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Sectionalism, Civil War, and Reconstruction
(1837 - 1877)
© Copyright 2006, 2008 Bryan
Hardesty. All rights reserved.
(NOTE: The DVD Edition of The American Testimony is available in our
STATEHOOD AND THE SLAVERY CONTROVERSY
From its birth as an independent
republic, the United States of America set itself apart from other nations of the
world. With a governing structure designed to protect individual rights, the new
nation experienced rapid population growth, geographic expansion, and economic prosperity
in its first half-century of existence. However, this spirit of freedom was not
equally applied to all ethnic races. Though slavery was in decline by the mid-1800s,
it remained the significant injustice of the age. In rectifying this iniquity, the
country would be broken by bloodshed and destruction before experiencing rebirth
as the freest nation on earth.
Of all the divisive issues plaguing the United States in the 1800s, slavery inflamed
the deepest passions. The predominantly agricultural southern states and western
territories were dependent upon slave labor, facing economic calamity in its absence.
However, the majority of Americans, deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian principles,
found slavery morally reprehensible. Having spent the earliest decades of the 1800s
establishing the nation’s first hospitals, orphanages, and charitable organizations,
Christian churches began devoting themselves to the abolition of slavery. Resistance
to this movement grew increasingly violent.
St. Louis, the primary port city in the slave state of Missouri,
was located across the Mississippi River from the town of Alton, in the free state
of Illinois. It was from Alton that Elijah P. Lovejoy published an antislavery newspaper
critical of those across the river. Angry mobs destroyed three of his printing presses,
and on the night of November 7th, 1837, Lovejoy was shot and killed while protecting
a fourth press. Public outrage over the incident inspired many previously uncommitted
Americans to join the cause of emancipation. Approximately fifteen hundred abolition
societies, each with roughly a hundred members, were active in 1837.
Convinced that the nation was on the brink of civil war, Senator
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proposed a dual presidency, separating southern
and northern interests. Southern states formed their own political conventions in
1837 for that purpose.
Determined to stem the growing crisis, Christian evangelist Theodore
Dwight Weld proposed a federal policy of gradual emancipation to eradicate slavery
without driving southern agricultural producers to financial ruin. Weld’s plan,
which allowed slaves to be freed with compensation over various intervals of time,
was opposed by abolition extremist William Lloyd Garrison, who insisted that southern
states suffer for their sins. Garrison eventually alienated his own financial backers,
New York silk merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan. Adopting Weld’s plan of gradual
emancipation, the Tappan brothers established the Liberty Party, naming James G.
Birney their candidate for the upcoming presidential election.
At the time, America’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren, was preoccupied with
the economic depression that had plagued the nation since March of 1837. Van Buren’s
predecessor, Andrew Jackson, had imposed tight restrictions on the nation’s currency
during his final days of office, triggering a financial panic. The blame, however,
fell upon Van Buren, dubbed “Martin Van Ruin” by his critics. Despite the incumbent’s
growing unpopularity, the Democratic Party supported his reelection in the 1840
Having learned that war heroes made popular candidates, the opposition
Whig Party endorsed William Henry Harrison as their candidate. Though a victor in
the War of 1812, Harrison was most famous for his 1811 triumph over Indian marauders
at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Since Harrison’s popularity fell largely among northerners,
the Whigs offered Virginia’s John Tyler, a states’ rights supporter, for the vice
presidency. The catchy Whig campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” was well-received
by northerners and southerners alike, and Harrison won the 1840 election in a landslide.
It was hoped he would be a unifying force for the troubled nation, but after delivering
a two-hour inaugural speech in freezing rain, the new president fell ill and developed
pneumonia. William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, having served less than
a month. He was the first president to die in office, and his was the shortest term
Vice President John Tyler, recruited by the Whigs to draw southern votes to the
Harrison campaign, ascended to the presidency. The Whigs had intended for William
Henry Harrison to implement party founder Henry Clay’s “American System,” a plan
involving new protective tariffs, the reestablishment of a national bank, and the
allocation of federal funds for internal improvements. However, Tyler, the unexpected
president, was no party loyalist. As a longtime Jacksonian Democrat, he rejected
Clay’s American System, prompting the late president Harrison’s cabinet appointees
to resign. Secretary of State Daniel Webster delayed his departure long enough to
settle a border dispute with British Canada over the boundary between the state
of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Webster drafted an agreement
with British minister Lord Ashburton, establishing a definitive border. The Webster-Ashburton
Treaty was approved in 1842, alleviating many of the resentments that had lingered
between the United States and Great Britain since the War of 1812.
British influence over the Republic of Texas remained a growing concern among Americans.
After winning independence from Mexico, the Texans petitioned for U.S. statehood,
only to be rebuffed by timid congressmen who preferred to avoid any debate over
slavery in the region. After the U.S. imposed tariffs on British-made goods, Republic
of Texas President Sam Houston entered a free trade agreement with Great Britain,
transforming Texas into the primary North American cotton supplier to British textile
mills. Southerners, already reeling from recent economic downturns, feared Texas
would become a British colony, and demanded U.S. annexation of the republic. President
Tyler appointed his new Secretary of State, Abel P. Upshur, to draft a plan for
Texas statehood. Soon thereafter, Upshur was accidentally killed while observing
a naval weapons demonstration. Tyler’s next appointee to the post, John C. Calhoun,
had too many enemies in Congress to garner legislative support.
The Texas issue remained unresolved by the presidential election
of 1844. Since President Tyler had rejected the Whig political platform, the party
endorsed founder Henry Clay as their presidential candidate. The Democratic Party
initially favored former President Martin Van Buren, but when he made a pact with
Henry Clay to avoid Texas annexation as a campaign issue, many party members shifted
their support to John C. Calhoun. After a brief deadlock, the Democrats were presented
with a third alternative, James K. Polk of Tennessee, considered a “dark horse”
candidate for his late arrival in the presidential race. Nicknamed “Young Hickory”
for his Tennessee connection to former president Andrew Jackson, Polk received the
Democratic nomination and narrowly defeated Whig candidate Henry Clay in the 1844
presidential election. Hoping to leave office on a positive note, outgoing President
John Tyler asked Congress to annex the Republic of Texas. Pressured by constituents,
the legislators complied, and Tyler signed the measure three days prior to James
K. Polk’s inauguration.
The Polk campaign slogan had been “fifty-four forty or fight,”
referring to a demand for the United States to acquire all western lands up to latitude
fifty-four degrees. A dispute festered between the U.S. and British Canada over
ownership of the Oregon Territory, a vast western region between Mexican-owned California
and Russian-owned Alaska. It was from this area that a delegation of American Indians
from the Nez Perce and Flathead tribes embarked on a three-thousand mile journey
to St. Louis, Missouri, requesting the white people’s assistance in Bible teaching.
