“What was so wrong with slavery and why did it cause the Civil War?” This question was asked of a seasonal park ranger at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center a few years ago. This question was asked by a white mother from New York, with her husband and teenage children beside her. As she finished asking the question, she must have seen the expression on my face – an expression of disbelief! I could not believe that someone would ask that question in the 21st Century.
Slaves provided the economic wealth of the South. Without slavery, the planters could not work the fields of the large plantations. Plantations would not have been profitable if not for free labor. Paid labor would have been much more expensive. Plus, you cannot borrow money on people you do not own; however, you could borrow money using slaves as collateral. After the international slave trade ended, slaves became more valuable, and the planters began breeding slaves. There was a market to sell slaves to the Deep South and Midwest. Another reason for the breeding: if you cannot buy slaves, then you can rely on the already enslaved to produce more children, increasing the number of slaves you own, thereby increasing your wealth.
Slavery was very cruel to most black slaves, especially the field hands. Slaves were beaten, whipped, castrated, branded, pierced, had limbs amputated, and killed in various ways. Slave women were often sexually abused by white masters, their sons, and overseers. More importantly, many slave families were separated when members were sold. In a lot of situations, the most fertile enslaved women and men were often chosen to be together in order to produce more children. Most slaves were forbidden to marry unless their owners permitted it, and many marriages were not formalized until slavery ended.
Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write, kept ignorant so that they would not be aware of their plight. It would be a contradiction for them to find out that they were living enslaved “in the land of the free.” Slaves were told that it was in their best interests to remain slaves. They were forbidden to congregate, especially for religious services, unless approved by their masters and overseen by whites. Many of these laws were enacted in 1831 after the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia killed more than 60 whites.
After that rebellion, freed slaves were supposed to move out of the Southern states, and free blacks were no longer supposed to own slaves. Most of the free blacks who did own slaves owned their own relatives, so that their families could remain together. Of course. there are exceptions to every rule and law: there were some blacks who owned slaves and treated them the same way white slave holders treated their own slaves. Also, there were some free blacks who stayed in the South, mainly those with skills, for example blacksmiths.
A most glaring truth was that free blacks were hated by most slave owners because they were a contradiction to slavery in slave territory. They were a bad influence on the enslaved. It made slaves want the freedom that these blacks had. However, it was a very tense freedom that could be taken away easily. The death of a slave, based on the circumstances, could be reimbursed by the state or local jurisdiction; meanwhile, the life of a free or freed black was worth nothing in a slave society.
Most blacks hated slavery. However, a class system developed on many plantations between field hands and house “servants.” Many house servants thought that they were better than the field hands. They were generally treated better, and many of them were the offspring of their owners or someone else in the family. For example, Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife.
While the overwhelming majority of slaves wished they were free. some slaves became spies for their masters and received special favors. Children were used to tell the mistress what the other slaves were saying back in the slave quarters. Some of the children were given candy and other little treats when they revealed information against other enslaved. However, when the other slaves found out who betrayed them, those slaves were ostracized. In many cases, the adult enslaved would not say very much around their children because they knew how the children were used by their oppressors.I have read many books about slavery and the cruelty of slavery. Slaves who ran off toward freedom, if caught, suffered very drastic punishment, including severe whipping, branding, jailing, and even amputation. However, death was usually the most severe punishment, although to some slaves, the selling off of their children was more severe than even that. If you did not work hard enough in the fields or you did not pay the proper respect to a white man or woman, you could be whipped or punished in another way.
There are stories where some white owners or overseers would go to slave cabins to have relations with the slave women, and their “husbands” would have to leave. If the men or women complained, they could be punished or killed.
For all these reasons, the life expectancy of a slave was far lower than the average American.
Now, let’s look how slavery caused the Civil War. Most blacks were not considered Americans, and in 1857, the Supreme Court stated in the Dred Scott Decision that blacks were not American citizens. Officially blacks became full American citizens after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
Congress had reacted to slavery by passing a series of compromises, but also had a gag order during the 1830’s and 1840’s not to discuss slavery and upset the Southern congressmen.
Although abolitionists and the Underground Railroad helped turn some in the North away from slavery, these other events helped bring the nation to war:
- The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an effort to preserve the balance between slave and free states. Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state. The compromise included a law that stated that slavery was not permitted in the Louisiana Territory above the 36′ 30″ latitude line.
