Causes of the Civil War

Causes of the Civil War

By Gary W. Gallagher
4/13/2010 • Black History, CWT Blue & Gray, Politics

Americans who lived through the Civil War established four great interpretive traditions regarding the conflict. The Union Cause tradition framed the war as preeminently an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions that threatened both the work of the Founders and, by extension, the future of democracy in the Western world (most of the 22 million residents of the loyal states embraced the Union Cause as most important). The Lost Cause tradition cast the South’s experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds, muted the importance of slavery in bringing se­cession and war, and ascribed to Confederates constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield (most of the 51⁄2 million white Southerners subscribed to this tradition). The Emancipation Cause tradition interpreted the war as a struggle to liberate 4 million slaves and remove a cancerous influence on American society and politics (most African Americans and some white Northerners embraced this tradition). Finally, the Reconciliation Cause tradition represented an attempt by many whites both North and South to extol the American vir­tues of heroism and steadfastness mani­fested by both sides’ soldiers, to exalt the restored nation and to ignore the role of African Americans. Union, emancipation and reconciliation overlapped in some ways, as did the Lost Cause and reconciliation. Yet each can be seen as a distinct at­tempt to explain and understand the war.

I have spent much of the past 15 years exploring the memory of the Civil War. While mainly focused on the Lost Cause, my work also has revealed what I consider a fascinating dimension of our current engagement with the conflict—namely that the Union Cause is the least appreciated of the four great traditions. It is dismissed as unworthy of great sacrifice by many historians and is virtually absent in the popular understanding of the war. Yet a failure to grasp the importance of Union renders impossible an informed answer to the crucial question of what kept the loyal states engaged for so long in a hugely destructive struggle.

Anyone viewing Ken Burns’ The Civil War has heard Professor Barbara J. Fields observe that preservation of the Union was “a goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life.” She maintains that only emancipation elevated the cause in a way that justified the awful human and material cost. This placement of slavery’s end in the forefront of what the U.S. victory accomplished makes sense to modern Americans, most of whom can easily grasp emancipation as a noble achievement. “Union,” in contrast, is a word that has virtually disappeared from our political vocabulary.

Yet first to last most people in the United States, which included the free states as well as the four slaveholding border states, would have said that the war was about restoring the Union. Republicans and many Democrats eventually accepted emancipation as a useful tool to help defeat the Rebels and punish the slaveholding class they deemed were responsible for secession and the outbreak of war; however, except among abolitionists and some Radical Republicans, the destruction of slavery took a back seat to Union.

Abraham Lincoln’s writings, soldiers’ letters and newspapers offer powerful evidence of the overwhelming importance of Union. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address insisted the Union was perpetual. Summoning images of a shared democratic destiny, Lincoln closed on a lyrical note: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Very late in the war, Lincoln similarly alluded to the centrality of Union. “In a great national crisis, like ours,” he wrote on December 6, 1864, “unanimity of ac­tion among those seeking a common end is very desirable—almost indispensable….In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union.” Emanci­pation, Lincoln added, stood “among the means to secure that end.”

Many soldiers also affirmed a profound attachment to the Union that stood as what Lincoln, in his annual message to Congress in December 1862, called “the last best hope of earth.” They believed democracy, liberty and freedom had suffered a setback in the failed European revo­lutions of 1848, thereby rendering the American democratic example all the more valuable. “I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend,” wrote a Massachusetts soldier in 1862, “and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom.” An enlisted man from Connecticut similarly insisted that if “traitors be allowed to overthrow and break asunder ties most sacred—costing our forefathers long years of blood and toil, all the hope and confidence of the world in the capacity of men for self government will be lost….”

The New York Herald echoed these sentiments in describing the veterans who marched in the Grand Review in Washington in May 1865. The soldiers had “secured the perpetuity of that Union upon which the hopes of the oppressed of all climes and countries depend. They are the champions of free governments throughout the world…. From one end of the world to the other the people thank our soldiers for having conquered in the people’s cause.”

