Causes of the War

The Election of 1860 and Secession

By 1860, the divisions in the country had reached a breaking point. Southerners were outraged over a plot by abolitionist John Brown to start a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, an event that garnered headlines in newspapers and magazines across the nation. The November 19, 1859, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, for instance, led with the story The Harper’s Ferry Insurrection and an image of John Brown. Northern Republicans were equally angered by the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, declaring free soil unconstitutional. Northern Democrats, meanwhile, struggled to convince Americans that their policy of popular sovereignty still made sense.

<em>The Harper's Ferry Insurrection [John Brown, Now Under Sentence of Death for Treason and Murder, at Charleston, VA.]</em>

The Harper's Ferry Insurrection [John Brown, Now Under Sentence of Death for Treason and Murder, at Charleston, VA.]

The presidential Election of 1860 brought these conflicts to a head with dramatic consequences. The Democratic Party split into three groups along regional lines, each vying for control of the party and each holding different ideas about how to deal with slavery in the West. These three camps lined up against Abraham Lincoln, the nominee of the Republican Party, who advocated that the West be free of slavery entirely. Because Lincoln’s opponents were so deeply divided, he won with less than forty percent of the popular vote (but with fifty-nine percent of the Electoral College) and without taking a single slave state. Although Lincoln’s election was fair, it nonetheless pushed the Deep South toward secession.

South Carolina responded to Lincoln’s election first, seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860. This action made front-page news in the North two days later when Harper’s Weekly featured portraits of the state’s Congressmen on its cover, titled The Seceding South Carolina Delegation. Other slave states followed in short order: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In early February, representatives of those states gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, to found a new nation, The Confederate States of America (also known as the Confederacy), and to name its president, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. The contemporary map to the left shows how the country was divided along sectional lines in 1861. 

<em>The Seceding South Carolina Delegation</em>

The Seceding South Carolina Delegation

At first, a fragile peace prevailed. Many Americans, including citizens in the Upper South states that had not left the Union, tried to convince the seceded states to return. President James Buchanan declared secession unconstitutional, but did little else. When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, he gave a speech encouraging the South to return and promising that slavery would be protected where it already existed, but he refused to budge on his support of free soil ideas.

The United States on the Eve of the Civil War

The United States on the Eve of the Civil War

When Lincoln attempted to re-supply the Union troops stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, the stalemate collapsed. Lincoln had insisted that his government would not allow the Confederacy to take control of United States military forts in the South, which had begun to happen in many places. Lincoln was determined not to allow Fort Sumter to be taken, so he sent unarmed supply ships to the fort, giving Jefferson Davis advance notice of his actions. The Confederacy attacked the fort before the ships could arrive, opening fire on April 12, 1861. The Union troops inside held out for thirty-four hours, but finally surrendered on April 14 in the face of constant shelling. The next day, President Lincoln called out 75,000 militia men to put down the rebellion. War had begun.

President Lincoln’s call for troops prompted four more slave states—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas—to join the Confederacy in protest of what they viewed as Lincoln’s “coercion” of the South. Only four slave states—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware—remained in the Union. They became known as the Border States. This contemporary map shows which states were and were not part of the Union and where slavery was and was not allowed at the start of the Civil War.

<em>Our Banner in the Sky</em>

Our Banner in the Sky

Reports of the attack on Fort Sumter triggered strong feelings of patriotism and intense interest among the Northern public. And, as had been the case throughout the antebellum era, artists created works that commented on and documented the momentous events around them. Frederic E. Church's painting Our Banner in the Sky, for instance, was made in 1861, and shows a tattered flag in the sky much like the one that emerged from the attack. The publishing company Currier & Ives rapidly responded to the event by printing the Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, an inexpensive print showing the battle from the Confederate vantage point. This marked the beginning of a new and powerful relationship between artists and their public. Through the next four years of bloody war (and for generations afterward), they would help Americans “see” the war, and in so doing, help them understand and cope with the greatest cataclysm the country had ever experienced.

<em>Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor</em>

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor