The Civil War

Before I take a bunch of flack from Civil War buffs, I realize that to try to explain the causes of the Civil War in 1200 words is completely absurd.  This is an essay that I had to do for my college course, and  was forced, and I repeat Forced, to write under the limitations of four pages double spaced.  For anyone who has tried to do it, you will agree that those four pages fill up very fast, and I used every last line for this essay.  I therefore beg you to read this essay with a little forgiveness.  Secondly, my goal with this essay is not to state an opinion on the war.  The goal of this essay is to be factual and nothing else.  Caveat over.  I am proceeding with the post.

The Civil War

By Don TroianiOne of my favorite Civil War paintings.

By Don Troiani
One of my favorite Civil War paintings.

The Civil War represents a conundrum in the history of this nation.  It is a subject that divides and creates controversy in and amongst the citizenry of America to this day.  In terms of net affect on the nation’s development and current makeup, the Civil war is unparalleled, with the possible exception of the Revolutionary War.  The plantation system and “king cotton” collapsed directly because of this prodigious struggle.  The Civil War nearly succeeded in permanently dividing an entire nation and in many cases did permanently divide families, the very fabric of the nation.  After all that bloodshed and violence, all that suffering and separation, there is argument over what was the root cause.

It is important to understand that purpose of the war and the cause of the war can be two totally different things.  Many consider the Civil War to be a war about slavery; others consider it to be a war about states rights.  Still others contend that the real purpose for the war was the preservation of the Union.  The general consensus is that the Civil War was inevitable, a ticking bomb armed at the ratification of the Constitution, and finally out of time in April 1861.

Those who say that the war was about slavery would in part be correct.  From a Northern perspective, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the war became about slavery.  Many of the Southern states succeeded from the Union in direct response to the election of Abraham Lincoln.  His extreme unpopularity in the South came from his Republican views primarily having to do with trade and his personal conviction against slavery, from which he drew significant public support.  In this sense also, slavery had a great deal to do with the war.  Lincoln’s association with the abolitionist agenda, in the Southern mind, if not in reality, and his subsequent election, triggered the beginning of the snowballing secessionist movement.

Of course, there are those who argue that the Civil War was actually about states’ rights and that slavery was only one of many issues in which the Federal Government was overstepping its bounds.  Those who hold this position are also correct in their perception of what the war was about.  The whole purpose of the war to the Southerner was to protect their rights, and state autonomy, from the Federal Government.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the only way they saw to protect those rights was to secede and start afresh.  Jefferson Davis is even reputed to have said during the war, “We are not revolutionists… We are not engaged in a Quixotic fight for the rights of man; our struggle is for inherited rights… We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.  We are conservative.” Southerners went to war to protect what they considered to be their rights.  Consequently, states’ rights were also a clear purpose of the Civil War.

Perhaps those who hold the position that the overarching purpose of the Civil war was for the preservation of the Union are the most correct.  This is not because either side fought primarily for this reason, but because a decision on this point was a necessity for the political objective of either side to be achieved.  In the South, rights could only be protected by remaining separate from the Union.  In the North, the preservation of the Union was at times a stated purpose of the war, especially in Lincoln’s mind.  But even excluding this; in order for the entirely political objective of freeing the slaves to be achieved, the South had to be kept from separating.  If the North had let the South go, there would have been no war.  Therefore, it is reasonable to say that the overarching purpose of the war was to decide if the Union was to be preserved or divided.

In light of this, many consider the issue of states’ rights to be the preeminent issue, perhaps even reaching the new level of being the root cause of the Civil War.  It is difficult to think that the issue of states’ rights alone was the fundamental root of the war, however.  While the issue of states’ rights certainly goes deeper than the issue of slavery specifically, it is interesting that only the Southern states considered states’ rights as being infringed.  The Federal Government was not enacting laws that were only infringing on some states’ rights.  What was it then, that was causing the South to feel its sovereignty was endangered, that did not trouble the North?  In the South, the cause of the war was states’ rights.  They believed that the Federal government was infringing on those rights.  The government, however, was infringing on the Southern states’ rights no more than it was infringing on the Northern states’ rights; and it was infringing on their rights, if in fact it was infringement, at the Northern states behest.

The conclusion that is becoming more and more prevalent is that the dichotomy between the North and South was not purely ideological but also very practical.  The North was an entirely different place from the South.  The North was industrialized and modern.  Its commercial needs required a strong central government.  The South was agrarian.  It supported traditionally decentralized government to promote its trade overseas and its autonomy.  The North and the South were two essentially opposite social systems, and because of this it was impossible to put in place laws, which would help one of them, and not somehow be unfavorable to the other.

The question of whether or not the Civil War was inevitable or not is not a simple yes or no answer.  In one sense, the Civil War was not inevitable.  Theoretically, all it would have taken to prevent the war was for either side to have changed their societal structure to match the other.  This is almost ludicrous to say, because it is nearly impossible to change the structure of society in a short period of time.  The social systems of a region are something that grow and develop, and to try to change it inorganically is dangerous at best.  The fact remains, however, that the war was not inevitable, in the strictest sense.

On the other hand, it is an entirely true statement to say that the Civil War was inevitable if the status quo remained the same. The same government cannot effectively govern two entirely different social structures, with completely opposite and diverse needs.  Some unifying factors are necessary.  In a governmental setting, diversity is manageable; dichotomy is impossible.  I believe this is what the attack on Fort Sumter meant.  Up until that time the public had been living in two categories.  The one, still believed that things could be concluded peacefully, the other, had already made the decision that irreconcilable differences divided the two regions and that either the South would slip away, or there would be conflict.  The attack on Fort Sumter was the official signal that the game was up.  It was time to choose sides.  As for me, I do not know what my decision would be, but I know that when news of the attack came, the world would have never looked the same again.

Wyatt Fairlead


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