Introduction: The Road to War

Flirtation with secession is as old as the United States itself. New York anti-Federalists nearly refused to ratify the Constitution. Some two decades later a few Federalist objectors to the War of 1812 argued for the secession of New England. In 1832 South Carolina’s legislature declared any federal tariffs increasing the cost of imported goods null and void, then passed a law authorizing a state military force – a bold stand for states’ rights.

Despite such threats, our earliest statesmen could have hardly imagined a day when the sons of the North and South would battle to the death for four long years. How could such a conflict come to pass?

Distant Worlds

Rice, indigo, and cotton were the South’s cash crops from colonial days on. Cotton production increased seven-fold between 1830 and 1850, and the slavery on which it relied became more and more entrenched.

At the same time, sectionalism – excessive devotion to regional interests – tightened its grip. People of the sparsely industrialized South took pride in their suspicion of the federal government, the gentility of the planter class, the slow pace of life, and even their paternalism toward the 40 percent of the population in bondage.

As farmland became exhausted, planters aimed to move on to new territories and take slavery with them. Politically, “slave power” (page 34) gave Southerners congressional influence beyond their numbers, and legislative compromises, starting with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, sought to maintain the balance of power between northern and southern states.

In contrast, the North was an industrial powerhouse. Its vestiges of slavery had disappeared by the 1830s, and increasing urbanization and diversity was the new normal above the Mason-Dixon Line. “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” became the clarion call, even though many Northerners feared the prospect of competing with freed blacks for jobs. Whether slavery would die a natural death over time or spread throughout a nation poised to conquer the world was the burning question.

Politics and Religion

Not all Southerners were proslavery, of course, nor were all Northerners antislavery. But it was majority opinion that mattered. At mid-century, political parties were molded from factions of old ones (pages 60–61), and the Republican Party emerged as the voice of those who sought to halt the expansion of slavery to the territories soon to be annexed as states. The Democratic Party would split over the issue.

Throwing morality and civil rights into the mix were social reforms born of the so-called Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revivalist crusade that swept the nation in the early 1800s. Activists in the North and South alike launched temperance, women’s suffrage, and abolition movements, and the abolitionists (pages 22–59) set off the loudest alarms.

A Quadruple Whammy

In the 1850s four key events – three legislative, one literary – inched the nation toward disunion.

Compromise of 1850. This act was a payoff to the South for its support of the admission of California as a free (non-slave) state and the end of slave trading in Washington, D. C. The poison pill within was the Fugitive Slave Act  (page 55), so grievous it tipped on-the-fence Northerners to the antislavery side and increased traffic on the Underground Railroad (page 49).

Publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel depicting the human costs of slavery heightened antislavery sentiment in the North and outraged the slaveholding South (page 40).

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act stipulated that a vote by citizens of a territory would determine its free state-slave state status. Violence soon erupted in Kansas as free-staters and proslavery guerrillas fought over its fate (page 34).

Dred Scott Decision. The Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in Scott vs. Sandford (page 52) not only declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional (stripping Congress’s power to ban slavery in new territories) but also made it impossible for even free blacks with slave ancestry to become citizens.

The Split

One blood-soaked fighter in Kansas was John Brown, who hatched a plot to kindle a slave rebellion and, in 1859, attacked the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (page 35). After Brown’s trial and execution, the national fever rose as Americans on opposing sides celebrated his martyrdom or decried his wild-eyed fanaticism.

Yet it wasn’t Brown who ignited the spark that flamed into war. It was the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln (no die-hard abolitionist, but dead-set against slavery’s spread) and the subsequent secession of seven states.

If it weren’t for slavery, sectional differences might have been resolved in the political arena. As it was, the men fondly or derisively called Rebels, Johnny Rebs, Greycoats, and Seceshes were about to battle Yankees, Billy Yanks, and Bluecoats in the gravest crisis ever to face the nation.

— Pages 6–9, I Used to Know That: Civil War (Reader’s Digest, 2011)