If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Start of the Civil War - secession and Fort Sumter

The election of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president with an anti-slavery platform, sparked fear in the South. This led to the secession of seven Southern states, forming the Confederate States of America to protect slavery. The attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Real Name
    Please explain the difference between "Lincoln elected" in 1860 and "Lincoln inaugurated" in 1861. What does it mean to be inaugurated after being elected?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Jarum
      In the USA, a president is elected in November. However, the president doesn't actually get "sworn in" to office until January. The ceremony when a president is "sworn in" is called an "inauguration". In January they start their "term" as a president for 4 years.
      President Lincoln was elected in November of 1860, but didn't actually become the president until January 1861.
      This period in between allows for a transition of not just the president, but also a time to form a cabinet (the group of people appointed by the president to help him/her run the country) as well as choose other staff and officers.
      Similarly congress has a transition period as well. They don't start right away in November, but typically start in January as well.
      (34 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Adi.price
    Are there still confederate based states?
    Why was the west so important during the civil war?
    Who in the world thought slavery was a good idea?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • purple pi purple style avatar for user josh johnson
      No, but we must not look at the past, confederate states and the flag of that period and not recognize its meaning. Having the confederate flag hang up as a symbol of the past, not approval but to remember the actual events and those who died. Dialog keeps us free
      the west was important as new states were admitted, the weight of free states would outnumber slave, slowly the idea of slavery would of dried up and went with the wind.
      Only those who profit by slavery thought it was a good idea and northerners that fear blacks coming to their area and taking jobs.
      (10 votes)
  • stelly orange style avatar for user איזי (Izzy)
    So can states just separate from the united states? what had to happen to approve these 7 states to secede? Was there a vote that happened?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf yellow style avatar for user SP
      The states could secede, but not legally. What happened to approve the states to leave? The state governments issued "articles of secession", basically stating that they were leaving.

      The Supreme Court case of Texas vs. White (1869) ruled that the leaving of the USA by the southern states was unconstitutional.
      (7 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Michael Fulcher
    Why didn't Lincoln let the south go? The north had the industy and the south depended on the north eventually they would of asked to rejoin.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • primosaur sapling style avatar for user Goldleaf
      Since the South controlled the mouth of the Mississippi, they effectively controlled all economic movement in or out of the region, making it impossible for the North to import or export goods there. Before the Mason-Dixon line was set, the South also thought that the central plains states would be a perfect place to expand. If not that, then maybe South into Latin America. In any case, expansion was critical for economic reasons, which also meant that the South might threaten the North later if they were granted freedom, possibly causing a war over territory, resources, or a combination of the two.

      If Abraham Lincoln allowed the South to split off from the North, it might be seen as hope to all the other rebellious groups, and inspire them to split off from the North as well, potentially causing the US to split into pieces and disintegrate into war on all sides and mayhem. The South might eventually be seen as a leader in this (as they would have been the first, most powerful, and (most likely) the biggest territory to split off from the Union. It would have been likely that the South would form alliances with the other groups and maybe even annex their territory. They might have even fought (and defeated) the North later and re-formed the United States as their own nation, which would have been devastating to the Union.

      As Abraham Lincoln was an opponent of slavery, it would not have been right to let the South secede and continue practicing it. This would have likely caused an uproar in the North, as Lincoln had written the emancipation proclamation, and the people would have wanted him to follow through with abolishing slavery. In order to abolish it completely in the US, he would have to go to war with the South to settle the matter, which he did.
      (13 votes)
  • area 52 purple style avatar for user mbegansky
    What state started slavery?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      In 1619, a group of "twenty and odd" captive Africans arrived in the Virginia Colony. An English privateer operating under a Dutch letter of marque, White Lion, carried 20–30 Africans who had been captured in joint African-Portuguese raids against the Kingdom of Ndongo in modern-day Angola, making its landing at Point Comfort in the English colony of Virginia. With that as basic information, was it the English, the Dutch or Virginia, where the first African slaves in North America were offloaded, that started it?
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Alexander Perez
    Please explain the difference between "Lincoln elected" in 1860 and "Lincoln inaugurated" in 1861. What does it mean to be inaugurated after being elected?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Roberto Del Castillo
    I thought that Lincon was against slavery?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • stelly blue style avatar for user swimmer5235
      Lincoln always was, however at the beginning of the Civil War, abolishing slavery wasn’t his main focus; keeping the Union together was first and foremost in his mind. Interestingly enough, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass were able to broaden Lincoln's focus of the war to mainly getting rid of slavery, even if keeping the Union together was a secondary matter.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ZacharyM
    Why did it make a difference in which side made the first hostile move at Fort Sumter?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Nate
    Why didn´t Lincoln just abolish slavery when he first became president.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers seed style avatar for user ruby campos
    In 1856, could an implemented plan have prevented the civil war from ever happening?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      This is perhaps possible, but it would likely have resulted in a significant number of enslaved people remaining the property of others until they died. One additional day of slavery for ANYONE is too many days for EVERYONE. That it took months from the end of the war (in 1865) for news to reach the enslaved people of Texas is a sad commentary on that state's reputation.
      (3 votes)

