Myths & Misunderstandings

Myths & Misunderstandings: What Caused the Civil War


Earlier this summer, comments on one of our Facebook posts sparked a larger conversation about recurring debates about the Civil War. We asked our visitors, social media audiences, and staff to generate a list of the questions or topics about the Civil War that they think are the most misunderstood. 

In providing answers to these, our goal is to do the research for you, consulting with primary sources, leading historians, and the latest scholarship, and distill it into something you can read quickly over a cup of coffee. Join us every other week for the next installment of this new blog series: Myths and Misunderstandings. 

 

By John Coski
Historian

The war between the United States and the Confederate States began on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina. The immediate cause was Constitutional principle: the U.S. government refused to recognize the southern states’ right to secede from the Union, and the C.S. government asserted that right by seizing federal property within its states’ borders. President Abraham Lincoln’s April 15 call for volunteers to suppress the “insurrection” confirmed white southerners’ fears of Federal “coercion,” and prompted four Upper South states to join the Confederacy and, thus, widen the war. 

Although they were the proximate cause of conflict, Constitutional principle and secession were not the ultimate cause of the War. To identify that ultimate cause, we must examine the words of those who led the secessionist movement.

In 1894, legendary Confederate partisan leader, Col. John S. Mosby expressed surprise at a recent speech in which the orator dismissed “the charge that the South went to war for slavery” as a “‘slanderous accusation.’” “I always understood that we went to War on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” Mosby observed. “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.” 

In contrast to the post-war efforts to downplay the importance of slavery, it dominated the thinking and the rhetoric of southern statesmen in 1860-1861. Deep South states sent commissioners to the Upper South states to persuade them to leave the Union. Their arguments emphasized the mortal danger that the recent election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president posed to slavery and to white people in the South. The formal explanations that several states issued to justify secession similarly emphasized slavery. (For these sources, please see the related links accompanying this entry.) Even Virginia, which seceded after war began, had formulated a list of demands that the U.S. government must meet if Virginia were to remain in the Union; all of them related to slavery and race. 

Typically, Mississippi’s November 30, 1860 resolutions – passed in response to Lincoln’s election – began with a strong defense of state sovereignty and rights, but moved quickly to a reminder of the original Constitutional guarantees of slavery and the northern states’ violations of those guarantees. Ironically, southerners were insisting on the enforcement of Federal fugitive slave laws against northern assertion of their “states’ rights.”   

Defense of “states’ rights,” southern “honor” (that is, an intense resentment of perceived northern criticism and condescension), fear of Federal “coercion,” and a growing belief that the South and North were divergent civilizations all factored into the decision making of southern statesmen in 1860-1861. But it was not those abstract motives that prompted secession and led to war. The South’s defense of the very real institution of slavery and of the economy, society, culture, and civilization built upon slavery was the indispensable factor that led to war.

 

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