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Why Did the Civil War Happen?


"Bombardment of Fort Sumter!!," April 12, 1861 (Virginia Historical Society, Call no. Broadsides 1861.16)

That’s the subject of the introductory video for our upcoming blockbuster show, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. Books have been written about this issue. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and many disagree. Some consider this question, though 150 years old, vitally important today. The full answer goes back at least to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and more accurately to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. But we only have four minutes to answer it, because this is a large exhibition and visitors will want to—and will have to—move quickly through it. How do we do answer the question in four minutes?

Internally, we’ve had lots of debate. We now have produced a preliminary script and it’s in the hands of a video production company for the next round of its development. Here’s where we stand thus far. Only a few points can be made in four minutes, so we have identified the ones that we feel have to be conveyed.

The first point is that the war was fought because of slavery. Of course lots has been said—from 1861 until today—about the issue of states’ rights, but the right that southern states were most concerned about in 1861 was the right to perpetuate slavery. In fact, the more one reads the innumerable speeches of the 1850s, the more one realizes that slavery is the primary issue that leaders North and South wanted to talk about. It seems at times as if it is all they wanted to talk about. Senator James M. Mason of Virginia, who was in the thick of these debates, seems a plausible voice for us to listen to. He had been among a handful of elected officials who questioned John Brown at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. From December 10, 1860, to February 4, 1861, he served on a Senate committee of thirteen that was convened to report a plan to avert disunion (which began soon, on December 20, when South Carolina seceded). Mason came to a simple conclusion: “I look upon the present crisis as a war of sentiment and opinion by one form of society against another form of society.” Throughout the 1850s, the issue slavery had kept the free North and the slaveholding South on a collision course that could end in dissolution of the Union or a war to preserve it.

"An Ordinance to Repeal the Ratification of the Constitution of the Unitned States of America, by the State of Virginia ...," after April 17, 1861 (Virginia Historical Society, Call no. Broadsides 1861: 17a)

Our second point is that many in the North and the South were ill-informed about one another and inclined to disbelieve and misconstrue what little accurate information came their way. This lack of understanding—the result of more than forty years of wrangling over slavery by those “two forms of society”—made matters worse. Some in the North believed that southerners might attempt to extend slavery not only into the territories but across the entire nation—at a time when the civilized world had mostly abolished it. Some in the South believed that northerners were self-righteous zealots who were set on dominion over them and were determined to abolish slavery everywhere—when in fact most were content to tolerate the institution where it existed.

Another point is that circumstances changed in the 1850s from what they had been. Not only did the misunderstanding and distrust heighten, but the spirit of compromise that for decades had averted a collision expired. Both sides grew tired of compromising and allowed a series of events to ignite war. These episodes—creation of the Republican Party, raid on Harpers Ferry, election of Lincoln, secession of Deep South states, crisis of Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s call for troops, secession of Virginia—can be seen as a series of dominoes that fell, one upon another (our video company may or may not use that analogy), to bring the end result of war.

A final point is that Virginia’s decision about secession, which would not be made until four months after South Carolina acted, would be momentous because it would affect the course followed by the other Upper South states and—if a war was to be fought—the location and duration of that war. If Virginia had remained in the Union, events would have unfolded very differently.

Our script uses actual quotes for most of this program, so that the players in this drama tell their own story in their own words. The quotes were selected to convey the ideas expressed above.

Will we make our self-imposed four-minute deadline? Do you think that’s possible?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Historianess permalink
    06/15/2010 5:46 pm

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this video. Well done, VHS!


  2. Randall permalink
    06/15/2010 7:52 pm

    You make excellent points! I think you’re well on your way to meeting your 4 minute window.


  3. The Fact Checker permalink
    06/16/2010 8:59 am

    Yes! You will most certainly make your self-imposed four-minute deadline. Unfortunately, you will do so because of a very flawed bias rather than an objective desire to impart some perspective on the Civil War for those unfortunate folks that will be fed your politically correct views of times past.