- The Compromise of 1850 upset the balance of slave and free states because California was admitted as a free state and the slave trade in Washington, DC, was abolished. In return, the Fugitive Slave Act was amended and strengthened. This was very costly to people in the North. If they harbored escaped slaves, they were committing a Federal crime. The federal government became responsible for capturing and returning fugitive slaves. Citizens harboring slaves were subject to a $1,000 fine and up to a six-month jail sentence.
The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe showed the cruelty of slavery to this country and the world. It became a best seller but was banned in the Southern states. The book made more Northern people aware of the cruelty of slavery, and many of them looked negatively upon the South as a result. The South now thought that most of the people in the North were abolitionist, but this was not true. Only about 10% of the North was truly abolitionist.
- The Anthony Burns Case in 1854 centered on a slave who had been hired out but escaped to Boston. He wrote a letter to his brother, still owned by their slaveowner, who received the letter. The slaveowner went to Boston to claim his “property.” Burns was arrested and taken to jail. Two groups of abolitionists, one small black group and a larger white one, charged the jail in an attempt to free him. One deputy was killed, and two men who got inside the jail were beaten back. President Franklin Pierce ordered the Marines and some artillery to go to Boston and escort Burns back into slavery. A large crowd watched as the Federal force took Burns back to the South. However, an African American church raised $1,300 to buy Burns, and a year later he was back in Boston. The most important issue here was the president of the United States used the United States Marines to bring back a fugitive slave. Think of the cost for bringing back one slave. How did that look to the North, when a slaveowner, backed by the U.S. president and military, went to Boston to bring back one escaped slave.
- The Kansas–Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise. Through the notion of “popular sovereignty,” the people who settled the territories were given the right to decide if slavery would be legal in the territories. Both pro- and anti-slavery groups flocked to the territories and actually fought each other from 1854 through the Civil War. This act definitely moved the United States toward Civil War, but Kansas became a free state in 1861.
- In 1856 in “Bleeding Kansas,” John Brown became a household name as he led attacks against pro-slavery settlers.
- John Brown’s Raid in Harper’s Ferry occurred in 1859, right before the Civil War. He wanted to lead a slave rebellion to capture the armory at Harper’s Ferry in order to arm the slaves he would free in the Southern States. Colonel Robert E. Lee would lead Marines to capture Brown, who was then tried and convicted by the State of Virginia. He was executed, but he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause and rightly predicted that the slavery question would be settled by bloodshed. The South was horrified: a slave rebellion was led by a Northern white man, using escaped slaves. Every Southern state begin opening military schools, if they did not already have them. (Virginia already had the Virginia Military Institute [VMI]). War was now imminent.
Slavery is the overwhelming cause of the Civil War. Let’s examine the Confederacy’s cause of states’ rights: the only “states right” that was an issue that could not be negotiated was slavery. In the Confederate Constitution they state it, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens states it, and so did Confederate President Jefferson Davis. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are other primary sources that discuss slavery as a cause of the war.]
Slavery was the economic system of the South. If you took it away, you took away the wealth of many of the planters. The only way plantations could survive was for slaves to work the property. I have seen wills of large plantation owners where the majority of their wealth was in the value of their slaves. In 1860, the 4 million slaves in the South were estimated to be worth $3 billion. After the war, many of these owners could no longer afford their homes without their slaves.
The North was not innocent, either. Some Northern states did not want any blacks, whether free or slave, to live within their borders. The North was just as racist as the South in this regard. Many white men and white immigrants did not want to compete with slave labor or free blacks, as that would bring down wages and take away some of their jobs.
I want to tell this story from Andrew Ward’s book The Slaves War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves. A former slave woman told her granddaughter the story of a former slave, who got married after the war. One day she and husband talked about their old days in slavery. She told him about her baby boy sold away from her and about a distinctive scar on his arm. Her husband had that same scar on his arm and when he discussed his story, they found out that they were mother and son. He soon left her because he could not stay married to his mother. That is a tragedy and they may not have been the only couple that had that problem. There were other stories in that book of families meeting and siblings not recognizing or knowing their kin. After the war, many slaves searched the South to try to connect with their families—some were successful, but most were not!
A couple of years ago, we had some interpretive training at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park , whereby, when explaining sensitive history, such as slavery, we ask people to put themselves in the other person’s position. In this case, I would have the mother put herself in the position of the slave woman. Suppose her children were sold away from her, suppose her husband was put out of their cabin while a slaveowner stayed with her and, when her husband complained, he was severely whipped. How would she then answer her own question, “What was so wrong with slavery and why did it cause the Civil War?” What do you think her answer would be?