In 1861, the United States of America was torn apart by the American Civil War (1861–65). A conflict that pitted Southern supporters of slavery against the antislavery North, the war was essentially one of economic differences. A total of thirteen Southern states left the United States to form the Confederate States of America , or the Confederacy. Struggling to prevent the secessions and keep the nation intact, the remaining states became known as the Union.
A tale of two economies
In 1860, the nation was struggling with political issues involving the economic differences between states. The most difficult issue, one that recurred and caused passionate debates in Congress, involved the protection and expansion of slavery. The United States was expanding into new territories across the West, and the question whether slavery would be permitted there was controversial.
The health of the Southern economy depended heavily on slavery. Forcing slaves to work on plantations and farms allowed Southern agriculture to maintain low production costs. To protect slavery in the South, those states wanted to allow slavery in new territories, too.
The economy of the North did not depend on slavery. Instead, immigrants streamed into its cities from all over the world. Northern states needed a strong supply of paying jobs for economic well-being. Factories provided many jobs for the growing population there. Many in the North believed the expansion of slavery threatened the financial wellbeing of their states and fellow citizens.
There were many in the country who felt slavery was immoral. Most of the debates that raged in Congress, however, were about the states' economic needs rather than the immorality of slavery. The myth that America fought the Civil War to end the institution of slavery is only part of the whole story. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) once said he would keep slavery if it would save the Union.
In late 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president. As he opposed expansion of slavery, Southerners feared his election was a step in the complete abolition of slavery throughout the nation. In the five months following the election, thirteen states left the United States to form the Confederate States of America.
The remaining states saw secession as an illegal act of rebellion. They believed every state was bound to the union of the United States when it ratified, or approved, the U.S. Constitution . Agreeing to be part of the United States meant surrendering some states' rights to function under a united government, the federal government. The very act of seceding was a betrayal of the federal government, an act of treason. Believing in the need for a strong central government to unify the states, the remaining states were called the Union.
Preserving the Union
When war broke out between the Union and the Confederacy in 1861, passions were strong. The Civil War lasted until 1865 and proved to be the bloodiest conflict in American history. Though it tore the nation apart for a time, the Union's efforts ultimately preserved the United States. In April 1865, the Confederate Army surrendered. In the following years, the union of states was restored through the process of Reconstruction .