Slavery and the American Civil War: A Quick When and Why

American civil war, slave ship, the middle passage, slave trade, slavery, history education, slavdery in history education, slavery in american history education, slavery in dutch history education, civil war, confederate states of america, union army, confederate army, Roots, 12 Years a Slave, abolition movement, abolition of slavery, American independence,
This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Slavery on My Mind

There’s really no such thing as a quick overview of slavery and the American Civil War, so this is turning into a series.

American civil war, slave ship, the middle passage, slave trade, slavery, history education, slavdery in history education, slavery in american history education, slavery in dutch history education, civil war, confederate states of america, union army, confederate army, Roots, 12 Years a Slave, abolition movement, abolition of slavery, American independence,

(03-18-2014, updated 07-15-2018)  A Dutch friend said that she didn’t learn that much about American slavery in high school. I learned a lot–enough to argue viciously with my distant relatives in Bakersfield, California when I visited them at the annoying age of 18, anyway. Perhaps most of my knowledge came from independent study projects I did at my particular school. However, I know I had a picture like the one above in my 9th-grade history book.

In any case, let me spend another post, or two, or three–you never know with me–on American slavery. So this post will be mostly for the benefit of my non-American readers, though it never ceases to amaze me how novel and eye-opening a book and TV series like Roots in the 1970’s and just recently the movie 12 Years a Slave are considered to be here in the States. Knowledge of American history clearly isn’t what it could be in many places.

In 1619, a Dutch ship introduced twenty slaves to Jamestown in Virginia, one of the first successful British colonies in North America. It just got worse from there. Yes, we Dutch have a lot to answer for.

Britain and Europe acquired a taste for American cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco, and the colonies–and later the states–were all too happy to provide said products, especially since free slave labor made growing these crops extremely lucrative.

After American independence, many people in the North felt that black people should be free from the yoke of slavery just as Americans had freed themselves from the yoke of British rule. From an economic standpoint, this was easily said in the North. Since tobacco, cotton, rice and sugar cane were Southern crops, the economic benefits of slavery were the greatest for Southern plantation owners; therefore they felt threatened by the growing Abolition movement in the North.

At the same time the United States was still expanding westward and abolitionists and advocates of slavery in the federal (= national) government argued about the newest territories and their status once they were to become states: should they be allowed to have slaves or not?

The two parties couldn’t agree, and this, along with a bunch of other issues, led most of the Southern states to secede–to break off into their own country: the Confederate States of America. President Lincoln didn’t accept this; he insisted that the United States of America stay united. And so the Union army, largely made up of Northerners, fought the Confederate army, mainly consisting of Southerners, during the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. The Union Army won and Lincoln immediately abolished slavery throughout the country.

Of course it wasn’t quite this simple. Slavery wasn’t the only issue, just as the two armies weren’t that clear cut between North and South; often members of the same family fought on opposite sides in the American Civil War, for various reasons. But I’m trying to stick to slavery here, and I’m trying to keep it basic, so bear with me.

In fact, this is quite enough for one post. See you back here tomorrow.

Oh, by the way, let me reiterate: the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the North won. That’s not actually as obvious to everyone here as you’d think it would be. More on that in a later post as well.

The next post in this series, Slavery on My mind, is a response to a comment in this post. It’s my view on history and American history education.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “American Slavery: A Quick When and Why”, 03-18-2014)

Header image: from The Americans: The Beginnings to 1914

Series Navigation<< Laura Plantation: A Sugar Plantation Tour With Barely a Mention of SlaveryWhat Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought? >>

12 thoughts on “Slavery and the American Civil War: A Quick When and Why

  1. It isn’t obvious, is it? If you really want to make Americans uncomfortable, point out that Russia is doing the same thing in Crimea the U.S. did in Texas and Hawaii, only with stronger claims of legitimacy based on historical ties.
    Seriously, though, none of my (U.S.) history books had pictures of the layout of slave ships. It was all “yay Harriet Tubman, glad that’s over.” There was better coverage of the Holocaust. Though slavery was at least portrayed as bad, unlike what we did to the indigenous populations, which was still glorified and romanticized.

