The Origins of America's Civil War

The Origins of America's Civil War

The Origins of America's Civil War

The Origins of America's Civil War

Excerpt

At first glance the American Civil War seems a straightforward affair. Compared with the other major civil wars that have affected Western man, America's conflict has a pleasing simplicity. Geographical lines fairly clearly divided the two sides; the slave states of the South fought the free states of the North with a handful of border states caught divided in between. The American Civil War did not apparently spawn the complex ideological disputes and bizarre, exotic radical groups that have arisen in some of Europe's revolutionary struggles. Nor did the American Civil War involve the various rises, falls, and subdivisions of aristocratic and middle classes which are the stuff of European domestic upheavals. Yet few Americans at the time believed that their differences were clear-cut or simply defined.

Americans initially disagreed over what to call the events that afflicted them for the four years following 15 April 1861. For many Northerners, they constituted simply the Great Rebellion or the War for the Union; officially they were part of the War of the Rebellion. For leading Northerners, the fighting meant different things. Horace Greeley, a prominent Northern newspaper editor, saw the war as the American Conflict; President Lincoln emphasized that it was 'a people's contest' with republican and democratic government at stake; one of his party colleagues, Senator Henry Wilson, later wrote his account of the years from the 1840s to the 1860s and entitled it History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. To Southerners, different names seemed appropriate. When the Confederate president Jefferson Davis wrote his memoirs he placed his emphasis on the Confederacy itself, on the attempt to create a new government; when his vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, did the same he called his book A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States; and a modern historian has aptly referred to the War for Southern Independence.

These differences of nomenclature suggest deeper disagreements over the nature of the crisis that confronted Americans in the 1860s. Did Northerners fight Southerners simply to maintain the Union? Did . . .

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