Their venture convinced American Christians that God intended for the nation to
reach the Pacific coast. New York journalist John O’Sullivan summarized expansionist
sentiment in two-words: “Manifest Destiny.”
In December 1845, Texas was officially declared a state. Slavery
was legal there, as well as in Florida, granted statehood a few months earlier,
and with these new additions came congressional delegates, tilting the balance of
power toward the pro-slavery faction in Congress. Facing the prospect of war with
Mexico over Texas, President Polk resolved to avoid a simultaneous conflict with
British Canada over the Oregon Territory dispute. In the Great Plains region, the
U.S.-Canadian border was already established along the 49th parallel, and under
the Oregon Treaty of 1846, this line extended westward to the Pacific coast of the
continent, with the northern land going to Canada and southern land to the United
States. Additionally, Vancouver Island was ceded to Canada in exchange for U.S.
access to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The U.S. also gained Puget Sound. In May of
1846, one month prior to final Senate approval of the Oregon Treaty, hostilities
erupted between the United States and Mexico.
More than thirty years had elapsed
since America’s previous war, and during the peacetime interlude, the nation’s people
had grown increasingly divided over religious, cultural, and ideological concerns.
While slavery was the most discordant issue, a number of communities were also fractured
by religious differences. Having never experienced hardships faced by previous generations,
many young Americans were unable to appreciate the long-tested tenets of faith that
had defined the nation. With peacetime giddiness and the excitement of territorial
expansion, there was little to hold the human foible of self-centeredness in check.
One emerging development was the Transcendental Movement, launched by Ralph Waldo
Emerson. Transcendentalists were somewhat dismissive of Judeo-Christian values, placing greater faith
in a person’s own feelings and abilities. Followers were advised to write their
own bibles and be gods of their own lives. In addition to self-devotion, Transcendentalism
encouraged the worship of nature, a concept further advanced by writer Henry David
Thoreau. Attempting to create their own heaven on earth, many Transcendentalist writers
and artists founded such utopian communities as Brook Farm in Massachusetts,
Oneida Community in New York State, and New Harmony in Indiana. However, because
these cult communities lacked the Christian virtues of serving others and loving
one’s neighbor, they collapsed under the petty squabbles of members.
Also during this era, several unorthodox religious
groups emerged, including the Shakers, a British immigrant group whose
leader claimed to be the female counterpart of Jesus Christ. This
period also marked the rise of the Mormons, whose founder, Joseph
Smith, claimed an angel led him to ancient golden plates that
supposedly added to the Christian gospels. Though the plates
never physically materialized for examination, translations were
offered by Smith, who dictated the texts to his brother-in-law while
placing his face in a hat. The resulting Book of Mormon asserted
that American Indians were descendents of the Israelites (recently
disproved by DNA tracking) who were visited by Christ after his
resurrection. Unlike Biblical scriptures, which were written by
many different witnesses, the Book of Mormon had a single source of
authorship. Regarded as infallible by Smith's followers, the book
was nevertheless rife with numerous historical errors. Among the
inaccuracies were references to horses, steel (an alloy of smelted iron
and carbon), and silk in America during the time of Christ; none of
which actually appeared prior to Spanish colonization in the
1500s. However, such discrepancies were easily overlooked due to
limitations to historical research during the early nineteenth
century. Smith had little trouble attracting followers, as his
new religion centered around the counter-Biblical concept of man
achieving godlike status ("The Law of Eternal Progression") through
temple rituals and adherence to strict behavioral codes. Rebuked by
every community they descended upon, the Mormons migrated from New York
to Ohio, then onward to Missouri and Illinois, where founder Smith was
killed by disgruntled former associates. Brigham Young assumed
leadership, taking the Mormons westward across the American continent.
They settled along the Great Salt Lake in a land they called Deseret
(later Utah). Beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. authority, Mormon men, at
that time, were free to take as many wives as they could support.
Deseret, however, was Mexican territory, and the Mormons arrived just
as relations broke down between the United States and Mexico.
THE WAR WITH MEXICO
In an effort to maintain peaceful
relations with the government of Mexico, President James K. Polk
offered to purchase the disputed region of Texas, as well as other western lands
all the way to the Pacific coast. The president also offered to cancel millions
of dollars in outstanding debts owed the U.S. by Mexico. Nevertheless, Mexican officials
rebuffed Polk and prepared for war. The president ordered General Zachary Taylor
to align troops along the Rio Grande River, but on May 8, 1846, Taylor’s men were
intercepted by a Mexican army twice their size at Palo Alto, north of the Rio Grande.
Despite overwhelming odds, the well-trained Americans emerged victorious, only to
be attacked the following day by another Mexican division four times their size
at Resaca de la Palma. Again, however, the Americans defeated enemy forces. On May
13, 1846, the United States Congress officially declared war on Mexico.
American forces under Colonel Stephen Kearny marched from Fort
Leavenworth (in what is now Kansas) to Santa Fe in Mexican territory. Enemy forces
evacuated their posts at the sight of the Americans, and Kearny established a provincial
American government at Santa Fe. The colonel then marched his army onward to California,
while a U.S. naval squadron under Commodore John C. Sloat captured the California
coastal cities of Monterey and San Francisco. During that same period, American
settlers in the Sacramento Valley region assisted Captain John C. Frémont’s forces,
raising a “Bear Flag” in the town of Sonoma to symbolize the Republic of California.
