The Road to the Civil War

Decades of Conflict Over Enslavement Led the Union to Split

Civil War Battle Scene
Rsberzerker/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The American Civil War happened after decades of regional conflict, focused on the central issue of enslavement in America, threatened to split the Union.

A number of events seemed to be pushing the nation closer to war. And following the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was known for his anti-enslavement views, states that allowed the practice began to secede in late 1860 and early 1861. The United States, it's fair to say, had been on the road to ​Civil War for a long time.

Great Legislative Compromises Delayed the War

Missouri Compromise Line
JWB/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

A series of compromises hammered out on Capitol Hill managed to delay the Civil War. There were three major compromises:

The Missouri Compromise in 1820 was the first major attempt to find some conciliation over the issue of enslavement. And it managed to postpone settling the issue for three decades. But as the country grew and new states entered the Union following the Mexican War, the Compromise of 1850 proved to be an unwieldy set of laws. One particular provision, the Fugitive Slave Act, increased tensions as it obligated northerners to assist in the apprehension of freedom seekers.

A novel which became very popular, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was inspired by outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1852 the public appreciation for the novel made the issue of enslavement relevant to readers who felt a deep connection to the book's characters. And it can be argued that the novel contributed to the eventual Civil War.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the brainchild of powerful Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, was intended to calm emotions. Instead it only made things worse, creating a situation in the West so violent that newspaper editor Horace Greeley coined the term Bleeding Kansas to describe it.

Senator Sumner Beaten as Bloodshed in Kansas Reached Into the U.S. Capitol

Charles Sumner
Matthew Brady/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The violence over enslavement in Kansas was essentially a small-scale Civil War. In response to the bloodshed in the territory, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a blistering denunciation of enslavers in the U.S. Senate chamber in May 1856.

A Congressman from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, was outraged. On May 22, 1856, Brooks, carrying a walking stick, strode into the Capitol and found Sumner seated at his desk in the Senate chamber, writing letters.

Brooks struck Sumner in the head with his walking stick and continued to rain blows down upon him. As Sumner tried to stagger away, Brooks broke the cane over Sumner's head, nearly killing him.

The bloodshed over the issue of enslavement in Kansas had reached the U.S. Capitol. Those in the North were appalled by the savage beating of Charles Sumner. In the South, Brooks became a hero and to show support many people sent him walking sticks to replace the one he had broken.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Stephen Douglas
Matthew Brady/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The national debate over enslavement was played out in microcosm in the summer and fall of 1858 as Abraham Lincoln, a candidate of the new anti-enslavement Republican Party, ran for a U.S. Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas in Illinois.

The two candidates held a series of seven debates in towns across Illinois, and the main issue was enslavement, specifically whether enslavement should be allowed to spread to new territories and states. Douglas was against restricting enslavement, and Lincoln developed eloquent and forceful arguments against the spread of the institution.

Lincoln would lose the 1858 Illinois senate election. But the exposure of debating Douglas began to give him a name in national politics. Powerful newspapers in the East carried transcripts of some of the debates, and readers concerned about enslavement began to think favorably of Lincoln as a new voice from the West.

John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry

John Brown
Sisyphos23/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

John Brown, a 19th-century American abolitionist who had participated in a bloody raid in Kansas in 1856, devised a plot that he hoped would spark an uprising by enslaved people across the South.

Brown and a small group of followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in October 1859. The raid quickly turned into a violent fiasco, and Brown was captured and hanged less than two months later.

In the South, Brown was denounced as a dangerous radical and a lunatic. In the North, he was often held up as a hero, with even Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau paying tribute to him at a public meeting in Massachusetts.

The raid on Harpers Ferry by John Brown may have been a disaster, but it pushed the nation closer to Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln's Speech at Cooper Union in New York City

Abraham Lincoln
Scewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In February 1860 Abraham Lincoln took a series of trains from Illinois to New York City and delivered a speech at Cooper Union. In the speech, which Lincoln wrote after diligent research, he made the case against the spread of enslavement.

In an auditorium packed with political leaders and advocates for ending enslavement in America, Lincoln became an overnight star in New York. The next day's newspapers ran transcripts of his address, and he was suddenly a contender for the 1860 presidential election.

In the summer of 1860, capitalizing on his success with the Cooper Union address, Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president during the party's convention in Chicago.

The Election of 1860: Lincoln, the Anti-Enslavement Candidate, Takes the White House

Abraham Lincoln
Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The election of 1860 was like no other in American politics. Four candidates, including Lincoln and his perennial opponent Stephen Douglas, split the vote. And Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

As an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, Lincoln received no electoral votes from southern states. And the states that allowed enslavement, incensed by Lincoln's election, threatened to leave the Union. By the end of the year, South Carolina had issued a document of secession, declaring itself no longer a part of the Union. Other such states followed early in 1861.

President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis

James Buchanan
Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

President James Buchanan, who Lincoln would replace in the White House, tried in vain to cope with the secession crisis rocking the nation. As presidents in the 19th century were not sworn in until March 4th of the year following their election, Buchanan, who had been miserable as president anyway, had to spend four agonizing months trying to govern a nation coming apart.

Probably nothing could have kept the Union together. But there was an attempt to hold a peace conference between North and South. And various senators and congressman offered plans for one last compromise.

Despite anyone's efforts, states that allowed enslavement kept seceding, and by the time Lincoln delivered his inaugural address the nation was split and war began to seem more likely.

The Attack on Fort Sumter

Currier and Ives depiction of bombardment of Fort Sumter
Bombardment of Fort Sumter, as depicted in a lithograph by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress/Public Domain

The crisis over enslavement and secession finally became a shooting war when cannons of the newly formed Confederate government began shelling Fort Sumter, a federal outpost in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.

The federal troops at Fort Sumter had been isolated when South Carolina had seceded from the Union. The newly formed Confederate government kept insisting that the troops leave, and the federal government refused to give in to the demands.

The attack on Fort Sumter produced no combat casualties. But it inflamed passions on both sides, and it meant the Civil War had started.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Road to the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Road to the Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Road to the Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).