American Civil War Essay

American Civil War

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During the years 1861-1865 United States witnessed one of the severest straddle between North and South, which turned out to be the greatest civil wear in history. The war was precipitated by the decision of a number of states of South to secede from the Union and ended in the defeat of the South and the preservation of the Union. It also resulted in the abolition of the slavery and acceleration of the economic development of the country.

Sectional rivalry between North and the South was one of the most important issues faced by America after the Mexican war. As a result of the Mexican war certain territories were acquired in the South-west. Even these territories had been acquired, David Wilmot, a Congressman from Pennsylvania had proposed in 1846 that slavery should be excluded from any territory that might be acquired from Mexico. Although this proposal of Wilmot was not passed by Congress, it provoked bitter controversy regarding extension slavery o new territories. Thus the territorial acquisition of the 1840s sharpened the sectional conflict between North and the South and ultimately resulted in the civil war. (Muzzey, 439-443)

However, certain writers hold the view that this is an oversimplication of the issue. No doubt the controversy between North and the South over the question of slavery was one of the causes of the tension between the two sections, in reality the real cause of conflict was the different ways of living and the ideals which were profession by the two parts.

            North at that time was consisted of 16 states[1] with a population of 13, 000, 00 which was growing fast due to large immigration. These Northern States were on the whole industrialized. Particularly the states of the Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts had surpassed all other States in industrialization. American’s chief explored deposits of coal and iron were also located in the Northern States. The protective tariffs and railroads enabled the manufacturers of the North to capture ever-growing home markets. (Parkes, 234-235)

            Apart from business and industry, North had also made progress in the field of education. Not only the two important universities of Harvard and Yale were located in the North, even other states of North were establishing their own universities. In the field of primary education, North had made arrangements for free elementary education. The wealthy capitalists of the North were also controlling the politics and policy making.

            South on the other hand consisted of states[2] that had given slavery a legal status. The states of the South were agricultural and had captures the cash-crop markets. Nature has bestowed South with one of the most finest cotton growing industries and its production increased tremendously during the year 1840 to 1860. This was made by consistent efforts of the South to find new lands for better cotton crops as well as the exploitations of the slave labor.

            The political power and the economy of the south were controlled by about 8,000 white planters who exploited the lands with the help of slaves. Psychologically, these White Planters considered themselves as the rulers of small kingdoms and considered the slaves as their subjects. So these economic motives and psychological built-up prevented South to abolish slavery. Instead it impeded and hampered all the efforts and endeavors of the North to abolish slavery. Consequently, when North adopted the anti-slavery posture in 1850s, it provoked great suspicion and distrust in the South.

            Earlier in 1819 when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave State, a lot of heat was generated between the two sides over the slavery issue. Tallmadge, a Congressman from New York, proposed that all the children of slaves on Missouri should be freed on reaching the age of twenty five and further impositions of slave be forbidden. This provoked violent out-cry in the South. A new complication arose when Maine asked to be separated from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state. Ultimately a compromise was found and both states were admitted to the Union. The problem of slavery was temporarily solved by prohibiting slavery to the North of the parallel 360 30, line running west from the Southern boundary of Missouri. (Forman, 374 & McPherson, 52-60)

Although Missouri compromise was operational and prevented any future clash but soon other factors arose that set an impetus for a conflict. For example after discovery of Gold in California there was a mad Gold Rush which brought thousands of men to California. This changes the demographical and topographical characteristics of the state. The inhabitants of the California drew up a new constitution for their states and applied for admission to Union as a free states. This infuriated the South and they started talking of secession from the Union. This situation was saved by Henry Clay who arranged the great inter-sectional compromise.

            In 1857 economic crisis overtook United States because of inflated currency, speculation of land and rail-roads etc. this gave rise to unemployment. The North was hit harder than the South, which managed to come out of the storm because of favorable cotton process abroad. According to Prof. Bailey, “The panic seemed to provide further proof to the South that Cotton was king, and that his economic kingdom was stronger than that of the North. This fatal delusion helped drive the overconfident Southerners closer to a shotting showdown.”  (402-403) The panic of 1857 also simulated a demand for higher tariff rates and increased protections. The Southerners were however opposed to protective tariffs because this made them pay more for the manufactured goods without in any way benefiting them. This further prompted the sectional divide and set a background for civil war.

            Emergence of Lincoln was the most important factor that gave a new turn to the sectional conflict. Lincoln’s views on slavery were well known. While accepting nomination for Senate, Lincoln had declared in his speech; “this government can not endure permanently half-slave and half free”[3] (Barrett, 160) he further said that agitation would continue “until a crisis has been reached and passed”. As the Southern States had already threatened secession if Lincoln was elected President, they immediately proceeded in this direction. The first step was taken by South Carolina when within four days of Lincoln’s election, her legislature voted unanimously to summon a special convention. This convention met at Charleston in December 1860 and unanimously voted to secede. During the next six week six other states followed South Carolina.

            Various interpretations have been given regarding the causes of civil war. However, it may be pointed out that no war is produced by any single factor or action but it originates from a combination of numerous factors. Some of these factors precede the war by many years. Usually the following factors are attributed for out break of civil war.

            Another very important interpretation of the eruption of civil war is the constitutional differences over the sovereignty of states. While North wanted to establish a highly centralized national government exercising vast powers, the Southerners stood for retention of power in the states where the framers of the constitutions had intended it to be. The Southerners while denying slavery as a cause of war has stressed that concentration of power at the center was the main cause of war. They contended that it was Northern destruction of Union and violation of constitutional guarantees that forced South to withdraw from the compact.  The northern admitted that slavery had been planted in the constitution but it was contrary to the principles of American democracy and hence extirpated. The historian William C. Davis observes Controversies over the Southern premise of States’ rights. He writes in this regard;

To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all. (Davis, 97-98)

The evil nature of the institution of slavery greatly aroused the conscience of the Northerners. Many factors like publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, contact with fugitive slaves, political agitation of the subjects, denunciation of human bondage by the Northern clergy generated hatred among Southerners against Northerners.

