Division of a Nation

Division of a Nation

The Civil War is often referred to as the time of our nation’s darkest days. It has been given many names, such as the War Between the States, the War Against Northern Aggression, the War of Rebellion, the Brothers’ War, and others. No matter what name you use, it was without a doubt one of the most important events in the history of the nation. It brought slavery to an end, which in turn caused the downfall of the Southern plantation and the aristocracy of plantation owners. It began a new political era, and marked the start of industrialization, big business, and strong central government. The Civil War was also the costliest war in American history, with more than 620,000 fatalities (two percent of the population!) — more than any war before or since.

During the Civil War, the country was divided between the North (Union States) and the South (Confederate States). The division began long before the onset of the war in 1861. It had many causes, but there were two main issues that split the nation: first was the issue of slavery, and second was the balance of power in the federal government.

Pre-War engraving of slaves working in a Georgia cotton field. Courtesy Library of Congress
 Pre-War engraving of slaves working in a Georgia cotton field. (Courtesy Library of Congress) 

The South was primarily an agrarian society. Throughout the South were large plantations that grew cotton, tobacco and other labor-intensive crops. The more than four million slaves in the South were crucial to the plantation way of life. They provided cheap labor, which allowed the plantation owners to grow their crops more cheaply than hiring free people to work the fields. Without slaves, the South believed that their region’s economy would be destroyed.

The North, however, consisted mostly of large urban cities and did not have a great need for slave labor. They also wanted their tax dollars spent on things like new roads, canals and railroads. However, the South was more rural, so they did not have the need for such infrastructure. This led to a disagreement with the North on how to spend the tax dollars. The North, and many people in the South, also felt that slavery should be abolished for moral reasons.

A Delicate Balance

The balance of power in the federal government also played an important role in dividing the nation. When the country was founded, the founding fathers wanted to make sure that a king or dictator never ruled us again. Therefore, the Constitution limits the power of the federal government and allows individual states to make many decisions on their own. The founding fathers were fearful that the federal government would become very powerful and try to rule over the states’ individual rights and freedoms.

Southerners thought that the Constitution gave them the power as a state to declare any national federal law illegal. They thought that states’ rights were greater than federal rights. But the Northerners believed that the national government’s power superceded the states’. Therefore, as new states were admitted to the Union, it tipped the balance of power.

Each state has two senators and if you have an equal number of slave states and free states, then you have an equal number of senators who would vote similarly on issues. However, in the first half of the 1800s, the Union was growing at an enormous rate. As the nation’s borders pushed westward, there was much tension as to whether each new state would be slave or free.

If a new state allowed slavery, then it was more likely to tip the balance of power in favor of the Democrats. If it were a free state, it would tilt the power in favor of the Whig Party. Because neither party wanted to upset the balance of power, they tried to compromise. One compromise was the Missouri Compromise.

In 1820, Missouri sought admission to the Union as a slave-holding state. But this would tip the power in the Senate, so after two years of debating, they finally agreed that Missouri could enter as a slave state as long as Maine was allowed to enter into the Union as a free state. The compromise also prohibited slavery north of the latitude 36° 30’ in the Louisiana Purchase — with the exception of Missouri.

The compromise worked for a while, but then there were disagreements over land acquired from Mexico after the Mexican-American War. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state, and gave the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah the ability to decide for themselves if they were going to be free or slave states.

The End of Compromise

A third comprise was tried in 1854. It was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and it allowed settlers in those states to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery or not when they applied for statehood. However, the act split the Democratic Party and destroyed the Whig Party, members of which would join with the antislavery Democrats to form the Republican Party.

President Lincoln won the presidency as the first Republican president in November 1860. He won with only 40 percent of the vote and was not even on the ballot in 10 southern states. His election was the last straw for the South. They were afraid that President Lincoln would try to abolish slavery in all states, and on Nov. 6, 1860, the slave states met to consider seceding from the Union.

South Carolina was the first state to secede on Dec. 20, 1860. Over the next month, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all followed in secession to form the Confederate States of America. On Feb. 8, 1861, these states adopted the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. It was similar to the U.S. Constitution, but it strengthened the rights of the slaveholders.

On April 12 at 4:30 a.m., the Civil War began when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. President Lincoln saw this as an act of treason. He called for 75,000 troops, which alarmed the other slave sates of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The four states then seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. There was no turning back now, and no compromise would save the Union this time.


Click on the images for a larger view.

General map of the United States showing the area and extent of free and slave holding states and the Territories of the Union. Courtesy Library of CongressGeneral map of the United States showing the area and extent of free and slave holding states and the Territories of the Union. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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“Tunis’ New Colored Rail Road Map” ca. 1858 showing the railroad lines in the U.S. and Canada. “Tunis’ New Colored Rail Road Map” ca. 1858 showing the railroad lines in the U.S. and Canada. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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map of the The Compromise of 1850The Compromise of 1850.

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This 1856 map shows slaves states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. Territories (green), and Kansas in center (white).This 1856 map shows slaves states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. Territories (green), and Kansas in center (white). (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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1860 Electoral College Map1860 Electoral College Map. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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map of state successionUnited States map of 1861, show affiliation of states and territories regarding the Secession War (Civil War.)

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