The American Civil War and Secession

Portrait of Jefferson Davis.
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

The Civil War was a fight to preserve the Union which was the United States of America. From the conception of the Constitution, there were two differing opinions on the role of the federal government. Federalists believed that the federal government and the executive needed to maintain their power in order to ensure the survival of the union. On the other hand, anti-federalists held that states should retain much of their sovereignty within the new nation. Basically, they believed that each state should have the right to determine the laws within its own borders and should not be forced to follow the mandates of the federal government unless absolutely necessary.

As time passed the rights of the states would often collide with various actions the federal government was taking. Arguments arose over taxation, tariffs, internal improvements, the military, and of course enslavement.

Northern Versus Southern Interests

Increasingly, the Northern states squared off against the Southern states. One of the main reasons for this was that the economic interests of north and south were opposed to each other. The South was largely comprised of small and large plantations that grew crops such as cotton which were labor-intensive. The North, on the other hand, was more of a manufacturing center, using raw materials to create finished goods. Enslavement had been ended in the north but continued in the south due to the need for inexpensive labor and the ingrained culture of the plantation era. As new states were added to the United States, compromises had to be reached concerning whether they would be admitted as free states or those that allowed enslavement. The fear of both groups was for the other to gain an unequal amount of power. If more slave states existed, for example, then they would garner more power in the nation.

The Compromise of 1850: Precursor to the Civil War

The Compromise of 1850 was created to help stave off an open conflict between the two sides. Among the five parts of the Compromise were two rather controversial acts. First Kansas and Nebraska were given the ability to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free states or those that allowed enslavement. While Nebraska was decidedly a free state from the start, pro and anti-slavery forces traveled to Kansas to try and influence the decision. Open fighting broke out in the territory causing it to be known as Bleeding Kansas. Its fate would not be decided until 1861 when it would enter the union as a free state.

The second controversial act was the Fugitive Slave Act which gave enslavers great latitude in traveling north to capture any freedom seekers. This act was hugely unpopular with both North American 19th-century Black activists and more moderate anti-enslavement forces in the North.

Abraham Lincoln's Election Leads to Secession

By 1860 the conflict between northern and southern interests had grown so strong that when Abraham Lincoln was elected president South Carolina became the first state to break off from the Union and form its own country. Ten more states would follow with secession: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. On February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed with Jefferson Davis as its president.

The Civil War Begins

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president in March 1861. On April 12, Confederate forces led by General P.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter which was a federally held fort in South Carolina. This began the American Civil War.

The Civil War lasted from 1861 until 1865. During this time, over 600,000 soldiers representing both sides were killed either by battle deaths or disease. Many, many more were wounded with estimates of more than 1/10th of all soldiers being wounded. Both the north and the south experienced major victories and defeats. However, by September 1864 with the taking of Atlanta, the North had gained the upper hand and the war would officially end on April 9, 1865.

The Aftermath of the Civil War

The beginning of the end for the Confederacy was with General Robert E. Lee's unconditional surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. However, skirmishes and small battles continued to occur until the last general, Native American Stand Watie, surrendered on June 23, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to institute a liberal system of Reconstructing the South. However, his vision of Reconstruction was not to become reality after Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865. The Radical Republicans wanted to deal harshly with the South. Military rule was instituted until Rutherford B. Hayes officially ended Reconstruction in 1876.

The Civil War was a watershed event in the United States. The individual states after years of reconstruction would end up joined together in a stronger union. No longer would questions concerning secession or nullification be argued by individual states. Most importantly, the war officially ended enslavement.

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Kelly, Martin. "The American Civil War and Secession." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). The American Civil War and Secession. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The American Civil War and Secession." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).