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The Civil War, Part 2; Which Side Started the Civil War?


Image courtesy of National Geographic

The following is the second of a three part series on the Civil War; and while the Civil War is a complicated and controversial topic, I feel the misinformation that is currently out there must be addressed. In the last installment we covered the reason the South seceded from the Union; in this chapter we will deal with which side started the war; and the final installment shall deal with President Lincoln. 




Whenever I hear someone refer to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression” I have two basic reactions; the first is to drop my head and give an exasperated sigh, and the second is to simply laugh at the statement. The Civil War was certainly not a war of “Northern aggression”, but sadly many people hold this flawed view of history when it comes to this topic. Whenever I hear the “Northern aggression” argument, I always wonder if proponents of such logic actually understand what the word “aggression” means; for those who don’t, Merriam-Webster defines it as:

angry or violent behavior or feelings…a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration.” (1)

And if we were to go back even farther, Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “aggression” this way:

The first attack, or act of hostility; the first act of injury, or first act leading to war or controversy.” (2)

     With the simple understanding that for something to be an act of aggression it has to be a feeling of anger or violence, the first act of hostility/the first act that leads to war, and/or something that is often unprovoked; it is very easy to understand how the Civil War was never a war of Northern aggression, but if anything, a war of Southern aggression. A simple examination of the facts will lead us to this conclusion.

As we learned last time, the South seceded because they wanted to keep the institution of slavery intact and feared Lincoln would take action to abolish it (despite his repeated promises that he would not). Reading the words of the Southern leaders along with their secession documents shows us the anger and vitriol they levied at Lincoln and the Northern Republicans for being anti-slavery; words that described feelings of anger and distrust. Couple this with the fact that they inharmoniously broke the Union that was the United States via the act of secession, the first act of hostile behavior was undoubtedly enacted by the South.  

But not only was the act of secession an innately hostile one, it was also an action that the Founding Fathers did not view as valid; and it is here we must take a slight detour in order to gain a more complete understanding. On secession, Thomas Jefferson once said:

I fear, from an expression in your letter, that the people of Kentucky think of separating not only from Virginia (in which they are right), but also from the [United States]. I own I should think this a most calamitous event and such a one as every good citizen should set himself against.” (3)    

     Jefferson feared that the citizens of Kentucky were contemplating a separation (secession) from the United States; something he saw as a calamity that all good citizens should be against. Jefferson knew that even one state leaving the Union would destroy the cords that hold us together and thus refused to see secession as a viable option. Jefferson conveyed these same feelings during the John Adams’ Presidency, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were put into place; Jefferson, in a letter to John Taylor, again warned that secession was not a viable option:

“Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch & delate to the people the proceedings of the other. But if on a temporary superiority of the one party, the other is to resort to a scission of the Union, no federal government can ever exist. If to rid ourselves of the present rule of Massachusets & Connecticut we break the Union, will the evil stop there? Suppose the N. England States alone cut off, will our natures be changed? are we not men still to the south of that, & with all the passions of men? Immediately we shall see a Pennsylvania & a Virginia party arise in the residuary confederacy, and the public mind will be distracted with the same party spirit. What a game, too, will the one party have in their hands by eternally threatening the other that unless they do so & so, they will join their Northern neighbors…But who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when & where they would end? Better keep together as we are…” (4)    

Furthermore, writing to Wilson C. Nicholas, Jefferson stated:

“Expressing in affectionate and conciliatory language our warm attachment to union with our sister States, and to the instrument and principles by which we are united; that we are willing to sacrifice to this every thing but the rights of self-government in those important points which we have never yielded, and in which alone we see liberty, safety, and happiness; that not at all disposed to make every measure of error or of wrong, a cause of scission, we are willing to look on with indulgence, and to wait with patience, till those passions and delusions shall have passed over…” (4)  

     Jefferson was not alone in his disdain for dissolving the Union through secession; George Washington also saw scission as being wrong, writing in 1783:

“Such is our situation, and such are our prospects… this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation…There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power: 1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head…These are the Pillars on which the glorious Fabrick of our Independency and National Character must be supported; Liberty is the Basis, and whoever would dare to sap the foundation, or overturn the Structure…will merit the bitterest execration, and the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured Country…That unless the States will suffer Congress to exercise those prerogatives, they are undoubtedly invested with by the Constitution, every thing must very rapidly tend to Anarchy and confusionThat whatever measures have a tendency to dissolve the Union, or contribute to violate or lessen the Sovereign Authority, ought to be considered as hostile to the Liberty and Independency of America…It is only in our united Character as an Empire, that our Independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, or our Credit supported among Foreign Nations. The Treaties of the European Powers with the United States of America, will have no validity on a dissolution of the Union.” (5)

Madison and Hamilton joined Washington and Jefferson in the fear and rejection of secession and dismemberment of our Union; Madison writing to Hamilton stated:

