If the American civil war was about liberating the slaves, then it might make sense to expect the war to have been fought between slaves and their 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?

  • @AmericanLuke The question may be "valid", but it's irrecoverably bad. A reasonable question would possibly be "Why was not the Union dominated by black soldiers", but that's a very different question, largely needing a completely different answer than already exists. Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 18:32
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    In a sense they did. African American soldiers eventually comprised 10% of the entire Union Army, but that included both free African Americans and runaway slaves.
    – liftarn
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 14:08
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    Downvoted because the Civil War wasn't primarily about slavery, but about asserting the supremacy of the Federal government over the states. Slavery was only the precipitation issue: in an alternate history, it could have been the New England state leaving beause the rest wanted to keep slavery, or some other issue entirely, as with the later suppression of the Mormons, or the Indian Wars.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 17:53
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    @jamesqf - Not arguing a downvote (IMHO this question was and remains problematic), but that argument is just counter-historical. Sure, the "Union" side was initially officially about nothing more than not letting states unilaterally leave. But the southern side was crystal clear at the time that they were seceding over slavery, and they were the side that both seceded and started the shooting.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 20:22
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    @T.E.D.: The Southern side started the shooting only because Northern forces wouldn't leave peacefully. As to being "about" slavery, see e.g. American Luke's answer for more than can go in a comment.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 5:33

5 Answers 5


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).

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    +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
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 16:54
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    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
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 18:34
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    @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).
    – Luke_0
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 19:02
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    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
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 20:49
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    -1 Every Article of Confederation explicitly mentions slavery as the cause of secession. You can choose not to take the Confederates at their word if you like. It was not about taxes. The South was in a position where it needed to defend and expand slavery because of some of the issues you mention, but it was about slavery. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 19:56

There are two great myths of the Civil War.

The Southern myth is that it was a matter of State's right i.e. not allowing a distant part of the country control another. In Europe, it was be like Finland making all the important decisions for Spain.

Sounds good on the surface but Southern Slavarchy would trample all over the right of other states when they wished. Pennsylvania effectively outlawed slavery in 1780, 12 years prior to the constitution but in the eyes of the Slavarchy that meant nothing whereas the fact that slavery predated the constitution by two centuries did. The Fugitive Slave act and the Dredd Scott decision basically imposed slavery on all states in law and only mob violence and the lynching of the odd slave catcher held it back.

But really the purest expression is found in the Constitution of the Confederation itself

Article IV Section 3(3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.[32]

No State of the Confederacy could ever choose forbid slavery. So, much for state's rights. This would mutate into the "Myth of the Lost Cause" shortly after the war.

The other myth is that the North fought primarily for abolition. In fact, abolitions were in the main a small radical group of Northern European Protestant cultural supremacist. They were violently anti-Catholic and ferociously in favor of Manifest Destiny and forced relocation of the First American Peoples. Many people at the time, including Lincoln, pointed out that they seemed driven by hatred and envy of the southern class, than out of concern of those enslaved. Abolition seemed almost a side effect.

They arguably triggered the war early and certainly made it more protracted by out and out lying about John Brown and his intentions to foster a mass slave revolt at Harper's Ferry, instead turning into a "Raid." This made it easy for the radical southerners to convince many that the north intended to destroy the south in a race war that would result in the deaths of millions. It triggered the arming of the South, without which the war would have at least been briefer.

They were mistrust prior to the war and as the war advanced, they became actively hated, especially by the soldiery (there were notable exceptions Lawrence Chamberlain for example.) They constantly interfered with military operations being responsible for the loss of the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas as well as disaster at Battle of Fredericksburg.

Many working class Northern's feared economic competition from freed slaves and the vast majority of Northern whites including Lincoln were dubious that whites and blacks could live together as equals.

In truth, what the North fought for was to preserve the Union of the States. One of the consequences of the Civil War was so seal the Union in blood that later generations forgot that the fear of disunion was a major and ongoing concern right up to the Civil War. The first attempt at secession was in Connecticut during war of 1812 and South Caroline threatened to do so in 1836.