By November of 1846, Stephen Kearny’s troops arrived to merge with Frémont’s “Bear
Flag” army, and with naval support under Commodore Robert F. Stockton, victory was
achieved on January 10, 1847 at the Battle of San Gabriel, securing California under
American fortunes had gone equally well in Mexico itself. Having
conquered the Mexican city of Monterrey in September of 1846, General Zachary Taylor
declared his intention to capture the capital, Mexico City. Though U.S. newspapers
hailed the general, nicknaming him “Old Rough and Ready,” Taylor had overstepped
his authority by announcing the plan without presidential approval. An irritated
James Polk placed General Winfield Scott in charge of the Mexico City invasion,
transferring a segment of Taylor’s army to Scott’s command. Upon hearing of the
reduction in General Taylor’s forces, Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
launched an attack at Buena Vista in February of 1847. Though outnumbered two-to-one,
Zachary Taylor’s troops prevailed. Simultaneously, a group of Missouri cavalry volunteers
under Alexander Doniphan seized the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua.
On March 9th, 1847, General Winfield Scott’s forces landed on the
shores of Vera Cruz, storming fortress after fortress on their march
toward the Mexican capital. Six months later, they arrived at their
last major barrier, Chapultepec castle on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Scott's men took the fortress in less than one day. On the morning of
September 14, 1847, the American flag was raised in the Mexican
capital, signifying the U.S. victory.
The task of negotiating peace terms with the Mexican government
was assigned to a State Department clerk, Nicholas Trist, solely on the basis of
his ability to speak fluent Spanish. Thwarted by constant changes in Mexican leadership,
Trist persevered until the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed on February
2, 1848. Territories surrendered to the U.S. by Mexico later became California,
New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Kansas, Colorado, Arizona,
and Wyoming. The Rio Grande served as the boundary between Texas and Mexico. In
a conciliatory spirit, the United States paid Mexico fifteen million dollars for
the land and settled an additional three-and-a-quarter million dollars worth of
On January 24, 1848, barely a week before the treaty was signed,
gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, California. During the year
that followed, the region’s population grew from fourteen-thousand to one-hundred-thousand.
Prospectors were called “forty-niners” in reference to the year most of them arrived.
Crime rates rose with the rapid influx of fortune seekers, prompting the territorial
government to petition for U.S. statehood so that federal authorities could restore
law and order. Congress, however, was embroiled in a stalemate over which of the
newly acquired territories would be free states and which would permit slavery.
Since Texas and Florida were slave states, representative balance was restored with
the admission of two free states, Iowa and Wisconsin. Though the land ceded by Mexico
expanded U.S. land holdings by one third, the victory only hastened the political
and ideological sectioning of America.
PROSPERITY AND DISSENTION
The 1840s should have been a positive period in the nation, as inventive minds developed
improvements to life and livelihood. Grain harvests grew more abundant after the
1847 introduction of Cyrus McCormick’s reaper. Simultaneously, Isaac Singer formulated
a mass production and distribution process for Elias Howe’s invention, the sewing
machine. A growing number of city streets were paved and lighted by gas lamps, while
uniformed policemen and firefighters enhanced community order and safety. Railroad
lines were constructed in various regions of the nation, and this emerging form
of transportation made overland travel faster and easier than ever before. Rapid
long distance communication was made possible through the invention of the telegraph
by Samuel F.B. Morse. Tuition-free public schools were promoted by Horace Mann,
while compassionate care for the mentally ill was modernized by Christian crusader
Dorothea Dix. Through the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, women
assumed more prominent and influential roles in shaping American society. American
writers such as Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe gained worldwide prominence,
though it was the 1845 publication of another man’s book that sent cultural shockwaves
through the nation. “Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass” was the autobiographical
account of a Maryland slave who escaped to freedom in Massachusetts. Sobering realities
of slavery were exposed to those lacking firsthand experience, while erroneous assumptions
about the intellectual inferiority of darker-skinned races were shattered by the
author’s eloquent writing.
The slavery debate incited divisions in every facet of American life, including
religion. When missionary certifications were denied to Baptist clergymen owning
slaves, Baptists in slave states withdrew from the national denomination and formed
the Southern Baptist Convention. Southerners likewise established their own faction
in the Democratic Party, rejecting fellow Democrat James K. Polk’s bid for reelection
in the 1848 presidential race. By dealing evenhandedly with pro- and anti-slavery
factions in government, Polk had alienated the southerners in his own party. They
favored Senator Lewis Cass, who introduced the concept of “popular sovereignty”
for the new territories acquired from Mexico. Popular sovereignty, called “squatter
sovereignty” by opponents, placed the slavery decision in the hands of those who
lived in each affected territory. When Lewis Cass secured the Democratic nomination,
the “Barnburners,” an anti-slavery faction of Democrats, merged with the abolitionist
Liberty Party and anti-slavery Whigs to form the Free Soil Party, naming former
president Martin Van Buren their candidate. Remaining Whigs endorsed General Zachary
Taylor as their presidential contender. Though Taylor was a Louisiana slave owner,
he agreed to support the Wilmot Proviso, an appropriations amendment forbidding
slavery in newly acquired territories. As authored by Congressman David Wilmot of
Pennsylvania, the measure had won House approval in 1847, but was rejected by the
Senate. Zachary Taylor’s favoritism toward the measure contributed to his narrow
victory in the 1848 election.
With a new president in office, Californians again petitioned the U.S. government
for statehood. Since this would result in a free state majority in the Senate, southern
congressmen objected. In resolving the issue, President Taylor sought the aid of
73-year-old Henry Clay, the highly revered senator from Kentucky. Laboring diligently
to revise his Missouri Compromise bill, Clay found himself at the center of numerous
debates between pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun, and anti-slavery Senator Daniel
Webster. Wearied by opposition from both sides, Clay took leave of absence from
the Senate, never to return. His cause for compromise was revived by Illinois Senator
Stephen A. Douglas, eventually convincing Daniel Webster that it was the only way
to spare America from civil war. Henry Clay’s bill called for California’s admission
as a free state; the payment of ten million dollars to Texas for surrendering its
western lands to New Mexico; the acceptance of popular sovereignty to determine
whether New Mexico and Utah would be free or slave territories; a ban on slave trading
in the nation’s capital, though permitting slave ownership; and the strict enforcement
of fugitive slave laws, including a requirement for free states to return escaped
slaves to their owners. As to that final clause, New York Senator William Seward
argued that God’s law was higher than constitutional law, and that it violated Christian
morals to obey the Fugitive Slave Act. On July 9, 1850, amid the congressional stalemate,
President Zachary Taylor died. Vice President Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency
in full support of the compromise bill. Thereafter, the Compromise of 1850 was enacted,
resolving the contentious issue that had paralyzed the government. For a brief period,
peace ensued. But unlike public policy, morals could not be compromised. The Fugitive
Slave Act was circumvented when former slave Harriet Tubman organized the “underground
railroad,” a network of routes to enable slaves to escape to freedom.
