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American Civil War

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There was never any moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent — It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention.
—John Jay Chapman[1]

The American Civil War (alternatively known as the "War of Secession," "The War Between the States," and to the uneducated/undereducated/alternatively educated, "The War of Northern Aggression") was a war fought between the Northern and Southern parts of the United States from 1861 to 1865.

After South Carolina received word of the election of Abraham Lincoln, it issued its declaration of independence from the Union, and a further six states followed before Lincoln took office. By 1862, eleven southern states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. The four slave-owning states with a population that was less than 25% slave[2] (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) did not secede, and remained in the Union. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, which was garrisoned by Union troops, effectively beginning the war.

More American soldiers died in the American Civil War than any other in the nation's history, and it remains the most recent war fought on American soil. An estimated 750,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians (potentially as high as 2% of the nation's population) died during the war, and numerous large cities (Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia (South Carolina), Richmond, Montgomery, and others) were completely destroyed. The war was devastating and many places in the South took decades to recover (Atlanta had arguably not fully recovered until 1996).

Like the Korean War, this Civil War isn't over — only suspended.

Causes of the war[edit]

The causes of the American Civil War have been extensively debated since the war's end in 1865, commonly by people trying their best to claim that the causes of secession were anything other than those the Confederates were claiming at the time:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
—Declaration of the Causes of Secession for Mississippi sentences 2-6[3]

An area of historical debate is found around whether or not the war was preventable. Some historians argue that the differences were too great between the two regions to be resolved by any other means than war; some believe that the war was avoidable, but fire-eaters in the South and abolitionists in the North arguably exacerbated the conflict. Still others think that the war should be blamed on "bumbling politicians," incapable of such compromises as "great" politicians like Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun[4] had accomplished.

Historians are divided on the extent to which economic issues, like the conflict over the tariff, and political issues, such as the debate between the "compact" versus "contract" theories of government, factored into the split. There's even a school of historiography that holds that on the eve of the war, the North and South were not just different economic regions, but were two distinct civilizations, both trying to exist in one government.


The institution of slavery is at the core of the origins of the war. However, the historical view that the North and South fought the war over the moral issue of slavery has been disputed. Instead, slavery as a cause manifests itself in different ways, for example, the expansion of slavery into the territories, which the North opposed more for economic reasons than moral reasons. In addition, the protectionist tariffs that the North wanted made industrial machinery and finished products more expensive, which was good for Northern industries with free ("free" meaning "not slave") labor, but bad for the South with its infinite supply of cheap slave labor.

The expansion of slavery into the territories, coupled with the westward movement of the United States border, were key concerns. A desire to maintain the political dominance of pro-slavery interests was largely to blame for Southern support for the Texas RevolutionWikipedia's W.svg and its aftermath, the annexation of Texas. This in turn led to the Mexican-American War. The war with Mexico was supported or opposed on partisan party lines, with the Democrats largely in favor and the Whigs opposed.

The Confederates feared the western expansion of the United States into territories in the Great Plains and mountain West, seeing that these areas, with vast wilderness areas and occupied by hostile Native Americans, were poorly suited for the expansion of plantation slavery as it existed in the cotton, tobacco, and sugar plantations of the Deep South. In addition to the war with Mexico, the southern United States gave rise to a group of "filibusters"Wikipedia's W.svg, adventurers who sought to stir up trouble in Latin America in hopes of encouraging American expansion into tropical country in which plantation slavery could prosper.[5][6]

Today, many neo-Confederates deny that the issue of slavery was the primary motivation for the war, calling it the "War of Northern Aggression" or similar names to try and frame it as an issue of the federal government encroaching on the glorious states' rights, and also forgetting that it was the Confederacy who started shooting first. It is also important to mention that it is not just the system of slavery that the Confederate States were interested in protecting, but also the status of blacks in the social hierarchy as being lower than whites (which isn't to say that Northerners were all that enlightened at the time either). There were additional fears of miscegenation on both sides, but the South was especially worried that the policies of the North would eventually lead to (gasp!) race mixing.[7]