    Not that it will make any difference to your slanted opinion, but a few facts for you to consider:

    Perhaps you meant to ask, “Why did SECESSION happen?” The Civil War happened only because the North invaded the South to force those seceded States back into the Union. The South objected of course to the invasion and attempted to drive them back home. That’s it, period. No other reasons whatsoever! Now if you want to discuss the causes of secession, that’s another much more complex question.

    And for goodness sake, since this is a Virginia “historical” website, you are doing a great disservice in not mentioning the fact that Virginia didn’t secede until Lincoln called for the States to supply 75,000 volunteers for his unconstitutional invasion of the South. At least back then, Virginia cared about unconstitutional acts by the federal government.

    And finally, you should be ashamed in trying to make the facts fit your own narrative through the fraudulent use of quotes you have dug up that agree with your own views. Anyone, can find some quotes to support any foolish theory. I can prove the sky is falling by simply quoting Mr. Little and his view on the subject—but that does not necessarily make it so.

    I suppose it’s too much to expect a so-called historical website to actually attempt to tell it like it was?


    • 06/16/2010 9:55 am

      Actually, the points you make about invasion of the South and the call for 75,000 troops to invade neighbors and kin in the Deep South are already stated rather forcefully in the draft we have sent to the video company. Letcher’s statement in response to the call for troops (about who was inaugurating war) is powerful.


  4. David Bryant permalink
    06/30/2010 1:14 pm

    I must wholeheartedly concur with The Fact Checker. The Civil War was Lincoln’s response to southern secession. The horrible devastation wrought upon our state was the result of an administration who subverted the U. S. Constitution is their quest to create a new government of unlimited powers. Any discussion of the causes of the war must begin with a review of the rights so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence. Included is the right of the people to alter or abolish their government. Who decides when the people may act? According to Jefferson the people decide; according to Lincoln it is the government’s decision. This, along with Lincoln’s long list of unconstitutional actions, proves the southern states were foresighted in their opinion of the newly elected leader and justified in seeking to abolish political ties.
    Will the VHS present a true historical record of the great struggle or will it sacrifice its integrity like other Richmond institutions to appease those who know little of our history and care only about how their own interests are furthered by misrepresenting our heritage? Where will Virginians go to learn about the great achievements of our ancestors and the life or death struggles they had to overcome to create this great commonwealth? Would there be a United States today without the courage, inspiration, and sweat of our forebears? And lastly will the propaganda presented by Hollywood, PBS, and the other media take the place of our rightful history?
    Now is the time for the VHS to take the leadership role is this new battle for our legacy. The VHS must accomplish its mission to educate all without regard to those who advocate the compromise of political correctness or who seek to elevate their own position by demonizing our past. As the issues that created the Revolution of 1776 and the Crisis of 1861 remain with us today, it is prudent to remember the words of a fellow Virginian: Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known and seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men.


    • 07/19/2010 10:50 am

      Thank you for your comments. Our committee is now waiting to hear back from the video production company that we have engaged as to their preliminary scheme for the “Why War” video. Since video is the medium, information will come both visually and via words (probably both spoken and printed). We will be on the alert to check that key points do not fall through the cracks. One key point, which you make, is that Lincoln could have avoided the Fort Sumter crisis (and thus perhaps the war—or at least so large a war) if he had not forced the issue there by resupplying the fort. (Of course, Jefferson Davis could have avoided the Fort Sumter crisis too.)

      Our job is not to editorialize, but to present facts so that the visitor can draw an informed conclusion. We will not address whether Virginia was right to secede. We will convey the fact that when Lincoln called for 75,000 troops, many Virginians refused to participate in an invasion of neighbors (and even kin) in the Deep South. But so did Kentuckians refuse, and Kentucky did not leave the Union.

      Our four minutes will be consumed simply laying out facts. I imagine that the conclusions drawn from what we present will be as different as the answers to the same question have been during the past 150 years.


