade in the city of Washington, D.C. To appease the South, it created a much stricter fugitive slave law called the Fugitive Slave Act and permitted the population of the southwestern territories to vote on whether they wanted to become a slave state or a free state. Allowing the people to decide democratically is called popular sovereignty.


    1. Why did it matter if there were equal numbers of free states and slave states represented in the senate?

    1. Why didn’t southern slaveholders mind that the Missouri Compromise didn’t let them bring slavery to the northern territory that included modern-day Montana, Minnesota, and the Dakotas?

    1. Many abolitionists were especially upset that until the mid-1800s, slaves were bought and sold in Washington, DC. Why do you think that fact had symbolic meaning for them?

    1. Who do you think got the better deal in the Compromise of 1850: the North or the South? Explain your answer.

The next conflict and failed compromise happened in the nation’s heartland. During the mid 1800s, the area which is now Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa became home to many white settlers. By the 1850s, many settlers and politicians were interested in “organizing” the territory (dividing it into separate states with their own government) so they could officially become states. In 1854, Stephan Douglas of Illinois proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in congress, which made a plan for organizing the territory and planned to decide whether the new states would have slavery or not through popular sovereignty: letting the people in that territory vote on the issue.


  1. Look at this map (above) and think about previous laws we have studied. Why was it controversial—or maybe illegal—to have the Kansas & Nebraska Territories vote on whether they will be slave states?

Douglas added the popular sovereignty clause to the Kansas-Nebraska Act because he thought more Southerners would vote for the law. He thought it was unlikely that the territory would vote for slavery, since it was so far north and the climate was not right for crops produced with slavery. His plan backfired, however, and pro-slavery advocates flocked from Missouri and the South to set up pro-slavery towns in Kansas. Northerners who did not want Kansas to become a slave state, called Free-Soilers, also set up communities in Kansas. Many people denied that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was valid at all, because allowing popular sovereignty in Kansas and Nebraska violated the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in that territory. Congress proceeded, however, and the territories prepared themselves for election day.

In November 1854, Kansans were supposed to vote for members of their state legislature, all of whom were either publicly for or against slavery. Pro-slavery Missourians called border ruffians crossed into Kansas to vote illegally. Only half of the votes were cast by registered voters; the pro-slavery candidate won the election. In 1855, another election was held. Although there were only 2,905 registered voters in Kansas, well over 6,000 votes were cast that day. The pro-slavery voters won (only 791 votes against slavery were cast). Shortly thereafter, the state legislature made slavery legal and wrote a set of laws regulating slavery.

Northerners were outraged by the results; they called the elections a fraud and the new slave laws “bogus laws.” Free-Soilers and Abolitionists set up their own anti-slavery legislature in Kansas and wrote their own state constitution which made slavery illegal. The rest of the nation was stunned that Kansas now had two rival state governments. (President Franklin Pierce, officially recognize the pro-slavery government.)

The struggle between pro-slavery settlers and Free-Soilers to control the territory erupted into violence. Pro-slavery settlers attacked Free-Soil towns with everything from rifles to pitchforks, calling them “negro thieves” and “abolitionist tyrants.” (Most Free-Soilers were not abolitionists—they just did not want to have to compete economically with slaves, who worked for free. They were happy to accept slavery, just not on their doorstep.) Ignorance and anger caused the violence, and Free-Soilers were quick to get revenge, attacking pro-slavery towns. People on both sides of the conflict, as well as innocent bystanders, were kidnapped, tarred and feathered, and killed. Countless homes and businesses were damaged or even burned to the ground. The violence and struggle for control became known as Bleeding Kansas. By the time the conflict ended in 1856, at least 55 people had died.

Even the “civilized” East was not spared from the violence. On the floor of the Senate, Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator, gave a fiery speech accusing southerners of contributing to the violence in Kansas and hanging around with “the harlot, Slavery.” Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina was outraged that Sumner had named his uncle as one of the troublemakers, and he savagely beat Senator Sumner into unconsciousness with his cane. Sumner was hospitalized for several months. This incident, known as Bleeding Sumner, was widely publicized throughout America, and was seen as a moral victory for opponents of slavery.


