Top 9 Events That Led to the Civil War

While the American Civil War (1861—1865) was devastating for the United States in terms of human loss of life, it was also the event that caused the American states to finally become united. A variety of events prompted the war, not just the underlying issues of slavery and states rights. From the end of the Mexican War to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the war’s roots were numerous and diverse.

of 09

The Mexican War Ended

Mexican War
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

With the end of the Mexican War in 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, America was ceded western territories. This posed a problem. As these new territories would be admitted as states, would they be free or slave states? To deal with this, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which basically made California free and allowed the people in Utah and New Mexico to choose for themselves. This ability of a state to decide whether it would allow slavery was called popular sovereignty.

of 09

Fugitive Slave Act

Fugitive Slave Act
African-American refugees on a barge which contains their household belonging, 1865. Library of Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. This act forced any federal official who did not arrest a runaway slave to pay a fine. This was the most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 and caused many abolitionists to increase their efforts against slavery. This act also prompted more activity along the Underground Railroad as fleeing slaves made their way to Canada.

of 09

'Uncle Tom's Cabin' Was Released

Uncle Tom's Cabin
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

"Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly" was written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was an abolitionist who wrote this book to show the evils of slavery. This book, which was a best-seller at the time, had a huge impact on the way that Northerners viewed slavery. It helped further the cause of abolition, and even Abraham Lincoln recognized that this book's publication was one of the events that led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

of 09

Bleeding Kansas Shocked Northerners

Bleeding Kansas
19th May 1858: A group of freesoiler settlers being executed by a pro-slavery group from Missouri at Marais Des Cygnes in Kansas. Five freesoilers were killed in the single most bloody incident during the border struggles between Kansas and Missouri which were led to the epithet 'Bleeding Kansas'. MPI / Getty Images

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide for themselves using popular sovereignty whether they wanted to be free or slave. By 1856, Kansas had become a hotbed of violence as pro- and anti-slavery forces fought over the state's future to the point where it was nicknamed "Bleeding Kansas." The widely reported violent events were a small taste of the violence to come with the Civil War.

of 09

Charles Sumner Attacked by Preston on the U.S. Senate Floor

Preston Brooks
A political cartoon showing South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beating abolitionist and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber, after Brooks accused Sumner of insulting his uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, in an anti-slavery speech. Bettman / Getty Images

One of the most publicized events in Bleeding Kansas was when, on May 21, 1856, Border Ruffians ransacked Lawrence, Kansas, which was known to be a staunch free-state area. One day later, violence occurred on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a cane after Sumner had given a speech condemning the pro-slavery forces for the violence occurring in Kansas.

of 09

Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1857, Dred Scott lost his case that argued that he should be free because he had been held as a slave while living in a free state. The Supreme Court ruled that his petition could not be seen because he did not hold any property. But it went further, stating that even though he had been taken by his "owner" into a free state, he was still a slave because slaves were to be considered the property of their owners. This decision furthered the cause of abolitionists as they increased their efforts to fight against slavery.

of 09

Lecompton Constitution Rejected

James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Fifteenth President of the United States. Bettman / Getty Images

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, Kansas was allowed to determine whether it would enter the Union as free or slave. Numerous constitutions were advanced by the territory to make this decision. In 1857, the Lecompton Constitution was created, allowing for Kansas to be a slave state. Pro-slavery forces supported by President James Buchanan attempted to push the Constitution through the U.S. Congress for acceptance. However, there was enough opposition that in 1858 it was sent back to Kansas for a vote. Even though it delayed statehood, Kansas voters rejected the Constitution and became a free state.

of 09

John Brown Raided Harper's Ferry

John Brown
John Brown (1800 - 1859) the American abolitionist. The song in memory of his exploits during the Harpers Ferry Raid 'John Brown's Body' was a popular marching song with Union soldiers. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had been involved in anti-slavery violence in Kansas. On October 16, 1859, he led a group of 17, including five black members, to raid the arsenal located in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). His goal was to start a slave uprising using the captured weapons. However, after capturing several buildings, Brown and his men were surrounded and eventually killed or captured by troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried and hanged for treason. This event added more fuel to the growing abolitionist movement that helped lead to open warfare in 1861.

of 09

Abraham Lincoln Was Elected President

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States. Library of Congress

With the election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, South Carolina followed by six other states seceded from the Union. Even though his views about slavery were considered moderate during the nomination and presidential campaign, South Carolina had warned it would secede if he won. Lincoln agreed with the majority of the Republican Party that the South was becoming too powerful and made it part of the party platform that slavery would not be extended to any new territories or states added to the Union.