      • David Bryant permalink
        09/22/2010 3:42 pm

        “One key point, which you make, is that Lincoln could have avoided the Fort Sumter crisis…”
        The most important key point is that Lincoln could have avoided the war altogether. Over 620,000 lives could have been saved and the economic and social devastation of an entire people could have been avoided. Think of the Virginia soldier who lay dying on a battlefield and how his sacrifice is today routinely mocked and belittled.
        “Our job is not to editorialize, but to present facts so that the visitor can draw an informed conclusion.”
        Will all the facts be presented? Will the visitor be reminded of the words in the Declaration of Independence regarding the people’s right to alter or abolish their government or that Virginia ratified the U. S Constitution only with the stipulation that it could later withdraw from the union?
        “We will not address whether Virginia was right to secede.”
        Virginia had and still has the right to secede. Many northern states had already threatened to leave the union during the previous 70 years. Even outsiders such as de Tocqueville noted that, within our voluntary union, a state could, “withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disapprove its right of doing so…”
        “Kentucky did not leave the Union.”
        With Lincoln arresting many leaders in the northern states who did not agreed with his policies and actions, is it any wonder? Remember that a former U. S. Congressman from Ohio was arrested and exiled for stating that the war was not about preserving the union but about freeing the slaves. Also, I believe Kentucky early on declared its neutrality in the conflict. Should Virginia have paid so high a price for again assuming a leadership role in a fight for independence?
        Please do not allow the politically correct opportunists and the Marxist theorists to pollute this valuable history lesson. If the Confederate States had freed their slaves, would there have still been a war? Yes; Lincoln’s stated objective was to force the southern states back into the union. However, if the Confederate States had retained their slaves, but rejoined the union, there would have been no war. The original thirteenth amendment, passed by congress and supported by Lincoln, provided further constitutional protection for slavery yet failed to entice the southern states back into the union. Should the men of Virginia have lain down their arms, allowed their families to be violated and their homes destroyed because later attitudes would misinterpret their cause?
        We have such a long and glorious history. Someone must celebrate our heritage and preserve our legacy for future generations, not distort and reshape it to suit the “modern” opinions of those who get their facts from a bias media that see everything southern as inherently evil.


      • 09/24/2010 2:48 pm

        I couldn’t agree more with you that the vast majority of men who served as Confederate soldiers did so not to preserve slavery but to do their duty and defend their homeland. Many were conscripted and had no choice but to become Confederates. They served honorably and with immense courage, and they deserve credit from us for that sacrifice. I don’t want to forget them any more than you do.


  5. William Bryant permalink
    08/20/2010 11:53 am

    The root causes of the Civil War for the South were economic; states right and tariffs are red herrings. Slaves made deep South planters rich by growing cotton but also rice (S.C,) and sugar cane (La). The economy of the upper South including Va. was more diverse–wheat, corn, tobacco, livestock plus timber, coal. and other natual resourses. Va.’s growing urban centers were also expanding their manufacturing capability, worked largely by slaves.

    After S.C. seceded Virginia was divided but the vast majority of Virginians had little in common with the cotton South and opposed secession, Having been instrumental in forming the Union, Virginians felt a loyaltiy to the Consitution. Please look into the actions of Herny A. Wise of Princes Ann County during and immediately after the Virginia Convention of 1861. He almost single handedly pushed Va. to secede, which lead to the rest of the upper South states following. Lincoln said Va.’s decision was key.

    After the unwarranted shelling on Ft. Sumter (have read it was ordered by Jefferson Davis but also Governor of S.C., which is important to know), Lincoln’s mistake may have been to call for 75,000 militia from the loyal states to put down the rebellion. Va. had a quota of militia to provide (can’t find the number in my notes), which likley pushed Va. to secede. What if Lincoln had not asked for milita from slave states still in the Union?

