Causes of the Civil War

Author: Logan McConnell
School: Mount Vernon Community School
Grade Level: Elementary School
Time Estimated: 8 days, 50 Minute Periods

Prior to the start of this unit, the extent of what my students know about U.S. history is the Virginia history they have learned since the start of this school year.

As a result of this unit, students will be able to identify the events and the differences between the northern and southern states which divided Virginians and led to secession, war, and the creation of West Virginia.

When tested at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, 16 out of my 21 students were found to be reading at the 2nd grade level or below. Of the remaining 5 students, two were reading at a third grade level, one at a fourth grade level, one at a fifth grade level, and one at a sixth grade level. Three of my students receive Title I reading services, and another four of my students are in the ESL program. Only two of my charges are currently in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, but I expect perhaps 2 or 3 more to be found eligible (in math) in the coming weeks and months.


Historical Background:

The issues that drove America into a Civil War were deeply ingrained in the sectional differences between North and South. The Southís agricultural economy was based on cash crops such as tobacco, rice, and cotton that hinged on cheap slave labor. On the other hand, the North developed along commercial and manufacturing lines dependent on free labor. These differences were manifested in the struggle for political dominance over governmental policy. By and large, the South was able to control the debate, but with the territorial growth of the nation and the subsequent debate regarding the status of new states as free soil or slave, it feared the loss of power. The Missouri Compromise defused the issue for a while, but during the 1840s and 1850s, the issue of slavery permeated national politics and was the cause of many bitter debates. The admission of California to the Union as a free state in 1850 tipped the scales in favor of the free states and caused an outcry from the South. To mollify the slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed which proved to be mostly symbolic since it was extremely difficult to enforce due to the non-compliance of northerners.

As tensions rose, the abolitionist movement that flowered during the 1830s polarized the nation even further with its fervent crusade for emancipation. Southerners regarded abolitionist drive as a direct threat to their way of life and took draconian measures to suppress their message in the South. Abolitionism was, in part, an outgrowth of religious revivalism with ministers preaching about the sinfulness of owning and mistreating other human beings. At the forefront of the movement was William Lloyd Garrison who, in addition to railing against the evils of slavery in speeches, also published a well-known abolitionist newspaper. Abolitionists sometimes disagreed over the best way to achieve emancipation. Members of the American Colonization Society and others subscribed to the belief that emancipation should be gradual and that freed slaves should be shipped to Africa and other foreign lands. Most black abolitionists disagreed strongly with this idea and argued that freed slaves were Americans and ought to remain on their native soil. Though many northerners did not support the abolitionists, the movement increased enmity between the North and South.

Three other events of the 1850s -- The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brownís raid at Harpers Ferry -- deepened the divide between the South and the North and pushed the nation closer to the brink of war. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which enacted popular sovereignty, led to a massive infusion of people from slave states and free states alike to swell the voting ranks. The result was widespread violence as each side did what it felt was necessary to ensure that the new states would join its side. The Dred Scott case was one which involved a black slave suing his new master for his freedom, claiming that since his master had moved to a non-slave state, he (Dred Scott) should rightfully be free. After initially winning his legal battle in a lower level court, he ultimately lost his case in the Supreme Court. In 1857, years after Dred Scott had originally brought suit against his master, Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that a slave is nothing more than property. As such, said Taney, a slave will remain a slave regardless of where the owner moves. This decision was very unpopular in the North and intensified sectarian strife.

Abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. They had hoped to arm slaves throughout the South and lead a massive slave insurrection. The attempt failed as Brown was captured, tried, convicted, and executed. This episode reignited southern fears as they recalled past slave conspiracies such as Nat Turnerís rebellion. Although Brown was unsuccessful in his attempt to carry out his plan, southerners feared northern sympathizers would inspire more slave insurrections in the near future. This brought our nation yet still closer to the brink of a civil war. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln was the final threat that convinced many Southern states to secede from the Union and led to the Civil War.


Major Understanding:

The root cause of the Civil War was the difference in the way northerners and southerners made a living. Since the South had an agricultural economy, a large labor force was essential to the regionís continued prosperity. By contrast, the northern industrial economy required a much smaller work force. When southern planters felt the threat of having their laborers (slaves) taken from them, they responded by seceding from the Union rather than give up their way of life. Northerners entered the war primarily to preserve the Union. Freeing the slaves was secondary to the preservation of the Union.



Students will:

  1. Identify the key differences between the northern and southern states which led to conflict.
  2. Understand the pivotal events which led to the secession of 11 southern states and a civil war.
  3. Recognize Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Dred Scott, and Abraham Lincoln and know their respective roles in the years leading up to the Civil War.
  4. Understand the conflicts between the eastern and western counties of Virginia and how this rift led to the formation of West Virginia.
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    Standards of Learning:

    VS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to:

    a) Identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history;

    b) Determine cause and effect relationships;

    c) Compare and contrast historical events;

    d) Draw conclusions and make generalizations;

    e) Make connections between past and present; and

    f) Sequence events in Virginia history.


    VS.7a The student will demonstrate knowledge of the issues that divided our nation and led to the Civil War by:

    a) Identifying the events and differences between northern and southern states that divided Virginians and led to secession, war, and the creation of West Virginia.