Some Americans seem to be fighting the Civil War 150 years later. It was certainly the most divisive moment in our nation's relatively brief history; the fact that it continues to pit fellow citizens against each other is testament to just how deep a rift it created.
Historians have too often tried to reduce the War Between the States to a single overriding issue, when the truth is much more human—a number of factors resulted in the conflict, and a number of factors led to its end. Was it about slavery? states' rights? the Transcontinental Railroad? industrialization vs. agriculture? the preservation of the Union? The answer is, Yes, though of course some elements were more important than others.
There was a lot of overlap, too. The slavery issue was deeply tied to the states' rights problem: it wasn't just any rights the states wanted to maintain in the face of Federal opposition, it was the right to trade and hold slaves, specifically African slaves brought to the U.S. by force and kept there with a combination of coercion, oppression, and force.
Even the building of a cross-country railroad, the sustenance of Southern farming, and the boom in Northern production were affected by the slavery debate. Would the transcontinental run through the South and transport human goods? or would it run through the North, and bring an increasingly broad catalogue of goods to the rapidly growing West? Would the North be able to grow the crops it traditionally got from the Southern states? There were no easy answers, as the politicians in Washington soon began to appreciate.
Perhaps the most polarizing figure of the war was the man accused by the South of starting it, and praised in the North as the savior of all good things. He certainly saved the United States from dismemberment, though whether he preserved it completely intact is another issue. Whatever the exact truth is, Abraham Lincoln (whether through natural greatness or simple fortuitous placement on the grand timeline of history) became and has remained the most recognizable icon of the Civil War.
Some facts: The war technically began on April 12, 1861, when Southern rebels opened fire on the United States garrison stationed at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. It was a long firefight, but the only death was a Union artillery soldier who was killed by a cannon malfunction during the official surrender ceremony (13 were injured overall).
After four long bloody years in which nearly 1,000,000 people died, the Confederate States of America surrendered to the United States of America at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Though the surrender took place in April, the final shots weren't fired until June 22, and tension was high for many years afterward.
Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States; Jefferson Davis was president of the southern Confederate States. The idea behind the Confederacy was that each state was a sovereign power only loosely held under a central government, whereas the U.S. was a strong Federated republic in which the states were all subservient to the national government. In many ways, it was a re-hash of the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debates that raged at the founding of the nation during and just after the Revolutionary War.
The Unionists felt that giving the states too much leeway would result in a weak and ineffectual government, and that preserving the unity the states enjoyed prior to the Civil War was in the best interests of the North and South alike. The slavery debate had been going full-tilt for quite awhile, and added fuel both to the North's desire to preserve the Union, and the South's need to break free.
It's been denied many times, but the Southern slave trade was an integral part of the Southern economy. And not just because it provided cheap labor: the actual sale and purchase of African slaves was a mighty economic stimulant in itself. While importation of slaves was banned by Congress early in the 19th century, the numbers of African-American slaves continued to rise and affect economic growth and stability.
A lot of people assume that the Northerners must have been anti-slavery to a man, and that the War was fought to free the slaves. The War was fought in great part to free slaves (more specifically, to limit the states' individual right to condone or condemn the practice), but there was a lot of anti-black sentiment in the Union as well, some of it even coming from President Lincoln himself.
Which just goes to show one of the most important lessons the Civil War can teach us: that nations are always made up of sinful people capable of great good and great wickedness. There were dedicated Christian men and women on both sides of the conflict, and some of their motives were good and some of them were bad.
As you study this fascinating period in our nation's history, we encourage you not to spend too much time trying to figure out who was "right" and who was "wrong." Certainly, it's important to study history from a biblical perspective, and that will lead to values judgments, but with many of the issues long-resolved, it's probably more profitable to study the Civil War in terms of how our nation today has been shaped by the events of 150 years ago.