Simmering animosities between North and South signaled an American apocalypse
Any man who takes it upon himself to explain the causes of the Civil War deserves whatever grief comes his way, regardless of his good intentions. Having acknowledged that, let me also say I have long believed there is no more concise or stirring accounting for the war than the sentiments propounded by Irish poet William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming,” some lines of which are included in this essay. Yeats wrote his short poem immediately following the catastrophe of World War I, but his thesis of a great, cataclysmic event is universal and timeless.
"The worst are full of passionate intensity"
It is probably safe to say that the original impetus of the Civil War was set in motion when a Dutch trader offloaded a cargo of African slaves at Jamestown, Va., in 1619. It took nearly 250 eventful years longer for it to boil into a war, but that Dutchman’s boatload was at the bottom of it—a fact that needs to be fixed in the reader’s mind from the start.
Of course there were other things, too. For instance, by the eve of the Civil War the sectional argument had become so far advanced that a significant number of Southerners were convinced that Yankees, like Negroes, constituted an entirely different race of people from themselves.
It is unclear who first put forth this curious interpretation of American history, but just as the great schism burst upon the scene it was subscribed to by no lesser Confederate luminaries than President Jefferson Davis himself and Admiral Raphael Semmes, of CSS Alabama fame, who asserted that the North was populated by descendants of the cold Puritan Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell—who had overthrown and executed the king of England in 1649—while others of the class were forced to flee to Holland, where they also caused trouble, before finally settling at Plymouth Rock, Mass.
Southerners on the other hand, or so the theory went, were the hereditary offspring of Cromwell’s enemies, the “gay cavaliers” of King Charles II and his glorious Restoration, who had imbued the South with their easygoing, chivalrous and honest ways. Whereas, according to Semmes, the people of the North had evolved accordingly into “gloomy, saturnine, and fanatical” people who “seemed to repel all the more kindly and generous impulses” (omitting—possibly in a momentary lapse of memory—that the original settlers of other Southern states, such as Georgia, had been prison convicts or, in the case of Louisiana, deportees, and that Semmes’ own wife was a Yankee from Ohio).
How beliefs such as this came to pass in the years between 1619 and 1860 reveals the astonishing capacity of human nature to confound traditional a posteriori deduction in an effort to justify what had become by then largely unjustifiable. But there is blame enough for all to go around.
"The center cannot hold"
From that first miserable boatload of Africans in Jamestown, slavery spread to all the settlements, and, after the Revolutionary War, was established by laws in the states. But by the turn of the 19th century, slavery was confined to the South, where the economy was almost exclusively agricultural. For a time it appeared the practice was on its way to extinction. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson probably summed up the attitude of the day when he defined the South’s “peculiar institution” as a necessary evil, which he and many others believed, or at least hoped, would wither away of its own accord since it was basically wasteful and unproductive.
Then along came Eli Whitney with his cotton gin, suddenly making it feasible to grow short-staple cotton that was fit for the great textile mills of England and France. This in turn, 40 years later, prompted South Carolina’s prominent senator John C. Calhoun to declare that slavery—far from being merely a “necessary evil”—was actually a “positive good,” because, among other things, in the years since the gin’s invention, the South had become fabulously rich, with cotton constituting some 80 percent of all U.S. exports.
But beneath this great wealth and prosperity, America seethed. Whenever you have two people—or peoples—joined in politics but doing diametrically opposing things, it is almost inevitable that at some point tensions and jealousies will break out. In the industrial North, there was a low, festering resentment that eight of the first 11 U.S. presidents were Southerners—and most of them Virginians at that. For their part, the agrarian Southerners harbored lingering umbrage over the internal improvements policy propagated by the national government, which sought to expand and develop roads, harbors, canals, etc., but which the Southerners felt was disproportionately weighted toward Northern interests. These were the first pangs of sectional dissension.
"Things fall apart"
Then there was the matter of the Tariff of Abominations, which became abominable for all concerned.
This inflammatory piece of legislation, passed with the aid of Northern politicians, imposed a tax or duty on imported goods that caused practically everything purchased in the South to rise nearly half-again in price. This was because the South had become used to shipping its cotton to England and France and in return receiving boatloads of inexpensive European goods, including clothing made from its own cotton. However, as years went by, the North, particularly New England, had developed cotton mills of its own—as well as leather and harness manufactories, iron and steel mills, arms and munitions factories, potteries, furniture makers, silversmiths and so forth. And with the new tariff putting foreign goods out of financial reach, Southerners were forced to buy these products from the North at what they considered exorbitant costs.