Anyone searching to know why U.S. citizens saw secession as something to be suppressed no matter how hideous the price must come to grips with the importance of Union. For many in the loyal states, it had a meaning that ex­tended far beyond their nation’s boundaries. More than a third of a million U.S. soldiers died in the war, the very large majority of whom would have ranked restoration of the Union as their overriding goal. For them, Union promised liberty and freedom that, while restricted in many ways even with emancipation, would ex­pand as the republic moved through the 19th century and into the 20th.

25 Responses to Causes of the Civil War

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  2. Harold Meads says:

    I don’t think slavery was much of an issue until after the Battle of Sharpsburg and only then because Lincoln needed a victory to introduce his Emancipation Proclamation. Sharpsburg was more of a draw, at the end of the bloodiest day in the war Lee reformed his lines waiting for the counter attack that never came, and then he simply moved back into VA. I think one side was scared the the other glad of it, they both had to lick their wounds. The primary reason in my opinion was that Lincoln used the EP making slavery an open issue, thereby keeping England and France out of the war. Strictly my opinion and I’m sticking to it. . . .

    • Tim says:

      I think slavery to be more of an underlying issue in causing the Civil War. As far back as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, the Southern States had been trying desperately to maintain a balance of power in Congress between free states and slave states. Southern States, no doubt, feared that if slavery was banned from extending into western territories, then as new states entered the Union, the balance of power would tip toward the Free States’ favor. If this were to occur, what would prevent the Free States from abolishing slavery altogether, as it was the enemy of Free Labor? Slavery, after all, was, in the South’s opinion, absolutely essential to a prosperous Southern economy, and that it would be impossible to abolish slavery without devastating the region.

      This Free State-Slave State tension reached climax with the election of 1860, when Lincoln won the presidency. He had not been elected by any southern state, and yet he was to succeed Buchanan. To the South, this was proof they had lost all power and influence in Congress, and that to insure their liberty and the preservation of their precious institution, they must secede. Because although Lincoln had pledged to allow slavery to remain where it already existed, he was a Republican and, therefore, a Free Soiler. And if he had become President without Southern support, what would prevent him from extending a hand to end slavery in the South? I think, in the end, secession occurred, certainly for States’ Rights, but I think specifically to protect their way of life and their economy.

      However, I do respect your opinion and consider it to be an interesting one. :)

  3. Tom Black says:

    Surely one great issue in the Civil war was this: if the Southern states seceded, two nations, each of significant size and power, would from that point exist on the eastern seaboard. Each would have an interest in the westward development and expansion of white or European settlement already underway, and a rivalry would develop between these two nations for control of the west. This would be similar to the rivalry which had long gone on between Britain and France for control of the colonies in the east.

    Each of these nations would be strong enough, through economics or geography, to stymie the other’s aims to a real degree, and the division of American power would leave the door open to European intervention. As long as two American nations were in rivalry, absorbing each other’s strength, each side would have the temptation to call in European allies, who would see the situation as an opportunity.

    In other words, secession would be a recipe for struggle and repeated conflict for an indefinite future, with the risk of European imperialism returning. Maintenance of the union, however, would at one and the same time close the door finally on European intervention and open up the road to expansion and exploitation in the west on a unified basis: which of course is what actually happened. And a great nation arose.

    There was therefore a real threat to union and to American independence at stake. The casus belli for the North was not the imposition of emancipation, but the high-handed, pre-emptive rejection of emancipation by the South. The South had declared they would fight to keep their rights, and they did in fact open the conflict by taking the first military action. This put them in the wrong from the start.

    For the South, the issue was: Who has the right to free or not free slaves in our territories? For the North, it was: You do not have the right to elevate a regional concern to the point where you break the Union and endanger American independence, and therefore freedom: and if you appeal to force, then you are in rebellion and must take the consequences. It was the exercise of federal authority and at the highest level the assertion of the nationhood of the United States, in both its internal and external aspects.

