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What was the Civil War about?

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The American Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, claiming over 600,000  American lives in four years. It is estimated that about 2.5% of the population was killed in the war, either through fighting or disease.

The Civil War was about many things, and every soldier that fought would give slightly different reasons for doing so, but slavery was the central issue tying everything together. Tensions between the north and south had been brewing for decades and in 1861 they finally boiled over, both sides determining that conflict could only be solved by war on the battlefield.

 The Role of Slavery in the Civil War

Since the founding of the United States, the role of slavery in American society had been a contentious one and only grew more so in the decades that followed. By the 1860s, most northern states had outlawed the practice, some of them like Connecticut phasing it out through an act of “gradual emancipation.” Connecticut’s law, passed in 1784, did not free people currently enslaved but allowed all children born after March 1, 1784 to become free at the age of 25 for men and 21 for women. By 1857, the last person ever to have been enslaved in Connecticut, Nancy Toney, had died.

Globally, slavery had also been outlawed in many other countries. In 1833, the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which made the purchase or ownership of enslaved people illegal within the British Empire (with exceptions for certain territories such as modern day Sri Lanka). Slavery was still prevalent in the Ottoman Empire, but in 1830 Sultan Mahmud issued an edict freeing white slaves, and abolitionists at the time began using this to pressure slave states, painting them as hopelessly backward people clinging to an immoral and outdated institution.

In the decades leading to the Civil War, the future of slavery was a hot button issue in American politics. The Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, admitted the states of Missouri and Maine into the Union and prohibited any future states north of the 36˚30’ parallel (a line just north of the upper part of present day Texas) to allow slavery. This law was later supplanted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which put the decision of whether a state would be a slave state or a free state in the hands of the people. This change set off the events of “Bleeding Kansas” which saw pro-slavery and staunch abolitionists both moving to Kansas in order to influence whether it would be named as a slave or free state. While it was not an official war, these groups did clash violently, most notably in the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas in 1856.

During the events of “Bleeding Kansas,” an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, gave an impassioned speech against slavery called, “The Crime Against Kansas.” The 112 page speech outlined Sumner’s many objections to slavery, and included pointed attacks toward Senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler, the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Preston Brooks, the cousin of Andrew Butler and himself a member of the House of Representatives, viciously attacked Charles Sumner a few days later, beating him with his cane on the floor of the Senate. The attack set off outrage in the north and praise in the south and in the wake of it over one million copies of Sumner’s speech were distributed. Because of the severity of his injuries, which included both traumatic brain injury and PTSD, it would be three years before Sumner was well enough to retake his seat in the Senate. Occurring just a few years before the start of the Civil War, the incident illustrates that the issue of slavery had by that time become so turbulent that even the halls of government had become a battlefield.

Causes of the Civil War


While it would be fair to say that slavery caused the Civil War, the war was also a manifestation of the different cultures in northern and southern states and their different ideas about the role of the federal government in the United States. By the time of the outbreak of the war, there had already been a long history of differences between the differing, but still American, cultures in the United States.


 Economic and Social Differences between the North and South


The northern and southern states had very different economic and social structures which contributed to their very different societies. The northern economy was more industrialized while the southern economy was more agrarian based and especially known for the production of cotton. In fact, the South produced about two thirds of the world’s supply of cotton at the time.

The North, on the other hand, was undergoing an industrial revolution and increased urbanization. This not only lead them to produce a wide range of manufactured goods, including textiles, leather goods, and fire arms, but also led to them adopted more mechanized farming practices which greatly increased their yields and required much less manpower than the more traditional methods in the South. All of these would become a great advantage to the North once the war began and contibute to the eventual Union victory..

Socially there were growing differences between the North and South as well. Demographically, the Northern, free states had a much larger population compared to the slave states of the south. When the war broke out the states in the Union had a population of about 23 million whereas the Confederate States had a population of 9 million. In addition, over 87% of foreign immigrants to the United States settled in northern or western states rather than in the South.

 State vs Federal Rights

The decades leading to the Civil War revealed the growing split between North and South not only on the issue of slavery, but on the role and power the federal government had over states as well. The Nullification Crisis of 1832 and 1833 brought this tension into sharp relief when the state of South Carolina refused to recognize tariffs set by the federal government, leading to a tense legal battle.

During the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, there were two tariffs on manufactured goods that southern states, most notably South Carolina, felt were unfair to the South because of how much more reliant the South was on those imports as compared to the northern states. The southern states had hoped that Jackson would repeal or reduce the tariff once he became president, but he made no such move.