A huge source of evidence for the importance of not just slavery as the central cause, but the position of black individuals in society itself, can be found in contemporary documents. The various Declarations of Causes of Secession heavily reference slavery and the position of blacks as inferior as causes of secession, with almost no references to the elusive concept of "states' rights" that aren't explicitly tied to these issues.[8] Further evidence of this claim can be found in the words of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy in 1861, who in his Cornerstone Speech said,

Our new government [...] its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.[9]

As the war drew to a conclusion, the Confederacy became desperate, but it wasn't until March 13, 1865 (less than a month before Lee surrendered at Appomattox and less than two months before Jefferson Davis was captured) that the Confederacy passed General Order 14, authorizing the creation of all-black companies.[10] This was highly controversial, passing by a margin of 40 to 37 in the House and 9 to 8 in the Senate,[11] and led to the recruitment of a total of about fifty black soldiers.[12]

In order to try to "prove" that there were Black Confederate soldiers, there's a doctored image that can be found claiming to be the 1st Louisiana Native Guard; it has been carefully cropped to remove the Union officer on the far left.[13][14] This is especially ironic as there really was a Confederate 1st Louisiana Native Guard - until the state of Louisiana passed a law in January 1862 saying the militia should be made up of free white males only[15] There was subsequently a Union 1st Louisiana Native Guard that saw combat and was treated very badly by its commanding officers.

This isn't to say that no black people served as soldiers for the Confederacy (despite it being illegal); the Black Confederate Soldiers website has identified about 200 during the entire war.[16] Of these, fewer than 20 are identified as privates (the rest having non-combat roles such as cook, musician, and servant) and it is not certain that even the privates had combat roles. Some assuredly did fight - such as John Parker, a slave who was forced to fire a cannon at Bull Run.[17]

There are four common pieces of evidence used to foster the claim that there were black soldiers in the Confederacy. Firstly a statement made by Frederick Douglass to this effect who was miles away from the front lines, with no firsthand evidence, and lobbying to try to have the Union create black regiments. Secondly the New York Herald reported that: "... after the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, ...reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers..." Seven. In the pivotal battle of the war. Thirdly the census report that there were in 1890 over 3000 black Confederate Veterans. It is known that some Confederates took slaves with them as servants; this group may quite legitimately have considered themselves veterans, especially as more than one in four Confederate soldiers who volunteered in 1861 lived with parents who owned slaves.[18] Finally there are photographs like the previously mentioned doctored photo of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard (which cuts out the Union officer). It's also pointed out that unlike the Union the Confederacy didn't have a separate pay scale for black soldiers, and therefore was less racist. Or didn't allow black soldiers to fight at all, one of the two.

Howard Zinn's perspective[edit]

The Northern powers that be totally not taking action on abolition!

The idea that slavery was not the primary driving force behind the war is not unique to neo-Confederates; it was also advanced by Howard Zinn in his A People's History of the United States, as part of his argument that the effect of the Civil War was to replace chattel slavery with wage slavery.

Zinn, like the neo-Confederates, argued that the war was one of Northern aggression and had the aim of removing the antebellum Southern elite; namely, that when industrial interests in the North wanted to industrialize the South, the slave-holding elite resisted by causing mass secessions from the Union, after which "Lincoln initiated hostilities" against them.[19] (Like, not withdrawing troops from Fort Sumter quickly enough to suit the South Carolinians, presumably.)

Zinn further argued that slavery was used only as a rhetorical fig leaf to cover this agenda, with the Union only taking action against slavery when their hand was forced: "It was only as the war grew more bitter, the casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered coalition behind Lincoln that he began to act against slavery."[19]

This can immediately be countered by simply reading the map to your right and Lincoln's own words: he was already having anti-slavery sentiments as early as the 1830s[20] and he wasn't particularly enamoured with "capitalists" that "fleeced the people."[21]

States' rights[edit]

A state's right to what, sir?
—John Green, quoting his high school teacher[22]