Smart money might have concluded it would be wise for the South to build its own cotton mills and its own manufactories, but its people were too attached to growing cotton. A visitor in the 1830s described the relentless cycle of the planters’ misallocation of spare capital: “To sell cotton to buy Negroes—to make more cotton to buy more Negroes—‘ad infinitum.’”
Such was the Southern mindset, but the tariff nearly kicked off the war 30 years early because, as the furor rose, South Carolina’s Calhoun, who was then running for vice president of the United States, declared that states—his own state in particular—were under no obligation to obey the federal tariff law, or to collect it from ships entering its harbors. Later, South Carolina legislators acted on this assertion and defied the federal government to overrule them, lest the state secede. This set off the Nullification Crisis, which held in theory (or wishful thinking) that a state could nullify or ignore any federal law it held was not in its best interests. The crisis was defused only when President Andrew Jackson sent warships into Charleston Harbor—but it also marked the first time a Southern state had threatened to secede from the Union.
The incident also set the stage for the states’ rights dispute, pitting state laws against the notion of federal sovereignty—an argument which became ongoing into the next century, and the next. “States’ rights” also became a Southern watchword for Northern (or “Yankee”) intrusion on the Southern lifestyle. States’ rights political parties sprang up over the South; one particular example of just how volatile the issue had become was embodied in the decision in 1831 of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Gist (ironically from Union, S.C.) to name their firstborn son “States Rights Gist,” a name he bore proudly until November 30, 1864, when, as a Confederate brigadier general, he was shot and killed leading his men at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee.
Though the tariff question remained an open sore from its inception in 1828 right up to the Civil War, many modern historians have dismissed the impact it had on the growing rift between the two sections of the country. But any careful reading of newspapers, magazines or correspondence of the era indicates that here is where the feud began to fester into hatred. Some Southern historians in the past have argued this was the root cause of the Civil War. It wasn’t, but it was a critical ingredient in the suspicion and mistrust Southerners were beginning to feel about their Northern brethren, and by extension about the Union itself. Not only did the tariff issue raise for the first time the frightening specter of Southern secession, but it also seemed to have marked a mazy kind of dividing line in which the South vaguely started thinking of itself as a separate entity—perhaps even a separate country. Thus the cat, or at least the cat’s paw, was out of the bag.
"The ceremony of innocence is drowned"
All the resenting and seething naturally continued to spill over into politics. The North, with immigrants pouring in, vastly outnumbered the South in population and thus controlled the House of Representatives. But the U.S. Senate, by a sort of gentleman’s agreement laced with the usual bribes and threats, had remained 50-50, meaning that whenever a territory was admitted as a free state, the South got to add a corresponding slave state—and vice versa. That is until 1820, when Missouri applied for statehood and anti-slavery forces insisted it must be free. Ultimately, this resulted in Congress passing the Missouri Compromise, which decreed that Missouri could come in as a slave state (and Maine as a free state) but any other state created north of Missouri’s southern border would have to be free. That held the thing together for longer than it deserved.
In plain acknowledgement that slavery was an offensive practice, Congress in 1808 banned the importation of African slaves. Nevertheless there were millions of slaves living in the South, and their population continued growing. Beginning in the late 18th century, a small group of people in New England concluded that slavery was a social evil, and began to agitate for its abolition—hence, of course, the term “abolitionist.”
Over the years this group became stronger and by the 1820s had turned into a full-fledged movement, preaching abolition from pulpits and podiums throughout the North, publishing pamphlets and newspapers, and generally stirring up sentiments both fair and foul in the halls of Congress and elsewhere. At first the abolitionists concluded that the best solution was to send the slaves back to Africa, and they actually acquired land in what is now Liberia, returning a small colony of ex-bondsmen across the ocean.
By the 1840s, the abolitionists had decided that slavery was not simply a social evil, but a “moral wrong,” and began to agitate on that basis.
This did not sit well with the churchgoing Southerners, who were now subjected to being called unpleasant and scandalous names by Northerners they did not even know. This provoked, among other things, religious schisms, which in the mid-1840s caused the American Methodist and Baptist churches to split into Northern and Southern denominations. Somehow the Presbyterians hung together, but it was a strain, while the Episcopal church remained a Southern stronghold and firebrand bastion among the wealthy and planter classes. Catholics also maintained their solidarity, prompting cynics to suggest it was only because they owed their allegiance to the pope of Rome rather than to any state, country or ideal.
Abolitionist literature began showing up in the Southern mails, causing Southerners to charge the abolitionists with attempting to foment a slave rebellion, the mere notion of which remained high on most Southerners’ anxiety lists. Murderous slave revolts had occurred in Haiti, Jamaica and Louisiana and more recently resulted in the killing of nearly 60 whites during the Nat Turner slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.
