The impact of the American Civil War (1861-1865)

Divisions, tensions and contradictions

The American Civil War was an armed conflict between the northern and southern states of America. Although it is often seen as a war that was fought on the part of the North to end slavery and on the part of the South to preserve it, the causes were much more complex in terms of the deep rooted divisions that existed between the outlooks and values of the rural South and the industrial northern states.

The South 

The South was an agricultural region where cotton and tobacco were the main sources of the region’s economic strength. The area relied on exports to markets in Western Europe and white southern society had a rigid class structure, built on a well-established Christian patriarchal model.

The local plantation owner was a ‘king’ within his own area and a network of senior families controlled the economic, political and legal business of ‘their’ state, maintaining stability by means of the wealth that they gained from using slave labour on their agricultural plantations. Slavery was seen by white landowners as a cost-effective way of running large plantations and many other white business people would have recognised how important the local plantation owner was to their own prosperity and well-being.

Not only was slavery simply accepted as part of the southern way of life but many people believed that it was justified in the Bible.

How the Bible was used to justify slavery - the curse of Ham

The primary Christian justification of the use of African slaves was based on a story from the Old Testament book of Genesis, which recounts the story of a curse which was laid on Noah’s son, Ham. It then passed on to Ham’s son, Canaan and his descendants, who were all condemned to become the lowest of slaves. (See Genesis 9:18-27.) According to legend, Canaan then settled in Africa, so the dark skin of Africans became associated with the ‘Curse of Ham’. Thus the enslavement of Africans was justified through Old Testament teaching.

More on the curse of Ham?

The North 

In contrast to the agricultural South, northern states were quickly industrialised and social mobility was much more evident in northern towns and cities. Rigid social divisions were not so evident and most successful entrepreneurs based their business interests in the North.

The North was also cosmopolitan, with a wide mixture of nationalities and religions. The pace of life was faster and this also contributed to the pace of change. The Federal government was based in Washington DC and political control of the South was perceived as being dictated by northern interests.

There were many abolitionist groups in the North working to abolish slavery throughout the Union. Other northerners were ambivalent, recognising that northern prosperity was based on the input of poorly paid immigrant workers who were not slaves, but lived lives that were very harsh.

In the South there was also an increasing belief that the government would try to impose northern values on the South by attempting to interfere with the so-called ‘peculiar (meaning ‘unique to’) institution’ of slavery.

States’ rights

The issue of how much power any state had, compared to federal authority, eventually became mixed up with the rights of states to own slaves or the desire of other states to abolish the institution of slavery. Expansion into the West of America by settlers from Europe also created tension, when newly created states wished to join the Union and decisions had to be made by the government as to whether or not slavery in new states should or should not be permitted.

‘Bleeding Kansas’ (1854) - The first slave-free state

Kansas was opened to settlement in 1854 and the huge number of new inhabitants was almost equally split between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. Violent clashes occurred over the issue and the state was nicknamed ‘Bleeding Kansas’ as a result.

When Kansas was admitted to the Union as a slave-free state at the beginning of 1861, political tension between the North and South had become serious. Many people in the traditional southern slave states saw the Kansas decision as the Union’s first step towards abolishing slavery throughout the Union. This, they believed, would lead to the destruction of the southern way of life.

Secession of South Carolina (1860)

South Carolina was the first state to leave the Union at the end of 1860 feeling that it could not continue to be part of a federal government that was determined to impose northern views on the South. This pushed other southern states into doing the same. 

The first seven seceding states set up a provisional government at Montgomery, Alabama. After hostilities began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour on April 12, 1861, the border states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined the new government, which then moved its capital to Richmond, Virginia.

The Union was thus divided approximately on geographic lines. Twenty-one northern and Border States, kept the title of the United States and the eleven pro slavery states named themselves the Confederate States of America.

How religion was used to justify the war 

Religion was a central justification for the American Civil War on both sides:

  • Both North and South believed that God was fighting for its own army
  • Many ministers, generals, leaders and newspaper editors went so far as to proclaim that God had ordained the war and would determine its length, its damages, and its outcome
  • Leaders in the North and the South proclaimed themselves as God’s ‘chosen people'
  • Leaders of the Southern Confederate government took Deo Vindice (God will vindicate) as their official motto
  • Southern newspapers criticised the northern government as ‘godless’ and declared the southern cause to be under the ‘favour and guidance of God’
  • Almost three-quarters of all published sermons on both sides declared the war to be ‘holy’.

Religion and slavery in the war

White perspectives 

  • Abolitionists, mainly in the northern states, saw the emancipation of slaves as a sacred duty imposed by God
  • In general, the northern states held to a conviction that special status for the whole country in the eyes of God could only be gained by the creation of a single Union
  • Southern preachers declared that slavery was a sacred trust and that the institution had not been initiated by the South, but imposed on the South by the slave traders of Great Britain and the northern states
  • Others argued that because God had commissioned the South to be a Christian nation, then victory depended on winning God’s favour. The war would be lost if the slaves were ill-treated or won if they were treated in a humanitarian way
  • Some Southern educators began to talk for the first time about educating black people and Baptist ministers, especially, tried to persuade their white congregations to work politically toward repealing laws that prohibited slave literacy.

Black perspectives

  • Slaves had their own preachers as well as their own secret religious gatherings
  • Black preachers were often highly literate and used the language and ethos of the Old Testament to create powerful messages about redemption, freedom and divine retribution against white masters
  • Slave religion emphasized that God would punish the cruelty of the slave holders and end the sufferings of slaves on earth
  • The belief that God was on the side of the slaves gave them courage to run away to find the northern army, or to follow the Underground Railroad with its risks and dangers to what they believed would be a new life of freedom
  • Religious beliefs were expressed through spirituals that expressed pain, sorrow and resignation as well as hope, joy and rebellion.


For the white South, religious belief was important in the Civil War because it reinforced the idea that the people had been called to fight as a sacred duty to God, thus making the nation stronger through Christian sacrifice and faith.

For the black South, religion formed a rallying point for freedom fighters and the cause of equality. It empowered African-Americans with a cultural and shared language that would in future years help them to enter leadership, civil rights, the arts and education.

In the North, Christian ideals of justice, equality and freedom for mankind under a Christian God fuelled the abolitionist cause and also reinforced Thomas Jefferson’s original 1776 declaration of American independence:

that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

(However, it must also be noted that Jefferson was a slave owner and his other writings and actions seem to suggest that by ‘all men’ he meant all free, white, property-owning males.)

The American Civil War was the most destructive conflict the country had ever experienced. Hostilities continued until the total defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. Ironically, all who were involved, black or white, justified their actions by the use of Christian rhetoric throughout the conflict.

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