    Note that the 1850s was a economic boom decade for Va. due to grain and tobacco exports but not sure if that plays into the secession decision.

    S.C. gave 4 reasons for secession, all related to Republican Party’s attitude towards slavery.
    1. They would prohibit further expansion of slavery into new terrotories (Lincoln said he was opposed). They didn’t want more land to grow cotton but more slaves states since they were losing control of the Congress and Electoral College as th population of the North expanded.
    2. They would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, upheld by the Supreme Court dominated by Southeners. This law was hated in the North many states refused to uphold the law and capture escaped slaves and send them back South (this refutes the states rights argument since S.C. was complaining the Federal government was not being strong enough in forcing states to uphold the law).
    3. They would abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., thereby establishing a precedence for abolishing it everywhere.
    4. They would use the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to regulate the interstate slave trade.

    This last point is important. Upper South states had surplus slaves, due to natual increase and switch to less labor intensive grain farming, and a lucrative antebellum trade developed where upper South slaves were sold to traveling slave traders or auction houses and taken south (“sold down the river”) for resale. It was a dirty, ugly business little known today. Slave families were broken up and coffees of slaves chained together and walked hundreds of miles to the deep South. Some upper South farms including Va. essentailly became slave stud farms. Virginia was the biggest supplier of slaves to the deep South and much money was made by Virginian farmers this way. By 1860 South Caroilina had also become a large exporter of slaves (Old Slave Mart in Charleston still standing) which was a major factor in their decision to secede. They did not watn the Federal goverment becoming involved in the interstate salve trade.

    I have four direct Va. ancestors who served in the ANV–one was mortally wounded, one was wounded and mustered out, one had his horse shot out from under him, and one came through unhurt. Only one was a slave holder with 2 slaves. I long ago gave up any illusions of the “Lost Cause.” Slavery was a brutal hellish business that had to be eradicated. My ancestors, like countless men of modest means before them and since, were convinced into fighting the rich man’s war. Those today who hold onto romantized myths of the “Lost Cause.” don’t know or don’t want ot know their history. (“Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts, Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate. Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”
    Rev. Peter Gome)

    Finally, four minutes is not enough time to devote to the causes of the Civil War. Since history is not taught in the schools any more, this is an opportunity to enlighten the public. Just don’t sugar coat it.


    • 08/23/2010 3:55 pm

      Thank you very much for your insightful comments. I have come to the same conclusions after much reading, and I am in agreement with you on the various points that you make. My reading of the Virginia secession convention leads me to believe like you do that Henry Wise “almost singlehandedly pushed Va. to secede….” That point is rarely made and it should be. Your argument that four minutes is not enough time to do much justice to the subject is valid. But four minutes is better than zero minutes, and at least we will get across a considerable amount of information to a lot of people. Hopefully, some of those and others will read your comments, which we are glad to be able to post.


  6. Rosie permalink
    09/27/2010 11:57 am

    [“The most important key point is that Lincoln could have avoided the war altogether. Over 620,000 lives could have been saved and the economic and social devastation of an entire people could have been avoided. Think of the Virginia soldier who lay dying on a battlefield and how his sacrifice is today routinely mocked and belittled.”]

    Why was the decision to avoid war solely on Lincoln’s shoulders? I believe that both Lincoln and Davis made decision that finally led to the outbreak of war. Why is that hard to accept?


    • David Bryant permalink
      09/30/2010 4:35 pm

      How could Jefferson Davis have avoided the war? Short of rejoining the union, nothing would have stopped Lincoln from invading the south to force the southern states back into the union. This why the VHS needs to educate the public about our history. There is so much disinformation, myths, and ignorance being distributed by supposed educational institutions and anti-southern, biased media, someone must take the lead in preserving our story. Fortunately, the facts are there for anyone wishing to know the truth. Why not present all the facts and let the people decide for themselves whether the war was fought to unconstitutionally change our government or was the war fought to prevent the expansion of slavery. I am curtain an open-minded assessment of the facts will prove our ancestors fought for the same principles their ancestors sought in their war against Great Britain: independence, limited government, and the rule of law.


