The American Civil War is unique in a number of ways; it remains the deadliest and most destructive of all America's wars, the first modern war on the continent (and, perhaps, the globe), and the only conflict in United States history fought entirely on the nation's soil. The Civil War is also—with the exception of the Vietnam War—America's most misunderstood war; it has been remembered as a struggle to preserve the Union and a (northern) crusade to emancipate slaves and to end the institution of slavery forever. The truth is that the road to war—and thus the set of issues that underscored the hostilities—was never that simple.
In one of many side-splitting episodes of NBC's sitcom The Office, Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott remarks, "Abraham Lincoln once said that if you're a racist, I will attack you with the North. And those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace." If you've seen the show, then you know that this is laughable, mainly because Michael is prone to making insensitive—and doltish—comments about pretty much every non-white person he encounters.
But that's not the only reason it's silly. First of all, Lincoln would never have said such a thing. No nineteenth-century politician—and, really, no one at all during this period—called other folks "racist" and certainly wouldn't have used the word to justify a full-scale war. But semantics aside, race had little, if anything, to do with Lincoln's decision to rally northern troops to crush the South. In fact, the enslavement of millions of black men, women, and children was not a motivating factor for Union forces.
It's a widely held misconception that the struggle for emancipation incited half of the nation to war. It might be the simplest and most idealistic way of thinking about such a terribly violent and destructive period in American history; it seems only fitting that a union founded on the notion that "all men are created equal" would go to war to purge an institution justified by inequality. But that's just not true. Such moral reasoning did not pave the road to war. So, then, slavery had nothing at all to do with the American Civil War, right?
For decades, historians have disagreed as to whether slavery was the single most important factor that led to the outbreak of the Civil War, or whether it had no bearing whatsoever on the conflict. By breaking down the sorts of questions that scholars have asked over the years, we can see why such a debate survives. Had slavery never existed in the United States, would there have been a Civil War? If we can say unequivocally "no," then why—or how—did slavery matter? To what degree did slavery actually cause the American Civil War? What aspects of the institution—ideological, political, economic, religious, diplomatic, social, or racial—incited each side to wage war? What other factors may have contributed to the 1861 secession crisis, and then to the first shots fired at Fort Sumter?
Clearly, the road to war that we're talking about here is complex: long, winding, and full of forks. And that's why we here at Shmoop have decided to dedicate an entire module to help you navigate it. We think you might be surprised—even shocked—to find out why the Civil War happened exactly when it did and how it did. So, buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.