Nationalism in the Civil War


The Civil war of 1861-1865 is a central event in America’s historical conscience. The war determined what kind of nation America would grow to be. The war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution (1773-1776): whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world. The American Civil War was a four year war that resulted in the casualties of approximately 620,000 soldiers from combat, accident, disease, and starvation.

The Civil War was a war between the Northerners and Southerners of America. The south led by Robert E. Lee (secessionist) and the north led by Ulysses S. Grant. America had been effectively avoiding war and the topic of slavery until president Lincoln’s election and viewpoint on the topic (slavery should be ended). This caused upheaval within the American south, as their economy was based on the usage of slaves due to agriculture. This war lead to the fighting between families, ranging from brother against brother to father against son.

The history of the Civil War is a historical process that can be analyzed studied and explained. To investigate the effects of Civil War can be interesting and even necessary, because it can create an understanding of similar conflicts in other countries and the effects of these conflicts in the long term. Also, understanding the Civil War can be useful guidance on how to avoid conflict in the future.

The incident that began the American Civil War, was the confederacy (south) opening fire on the union (north) held Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12th, 1861. Over the next two days the confederacy gunned down the poorly made fort and Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort. Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling 75,000 volunteer soldiers to quell the Southern “insurrection. To answer the question as to why the Southerners and Northerners started fighting each other it is, however, necessary to go further back in history.

America was colonized in 1607 and made independent with the revolution in 1776. Seeing as most Americans were from Europe and fled to America to escape religious persecution, they’re influence on their perception of the way of life was easily influenced by wanting to change the way they lived. Thus, the research question how did nationalism during the Civil War impact the risk for war, arises.

In order to answer this question, this investigation will explain how the conditions of the escalation between the north and south was impacted by a rise in nationalist movements. It will also address the question of how, if at all, the war causing attributes of 1860’s nationalism might have been suppressed or neutralized. Were any of these remedies attempted? What were the results? Could the American Civil War have been averted?

Structural Factors

The first important factor to recognize is that of structural: the issues arising from, geographic, demographic, and military setting of a nation’s people. The first aspect of structuralism and possibly the catalyst to the war is geographic. The balance of power between the southern nationalist movement and the Federal central states hope to maintain the union is critical. The southern secessionist movement had sufficient strength to reach plausibility for statehood: “The Confederacy began the war with many military advantages. The development of the rifle and other equipment for use by the contending armies markedly enhanced the power of the tactical defensive. The Confederacy’s vast extent and the hostility of most of her people to the invader gave her an advantage which the numerically superior Union armies had little chance of overcoming. Nor did supply for southern armies present any serious obstacle because a rife for each man and an artillery piece for each two or three thousand provided most of the weapons needed. A sievelike blockade, an effective mobilization, and successful creation of the needed establishments for manufacturing war material ensured an adequate, if not ample, supply for the Confederate forces. In addition, southern nationalism had the will to secede. This was linked to the uncertainty that the Lincoln administration had alluded to for the future. In contrast to the will of the southerners the Union had the power and the will to resist this attempt at secession. There will be here only one nation and one government, and there will be the same republic and the same Constitutional Union that have already survived a dozen national changes and changes of government in almost every other country. In spite of northern resolve, the successful secession and permanent creation of a Confederate Nation was a very real possibility. Therefore the risk for violence was incredibly high. The second aspect of structuralism The demographic arrangement of national populations is clearly applicable to southern sectionalism. “President Lincoln struggled with pro-secession minded elements (i.e. political/state’s rights & cultural) in crucial northern states such as Maryland that enclosed Washington on three sides. The tobacco counties of southern Maryland and the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay were secessionist. The grain growing counties of northern and western Maryland, containing few slaves, were safe for the Union. But the loyalty of Baltimore, with a third of the state’s population, was suspect. This dispersion of pro-north loyalties in the south (border states and the middle south) would lead to the creation of a new state W. Virginia.General Lee had announced to the people of Maryland that he came to enable them to overthrow a  foreign yoke,” but he had admitted to Jefferson Davis that he did not “anticipate any general rising of the people in our behalf,” although he hoped to gather a few recruits and some subsistence. Nevertheless, Lee had used the opportunity to play the politician, proclaiming to Marylanders as Davis had commended. Therefore, the historically uneducated might assume that danger was less likely due to the homogenous populations, but this clearly wasn’t the case. Taking a closer look at historical evidence indicates more danger because loyalties were dispersed. Borders is that third and final issue under structural factors. Borders were important for both the north and the south. Due to the south’s geographic lack of natural barriers it made them more susceptible to northern attack. The vast area of the Confederacy west of the Appalachian Mountains presented the most difficult problem in command to the Richmond authorities, by reason of its great extent and its remoteness from the capitol. The model predicts that since the south was accessible to conquer, and hence less secure, that the centralized state of the Union was more likely to try and subdue them. If the new borders are indefensible, the net impact of the creation of new states will be warlike. Furthermore, the border issue involved a low correspondence between political borders and sectional/cultural boundaries. This influenced southern nationalism toward violence. In sum, the structural elements for both national movements indicated a high potential toward violence and presented a ‘malignant value’ for the operation of ‘immediate causes.’

