If the Civil War was not fought over slavery, then why did this happen?

On August 21, 1863 William C. Quantrill and a band of 450 proslavery yahoos raided Lawrence, Kansas and butchered 182 individuals, including children.

Quantrill and his men staged numerous raids into Kansas during the early part of the Civil War. He was quickly labeled an outlaw by the Union for his attacks on pro Union forces. He was involved in several skirmishes with Jayhawkers (pro Union guerilla bands) and eventually was made a Captain in the Confederate Army. His attitude towards his role in the Civil War drastically changed in 1862 when the Commander of the Department of Missouri, Major General Henry W. Halleck ordered that guerrillas such as Quantrill and his men would be treated as robbers and murderers, not normal prisoners of war. Before this proclamation, Quantrill acted as if he were a normal soldier adhering to principals of accepting enemy surrender. After this, he gave an order to give 'no quarter'.

Well, of course, he was a criminal and this 'excuse' is pitiful.

On August 21, 1863, Quantrill led his band of about 450 men into Lawrence, Kansas. They attacked this pro Union stronghold killing over 150 men, few of them offering resistance. In addition, Quantrill's Raiders burned and looted the town. In the North, this event became known as the Lawrence Massacre and was vilified as one of the worst events of the Civil War.


We are often wooed by historical images of southern gentleman joining in defense of the South against the tyrannical aggression of the militant Yankees. But Quantrill an his thugs may ring truer not only of the typical southern attitude of the time, (outside of certain genteel quarters of Old Virginia) but the reactionism of this band of thugs also resonates with what we still see today, in decreasing frequency (owing to dilution of the south with new people and sometimes new ideas) in the obnoxious southern racism wrapped in a pseudo-patriotic Southern Flag.

The Civil War was fought to end slavery. And in some people's mind the war is still on.

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Likely the primary reason for the Civil War was the Southern States sucession from the Union. This doesn't mean that slavery wasn't a major issue.

I just heard the famous presidential historian on NPR (yesterday) reaffirming our national belief that the CW was about slavery, at least according to those fighting it. Such as Abe Lincoln .

By the other joel (not verified) on 21 Aug 2008 #permalink

Tensions leading to the Civil War were for multiple reasons, slavery exacerbating most of them. There is typically a racist undertone beneath the banner of states rights, but saying we fought it to end slavery is too simple of an argument for a disgraceful period in our history and such a bloody war and resolution.

It's also argued that Lincoln initiating the draft was a good thing, because without it, slavery would not have ended. Yet tens if not hundreds of thousands of drafted people on both sides, under the threat of imprisonment, died. The abolition of slavery was great, but it doesn't mean it justified the butchery of other innocent people who were effectively enslaved.

"The South will rise again" mantra is ignorant, and slavery was a contributing, if not major source to the economic and geopolitical tensions. But those tensions were not as simple as "slavery is wrong, and we're thinking of abolishing it." They were more along the line of "as our nation expands west into new territories, if those states are slave states, slaves will take many of the labor opportunities we anticipate and would like for ourselves. Therefore we should limit slavery not because blacks are equal human beings -- they are not -- nor should we limit it because we find it a deplorable institution; we should limit slavery because they will be competition for our labor."

Slavery was a large reason for tensions leading to the secession of the South; it was not the reason for the Civil War. The war was to preserve the Union. The emancipation proclamation allowed southern states to rejoin the union and keep their slaves, but the threat was if they did not rejoin the union within 6 months, then the Union would free the slaves and take control of all economy in any territory they occupied.

So "states rights" = "right to slavery" given the larger context, but the war was violent and bloody and represents a dark point in history and shouldn't be portrayed as the noble North vs the slave-driving South. It's a stain on the entire country, not just south of the Mason-Dixon line.

There were atrocities on both sides during the Civil war, the Lawrence Massacre just happens to be more well-known. Quantrill's raiders were largely motivated by the Union sacking of Osceola, Missouri in September, 1861. Nine men were murdered and Union troops pillaged and burned the town. After the Lawrence Massacre, the Union army implemented General Order 11 which led to four counties in western Missouri with hundreds of farmers being uprooted and their farms burned. Any farmer who resisted was shot.

There were no good guys back then.

The civil war was fought to end slavery. And it did. Why is this even a question?