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So Kim, we've been talking about the run up to the Civil War. We talked about the Compromise of 1850, which angered a lot of anti-slavery and abolitionist folks in the North. As we get to the election of 1860, you have Abraham Lincoln getting elected. And a lot of folks view that as a bit of the final catalyst for the Civil War. What's happening? And is that accurate? - [Voiceover] So, Lincoln is elected as a Republican Party president. This is the first Republican Party president, ever. And the real basis of the Republican Party is an anti-slavery platform. They really don't want slavery to extend into the Western territories that have been acquired through the Mexican War. So, they have been making both an economic, and to some extent, moral argument against slavery. So, when Lincoln becomes president, the states of the South, particularly the Deep South, or this Cotton Belt area, whose entire economic system relies on slavery, they think that they are under attack. That Lincoln is going to be coming for slavery as soon as he gets a chance, as president. - [Voiceover] And we're talking about these states down here. This is Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. - [Voiceover] Right; so these are the real cotton states, where slavery is highly entrenched. There, more than 50% of the population is enslaved working on cotton plantations. And it's making the elite people, elite whites in the South, very wealthy. Cotton is just the backbone of their economy. - [Voiceover] So what do they do? Lincoln gets elected. This is November of 1860? - [Voiceover] That's right. - [Voiceover] So what do they do about it? They're afraid. - [Voiceover] They're afraid that Lincoln is going to do something about slavery. So, over the course of this winter period, this is in a period before we moved the inauguration up to January, so it used to be that presidents would be elected in November and not take office until March. - [Voiceover] Yeah, we have here, this Lincoln gets elected in November, but then he doesn't get inaugurated until March, over here. - [Voiceover] So there's this long, lame duck period where everyone knows that a new political party is going to be in power, a new president is in power, but he's not in office yet. - [Voiceover] And so you have James Buchanan sitting around; he's still the president, but. - [Voiceover] But, yeah, his days are numbered, and his power is pretty limited. So, over the course of what they call this Secession Winter, the seven states of the Deep South get together and they secede from the Union, one after another. And this includes South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. They secede from the Union, and they form what they call The Confederate States of America, which is, basically, almost exactly the same as The United States of America. Their constitution is based very closely on the US Constitution. But it guarantees the existence of slavery. It explicitly says that slavery is allowed and protected forever. And they elect Jefferson Davis as their president. - [Voiceover] So when they seceded, for them it was clearly about slavery. - [Voiceover] Right; everything is about slavery. They are concerned that Lincoln is going to interfere with slavery. They are afraid that because slavery is being outlawed many other places in the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, that, one way or another, slavery's days are numbered. And if they're going to protect their livelihood as slave owners and as cotton planters, they're going to have to form their own nation to make sure that it's protected. - [Voiceover] And James Buchanan is officially president when all of this has happened. You have seven states of the United States, I guess they're not so united anymore, leaving. Is he just powerless to do anything? - [Voiceover] Well, he tries a few things. He was a very ineffective president to begin with. It's hard to be an effective president when Congress is so divided over issues. One thing that Congress actually does before Lincoln is in office, and before these states officially secede, is they try what's called the Crittenden Plan, proposed by John Crittenden of Kentucky, saying we will officially protect slavery in the Constitution. We will say that you can't outlaw slavery in the South, and we'll even extend this Missouri Compromise line, which was sort of the official line between North and South, between free states and slave states, all the way to the Pacific. So, just so you know, Southern states, we'll make sure that we won't get rid of slavery. - [Voiceover] So this Crittenden Compromise, this was kind of a last ditch effort. Everyone's started to see the writing on the wall. These seven states, especially, were very loose-in-the-socket. - [Voiceover] And this was a last ditch effort to keep them in the Union, perhaps. