What was the real cause of the Civil War?
Let’s ask those who were there when it all began . . .
As promised, below are just some of the many examples of primary source material that you can use with your students, allowing them to explore multiple perspectives regarding the causes of the Civil War as well as allowing them to synthesize and contextualize the pre and early war cause explanations with post-war cause identification of several vastly different contemporaries to come up with their own “real cause” of the war.
In a future blog, we will explore a selection of secondary source material as well, and also provide a list of helpful library and internet resources for primary source material as related to the Civil War.
The excerpted quotes below can serve as a starter list of resources, and can be integrated into your lessons in a variety of ways, based on the level of your students. For example, a 5th grade class would be able to look at the titles only of some of these sources to ascertain perspective. An 8th grade class could be asked to write out a dust jacket summary of the speech or book, based on the excerpt, or even pose a guess as to chapter titles or main points. An advanced placement 11th grade history class could rewrite each perspective in their own words and reflect, in essay form, on the causes of war – ranging from politician to front-line soldier, from abolitionist to the President of the Confederacy.
In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, said:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists among us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. . . [Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
From the Mississippi Declaration of Secession:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery. . . Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money (the estimated total market value of slaves), or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.
President Lincoln’s “House Divided” Speech, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Lecture Delivered by Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and former-slave in Glasgow, Scotland, March 26, 1860:
The slave-holders, above all things else, dread the rule of the anti-slavery party that are now coming into power. To dissolve the Union would be to do just what the slaveholders would like to have done.
Slavery is essentially a dark system; all it wants is to be excluded and shut out from the light. If it can only be boxed in where there is not a single breath to fall upon it, nor a single word to assail it, then it can grope in its own congenial darkness, oppressing human hearts and crushing human happiness.
But it dreads the influence of truth; it dreads the influence of Congress. It knows full well that when the moral sentiment of the nation shall demand the abolition of slavery, there is nothing in the constitution of the United States to prevent that abolition.
Well, now, what do we want? We want this:—whereas slavery has ruled the land, now must liberty; whereas pro-slavery men have sat in the Supreme Court of the United States, and given the constitution a pro-slavery interpretation against its plain reading, let us by our votes into that Supreme Court who will decide, and who will concede, that that constitution is not slavery.
Sergeant Philip Hamlin of the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment wrote home on March 1, 1862, catching his parents and siblings up on his health and welfare, and elaborating on his notions on the war.
I may not live to see it but I believe that God will yet deliver our nation from the difficulties which agitate and threaten her. The example of our nation has been a fountain of light to the people of the old world foreshadowing to the struggling nationalities a future destiny gloriously delivered from the weights and embarrassments of the past which have limited privileges, combated freedom, made the distributions of blessings unequal, and restricted the culture of the mind, and the consequent elevation of man in opposition to a class endowed with special privileges only by arbitrary enactment . . . May God preserve us from ourselves.
Private George W. Ervay, 16th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, was fighting in the same army as Hamlin, but his musings on war and society were vastly different. In the following letter excerpt, written on February 16, 1863, Ervay references the recent recruitment of African-American soldiers – an action made possible by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but not “endorsed” by soldiers such as Ervay.
. . . if I ever get clear of the army alive and able bodied I do not intend to trouble Eaton Co much for I think there is better places in the world than Eaton Co but I think that I shall bee clear of the war soon for wee white soldiers are going to bee relieved by the n—–s. last pay day the officers had to pay taxes on the n—–s that are in the army and around Washington and it is in the New York herrild that every private soldier will have to forfit fifteen percent next pay day that will bee three & ½ dollars every two monts for the support of the counter bands some say that if they take any money out of their pay that they will disert others say that they will mutenize and I think that if they ever take any of my pay that I shall prefer the former . . .
Lieutenant Sidney Carter offers yet another perspective on the rationale for war in the minds of the common soldier. Carter was from South Carolina, and had a big enough farm to own a few slaves. This makes his war reasoning in the last line all the more interesting (and perplexing from our modern viewpoint) from this January 1862 letter home.
. . . It felt right curious until they came up where I could see them good and we were ordered to fire, and then it was the first time in my life that I had raised my gun to shoot a human being like myself, you know.
. . . One thing I must say I want you to do is if Judson will not ally you in making the negroes know their place, I want you to call on Giles to do it. If you will be prompt when they need whipping, then they will think of this when help is not present . . . I think it would be best not to plant any cotton except enough to keep seeds (and one bale for house use).
. . .Give my love to all and accept your own part. Kiss the dear little ones for me. If I never see them again, I will try to leave them a free home.
Note: All three of these soldiers perished from their wounds at the battle of Gettysburg.
Now compare these sources with some post-war sources, referencing the reason for conflict. A lesson or activity organizer could be to ask the students to respond as each author might to the following question: “Was slavery the cause of the Civil War?”
The Lost Cause; A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. Drawn from Official Sources, and Approved by the Most Distinguished Confederate Leaders by Edward A. Pollard, 1866.
On the 4th of July, 1776, the Congress published a Declaration of Independence. It declared that the colonies were “free and independent States,” thus asserting their separate State sovereignty . . .
. . . It has been a persistent theory with Northern writers that the singular decline of the South in population and industry, while their own section was constantly ascending the scale of prosperity, is to be ascribed to the peculiar institution of negro slavery. But this is the most manifest non-sense that was ever spread on the pages of history.
The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis, 1881.[regarding the overturning of the Dred Scott decision and the election of Abraham Lincoln] What resource for justice – what assurance of tranquility – what guarantee of safety – now remained for the South? Still forbearing, still hoping, still striving for peace and union, we waited until a sectional President, nominated by a sectional convention, elected by a sectional vote – and that the vote of a minority of the people – was about to be inducted into office, under the warning of his own distinct announcement that the Union could not permanently endure “half slave and half free”; meaning thereby that it could not continue to exist in the condition in which it was formed and its Constitution adopted . . .
The hope of our people may be stated in a sentence. It was to escape from injury and strife in the Union, to find prosperity and peace out of it.
The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-64, by Horace Greely, 1865.
Book Dedication: To John Bright . . . This Record of a Nation’s Struggle up from Darkness and Bondage to Light and Liberty.
The Slave Power, having resolved to destroy the Union – having taken decided steps to that end – several States having definitively seceded, or prepared to secede, from the Union without giving the least intimation that they could be swerved from this purpose by any pledge or act whatever, on the part of the Free States – what was the North to do?
The Secession of South Carolina was hailed with instant and general exultation by the plotters of Disunion in nearly every Slave State . . .
History of the Civil War in America by The Comte de Paris, 1875.
It was slavery, prosperous in one half of the republic and abolished in the other, which had created in it two hostile communities. It had greatly modified the customs of the one where it was in the ascendant, while leaving the outward forms of government intact. It was, indeed, not the pretext nor the occasion, but the sole cause of that antagonism, the inevitable consequence of which was the civil war.
Next time: Our first summer guest blogger, Rob Finkill, will talk about his position as Gettysburg National Military Park’s Teacher-Ranger, and his many experiences through the years bringing his 8th grade students to Gettysburg on field trips.