A commonly cited cause of secession and the American Civil War is "states' rights". This is normally framed as the Confederate states being in favor of states' rights; however, when the declarations of secession are looked at only two matters directly relevant to states' rights are mentioned as grievances. The first is the Fugitive Slave LawWikipedia's W.svg that allowed black people to be kidnapped from a free state and returned to their "owners" in a slave state whatever the law of the individual state said. This was important because it was unenforced due to state nullification, which South Carolina had been denied in 1828 following the Tariff of Abominations.[23] Because nullification was allowed to northern states while being denied to southern states. Lincoln ran on a high tariff platform to return to a similar tariff (the Morrill Tariff[24]) which, combined with selective allowance of nullification, constituted a clear denial of states' rights to nullify. The second was the Dred Scott decision which held that black people could not be citizens and could not bring suit in federal court, and furthermore that it was unconstitutional for slavery to be banned in federal territories. A comparison between the Constitution of the Confederacy and the Constitution of the United States also shows that the substantive changes made in the Confederate constitution took rights away from the states; the right to decide who had the vote, the right to set import tariffs to protect industries, the right to not have the government impose a tariff on one state in specific, and, significantly, the right to make slavery illegal.[25] That said, it did grant states immunity from being sued by foreigners.


—General William Techumseh Sherman to Georgia.[26] Quite possibly the greatest act of schadenfreude in American history.

The American Civil War turned out to be one of the most bloody wars the world had ever seen. New technology was teamed up with old tactics, leading to a greatly increased casualty rate.[27] Despite the greater lethality of the weapons involved, particularly the artillery (aided by the widespread availability of long-range rifles), most battles were still fought by lines of men facing each other across a field. Also the large, unjacketed soft lead bullets fired by the rifles caused terrible damage to human bodies, making the war famous for the large number of amputations performed (although contrary to popular belief, many of these amputations were performed under anesthesia, at least in the well-supplied Union army[28]).

The American Civil War would also prove to be the last American war in which horse-mounted cavalry played a significant role. The Southern cavalry in particular were rather effective skirmishers, and would often attempt to disrupt supply lines for the North.

Much has been made about the South's alleged superiority during the first half of the war, with the implication that the South was the downtrodden underdog. Most commentators fail to understand how, with the South's natural advantages going into the war, it all played out about how you'd expect. Among other things, having a large number of unenthusiastic workers spread across the land meant the landed gentry of the South were possessed of an all-encompassing paranoia about the possibility of slave revolts, and much like the Spartans before them, devoted significant energy to ensuring they didn't have to do manual labor themselves. Thus they entered the war with a large, well trained militia force that was able to convert to a main force relatively quickly and effectively. Once the North was able to bring its vastly superior manpower and economic resources to bear, the inevitable followed.

In the end, due to both greater industrial power and better political leadership, the North managed to grind down the Southern forces. The North, towards the end of the war, had installed generals who understood the nature of total war, exemplified by Sherman's "March to the Sea."

Part of the settlement was that the South had to give up slavery and accept military occupation for a length of time. By the end of the war, due to both the hardships of the war and some of the scorched earth tactics practiced by the Northern military, many in the South were willing to accept these conditions, and Reconstruction began.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  2. Data from the 1860 Census
  3. of Causes of Seceding States for Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas
  4. who was not actually great at all
  5. The Filibuster Movement, The History Detectives, PBS.
  6. Territorial Expansion, Filibustering, and U.S. Interest in Central America and Cuba, 1849–1861, Office of the Historian, U.S. State Dept.
  7. See also the mythos of the black brute.
  8. Declaration of Causes of Seceding States
  9. Cornerstone Speech
  12. The Myth of the Black Confederate - Washington Post
  13. [1]
  14. Black in Grey - Did African Americans fight for the Confederacy
  15. The law in question
  16. Soldier records for black confederates
  17. Slavery and Freedom at Bull Run - NYTimes blogs
  18. Small Truth Papering Over a Big Lie - Ta-Nehisi Coates
  19. 19.0 19.1 A People's History of the United States, 2nd ed., vol. II, p.15.
  20. Age 28
  21. Speech in the Illinois Legislature Concerning the State Bank
  23. [2]
  25. Side by side comparison of the Confederate Constitution with that of the United States of America
  26. Facebook History of the World(borked link!)
  27. It is often said that more Americans died in the Civil War than all other American wars put together. See United States military casualties of warWikipedia's W.svg for the detailed numbers.
  28. Anesthesia Advances During the Civil War, Laura Cutter Tim Clarke, Jr., Military Medicine, Volume 179, Issue 12, December 2014, Page 1503,