<Standard 5.34

Identify the key issues that contributed to the onset of the Civil War.

Map Key: Dark Red: States that seceded before April 15, 1861; Light Red: States that seceded after April 15, 1861; Yellow: Union states that permitted slavery; Blue: Union states that forbade slavery; Gray: Territories. Map on Wikimedia Commons by Júlio Reis

external image 200px-US_Secession_map_1861.svg.png

Focus Question: What events led to the start of the Civil War?

For more on the coming of the Civil War, see USI.36

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A. The debate over slavery and westward expansion

U.S. Slavery Statistics through 1860
U.S. Slavery Statistics through 1860

Due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery was prohibited in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30' north except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.

The balance of free and slave states was finally disrupted in 1850, when Southerners permitted California to enter as a free state in exchange for laws strengthening slavery.

This balance was further upset with the additions of free Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859). Also, along with the widening gap between free and slaves states the North became increasingly industrialized, welcoming urban growth and European immigrants, whereas the South continued to flourish with their agrarian plantation-style economy.

The industrialization in the North supported high birth rates and a large influx of European immigrants which doomed the Southern effort to maintain balance in the government, specifically the Senate.

The collapse of America's two party system also led to the Civil War. The two political parties around 1820 were the Whigs, who primarily found support from the Northern states and the Democrats who were more orientated from the Southern states. However, the Whigs from the North blended into a new Republican party.

The Presidential Election of 1860 introduced a new party as well, the Constitutional Union party, formed by the border states. The election's four candidates were Abraham Lincoln for the Republicans, Stephen Douglas for the Northern Democrats, John C. Breckinridge for the Southern Democrats and John C. Bell for the new Constititonal Union party.

Balloting unfolded along precise sectional lines as Lincoln won the North, Breckinridge won the South, and Bell won the border states. Douglas claimed Missouri and part of New Jersey. The North, with its growing population and increased electoral power had accomplished what the South had always feared: complete control of the government by the free states.


In response to Lincolns victory, on December 24, 1860, South Carolina successfully left the Union. In the winter that followed, commonly called the "Secession Winter" of 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all seceeded from the Union. In February 1861, delegates from the seven seceded states met in Montgomery, AL and formed the Confederate States of America. Working through the month, they produced the Confederate States Constitution which was adopted on March 11. This document mirrored the US Constitution in many ways, but provided for the explicit protection of slavery as well as espoused a stronger philosophy of states' rights. To lead the new government, the convention selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Davis, a Mexican-American War veteran, had previously served as a US Senator and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.

At his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stated that the US Constitution was a binding contract and that the Southern states' secession had no legal basis. Continuing, he said that he had no intention of ending slavery where it already existed and did not plan on invading the South. He was, however willing to use force to retain possession of federal installations in the seceded states.

During March 1861, a debate raged in the Confederate government regarding how forceful they should be in trying to take possession of Fort Sumter, which currently housed Union soldiers. Lincoln did not wish to anger the border states by appearing as the aggressor, but with supplies low in the fort, Lincoln informed the governor of South Carolina, Francis W. Pickens, that he intended to have the fort re-provisioned, and promised that no additional men or munitions would be sent. This news was passed to the Confederate President in Montgomery, where the decision was made to compel the fort's surrender before Lincoln's ships arrived.

Shots were eventually fired upon Fort Sumter to force its surrender, before Lincoln's ships could arrive. In response to the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to put the rebellion down and ordered the US Navy to blockade Southern ports. While the Northern states readily sent troops, those states in the upper South hesitated. Unwilling to fight fellow Southerners, the states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina opted to secede and joined the Confederacy. In response, the capital was moved from Montgomery to Richmond, VA.

Thus, Lincoln started to move troops south, and the Civil War began.

Multimedia.pngLink to video detailing events that led to the civil war Video

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