Silenced from the halls of Congress, the slavery debate persisted in the public
arena. National Era, the popular northern news publication, published a long-running
serial about slave life on a southern plantation. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe,
daughter of an abolitionist clergyman, the serial’s episodes were combined in book
form in 1852 under the title, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Selling more than three-hundred
thousand copies in its first year of publication, the novel presented melodramatic
and deeply moving accounts of cruelty to slaves. The impressions most northerners
formed about the South were drawn from this novel. In truth, however, Harriet Beecher
Stowe was a New Englander who had never visited the deep South, and alarmed southerners
argued that Uncle Tom’s Cabin created a grossly distorted view of plantation
life. None denied that there had been occasional acts of brutally against the slaves,
but many southerners insisted that a vast number of slaves were treated as family
members by their owners. (Interviews with former slaves many years later would verify
this claim to a certain degree.) Though the 1850 census indicated that more than
two-thirds of southern families refrained from owning slaves, Stowe’s book gave
northerners the impression that slaves were employed in every home in the South.
Prejudice against white southerners grew rampant in the North.
During the presidential election year of 1852, Whig founder Henry Clay died, passing
the party chairmanship to Senator William Seward of New York. Disdaining President
Millard Fillmore’s moderate stance on slavery, Seward pressured Whigs to seek an
alternative. After a lengthy and contentious nomination process, General Winfield
Scott, veteran of the War of 1812 and victor in the War with Mexico, emerged as
the Whig candidate. Democrats likewise endured a tortuous nomination process, constantly
deadlocked between Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan and Senator Stephen Douglas of
Illinois. In breaking the stalemate, opposing factions settled for a compromise
candidate, New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce, a northerner sensitive to southern issues.
As an enthusiastic supporter of territorial expansion, Pierce easily defeated Winfield
Scott in the 1852 presidential race. In the spirit of fair-handedness, the northern
native appointed several southerners to his presidential cabinet, including Secretary
of War, Jefferson Davis.
Upon entering office, Franklin Pierce implemented his “Young America” plan, promoting
economic and territorial growth. New railroad lines were developed for domestic
trade, and clipper ships were constructed to transport American goods overseas.
Cotton was the agricultural product in highest global demand, and southern plantation
owners fared well. As major producers of grain and livestock, the Midwestern states
also prospered. Foreign trade likewise brought an economic upsurge to the factories
and textile mills of the northeast.
In 1853, President Pierce dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry
on a naval mission to establish relations with Japan. Negative experiences with
corrupt Jesuit priests in the 1600s had compelled the Japanese to adopt an isolationist
policy, and the country remained a closed society for some two centuries. But upon
arrival, Commodore Perry gained the trust of the Japanese emperor, and the Far East
nation opened its ports to the United States in 1854.
Back home, President Pierce authorized railroad executive James Gadsden to purchase
a large tract of land in northern Mexico, as well as the Baja California Peninsula.
The Mexican government under Santa Anna would only agree to sell the parcel that
eventually became the southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona, extending south
of the Gila River. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 made it possible for the U.S. to
develop a transcontinental railroad line in the south. Thereafter, the U.S. signed
the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 with Canada as part of the president’s ongoing effort
to increase foreign trade.
PRELUDE TO WAR
With the rise in economic activity, Congress endeavored to finalize plans for the
transcontinental railroad. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois was desperate to
secure the rail line’s eastern terminus at Chicago, but this could only occur if
the coast-to-coast railway maintained a northerly course. Congressional approval
of the northern route first required the establishment of federal authority in the
vast Nebraska territory. Since the Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned slavery in
both Nebraska and Kansas, southerners in Congress had blocked previous measures
to organize these territories. In garnering their support, Senator Douglas proposed
a bill to grant popular sovereignty to Kansas and Nebraska, enabling the people
living in those territories to determine the slavery issue themselves. The Kansas-Nebraska
Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the president in May
of 1854. In achieving his self-serving goal, Stephen Douglas had catered to southern
demands, betraying the trust of fellow Democrats from northern states. These northerners
united with anti-slavery Whigs to form the Republican Party in 1854. Emancipation
of the slaves was the sole mission of the Republicans. Having lost most of its members,
the Whig Party disbanded.
With the Kansas-Nebraska Act in effect, residents of those territories prepared
to vote on slavery. Though sparsely populated Nebraska was of little consequence
at the time, the outcome of the Kansas vote would most assuredly determine the balance
of power between pro- and anti-slavery factions in Congress. Competition erupted
between northern and southern states to deliver settlers to Kansas, but by voting
time, the majority of territorial residents remained anti-slavery “Free Soil” Midwesterners.
Undaunted, a coalition of pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border into Kansas
on the day of the election, with instructions to “vote early and often.” Through
widespread voter fraud, these aptly-named “border ruffians” procured victory for
supporters of slavery. In protest, the majority of true residents established a
Free Soil government to rival the fraudulently elected pro-slavery body. Each declared
themselves the legitimate government of the territory. Guerrilla warfare erupted,
as pro-slavery border ruffians invaded the Free-Soil community of Lawrence, Kansas
on May 21, 1856, destroying homes, businesses, and printing presses. Two Lawrence
residents were killed, with many others injured. Three days later, John Brown, a
staunch abolitionist, retaliated, killing five unarmed men and boys at a pro-slavery
settlement near Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. During the four months violent months
that followed, approximately two hundred lives were lost, prompting Northern newspapers
to call the territory “Bleeding Kansas.”
Outraged by the illegitimate pro-slavery conquest of Kansas, Senator Charles Sumner
of Massachusetts condemned the complicit acts of Missouri Senator David Atchison,
Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. In the
House of Representatives, Andrew Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, learned
of the insults hurled at his uncle. Brooks entered the Senate chamber two days later,
striking Charles Sumner thirty times in the head with his cane. It would take three
years for the severely injured senator to recover. The assailant, meanwhile, was
forced to resign his congressional seat.