On November 24th, 1862 the South Carolina legislature passed the Ordinance of Nullification which stated that the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void within the state of South Carolina. President Jackson responded first with the “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” stating his position that he believed South Carolina’s actions both unconstitutional and dangerous to the United States. Then in March of 1833 Congress passed the Force Bill which authorized the president to use force to compel South Carolina to recognize and pay the tariffs.

South Carolina also declared the Force Bill null and void while simultaneously preparing for a military battle with the United States. The crisis was averted when Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, also called the “Compromise Tariff” which promised to reduce the tariff rates by one tenth each year until they fell back down to lower levels. This policy was acceptable to South Carolina and the state made no further attempts to declare federal laws null and void.

Despite having a peaceful resolution, the Nullification Crisis set the stage for further battles to come. While both sides claimed victory over the resolution, popular opinion in the South increasingly favored the idea of state’s rights above those of the federal government. In addition, it demonstrated both their will and intent to engage the federal government with military force to protect those boundaries. After the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States.

Can a State Leave the Union?

The election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States occurred without him winning a single southern state and caused many in the South to believe that their way of life, and the institution of slavery, could not survive under Lincoln’s presidency.

Consequently, seven states, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all announced their secession before the first shots were fired at the Battle of Fort Sumter. These states also announced the formation of the Confederate States of America under the presidency of Jefferson Davis.

After the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 a further four states, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee also seceded and joined the Confederacy.

Missouri also had competing governments with one declaring the state to be part of the Confederacy and another maintaining loyalty to the union. The Battle of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for soldiers to end the rebellion is considered to be the start of the war.

The secession of the Confederate States and the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter brought the conflict beyond the longstanding debate between slavery and abolition. While a large percentage of citizens in the north did not consider themselves abolitionists and were indifferent or outright hostile to the rights and conditions of African Americans, they nevertheless believed in the Union and believed it was both traitorous and unconstitutional for a state to declare it could secede.

 History In Soldiers’ Own Words

In letters home to their families, many soldiers wrote their opinions about the war, why they were fighting, and what they hoped the war would achieve. While many of these positions are summarized in history textbooks and other articles, browsing the letters written by Union and Confederate soldiers in databases like the Research Arsenal gives a fuller look at just how varied opinions were at the time.

Many soldiers in the Union army wrote about their disinterest in the cause of slavery but their adamant belief in being a “Unionist.” Many of these soldiers were so-called “War Democrats,” who supported restoring the Union and ending the rebellion of the Confederacy but did not subscribe to the Republican Party’s anti-slavery platform. It would be fair to say that soldiers reasons for fighting in the war were far from united.

Henry P. W. Cramer, a captain in the 50th Illinois Infantry, wrote to his sister:

 “We are fighting for the Constitution as our father’s made it & for the Union & republican principles. I do not mean the principles of the Republican party, but principles of a republican form. The Rebels are contending for the principles of anarchy & despotism. God forbid that they should ever succeed in establishing them in this fair land of freedom. My prayer to God is that the Old Stars & Stripes under which we as a nation have been so prosperous may forever continue to wave all over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“My prayer to God is that the Old Stars & Stripes under which we as a nation have been so prosperous may forever continue to wave all over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

-Henry P.W. Cramer

Obliquely referencing the Emancipation Proclamation which took effect several months before and was a major turning point in the history of the United States, William Carleton Ireland, a private in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry wrote in a letter to his parents:

“A subject which can be made windy, if any can, is slavery, and I don’t propose now to fill up the space in a letter by any arguments; but I will merely say that I am not an “Abolitionist.” May I never be! I stand on the Republican platform as framed in Chicago. I believe slavery is wrong. I believe in its non-extension. But I don’t believe in emancipation. I know that while in blue & brass I have no right to say anything in opposition to the policy of the Government, but I say let those now slaves (for the blacks are slaves now as much as before the proclamation) remain so; let the States now Slave States remain so if their legislative bodies decree it. At the same time when a territory is admitted as a state, let it be a free state if it costs a war! “Them’s my principles!”

Other soldiers hoped the war would end slavery once and for all. Writing home about the war in 1862, Private Gaylord M. Cotten of the 3rd Iowa infantry stated:

“We look upon Gen. Stoneman’s raid and adventures between the rebel army and Richmond as the smartest of the war. Let Hooker whip them on the Rappahannock, Rosecrans drive them from Tennessee, and I am quite sure Grant will do all expected of him. Then hurrah boys—peace dawns in the distance. We are a nation once more and freed from that greatest of all our troubles—slavery. How many glad hearts there will be when this war shall cease. There will be such rejoicing on this continent as never was before.”

