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

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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Your quote from Mosby was when he had befriended Grant and become a consul for Hong Kong. I think he used the statement to better his position. Having read many memoirs and diaries, I find slavery rarely mentioned as a cause for men taking up arms. Although I believe slavery was the straw that broke the camels back, it was only one of many issues that caused the war. I truly despise that the honor of these brave men is being destroyed by modern socialist agendas. The more you stoke the fire, the more we lose our own history. It was a broad war and men fought for many reasons, to say it was all over slavery is a grave injustice.

Baseless Rhetoric

In what way do you think that your position -- that rare mentions of slavery in memoirs and diaries means that we should discount the basis for why southern states seceded -- is somehow not an attempt at revising history in terms of your own political agenda? If slavery had not existed in the south, what exactly would you point to as an issue or issues of a similar magnitude and so divisive that it/they would have caused a civil war? And please do not attempt to paint the article's author as some sort of ideologue. Use your knowledge of memoirs and diaries to show that Mosby was sucking up to Grant or admit that you're the ideologue in this issue.


I think where you begin to fall into error is when you consider individual soldier's motivations for war as equal to overarching political reasons for war. Slavery was indeed the political motivation for fighting- but when we look at any war in history, if we examine the foot soldier we find a myriad of individual motivations. Your statement is akin to saying that I read a memoir of a soldier from Vietnam and he didn't care about communism's spread, so the war wasn't about our government fighting over that issue.

Abolition of Slavery by British plan

I would like to know what consideration was given in the run up to the Civil War of using the British method of abolishing slavery from the 1830s.

Hi William. I don't know how

Hi William. I don't know how abolitionists incorporated British abolition into their thinking, but Edward Rugemer has written about it recently in his book, _The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War._ I just finished reading Matthew Karp's book, _This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy_, and you can say that southerners, indeed, gave a great deal of consideration to British abolition--in fact, they constructed a foreign policy in the 1840s and 1850s for the United States that was devoted specifically to strengthening Federal naval and military power and commercial trade agreements in order to protect hemispheric slave systems from what they considered to Britain's aggressive, hypocritical, and mistaken abolitionism. British abolition, then, forced southerners and slaveholders to imagine themselves suddenly in a global war against free labor.


Hi again William, I can't believe I forgot this, but Caleb McDaniel has a book (The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform) that traces the connections between, um, Garrisonain abolitionists and British reform movements. In short, they viewed themselves as not just working to end slavery, but as part of a larger struggle to defend liberal democracy in a world of monarchists and conservative regimes. So, yes, there is a connection there, too.

Causes of the Civil War

Any discussion about the causes of the war must focus solely on what they said and did up until the passage of the Confederate Government and inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Secondary--and supporting--consideration goes to the actions and/or inactions of the Government and the Armies. There should be little attention paid to memoirs that were written more than 15 years after the war in regards to the causes of the war--especially when what they wrote, said or did contradicts their memoir. With that said, The US and Confederate Constitutions are very similar: the differences are that the Confederate one has the Line Item Veto, a 6 year term-limit for the President, and it says that no government (state or federal) can interfere with slavery. As no one was ever going to fight anyone over the Line Item Veto ("Line Item Veto or Fight?") or term limits , one could say that slavery was the "Cornerstone" of the Confederate Government . In addition, many of the Secession Commissioners wrote about why they voted for secession shortly after they voted: they all cited slavery as the main issue and discussed it in great detail. The issue of slavery in the Confederate Constitution points out a conflict that "States Rights" proponents have with the Confederate Constitution. because while "States Rights" supporters believe that the state government should prevail over the federal government, the Constitution--a founding federal government document--said that the states could not import slaves from another country, could not restrict the transportation of slaves in and out of their State, and could not abolish slavery.. In addition, states also lost the ability to determine if foreigners could vote in their State. The Confederate Constitution did give states the right to impeach federal workers and judges, emit Bills of Credit, tax ships (provided this did not conflict with Confederate laws or treaties: Confederate law was superior to state law), and states could make treaties regarding waterways. However, the Supremacy Clause (which says that the Constitution and federal laws are superior to state laws), the Commerce Clause (which states that the federal government has the power "To regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes"), and the Necessary and Proper Clause (which says that Congress has the power "To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof". While the Confederate states did gain a few, relatively minor, rights, they also lost some rights while all of the clauses from the US Constitution regarding the superiority of federal over State laws are nearly identical to the ones in the Confederate Constitution. Even in the Confederacy, Federal law trumped State law.. "States Rights" was not an issue.

States Rights

When secession conventions mentioned states rights at all, it was to condemn the practice. Secessionists protested that the federal government had not taken sufficient action to enforce the fugitive slave law in states that had passed personal liberty laws.

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