Civil War Summary, Part 1: A Fight Over Slavery

As our neighborhood explores our relationship with our street and community names, the Community Forward team has researched and written about topics deemed contextually relevant. This blog post is the first in a two-part series providing a very brief summary of the civil war. Read Part 2: Major Battles and explore more context posts on the Community Forward category on our blog.

The events preceding the U.S. Civil War are numerous and complex, but they primarily involved conflicts between northern and southern states over the expansion and regulation of slavery. These began in 1793, when the first Fugitive Slave Act “authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight.” Following widespread resistance to the law by Northern states, a southern-majority Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It contained harsher sentences for runaway slaves and those assisting in their escape.

An early conflict that set the stage for the later war was known as “Bleeding Kansas.” At one time, new states were admitted into the Union as pairs: one slave state below the Mason-Dixon line, and one free state, above the line. After slave-owning Missouri located above the demarcation became a state, the government used a policy of popular sovereignty instead. Residents of a territory would now decide whether their state would be slave-owning or free. When Kansas became eligible for statehood, people from outside the territory poured into Kansas to influence the decision. Violence between pro- and anti-slavery camps erupted in 1854 and continued until Kansas entered the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861.

The Dred Scott case was another pivotal moment in the antebellum (pre-war) era. Dred Scott was an African-American man born into slavery. After he was taken by his owner to live in the free state of Illinois for four years, he sued to become a free permanent resident and U.S. citizen. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that because Scott was born into slavery and therefore considered property under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, he was ineligible to become an American citizen. This ruling upset free states, and further increased tensions leading to the Civil War.

Dred Scott, portrait by Louis Schultze. Source: Missouri Historical Society

Beyond slavery, economic tensions were also building between North and South. As the north began to industrialize, the federal government enacted a series of tariffs on textiles and raw materials in an attempt to incentivize the purchase of American-made goods. Southerners vehemently opposed these tariffs, as they raised prices of many goods and threatened the cotton-textile trade between the South and the United Kingdom.

All of these events were at the forefront of the 1860 election, as the quickly fracturing nation voted in a similarly fractured election. Southern Democrats left the 1860 Democratic convention after abolitionist Stephen Douglass became the frontrunner. Many southerners viewed the Republican Party’s vow to stop the expansion of slavery as a threat to their way of life, even though the party had not adopted an outwardly abolitionist platform. Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln was not on the ballot in nine southern states, and did not win any other southern state. Still, he won the election with under 40% of the popular vote. 

A month after the election, South Carolina announced its secession from the United States. Evoking the Declaration of Independence, South Carolina claimed that the northern states, by refusing to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, by ending the slave trade, and by “inciting servile insurrection”, had encroached on its right to property (slaves). Referencing the election of Lincoln, South Carolina stated that the north elected “a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

By Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states had seceded and a Constitution of the Confederate States of America had been adopted. The constitution was nearly identical to the United States’, and there were no additional protections for individual or states’ rights outside of the institution of slavery. the most significant addition to the new constitution, Article IV, Section 9, Clause 4 read, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” After the war, Col. Mosby said, “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about, I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.”

Read about major battles in the Civil War in Part 2 of this 2-part series.

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