    The North saw it as the maintenance of US independence and thus of its democratic system, these two concepts being closely linked in their mind. It is true there is no necessary connection between these ideas, but they have in fact long been linked in the American outlook, and there is no doubt that a belief in this linkage played an important role in the North’s waging of the war. It obviously shaped the Gettysburg address.

  4. Jon says:

    A good article, but it falls into a trap that I have seen many times. Be very careful about mixing up Causes vs. War Aims vs. Why men went to war. The 3 can be intermingled, but are actually seperate things. Make no mistake, there were a lot of “causes” of the Civil War that contributed to the war coming, but slavery is the main cause. No other cause comes close when you talk about social, cultural, religious, political, economic, & military influences. The South’s Declarations of Secession, VP of the CSA Alexander Stephen’s “Cornerstone Speech”, & the Apostles of Secession (those who were dispatched from the Deep South to convince the Upper South secede) all focused on slavery as the cause-not to mention the speeches, letters, sermons, & newspapers that were focusing on this as well.

    It was the Deep South that seceded & they seceded over the slavery issue for the most part. That secession led to the confrontation at Fort Sumter where the South fired on a Federal fort, enraging the Northern populace. That, in turn, led to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion & led the Upper South to leave as well. While slavery was an important issue for the Upper South, for them there was also Constitutional & States Rights issues, which played a far more predominent roll.

    Again, don’t confuse this with War Aims-the intial aim of the North was restoration of the Union, not freeing the slaves. The War Aims of the North morphed over the first year or so to include the freeing of the slaves-certainly there were some who wanted it to be that from the start. Lincoln, being the astute politician he was, knew that he jeopardized the loyalty of the border states that first year & held off. Once that was secure, he issued his Emancipation Proclamation & changed the War Aims of the Union to INCLUDE the freeing of the slaves-the restoration of the Union was still the primary goal. For the South, keeping the slaves lost its importance to the degree that by the very end of the war they were ready to let black men fight & gain their freedom if it meant the South stayed independent.

    Finally, the reasons why men fought the war didn’t necessarily follows the causes or the War Aims. Some men initially went to war for glory, fame, fun, to impress the women, hatred of their counterparts up North or down South, a sense of duty, for hearth & home, to protect wives & children, or any other number of reasons. Over the years, many of them stayed for different reasons-loyalty to country, loyalty to the regiment, loyalty to the men who had suffered as they had. Many Union soldiers came to see the up-close world of slavery & it changed their hearts & minds. Many Southerners stayed to prevent the North from winning & destroying their way of life & social standings. By the second year of the war, the Confederacy was conscripting men & the Union did afterwards. The men in later years came for bounty money & to avoid the draft or were simply drafted. All in all, there were men who went to war for the same reasons as the causes & the War Aims, but not all of them.

    Overall, a good article.

    • Billy Bob says:

      I wish you could sit down next to this man and talk to him in person. He is a well of knowledge and has read an unearthly number of primary texts concerning the Civil War. He knows his sh**.

      • Michelle Namminga says:

        Wow! Well said. While searching for causes of the Civil War for a book I’m writing, I happened upon this article, then began reading the replies. I believe your response to be the most accurate. What I wouldn’t give to sit down with you and learn more about the Civil War!
        Thank you to all on answering a difficult question, as many people have different opinions on what caused the war.

  5. Frank Grotowski says:

    A very interesting article. It leads one to speculate what today’s world would be like if the Union had not been preserved. I believe that neither the “rump’ Union nor the Confederacy would have become Super Powers. They might well have become vassals to the European Powers such as Great Britain, France and Germany. The history of North and Central America certainly would have been quite different. I think the Yankee Unionists had considerable foresight.

  6. Paul Carr says:

    While not denigrating the efforts of the North and their cause of preserving the Union, I would like to point out the the British Empire was the great bastion of freedom in the 19th Century. Yes, much of the British Empire was under colonial rule, but Britain was moving towards building the colonies so they would become viable independent countries. Please also do not assume that freedom only comes with a republic, freedom also thrives in monarchies.
    Further the US role in supporting freedom was greatly diminished by her reluctance to join WW1 and WW2, leaving the British Empire to fight for freedom. At least now the US is taking the correct leadership role in the World
    Paul Carr

  7. Mark Conrad says:

    “For the South, keeping the slaves lost its importance to the degree that by the very end of the war they were ready to let black men fight & gain their freedom if it meant the South stayed independent.”

