History Essays On Slavery And The Civil War

Slavery and the Civil War

By Stanley B. Burns, MD

Editor’s Note: This essay series is written by Mercy Street's Medical, historical and technical advisor, Stanley B. Burns, MD of The Burns Archive. 

For many, the Civil War was about only one issue: slavery. For others, it was about preserving the Union. It must not be forgotten that there were slave-holding states in the Union. John Brown and other radical abolitionists wanted a war to free the slaves and instigate insurrection. Thousands of abolitionists such as Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick Douglass worked for decades to show that slavery was wrong. President Abraham Lincoln noted:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

The decision to free enslaved people would come slowly and from many sides.

According to the census of 1860, the total population of the thirty-four states and eight territories was close to 31,500,000. There were no slaves in nineteen states, and only two in Kansas and fifteen in Nebraska. Four million slaves inhabited 15 states and territories. Delaware held 1,798; Maryland held 87,189; and Virginia the most with 490,865 slaves, owned by 52,128 slaveholders. There were 3,181 slaves in Washington, D.C. Generally, it has not been recognized that in Southern states, along with the 4 million slaves, there were about 400,000 free African Americans. While they did not have equal rights, many were successful business people and some were extensive slaveholders themselves.

Freeing enslaved people was not an easy undertaking. Many in the government and politics hemmed and hawed over the process and implementation. In 1861, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, while in Command at Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, did not want to return three slaves that presented themselves at the fort. Butler, an attorney before the war, decided the three slaves were “contraband of war” and refused to return them to bondage. All over the battlefront, runaway slaves began presenting themselves to Union forces. The Union instituted a policy of hiring, and using them in the war effort. In August, the US Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861 making legal the status of runaway slaves. It declared that any property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated by Union forces. To put teeth into the act, Congress passed a law in March 1862 prohibiting the return of slaves. By war’s end, the Union had set up over 100 contraband camps in the South.

Union officers took the initiative to actually free slaves. General John C. Fremont in August 1861 declared that the slaves owned by Confederates in his conquered territory in Missouri were free. The order was negated by Lincoln, and Fremont was fired. He was replaced by General David Hunter. In May 1862, Hunter, who by now was in charge of a larger southern geographical area, abolished slavery in the area under his command. Lincoln negated that order as well. However, in June 1862 Congress started the process by abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. September 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), as Union forces drove the Confederates out of Maryland, President Lincoln, using an executive order, issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It stipulated that if the Southern states did not cease their rebellion by January 1, 1863, then the slaves in those states would be free, as the Proclamation would go into effect. When the Confederacy did not yield, President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation freed only the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Federal government. It did not free the slaves held in Union states. At the end of the war on December 6, 1865 the US Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery through the United States.

As Seen in the Series

Mercy Street is set in the spring of 1862 and depicts African Americans at a critical time when laws and ideas are changing regarding slavery, slave ownership and freemen. Like many African Americans, the Philadelphia freeman Samuel Diggs went south to help in the war effort; enlisting in the army was still not an option. He found employment at the Mansion House Hospital. Also working there is Aurelia Johnson, a contraband who had escaped slavery from North Carolina.

Belinda and others held by Alexandria, Va. owners are at the cusp of freedom, as they live behind Union lines; if they ask, they can be freed and considered contraband. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is still enforceable. It requires that officials and even citizens of free states aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. Only ardent states rights pro-slavery activists enforced this law. This complicates the situation of slaves who have successfully escaped to Virginia. This is a time of deep feelings regarding slavery and freedom. 

Historically, textbooks have taught that incompatibility between northern and southern economies caused the Civil War. The industrial revolution in the North, during the first few decades of the 19th century, brought about a machine age economy that relied on wage laborers, not slaves.

At the same time, the warmer Southern states continued to rely on slaves for their farming economy and cotton production. Southerners made huge profits from cotton and slaves and fought a war to maintain them. Northerners did not need slaves for their economy and fought a war to free them. Everything else, many textbooks claim, was tied to that economic difference and was anchored by cotton.

The agricultural economy was certainly one cause of the Civil War, but not the only one. Wars are never simple and neither are their causes. Many other factors that helped bring about the war are central to understanding America's past.

So what did start the Civil War—a war that divided the nation, destroyed crops, cities, and railroad lines, and claimed 630,000 lives? Many factors plunged the nation into chaos in 1861. Key political causes include the slow collapse of the Whig Party, the founding of the Republican Party, and, most important, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president.

Religious opposition to slavery increased, supported by ministers and abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. Geographical conflict over the spread of slavery into western territories and states—areas with neither an industrial nor a farm economy—grew. And political deals, such as the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and Compromise of 1850, and Supreme Court rulings, such as the Dred Scott decision in 1857, divided the country even more. These divisions went far beyond cotton and economics.

