The Spirit Behind the Civil War

This was my final essay for History of the United States. I absolutely loved delving into the topic of the Civil War–yes, I, who have always hated History classes! What made this class different was the way in which it was taught. Our teacher did use any exams or quizzes; we were graded solely on the assessments of our written work (essays and discussion posts).

I now present to you what turned out to be my favorite essay of the school term! (Note: The maximum word count for this assignment was 1,200 words. When I wrote my first draft, I think I had around 1,670 words. It took me three days to bring it down to 1,200. There is a LOT of information that I wish I could have included.)

Civil War Battle of Antietam image from the Library of Congress
It is the spring of 1865. The Civil War is over; the South has surrendered. Both the loyal and rebel dead and wounded can be numbered by the thousands. A great and wise leader has been assassinated. A divided North battles over how to reinstate the rebel states into the Union. The Ku Klux Klan wreaks terror in the South, while the northern Union League clubs rage a campaign to promote Republicanism. The former slaves for whom the Civil War was supposedly waged are caught in the fray—freed from the bondage of slavery, but not from the outrages of oppression and racism. These and other postwar conditions will make better sense after examining the events leading up to the Civil War, as well as the evolving goals and expectations of both the North and South during the five-year war period.

First, let’s skim through the events preceding the Civil War. The South relied upon slavery for its economic production of cotton and other plantation crops. Despite the fact that the Industrial Revolution removed the North’s dependence on slavery in the early 1800’s, real tension did not mount between the North and South until the 1846 War with Mexico. History teacher Riker-Coleman explains that the newly acquired western lands forced Congress to debate whether slavery should be allowed to spread (“The Train Wreck of the 1850’s” 12). Southerners believed that “[t]he territories… belonged to all the states, and the federal government could do nothing to limit the spread of slavery there” (Calhoun qtd. in Norton et al. 395-396). On the other hand, the North wanted to keep the land open for their own economic pursuits. “The vast majority of white northerners were not active abolitionists, and their desire to keep the West free from slavery was often matched by their desire to keep blacks from settling there” (Ibid 396). Lincoln made it very clear in 1854 that the “‘best use’” of the Territories was as “‘homes of free white people’” (qtd. in ibid 414). Thus, when Lincoln was voted in as president in the 1860 election, South Carolina took the lead and seceded from the Union, quickly followed by the most of the other slave states. The rebels joined together to form the Confederate States of America under the leadership of Jefferson Davis. In 1861 the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter as a way of defying Lincoln’s authority over them, and the Civil War began.

Now let’s take a look at the goals and expectations of the two parties, beginning with the North. Although Lincoln personally believed that slavery should be abolished, he felt it wise to keep his personal convictions and his political actions separate. So the North entered the Civil War simply to restore the South to the Union. History professor McPherson explains why the North placed so much importance upon the Union: “[I]f secession were allowed to succeed, it would set a fatal precedent by which the minority could secede whenever it did not like what the majority stood for” (in Major Problems 429). At first, abolishing slavery was not part of the North’s plans, due to the fact that there was still a couple of slave states that had not seceded from the Union “whose loyalty was tenuous” (Norton et al. 441). “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…” (Lincoln qtd. in ibid 443). Lincoln encouraged the slave states to issue their own emancipations, hoping the war would be short-lived. However, it became apparent that the South had no intentions of giving up easily. Norton et al. explains that “Lincoln made the destruction of slavery central to the war’s purpose” after he realized that the South was going to engage all their available resources and mobilize all possible civilians—including blacks—in what was known as “total war” (Ibid 444). By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but only applying it to the states that were in rebellion, Lincoln also overcame the obstacle of retaining the loyalty of the Union slave states. Thus, the North’s goal of preserving the Union was altered slightly to include the emancipation of the slaves as a political means to an end. “[F]reeing the slaves evolved from a side effect of the war to restore the Union to a weapon in the hands of the Union to effect the restoration of the Union” (Riker-Coleman, “Reconstruction…” 3).

Next let’s examine the goals and expectations of the South. Rooted in Jacksonian Democracy, southern culture emphasized a plantation farming economy and a strong local government. Their primary goal was to obtain independence from the federal government in order protect the institution and spread of slavery. Because slaves were considered to be property, the southerners felt they had a right to appeal to the Constitution for the protection of this institution. “Davis told southerners they were fighting for constitutional liberty: northerners had betrayed the founders’ legacy, and southerners had seceded to preserve it” (Norton et al. 441). Yet as the bloody war dragged on and on, the South began to lower their expectations.  “Late in the war, Jefferson Davis himself was willing to sacrifice slavery to achieve independence” (Ibid 445). Indeed, quite ironically, “[a] society based on slavery ultimately considered arming slaves to fight in the Confederate army” (Hoffman, Blum, and Gjerde in Major Problems 415). The South originally held high hopes of creating a better governing system based upon states’ rights, white supremacy, and a plantation farming economy. Yet, as the war progressed, the South soon realized that they would need to settle for simply keeping the North at bay… which proved to be impossible.

In review, the North originally fought only for the preservation of the Union but quickly realized that abolition was the key. The South initially wanted to preserve and spread slavery but later would have been happy to simply maintain separation from the North. Yet even after the North gained the victory, tensions ran high between her and her southern counterparts. While the causes for all this turmoil have been widely debated, I believe that the key issue was deeper than just slavery, economics, or states’ rights. The North’s motivations for entering the Civil War were almost entirely political, and generally did not (as I used to think) stem from empathy for slaves themselves. The South, too, was willing to justify slavery in order to maintain an elite class and economic prosperity. This same push for personal and political agendas can be found again in the postwar scene. For example, black suffrage was granted in the South because blacks would be able to tip the scales back in favor of northern Republicanism, but “[s]ignificantly, Republicans stopped short of supporting black suffrage in the North” (Norton et al. 482). Furthermore, by 1877, white Americans were willing to abandon the Reconstruction, finding that “[c]oncern for the human rights of African Americans and other reforms frequently had less appeal than moneymaking in an individualistic, industrializing society” (Ibid 496). I believe that it was these kinds of selfish, political motives that were the ultimate cause of the Civil War and effecter of postwar conditions.

Works Cited

Major Problems in American History. Volume I: To 1877. 3rd ed. Ed. Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs, Edward J. Blum, and Jon Gjerde. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People & a Nation. 9th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

Riker-Coleman, Erik. “Reconstruction, or, the War after the War.” Desire 2 Learn. Inver Hills Community College. n.d. Lecture notes. 9 December 2013. []

Riker-Coleman, Erik. “The Train Wreck of the 1850s.” Desire 2 Learn. Inver Hills Community College. n.d. Lecture notes. 18 November 2013. []


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