Unnerved by growing civil violence over slavery, Democrats presented a more conciliatory
image for the 1856 presidential election. To draw dissenting northerners back to
the party, they nominated James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. As U.S. Ambassador to
Great Britain during the Kansas crisis, Buchanan was considered a fair-minded outsider
in the slavery debate. Meanwhile, the newly-formed Republican Party chose General
John C. Frémont of California as their candidate, promoting him with the slogan,
“Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont.” The final election tally gave James Buchanan
a narrow margin of victory. From the moment he took office, the new president was
confronted with the explosive issue he had hoped to avoid.
It was at this time that the Dred Scott case reached the Supreme Court. Dred Scott,
husband and father of two daughters, was a Missouri slave who had followed his owner,
an army physician, to various military posts across the continent. One such assignment
was to the free territory of Wisconsin, while another was to the free state of Illinois.
Abolitionists sued on the assertion that Scott was legally emancipated the moment
he entered free regions. When the case initially arrived at the Supreme Court, the
justices refused to hear the arguments. President Buchanan intervened, pressuring
them to render a decision. Following the lead of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a
pro-slavery Marylander, the court, in March of 1857, proclaimed that Dred Scott
lacked citizen rights to sue in federal court, and that temporary residence in a
free state did not make a slave free. Furthermore, the justices declared the anti-slavery
clause of the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, since Congress had no jurisdiction
over territorial lands. As a consequence, the Dred Scott decision removed all restrictions
against slavery in the territories.
President James Buchanan’s next controversy came from Kansas,
where the slavery issue remained unresolved. The fraudulently-elected pro-slavery
government formed a convention in the town of Lecompton to draft a constitution
and apply for statehood. After Free-Soilers boycotted the convention, the final
Lecompton document eliminated all limitations on slavery. Though Free-Soilers submitted
their own constitution, the president endorsed the Lecompton version to appease
those southerners who had backed his party nomination. Congress intervened, ordering
Kansas voters to decide on the validity of the Lecompton constitution. With the
final tally reflecting the will of the true Kansas majority, the document was soundly
The influence of northern states was diminished by an economic
crisis known as the Panic of 1857. Over-speculation in railroads and land acquisitions
weakened northern investors, while the Crimean War overseas forced European buyers
to cancel orders for U.S. goods manufactured in the northern industrial states.
Demand for cotton, however, remained unchanged, and for the first time, the agriculturally
dominant South gained economic superiority over the North.
For the 1858 congressional elections, longtime Senator Stephen Douglas returned
to his home state of Illinois to face a formidable Republican opponent. Abraham
Lincoln was a self-educated attorney who had served in the Illinois state legislature
before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In challenging the popular
incumbent for the Senate, Lincoln faced Douglas in a series of seven debates. Slavery
was the predominate topic, and Lincoln focused on the immorality of the practice,
while Douglas pragmatically asserted that, right or wrong, the fate of slavery was
best determined by the democratic vote of the people. The benefit of a long incumbency
enabled Stephen Douglas to secure a narrow victory in the election. Nevertheless,
Lincoln’s eloquent and persuasive arguments against slavery were published and circulated
throughout the northern states, elevating the Illinois lawyer to national prominence.
Despite efforts to maintain peace through compromise, the federal government faced
further outbreaks of violence over the slavery controversy. On October 16, 1859,
the federal arsenal at the northwestern Virginia town of Harpers Ferry was raided
by militant abolitionist John Brown and eighteen followers; four of whom were his
sons. Intending to arm the slaves for an uprising, Brown was astonished to find
that none among the town’s slave population were willing to participate. Federal
troops under the command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee cornered Brown’s marauders
at a railroad engine house. During the two-day siege, the soldiers killed ten of
Brown’s men, including two of his sons, before capturing the raiders. John Brown’s
December 2nd execution by hanging merely fueled the divide between northern abolitionists
who considered him a martyr, and southern residents who feared for their safety.
Passions over North-South issues intensified during the election year of 1860. Abraham
Lincoln secured the Republican presidential nomination in an upset victory over
party leader William Seward. Democrats, meanwhile, split into two entities. Northern
Democrats endorsed Lincoln’s former Illinois political rival, Senator Stephen Douglas,
while southern Democrats chose Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
A newly-formed third party, the Constitutional Union Party, advanced John Bell of
Tennessee as their candidate. With Democrat and southern votes divided three ways,
Republican Lincoln won the election. Legislators in South Carolina had threatened
to secede from the United States if Lincoln became the nation’s sixteenth president,
and on December 20, 1860, they fulfilled their promise. The key issue was not slavery,
but rather tariff laws that the northern majorities in Congress used to exploit
southern business enterprises. By the first of February 1861, more than a month
prior to Lincoln’s
inauguration, six additional states—Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi,
Louisiana, and Texas—withdrew from the Union.
Representatives from the seceding states gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to form
the Confederate States of America. The delegates chose former U.S. Secretary of
War Jefferson Davis as president, while Alexander Stephens of Georgia was named
vice president. The Confederate Constitution closely resembled that of the United
States, though it upheld slavery, banned protective tariffs and other foreign trade
restrictions, limited the president to a single six-year term with powers to veto
specific items within a legislative bill, and affirmed the individual sovereignty
of each state.
Eight slave states remained in the Union, and Abraham Lincoln
exercised caution to avoid further escalation of the crisis. In his inaugural address,
the new president called upon the seceding states to reconsider their actions, reminding
them that the Union was perpetual, and could not legally be dissolved through secession.
He asserted that the federal government would maintain its military installations
in the South. However, only Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida and Fort Sumter in
Charleston, South Carolina remained loyal to the Union.
THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
Six weeks after taking the oath
of office, President Lincoln politely informed the government of South Carolina
that he was dispatching essential provisions, but not arms, to Fort Sumter. Nevertheless,
Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered General Pierre G.T. Beauregard to
demand the surrender of the fort. The garrison’s commander, Major Robert Anderson,
proclaimed that Fort Sumter was United States property, and he was obligated to
defend it. At 4:30am on the twelfth day of April 1861, the first shots of the Civil
War rang out as Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Union
General Anderson surrendered the following day.