    1. Wow. To me that picture of a slave ship is iconic. Yes, there seems to be a lot of attention here to individuals and their achievements, focusing on the positive, but no real overview of what happened and how bad it was. As for Native Americans, one of my Dutch readers has requested that I write about the Thanksgiving story and its truth and fiction, so I’ll be addressing that somewhere around November.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. If I may…. to partially quote your line… “The Union Army won and Lincoln immediately abolished slavery throughout the country.” I realize that your intended audience is being provided a “basic” overview of slavery in America but the American Civil War itself is one of America’s most complex historical episodes. From the first feelings of political discord as early as our disassociation with England, to the way the war was even conducted… and the myths surrounding Lincoln, the War was a complicated growing pain for our nation. To summarize that “the Union Army won” rather suggests that the military victory also was a victory over the hearts and minds of the South and that those defeated simply went home back to doing what they did before the fighting started. Yeah.. the Union Army won the military victory to preserve the Union as one but that victory was just the initial battle for racial equality that would last another 150 years.
    But my real concern is about your remark that once the war was won Lincoln abolished slavery. Not really true or accurate. During the war Lincoln, after the Union Army had achieved a battlefield victory, felt the timing was right (motivated more by political timing rather than some moral high ground) to issue his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This document did not “free the slaves”. It was a Presidential order freeing the slaves in all ten southern states in the rebellion. It did not free any slaves in border states or southern states friendly with the Union, In other words.. it was not every state in America.
    But.. having said that… the 13th Amendment ending slavery in all of America, was introduced and debated through Congress while the war was still going on as early as 1863. Lincoln feared his Emancipation Proclamation might be reversed after the war and pushed republicans in Congress to introduce the amendment. By December, 1865, (Lincoln was assassinated that April) after the defeated Southern states in the rebellion had reformed their governments, Congress passed the amendment… and the required three-fourths of the 36 states at the time ratified the amendment and it became the law of the land.
    An interesting post script to this… a few states did in fact reject or simply failed politically through their respective state legislatures to ratify the 13th Amendment but because three-fourths had made it law the dissenting states really made no difference. A couple of those states did in fact revisit their contribution… Deleware ratified it at late as 1901… Kentucky did the same in 1976… and Mississippi, after rejecting it in the 1865 vote, came back and ratified it March 16, 1995.. and later “certified” it only last year… February 7, 2013.
    I so wish they taught this stuff in school when I was a kid..

    1. Thanks for your detailed reply!
      Yes, I know it was a lot more complicated and I know that Lincoln was rather opportunistic when it came to slavery and all that. Those of my readers who want to, can read your comment, but I figured I’d give the big picture in this first post, or I’d lose most of my readers! I know my 6th-grade daughter was lost when she had to learn all those particulars of emancipation and all the amendments and I can’t blame her. Kudos to you for knowing it all!
      As for the complicated feelings of the South after the war was over and the repercussions of slavery and the civil war to this day–well, that’s why I feel a few more posts coming on…
      Thanks, Doug.

  3. Forgive me for tossing out another tidbit, especially if you have posts to follow, but Lincoln, as with most Americans of the day, did not have the opinion that freed slaves should stay in America, and most certainly they were not considered any sort of social or political equal to whites. It was felt that since “they” were brought to this country against their will to endure indentured servitude that they would naturally want to go back to Africa. If the former slaves didn’t want to go back they were too uneducated and ignorant to know what they wanted so whites of the day felt the decision should be made for them. Obviously rediculous reasoning even back in those days. But it does illustrate that “freeing the slaves” did not make them equal nor erase all the inferiorority stereotypes held by abolitionist whites.
    Your readers might want to consider renting the movie “Amistad”… a very nicely done (and underrated) 1997 Spielberg movie (many Hollywood stars) depicting the 1839 revolt of slaves on a slave ship. One of many messages presented in the film was when the Supreme Court ordered the slaves returned to Africa. When they returned they found their own country in a civil war.. and the starring slave character in the movie realizes his family was gone, having been sent into slavery, not to America but with another warring tribe, thusly suggesting that slavery can have many forms and is just not limited to any one society; it’s a trait of man.

    1. Gosh Doug, that was going to be one of my next posts! There were indeed all sorts of shades of gray when it came to what it meant to be a free person of color, both during and after slavery and in the eyes of both blacks and whites. I’m going to address all that. Yes, I was impressed with Amistad and you’re right, it never got the attention it deserved.

  4. I remember the picture of a slave ship in my history book I had in secondary school.
    The negative side the Dutch played in slave trade is something that gets much more attention in the Netherlands now; as when I went to school

  5. Yes, that image and what accompanied it is now back into my mind, I can almost see the history book it was in in my hands! Thanks for tackling this even in several episodes. Of course I read Gone with the wind, Uncle Toms cabin and Huckleberry Finn Tom Sawyer, so I have a vague image in my mind which sort of is made up from what I learned and what I’ve read. So Thanks for elaborating on your blog! I’m following with interest.

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