  1. Who were Free-Soilers?

  1. What was the conflict in Kansas & Nebraska about? Be specific.

  1. Who should be blamed for Bleeding Kansas? Justify your answer.

  1. Why do you think Abolitionists thought that Bleeding Sumner was a victory for them? Explain your answer.

Part V: Politics & Sectionalism
By the 1850s, sectionalism was the most influential force in American politics. Earlier in the 19th century, the Democrats and Whigs were the dominant political parties. As slavery became a more controversial issue, voters who were against slavery left the Democratic Party, and by the 1850s it was primarily a Southern, pro-slavery party. Its opposition, the Whigs, were weakened by internal dissent and disagreements over slavery. A new group, the Republican Party, emerged in 1854 in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Anti-slavery Whigs joined the Republicans, and the new party quickly grew to replace the Whigs as the major opponents to the Democrats. They included vehemently anti-slavery abolitionists as well as moderates. Prominent Republicans included John Fremont and Abraham Lincoln.

The differences between these two groups mounted throughout the 1850s, and several key events increased the conflict even more. The first event was a Supreme Court case involving an African American man named Dred Scott (picture on the right) who sued his master for his freedom. Scott had been born into slavery and had worked for several different masters. In 1836, Scott’s master, Dr. John Emerson, took him to a military fort in Wisconsin where they lived for several years. While in Wisconsin, Scott married another slave, Harriet Robinson, in a formal wedding ceremony. After several years, he was taken back to the South with his wife. When Dr. Emerson died, his widow tried to hire out him to work for another employer, Dred Scott became determined to gain his freedom. He offered to buy freedom for his family for $300, but Mrs. Emerson refused, so in 1847, Dred Scott sued her for his freedom on two different grounds. First of all, he had lived in a free territory where slavery was not permitted for several years. Secondly, he was married in a formal ceremony, which was not permitted for slaves—only free people could enter into a legal contract such as marriage. In the first court case, Scott lost on technical grounds—he could not prove that Mrs. Emerson owned him. He appealed the case in 1850 and the Circuit Court in St. Louis found that he was indeed free. His owner appealed this decision and it reached the Supreme Court in 1857, where the court led by pro-slavery Chief Justice Robert Taney decided that not only was Dred Scott still a slave, but that black people cannot be American citizens. African Americans, abolitionists, and supporters of free blacks’ rights were outraged. Lawyers and judges throughout the country also questioned the logic of Taney’s argument and felt that his decision in the Dred Scott Case was more about politics than about the law. Controversy boiled over and many Americans of all races refused to accept that African Americans—free or enslaved—had no rights.

Another divisive event was John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. John Brown was a fiery abolitionist who believed that God wanted all the slaves to be freed by any means—even violence. Brown and his sons had participated in the violence of Bleeding Kansas, and were unhappy that the issue of slavery had still not been resolved. In 1859, they made a plan to lead a group of black and white abolitionists—including John Brown’s sons—to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia to steal weapons and ammunition. After they had the weapons, they were going to free local slaves and distribute them to freed slaves. This armed rebellion, they hoped, would end slavery quickly.

I believe that to have interfered as I have done -- as I have always freely admitted I have done -- in behalf of His [despised] poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. -- I submit; so let it be done!
The raid on Harpers Ferry did not turn out the way they had planned. Many of the men who had volunteered for his “army” backed out at the last minute. When they got to Harpers Ferry, they hoped that local slaves would join their cause; none did. The local militia cornered John Brown and his men in the armory, and when one of Brown’s sons came out with a white flag to negotiate with the militia, he was shot and killed. When word of the rebellion got to President James Buchanan, he ordered the Marines to Harpers Ferry to stop Brown’s men. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including both of Brown’s sons) and the rest—many of whom were seriously injured—were arrested. They were quickly put on trial and found guilty of treason—a crime punishable by death. He justified his actions to the court:

After he was found guilty, many abolitionists and northerners sympathetic to the cause were moved that a man was so opposed to slavery for religious reasons that he was willing to die for it. Even people who had not previously been abolitionists had their minds changed by his actions, and many considered John Brown a hero. Southerners felt very differently about Brown. They felt he was an insane zealot who attacked an innocent town and tried incite a violent slave rebellion—a crime worthy of the death penalty. The execution of John Brown in Charlestown, Virginia was attended by a huge crowd who shouted “So shall perish all enemies of Virginia!” when he was killed. In the North, church bells tolled to mourn his death and sympathetic poets immortalized him at a martyr for freedom.

“A House divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it… or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the states...
In 1860, the political controversy widened when a moderate Republican from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln (picture on the left), was elected president. Many historians debate about Abraham Lincoln’s true feelings about slavery and race, but he never considered himself an abolitionist, although many Republicans were at the time. Above all, his main priority was keeping the United States intact and doing what was best for the whole country. He also wanted to increase settlement in the West and stop slavery from spreading any further. Campaign speeches such as this one from a Republican Convention in Illinois made many Southerners nervous:
There were four major candidates in the 1860 election, but it wound up almost like two separate elections: the North and the South. In the North, Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A Douglas, a Northern Democrat, fought for votes. Southern voters chose between their two main candidates: John Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat, and John Bell, a former Whig and member of the Constitutional Union Party. Although they had the option to vote for all four candidates, voters’ choices were split along geographic lines (see map below).

