The Civil War was a fight to preserve the Union which was the United States of America. From the conception of the Constitution, there were two differing opinions on the role of the federal government. Federalists believed that the federal government and the executive needed to maintain their power in order to ensure the survival of the union. On the other hand, anti-federalists held that states should retain much of their sovereignty within the new nation. Basically, they believed that each state should have the right to determine the laws within its own borders and should not be forced to follow the mandates of the federal government unless absolutely necessary.
As time passed the rights of the states would often collide with various actions the federal government was taking. Arguments arose over taxation, tariffs, internal improvements, the military, and of course slavery.
Northern Versus Southern Interests
Increasingly, the Northern states squared off against the Southern states. One of the main reasons for this was that the economic interests of north and south were opposed to each other. The South was largely comprised of small and large plantations that grew crops such as cotton which were labor intensive. The North, on the other hand, was more of a manufacturing center, using raw materials to create finished goods. Slavery had been abolished in the north but continued in the south due to the need for inexpensive labor and the ingrained culture of the plantation era. As new states were added to the United States, compromises had to be reached concerning whether they would be admitted as slave or as free states. The fear of both groups was for the other to gain an unequal amount of power. If more slave states existed, for example, then they would garner more power in the nation.
The Compromise of 1850 - Precursor to the Civil War
The Compromise of 1850 was created to help stave off open conflict between the two sides. Among the five parts of the Compromise were two rather controversial acts. First Kansas and Nebraska were given the ability to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be slave or free. While Nebraska was decidedly a free state from the start, pro and anti-slavery forces traveled to Kansas to try and influence the decision. Open fighting broke out in the territory causing it to be known as Bleeding Kansas. Its fate would not be decided until 1861 when it would enter the union as a free state.
The second controversial act was the Fugitive Slave Act which gave slave owners great latitude in traveling north to capture any escaped slaves. This act was hugely unpopular with both abolitionists and more moderate anti-slavery forces in the north.
Abraham Lincoln's Election Leads to Secession
By 1860 the conflict between northern and southern interests had grown so strong that when Abraham Lincoln was elected president South Carolina became the first state to break off from the Union and form its own country. Ten more states would follow with secession: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. On February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed with Jefferson Davis as its president.