  7. Patrick Harrison permalink
    01/07/2011 5:17 pm

    I truly hope that the draft you submitted contains the facts to show what a flaming hypocrite Lincoln turned out to be, not the great emancipator but the great pretender. “Shortly after the Mexican War he had spoken plainly for all to hear: [quote] Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right – a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.” [end of quote, “The Civil War, A Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville,” by Shelby Foote, pps. 66-67, 1958]. Holy cow, is this man for real?

    The american north elected a man with such poor negotiating skills that he blundered into a war that killed over half million citizens, north and south, and left a large section of the country devastated. Elected President, he flip-flopped and then decided that there was no such right for the south to secede. He was so poorly educated and inexperienced in dealing with opposing sides that he actually thought that 70,000 troops could invade the new country and subdue states that actually had more military readiness than the Union. If he were President today, the media would eat him alive – – they tried in his own time.

    I don’t even know why I am posting as the Histerical Society is so brain-washed by politically-correct money that, like the 200th birthday celebration of General Robert E. Lee, you will dumb-down any remembrance of Confederate sacrifices and focus on humiliating the southern society of the time. Good luck – – I trust that I will not again see a large painting of Lincoln flying on the front of the society’s building.


  8. Patrick Harrison permalink
    01/07/2011 5:41 pm

    I take exception to the posting of William Bryant in which he seems to think that the Confederate War was fought over slavery. I have the following letter in my family genealogy for a G-Great Uncle, Harrison Barron. who fought and died in the Wilderness Campaign:

    In the beginning, after induction into the CSA forces, the Winston Guards returned to Louisville, Mississippi, and received a flag purchased and donated by the ladies of Louisville. In her address on the presentation of the flag, Miss Lou Covington made the following remarks:

    Captain Bradley, the ladies of this vicinity, prompted by a noble and praiseworthy patriotism, have purchased this beautiful flag and have assigned me the pleasing task of presenting it to you, and through you to the soldiers of the Winston Guards.

    Captain! Soldiers! Look upon this beautiful and glorious banner. In that bright galaxy you behold eight stars, the symbol of the eight Confederate States; South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, our own glorious and brave Mississippi, Texas and the old Mother of States and Statesmen, Virginia. Soon other constellations will cluster in that glorious circle, and we shall behold the symbolism of an united South.

    See again, this beautiful flag, which embodies the idea of patriotism, of sacred homes, of liberty, of mothers, sisters and friends that you will leave behind you. Trembling and prayerfully, they have committed it to our keeping and defense. They bid you God speed in the noble march before you; it is as noble a march, as ever soldiers put forward a step to take. It is a battle for your civilization and laws; it is a battle for the repose of your mothers and sisters; it is a battle for the glorious heritage of your ancestors; it is a battle in which you are expected to leave a rich and noble inheritance to posterity.

    Soldiers of the Winston Guards! A great and glorious conflict awaits you; a greater spirit than that of Napoleon invokes your; a genius that never dwelt in places, nor was robed in purple calls you to advance. ‘Tis the spirit of liberty and the genius of your country.

    Mississippi Volunteers have never yet faltered and the Winston Guards never will. Glory, peace, honor, and safety will be your reward. Mindful of the historic renown of Mississippians, proud of your country and the cause of which you are the champions, you will enter the contest resolved that the story of your deeds and the valor of your arms shall shed fresh and renewed luster upon the fame of Mississippi Volunteers.

    Captain Bradley, in your march through Virginia, if you should pass near the Tomb of Washington, I pray you to hold the Winston Guards at that sacred shrine and kneeling, read the story of Brandywine, Germantown, Princeton and Trenton; there learn well the lessons of liberty, and drink deep of the inspirations of independence; and if the Abolition goths and Vandals of the North should dare invade the sacred precincts of Virginia, in the name of your mothers and sisters, aye! in the name of your own Mississippi, drive back the ruthless invaders.

