What Caused the American Civil War?

A partisan argument
(Fort Scott National Historic Site)
There were many reasons for a Civil War to happen in America, and political issues and disagreements began soon after the American Revolution ended in 1782. Between the years 1800 and 1860, arguments between the North and South grew more intense. One of the main quarrels was about taxes paid on goods brought into this country from foreign countries. This tax was called a tariff. Southerners felt these tariffs were unfair and aimed toward them because they imported a wider variety of goods than most Northern people. Taxes were also placed on many Southern goods that were shipped to foreign countries, an expense that was not always applied to Northern goods of equal value. An awkward economic structure allowed states and private transportation companies to do this, which also affected Southern banks that found themselves paying higher interest rates on loans made with banks in the North. The situation grew worse after several "panics", including one in 1857 that affected more Northern banks than Southern. Southern financiers found themselves burdened with high payments just to save Northern banks that had suffered financial losses through poor investment.

In the years before the Civil War the political power in the Federal government, centered in Washington, D.C., was changing. Northern and mid-western states were becoming more and more powerful as the populations increased. Southern states lost political power because the population did not increase as rapidly. As one portion of the nation grew larger than another, people began to talk of the nation as sections. This was called sectionalism. Just as the original thirteen colonies fought for their independence almost 100 years earlier, the Southern states felt a growing need for freedom from the central Federal authority in Washington. Southerners believed that state laws carried more weight than Federal laws, and they should abide by the state regulations first. This issue was called State's Rights and became a very warm topic in congress.

(Library of Congress)

Another quarrel between the North and South and perhaps the most emotional one, was over the issue of slavery. America was an agricultural nation and crops such as cotton were in demand around the world. Cotton was a plant that grew well in the southern climate, but it was a difficult plant to gather and process. Labor in the form of slaves were used on large plantations to plant and harvest cotton as well as sugar, rice, and other cash crops. The invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney made cotton more profitable for southern growers. Before this invention, it took one person all day to process two pounds of cotton by hand, a slow and inefficient method. Whitney's Cotton Gin machine could process that much within a half hour. Whitney's invention revolutionized the cotton industry and Southern planters saw their profits soar as more and more of them relied on cotton as their main cash crop. Slaves were a central part of that industry.

Picking cotton
(Library of Congress)

Slavery had been a part of life in America since the early colonial period and became more acceptable in the South than the North. Southern planters relied on slaves to run larger farms or plantations and make them profitable. Many slaves were also used to provide labor for the various household chores that needed to be done. This did not sit well with many northerners who felt that slavery was uncivilized and should be abolished. They were called abolitionists and thought that owning slaves was wrong for any reason. They loudly disagreed with the South's laws and beliefs concerning slavery. Yet slavery had been a part of the Southern way of life for well over 200 years and was protected not only by state laws, but Federal law as well. The Constitution of the United States guaranteed the right to own property and protected everyone against the seizure of property. A slave was viewed as property in the South and was important to the economics of the Southern cotton industry. The people of the Southern states did not appreciate Northern people, especially the abolitionists, telling them that slave ownership was a great wrong. This created a great amount of debate, mistrust, and misunderstanding.

John Brown
John Brown
(Library of Congress)

As the nation grew in size, so did the opportunities for expansion westward. Many felt that slavery should be allowed in the new territories such as Kansas and Missouri, while others were set against it. This led to "bleeding Kansas", a bitter war that pitted neighbor against neighbor. In 1859, a radical abolitionist from Kansas named John Brown raided the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the hopes of supplying weapons to an army of slaves that would revolt against their southern masters. A number of people were taken hostage and several killed, among them the mayor of Harpers Ferry. Brown was cornered with several of his followers in a fire engine house, first by Virginia militia and then by Federal troops sent to arrest him and his raiders. These troops, commanded by Union Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the building and captured Brown and several of his men. Brown was tried for his crimes, found guilty, and hung in Charlestown. Though John Brown's raid had failed, it fueled the passions of northern abolitionists who made him a martyr. It was reported that bells tolled in sympathy to John Brown in northern cities on the day he was executed. This inflamed passions in the South where southern leaders used the incident as another reminder how little the South's interests were represented in Federal law, labeled as sympathetic to runaways and anti-slavery organizations.

