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.
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.
By 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
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
All program curricula are designed around
Standards of Learning.