North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The American Civil War is so vast, complex, important, and engaging, that it has inspired literature that conservatively runs to more than 50,000 books and pamphlets. More than one book or pamphlet a day has been published about the conflict since April 1861, when the firing on Fort Sumter helped precipitate it. Review the background of the war, and learn what was happening in the North and South before the first shots were fired.

 Union and confederate flags
(Image: Enrique Ramos/Shutterstock)

The article will introduce a narrative thread to help you understand the background of the American Civil War in both the military and civilian spheres. We’ll look at some background necessary to set the stage for the war.

Mundane Beginnings

Time prevents our employing anything but the broadest of brush strokes. We should not fall into the trap of trying to understand the outbreak of fighting by bringing everything we know to our consideration of why the war came. Most Americans did not wake up every morning during the antebellum years thinking only about sectional tensions with the first thought on their minds, “What’s going on in the North?” or “What’s going on in the South?”

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Americans got on with their lives and were concerned with the type of mundane activities that occupy our attention most of the time. They didn’t know a war lurked a few years ahead; Americans then had no sense of the time ticking away, for their young republic was destined to undergo trauma of unimagined proportion. They often looked at local or state, rather than national politics, as their main focus when they engaged in the political system. Yet we can trace the unfolding of the sectional tensions that contributed to the conditions for the war that came in 1861.

Historians have debated a great deal about whether the North and South had developed by the midpoint of the 19th century into societies that were different from one another. Some scholars have argued that they had essentially become two different civilizations, divided across a fault line delineated by the institution of slavery. Other scholars point to a common language and history—most obviously the struggle for independence in the late 18th century—and other shared characteristics. These scholars insist that differences were minor compared to commonalities between Northerners and Southerners.

Much of this debate misses a major point that most Americans, by the mid-1850s at the latest, believed there were major differences between white Northerners and white Southerners. Northerners looked south and saw people made different by slavery. Many white Southerners, considered Northerners an almost alien people bent on interfering with Southern society. The key thing to understand is that it doesn’t matter whether there were major differences. If the people thought there were and acted accordingly, that is the most important thing. People looked north if they were in the South and saw a people they believed were different, and the same thing happened in the other direction.

Map of the division of the states in the American Civil War (1861–1865)
Division of the states in the American Civil War (1861–1865). Northern states are shown in blue & light blue. Southern states are shown in red. (Image: Júlio Reis/Public domain)

Background on the North

It’s always risky to generalize about large groups of people, whether in the United States or elsewhere, but it is possible to make some generalizations about the two sections. All these generalizations could be qualified.

The North increased far more rapidly in population during the antebellum decades than the South. There was more immigration by far. Northern states were comprised of far more urban areas, although not urban by our modern standards. The North was considerably more developed commercially and industrially than the South was. There was also a very strong agricultural sector in the North: Forty percent or more of the entire labor force in the North was engaged in agriculture, but it was far more urban, commercial, and industrial than the South.

If we had to pick out the single, dominant element of the Northern population, it would be what we would probably call yeoman farmers, independent farmers who worked their own, small parcels of land. The North had a strong strain of Yankee Protestantism that urged citizens to be thrifty, work hard, and to avoid alcohol or excess of any kind.

Learn more about the sectional controversies and clashes that set the stage for secession and war

Not all Northerners fit into this pattern. There were millions of Catholics in the North—many Irish Catholics and German Catholics in cities and elsewhere, as well as many non-Catholics who lived in the southern regions of the North, called the Little Egypt region of the Midwest along the Ohio River—who did not subscribe to this notion of Yankee Protestantism. But among the political and economic leaders of the North, Yankee Protestantism was very strong, and this strain of Protestantism helped fuel economic expansion and pointed the way toward an emerging capitalist, industrial, and commercial giant.

The North also embraced reform movements, which were supported in a major way by this strain of the Yankee Protestant ethic. Temperance was a major reform movement in the North, as was public education, and most importantly, abolitionism.

A “free labor” ideology took hold in the North by the mid-1850s, an ideology that argued there is no inherent antagonism between labor on the one hand and capital on the other. It argued an individual could begin owning nothing but his labor, and they would have put it within the context of his labor: Work, use that labor to acquire a small amount of capital, and eventually become a member of the middle class or even more. Abraham Lincoln was a perfect example of this, someone who began with virtually nothing but his labor and ended up as a successful member of the middle class. The Republican Party believed fervently in the notion of a free-labor society.

Many in the North looked south and saw a section that they believed was holding the nation back. They saw a land of lazy, cruel, violent people who did not subscribe to the ideas that would make the United States great. That is the view many in the North had of the South.

Learn more about the presidential canvass of 1860; the most important in U.S. history

A Look at the South

The South was losing ground in population and thus, clout in Congress. The railroad, canal, and road networks in the South were underdeveloped compared to those in the North. Cities were fewer and smaller. New Orleans, at approximately 160,000 people in 1860, was by far the largest city in the South. Many cities in the North dwarfed most of the cities in the South.

The South was overwhelmingly agricultural: Eighty percent of its labor force engaged in agriculture. The vast majority of Southern wealth was invested in land and slaves. Wealthier slaveholders dominated the region politically and socially, and their lands produced key cash crops: cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice, with cotton the most vital of these. Cotton exports alone gave the United States a favorable balance of trade in the 1850s, feeding Northern and European textile industries.

Southern religion was also of course predominantly Protestant, but it was a more personal kind of Protestantism, concerned less with reforming or improving society and more with individual salvation. Reform movements like the Temperance Movement did not take root in the South. There was virtually no abolitionist sentiment in the South, at least not spoken sentiment by the 1850s, or even before that. In comparison, education lagged far behind Northern standards across most of the South. Many white Southerners looked to the North as a region of cold, grasping people who cared little about family and subordinated everything to the process of making money.

Learn more about how all of the Lower South states seceded by the first week of February 1861

Slavery was not only a form of labor control in the South but also the key to the South’s social system. Only about a quarter of white Southern families owned slaves, and most of those held five or fewer. Only 12 percent of the slaveholders had 12 or more slaves—that is, 12 percent of the 25 percent who owned slaves, a measure of one way to divide slaveholders between relatively large and more modest slaveholders. All Southern white people, however, had a stake in the system of slavery because, as white people, they were automatically part of the controlling class in the South. No matter how poor they were, how wretched their condition might be, white Southerners were superior in their minds and, according to the legal and social structures of their society, to the millions of enslaved African Americans among them.

Common Questions About the Background for the American Civil War

Q: What were the main causes of the Civil War?

There were many causes to the Civil War, but a few of them were the disagreement about slavery, the South trying to secede, and the changing landscape of cities built around industry.

Q: What fueled the Confederates to fight?

The Confederates wanted to protect the rich society they had built on slavery, thus fueling the Civil War.

Q: What exactly were the Confederate states?

The Confederate states were 11 states that seceded from the Union after the election of President Lincoln, but they were never recognized as a sovereign nation.

Q: Why did Lincoln eventually go to war with the South?

Lincoln went to war with the South largely over an ideal to preserve the solidarity of the union of the states. It was an expression of American pride and preservation.

This article was updated on October 15, 2019

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