Urban vs. Rural, Factory vs. Farm

The central story told in textbooks is that the industrial revolution, beginning with the first textile mill in New England in the 1790s, created an economy that did not need slaves. Southerners, however, continued to use slave labor on their farms because agriculture was profitable. Closely related to this change, cities rose as population centers in the North created an urban society while the South remained primarily agrarian.

Census data on farms and cities, however, reveals that while cities grew rapidly in the North between 1800 and 1860, they did not become leading population centers until 1920, 60 years after the Civil War began. In 1860, there were more farms in the North than in the South, although Southern states, especially in the Cotton Belt, had the majority of large farms (1,000 acres or more).

Census data on farms and cities, however, reveals that while cities grew rapidly in the North between 1800 and 1860, they did not become leading population centers until 1920, 60 years after the Civil War began.

The notion that there were no southern cities was also a myth. The U.S. had eight cities with more than 150,000 residents in 1860 and three of them—St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans—were in slave states. Several other southern cities, such as Louisville, Mobile, and Charleston, had more than 20,000 residents each and were listed among the largest urban places in the U.S.

Similarly, data demonstrate the presence of manufacturing in the South. Richmond, VA, had mills and factories as early as 1800. The 1860 census shows the fairly even spread of manufacturing across the states, with only New York and Pennsylvania recording 17,000 or more manufacturing establishments (see Primary Source Farms Census Data [1860], List of Urban Areas [1860], and Manufacturing Census Date [1860]).

Cotton and Slavery

"Cotton is King!" bellowed James Hammond, a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, in 1859, reminding all of the importance of cotton in the South. A major error in the agricultural vs. industrial revolution theme, however, stated in book after book, is that slavery existed to produce cotton.

When I ask college students to talk about the causes of the war, many tell the story of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. They remind me that there were no factories in the South prior to 1860 and are astonished when I tell them that factories flourished in the South as early as John Adams's Presidency. They gloat over the North's shipping yards and are surprised to learn of the busy shipping industry based in cities such as Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans. Their jaws drop when I talk about the thousands of slaves in the South who worked in busy cities, not on quiet plantations.

Slaves did not arrive in the U.S. in the early 1800s to work on cotton plantations. They began to arrive in the early 1600s to work on farms that grew a number of different crops. Sugar and tobacco became the most profitable to meet European demands for crops that did not grow in the colder European climate. Virginia planters made a fortune growing tobacco, making tobacco the first King. Cotton succeeded tobacco on the throne much later. By 1860, however, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana replaced Georgia and South Carolina as leading growers of cotton (see Primary Source Cotton and Slaves Data [1860]).

[Students'] jaws drop when I talk about the thousands of slaves in the South who worked in busy cities, not on quiet plantations.

If farming was so important, why did southerners rush to enslave the colder Kansas and Nebraska territories that remained snow covered in winter months? In these areas, representing only one third of the United States, only 130 slaves lived. Why were southerners eager to bring territories such as New Mexico, Texas, and California—where very little cotton was grown—into the Union as slave states? There were many reasons completely unrelated to cotton. Pro-slavery advocates in California, for example, wanted slaves to prospect for gold and build gold and silver mines.

And if slavery was so central to the southern economy of farming, why did only one fourth of southerners own slaves? Why were so many prominent southerners, such as George Washington, George Wythe, and Thomas Jefferson, opposed, at least in theory, to the institution? Slavery, too, was seen as a moral evil by the hundreds of thousands of northern abolitionists who published newspapers and marched in the streets of small towns and large cities carrying their colorful banners.

Abraham Lincoln did not target farming and cotton in his arguments against slavery; he used morality. He told one audience in Chicago in 1859 that, "I think slavery is wrong, morally and politically." Lincoln told another audience that America could not be seen "fostering human slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of human freedom." And, of course, in his fabled "House Divided" speech he predicted that the United States would be either all slave or all free.

Political Causes

Turbulent politics also led to the war. Following the compromise of 1850, legal, political, and physical battles raged over whether or not to admit Kansas as a slave state, a state with no cotton. Many students believe that the Republican Party, created in 1855, focused on slavery in the 1860 campaign, but their key issues centered on political corruption of the Buchanan Administration. The Republican platform called for containment, not the end of slavery.

Lincoln's election, however, proved to be the icing on the southern secession cake. Only a minority of southern newspapers favored leaving the union prior to Lincoln's election; most supported secession after.

The notion that slave labor for cotton fields caused the Civil War has been reinforced by textbooks and fictional narratives for more than a century. Historians, however, argue for a more nuanced, complex understanding.

Other factors leading to war include John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, raucous battles over the Fugitive Slave Act, and President Buchanan's refusal to arbitrate between North and South, all connected to the increasingly bitter debate over slavery. In addition, northern newspapers campaigned against states' rights, southerners resented new taxes, and the Fort Sumter crisis turned into a pivotal moment (see Primary Source Editorials [1860-1861]).


