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This most deadly and destructive of any U.S. war was the “irrepressible” outcome of sectional conflicts over land, labor, and political power that emerged in the earliest days of colonial rule and festered for decades in the young republic. When it was over, some 620,000 Americans— Union and Confederate—were dead, as was President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in a Washington theater five days after the war’s end.
The Civil War began in April 1861 when agents of the newly formed Confederate States of America (CSA) fired on Fort Sumter, a federal facility in South Carolina. By its end at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, almost exactly four years later, this war tested the limits of state and federal power and had become primarily a war about slavery. When the Union prevailed, 4 million people of African descent were declared free.
From the early 17th century, the British were enthusiastic traders in and users of kidnapped West and Central African men, women, and children. Most Americans, including non–slave owners, saw this system as a highly desirable way to overcome chronic labor shortages in their colonies. Unlike indentured servants, Africans were easily identified and just as easily denied rights extended to white Englishmen. By the time of the American Revolution, every British colony used slave workers; most were concentrated in the southern agricultural colonies.
Even slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson perceived an obvious conflict between America’s intensifying rhetoric of freedom and the new nation’s heavy dependence on involuntary labor. During and after the war, many northern states acted to end or phase out slavery. But the 1789 U.S. Constitution, although it never used the word slavery, included major concessions to slave ownership. Most significant was language allowing each state to add to its census count a number representing three-fifths of all slaves held in that state. As slavery waned in the North, and waxed in the South, this had the effect of significantly increasing southern political power based on congressional representation.
As the new nation doubled in size with the 1803 addition of the Louisiana Purchase, cotton, a laborintensive, hot-climate cash crop in high demand for clothing, was already transforming U.S. agriculture and reinvigorating the slave labor system. Cotton farmers pushed into Alabama and Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Mexican province of Texas, bringing with them thousands of slaves uprooted from eastern states, and buying additional Africans ahead of the Constitution’s 1808 deadline.
More Americans began to question the utility and morality of slavery, and a few, like Boston abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison, even demanded equal rights for African Americans. But the central issue eventually leading to war was how to deal politically with the expansion of slavery in an expanding nation. After two years of wrangling, Congress in 1820 crafted the Missouri Compromise. Meant to preserve the political balance between slave and free states, the compromise revealed a tense struggle. “Like a fire bell in the night,” wrote the elderly Jefferson, the compromise portended the death “knell of the union.”
For a time, the compromise seemed to work, but by the 1840s new land pressures sparked by a growing population and the Manifest Destiny ideology renewed controversy over slavery’s expansion. President James K. Polk, a slave-owning Tennessee Democrat, recognized Texas statehood, negotiated with Britain for the Oregon Territory, and instigated a Mexican War, bringing into the nation vast new areas, many coveted by slave owners.
Curbing Slavery’s Spread
In 1846 Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot, a Democrat disturbed by Polk’s southern bias, proposed that none of America’s potential Mexican acquisitions could be opened to slavery. Passed by the House, Wilmot’s Proviso died in the Senate. Democrats and Whigs abandoned party positions in favor of regional loyalties, portending the shredding of party politics in the decade to come. In 1848 a new Free-Soil Party ran a national campaign dedicated to curbing slavery’s spread while expanding land availability for white families.
The Compromise of 1850, hammered out by veteran congressional leaders, only set the stage for greater conflict. This complex measure repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed gold-rich California to enter the United States as a free state. Slave trading (but not slavery) was outlawed in the District of Columbia. Federal marshals were empowered to seize fugitive slaves anywhere in the United States. In Boston and other abolitionist strongholds, armed conflicts erupted when marshals tried to arrest blacks accused of running away. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped explain and dramatize these conflicts.
In 1854 the idea of popular sovereignty, supposedly a fairer way to decide between slave and free soil, exploded as settlers and thugs from both sides staked claims and grabbed political power in the Kansas- Nebraska territories. While Missouri “border ruffi- ans” rampaged on behalf of slavery, abolitionist John Brown randomly massacred five pro-slavery settlers. The rising tide of sectional violence spilled onto the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856 when a South Carolina House member caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner so severely that he was incapacitated for several years.
The Whig Party was an early casualty of sectional conflict, fielding its last national candidates in 1852. Although the Democratic Party maintained much of its traditional southern base, there was really no place for those trying to maintain national political cohesion. As nationalism failed, many disaffected northern and midwestern voters— “conscience” Whigs, freesoilers, temperance crusaders, anti-immigrant “Know- Nothings”—became constituents of a new sectional party: the Republicans.
Republicans did well in the 1856 election and gained traction in 1857 when a southern-dominated U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court ruled that Scott, a slave until the last year of his life, was entitled neither to citizenship nor freedom. Additionally, chief justice Roger B. Taney cast doubt on Congress’s power to regulate slavery anywhere at all.
With reasoned political dialogue vanishing, John Brown’s 1859 effort to spark a slave uprising by seizing weapons from a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, brought tension to an even higher pitch. Brown and his followers were swiftly executed but some transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau, hailed Brown as a martyred hero, prompting southern Fire Eaters to argue that further intersectional discussion was useless.
Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a former Whig who had supported the Wilmot Proviso, gained national attention for a series of debates with his state’s sitting senator, Stephen Douglas, in 1858. Two years later, he was the Republican Party’s presidential choice. In a four-way race, Lincoln was elected with 40 percent of the popular vote. Anticipating this first Republican president, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, voted to leave the United States and form an independent nation on the North American continent. They chose Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, former senator and U.S. war secretary, as president. After Fort Sumter, the CSA was joined by four more states, most significantly Virginia, the South’s most industrialized state and home of esteemed general Robert E. Lee.
The Civil War has been called the first modern war due largely to its bloody ferocity that did not spare civilians. It was a war made possible by new technologies, including ironclad ships and more powerful and reliable guns and mortars. It was among the first wars extensively documented by photographers, most famously Mathew Brady.
Although neither side was really prepared for conflict, the Union held an enormous edge in manpower, rail trackage, and industrial capacity. Yet, in early battles, the Confederacy shocked Union troops in the East, thwarting attempts to take Richmond, the CSA’s capital, in the battles of Bull Run/Manassas, the Seven Days’ Campaign, and Second Battle of Bull Run.
Not until September 1862’s Battle of Antietam in Maryland was Union general George B. McClellan, a brilliant but vain and indecisive leader, able to claim victory over troops led by General Lee. Antietam was the bloodiest battle in American history. In one day (September 17) 4,300 men died outright while 2,000 died later of their wounds. In the West, the Union also had successes as Ulysses S. Grant, soon to become head of the Union armies, captured forts in Tennessee, while Admiral David G. Farragut seized the vital port of New Orleans.
Success at Antietam helped solve major issues facing President Lincoln. Confederate envoys in Europe had been working hard to gain diplomatic recognition. They emphasized to British and French leaders the importance of cotton to the European textile industry. A temporary textiles glut, European distaste for slavery, and the Union’s own diplomacy and recent military success helped derail the possibility of CSA nationhood aided by foreign powers.
In Antietam’s wake, Lincoln also finally felt empowered to add an end to slavery to his original war aim of preserving the Union. Since the war’s outset, slaves had flocked to Union lines, while black leaders like Frederick Douglass urged Lincoln to allow blacks to join in a battle for their freedom. Yet Lincoln still maintained that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed, if only the Confederacy gave up its reckless secession. Strengthened by Antietam, Lincoln gave the CSA until January 1, 1863, to surrender or face slavery’s abolition in rebellious states. The Emancipation Proclamation did little to free any slaves and provoked the political backlash Lincoln had feared. But it did signal the beginning of the end of slavery and inspired more than 200,000 black men to fight for the Union.
Still, the war raged. It began with great enthusiasm as young men on both sides flocked to state militias. As bloodshed escalated, both sides had trouble mustering fresh recruits. In April 1862 the CSA instituted the first military draft in U.S. history; a Union conscription law was implemented the following March. Both had loopholes mainly allowing wealthy men to avoid service; both were highly unpopular.
The most extreme example of draft resistance occurred in New York City in the summer of 1863. Led by Irish immigrants, hundreds of protesters expressed their fury by vandalizing the homes and businesses of rich Republicans and assaulting free black citizens of New York. More than 100 died. Troops from the justconcluded Battle of Gettysburg were called in to quell the violence. Gettysburg was one of several key battles in 1863 that favored the Union. The Confederacy suffered a grievous loss at Chancellorsville, Virginia, when General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was killed by friendly fire. In July General Grant’s troops seized Vicksburg, gaining control of the Mississippi Valley. Almost simultaneously, General George Meade’s Union troops repelled Lee’s deepest incursion into Union territory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Despite these indications of eventual Union success, there was no quick end. In 1862 Clement L. Vallandigham, a former Ohio Congressman, spearheaded a “peace without victory” movement that called for a negotiated reconciliation with the Confederacy and denounced abolition. These Peace Democrats, called Copperheads by Republican opponents, posed serious political problems for Lincoln, as he faced a strong reelection challenge in 1864 from his fired general, George McClellan. Union victories in the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania caused huge death tolls on both sides, but were crushing blows to the smaller, poorly equipped Confederate army. Meanwhile, General William T. Sherman in September captured Atlanta and commenced his March to the Sea that destroyed farms, homes, railroads, and lives across a 60-mile-wide swath of Georgia and South Carolina. These timely successes helped assure Lincoln’s reelection.
On January 31, 1865, Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a first step in the permanent abolition of slavery. By April 3 Grant’s soldiers occupied Richmond; the next day President Lincoln, accompanied only by a few Union sailors, visited the conquered Confederate capital.
In the wake of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of nationally famous actor John Wilkes Booth, a new United States emerged. The North had used the war years to consolidate its economy and create national programs, including western homesteads, agricultural colleges, and a transcontinental railroad. The decimated South began to rebuild, although it would lag socially and economically for decades. No serious secession movement ever again challenged federal authority. The end of slavery was a joyous event, but it would take generations for either the former Confederacy or former Union to seriously pursue justice for their African-American citizens.
- McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988;
- Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Towards None. New York: Harper & Row, 1977;
- Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976;
- Thomas, Emory M. The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
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