Why northerners fought in the Civil War

Here’s something that always puzzled me about US history: why did northerners volunteer to fight in the Civil War?

It’s easy to understand why the southerners fought. They believed that slaves were a valid form of property and that freeing slaves would destroy their society. So they were fighting to defend their property and their society.

But what about the Union army volunteers? Why didn’t they just let the South secede and go it’s own way? Why did they put their lives on the line to “save the union?”

Here’s the answer from Yale historian David Blight in lecture 12 of his excellent course Civil War and Reconstruction (website):

Well, there’s a lot of good scholarship on this now that shows us that in 1860s America the U.S. Constitution was important to people. They saw it as a kind of protection; they saw it as a source of social order. They saw the American nation as now something they were directly experiencing; millions were directly experiencing the government as never before in those debates of the 1850s. And as I’ve said before now, voter turnout just zoomed in the 1850s, to seventy-five and eighty percent, in each general election from 1852 on. Phillip Paludan, in a marvelous book about this, has said that the Constitution and the government, for so many northerners, was like a shield of protection, and that southern secession now was not just a threat to this government, it was a threat to social order itself, and it therefore had to be stopped. A New Hampshire farmer who became a buck private in 1861 said, quote, “The question now is country or no country, liberty or slavery?” There’s a beautiful clarity to that isn’t there? Now I don’t know what he said, after Bull Run or after Antietam, or after Spotsylvania, if he survived. A fifty year-old railroad contractor named Robert McAllister threw down his lucrative job in 1861 and enlisted, at age fifty, quote, “to help us put down this wicked and unjustifiable rebellion. Our country and property is worth nothing if we don’t, nor will life be secure.” This is all over people’s letters. They said they were fighting for liberty; of course, so did southerners.

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