Opinions were made clear in letters home

Research Arsenal gives a fuller look at just how varied opinions were at the time.

Soldiers in the Confederate forces had their own reasons for taking up arms and beliefs why the war started. Private Robert Buchanan of the 58th North Carolina Infantry wrote in a letter to his future wife:

“I want you to do the best you can for if I never see you anymore in this world, I hope that we will meet where there is no war—no secession, for I tell you that that was the very cause of it. So write, write, write and fail not.”

Many more Confederate soldiers saw their cause as a noble battle for independence, with very few mentioning slavery at all. Thomas Burriss, a private in South Carolina’s Palmetto Sharpshooters wrote to his sister:

“Should I fall, remember that I die […] for a glorious entrance with his Majesty on high. Remember that I go battling for the most gracious privilege ever enjoyed by mortals. Remember that we are all contending for your freedom and shed no tears over the Christian patriots grave. Rather be thankful that we die so gloriously and in such a righteous cause. Weep not for me but prepare to meet me where parting is never known and where there are joys eternal.”

Many in the Confederate army viewed history from a very different perspective than those in the north. Lieutenant Whiteford Doughty Russell connected the Civil War with the American Revolutionary War writing:

“I am proud of my glorious State. She was among the first to assert her independence and then proved herself not unworthy [of] that independence by boldly contributing in every manner to the support of a war for the cause. Georgia is a great State—she has more railroads, finer crops, better soil, more money, handsomer women, finer babies, and more of them than any other state. Hurrah! for Georgia. I like the State so well that I think my abode there will be permanent when I return.”

Union Victory and Conclusion

On April 9th, 1865 General Lee’s Confederate army surrendered to the Union forces under General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. This marked the end of the Civil War and the final Union victory over the Confederate States. Slavery was brought to an end, but there was no clear map of what would come next for the newly freed African Americans, and while one battle had been won, there were still many more fights to come in the long war for equal rights.

The Civil War had been the culmination of decades of increasingly fractious relations between northern and southern states. The existence and future of slavery in the United States was the central issue that ignited the Civil War, though many people that fought had more personal reasons to do so. Some were concerned with the preservation of the United States as a whole country. Others wanted their independence from a federal government that they felt was hostile to them. Whatever their individual reasons for fighting, whether they joined as volunteers or were drafted conscripts, every Civil War soldier contributed to one of the most significant transformations of the United States in its history.

A special thank you goes out to Griff of Spared & Shared for his tireless work in transcribing and digitizing Civil War letters so the that the voices of the past can be remembered. This article would not have been possible without him.


Arrington, Benjamin T. “Industry and Economy during the Civil War.” National Parks Service, August 23, 2017. [Link

Buchanan, Robert. Letter dated April 21, 1863. Research Arsenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

Burriss, Thomas Benson. Letter dated April 1864. Research Arsenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

Cotten, Gaylord M. Letter dated May 9, 1863. Research Arsenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

Cramer, Henry P. W. Letter dated June 28, 1862. Research Arsenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

Ireland, William Carlton. Letter dated May 19 & 20, 1863. Research Arsenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

Russell, Whiteford Doughty. Letter dated June 29, 1861. Research Aresenal, accessed November 16, 2023.

The Power of Civil War Database Research

After everything mentioned above, it becomes clear why it is incredibly important and valuable to put as many photos into searchable databases as possible.

This is why myself and our team at the Research Arsenal decided to develop one of the fastest growing Civil War research sites on the internet. When it comes to searching original photos from the Civil War, a researcher can easily filter between images in the field vs stuio portraits and then search keywords found in photos that they are looking for like a specific canteen, weapon, or location. We no longer have to keep unorganized digital folders on our desktop with random titles of “Cavalry Soldiers with Infantry uniforms” or “Soldiers who tuck their trousers into their socks”.

One can simply keyword search and filter down to the images to reveal exactly what you are looking for in seconds.

I firmly believe we’re in the midst of a digital Civil War research explosion that’s just beginning. The vast array of historical documents is rapidly becoming digitized, allowing for extensive keyword searches, filters, and interconnected links spanning various related topics. This digital revolution is reshaping how we explore history, providing unprecedented access to information. Institutions and researchers are spearheading this transformation, making countless primary sources accessible to scholars and enthusiasts worldwide. With each passing day, the digital frontier expands, unveiling new layers of the past and revolutionizing our understanding of the American Civil War. The Research Arsenal is one of the leaders at the forefront of this movement, paving the way for a future where the wealth of historical knowledge is at our fingertips, transforming the way we learn about and interpret this crucial period in history.


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