    Not true – this proposal was voted down until the very last DAYS of the war. And then not implemented.

    See the Confederate civil servant John Jones’ diary entry for 21 January 1865, regarding buying peace at the price of emancipation:

    “If it be really so, and if it were generally known, that Gen. Lee is, and always has been opposed to slavery, how soon would his great popularity vanish like the mist of the morning!”

  8. Casimir says:

    Here is what Abraham Lincoln, somewhat an expert on the war, said in his second inaugural address.

    “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war,”

    I am convinced. Union Cause, Lost Cause, Reconcilation Cause: these are all layers under which lies the issue of slavery.

  9. Ron Baumgarten says:

    I was very satisfied to see this article in Civil War Times. I agree with Mr. Gallagher that the Union Cause interpretation has suffered. America has moved from one extreme (Lost Cause) to the other (Emancipation). This shift was sometimes motivated by prevailing political agendas that have no place in a proper interpretation of history. This article brings attention to a sometimes neglected aspect of Civil War memory and interpretation. The Union Cause tradition helps to explain much of what happened during the “late unpleasantness.” Observations like those of Professor Fields are misplaced and misleading. We should not diminish the importance of preserving the Union in our remembrances of the Civil War. Thanks to CWT for publishing this essay.

    I have linked to this compelling article on my blog:

  10. Toni says:

    How significant is it if there is never agreement on the true cause of the war? How realistic even from today’s vantage point is it to think that a sizable number of folks will ever reach the same conclusion. I think that the true cause will always only be determined by how we each have been socialized and the experiences that we have had in life.

  11. John says:

    There has been a recent trend to identify the primary cause of the war to States Rights and subordinate the slavery issue to fuel for the fire . This viewpoint was emphasized by Southern Lost Cause historians in the 1890s. The problem of slavery had always been an exuberating problem that was the primary threat to the union. Jefferson had to remove the offending passages pertaining to the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence. The slave as 2/3rd of a person was a necessary compromise to the Constitution if the southern states were going to ratify the document. During the Missouri admission debates in 1819-1820 Jefferson was alarmed by the slavery issue and described the crisis as “a fire bell in the Night, A reprieve only” for the union. Madison in his old age was quite worried by the effect of slavery issue upon the perpetuation of the union. During the Nullification crisis of 1832 no other southern state supported South Carolina in its attempt to defy the Federal Government with respect to the tariff. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions referred to individual states in exercising state rights as an individual state not the first step in justifying state sovereignty that would lead to the formulation of a separate federation. The Burr conspiracy to detach the Western part of the country was quickly squelched by the Jefferson administration and Burr was charged with treason. New England’s economic woes with respect to the embargo of 1808 and the Hartford convention of 1814 was roundly condemned by the Jeffersonian Republican South as a Federalist “Blue Light” Conspiracy.
    The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and 1850 were directly related to the spread of slavery. The annexation of Texas pended resolution of the slave issue.
    After the Kansas and Nebraska Act of 1854 the south complained about Northern states failing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
    The South Carolina ordinance of Succession condemned the Northern states exercising their “States Rights” with respect to non enforcement of the Federal law.
    When Lincoln said that he would have restored the union even if it required that slavery be let alone then he would have done so. You could not have had a greater acknowlegement that slavery was the issue since Lincoln specifically identified it as the profound issue he would have sacrificed even in saving the union.
    Grant in his memoirs mentioned that the South had fought for a dishonorable cause ie, slavery. Only a very small percentage of southerners owned slaves. but to the average southerner the “pecular institution” symbolised the weath that men aspired to. We see that today in the controversy with respect to redistribution of wealth as a symbolic stumbling block to the ambitions of the middle class.
    If the Civil War was fought over states rights then the question is states’ rights with respect to what? And if the Civil War was fought over states rights then what was the status of states’ rights after the war?
    If that was the underlying issue that caused the war then the Supreme court decision in Plessey vs. Ferguson and the Jim Crow laws would indicate that the south lost the Civil War on the battlefield but won it in the courts in the 1890s. That issue would not begin to be resolved until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Maresall De Saxe said it best in 1756: The origins of war lies in the hearts of men

  12. Jay says:

    I didn’t care for Professor Barbara J. Fields. Why did Ken Burns include her in his Civil War series?

