I have in the past expressed some mixed feelings on the American Civil War. While I consider slavery deplorable, I do think the issue was handled poorly. On the one hand, it would seem from a strict reading of the Constitution, particularly the Tenth Amendment, would seem to indicate that secession was within the States’ rights. As the Tenth says:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Without language expressly permitting the Federal Government to retain a State against its will or prohibiting States from leaving the union it would seem that leaving the Union would be a power “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Generally speaking, when people make arguments that there was no right to secede, the arguments focus on why they think it should be the case and not on where the Constitution gives the Federal government the power to hold a State against its will or prohibiting a State from leaving.
On the other hand, the actual start of hostilities was when the South fired on the Union held Fort Sumter. The usual argument by folk arguing the South’s side is that the Federal government should have left Fort Sumter to South Carolina since it was “their land.”
Well, perhaps. But it was Federally owned as a fort well before the secession. South Carolina individually, or the Confederate States as a group deciding to just confiscate it is no more morally valid than confiscating private property simply because you don’t like who the owners are. If you complain about third world countries “nationalizing” businesses after foreigners brought in the resources and experience to develop them then apply that same logic to Fort Sumter. They basically used force of arms to take it from its legal owners.
With that, then, the war was inevitable. I would have preferred a recognition that secession was a valid States’ Right but that the attack on Fort Sumter amounted to a declaration of war and the “Civil War” then being a war of conquest. (Such wars were still quite fashionable at the time, whatever we may think of them today.) But, that isn’t the way it played out. And the result is the assumption that States do not have the right to secede.
From April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865, four bloody years almost to the day, forces of the Union and the Confederacy fought. Lee, hoping to recover supplies at Appomatix Courthouse and continue the fight but Grant managed to get ahead of him and he found himself surrounded. After an unsuccessful attempt to break out, Lee requested a meeting with Grant at which he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.
This did not mean the fighting was over. Other battles would be fought over the next few months (with the CSS Shenandoah finally surrendering on November 6) and it would not be until August 20, 1866 before President Andrew Johnson signed a proclamation declaring the war over.
Thus ended the bloodiest war in American history, leaving 620,000 Americans dead in its wake, almost as many as all other of America’s conflicts combined.