“I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is, that a reservation of a right to withdraw, if amendments be not decided upon, under the forms of the Constitution, within a certain time, is a conditional ratification; that it does not make New York a member of the new Union; and, consequently, that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal: this principle would not, in such a case, be preserved…The idea of reserving a right to withdraw was started at Richmond, and considered as a conditional ratification, which was itself abandoned as worse than a rejection.” (6)

Hamilton, writing to Theodore Sedgwick expressed his feelings on secession in 1804:

“I will here express but one sentiment, which is, that Dismembrement of our Empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterballancing good; administering no relief to our real Disease; which is Democracy, the poison of which by a subdivision will only be the more concentered in each part, and consequently the more virulent.” (7)

     The actions of the South were contrary and hostile to the nation the Founding Fathers set up, but it is only the first reason the “War between the States” should be seen as a product of Southern aggression. The second reason has to do with the actions of the South after they had seceded, for in the months following secession, the South made it a habit of confiscating Union owned forts and supplies; as Mark Jenkins of National Geographic recounts:

“During the four months leading up to Lincoln’s Inauguration, the seceding states, one after another, seized federal forts, arsenals, and customs houses within their borders.” (8)

       The seizing of Union (Federal) forts and weapon arsenals cannot be seen as anything but a hostile and aggressive act on behalf of the South; there is something inherently aggressive about seizing the property of another government. In terms of today, imagine if an American military base or consulate was seized by the owners of the country where it resides; the American government would be furious, and some would even designate it as an act of war. But yet, the North did not launch itself into war with the South over these forts; that of course would change with Ft. Sumter.

Fort Sumter was in the territory of the Confederate State of South Carolina; it was manned by less than 100 Union men, whom the Confederates demanded evacuate immediately. The North rightfully refused, as it was their property. Some Confederate sympathizers argue that since the Fort was in Southern territory, the South had a right to lay claim to it; but let’s think about that logic for a second.

Suppose that tomorrow, Washington D.C. were to secede from the United States, declaring herself a free an independent nation. The new rulers of D.C then demand that President Obama and Congress vacate the White House and the Capitol; should the President and Congress bow to their wishes and hand over the buildings? The answer, quite obviously, is of course not! The White House and the Capital building are United States Federal government owned buildings, and nothing about D.C. seceding changes that fact. Just because you decide to break the Union, does not mean you have the right to kick other people out of their own property. The same principle goes for Fort Sumter; the Confederates had no right to demand the Union hand over their own Federal property, simply because South Carolina decided they didn’t want to be part of the Union anymore.

All things considered, this was nothing more than a move of aggression by the South against the United States Federal government. To be fair, the Confederates did offer safe transport away from the Fort, but in light of the situation, that makes the demand no less aggressive. As the Smithsonian explains:

“The Confederates demanded immediate evacuation of the fort. However, they promised safe transport out of Charleston for Anderson and his men, who would be permitted to carry their weapons and personal property and to salute the Stars and Stripes, which, the Confederates acknowledged, “You have upheld so long…under the most trying circumstances.” Anderson thanked them for such “fair, manly, and courteous terms.” Yet he stated, “It is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligation to my Government, prevent my compliance.” Anderson added grimly that he would be starved out in a few days—if the Confederate cannon that ringed the harbor didn’t batter him to pieces first.” (9)

     Lincoln knew that Anderson’s force of 87 men could not last much longer against the roughly 3000 Confederates rallied against them. Lincoln wished to reinforce Fort Sumter with around 200 troops, but the Confederates warned that this would be an act of war; and so Lincoln decided that he had to at least launch a humanitarian mission to send Anderson and his men some food.

“Lincoln…informing the rebellious Southerners that the fleet would carry only supplies into Sumter…Should the Confederates choose to fire on this “mission of humanity,” as Lincoln called the supply run, they would then become the aggressor. (8)

“Knowing that Anderson and his men were running out of supplies, Lincoln announced his intention to send three unarmed ships to relieve Fort Sumter.” (10)

     The South believed any attempt to help Ft. Sumter, even if it was just to provide food to starving men, was an act of aggression; which it obviously was not, but this belief shows the hostile mindset of the Confederate States of America. On April 12th 1861, before the humanitarian commission could arrive, the South again rowed out to the Fort and demanded that Anderson and his men leave immediately, offering the Union peaceful departure if they would do so; Anderson, realizing he could not last much longer, responded by saying that he and his men would in fact leave, just not yet:

“Anderson sent back a message to the Confederate authorities, informing them that he would evacuate the fort, but not until noon on the 15th, adding, “I will not in the meantime open my fire upon your forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act against this fort or the flag of my Government.” (9)

     The South finally had what they wanted; they had finally convinced Anderson to evacuate the Fort, and if they would simply allow Anderson three days, Fort Sumter would finally be theirs. But what was the South’s response to Anderson’s offer of departure? It was to tell him that he did not have three days, but rather, one hour:  

But the Confederacy would tolerate no further delay. The envoys immediately handed Anderson a statement: “Sir: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.” (9)

     And once that hour had passed, shortly after 4:30 in the morning, the Confederate States of America opened fire on Ft. Sumter, shelling it with the power of 43 guns and mortars, thus officially starting the Civil War. (8) Once again the evidence is crystal clear; it was the aggressive acts of the South that brought upon the war, not vice versa. The South had seceded, seized, threatened, and finally fired upon a U.S. fort, and it was only then that Lincoln and the North responded with real military force. It is not as if Lincoln wasn’t justified in military response, his soldiers had just been attacked after all, and yet, even with all these facts come to light, some still insist it was the North who were the aggressors. The simple fact of the matter is that through their actions of secession, seizing, and bombardment, the CSA started the Civil War and brought down the wrath of the North upon them, leading to the abolition of the institution (slavery) that they first separated in order to protect.

