How We Got to the Civil War

The Civil War, which lasted between 1861 and 1865 brought sweeping changes to the way America worked. In determining how we got to fighting a war, we must examine the tensions between the Northern U.S. and the Southern U.S. leading up to the war. The South’s cotton-dependent economy, growing aboliton fever in the North, and the 1860 election were the three major factors leading up to the war. Although there were many other factors that arose the tensions between the North and the South, these three were the most significant. Thus, to a larger extent this problem was based on many events that increased the tension between the two regions and ultimately led us to fighting this war.

In the time leading up to the war, the economy of the Southern United States was dependent on cotton, and enslaved Africans were used to pick the cotton. Slavery was dying down until 1793, When Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin. This increased production and due to the pursuit of money by plantation owners, increased the demand for slavery substantially. Most of the manufacturing jobs, valuable goods, and railroad miles were in the North right before the war started (Document B in the What Caused the Civil War DBQ). The only area where the South outpaced the North was cotton production, which shows that their economy could not survive without cotton at the time. This cotton dependence correlated with a dependence on slave labor to pick the cotton and produce it. A large issue in the war was whether to allow slavery,  so we can see how the Southern economy is tied to the Civil War.

Also, in the 17 and 1800s, there was a growing movement in Northern states to abolish slavery. This led to tensions with the South because they were very reliant on slavery for their economy. To resolve the growing tensions, Congress made the two regions compromise, as was shown in the Missouri Compromise. However, when the Compromise of 1850 brought a fugitive slave law the North wouldn’t enforce tensions between the two regions heightened. This was visible in John Brown’s raids and Bleeding Kansas in the 1850s. The spirit of compromise had broken down and both sides began to feel stronger about their causes. Congressional neutrality on the issue also led both sides to think Congress was working for “the enemy,” further pitting them against each other. This led the abolitionist movement to become a contributing factor to the Civil War.

The tipping point in the Civil War was the 1860 Presidential election. There were four candidates in this election: Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, who opposed further expansion of slavery, Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who felt popular sovereignty should decide whether a new territory will allow slavery or not, Southern Democrat and then-Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, who believed slavery should not be banned in any territory, and John Bell of Tennessee, from the Constitutional Union party. The Constitutional Union party advocated for moderation and had no stances on the issue of slavery or other North vs. South issues.  On election day, Lincoln won with just 40% of the popular vote, which was the highest out of all four candidates. Lincoln also recieved 59% of the nation’s Electoral Votes, because he won all the Northern states, which were generally more populous than the Southern states. South Carolina was not happy about this at all. It was the first state to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election. On December 20 1860, the South Carolina legislature adopted an ordinance that removed it from the United States of America on a 169-0 vote. Other southern states soon seceded and formed the Confederate states of America because they viewed Lincoln as “too radical” and he was anti-slavery. On April 12, 1861 a group of South Carolinans attacked Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor. The reason for the attack was that Fort Sumter was one of the few southern forts that had not fallen to the Confederacy, and thus was still in Union control. The locals viewed this as a Union “invasion”. The Union was not pleased about the attack, and fought back because they wanted to defend themselves. That set off the Civil War, which would last for the next four years and end with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, VA.

To summarize, there was very high tension between the Northern and Southern U.S. in the years leading up to the Civil War. The two regions were very divided on the issue of slavery, which was a major cause. The abolition fever in the North for moral purposes contrasted strongly with the pro-slavery views in the South for economic purposes. Congressional neutrality provoked both sides into thinking they were helping “the enemy.” The 1860 Presidential election was the tipping point, because the South felt Lincoln’s anti-slavery expansion views were “too radical.” All but three slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The issue of states rights was also major in the Civil War, as it was mainly fought because of southern secession.


1. “The Election of 1860.” The Election of 1860 []. Independence Hall Association in Phildelphia, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

2. Peters, Gerhard. “1860 Presidential Election.” 1860 Presidential Election. The American Presidency Project, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

3. “The South Secedes.” The South Secedes []. Independence Hall Association in Phildelphia, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.

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