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An Overview of The Civil War

The Civil War (1861 - 1865) took more American lives than any other war in history. It so divided the people of our nation that in some families brother fought against brother. It is often said that war is hell, but civil war must surely be the most brutal kind of hell, where people with so much in common - family ties, geography, history, language - become so bitterly divided that they killed each other. What causes and emotions led to this bloody battle that was responsible for a war that pitted brother against brother? To try and understand what the emotions of the North and South were before and during the Civil War we need to look at some important factors and secondary issues that eventually led to the war.

The Civil War is far too large to blame on a few simple factors. Leading to the causes of the war were a number of factors, one of the largest, slavery, in the Southern States. Slavery had caused a great division in our country by the 1850's. It had a direct effect upon the economy of the South. The South, which was mainly agricultural, depended upon slave labor to run its large plantations where cotton was grown. Cotton produced most of the South's wealth. The Southern States felt it was important to preserve slavery which was their agricultural way of life and which they depended upon. The Southerners were indignant and disturbed by the threat of totally changing their economic system and they did not like being told they were morally wrong. Not only was slavery an important factor in starting the Civil War but also the Southern States had different view points on important issues such as states' rights and property rights. The number one goal of the South was the preservation of their main source of capital: cotton and slaves.

At the same time, the North was turning more and more to manufacturing. The Northern States were dedicated to a more modern way of living (industrialization). The work in these factories was done mainly by immigrants. Immigrants settled in the larger cities of the North where they could find jobs. Because of this the Northern cities grew even larger. The Northerners began to believe that the slavery system was an evil institution that needed to be phased out, many Southerners perceived the industrialized North, with its factories and wage laborers, as a form of incivility. Like the Southern States, the Northern States also had different view points on states' rights and property rights.

While antislavery views grew steadily in northern Christian churches and Quaker meeting houses, it was not until 1819 that Missouri sought to enter the United States as a slave state. This caused the slavery debate to become suddenly more heated. The North wanted to preserve the balance between the number of slaves and free states, so a temporary compromise was reached with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In this legislation, Congress accepted Missouri as a slave state, added Maine as a free state and established a line at the Louisiana Purchase allowing slavery to exist south of the line, but not north of it. This settled the slavery issue temporarily.

The South continually feared that the North would abolish slavery, and the North was afraid it would spread westward into the newly established states. Soon, anti-slavery leaders were becoming active and loud. By the 1830's the abolitionist movement to end slavery was a visible force in the North. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were just a few of the courageous activists who advocated for slave emancipation. Another important abolitionist was John Brown, who with his militaristic abolitionist views started a small revolt in Harpers Ferry, where he was soon tried and hanged for treason. Although a failure throughout his life, his success was in his dying which sparked new disturbance and violence over slavery. Other's with Brown's cause took up the torch and lit the fire for a country split . Also during this time a relatively unknown writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, dramatized the plight of the slave in a way that captured the sympathies of many people. Her book Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 portrayed not only how slavery brutalized the men and women who had to endure it, but also how the institution of slavery affected slaveholders. Stowe personalized the experience and effects of slavery and convinced many Americans that slavery was morally wrong.

Not only was the South becoming increasingly agitated by the threats of their way of life, the issue of slavery expansion erupted again in 1854, when Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed a bill through Congress establishing two new territories - Kansas and Nebraska - and applied them both to the principle of popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in effect voided the prohibition of slavery in this region held by the Missouri Compromise. This act produced a wave of protest in the North that included a new organization of the Republican Party, which strongly opposed the expansion of slavery.

During the mid 1800's, the United States government took an aggressive plan to industrialize the nation, and created numerous government sponsored programs. Although good in intentions, this gave rise to a number of new problems in the government. These programs frequently infringed upon the right's of the state. Thus this new industrialization was quickly rejected by those unfavorable to the new federalization. Understandably, this program can be interpreted as an unmistakably terrible program. If given unchecked expansion, many felt it could lead to an all powerful dictatorship, limiting any democratic intervention at all. Nor did it help matters that the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election through electoral college votes and not by popular votes. This helped ignite the Civil War.

Near the beginning of the war 11 states seceded and formed the Confederate States of American: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. These states, spurred by the election of Abraham Lincoln, who won with only 40% of the vote, and the threat of the abolishment of slavery and infringement on states' rights, seceded from the Union and established the Confederate States of America, led by Jefferson Davis. Their secession marked the dissolving of the Union and the beginning of the Civil War. Soon after the secession, disputes over federal or state property began. This ultimately led to the first battle of the war.

The Civil War started on April 12, 1861, when Southern troops under General Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter, a Federal military post in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. The Union defenders surrendered the post to the rebels. President Lincoln then issued a call for troops. The battle at Fort Sumter was neither a strategic location nor a deciding battle, but it did start what was to be the United States worst war and one of the bloodiest in our history. The fall of Fort Sumter enraged the North and inspired the South. Now the full momentum of the war had started. To this point the war had become a war of fighting and not a war of cause. Few realized the prospect of the war and the terrible truth it presented to the nation.

After over 500,000 casualties and four years later it was finally over. Although the war was over, only half of the challenge had been met. Reconstruction began and slowly the Northern and Southern States had to figure out how to get along with each other.

By: Kim C. Floyd

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