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The American Civil War

A NATION DIVIDED In a civil war that devastated the United States for four years, President Abraham Lincoln sought unity, democracy and liberty for all


Less than a century after achieving its independence, the United States of America risked ripping itself permanently apart through civil war. Between 1861 and 1865 – still the bloodiest four years in the country’s history – the states of the North (known as the Union) and South (re-named as the Confederate States of America) fought bitterly for their separate ways of life.

Political, social and cultural chasms between North and South had been widening for years, especially over the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. But, as Jonny Wilkes explains, it would take the deaths of 750,000 Americans, the emancipation of 4 million slaves and the tireless leadership of perhaps the US’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, to unify and define the nation…


The issue of slavery divided the United States long before the first shots were fired

Speaking in 1858, a rising American politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln famously a rmed: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Only two years later, Lincoln’s warning was realised, and it was his election to President that proved the catalyst for dividing the house once and for all, plunging the fledgling United States into a long and bloody civil war.

For decades before the American Civil War, the free North and slave-owning states of the South had been at loggerheads over the ‘peculiar institution’, as slavery was known. While the abolitionists certainly became more prevalent during the 19th century, it is a misconception that the reason why the Union split – and three quarters of a million people lost their lives – was the black-and-white issue of slavery’s morality.

WARRIORIN- CHIEF After his narrow victory in the 1860 election, the North worried that Lincoln (left) would not be a strong wartime leader, when compared to his rival, Je"erson Davis (right)

Since winning independence less than a century earlier, the US had developed two contrasting personalities, and their clashes threatened the nation’s future. The North, which prohibited slavery, was modernising through industrialisation (a vital factor in the eventual outcome of the war), while the South’s agricultural economy remained reliant on slaves working on plantations, especially those producing cotton. By 1860, there were an estimated 4 million enslaved

black people in the South. Not everyone in the North was an ardent abolitionist, but there was strong opposition to the extension of slavery into the western territories, something the South advocated. is led to frequent quarrels and compromises, such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – where the slave state of Missouri was admitted to the Union in return for a slave-free Maine and other tracts of land. Then, in 1848, some 500,000 square miles of land were annexed by the US after victory in the war against Mexico, causing tensions to rise again.

So, as the 1850 Compromise prevented slavery in California, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act permitted it elsewhere.

The total number of states that seceded in 1861, leaving 23 still loyal to the Union (four of which were slave states)


Fighting against slavery was the newly created Republican Party, who chose Lincoln as its candidate for the 1860 presidential election, to the chagrin of many Southerners. Despite achieving only 40 per cent of the vote, and gaining no support in the South whatsoever, Lincoln was elected in November.

By the time of his inauguration on 4 March 1861, seven states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – seceded (four more joined them in the following months) and formed the Confederate States of America. In his inauguration speech, Lincoln mused: “Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” The damage was done, however, and anarchy was just around the corner.

PECULIAR INSTITUTION Black slaves at a cotton plantation on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The South was dependent on slavery for its cotton industry, so its free citizens were willing to fight to protect it




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The May 2016 issue of History Revealed