It's a question because many people believe incorrectly it was entirely about states rights. It's also a question because many people without hesitation say "if it weren't for the draft, we'd never have ended slavery" in justification for "we should have the draft again, because people in our country don't know what it means to serve." It's also a question because most other countries were able to abolish slavery peacefully, often with the government paying slaveowners to liberate them, but in the United States, 620,000 people died. Why such a bloody end? Abolishing slavery was a great thing, but it came at a great cost, too, and with all that blood, you can't just say the ends justified the means, you have to understand what led to the tension and conflict. The confederate soldiers who fought and died, many of them probably didn't give a damn about slavery. Why then did they fight? Perhaps they were fooled by confederate propaganda, but I very much doubt they all fought and died because they wanted to perpetuate slavery, which is what saying "the civil war was fought because of slavery" means. It's much more complex.

great points by all. I grew up in Memphis, TN and served as a tour guide on a tour that focused on my home town's Antebellum and Confedrate past -- read slavery, slave economics, slave escape, post-slavery sociology, jim crow and segregation. It's all a bit true, and sad. There were no 'real' heros. Guerilla tactics were employed by both sides. Union officers pilaged the south and ran sacked the great beautiful homes for no other reason than they thought they could. They 'confiscated' livestock and feed and foodstuffs from struggling southern farmers and women left behind. Rape is a sad instrument of war and was used on both sides to attack defenseless women - white and black. There were some union regiments that were said to have salted fields and freshwater streams....effectively killing civilians...That's just evil. I don't care what side you're on and how righteous your cause supposely is.

And now I live in Missouri, home of Grants farm, only to find out that Grant owned slaves and ran a working plantation (his wife's family). He had no qualms with the institution, though the NPS guides would paint the picture that he was a gentleman and not a cruel person, just practical about free labour and inequality of different-looking peoples.

The whole "preserve the union" / "state's rights" / "slavery" argument is kind of a red herring. They're different aspects of the same thing.

The Civil War began when Lincoln invaded the south in order to preserve the union. The reason the union was in danger of dissolution was because the southern states asserted a right to leave. The reason they wanted to leave was primarily to preserve slavery.

Matt Springer summarizes the case well, but it should be further noted that the South left not for the most part to preserve slavery in the immediate term (some feared the federal government gaining the will and ability to uproot slavery eventually, but few seem to have thought it possible in the short run), but rather to preserve the ability to expand into new slaveholding territories. The slave economy was heavily dependent on aquisition of new lands and the ability to continually ship surplus slaves west and south, and national politics threatened to prevent the admission of new slave states, or at least reduce their number to a trickle.

I find myself particularly amused by those who claim the war was over "state's rights" without acknowledging that the right in question was the right to support slavery. I've yet to find anyone who can give me a good way to complete the sentence, "The southern states left the Union to preserve the right of a state to ______."

None of this, of course, means that Northerners were angels, or that the war was anything other than a horrible war. As has been suggested above, many opposed slavery not out of altruism but over fear of cheap black labor threatening white working class livelihoods. And, in its initial phases, the war really wasn't about ending slavery at all. It was fought to keep the Union intact, and the federal government would have been happy to let slavery persist in a readmitted South well into the course of the war (although plenty of Union soldiers and civilians would have objected). But to suggest that the main reason the South left in the first place was anything other than slavery is to badly misread Southern intentions, which they made no secret of at the time they made their decisions to depart.

By textivore (not verified) on 22 Aug 2008 #permalink

It is not correct to say that the US civil war was the only war fought over slavery and that other countries abolished this practice peacefully. Many of the nineteenth century British Campaigns overseas, including their most demanding (of soldiers, etc.) and bloodiest ever prior to WWI, involved slavery or very closely related issues. There were many decades when the word 'slavery' was bandied about in the British press as the primary reason for British investment in military resources in Southern and East Africa during the 19th century. This was not just to make people feel good. Gordon died at Khartoum and more British soldiers died in the Boer War than any previous conflict in UK History over slavery. The Sudanese ware was 100 per cent explicitly about slavery. The South African war was arguably a little more complex because other words were being applied. And ultimately, the British, after winning the war, were weary of long term maintenance of the status quo at great cost, and appeased the Boer governments.

All of these other constructions I'm hearing ... the Civil War was not fought over slavery ... it was fought over A which caused B which was required by C ... oh, and A, B and C were all aspects of the war over slavery. Exactly what sort of bullshit is that? Do you even know what kind of bullshit is that?

I do not care what U.S. Grant did or thought. He was a general, not a policy maker.

What I want an honest answer to is this question: Why do so many people want so desperately to deny the link between the fight against slavery and the fact of the American Civil War? What do you get out of this denial? What are you trying to avoid?

"What I want an honest answer to is this question: Why do so many people want so desperately to deny the link between the fight against slavery and the fact of the American Civil War? What do you get out of this denial? What are you trying to avoid?"