President Lincoln

The debate became very bitter. Southern politicians outwardly charged that their voices were not being heard in congress. Some Southern states wanted to secede, or break away from the United States of America and govern themselves. Emotions reached a fever pitch when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860. He was a member of the Republican Party and vowed to keep the country united and the new western territories free from slavery. Many Southerners, who were Democrats, were afraid that Lincoln was not sympathetic to their way of life and would not treat them fairly. The growing strength of the Republican Party, viewed by many as the party friendly to abolitionists and northern businessmen, and the election of the party's candidate was the last straw. Southern governors and political leaders called for state referendums to consider articles of secession. South Carolina was the first state to officially secede from the United States soon after the election and they were followed by six other Southern states. These states joined together and formed a new nation which they named the Confederate States of America. They elected Jefferson Davis, a Democratic senator and champion of states rights from Mississippi, as the first president.

War!On April 12, 1861 the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The fort sits at the entrance to Charleston Harbor and was manned by Union troops who flew the United States flag. The bombardment lasted many hours and the fort was heavily damaged, though no one was killed or injured. Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort and its garrison to the Confederate commanders. Now that open conflict had started, President Lincoln responded with a call for volunteers from states still loyal to the Union, to enlist and put down this treacherous act of rebellion. Alarmed that Lincoln would do this, four more Southern states seceded and joined the Confederacy. The war that President Lincoln had tried to avoid began anyway. War talk was on everyone's lips and sharp divisions took place, even among families and neighbors.

At first, no one believed the war would last very long. Some people said it would take only a few months and the fellows who volunteered to fight would come home heroes within a few weeks. No one realized how determined the South was to be independent, nor did the South realize how determined the North was to end the rebellion. Armies had to be raised in the North and the South, and every state was asked to raise regiments of volunteers to be Volunteers wanted now!sent for service in the field. Many young men chose to enlist and volunteered for military service. In the South, men readily went to war to protect their homes and save the Southern way of life. Most did not believe that the government in Washington was looking out for the South's interests and they were better off as a new nation where the states would make up their own laws. Many were happy to be called rebels because they thought they were fighting against a tyrant like their forefathers did against the British during the American Revolution. Northern men volunteered to put down the rebellion of southern states and bind the nation back together. Most felt that the Southerners had rebelled without good cause and had to be taught a lesson. Some also felt that slavery was an evil and the war was a way abolish it. No one knew how terrible war really was and how hard life as a soldier could be. They did not have television or radio to communicate the terrible things that could happen. Politicians did not communicate either, which was one of the main reasons for the war and misunderstandings between North and South. The armies were raised and marched off to war. It was only after many battles and many lives were lost that the American people realized how horrible war really was. The soldiers communicated with their families and loved ones and told them of the hardships they endured and terrible scenes they had witnessed.

The fighting of the American Civil War would last four long years at a cost of 620,000 lives. In the end the Northern states prevailed- our country remained united, the Federal government was changed forever, and slavery came to an end.

General Lee and his Drummer Boy

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Why Do The Men Fight
Lee and his Drummer Boy

There is a story told about General Lee: After the battle of Second Manassas, General Lee was seated on Traveller at the Groveton crossroads, watching his soldiers digging graves for the burial of their dead pals. A drummer boy from the 40th Virginia Regiment, Field’s Brigade, Hill’s division approached him, trembling and in tears. Two days before, the boy had been at the railroad cut and had witnessed his regiment’s bloody hand to hand combat with the bluecoats of Leasure’s brigade, Kearny’s division, Heintzelman’s corps. And the day before he had steadily beaten his drum, despite the terrifying whine and explosion of the shells, advancing with the pitiful few left of the regiment, after Pope’s final attack had faltered and failed.

Now, the drummer boy, his shock of sandy hair caked with greasy dirt, his shallow face black with smudges of powder, his homespun clothes in tatters, came up to Traveller’s stirrup and, laying a hand on the big stallion’s moist shoulder, said to General Lee, in a quavering voice: “Please sir, why must the men fight?”

For a moment, General Lee’s dark eyes fell full on the drummer boy’s face; then his gaze swept away over the dismal battlefield, and he raised a gauntleted hand and rubbed the back of his neck wearily, thinking of what to say.

With the the field in front of him, he knew it would be a waste of words to recount the political history of the Union: the eighty years of rising tension between the sections—the political storms in the congress that produced the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and its repeal in 1850;  the incessant harangues of the abolitionists, made in the Senate, the pulpit and the press; the violent, bitter struggle for control of the Kansas territory; the wanton murders John Brown committed seizing Harper’s Ferry in 1859; even Lincoln’s instigation of the war, using Fort Sumter like a stone thrown into a hornet’s nest, was too abstract, too ambiguous an answer.

General Lee looked down at the drummer boy. He might say, he thought, that the men must fight for slavery—must fight to keep the institution secure, that Cotton is king, and with African negro slaves, the South owns the king—but that, too, was still too abstract an answer. And that Cotton was king certainly had nothing to do with Virginia. For Virginia it was simply a matter of choosing not to heed Lincoln’s call to suppress the secession. But how to tell the boy what caused the civil war?

