Weekly Feature

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The American Civil War: Catalysts

February 26, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
The surrender of the Confederates to the Union Army in 1865 was a drawn-out but monumental process that effectively ended slavery forever. But the enormous death toll from the war and the accession of the South was a mixed blessing for the United States: 2 percent of the population was lost in the war, and African Americans had to wait exactly a century before the end of the Civil War would fully mean freedom.

Lessons on a Battlefield

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The Civil War is a grand and tragic milestone in U.S. history. We continue to study that time, to write books about it, and to marvel at the struggle of its witnesses, whom some of us can even claim as forebears. Our fascination lies in the seemingly unanswerable question: Why did America go to war with itself? In the PBS documentary “Civil War,” Ken Burns proclaimed, “Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers—if only to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive of how that was possible.”

The Role of Slavery

President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address of 1861, called slavery “the only substantial dispute” between North and South, and claimed that physical separation would not be the end of that dispute. But although not the only dispute (the war was more complex than simply an argument for and against slavery), slavery was the visible, painful icon of the nation’s conflict.

This slideshow from the American Civil War Center site introduces us to slavery’s role. Slavery created a “power struggle between North and South,” and a fierce debate on whether a “republic dedicated to liberty” could conceivably support a such a practice.

The Geography of Slavery

For several decades leading up to the Civil War, the United States was growing quickly, acquiring new land far faster than it could possibly absorb. As far back as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, politicians debated over which of the new states would be admitted as “slave” or “free.” The Compromise of 1850 made things even more divisive: Henry Clay determined that “Maine would separate from Massachusetts and be admitted as a free state; Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state; and the remaining territory of the Louisiana Purchase, which lay north of the 36-30 parallel, would be closed off to slavery.”

Shuffling Slave and Free States

As the century progressed, both the proponents of slavery and abolitionists won concessions from legislators. More important, as California and other western states entered the Union around 1850, some were bestowed a choice: New Mexico and Utah, purchased from Mexico, “determined slavery status by 'popular sovereignty,' allowing the inhabitants to decide for themselves.” California became a free state, and slave trade, but not slavery itself, was abolished in the District of Columbia. It’s clear from these transactions and their surrounding political debates that compromise was merely a cork in a sinking ship. The moves “temporarily preserved the Union,” but two distinct schools of thought remained, potent and determined. 

Players in the Shuffle

No single military figure was at the helm of the Civil War, though General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Federal Army, is traditionally thought to be the most significant leader of the Union side. An overview at CivilWar.com describes both Grant and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army. The site also describes the beginning of the war and some key points along the way, and includes maps, photos and timelines.
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