The notion that slave labor for cotton fields caused the Civil War has been reinforced by textbooks and fictional narratives for more than a century. Historians, however, argue for a more nuanced, complex understanding. The Civil War was fought for many reasons, not solely or even primarily because of the growing importance of cotton on southern farms. Moving away from economic differences and cotton as simplistic causes leads to a more complex and far more interesting story.

Editorials (1860-1861)


William W. Holden, editor of the Weekly Daily Standard in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a strong Unionist in the years leading up to the Civil War. Holden tried, despite Lincoln's election, to quell his fellow North Carolinians' desire to secede, along with their neighboring states. Like other southerners, however, he believed that each state was sovereign, and when President Lincoln called for recruits in April 1861 to put down the rebellion, Holden saw this as an unconstitutional invasion of the South by the North. Holden then commenced writing editorials urging his fellow citizens to rise up to meet the "invaders."

Primary Source(s)

Excerpted from The Voice of the People (December 26, 1860):
We have never felt, in any previous contest, more in need of the sustaining voice of the people than we do in this; and we are more than gratified to state that on no occasion in our long Editorial life have we been more warmly or generally sustained by the people than we are now. The voice of approval and encouragement comes to us from all quarters. It comes to us from Breckinridge men, from Bell men, from Douglas men, from Buchanan men, and from men of all shades of opinions, who are anxious for the preservation of a Constitutional Union, and who would hold North-Carolina back, at least a while longer, from the vortex of disunion now opening to receive South-Carolina. And this, be it remembered, is no voice of submission to arbitrary or undelegated power. It proceeds from men who will never submit to the administration of the government on principles inimical to the rights, the equality, or the safety of the slaveholding States; but who, while preparing for the emergency that may arise, are nevertheless disposed to "watch and wait" for any attempted overt act by a dominant sectional majority. . .

Excerpted from The News (April 17, 1861):
. . . As hostile as we may be to Mr. Lincoln, the cause of our country, now in fearful perils, requires that we should be just even towards him. But the Union cannot be maintained by force. As we said last year, in the Presidential campaign, "The Union would fall to pieces before the first touch of aggressive or coercive power." . . . A Convention of all the States could either reconstruct the Union or permit the seceded States to go in peace. As it is, we appear to be drifting to civil strife against the wish of the people of the United States, and without their having had any opportunity in their primary capacity to remove the evils which threaten all of us, both North and South, with one common ruin.

Excerpted from Proclamation by Governor Ellis (April 24, 1861):
We publish below the Proclamation of Gov. Ellis, convening the Legislature of this State, in this City, on the 1st day of May.

We think the Governor acted with patriotic promptness in refusing the call on this State for troops; and that, in convening the Legislature to take action in this great crisis, he will be sustained by the whole people of the State.

We have heretofore severely censured this functionary for his public conduct. We did this honestly and from a sincere desire to serve and save our country. We were moved to it by no selfish or personal feeling—by no disappointed ambition. We now come forward to sustain him in this day of trial, and to encourage him in our feeble way to stand like a man of iron for the rights and the honor of North-Carolina. May God defend the right! . . .


Weekly Daily Standard. Editorials. Raleigh, North Carolina: 1860–1861.

Secondary Source Annotated Bibliography

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
This work by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Davis was originally printed in the 70s, yet it still stands as an important work on the history of slavery.

Davis, William. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
This thick and highly researched biography of the Confederate President captures all of the quirks of his volcanic personality and shows his importance in the South as a politician, war hero and, later, first President of the Confederacy. Historian Davis devotes a considerable amount of time to the causes of the war, seen from both the northern and southern viewpoint.

Fehrenbacher, Don. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1982.
This is a study of Lincoln's life in the decade preceding the war and the political and cultural storms that surrounded him.

Goodwin, Doris. Team of Rivals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Goodwin's lengthy and carefully researched book tells the story of Lincoln's selection of his chief opponents for the Republican nomination as cabinet officers. The book concentrates on the war, but there are numerous chapters and parts of chapters on the causes of the war.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning work covers the history of the United States from the Mexican War through the end of the Civil War. Much of it is devoted to the causes of the war and the author shows, through significant research, how complicated they were. The book also probes the politics of the pre-war era and explains what effect Lincoln's election had on secession.

Richard, Leonard. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2007.
Richard's study zeroes in on gold mining as the main reason why a large group of people in California wanted slavery in the state. There were no plans for giant cotton production in the state, just an immediate need for enslaved miners who could help their owners turn a large profit. This desire nearly put California in the Democratic column in 1860's close election in that state.

Towers, Frank. The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2004.
Towers chronicles the growth of cities in the South prior to the Civil War, noting their 62% jump in population, the arrival of street gangs, and manufacturing. Towers notes, too, that three of the largest eight cities in America were in slave states. He counters the argument that the South was an all-agrarian region.

White, Ronald. A. Lincoln. New York: Random House, 2009.
White's detailed study of Lincoln shows him as the centerpiece of the pre-war era, but it also engages the reader in the different causes of the war. He also details the attack on Fort Sumter as a device to gain freedom for the South, not for cotton production.

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