But there is one more misconception that must be corrected. Some argue that the Civil War was an unnecessary measure to end slavery; they argue that we could have freed the slaves some other way. One man who utilizes this argument is Ron Paul, and I use him in this case not to attack him, but rather, to correct the assertions that he, like many others, like to make:

“Paul repeated his claim that Abraham Lincoln should not have started the Civil War to get rid of slavery.”Six-hundred-thousand Americans died in the senseless Civil War,” he said. “No, he should not have gone to war…”Slavery was phased out in every other country in the world,” Paul continued, responding to the question if America would still have slavery had there not been the Civil War. “The way I’m proposing that it should have been done is do it like the British Empire did — you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans?…I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.” (11)

     Again, while I’m not trying to attack him, Paul shows his ignorance and illogical reasoning when it comes to this issue; he says that Lincoln did not need to go to war in order to free the slaves, but what Paul fails to realize is that Lincoln did not go to war to end slavery! Remember what Lincoln himself said; that everything he did was predicated upon keeping the nation together; his actions where neither to promote nor end slavery, but rather to preserve the Union. Now it just so happened that one of the happy consequences of the war was the abolition of slavery, through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment to the Constitution, but for Paul and others to claim that we did not need to go to war to end slavery, misses the entire point.  

Paul also says that we could have phased out slavery, like every other country in the world did, and that’s easy for us to say considering we are not at the cruel end of whips and chains, but what is even more befuddling is Paul’s (and others) claim that we could have ended slavery by buying and releasing the slaves! Paul conveniently forgets that the situation in England was not the same as in 1860’s America. Unlike England, America as of just before the Civil War was not one unified country, but rather (in the eyes of the South) TWO countries; The United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. Not only did the CSA condone slavery, but they had separated from the North for fear that their slaves would be taken away; the entire point of the CSA was to protect the institution of slavery!

This all being the case, what makes Paul and Confederate sympathizers think that the South would suddenly be open to selling their slaves to the nation they just separated from? Frankly, it would be a miracle for the U.S to convince the C.S. to sell them the very “commodity” that they just seceded in order to protect. But even if the South were to go against all reason and decide to sell their slaves back to the North, can you imagine how much money that would cost the North? Undoubtedly the South would have had cause and opportunity to extort vast amounts of money from the North, playing upon their desire to abolish the institution; such an endeavor would leave the North in financial peril, if not debilitating debt (in 1879, an official monetary estimate on the amount of money the Union spent on the war concluded that it was over $6 billion; and considering Mississippi alone considered their slave population to be worth $4 billion, one can imagine the price to buy back all the slaves over time). (12)(13)

And finally, even if the CSA did implausibly decide to sell to the Union, their slaves (whom they believed were vital to their prosperity), there remains one problem. The South believed that they had a right to African slaves, which included the right to pursue the acquisition of said slaves (remember that the Republican Party platform specifically condemned “the recent re-opening of the African Slave Trade, under the cover of our national flag.” (14)); so the question remains; being a perceived nation unto themselves, what was to stop the CSA from simply acquiring more slaves from Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, after they had sold their old ones to the Union? I posit that the answer can be summed up in one simple word; nothing.   

This has been; “Which Side Started the Civil War?” Thank you so much for reading, and please tune in next week as we complete this Civil War trilogy with a discussion on the man, the myth, and the legend, President Abraham Lincoln.


1.      Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

2.      Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

3.       Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. V, pp. 74-75, letter to Archibald Stuart, January 25, 1786.

4.       Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 19054), Vol. VIII, letter to John Taylor, June 1, 1798; and Vol. VII, p. 390, letter to Wilson C. Nicholas, September 5, 1799. A: B:


5.       George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1938), Vol. 26, pp. 483-496, Circular to the States, June 8, 1783.

6.       William C. Rives, History of the Life and Times of James Madison (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1866), pp. 626-628, correspondence between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison concerning possible secession or receding from the constitutional compact, Saturday and Sunday, July 1788.

7.      Alexander Hamilton, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Harold C. Syrett, editor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), Vol. XXVI, p. 309, letter to Theodore Sedgwick, July 10, 1804.

8.      National Geographic:

9.      The Smithsonian:

10.  History Channel:

11.  NBC:


12.  Civil War Home; “Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War” Edited by Patricial L. Faust”,

13.    “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union, January 9, 1861,” The Civil War Home Page

14.    1860 Republican Party Platform:
















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