Alarmed by the assault, President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers
to suppress the insurrection. In response, four additional slave states—Virginia,
Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas—seceded from the Union. On April 15th, the
president declared all seceding states in rebellion. Delaware, where slavery had
been legal, remained in the Union, as too few slaves resided there to make a difference.
Likewise, the slave state of Kentucky proclaimed loyalty to the Union after the
Confederate government attempted to intimidate Kentuckians to join their cause.
Though the Missouri government contemplated secession, federal troops and anti-slavery
German immigrants persuaded state leaders to remain in the Union.
Washington, DC was located between Virginia and Maryland. Confederate Virginia already
threatened the security of the nation’s capital, and Abraham Lincoln was determined
to prevent the slave state of Maryland from doing the same. The president dispatched
federal troops to impose martial law, and on April 19th, these forces occupied Baltimore,
suppressing a mob of secessionists. The president ordered the imprisonment of insurrection
suspects without the benefit of trial, ignoring a legal writ of habeas corpus issued
for one of the accused. By the time Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared
the president’s actions unconstitutional, Maryland was securely under Union control.
The president, meanwhile, ordered a naval blockade of the South.
The “Copperheads,” a political coalition of northern Democrats,
denounced Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant and would-be dictator. Indeed, the new president
had disregarded the intention of the nation’s founders to structure the constitutional
republic as a voluntary union of states. Though later historical mythologists would
attribute the primary cause of the Civil War to slavery, such assertions were irresponsible
oversimplifications. In truth, Abraham Lincoln initially directed northerners to
honor the Fugitive Slave Act’s mandate to return escaped slaves to their owners.
His earliest concern over secession was the federal government’s potential loss
of tax revenues from the import tariffs collected in the South. Southerners were
most offended by the March 1861 passage of the Morrill Tariff which rapidly destabilized
their economy. With tariff rates nearing fifty percent, it had been the largest
import tax in American history.
As further proof that slavery was not the cause for which most
southerners fought, census figures between 1810 and 1860 provided empirical evidence
of slavery’s decline. By the 1860 census, only six percent of white southerners
were slave owners; the remaining ninety-four percent were not. The vast majority
of those fighting on the side of the Confederacy did so for economic and states
rights causes, not for the purpose of perpetuating slavery, as historical revisionists
would later assert.
The Union held a number of military advantages over the Confederacy. The industrial
north had superior arms production capabilities, a more advanced system of railways,
and four times the potential military manpower of the agricultural South. Furthermore,
the Union maintained control of the nation’s naval forces. Nevertheless, a vast
expanse of land and dense terrain made the South difficult to conquer. Additionally,
the majority of America’s top military leaders hailed from the Confederate state
of Virginia, including Robert E. Lee, who turned down a senior military post offered
by President Lincoln. Like most southerners, Lee was not a slave owner, but he would
not fight against his beloved home state. A fellow Virginian, seventy-five-year-old
Winfield Scott, held no such sentiments, and the president retained him as general-in-chief
of the Union Army. Despite his advanced age, Scott was one of the few field-tested
generals available to the federal government.
For three months, the opposing powers amassed their armies. Then, in July of 1861,
Winfield Scott dispatched his subordinate, General Irvin McDowell, to begin the
Union drive toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Northern cries
of “Forward to Richmond” were countered by southern shouts of “On to Washington.”
On July 21st, General McDowell’s troops encountered Confederate forces under General
Pierre G.T. Beauregard at Bull Run Creek near Manassas Junction, Virginia. Under
heavy Union gunfire, the left section of the Confederate line scattered in retreat,
prompting Union forces to prematurely celebrate victory. At the center of the Confederate
line, however, a Virginia Brigade under the command of General Thomas J. Jackson
held steadfast against the Union barrage. Nearby, the commander of South Carolina
fighters bolstered the spirits of his men by announcing, “There is Jackson with
his Virginians, standing like a stone wall against the enemy.” Thereafter, General
Thomas Jackson would be affectionately called “Stonewall.” The Confederates rallied
and turned the tide of battle in their favor. When joined by reinforcements under
General Joseph E. Johnston, they routed McDowell’s Union forces at the First Battle
of Bull Run (called Manassas by the Confederates).
Stung by the defeat, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott removed Irvin McDowell
from the Army’s Northern Command, replacing him with General George B. McClellan.
McClellan had directed a small force in saving three pro-Union counties in northwestern
Virginia. In essence, these counties seceded from Confederate Virginia, reverting
back the Union. The region would subsequently achieve U.S. statehood as West Virginia.
Winfield Scott, meanwhile, spent the opening days of war preparing
his “Anaconda Plan,” a naval strategy to block southern ports and gain control of
the Mississippi River, thus geographically dividing the South. Though a Union naval
expedition captured Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, General Scott’s ambitious
plan ultimately failed. Too few ships were available to control the long southern
coastline. The Union navy was especially vexed by the Confederate ship Alabama,
which raided and destroyed scores of merchant vessels serving the Union. Northerners
ridiculed Scott’s Anaconda Plan as a “paper blockade,” and on November 1, 1861,
the elderly general-in-chief retired, passing command to General George McClellan.
Naval Secretary Gideon Welles exerted greater control over Union
ships at sea. It was soon discovered that British vessels were secretly delivering
arms to the Confederacy in exchange for cotton, and in November of 1861, the USS
San Jacinto intercepted the British passenger and mail ship Trent, arresting two
Confederate emissaries on board. The British government protested the action as
a violation of their seafaring rights. Fearing any controversy that might encourage
a military alliance between Great Britain and the Confederacy, President Lincoln
ordered the envoys’ release.
In February of 1862, Union forces west of the Appalachian Mountains
seized Confederate strongholds at Forts Henry and Donelson, along the Tennessee
and Cumberland Rivers in Northern Tennessee. The Union initiative was led by Ulysses
S. Grant, a junior officer under General Henry W. Halleck. After capturing the fort,
Halleck prohibited Grant from pursuing the retreating enemy troops. Meanwhile, near
the nation’s capital, newly appointed Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan
adopted a cautious battle strategy, preferring to outmaneuver enemy forces as opposed
to direct confrontation. His Army of the Potomac resumed their advance on the Confederate
capital of Richmond in March of 1862. The new drive coincided with the escalation
of naval battles off the Virginia coast.