    Didn’t care for her. Uncharismatic, moralizing, sounds like she’s upset.

    There should have been at least included in the DVD bonus material some lively, in-depth discussion-slash-debate over the competing interpretive traditions.

    I suspect Ken Burns agrees with the Emancipation Tradition or clearly is sympathetic to it, hence including a weepy sounding proponent and a huge chunk of the series dedicated to the issue of slavery.

    Kids watching Ken Burn’s series will have reinforced the myth that Union soldiers were the good guys fighting to free the slaves.
    Victors do write history.

  13. yeeee says:

    yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee buddy

  14. Dan Morrow says:

    So . . . what “caused” the war?
    Slavery, as Gallagher states explicitly, was the driving force behind secession in the deep south.
    No secession, no “threat” to the Union
    No threat to the Union, no war.

    • Derrick Pistorius says:

      THERE IS ONLY ONE SINGLE CAUSE OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR- The Northern States took control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Presidency which allowed the Northern States to pass laws that taxed cotton, a product unique to Southern States, and spend the money raised from this tax in the North and as a result, the Southern States seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America so that they could have fair representation on cotton taxes and spend money from these taxes in the South.———–That is the single and ONLY cause of the Civil War.

  15. Steve-O says:

    Who picked that cotton, Derrick? How come the primary documents written by the Southern leaders, their declarations of secession, focus almost all of their words on slavery as the main issue? Maybe you should read these before you speak out.

  16. Steve-O says:

    [Copied by Justin Sanders from the Official Records, Ser IV, vol 1, pp. 81-85.]

    The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war….

    • Steve-O says:


      [Copied by Justin Sanders from “Journal of the State Convention”, (Jackson, MS: E. Barksdale, State Printer, 1861), pp. 86-88]
      A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
      In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

      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….

  17. Steve-O says:

    South Carolina

    [Copied by Justin Sanders from J.A. May & J.R. Faunt, *South Carolina Secedes* (U. of S. Car. Pr, 1960), pp. 76-81.]
    Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union

    (after an exhaustive rendering of the events of 1776 and the meaning of states rights, the first of the \causes\ of secession is listed thus):

    The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: \No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.\

    This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

    The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

    The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

    Steve-O says: I do appreciate how there are multiple interpretive lenses with which to view the causes, events, and emotions leading up to the Civil War, but I most profoundly object to the bald assertion that slavery wasn’t at the root of nearly every one of them, or that civil war would have occurred without it.

    As General Washington stated: \It is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.\

  18. Derrick Pistorius says:

    Slavery was a very hot topic at the time, and I understand why many feel it is the cause of the Civil War, but the North had slaves as well and benefited from the slave trade. It all comes down to the representation issues as a single cause. Once the Southern States were removed from the law making process, the North could impose any law on the South without its consent. The immediate fears were an increase in cotton taxes (in the form of a tariff) once more as the North had done previously, and a reduction of or possible end to slavery. Everything points back to a lack of representation for the South as a single cause, if a single cause can be named.

  19. MR LEE says:

    I wander. How would old blood and guts Lincoln felt about secession had the new England States seceded just a few years before, when they had threatened to do so? Jefferson Davis, in a speech to the US Congress, noted the Constitutional rights of the New England States to do as they had threatened. However, he also expressed a heart felt desire that they do not secede. Funny how in just a few years time politics and the grave events they cause, can swing like the pendulum making hypocrites strange bedfellows indeed.

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