History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

If the American civil war is about liberating the slaves, then it might make sense to expect the war to be fought between slaves and masters. In theory, the slaves should be the ones fighting for their own freedom. However, both sides of the warring parties were primarily non-slaves.

Why couldn't slaves do more for themselves? And why did the non-slaves fight so hard for the slaves' freedom?

share|improve this question
I don't know if your assumption that all white people would be for slavery should depress me, insult me or both. In any case it's deeply ignorant. – Lennart Regebro Sep 28 '13 at 16:17
You got the wrong impression absolutely. I don't know where in my question gave you that impression. I think most white Americans are against slavery because they are decent people. But if you ask these decent people to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of other people, that is a different matter. – curious Sep 28 '13 at 17:06
@LennartRegebro It's a valid question. Stop picking at bones, looking for something to be offended at. If you don't like the exact wording of the question, edit it. – American Luke Sep 28 '13 at 17:51
Your question makes no sense, it tries to rewrite history into the civil war being a race war. – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:36
@user1709088 I wasn't offended by your question. I voted to close it because it didn't seem like you've done any research on your own before you asked it. A quick look at the related wikipedia article would have sufficed, and if you've read it you would have known that slavery wasn't the only reason for the war, or even the main one (as with any war, money was the main reason). In the future, please take some time to research your questions before you ask them. 10-15 minutes browsing wikipedia would be enough to get a basic idea of the topic. – Yannis Sep 29 '13 at 13:56
up vote 15 down vote accepted

First off, the Civil War went a lot deeper than slavery. Ever since the foundation of the United States of America, there was enmity between the North and the South. The two regions had radically different cultures, which made it hard for them to get along. The South had a much smaller population, fewer large cities, and was overall rural. The North was full of harbors with large cities, industrialization, and dense urban areas. This caused tension from the very beginning.

The South wanted very low tariffs because of their agricultural economy while the North wanted high tariffs to protect their products from cheaper European products. The South generally did not want to get rid of slavery, while the North quickly abolished it. In fact, if the Constitution had disallowed slavery, it is extremely unlikely that the South would have joined. One of the first acts of all of the Northern states after the ratification of the Constitution was to abolish slavery. They planned to slowly wean the South off of slavery, first by abolishing the importation of slaves after 1807. However, the South was unwilling to abolish slavery because that was the lifeblood of its economy.

Until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war was primarily over taxation. The South believed they were being treated unfairly and decided to get out of the Union and form their own Confederacy. Of course, the North didn't want that.

Why didn't blacks fight? Well, first off they were slaves. They had no weapons or communication systems. They couldn't just say, "everyone take over your plantation on March 18 at midnight". John Brown wanted to create an uprising of slaves like that, but it failed and he was hung.

So, the war wasn't really completely about slavery. It was over the deep cultural differences of the North and the South. Although the focus was turned to slavery later in the war, the slaves had very little chance to fight (especially because blacks weren't even allowed to fight in the Union for the first part of the war).

share|improve this answer
+1 - Excellent answer. Further, in the early part of the war, the Union was not faring all that well. Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation and the issue of slavery as political tools to rally the Union to the cause of the war, which, as you explained, was about not really about slavery per-se. The issue of slavey was simply the most prominent and politically polarizing factor that highlighted the profound differences between North and South, as you aptly explained, and the point on which the South felt most vulnerable because of the impact its abolishment would have on their economy. – user2590 Sep 28 '13 at 16:54
in fact slavery was a very minor factor for the south, only blown out of all proportion by the union after the war to justify their actions. The south seceded because of the unfair taxes on their products leveraged by the north (hmm, remember the revolutionary war...). – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:34
@jwenting I suggest you read the US Declaration of Independence. There were many more reasons for independence from Britain besides taxation without representation (26 to exact). Taxation without representation as a cause for independence is blown way out of proportion just like slavery was blown way out of proportion as a cause for the Civil War. Taxation without representation was only number 13 on the list (IIRC). – American Luke Sep 28 '13 at 19:02
There were Black Union soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg — and the ones who fell are buried in a segregated cemetery. The North abolished slavery first not because they were less racist, but because their higher immigration rates and lack of labor-intensive crops like cotton or tobacco reduced the "need" for slaves. – dan04 Sep 28 '13 at 20:49
@AmericanLuke and racial reasons were similarly only a very minor part (and an even smaller part) of the reasons for the civil war. Overtaxation was what drove people to revolution against Britain, it might not have been the main ideological reason but that's the one the potential recruits felts in their pockets, far more important to most of them than some fuzzy thing about "wanting self determination". – jwenting Sep 29 '13 at 2:45

Slaves were unable to fight for themselves because they were denied an education, and forbidden to learn how to use firearms. The ones that violated these laws or otherwise rebelled, were severely punished. And slaves had no way of organizing, or even communicating, between themselves to start a "whole" civil war.

One exception to the rule was Nat Turner who started a (small) slave uprising among his fellow blacks. It was quickly suppressed and Turner was captured and hanged.

Non-slaves started the Civil War because the notion of slavery offended important non-slave groups. One such group was women. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," condemning slavery. And Northern laborers enlisted in the Union army because they feared that "cheap" slave labor would undercut their wages and standard of living.

share|improve this answer
explain that to the regiments of slaves in the confederation army... And he didn't ask about slaves vs. free but blacks vs. whites, iow a general race war. Which is even more ludicrous. – jwenting Sep 28 '13 at 18:35

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.