Tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate cannons began firing on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, near Charleston, S.C., in what most historians regard as the first battle of America's bloodiest conflict -- one that killed more soldiers than all the rest of America's wars put together.
That was a long time ago and nearly 2,000 miles away. The war was clearly a war about slavery. But it was also a war about the West. Would the new Western territories become a land of small freehold market farms, connected to the rest of the country with railroads? Or would they become a land of isolated large plantations tended by slaves?
As America expanded from the original 13 colonies of 1776, the issue came up frequently, though decades of compromise forestalled the armed struggle that began 150 years ago.
Congress forbade slavery in the territories of “the Old Northwest” -- today's states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Slavery was allowed in “the Old Southwest” of Alabama and Mississippi.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought the United States a vast land extending from the Mississippi River to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Should slavery be legal in this new American West?
Again there was a deal, the Compromise of 1820, also known as the Missouri Compromise. Slavery would be legal south of the latitude of 36 degrees (the current northern border of Texas, and the reason why it's there), and illegal north of it -- with the exception of Missouri, where slavery remained.
Then came the annexation of Texas in 1844, followed by the 1846-’48 Mexican War, in which America acquired California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. At the same time, the U.S. settled the “Oregon question” with Great Britain, acquiring Washington, Oregon, Idaho and some of Montana and Wyoming.
That's the West as we know it today. But the spoils of the Mexican War were a bone of contention. New Englanders viewed that conflict as the result of a conspiracy by slaveholders to expand their territory. Southerners argued that they had shed a lot of blood in the conquest of Mexico (about two-thirds of the American volunteers came from the South), and they should be able to take their property -- slaves -- into the territory they had helped win.
Although there was another deal, the Compromise of 1850, it didn't stick. Jefferson Davis is best remembered today as the president of the Confederacy, but he was also a powerful senator from Mississippi, a Mexican War hero, and secretary of war from 1853 to 1857. Davis knew that if the West's connections were made from the South, then his Dixie could dominate the territory.
On that account, he commissioned transcontinental railroad surveys leading west from New Orleans and Memphis. To keep California connected to the South before any railroad was built, he imported camels to serve Army posts that protected trails across the Southwestern deserts between Texas and California.
As for whether the West would have slavery or free labor, Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas came up with the idea of “popular sovereignty.” Instead of Congress making the decision, the territory’s residents could vote on the matter. The result was “Bleeding Kansas,” a four-year shooting war in the West –– Kansas then extended west to the Great Divide –– as pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” battled with anti-slavery “Free-Soilers” from 1854 to 1858. Dozens of people died, and if our history books weren't so biased toward the East Coast, this might well be regarded as the true start of the Civil War.
Meanwhile, the political struggle continued in Washington, D.C. The new Republican Party, organized in 1854, opposed extending slavery to the territories -- that is, the West. The Republicans supported the Homestead Act, which meant small 160-acre family farms in the West rather than vast plantations tilled by slaves. Southerners blocked it. Republicans also supported a Transcontinental Railroad to connect the farms to markets -- but Southerners also blocked it unless the railroad started in the South. Republicans supported land-grant colleges; Southerners opposed them on the grounds that there was no point in educating mudsill dirt farmers.
The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, pledged not to interfere with slavery where it was legal. But he made it clear that there would be “no expansion of slavery to the territories,” even though in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that Congress had no power to limit slavery in the territories.
Lincoln's election seriously threatened the South's plans for the West. That was one of the major reasons for secession -- an independent Confederacy might well expand its slave territory west from Texas to New Mexico, Arizona and California, north to Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Indeed, several Confederate military expeditions tried to do just that.
The absence of Southern senators and representatives from 1861 to 1865 meant that the Republican plan for the West -- small farms, railroads, colleges, and no slavery -- could become law and thus determine how the territories would develop as they became states.
In the big picture, the Civil War was about slavery. But it's not much of a stretch to say it was also about the American West -- fought to determine the future of our part of the world.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.