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Essay: The effects of Southern secession

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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The onset of Civil War came as a result of great dispute within our country’s darkest period. Throughout the course of the early 18th century, the tension within the United States had begun to fester due to severe differences in conflicting economies, partisan divide, diverging cultures, and perhaps most importantly – extreme viewpoints on the existence of slavery. These relentless quarrels between the North and South had begun to lead to outbreaks of violence in American cities, territories, and even political arenas. The divisiveness ultimately reached its boiling point in mid-April 1861, when the Confederates fired upon the Union troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina; effectively beginning the bloodiest conflict in American military history. While the outbreak of the Civil War brought hopes of abolition and freedom to some, it conversely brought fears of violence and revolution to others. The contrasting viewpoints and underlying beliefs which existed in the United States at the time cannot be summarized easily, yet it can be formerly assessed with the use of relevant historical sources.

Perhaps the optimal approach to understanding the effects of Southern secession is to first examine the viewpoint of the elite white Southerner. What prospect did Civil War hold for the founders and supporters of the Confederacy? To begin with, it was an opportunity for the South to separate themselves from a federal government which did not share their social, political, and economic beliefs. With the election of the Northern Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, the Confederates feared their way of life would soon be threatened. Despite Lincoln’s optimistic inaugural address, one in which he specifically stated that he would not interfere with the current institution of slavery, the Confederacy still felt that it was in their best interest to move forward with Southern secession (Cornell, Oct. 1 2018).

Although the core motivations of Southern elite men to secede stemmed from racism and slavery, as Charles Dew primary argument states in ‘Apostles of Disunion’, its important to differentiate these views from other demographics within Southern society. For instance, the poorer white southern citizens of the Antebellum period often did not own slaves themselves, and therefore did not feel the need to defend the Peculiar Institution. As a result, many poor whites hoped for a Union victory, even later becoming supporters of civil and political rights for former slaves during Reconstruction (Foner, pg. 13). In contrast, Stephanie McCurry argues that some portions of poor white Southerners, particularly Yeoman farmers, hoped to retain slavery as it brought a social structure to the South in which enslaved African Americans remained at the bottom of the so-called social pyramid. Additionally, McCurry argues that the women within Southern society were forced to be dependent on men while withheld of civil rights that they were comparable to slaves in social status. Under these conditions, it would seem reasonable to believe that there hopes and fears were dependent on the wealth of their families; yet perhaps some Southern women hoped that African American civil rights reform would consequently lead to a greater emphasis on women’s rights.

While the white southerners of the time hoped to gain independence from the south, the white northerners felt compelled to go to war with the Southern aggressors in order to maintain their Union. Some white northerners of the time may have felt no need to retain their nation’s unity; seeing as the north was a successful, modernized, bourgeois free-labor economy (Dew). Regardless, the Union Army felt the need to end the rebellion. For some progressive white northerners, the initiation of war brought an opportunity to end the existence of slavery. Despite the abolition of slavery in the North, the effects the Southern slave-agenda continued to affect the country as a whole, both politically and socially. One example being the egregious set of laws known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (Cornell, The Road to Disunion, Sept. 26 2018). This controversial piece of legislation required all American citizens, even those who lived in free states, to cooperate in the return of runaway slaves to their owners. In the eyes of white northerner abolitionist, the Fugitive Slave Act made them directly responsible for the continuation and enforcement of slavery. As the Civil War came about, a strong portion of white northerners hoped for an end of the Fugitive Slave Act and the other widespread effects of the Southern Slave political agenda.

In some ways, the fears and hopes of the white Northerner was similar to that of the free African American. According to Eric Foner, nearly a million free African Americans inhabited the country on the eve of the Civil War, with a majority residing in the Southern states (Foner, 10). These Americans were hoping for a semblance of racial equality from post-war society, seeing as how they were still considered second-class citizens leading up to the Civil War. Foner mostly describes these free African Americans as “poor urban or rural laborers” whom “enjoyed few rights other than not being considered a form of property” (Foner, Pg. 10). While these African Americans believed in the abolitionist movement, they feared how their lives would change under the conditions of a white post-war society.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the enslaved African American population had become the single most valuable asset of the southern economy. In the eyes of the Confederacy, their retention of slave labor was a ‘right’ worth going to war in the name of. As the news of the war began to filter through slave communities, there was a hint of optimism that a Union victory could lead to their eventual freedom from chains. Enslaved African Americans hoped that the war could bring an end to their grim realities they were forced to endure. Perhaps if the confederacy collapsed, they hoped they’d be given the chance to carry out independent lives. One’s in which they could develop their own cultures, centered around family and church, without the fear of their owners looming (Foner, pg. 14).

The prospect of Civil War brought a sense of worry and uncertainty to the country as a whole. The specific hopes and fears of each American during this precarious time was pertinent to their national loyalties and social standing. Although it can be difficult to deduce the emotions felt throughout the country during wartime, we are capable of generalizing these hopes and fears through the historical sources available to us. These sources, while not definitive in nature, certainly help us understand the difficult circumstances which led our country to Civil War.

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