Without an inviolate Union, Democracy was impossible if everyone just stalked off when they didn't get their way. It's telling that the Gettysburg address, considered by most the greatest American political speech, does not mention slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation set off wide spread dissension in the Union ranks and increased desertions.

But in hindsight, they were right to prioritize maintaining American Democracy even if as Lincoln once said it meant keeping slavery. American in 1860 was the last true Democracy left standing. The counter-reaction to the French Revolution had locked Europe into Aristocracy. Even England was facing a rollback of franchise in its plutocracy. Many in the North viewed the primary threat in the South before the war as a rising hereditary aristocracy instead of slavery.

If the South had won, its possible that succession in America would have been the norm, the country would have flown apart North and South and popular Democracy would have died world wide for half a century or more. Certainly, many elites in Europe were routing for just that outcome.

It was only a good 20-30 years later, that idea that North fought primarily for Abolition took hold. Most likely it did so because at a time of American's rise to the Greatest Nation status, the idea of the entire United States flying apart and popular Democracy dying by then seemed almost silly, so they needed another mythos.

As to why the slaves did not rebel either before or during the war:

The Southern whites were terrified of slave revolts as the majority of them in history simply became slaughters of the slave owners. The history of Haiti and the extermination of the white population there after Napoleon's treachery, haunted them in particular. The South was essentially a police state keeping slaves isolated and unable to coordinate.

During the war, some slaves feared an overkill reaction if they rose up behind the lines. In the past, just the men had been executed after trials. This time they feared extermination. But such fears were very rare. As well, as part of Lincoln's attempt at reconciliation, Union Armies were under orders to prevent uprising.

But perhaps more importantly, the Civil War had an odd sense of propriety running through it. (Although we shouldn't romanticize it.) But, for example, when Sherman marched through Georgia and South Carolina, the southern white males that remained would flee to the hills with their slaves and other chattel while leaving their women folk at home to deal with the Union Army. It's odd war in which one side feels confident enough in the other sides morality that the first side leaves their women unprotected against the other.

That same sense of propriety lead slaves who wished to fight for their freedom to runaway to the Union lines and become uniformed soldiers, instead of murdering their masters or fighting as guerrillas (something still frowned on.)

Telling, in the last two years of the war nearly entire counties lost their military age white male population which was defined very broadly. In many cases, farms and plantations were being run by a handful of white women and dozens and sometimes hundreds of slaves. Yet, virtually none of the women came to harm and in at least one case, a group of slaves lynched another that had tried to sexually assault his white mistress. Ironically, the same sense of propriety prevented the male slaves from revolting when their only targets were women and girls.

In sum,

  1. Pre-war slave revolts were prevented by the police state.
  2. Northern's didn't fight to end slavery as much as to preserve American democracy. (Although, no Democracy, no chance of freedom for slaves.)
  3. Slaves that fought for their freedom did so formally as part of the Union Army, in the hundreds of thousands.
  4. Slave revolt during the war was doubly dangerous and would be suppressed by both the Southern and Northern forces
  5. Every far behind the lines, slaves seemed unwilling to do harm to women, girls, boys and old men. Especially, as it became clear the South would lose.
  • This is the great answer. Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:22
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    This is the great answer. In short: southern slave-owners (most radical part of them) initiated secession, and then Civil War, in order to protect and perpetuate slavery - and they lost huge. In order to win the war, Lincoln eventually issued emancipation proclamation, and shortly after the end of war slavery was over. Probably, gradual and compensated emancipation in the long run would be better for country, but long and devastating Civil war blocked this way. Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:42

In the book by Evans about Judah P. Benjamin, we see that some in the southern leadership in fact thought that arming the slaves was a possibility. This indicates that it was indeed plausible to some that slaves actually would fight not against the Confederacy but for it. Naturally, this was a very, very controversial initiative which met with opposition for many reasons, not the least of which was of course fear of arming slaves. It was also argued that if Blacks could make good soldiers then the idea that they were only fit for slavery was false.


