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Causes of the Civil War

In 1860-1861, the United States split apart. How did we get to that point? Why did the Southern states leave the Union? Was war inevitable? What were the combatants fighting about? You can explore these and other questions at the Center and learn what motivated Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.

Fort SumterThe first section of the exhibit focuses on the causes of the conflict, beginning with ideas, tensions, and compromises evident at the nation's founding. In 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, the crucial compromise to preserve the Union going forward was the Northern delegates' acceptance of the continuation of slavery. In the eyes of some Americans, that compromise put the Constitution at odds with the Declaration of Independence and its pronouncement that "all men are created equal." In the ensuing decades, westward expansion diverging economic systems and growth patterns; and differences over slavery and the Constitution fueled a power struggle between North and South.

Currier & IvesBy the 1850s, the gradual shift in the balance of political power toward the more populous North, coupled with the growth of the new anti-slavery Republican Party, had made slaveholders and Southern politicians fear for their place within the Union and for the future of slavery. Positions hardened as Republicans asserted the sanctity of majority rule, slaveholders perceived a growing threat to their way of life, and abolitionists—both black and white—sought to end slavery. Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency in 1860 on a platform of preventing the extension of slavery to the territories propelled the states of the Deep South to secede from the Union and form a new confederacy for the defense of slavery.

The Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, prompted Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers from the states to put down the "rebellion" and preserve the Union by force. Slave states that had refused to secede over slavery—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas-realized that they could not escape war. Compelled to choose sides, they joined the Confederacy. Now the line was firmly drawn between those who would save the Union and those who would leave it

All program curricula are designed around Virginia Standards of Learning.

 
Causes
In 1860-1861, the United States split apart. Why did the Southern states leave the Union? Was war inevitable? What were the combatants fighting about? You can explore these and other questions at the Center and learn what motivated Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.

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War
Was it a "war for Southern independence" or a rebellion against legitimate authority? Could a political solution yet be found? Would foreign countries recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation? Would the status of slaves change?

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Legacies
What effects do you think the war continues to have on America? We hope that you will visit the American Civil War Center to learn more about how the Civil War and its aftermath shaped our country today.

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