“How old are you, son?” General Lee asked, shifting his seat in the saddle and reaching down to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.


General Lee sighed, straightened, and looked away again; his thoughts embracing the blackness of his generalship: The war was being fought by boys. Almost one tenth of the soldiers in his army had enlisted at fifteen, half were seventeen or younger, most of the rest no older than twenty-one. All their future was like a dark corridor, bleak and reeking of misery and death, its door at the end discernible only as a pin-point.

For an instant, a flash of lamentation swept through General Lee’s mind, his wasted calling, his hopeless future, already burdening him with dreams of whispering souls streaming from the battlefields he had created. He breathed in suddenly with all his might the sweet smell of death that rose from the battlefield and it deepened his sadness. And he could think of nothing to say, except the truth, felt nothing but the urgent need to give the boy the answer, soothing the turmoil in his mind.

“Where do you hail from, son?” he queried, looking down at him with a smile of quiet affection, as though he were a favorite friend.

“From Loudoun County, sir,” the boy replied, his heart throbbing.

“Do you have brothers?”

“Yes,” the drummer boy answered hesitantly; “my brother, sixteen years old, was first of the family to enlist, and then I followed.”

General Lee looked off again toward the battlefield, nodding his head slowly. The boy could see a crease show on Lee’s smooth brow, denoting the working of a thought. A moment passed and still looking at the field, bathed now in the glow of falling twilight, Lee said, “Suppose Pope had beaten us here and Richmond was now falling, and the war was ending. How would you feel, son?”

The drummer boy looked up at General Lee earnestly, his hands suddenly gripping Traveller’s black mane tightly. “Beaten you mean? Beaten? the boy said incredulously, his eyes like deep wells of light searching Lee’s face for confirmation.

“Yes, that is what I mean,” Lee replied softly.

A look of bewilderment came over the drummer boy’s face. He stared fixedly at Lee, his eyes widened, and the muscles of his face were quivering, as though he were struggling in confusion to comprehend. His flashing thoughts were of his mother and sisters at home, in Middleburg—he saw the column of bluecoat soldiers marching in the main street, squads breaking off down the lanes and one of them invading their home, the soldiers jeering at the women, jostling them aside, rummaging about breaking things, taking things. He felt suddenly more miserable than he could imagine possible. His powder-smirched face flamed red with blushing, as his pounding heart rushed blood through his veins. He felt a terrible impotency and, suddenly, he withdrew his hands from Traveller’s neck and balled them into fists in a rage. He felt an intense shame, self-contempt, loss of self-respect; realizing the whole world would be laughing if the battle had been lost.

General Lee remained silent, watching the boy. He saw that the boy was gaining the light, that he was gaining control of himself, settling his emotions with a cold countenance, with an inner spring of steel welling up. The boy saw now that the war was a dire necessity, costly but worth the cost to hold out to the last, that every nation needs men willing to die for its survival, and Virginia and the South must prove themselves no less a nation than the Union.

The drummer boy’s eyes cleared and the muscles of his face became chiseled as in brown stone. He hitched up the straps of his drum cradle and, folding his arms across his chest, stepped back a pace. The wafting sound of a bugle faintly echoed Tattoo over the field. Both he and Lee turned their heads to the sound and listened. They could see the soldiers in the field had finished with their digging and the day was done.

:”We will fight them!” the boy suddenly exclaimed; “we will drive them from Virginia, General, I’m sure of it. We’ll teach them how hard it will go for them, making war on us!”

The sound of horses galloping came to their ears and their eyes turned from their mutual look of warm understanding, and they saw the bobbing figures of a crowd of riders coming toward them on the pike.

“You see my staff officers have found me,” Lee said, “and no doubt your sergeant is worried about you.”

“Yes, sir!” the drummer boy said, raising his hand in salute. “The regiment needs me. And it’s time I gave up this drum and went into the ranks.”

General Lee raised his rein-hand just an inch and Traveller pranced forward a step, his head coming up with his ears pricked. “Well, then, go son,” Lee said as he returned the boy’s salute. “Your regiment will need you in the ranks.” And he put Traveller to the trot and moved to meet the cavalcade.

Written by: Joe Ryan
Comments and Questions to the Author by email at OriginalWorks@AmericanCivilWar.com Told by Luther Hopkins, in his 1908 book— From Bull Run to Appomattox: A Boy’s View. Published by Fleet=McGinley Co., Baltimore
Howard Hopkins

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National Park Service

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