"Surely some revelation is at hand"
During the Mexican War the United States acquired enormous territories in the West, and what by then abolitionists called the “slave power” was pressing to colonize these lands. That prompted an obscure congressman from Pennsylvania to submit an amendment to a Mexican War funding bill
in 1846 that would have prevented slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico—which became known, after its author, as the Wilmot Proviso. Even though it failed to pass into law, the very act of presenting the measure became a cause célèbre among Southerners who viewed it as further evidence that Northerners were not only out to destroy their “peculiar institution,” but their political power as well.
In 1850, to the consternation of Southerners, California was admitted into the Union as a free state—mainly because the Gold Rush miners did not want to find themselves in competition with slave labor. But for the first time it threw the balance of power in the Senate to the Northern states.
By then national politics had become almost entirely sectional, a dangerous business, pitting North against South—and vice versa—in practically all matters, however remote. To assuage Southern fury at the admission of free California, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made Northerners personally responsible for the return of runaway slaves. Contrary to its intentions, the act actually galvanized Northern sentiments against slavery because it seemed to demand direct assent to, and personal complicity with, the practice of human bondage.
During the decade of the 1850s, crisis seemed to pile upon crisis as levels of anger turned to rage, and rage turned to violence. One of the most polarizing episodes between North and South occurred upon the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the slave’s life as a relentless nightmare of sorrow and cruelty. Northern passions were inflamed while furious Southerners dismissed the story en masse as an outrageously skewed and unfair portrayal. (After the conflict began it was said that Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, remarked, “So you are the little lady who started this great war?”)
"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"
In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by frequent presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas, overturned the Missouri Compromise and permitted settlers in the Kansas Territory to choose for themselves whether they wanted a free or slave state. Outraged Northern abolitionists, horrified at the notion of slavery spreading by popular sovereignty, began raising funds to send anti-slave settlers to Kansas.
Equally outraged Southerners sent their own settlers, and a brutish group known as Border Ruffians from slaveholding Missouri went into Kansas to make trouble for the abolitionists. Into this unfortunate mix came an abolitionist fanatic named John Brown riding with his sons and gang. And as the murders and massacres began to pile up, newspapers throughout the land carried headlines of “Bleeding Kansas.”
In the halls of Congress, the slavery issue had prompted feuds, insults, duels and finally a divisive gag rule that forbade even discussion or debate on petitions about the issue of slavery. But during the Kansas controversy a confrontation between a senator and a congressman stood out as particularly shocking. In 1856, Charles Sumner, a 45-year-old Massachusetts senator and abolitionist, conducted a three-hour rant in the Senate chamber against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, focusing in particular on 59-year-old South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, whom he mocked and compared to a pimp, “having taken as his mistress the harlot, Slavery.” Two days later Congressman Preston Brooks, a nephew of the demeaned South Carolinian, appeared beside Sumner’s desk in the Senate and caned him nearly to death with a gold-headed gutta-percha walking stick.
By then, every respectable-sized city, North and South, had a half-dozen newspapers and even small towns had at least one or more; and the revolutionary new telegraph brought the latest news overnight or sooner. Throughout the North, the caning incident triggered profound indignation that was transformed into support for a new anti-slavery political party. In the election of 1856, the new Republican Party ran explorer John C. Frémont, the famed “Pathfinder,” for president, and even though he lost, the party had become a force to be reckoned with.
In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its infamous Dred Scott decision, which elated Southerners and enraged Northerners. The court ruled, in essence, that a slave was not a citizen, or even a person, and that slaves were “so far inferior that they [have] no rights which the white man [is] bound to respect.” Southerners were relieved that they could now move their slaves in and out of free territories and states without losing them, while in the North the ruling merely drove more people into the anti-slavery camp.
Then in 1859, John Brown, of Bleeding Kansas notoriety, staged a murderous raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., hoping to inspire a general slave uprising. The raid was thwarted by U.S. troops, and Brown was tried for treason and hanged; but when it came out that he was being financed by Northern abolitionists, Southern anger was profuse and furious—especially after the Northern press elevated Brown to the status of hero and martyr. It simply reinforced the Southern conviction that Northerners were out to destroy their way of life.
As the crucial election of 1860 approached, there arose talk of Southern secession by a group of “fire-eaters”—influential orators who insisted Northern “fanatics” intended to free slaves “by law if possible, by force if necessary.” Hectoring abolitionist newspapers and Northern orators (known as Black, or Radical Republicans) provided ample fodder for that conclusion.
