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Commemorating The Civil War: A Learning Experience

Images out of the past: cannons stand ready to repulse an attack at Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania National Military Park in Virginia. Kurt Repanshek photo.

While the vicious battles of the American Civil War resonated through the minds and hearts of those who lived them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact of the war has seemingly faded in the consciousness of modern Americans.

With the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War now in full swing, there's a rich opportunity for Americans to understand the underlying causes of the war, the impact it had on our modern society, and to fully embrace the progress we have made as a nation.

For more than a few, the exact cause that sparked the Civil War can be hard to capture. Granted, slavery was a major factor, but the tensions between the North and South had been building for decades as a result of political, economic and social differences.

While the Northern states’ economy was largely centered on industry, the South’s economy was agriculturally based. After Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, large scale production of cotton in the South became possible, increasing the demand for cheap labor, and causing the institution of slavery to become closely intertwined with the Southern economy. Slaves and indentured servants were put to work in the fields, tilling and harvesting crops, to meet the national and international demand for agricultural products such as cotton and tobacco.

Another factor was the concern for representation in Congress. By 1820, all but one president had come from Virginia, boosting Southern confidence that they would not become a minority in Washington. But as droves of immigrants poured into the Northern states with hopes of acquiring industrial jobs, Northern populations exploded and the number of representatives from Northern states surged.

When Missouri applied for statehood in 1820, the balance of power in Congress could have shifted dramatically, contingent upon whether Missouri was admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state.

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Civil War re-enactors at Petersburg National Battlefield. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The Compromise of 1820 (also known as the Missouri Compromise) was reached, which decreed that states north of the Mason-Dixon Line would be prohibited from embracing slavery, while states south of the line could choose to be a slave state or not.

While the Compromise worked for a few decades, by 1846 Southern states seized the opportunity after the war with Mexico to snatch up large tracts of land below the Mason-Dixon Line with the hopes that those territories could become slave states, which would result in a shift in the balance of power in Congress.

As more states joined the Union, Southern hopes were not realized. Tariffs imposed by Congress on agricultural products and exports further strained relations between the North and South. The state of South Carolina prevailed upon President Andrew Jackson to address their concerns about several of these tariffs and their negative economic impact, to no avail.

South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in 1832, which stated that the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of the state. Vice President John C. Calhoun and President Jackson disagreed on the issue, and Calhoun resigned his position in order to run for the Senate where he could more effectively defend nullification.

As a response to South Carolina’s refusal to submit to federal tariffs, the Force Bill was passed by Congress in 1832 that authorized President Jackson to use any force necessary in order to collect federal tariffs.

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Slavery played a role in sparking the Civil War, but it wasn't the only reason for the war between the states. National Archives photo.

Eventually, conciliation was reached through the Compromise Tariff of 1833, introduced by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

The compromise reduced the tariff by one-tenth every two years, satisfying South Carolina and other Southern states. South Carolina repealed its Nullification Act shortly thereafter, but tensions continued to build.

In 1859, John Brown, heading a small group of individuals who meant to overthrow the institution of slavery by violent means, raided the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. His intent was to incite a slave insurrection, and although he was suppressed by federal forces, Brown became a martyr in the eyes of the Abolitionist movement.

Brown’s unsuccessful raid, along with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, led Southern states to believe that they could never survive under an anti-slavery president. South Carolina led the Southern states in secession from the Union, followed by Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Although each state’s secession was entirely separate and there was no original intent on creating a nation separate from the United States, it became abundantly clear that they would be stronger if they banded together.

By February of 1861, delegates from the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama and formed the Confederate States of America. They drafted a constitution and elected Jeffeson Davis as their president.

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The battle of Fort Sumter, as portrayed in a Currier & Ives lithograph.

During the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, take the opportunity to visit a Civil War park. You can also visit the National Park Service’s Civil War website by clicking here, where you can view a timeline of the war and learn more about the battles, soldiers and life during the war.

Many parks will be commemorating their respective battles with a multitude of events, including living history demonstrations, reenactments and children’s programs.

Here is a list of some parks that are commemorating battles this year:

Antietam National Battlefield

Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Fort Macon State Park

Fort Pulaski National Monument

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Pea Ridge National Military Park

Richmond National Battlefield Park

Shiloh National Military Park

Stones River National Battlefield

Yorktown National Battlefield

For a great overview of the Civil War, visit the Civil War Interpretive Center at Shiloh National Military Park

You can also read more about the Civil War through the National Park Civil War Series, available on


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