From 1861 to 1865, the U.S. Civil War brought about more American deaths than any other conflict in the nation’s history – but why? Many assume the Civil War was fought solely on the issue of slavery, but there were other cultural and economic factors. Ultimately, those who seceded from the Union believed each state had the right to leave, and those who remained did not. Why each of the eleven Confederate states left in the first place is a bit more complicated.
The initial European colonies were primarily agrarian – meaning that farming of one kind or another, primarily cotton, drove most of the economy. By the late 1700s, however, the Industrial Revolution had begun. New England cities began to fill as factories replaced farms, and agriculture, in general, moved west. By the time the nation split in the mid-1800s, the northern and eastern states held most of their populations in large cities built around industry, commerce, and financial services. Agriculture dominated the economy in the South, which was largely rural.
As the two regions grew more distinct from each other in the way people lived, their respective cultures developed differently.
By the time of the Civil War, cotton was the primary crop grown in the South. As the saying went, “cotton is king.” However, if the crops didn’t produce for any reason, farmers often had to turn to banks in the North – or even overseas – for loans. To make matters worse, other nations also grew and exported cotton. So while the southern economy was mostly tied to the success of a single crop, machines in the northern factories and the various service-related industries were much more stable. What’s more, as southern farmers turned to northern banks for financial help, the turmoil in the South became profit for the North.
The balance of power in the United States has always been an issue. As is still the case today, the more industrialized, urban areas of the North wanted a stronger, more active federal government and more submissive states. Those more rural groups who lived much farther from the nation’s capital and the center of government power believed very strongly in state sovereignty and preferred as little federal involvement in their lives as possible.
As the North urbanized and industrialized, slavery became obsolete. In the South, however, the practice was vital to the survival of the cotton industry. Therefore, both the economy and much of the culture of the South were built upon it.
While each of the 11 states that eventually seceded cited the preservation of slavery as a cause in its article of secession, it was less about whether slavery should be abolished and more about who should have the authority to maintain or end it: the nation or the individual state. Indeed, the last four states to join the Confederacy – Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee – initially voted to remain in the Union and only seceded after President Lincoln demanded they provide troops to help conquer the others.
The issue of slavery inspired passion on each side: To the abolitionist, slaveholders were human rights violators. To the slaveholders, the abolitionists were tyrants with no right to force their will upon anyone else. As the nation grew, each new state to enter the Union had to either be admitted as free or slave. This caused the tension to grow even further between the two sides.
Two Nations Grown Apart
The North and the South had entirely different economic priorities and cultural beliefs. They had different views on whether slavery was acceptable and just whose authority it was to decide the matter. Just as the colonists had many years before, the Confederates felt that the government that ruled them did not represent them or care for their causes.
When Lincoln was elected president, it was without a single electoral vote from the South. This was proof enough for most southerners that they no longer had any control in how they would be governed. Like the colonists before them, they decided to break away and form a new nation. Lincoln refused to allow secession, and the Union fought to make the former states rejoin, just as Britain had. It was called by many the Second Revolution – but this time, the new nation lost, and the union that had been formed less than a century earlier was ultimately restored.