On 12 April 1861, a military unit representing the Confederate States of America, the seven southern states that had seceded from the Union, attacked Fort Sumter. The presence of the Union-controlled post in South Carolina provoked Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, to order strikes. Within two days, the commander stationed at Sumter surrendered. But the assault spurred United States President Abraham Lincoln to rally thousands of troops to crush what he viewed as an insurrection ripening in the South. With that, the Civil War began. "Both sides deprecated war," Lincoln remarked later, "but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."20
In effect, Jefferson Davis triggered an explosion that would ultimately raze much of the American landscape, leave 620,000 Americans dead, and cripple the economic and political power of the South. It would also solidify the Union, strengthen the federal government, and destroy the institution of slavery forever. But how does a brief two-day skirmish mushroom into a four-year conflict? The answer lies not in the details of the battle at Fort Sumter, but in the events that preceded the first shot. Which incidents, however, mattered most?
At first glance, it may seem clear; once South Carolina voted to secede from the Union on 20 December 1860, it set a fatal precedent, one that threatened to unravel the Union. Six states from the Deep South—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—followed its lead, asserting what they perceived as a Constitutional privilege to protect states' rights. The North, however, would not accept any justification for secession, and Abraham Lincoln, inaugurated president of the federal Union in the spring of 1861, was determined to prevent disunion by any means necessary. His attempts at negotiation failed miserably, and during his first weeks in office his Union and the newly created Confederate States of America remained locked in a tense yet peaceful stalemate. That is, until April twelfth.
The secession crisis may help explain why Confederate leadership chose to use force to protest the presence of a Union fort in South Carolina, but the predicament itself does not answer the question of the war's causation. Why, exactly, did South Carolina—and ultimately eleven southern states—withdraw from the Union, and why did it do so in December 1860, rather than at some other time?
The action was—in large part—a response to the election of Lincoln as president in 1860, a man who seemed to pose a significant threat to the economic and political interests of the slaveholding South. (The Republican candidate received not a single vote in ten southern states.) But Abraham Lincoln never vowed to abolish slavery, which was so vital to the South's agricultural economy and the basis for its political power. In fact, Lincoln stated in his inaugural address—one month before the battle at Fort Sumter—that he would not use his executive power to interfere with the institution in any state where it existed. The president was willing to compromise with southern leadership on these issues, just as northerners in the past had agreed to be conciliatory when sectional tensions arose. Furthermore, Lincoln's term would be four years, a timeframe within which southern Democrats could throw their weight behind a new presidential candidate, one empathetic to the states' economic and political goals.
Lincoln did promise, however, to vigorously oppose the expansion of slavery. Perhaps in retrospect this seems a fairly moderate, or even ambiguous, stance on the existence of the "peculiar institution" in the United States; it is not exactly a moral position on unfree labor. Lincoln's determination to prevent the spread of slavery, however, was a critical new development in American politics that bound the new Republican Party together and threatened the very existence of the slaveholding power structure.
But this most divisive of all presidential elections in American history does not alone provide the explanation for the outbreak of war in 1861. The fact is, from as early as the founding of the United States, contentious issues have threatened to rupture national unity—none more controversial than the future of slavery in the Union. Throughout the decades, the intertwined economies of northern textile manufacturing and southern raw material production, along with a series of territorial compromises and political concessions, helped stave off disunion—and perhaps even civil war. But with time the abolition of slave labor in the North effectively split the new nation in two, creating dangerous economic, social, and political cleavages between free states and slave states. And no matter how effective political leaders believed they were in negotiating accords, sectional tensions always remained just under the surface. With each decade, armed conflict became more and more probable, until April 1861, when it became inevitable.
The road to the Civil War—and thus the set of issues that underscored the hostilities—is complex, confusing, and, at times, quite surprising. To better comprehend the origins of this grand conflict is to follow the long fuse that burned slowly, year after year, from the Revolutionary era until the secession crisis, before its flame reached its ultimate destination and detonated the bomb.