It's not a matter of avoiding anything. William of Ockham notwithstanding, the simplest explanation isn't always the best one. There were a lot of reasons for the Civil War, it wasn't just about slavery.

@Romeo Vitelli

It may not have been the only issue, but it was by a very large margin the majority issue. And I mean a very large margin.

It was about slavery, get over it. As has been stated before, the South attempted to seceed because it wanted to maintain their "state's rights" to own human beings and maintain their antiquated and immoral economy that was completely dependent on owning human beings and using them in forced labor.

I think it's sickening to claim that "both sides were bad", it's like saying there were "no good guys" in WWII. Compared to the southern economic system that southerners fought to protect, General Sherman, for example, was a great American hero who frankly didn't burn enough shit down on his march through the south.

It's like saying the German's who lived next store to concentration camps, who voted hitler into office, who informed on Jews and communists and other undesirables (or who did nothing and just went along) weren't directly culpable for what their country did.

It's also forgotten how strong and powerful the abolitionist movement was in the north (and one reason why I'm deeply proud to have come from central New York state -- an epicenter of abolitionism). The civil war was about slavery and it's grotesque to hear people construct preposterous apologetics to whitewash that fact.

Slavery was a major issue in overarching theme of state's rights. But it was not the only issue. And the war was not fought to end slavery, initially. Looking at Lincoln's comments and writings, it wasn't about freeing the slaves. This is clear even up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Read it. Notice anything interesting?

The EP did free the slaves - in the rebellious states. But there WERE states that stayed with the Union where slavery was legal. The EP did not free those slaves. That didn't happen until after the war.

If the war was fought to end slavery, why weren't those slaves freed from day 1? Because the war wasn't about freeing the slaves - it was about preserving the union and federal authority.

I would say the first shot was fired in Kansas, after that Kansas/Nebraska debacle, which meant that the Missouri compromise (I think that is what it was called) was invalid. They tried to solve it by popular sovereignty, which meant people decided whether it would be a slave state or free state. People from all over would try to vote, and dirty tricks enssued. Then there were people who raided towns, causing retaliation. The only one I remember was that religious nut Brown who butchered a bunch of people. So, yeah, Kansas became a blood bath. Then, the seconds shots were fired because the South, after Lincoln was elected, seceded, and the Union tried to keep the military forts in the South. One of the few (perhaps two?) remaining, fort Sumter, got supplies they needed, and the confederates fired. It is not as simple as that, but that is the main part of it.
Then, there is the reason of slavery. Lincoln couldn't just say he wanted to free all slaves. He was in danger of losing the Middle slave states that was so vital for the North, and there were also increasing opposition in the northwest. So, in his proclamation, he only set slaves in the South free.
So, conclusion? I would say slavery is a major part of it, and it overarches over all causes of the war.

In his forward to The Stakes of Power by Roy Nichols, David Donald puts it "...the Civil War was caused by 'a highly complex melange' of 'pride, politics, patience, prudence, pique, petulance, and plotting.'" This text, with along with other materials, showed that the roots of the Civil War were very deep indeed, and the War was probably merely delayed a few decades as sectionalism and interest in political power increased. The Federal government's role in economics was becoming more important, while the South's influence in the government was perceived to be decreasing (hence the debates over slavery in territories that were on their way to statehood. The South's way of life was threatened, and slavery was a very important aspect of that way of life.

By Mark Duigon (not verified) on 23 Aug 2008 #permalink

IMO if you're going to say that the war was fought to end slavery, you have to explain why it took Lincoln 3 years to do it in the rebel territory. And even longer in Union territory. To say he went to war but didn't even directly address the main reason for the war is to accuse Lincoln of being gutless and ineffectual. And I don't think that to be true at all.

Was Lincoln supposed to pass a law ending slavery? Is that your suggestion? That would require overthrowing the constitution, yes?

The Civil War was fought to regain the sovereignty of the states. Look at us today. The federal gov't had three purposes: build roads, defend the nation, and print money. Anything beyond that is socialism. We need to hold a constitutional convention and rewrite the damn thing. Then...we need to implement direct democracy and oust the de facto aristocratic thugs that rule our land. We have so many cowards out there who want to be led by the Clintons, Bushes, etc. Freedom requires courage. It's time to vote on the issues and not the damn people. These are the same cowards who still want to wear the guilt of slavery. It's in the past. Move on bitches.

Finally...revamp the judicial system. No more lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices. No more "behind-closed-doors" sessions. I want total transparency. That, after all, is the hallmark of a "true" democracy...not this representative crap we have.