Political/Environmental Factors

The second of the three immediate causes of the war involves political and environmental factors: the greater the past crimes committed by nationalities toward one another, the greater risk of war. First the southerners felt that crimes were committed by abolitionists in collusion with the industrialists (representing the central state) in a political power play against them. The Fugitive Slave Act and other political compromises were intended to define the rules of engagement in regard to many of the controversial issues that created feelings of criminal action committed by either northern or southern sectionalist elements. The John Brown incident is a prime example of crimes committed against slave supporting states. This incident led to the south having the mentality that the north felt a “we versus they against southern culture. In both 1831 and 1859, passing doubts about whether whites could control blacks quickly gave way to these masters’ greater worry: whether slave holders could count on non-slaveholders, especially non-slaveholders two mountain ranges removed. Southern nationalists realized that the north was not going to commit itself to uphold past agreements they had reached. These problems of credible commitment from northerners to support southern legal rights provided the circumstances under which violence would arise. “Bleeding Kansas and a “civil war within the state of Missouri led to murder, ruffian raids and mindless acts of revenge perpetrated by both sides. While this falls into the “mass murder” category of crimes, the blood-letting incidents were isolated, localized and unsanctioned by the federal government. The northern industrialists and radical republicans committed the greatest economic crimes against the agrarian south by its political coercion as evidenced in its stand on tariffs. But the issue went beyond tariffs. It was the perceived and identifiable chain of events by which the southern states felt they were being subjugated by northern culture, economics and politics. It was not the passage of the “personal liberty laws” it was not the circulation of incendiary documents, it was not the raid of John Brown, it was not the operation of unjust and unequal tariff laws, nor all combined, that constituted the intolerable grievance, but it was the systematic and persistent struggle to deprive the Southern States of equality in the Uniongenerally to discriminate in legislation against the interests of their people; culminating in their exclusion from the Territories, the common property of the States, as well as by the infraction of their compact to promote domestic tranquility. Next is the perception of crimes from the north to the south. Recent crimes against the north, like slavery, were considered moral crimes against humanity.

Not surprisingly, news agencies from both the north and the south reported misconduct against each other. While southern nationalism might have taken the long view’ in struggling against these issues individually, the combination led to a greater potential (as forecasted by the framework) for violent conflict toward the north. Even though both perceived crimes against each other, these crimes do not fall into the category of crimes that matter most: mass murder, land theft and population expulsions. These past crimes, such as exterminations, foster diaspora recovering ideologies that are justified by self-protection logic. To sum up, political/environmental factors demonstrate another ‘malignant value’ toward the ‘immediate causes’ of violence and war between north and south.

