Why Did the Civil War Happen?
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.
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?