In the spring of 1861, decades of simmering tensions between the northern and southern United States over issues including states’ rights versus federal authority, westward expansion and slavery exploded into the American Civil War (1861-65).
The election of the anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede from the Union to form the Confederate States of America (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas).
The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, pitted neighbor against neighbor and in some cases, brother against brother.
By the time it ended in Confederate surrender in 1865, the Civil War proved to be the costliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and the population and territory of the South devastated.
In the mid-19th century, a fundamental economic difference existed between the country’s northern and southern regions. While in the North, manufacturing and industry was well established, the South’s economy was based on a system of large-scale farming that depended on the labor of black slaves to grow certain crops, especially cotton and tobacco.
Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North after the 1830s, and northern opposition to slavery’s extension into the new western territories, led many southerners to fear that the existence of slavery in America — and thus the backbone of their economy — was in danger.
In 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict.
Pro- and anti-slavery forces struggled violently in “Bleeding Kansas,” while opposition to the act in the North led to the formation of the Republican Party, a new political entity based on the principle of opposing slavery’s extension into the western territories.
The southerners became convinced more of their northern neighbors were becoming bent on the destruction of the “peculiar institution” that sustained them. Lincoln’s election in November 1860 was the final straw.
When President Lincoln took office in March 1861, the Confederate forces soon after threatened the federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, on April 12, after Lincoln ordered a fleet to resupply Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War.