I forgot...shut down the borders. No more immigration. A heterogeneous society has been documented in multiple academic research studies proving that a diverse culture (not ethnicities necessarily) results in more rules, laws and policies. Once we do this...we need to extradite all of the half-people.

ooo ooo pick me! pick me! Can I go first?

Let's see, historical revisionism typically used to mask racist rhetoric...nah skip that, boring...filler text... hey let me have this one! Can I have sentence three?

Trent, your third sentence begins with the unsupported assumption that socialism is inherently undesirable. You also make a gigantic leap of logic that is incorrect, ridiculously so, and borders on paranoid and delusional.

I have to go to school. Someone else can pick up from here. There's plenty of nut for everyone!

As was said before, the emancipation proclamation allowed states that weren't rebelling to keep their slaves. It was more used as a form of economic punishment, an equivalent of sanctions to keep the more rebellious states in line. The emancipation proclamation also legalized forced labor of those found guilty of committing a crime, and is basically the beginning of the prison state we live in today. Obviously, it isn't the humanitarian document made with deep concern for our brothers and sisters of African descent it is made out to be. The confederate states also had sent proposals to Britain asking for their assistance agreeing to free slaves in response, not really the actions of a group of people willing to die to keep their slaves, is it?

To use modern southern white racism, and whatever stereotype you have in your head of the drunk southern redneck as an indicator of southern war tactics is just silly. This is a response to post civil war economic conditions, poor education, resentment, ignorance, not to mention a stereotype probably from someone who has spend very little time in the south. I have lived in urban southern black neighborhoods most of my adult life, and seen the exact same problems, to an equal degree in black neigborhoods in the urban south as I have seen in the equally impoverished poor white southern school districts. Eventhough my parents were both born in brazil of a varied ethnic descent, In black neighborhoods, I have been threatened for riding the city bus, been threatened for parking my car in front of anyone's home other than my own on days when parking was hard to find, even by people who had lived in the neighborhood 1/10th as long as I have, been accused of burglary for no other reason. In one neighborhood I lived, my neighbor who was of mexican and puerto rican descent was treated much worse than I was, because it was felt by some African americans that Mexicans were to blame for the economic conditions, just as some white poor southerners used to think that African americans are to blame. By no means am I saying this to paint poor southerners of African descent as bad, I'm saying this to make the point that these are things that occur in humanity as a result of poverty and poor education, which actually was in part brought by the north's policy of economic subjugation during and after the war, and idiotic to use these modern phenomena as an indicator of the war tactic of the south.

All of the war tactics used by both north and south, despite the huge casualties, are pretty honorable by comparison to what the US has employed in every war since the korean war. The things we did in Vietnam, and what we still do in Colombia on a daily basis, are far far worse on civilians. That said, for every one Quantril you mention, I can give you ten sherman's march to the sea. You should also remember that history is written by the winner. The views and stereotypes most northern residents have of southerners, if they were of a racial group would be easily deemed racist, that they're all listless ignorant gun toting fundamentalist christians with big tires, a type of person I've known to occur equally in rural massachusetts as in north carolina.

This blog asks the question, "If the Civil War was not fought over slavery, then why did this happen?", and then never shows how slavery had anything to do with Quantrill's raid. Why did the raid happen? To payback the HUNDREDS of raids into Missouri made by Kansas Jayhawkers who murdered thousands of men, women, and children (even slaves who resisted them). These are facts the author left out.

First off , I would like to address the false insinuation that the civil was about liberating the slaves for moral purpose...when all actuality it was about economic salvation, although there was many northern abolitionist who denounce slavery morally...but lincoln had no intent of first liberating the slaves...his only concerns was preserving the economic interest of wallstreet...and preventing the south from separating from the US where another british invasion would be inevitable...if it was about liberating blacks, then why lincoln waited 3 years to finally allow the slaves to fight thanks to frederick douglas. Ppl fall into the false pretense it was about morality instead of monetary...if it wasn't for the russian navy and enlistments of blacks the north wouldve lost...how do I know lincoln use the draft before recruiting the slaves.

Duce, wars are not fought for one purpose only. Ever. If a war is fought for a reason, and it is also fought for other reasons, that first reason does not dry up and blow away no matter how much you want it to.

The Civil War was fought over slavery.Period. End of story. You are wrong. Yes, there were other factors. SFW.

As a point of information, blacks have been kept out of the military and/or segregated, as have women, gays, and any other denigrated and repressed group, in the absence of formal slavery. Your argument is foundation-less.