Adopting a French innovation, shipbuilders in competing American navies began shielding
their war vessels with heavy iron plates. The Confederates seized the abandoned
U.S. steamship Merrimac from the naval yard in Norfolk, Virginia, covering it in
iron armor and equipping it with large guns. The Merrimac was rechristened the Virginia,
running a third of the Union fleet aground in Norfolk harbor. After destroying two
large Union warships, the Virginia encountered the Union Navy’s ironclad vessel,
the Monitor. The battle of the ironclads ensued on March 9, 1862, lasting five hours.
With its fixed guns, the Virginia could only fire upon its enemy from a specific
angle. The Union ship Monitor, however, had its guns mounted on a rotating turret,
enabling it to fire from any direction. With this advantage, the Monitor crippled
the Virginia, forcing its crew to retreat to port.
Since the North had four times the number of available fighting
men as the South, the Confederate legislature, in March of 1862, established the
first military draft in American history. When southern governors protested the
measure as a violation of states rights, the policy was altered to allow draftees
to hire substitutes.
During April of 1862, Union naval forces under Captain David
Farragut captured the port of New Orleans, gaining access to the Mississippi River,
where western invasions were launched with greater efficiency.
Naval superiority alone could not secure victory for the Union. On May 14th, 112-thousand
soldiers under the command of a hesitant General George McClellan encountered Confederate
troops under General Joseph E. Johnston outside Richmond. The Battle of Seven Pines
erupted, and when Johnston was wounded, command of his Northern Virginia army was
assumed by Robert E. Lee, veteran of America’s War with Mexico. Though vastly outnumbered,
the Confederates repelled the Union assault. Afterward, Lee dispatched General “Stonewall”
Jackson to conduct a diversionary raid on Union reserves in the Shenandoah Valley,
west of Richmond. After a series of skirmishes, the Union troops were scattered,
enabling General Jackson to seize their stockpiles of supplies. Union General McClellan
regrouped his men for a new attack. However, at the Battle of Seven Days, “Stonewall”
Jackson’s forces outflanked McClellan’s army, forcing them to flee to Washington.
Frustrated, President Lincoln transferred the title of general-in-command to Henry
Halleck, and though George McClellan maintained leadership over a reduced Army of
the Potomac, General John Pope was commissioned to command Union forces north and
west of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Despite the humiliating military setback, the federal government
continued to conduct affairs in the nation’s capital. In May of 1862, Congress passed
the Homestead Act, granting 160-acre tracts of Western land, free of charge, to
anyone willing to farm those tracts for a minimum of five years. Over time, much
of the West would be settled under the provisions of this act. The legislative branch
also passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, providing federal land to the states for
the establishment of agricultural and mechanical colleges. Congress followed with
the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing the payment, in both land and money, for construction
of the long-proposed transcontinental railway.
One matter that perplexed members of the federal government was
the absence of slave uprisings in the South. Abolitionist propaganda had fueled
northern assumptions that all slaves endured brutality and mistreatment. Though
some slave owners were indeed cruel and sadistic taskmasters, others adhered to
Christian principles of kindness and compassion. Among the southerners were those
who equated slave acquisitions to family adoptions. One such example was that of
Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household servant, Jim Limber, who was legally
adopted by Davis and shared the family inheritance.
Northerners were likewise confounded by news that approximately seven-hundred Americans
of African descent had fought fully armed on the Confederate side in the Battle
of Bull Run at Manassas. Additionally, Union officers reported that one-third of
“Stonewall” Jackson’s Maryland forces were black Confederates, dressed and armed
identically to white soldiers. Furthermore, the chaplain over a predominantly white
Tennessee regiment was a man of color. Prominent abolitionist and former slave Frederick
Douglass was compelled to proclaim the following: “There are at the present moment,
many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants,
and laborers, but as real soldiers, having musket on their shoulders and bullets
in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops and do all that soldiers may
do to destroy the Federal government...”
Northern perceptions about the South were further dispelled in
May of 1862 when slaves freed by Union forces at South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound
petitioned the federal government for return to their former owners.
In addition to troops of African descent, the Confederate Army
also boasted of some thirteen-thousand Hispanic volunteers, as well as roughly eight
Cherokee Indian Regiments. (This evidence of a multicultural component to the southern
cause would be ignored and often suppressed by anti-South mythologists of ensuing
On August 29, 1862, Union troops under General John Pope were
routed by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run near
Manassas Junction in Virginia. Care for the battlefield wounded was administered
by a sympathetic Patent Office clerk, Clara Barton, who thereafter made it her life’s
mission to provide medical assistance to those injured in war.
In the aftermath of the Union defeat at Second Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln
reinstated George McClellan as general-in-command, hoping the opportunity for a
second chance would inspire him to fight with greater resolve. However, McClellan
maintained a defensive posture as Confederate General Robert E. Lee marched his
Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland. Knowing that McClellan would remain overly
cautious, General Lee dispatched half of his army to join “Stonewall” Jackson in
capturing the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Eleven thousand Union troops surrendered
to Jackson in the raid. Meanwhile, the remaining half of General Lee’s army marched
onward to attack the Union rail center at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Unbeknownst
to these Confederates, carelessly discarded copies of General Lee’s battle plans
were discovered in a meadow by Union troops and delivered to General McClellan.
Had he taken immediate action, his forces, at more than double the size of General
Lee’s army, could have struck a fatal blow to the Confederacy, thus bringing the
war to an early end. However, McClellan was paralyzed by indecision, and by the
time he mustered the courage to confront the enemy, “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops
had rejoined Lee’s forces, replenishing them with supplies seized at Harpers Ferry.
Nevertheless, the forty-thousand Confederates remained outnumbered by McClellan’s
army of seventy-thousand.