Perceptual Factors Perception

Perceptual factors is the third and final condition that may have led to the catalyst of the civil war. The effects of nationalism depend heavily on the beliefs of nationalist movements: The more divergent are the beliefs of nationalities about their mutual history and their current conduct and character, the greater risk of war. Prior to the war, the self-images and the images of each other converged enough through the compromise efforts of the early 19th century. All states in the union, including secessionist leaders of the southern states, honored the fathers of the union and the government documents they ratified. The first aspect of perception deals with the legitimacy of regime or if the nationalism movement remains stateless, the legitimacy of the movement’s leaders. First is the south’s views of legitimacy in regard to the Federal government and its own. “The political representatives of southern states advocating “state’s rights” held fast to a United States with the power and authority invested in states over federal government. Thus, when the federal government took to imposing tariffs and taking other disadvantageous actions toward southern “state’s rights” regions, their state representatives saw this as a violation of their agreed union. “Secession,” he said, is not intended to break up the present union but to perpetuate it. We do not propose to go out by way of breaking up or destroying the Union as our fathers gave it to us, but we go out for the purpose of getting further guarantees and security for our rightsOur plan is for the Southern states to withdraw from the Union, for the present, to allow amendments to the Constitution to be made, guaranteeing our just rights; and if the Northern States will not make those amendments, by which these rights shall be secured to us, then we must secure them the best way we can. This question of slavery must be settled now or never. The south advocated strongly for a strong state’s rights, highlighting the Constitutional legal basis for slavery.The southern secessionist feelings were representative of southern elite’s consensus on “state’s rights” although the support of the average person was questionable. Parts of northern nationalism (i.e. Radical Republicans and the Abolitionists), without the support of the Lincoln administration, involved themselves in significant mythmaking. Northern abolitionists probably exaggerated the physical cruelties that Southern masters inflicted upon their slaves. Southern fire-eaters’ doubtless distorted the true character of Northern Yankees. Eventually, the culmination of these factors threatened the vulnerable Lincoln administration as never before. Unfortunately for Lincoln, his call to arms drove pro-union and secession minded moderates out of power and provoked the second phase of secession. “In the eyes of southern unionists, this tragic war was mainly Lincoln’s fault. What the president described in his proclamation of April 15 calling out the militia as a necessary measure to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union” was transmuted south of the Potomac into an unconstitutional coercion of sovereign states. In North Carolina the Union sentiment was largely in the ascendant and gaining strength until Lincoln prostrated us,” wrote a bitter unionist. He could have adopted no policy so effectual to destroy the Union. It was the Missouri debates in which intersectional comity was first violated; and it was the political leaders of the East, particularly the New Englanders and those of New England origin, who did it when they denounced in unmeasured terms slavery, the slaveholder, and Southern society in general. The compromise represented voting power in congress. Both sides adopted distorted pictures of their own and others current conduct and character that exaggerated the legitimacy of their own cause. This ultimately transformed the northern nationalism movement from a purely self-preservation enterprise into a hegemonistic enterprise. In a half-dozen or more cities, anti-black riots broke out during the summer of 1862. Some of the worst violence occurred in Cincinnati, where the replacement of striking Irish dockworkers by Negroes set off aware of attacks on black neighborhoods. “The nightmare vision of blacks invading the North seemed to be coming true in southern Illinois, where the War Department transported several carloads of contrabands to help with the harvest. Despite the desperate need for hands to gather crops, riots forced the government to return most of the blacks to contraband camps south of the Ohio River. This fact contributes toward a higher risk of war. The fourth and last aspect of perception deals with the strength and competence of independent evaluative institutions. Both nationalism movements had competent free speech and free press traditions with a strong trend toward working democracies. However, the fair representation in national government as perceived by the south and based upon free press in the north only reinforced the growing southern perception that secession was the only alternative. “Such was what the free press (the Chicago Tribune) insisted: The Republican victory would be incomplete if it did not promise sooner or later to reform the United States Supreme Court. That bench full of Southern lawyers, which gentlemen of a political temperament call an “august tribunal” is the last entrenchment behind which despotism is sheltered; and until a national convention amends the Constitution so as to defeat the usurpations of that body, or until the Court itself is reconstructed by the dropping off of a few of its members and the appointment of better men in their places, we have little hope for Congressional action in the way of restricting slavery.This in turn left a sense of helplessness on the part of southern statesmen in being unable to control their own destiny. At that time there was nearly a perfect equilibrium between the two, which afforded ample means of each to protect itself against the aggression of the other; but, as it now stands, one section has the exclusive power of controlling the Government, which leaves the other without any adequate means of protecting itself against its encroachment and oppression.In other words, southern sectionalism was losing its voice in government. The consequence of this perceived loss was an even greater reliance on an independent and open free press. The rally cry against the north by southern sectionalism and free press was a charge against the “Black Republicans”. Southern leaders interpreted the events that culminated in secession in quite another way. Far from the South being aggressive, they insisted that the aggression was all on the other side. It was Northern violation of Southern rightsthe aggressions of “Black Republicans” that endangered the Union.


In conclusion, the American Civil War was affected by the nationalism of the time. The Civil War can’t just be blanketly said to have been only caused by slavery. Seemingly, evidence can be found that Southern nationalism and fear of the future were major impacts on the actual escalation of the war. The lack of promise and eventual loss of hope to preserve their culture eventually led its leaders to adopt drastic measures with devastating results.

Did you like this example?