Now go away and crawl back under whatever Confederate flag draped rock you were living under.

By Christopher (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

via C Davidson...

People in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and even Washington, D.C., owned slaves; these states never seceded and were under the control of the United States throughout the course of the entire War. However, they were not required to free their slaves by the U.S. government. The U.S. Congress in 1862 even refused to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, when the only Senators and Representatives in Congress were from the North (all Southerners had left Congress to form their own nation). How could the North be fighting the War to free Southern slaves when they would not free their own, such as Ulysses S. Grant's personal slave or Abraham Lincoln's father-in-law's slaves? What hypocrisy! Even worse, Lincoln and the U.S. Congress offered to pass a constitutional amendment for the South, guaranteeing permanent slavery forever in the slave states, if only the Southern states would return to the Union. The South refused the offer.

Northern slaves were even exempt from Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, captured Southern slaves on the Mississippi River were forced to work on the plantations as slaves for the United States Army, growing cotton for Northern factories, rather than being set free. Also, during the War, just as many Union soldiers owned slaves as Confederate soldiers. Is the U.S. flag a symbol of slavery because the North owned slaves during the War? If not, then neither is the Confederate battle flag a symbol of slavery. How could the War have been fought over slavery when both sides had slaves?

The War for Southern Independence was fought over local self-government by the South versus centralist government by the North; the centralist government won and the local self-government lost. The Confederate battle flag is the symbol of the right of the local people and the states to govern themselves and is flown in memory and honor of our Confederate ancestors and veterans who gave their lives for less government, less taxes, and Southern independence.

In his inaugural address of March 4, 1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln stated, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Furthermore, Union General U.S. Grant said, "If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission, and offer my sword to the other side."

A war over slavery? Not hardly!

Zet, we've covered all the issues you brought up in this post, in the various comments.

The Civil War was fought to end slavery.

More to the point, the Civil War was started by the Southern slaveowning states for the explicitly-stated purpose of protecting their "right" to own slaves. Leaders of the secessionist movement said, in writing and in plain English, that this was the primary reason for their actions. Anyone who has any doubt about this can read some excerpts quoted by Ed Brayton some time ago:


All of the Southern apologists' arguments against this well-documented fact are nothing but diversions. None of them refute -- and most don't even address -- the central fact that the South seceeded for the purpose of protecting its slave-based feudal economy. And their leaders confessed to this crime, uncoerced, at the very beginning.

There were no good guys back then.

Maybe not, but the people who wanted to abolish slavery were considerably more good than the people who fought to keep it going.

The abolition of slavery was great, but it doesn't mean it justified the butchery of other innocent people who were effectively enslaved.

Tell that to the people who started the butchery: the Southerners who started a war to PROTECT their ability to own and trade people like livestock. The North's choice was either the butchery of war, or allowing the more mundane, but unending, butchery that inevitably comes with slavery.

Another thing that needs repeating: Southern politicians had been threatening to break up the Union, rather than allow slavery to be abolished, even before the Union was created! Their first priority, literally from day one (7/4/1776), was to ensure, by any means necessary, that the slaveowning states could continue to ignore the most fundamental moral principles underlying the Union in which they had provisionally agreed to join.

The Southern states had made slavery an explicitly-stated cause for war long before the war actually started.

First off , I would like to address the false insinuation that the civil was about liberating the slaves for moral purpose...when all actuality it was about economic salvation...

Even if that were true (which it isn't -- many people acted out of moral conviction that slavery was just plain wrong), it's still irrelevant to this discussion.

Some people just want to know what the true history is. I took several history classes in college, including African American History, and we were taught that slavery wasn't the total, or even the overall reason for the Civil War. It's ignorant to assume everyone who questions it to be racist or from the south. I'm neither. There's nothing wrong with trying to figure out what actually led to the war, and what it's purpose(s) was/were. Trying to decipher accurate history is a noble goal--and crucial to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Michelle, are you aware of the fact that people insist that "slavery had nothing to do with the war" when in fact not only was it "a factor" but it was arguably the single most important factor?

It is not a good idea to describe those racists as victims. They are not victims. They are racists and others are the victims.

I'm not arguing over whether slavery was an issue during the war. However it doesn't seem like it was the official reason for the beginning of the war. To Abraham Lincoln initially it was more about preserving the Union. Though his personal views were against slavery, he stated in a letter in 1862:
"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
Of course, soon after that he started drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, but only because it became clear to him that it would help him to win the war and preserve the Union.
So it seems to me that to the politicians and the ones in power, the war wasn't started over slavery but increasingly became a factor as the war went on.