When all the votes were counted and Lincoln was declared the new president of the United States, Southerners were outraged. In January 1861, South Carolina’s state legislature voted to secede from the union—or leave the United States. By the time Abraham Lincoln was formally inaugurated as president of the United States, eleven Southern states had seceded.


  1. Why did Dred Scott think he should be freed? What did the Supreme Court decide?

  1. Why was the Dred Scott case controversial?

  1. What did John Brown attempt to do in 1857? Was he successful?

  1. Read the quote by John Brown on page 17. How does he justify his action?

  1. Some people think John Brown is a hero, while other people think he was an insane criminal. How do you think he should be remembered? Explain your answer.

  1. Read the quote by Lincoln on page 18. Put this quote in your own words.

  1. Why do you think Lincoln’s speech (page 18) made Southerners nervous?

  1. How did sectionalism impact the election of 1860?

  1. Look at the election map on page 18. Why do you think Southerners were upset by the results of the election?

Part VI: Secession & War
In January 1861, eleven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America (CSA). These Confederate States were Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. (Several slaveholding states—Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maryland—remained in the United States and became known as the border states.) They had a strong military since West Point—America’s top military training facility—is in the South. They formed their own government, modeled after the US government, and Jefferson Davis became the president of the seceded Confederate States.

The idea of secession was not new in the 1860s—fiercely pro-Southern politicians called Fire-Eaters had been threatening to leave the United States for almost a decade. Arguments for secession were fairly clear. The South had a strong economy based on slavery and could be fairly successful on its own. (The value of all the slaves in the South and the crops they produced each year was worth far more than all of the North’s manufacturing and agriculture combined.) The South felt it also had a legal basis for secession: if the government was not respecting their property rights and not respecting state laws regarding slavery, they could get a new government that would uphold their rights.

Throughout the 1850s, many southerners were still wary. What if the North declared war on the South after they seceded? The South did not have the manufacturing resources to produce the guns, ammunition and ships to fight a war—the overwhelming majority of manufacturing took place in the North. Many Southerners hoped that England would help them, because they relied on cotton from the South to support their profitable textile industry. The idea that England would have to ally with the South because of its economic relationship was known as King Cotton Diplomacy. In 1861, a delegation from the Confederate States of America went to England to ask the British government to formally recognize the CSA and to support them. The British refused them; the Confederate government was devastated, but did not give up hope that the British would change their mind.

The first military engagement between the United States and Confederate States occurred at Fort Sumter, on an island in Charleston harbor. Fort Sumter had been there for years and by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 4, 1861, this was one of only four forts in the South that were still under the US’s control. In early March 1861, the commander of Fort Sumter sent a message to Lincoln that Confederate troops had surrounded the fort and were not letting supplies in. President Lincoln’s faced a difficult decision. If they did nothing, the troops would starve or be forced to surrender to the Confederates. This was not an option, because surrendering the fort would basically be admitting that the CSA was a legitimate country who had a right to that territory. But if Lincoln ordered them to attack and try to break the siege, the action might ignite a war. Ultimately Lincoln decided to send a shipment of food and supplies to Fort Sumter. The ball was now in Jefferson Davis’s court. He ordered his troops to attack the shipment of supplies, prompting the troops at Fort Sumter to retaliate. After a heavy attack by Southern troops, the already weakened men at Fort Sumter surrendered and the South Carolinians captured the fort. This was the first battle of the American Civil War.

For President Lincoln, the Confederate States of America were not a legitimate nation, because they had no right to leave the United States. They were in a state of “rebellion” rather than a war, which was something fought between two countries. His first and foremost goal was always to preserve the Union, even if it meant a bloody conflict. For the next four years, Americans killed fellow Americans in the most deadly war in America history.

  1. What were the Confederate States of America? How were they created?

  1. When did the idea of secession come up? When did the South actually secede?

  1. What was King Cotton Diplomacy?

  1. Why do you think the British didn’t want to help the South?

  1. What happened at Fort Sumter?

  1. What message do you think Lincoln was trying to send to the Confederates by sending supplies to the fort?

Remember what caused it all:

Slavery + Sectionalism  Secession  Civil War

Slavery and sectionalism increased tension between the North and the South. Compromises failed to resolve the conflict and national politics increased sectionalism, so the South seceded. President Lincoln refused to let the United States break up, so the United States declared war to keep the country together.

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