            Another theory about the causes of civil war was proposed and forwarded by Charles and Mary Beard. This theory emphasized the importance of economic factors for the outbreak of war. This theory rejected the moral basis of slavery and instead emphasized that different labor systems prevailed in North and South and these posed a threat to each other. While the economy of the South was mainly dependent of slave labor, the economy of the North was based on non-slave holding farmer and wage earner. These two systems of labor were brought into clash due to west-ward expansion. Both North and South wanted their system to get implanted into trans-Missouri frontiers, which ultimately resulted in war.

This theory further illustrates that coming of the industrialization the old vedge between the agricultural South and industrial South was further widened. The new industrial interests demanded federal action for protection and assistance, which were opposed by the Planters of the South and farmers of the West. So in reality, the opposition to the South was economic in nature.

Seeds of war can also be traced in the wide social and differences between North and South. The Southerners held that the social order based on slavery provided happiness to both workers and upper classes. In South the entire economy was controlled by the Big Planters who formed a sort of aristocracy. In short the Southern society was aristocratic in character. On the other hand, North believed in social democracy and considered the existence of slavery as a big stumbling block in the way of achieving true democracy. Additionally, political structure at the Federal level was dominated by Southerners and they wanted to use it to further their own interests whereas Northerners wanted to overthrow the hegemony of South in the federal political structure. So they used ‘slavery’ as an effective and convenient tool to further their political designs. So slavery was not of any practical importance to either South or North. It was merely used by the politicians on both sides to make political capital out of it.

However whatever was the cause, the civil war the most terrible episode of American history as Professor Elson has said, “The glories for which Washington had fought, which Jackson has preserved, which million Americans loved better than life, seemed on the verge of falling into fragments”. (Elson, 617)

The war which lasted for four years took a heave toll in lives and money. In terms of lives, the war cost the nation at least half a million lives in addition to thousands others who returned to their homes in broken health or serious physical injuries and mental agonies.[4] In terms of money also the war was one of the costliest wars in American history. It is estimated that the conflict cost about $ 15, 000, 000, 000 in addition to the interest paid on public debt and pension paid to the soldiers, their widows and orphans. This amount also does not include the tangible costs like dislocation, disunities, wasted energies, blasted lives etc. in spite of these losses; it has been asserted that civil war was an event of great significance.

The end of war in 1865 did not solve the problems; instead it marked the beginning of a very difficult period when country was faced with problems which were more appalling than the nation had ever faced before. The problem of physical devastation was mainly faced by Southern states and the Border States. During the four years of warship, the armies of the North had marched, camped and fought in practically every states of the south. This resulted in complete desolation. It was manifested through burnt up gin houses, mills, factories and huge buildings. The war also brought havoc on South’s transportation system. Most of the railroad were either completely destroyed or rendered useless due to lack of proper care and repairs during the war. The water transport was also dislocated due to blockade of water streams and channels.

The economy of the country was in a state of complete chaos. Again this particularly implied to South. The war not only led to complete breakdown of business and closure of factories which brought the trade to a standstill, it also led to closing of banks. The financial problem also loomed large in the North where the piper had to be paid. The national debt that stood 65, 000, 000 in 1860 rose to a colossal sum of 3, 000, 000, 000 in 1865. The war created no less disorder in the social realm. The civil war took a heavy toll of life. Over 5000, 000 men died in action or of disease.  (Parkes, 256-261)

The church was completely disorganized. During the war because both the confederates and the federal troops used them for military purposes and also exploited the clergy to get the massive support. After the war, the church suffered another setback as Negroes set-up their own independent churches. The war also put the educational system of the South in shambles. In the pre-civil war period, educational institutes had flourished in the South and could favourably compete with the educational institute of the North.  During the war most of these institutes closed down. In the year following the war, an effort was made to remodel the educational system of the South on the pattern of the North.

            Civil war led to another very important result viz. the dominance of the politics by the capitalists in the years following the war. The industrial interests were fully entrenched during the course of the war and even after the war they continued to dominate the national affairs. Their job was made smoother by disappearance of the Southern planters from the national scene.

            So it would be wrong to presume that Civil war created more problem than it solved. However it was the most disastrous period of American history and it generated problems that governments decades to counter and involved huge efforts on their part to surmount.


Bailey, Thomas A. The American pageant; a history of the Republic. Boston: Heath,


Barrett, Joseph H. Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Wilstach &
Baldwin, 1865.
Beard, Charles & Mary Beard. Basic history of the United States. New York:

Doran & company, 1944.

Davis, William C. Look Away, Look away! : A history of the Confederate States of

America. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Elson, Henry W. History of the United States of America. New York: The

Macmillan Company, 1904.

Forman, Sameul E. Advanced American History.  New York: Century Co., 1924.

Heidler, T. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: a political, social, and military history.
Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Parkes, Henry B. The United States of America—A History. New York: Knopf, 1959.

Muzzey, David S. The American adventure … New York: London, Harper & Bros., 1927.

[1] These states included Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhodes Island, New York and New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin.
[2] South was consisted of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware.
[3] Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858
[4] Detailed of civil casualties can be found in Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America 1861-65 by Thomas L. Livermore (I901)

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