What Events Led to the American Civil War?

Old drawn rendition of soldiers riding into battle during the Civil War.

The American Civil War was a conflict between the United States’ northern and southern states—2 regions with important cultural and economic differences that, at the time, seemed were very much at odds. At the heart of this conflict was the bondage of 4 million African Americans. Northerners in the U.S. were generally opposed to slavery. Many southerners, meanwhile, depended on it.

As a presidential candidate in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was against letting slavery expand into any more western states and territories. The first southern states seceded shortly after he was elected, and the war’s first cannon shots were fired a few weeks after that at the Battle of Fort Sumter, April 12–14, 1861.

Old drawn rendition of the Battle of Fort Sumter.

This is the official starting date of the American Civil War. The seeds for the war, however, were planted decades, maybe even centuries before. Let’s take a closer look at what some of these seeds were—the factors, mindsets, and events leading to the Civil War.

Events Leading to the Civil War

Creation of the Constitution of the United States

Many scholars would say that the Constitution of the United States put the brand-new country on a path towards civil war when it failed to outlaw slavery. Then again, it would have been almost impossible to get leaders from the various colonies or states to band together at the time.

By 1800, the United States consisted of 8 “free” states in the North and 8 “slave” states in the South. Thus, both regions enjoyed something like an equal say when it came to creating and voting for federal laws. But little by little, the country began adding more states, and major disagreements soon arose.

The Missouri Compromise and Addition of New States

The debates that occurred whenever a new state came up for vote were intense and sometimes even accompanied by violence. On multiple occasions, politicians tried to strike a deal, an arrangement that they hoped would somehow prolong the peace.

The Missouri Compromise was one of these arrangements. It was a law that admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It also banned slavery in territories acquired through the Louisiana Purchase that were located north of the 36º 30’ parallel. In the following decade, Arkansas was added as a slave state, with Michigan added as a free state. The pattern was repeated in the 1840s when 4 more states were added—2 for the north and 2 for the south.

Map of the U.S. in 1857 depicting free, slave, and undecided states.

The next 2 territories expected to become states were Kansas and Nebraska—both of which were located above the 36º 30’ parallel. Southern leaders couldn’t afford to allow 2 new free states into the Union, so another arrangement was created—one that overturned the Missouri Compromise. They called it the Kansas-Nebraska Act—a law that said new territories and states could decide for themselves whether slavery would be permitted, regardless of the location.

Unfortunately, the Kansas-Nebraska Act only made matters worse. For the next several years, the territory of Kansas, in particular, turned into a war zone, where pro-slavery and anti-slavery mobs openly fought. Homes were looted, businesses were burned to the ground, and dozens of people were killed.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Old cover of "Uncle Tom's Cabin".
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

People in the north likely wouldn’t have supported an actual war if they hadn’t had some idea of what the horrors of enslavement looked like, which is exactly what books like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin accomplished.

Although a work of fiction, Uncle Tom’s Cabin told the realistic story of a heroic enslaved black man who was eventually murdered by his enslaver. In the year following its publication, around 300,000 copies of the novel were sold. Both of these works spread like wildfire throughout the north.

The Dred Scott Decision

Then there was the ruling by the Supreme Court in 1857 against an enslaved man named Dred Scott who had sued the state of Missouri for freedom following his enslaver’s death. People in the North were stunned, and soon infuriated, when the Supreme Court denied Mr. Scott his freedom. According to the court, not even free blacks were citizens of the country; therefore they didn’t have the same rights as white people. Mr. Scott had no right to sue.

The ruling was meant to settle the issue of slavery once and for all. Instead, it rallied support for an end to slavery and accelerated the growth of the Republican party. Three years later, President Lincoln was elected president, and the South soon seceded. The Civil War officially started on 12 April, 1861, about a month after Lincoln’s inauguration.

An Easy Way to Find Your Civil War Era Ancestors on a Map

The Civil War altered the course of history. If you’re wondering how the Civil War altered your ancestor's life, FamilySearch can help. By creating a free FamilySearch account and connecting to the shared Family Tree, you may find that a lot of information about your civil war ancestors is already there waiting for you.

Once your ancestors are in the Family Tree, you can use the Where Am I From? activity to see on a map where they were born and lived. Using the Timeline feature and filter on the map lets you filter to see where your ancestors might have been during specific historical events, such as the Civil War.

A screenshot of the map feature on FamilySearch.org, showing where to find the Time Line and Filter buttons.
Screenshot of Time Line filter on FamilySearch ancestor map, selecting the Civil War historical event.

When you click on a specific ancestor in the Timeline Map, you can see even better how their life was affected by historical events. If that ancestor's birth information is in the Family Tree, for example, you can see how old they were when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and more! The more data is input into the Family Tree—names, birth and death dates, places, and photos—the more these features can share with you.

Screenshot of a timeline on FamilySearch.

Finding Your Civil War Veteran Ancestors in Records

If you're starting from scratch and your ancestors aren't yet in the FamilySearch Family Tree, don't worry. Historical records can help you find out more about them. Do a general search on FamilySearch or, if you know the name of one of your early ancestors, try the Civil War record search below.

 

For more help with civil war genealogy research or finding out if your ancestors actually served in the Civil War, visit the Beginning United States Civil War Research article on the FamilySearch Wiki.

Finding African American Ancestors

In many cases, finding early African American ancestors can be harder than doing a regular search in the Civil War era. See these articles for tips on finding African American ancestors.

August 26, 2019
African Americans have served in every modern conflict since the Revolutionary War. For those seeking information on their African American …
September 6, 2019
With methodical research, you can often find slave records to fill out the story of ancestors. FamilySearch holds many such online records a…
July 26, 2019
Researching African American genealogy can be challenging, particularly as you work through records from before the Civil War. The good news…

Thanks for taking a few minutes to learn about events that led to the Civil War. History is always a fascinating subject, but placing your ancestor’s life within the context of those events and the history that was taking place can be even more fascinating. Our tools are meant to help you discover your family story. We hope you’ll take advantage of them!

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