Slavery and the Civil War
Although the southern states that seceded from the Union at the outset of the Civil War often claimed that “states rights” was the issue that resulted in secession, it was a thin argument; the truth was that the South, dependent since colonial times on slave labor, felt the North’s growing dissatisfaction with the slave situation in the South as a threat, a threat both to their livelihoods and their way of life.
The issue of slavery did not suddenly begin to be problematic with the election of anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln in 1859. As each state was admitted to the Union, a battle raged about whether or not it would be a free or slave state (despite the fact that slavery was actually legal in the United States from 1654 until 1865), as the precarious balance of free and slave states determined which section would dominate Congress.
The beginning of end of slavery actually began around the time of the American Revolution, when many white persons were still in the country as indentured servant and even as slaves. Between 1780 and 1804, nearly all Northern states passed emancipation laws that freed slaves – regardless of color – and granted African slaves limited rights.
The Southern states, had however, a much more compelling need for slave labor. While states on the northern edge of the Southern region had lesser need for slaves, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had made the cultivation of cotton in the rich soil of the Deep South and Delta plains lucrative; however, it was also backbreaking work that required many hands. Rice plantations in the coastal areas required African labor due to the fact that most African slaves were immune to the malaria that made working in rice fields a dangerous job for whites and even some Africans who had no immunity. By 1860, over three-quarters of the slaves held in the United States were held in the cotton and rice producing states of the Deep South.
Slavery created an insular, almost delusional society in the South. Southerners defended their “peculiar institution” on the basis that African-American slaves would not be able to fend for themselves if freed, and, in fact, would not want to be freed. They declaimed their fraternal love for their slaves, all the while glossing over the harsh realities of the slave trade, the slaves who were beaten into submission, and railed against Northern abolitionists who refused to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that any runaway slave be returned to his or her owner.
Not surprisingly, the states in the Deep South that held the most slaves – South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas – were the first to secede after the election of Lincoln to the presidency. Lincoln had made no secret of his distaste for slavery, and these states knew that abolition of slavery would be financially disastrous for the plantations that were the backbone of their states. Also not surprising was that the states with the fewest slaves – such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee – were late to secession. Border states like Kentucky and Missouri, who had areas that relied heavily on slavery and areas where few or no slaves were held at all, were contested throughout the war, claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy.
Virginia actually split over the decision to secede; the northwestern counties of the state refused to secede and broke away to become West Virginia.
After the creation of the Confederate States of America and the beginning of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of slaves began to escape to the North from the border states; however, little changed in the slaveholding states in the Deep South until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Although Lincoln’s proclamation in essence freed all slaves in the United States, the Confederacy naturally refused to honor the proclamation, and slaves in the South were not freed until reached by Union troops. In some areas, this took until the end of the war, when the Federal occupation of the South removed most Southern politicians from power.
While the desire to preserve the Union on the Northern side, and the desire to uphold their own laws on the Southern side no doubt contributed to the Civil War, it is indisputable that the need would never have arose had the issue of slavery not split the two regions in two. As Lincoln said during his campaign for the presidency, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
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