Slavery Divide Triggers America’s Civil War

A lithograph of the Battle of Gettysburg. Library of Congress/Getty Images
A lithograph of the Battle of Gettysburg. Library of Congress/Getty Images

by Ray Setterfield


December 20, 1860 — South Carolina’s state convention voted 160-0 on this day in favour of “dissolving the union now subsisting between South Carolina and the other states.” It meant that the United States was no longer united.

And in the wake of the vote came the five-year American Civil War, costing the lives of at least 750,000 men, according to a new study.

At the time of the South Carolina vote, no military threat existed; no battles had been fought or planned. But anti-slavery campaigner Abraham Lincoln had been elected to the White House – even though his name did not appear on ballot papers in the South and even though his Republican Party failed to win a single victory there.

Five states were to follow South Carolina’s lead within weeks – Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. Then came the big one of Texas, followed by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and finally in June 1861, Tennessee.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson: "The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery.

“When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America.

“The incoming Lincoln administration and most of the Northern people refused to recognise the legitimacy of secession. They feared that it would discredit democracy and create a fatal precedent that would eventually fragment the no-longer United States into several small, squabbling countries.”

Nearly four million slaves with a market value of over $3 billion lived in America just before the Civil War and slave-owners enjoyed considerable rates of return on them. The cotton industry, insurance companies and industrial enterprises also benefited from slavery. They wanted no interference from Washington.

War was triggered at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Confederate soldiers opened fire on the federal garrison, forcing it to surrender and lower the American flag. Lincoln’s response was for the militia to suppress this "insurrection."

The American Civil War that followed was the most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of the First World War in 1914. By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men faced each other along a line stretching 1,200 miles from Virginia to Missouri.

The Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September 1862, proved to be the single bloodiest day of the war and, indeed, in American military history. By the end of the day-long pitched battle more than 23,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded.

But it was Gettysburg in Pennsylvania that would claim a blood-soaked record in the history books. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both sides were casualties in that three-day battle starting on July 1, 1863, the most costly ever for America. More than 7,800 men were killed.

Later, in his famous Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln declared: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

Originally, the North had set out on a limited war to restore the Union. But by 1864 it was following a strategy of total war to destroy the South and end the scourge of slavery. It also wanted to give a restored Union the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln referred to in his Gettysburg Address.

The Civil War involved nearly 10,500 battles and other military actions.

It effectively ended in April, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

The last battle was fought at Palmito Ranch, Texas, in May, 1865. However, a number of Confederates refused to give up and the war was not officially declared won for the Union until August 20, 1866.

For over 100 years it was accepted that 618,222 men had died in the Civil War – 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South. The figures were produced by two Union army veterans who were keen amateur historians – William F. Fox and Thomas Livermore. They based their estimates on battlefield reports, pension filings of Civil War widows and orphans, and other sources.

However, in 2011, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, studied newly digitised census data from the 19th century and as a result updated the death toll by 21 per cent – to 750,000.

He accepted there could be a large margin for error, saying he could not distinguish between Union and Confederate dead, nor between deaths on the battlefield or from illness. And it was not possible to assess postwar deaths arising from battle wounds.

But Professor Hacker said the number of deaths could range from 617,877 to 851,066. He settled on a conservative estimate of 750,000.

The findings, published in the December 2011 issue of Civil War History, have the backing of leading historians. And the publication said that Professor Hacker’s scholarship was “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear in this journal's pages”.

If accurate, it also means that the number of Americans killed in the conflict far exceeds the country’s total combined death toll for the First World War, the Second World War, Vietnam and Korea.

Published: December 2, 2019

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