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last…"
The 1850s drew to a close in near social convulsion and the established political parties began to break apart—always a dangerous sign. The Whigs simply vanished into other parties; the Democrats split into Northern and Southern contingents, each with its own slate of candidates. A Constitutional Union party also appeared, looking for votes from moderates in the Border States. As a practical matter, all of this assured a victory for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who was widely, if wrongly, viewed in the South as a rabid abolitionist. With the addition of Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859) as free states, the Southerners’ greatest fears were about to be realized—complete control of the federal government by free-state, anti-slavery politicians.
With the vote split four ways, Lincoln and the Republicans swept into power in November 1860, gaining a majority of the Electoral College, but only a 40 percent plurality of the popular vote. It didn’t matter to the South. In short order, always pugnacious South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, followed by six other Deep South states that were invested heavily in cotton.
Much of the Southern apprehension and ire that Lincoln would free the slaves was misplaced. No matter how distasteful he found the practice of slavery, the overarching philosophy that drove Lincoln was a hard pragmatism that did not include the forcible abolition of slavery by the federal government—for the simple reason that he could not envision any political way of accomplishing it. But Lincoln, like a considerable number of Northern people, was decidedly against allowing slavery to spread into new territories and states. By denying slaveholders the right to extend their boundaries, Lincoln would in effect also be weakening their power in Washington, and over time this would almost inevitably have resulted in the abolition of slavery, as sooner or later the land would have worn out.
But that wasn’t bad enough for the Southern press, which whipped up the populace to such a pitch of fury that Lincoln became as reviled as John Brown himself. These influential journals, from Richmond to Charleston and myriad points in between, painted a sensational picture of Lincoln in words and cartoons as an arch-abolitionist—a kind of antichrist who would turn the slaves loose to rape, murder and pillage. For the most part, Southerners ate it up. If there is a case to be made on what caused the Civil War, the Southern press and its editors would be among the first in the dock. It goes a long way in explaining why only one in three Confederate soldiers were slaveholders, or came from slaveholding families. It wasn’t their slaves they were defending, it was their homes against the specter of slaves-gone-wild.
Interestingly, many if not most of the wealthiest Southerners were opposed to secession for the simple reason that they had the most to lose if it came to war and the war went badly. But in the end they, like practically everyone else, were swept along on the tide of anti-Washington, anti-abolition, anti-Northern and anti-Lincoln rhetoric.
To a lesser extent, the Northern press must accept its share of blame for antagonizing Southerners by damning and lampooning them as brutal lash-wielding torturers and heartless family separators. With all this back and forth carrying on for at least the decade preceding war, by the time hostilities broke out, few either in the North or the South had much use for the other, and minds were set. One elderly Tennessean later expressed it this way: “I wish there was a river of fire a mile wide between the North and the South, that would burn with unquenchable fury forevermore, and that it could never be passable to the endless ages of eternity by any living creature.”
The immediate cause of Southern secession, therefore, was a fear that Lincoln and the Republican Congress would have abolished the institution of slavery—which would have ruined fortunes, wrecked the Southern economy and left the South to contend with millions of freed blacks. The long-term cause was a feeling by most Southerners that the interests of the two sections of the country had drifted apart, and were no longer mutual or worthwhile.
The proximate cause of the war, however, was Lincoln’s determination not to allow the South to go peacefully out of the Union, which would have severely weakened, if not destroyed, the United States.
There is the possibility that war might have been avoided, and a solution worked out, had there not been so much mistrust on the part of the South. Unfortunately, some of the mistrust was well earned in a bombastic fog of hatred, recrimination and outrageous statements and accusations on both sides. Put another way, it was well known that Lincoln was anti-slavery, but both during his campaign for office and after his election, he insisted it was never his intention to disturb slavery where it already existed. The South simply did not believe him.
The Lincoln administration was able to quell secession movements in several Border States—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and what would become West Virginia—by a combination of politics and force, including suspension of the Bill of Rights. But when Lincoln ordered all states to contribute men for an army to suppress the rebellion South Carolina started by firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina also joined the Confederacy rather than make war on their fellow Southerners.
“Because of incompatibility of temper,” a Southern woman was prompted to lament, “we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘separation a l’agreable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.”
Things had come a long way during the nearly 250 years since the Dutchman delivered his cargo of African slaves to the wharf at Jamestown, but in 1860 almost everyone agreed that a war wouldn’t last long. Most thought it would be over by summertime.
Acclaimed journalist, novelist and historian Winston Groom is the author of several Civil War histories; his most recent is Vicksburg 1863 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).