    Captain Bradley, I commit into your hands this standard, there is no man, sir, I am instructed to say, to whom these fair ladies would entrust it more willingly; and if, Sir, it should be, under the providence of God, that you should be stricken down, the confidently believe every man who goes in your command will grasp that Banner, and bear it aloft triumphantly, amidst the flashing of cannon and the shouts of battle.

    ‘Winston Guards, remember amid the tumult of battle and clangor of arms, that there are loving friends at home, offering up earnest and fervent prayers for your safety and success. May the protecting care of the god of battles be over you, and when the stern strife closes around, nerve your gallant hearts, and crown your noble efforts with victory, liberty and peace, while a glad welcome, and the deep gratitude of happy hearts, will meet your joyous return.’

    A majority of the guards were non-slaveholders and certainly did not fight for the “rich man,” but felt the same patriotic fervor that their revolutionary war ancestors felt when trying to free themselves from a tyrant. Don’t believe that the war was fought for the rich slaveholder by men who did not own slaves, did not want to own slaves and had no sympathy for the large plantation owners. That is an easy way out when trying to explain the sacrifices of millions of southerners; especially when you realize that there were more abolitionist organizations in Georgia than the whole of the north.

    Society – get it right this time


    • 01/10/2011 10:47 am

      Thank you for sharing the Lincoln quote and the Louisville, Mississippi presentation speech.

      It is well known that Lincoln’s viewpoint on various subjects evolved over the years. The quote you dug up emphatically proves the point.

      The flag presentation speech is particularly appreciated because it is virtually unknown. It reinforces the fact that three out of four heads of families in antebellum Virginia did NOT own slaves and therefore had little or no interest in defending slavery.


  9. Peggy Finley Aarlien permalink
    09/05/2011 10:40 pm

    In addition to the commentary about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Introduction-Why Did the War Happen?”—Inconvenient Truth or Propaganda?), I would like to take a moment here to stress the importance of the role that antebellum newspapers played in making the Civil War “happen.” Much of American knowledge and understanding of the war in the era leading up to the war came from the journalists who made history by publishing what often became history.
    Prior to 1835, news coverage was directed by the seat of government. The journalistic center of the country was limited to issues concerning local and national party politics. By 1835, America began witnessing a journalistic revolution with advancing technology and journalistic, and by 1860, it saw the “modern: newspaper come of age. Now, the idea of the “news” was published for its own sake, despite that it continued its politically partisan public stands.
    Nonetheless, newspapers populated overnight and the journalistic center saw profits in news coverage of social issues of the day, including scandal and crime. Naturally, editors were not blind to the biggest challenge of the nation (and the biggest advertisement opportunity to ever hit).
    The point here is that the decades leading up to the war saw Americans wanting to read and hear about the emotional impact of slavery. Illustrations and in-depth news coverage (at times full of errors, sensationalism and propaganda) about enslavement added to the debate about abolition and slavery. And in so doing, the modern newspapers became the purveyors of information since for decades they could aggregate huge audiences.
    Thus, the modern newspaper became equivalent to the Internet in the information business. News was now widespread and influential crashing like a tsunami across the United States, changing pretty much every aspect of American life. In fact, millions Americans read the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in the newspaper press, which became one of the most influential books in American history (in part, thanks to the newspapers).
    Note: I do hope that the VHS online exhibition, “An American Turning Point” will bring forth a discussion on how the “modern” newspaper (in my opinion) greatly contributed to the debate of “Why Did the War Happen?”
    –Peggy Finley Aarlien


  10. 09/06/2011 12:20 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You open up a huge subject for research. Not only is there a similarity to today’s internet, but also to today’s cable news channels, where people watch whichever extreme interpretation (Fox news, MSNBC, etc.) agrees with their own.


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