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.

  • 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
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 18:35
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    @Anixx: Julia Ward Howe felt "enslaved" by her own husband, and wrote tracts and poems against both the marital and property kind. Women were more sensitive to the cruelties imposed on slaves than men. Finally, wives of slave owners were upset that their husbands often carried on with female slaves (women did not do this with male slaves).
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 22:49
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    "women did not do this with male slaves" - why?
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 23:37
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    @Tom Au is it your theory? In Rome women slept with slaves a lot, in Russia women en masse go for dating to prisons and go to sex tourism into Africa (to sleep with hotel personnel and pool cleaners), or sleep with Muslim migrant workers.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 0:40
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    These comments are not relevant to the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 14:52

I wrote the answer below, walked away and realized that the first question you ask, while absurd, is merely pretext for the second question, which is the important question why did the non-slaves fight so hard for the slaves' freedom? There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides, so there were doubtless thousands of reasons. With all respect to @TechZen, the true myth of any war is that has a single cause. I don't think I can improve on other's answers to that question.

The first question seems to be based on the assumption that "war" is a disagreement with Hollywood special effects. (or perhaps that wanting something badly enough will magically create artillery). Slaves could fight masters, and did so. But the asymmetry of power was such that slaves were immediately defeated. You might want to research Nat Turner's Revolt.

Remember that the Civil War was arguably the first industrial war - victory came not from skill at arms (where the South had the advantage), but the ability to produce more bullets, and move the troops more quickly. Victory went to the side with the greater industrial production, and the greater ability to move forces (railroads). Slaves had zero industrial production and were limited to foot speed. Masters had greater industrial production and had horses plus some railroads.

  • Weapons - Given that slaves could not own property, masters had infinitely more weapons than slaves did. Given the disparity between industrial production, masters had infinitely greater capacity to produce more weapons. Given relative wealth and income, masters had infinitely greater capacity to purchase additional weapons.

  • Masters had artillery. Napoleon proved that most rebellions vanish with a "whiff of grapheshot".

  • Communications - slaves could not travel off their master's property without permission. Masters took precautions to prevent slaves from communicating with others. Masters had not just the ability to communicate (riding, telegraph), but they had institutions that bound them together. Masters took precautions to prevent slaves from forming stable institutions.

  • Slaves had no supply chain. No ability to hold or acquire property, food, bullets, gunpowder, boots, uniforms, or any other war supply. Masters had supplies on hand, and the ability to purchase more

  • Masters had credit - if they didn't have the resources handy, they could borrow money to pay for supplies, or borrow money to invest to produce supplies. Slaves could not. They had no money and no access to credit.

I'm not sure what you're thinking of when you think of Slaves fighting Masters, but that kind of fight doesn't happen in the real world. In order for any conflict between slaves and masters to last longer than a night or to escalate beyond a single plantation the master's have to be drunken keystone cops - and all plots that rely on the stupidity of the opponents are intrinsically doomed.

Someone will probably point out the Boxer rebellion as a counter-example, but the Boxer rebellion (a) had communications, (b) had institutions, and (c) failed. I think the more relevant example - and I forget the name - is when a single European regiment defeated China. That was an example of superior professional military discipline opposed against a corrupt government relying on untrained, unmotivated troops who routed before conflict. THe only thing the slaves had going was motivation (and not much of that).

I think it is a disservice to the enslaved to pretend that they could have defeated the South if only they had tried. That claim ignores the scientific brutality of American chattel slavery.

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    I would expand on this: Slavery was based on the idea that a relatively small number of people could control a relatively large number who did not wish to be enslaved. This "worked" for millennia despite scattered insurrections. The same system continued during the Civil War although of course the war itself undermined it -- men were not at home to control their slaves, slaves obviously understood the significance of the war even if they could not read and many slaves did use the Civil War to run away. I think very few however actually fought directly at least not from behind Southern lines.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 17:08

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