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and I don't want to say it's too little too late, but for the South, they have seen the writing on the wall. They have seen that this is going to be their only opportunity to secede. - [Voiceover] Lincoln got elected, and his whole party is based on being anti-slavery. - [Voiceover] Right. So, they want to get out while the getting is good. So that they can make sure that slavery remains in their states. - [Voiceover] All right, so during this lame duck period, the seven states, these Deep South states, they secede. Then Lincoln gets inaugurated. He is now president. And we're not really in the Civil War yet. - [Voiceover] No, in fact, Lincoln's inaugural address is very conciliatory. We think of Lincoln as being a really great orator. And he certainly was, but his first inaugural address, if you read it, is very much a plea to the South, saying hey, really, I'm not planning on outlawing slavery. So, the anti-slavery platform that Lincoln ascribes to is specifically about not extending slavery to the West. So he's saying I'm not in favor of getting rid of slavery where it is, so there's no reason for you all to secede. Come back, everything will be situation normal. - [Voiceover] And they don't. - [Voiceover] No, as I said, they've already seen that this is their opportunity to make sure that slavery continues, by creating their own nation. So, in the South, there are a bunch of arsenals and forts that belong to the United States; and most of these are taken over by the Confederacy when it becomes its own nation. - [Voiceover] This is a picture of one right here. This is Sumter. - [Voiceover] Right; so Fort Sumter is right in Charleston Harbor. And this is a Union fort, or a United States fort, that's holding out, basically. They're running out of supplies, they have tried to have supplies brought in to them before, which have been repelled. - [Voiceover] They're holding out. They're well in Confederate territory, but they're still controlled by United States soldiers. - [Voiceover] Right; so, they do not want to surrender this fort. Lincoln lets the Confederates, the Rebels, know that he wants to resupply this fort. The Confederates instead fire on Fort Sumter. They start lobbing artillery at it. Over the course of a day, they force the Union forces in Fort Sumter to surrender. - [Voiceover] I guess this was the real matchstick for the war. But this wasn't the first tension. - [Voiceover] No; obviously this had been going on for some time. - [Voiceover] Even in Buchanan's lame duck period, there's probably a little bit of tension. - [Voiceover] Yeah, if you want to be expansive, you could say that this tension is almost built into the Constitution when they don't-- - [Voiceover] (laughs) - [Voiceover] (laughs) secede. - [Voiceover] You got that right. But especially, even post-secession of these first seven states, there are already some tensions, especially if they're taking over these forts. Former United States soldiers are now thinking about cutting off supplies to current United States soldiers. And then Fort Sumter, it sounds like this was definitely the straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak. - [Voiceover] Yeah, this is the tinder box. And I think it's maybe intended to be a tinder box on both sides. Because Lincoln wants to be sure that if there's going to be a war, the North isn't going to fire the first shot. They want to make sure that this is the South's decision. It can be blamed on them if it needs to be. - [Voiceover] This is a pattern you see throughout history, is that no one at least wants to, officially, be the person to fire the first shot. They often look for a good reason to fire the first shot because they want to get into war, but everyone wants to have the moral high ground. - [Voiceover] Right; and in the South, they are looking to make sure that this is kind of a morale building moment. When they fire on Fort Sumter, they're firing on a federal fort, right? - [Voiceover] Mm-hmm. - [Voiceover] In any circumstances, that's going to bring on war. And they're hoping that if they can kind of get this fire started, then these four other slaveholding states, or actually eight other slaveholding states, in the South are going to join the effort. And that's pretty much exactly what happens. So, after they fire on Fort Sumter, the fort is surrendered to the Confederacy. Lincoln says, okay, you want to start a war, we got a war. He calls for 75,000 troops, volunteers to put down the insurrection. He calls them for a 90-day service period, which tells you how long they thought this was gonna last. After Lincoln has asked for this army, four more slaveholding states in the South secede. And that's Virginia, the most important of these, it's gonna be the real battleground of the Civil War. - [Voiceover] Today, we'd consider that West Virginia and Virginia, but that was Virginia back then. - [Voiceover] Right; Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina also join the Confederate States of America. And the war is on. - [Voiceover] Fascinating.