On September 7, 1862, the opposing armies finally clashed at Antietam Creek near
Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the first phase of battle, a division of Union troops under
Major General Joseph Hooker (called “Fighting Joe” by his men) advanced through
a cornfield to attack “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces, only to be repelled by a fierce
volley of enemy fire. A division of Texas Confederates under John Bell Hood joined
the bloody melee. Hood lost more than half his men, while “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s
forces were reduced by more than two-thirds. A second Union assault virtually wiped
out the center section of General Lee’s lines, but McClellan halted his own momentum
to rest his men. In the third phase of the Union offensive, General Ambrose Burnside
struck the Confederates from a position across the stone bridge over Antietam Creek.
Though the Confederates were pushed to Sharpsburg, General McClellan denied Burnside’s
request to pursue them further. Exasperated by McClellan’s persistent apprehensiveness,
President Lincoln journeyed to Antietam to survey conditions firsthand. Soon thereafter,
he relieved George McClellan of command for a second time, placing Ambrose E. Burnside
in charge of the Union Army.
Antietam was the first battle with a favorable Union outcome, and the resulting
uplift in northern morale afforded the president an opportunity to announce a change
in national policy. Though his original cause for going to war had been to preserve
the Union, Abraham Lincoln declared that henceforth the North’s purpose for fighting
would be to free the slaves. The
drafted September 22, 1862, officially granted freedom to all slaves in the rebelling
states, effective January 1, 1863. However, since the rebelling states refused to
recognize federal authority, the Emancipation Proclamation was of little consequence,
other than shifting the public debate from states rights issues to the moral question
of slavery. Northern men were far more willing to risk their lives for causes of
righteousness than politics, and slave emancipation was a more inspiring mission
than mere prevention of southern secession.
General Ambrose Burnside’s command over the Union Army was short lived. Bolstered
by his success at Antietam, Burnside marched his soldiers to Fredericksburg, Virginia,
where he intended to establish a base of operations for the invasion of Richmond.
Union shelling of Fredericksburg commenced on December 11, 1862, with the ground
assault launched two days later. In a strategic blunder, Burnside ordered his men
to advance through an open plain to attack Marye’s Heights, where the largest concentration
of Confederate fighters held the high ground. Nearly thirteen thousand Union soldiers
were cut down, prompting a tearful General Burnside to withdraw remaining troops.
The Confederate rebound was but one of many anxieties vexing
President Abraham Lincoln. Blunders during in his first two years of office prompted
members of his own party to call for his resignation. War expenditures had depleted
the federal treasury to the point where Congress was forced to draft the National
Banking Act in February of 1863 to expand the Union’s credit and levy a series of
taxes, including a temporary three percent tax on annual incomes over eight-hundred
dollars. This was the first federal income tax ever imposed on Americans. To expand
the nation’s money supply, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase issued “greenbacks;”
fiat currency unsupported by gold or silver. The value of the U.S. dollar plummeted,
sending the nation spiraling in economic turmoil. Resentful northern men refused
to volunteer for service in the Union Army, forcing Congress to enact a military
draft in March of 1863. Similar to Confederate conscription laws, U.S. draft legislation
provided a clause to enable draftees to either hire substitutes or purchase a deferment
from service at an exorbitant fee. Since only the wealthy could take advantage of
this clause, public resentment festered over the draft. Deadly riots erupted in
New York City, where workers refused to risk their lives to gain freedom for slaves
who would likely migrate north and take their jobs.
The Confederate government experienced internal turmoil similar
to that of its Union counterpart. Under a constitution that emphasized states rights,
the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis were constantly obstructed
by state governors. Vice President Alexander Stephens turned against Davis, calling
him a tyrant. Confederate currency fared worse than Union greenbacks, driving prices
of the most basic goods exorbitantly high. Southern tax agents resorted to livestock
and crop seizures for the payment of taxes. Food shortages ignited bread riots in
several southern cities, including Richmond, while the Confederate Army experienced
its first wave of desertions.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was keenly aware that his presidency would not survive
much longer without some victory to rally the demoralized nation. In April of 1863,
he appointed General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker to head the Army, replacing Ambrose
Burnside. With Union forces outnumbering Confederates by more than two-to-one, Hooker
divided his troops, leaving half to contain the enemy at Fredericksburg. He then
mobilized the other half to approach Confederate positions from behind. However,
the heavy accountability of supreme command rendered Hooker as overly cautious as
the worst of his predecessors. His hesitant advance provided Confederate General
Robert E. Lee ample time to analyze the Union strategy. Lee divided his own army,
placing the larger portion under “Stonewall” Jackson, with orders to intercept Hooker’s
troops at Chancellorsville, ten miles west of Fredericksburg. Jackson’s Confederates
attacked on the afternoon of May 2nd, decimating Union troops. Amid the melee, General
Hooker lost his nerve, abandoning the battlefield for the safety of his nearby headquarters.
That night, General “Stonewall” Jackson led a small reconnaissance group to prepare
for the next attack, only to be accidentally shot by his own soldiers in the confusion
of darkness. To save him, field doctors amputated his shattered left arm; but to
no avail. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson developed pneumonia and died several days
later. His men, however, continued the fight, driving Hooker’s forces out of Chancellorsville.
Complaining that he lacked sufficient manpower, Joseph Hooker resigned his post,
and General George Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac.
General Robert E. Lee marched the Army of Northern Virginia across Maryland into
southern Pennsylvania to launch offensives against Philadelphia and Washington,
DC. Along the way, his seventy-five thousand men replenished themselves by conducting
supply raids on Union towns.
July 1, 1863, a small Confederate division learned of a stockpile of
shoes in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Their advance was intercepted three
miles west of town by two Union cavalry brigades. As the skirmish
began, both sides issued calls for reinforcements. The bulk of General
Lee’s army arrived first, seizing the high ground at Seminary Ridge
northwest of the town. The death of “Stonewall” Jackson had deprived
Lee of his best general, and Jackson’s replacement, Richard Ewell,
allowed his men to stop and rest, providing Union forces sufficient
time to assemble on the main hill of Cemetery Ridge to the southeast.
For two days, the Confederates made repeated assaults on this and other
Union positions, unleashing the heaviest artillery barrage in the
entire war. Though casualties mounted quickly, neither army could
dislodge the other. On the third day of the bloody contest, Union
cannons went silent, enticing Confederate General George E. Pickett to
lead a charge of fifteen-thousand men toward Union lines. But General
Meade had only silenced his guns to conserve artillery, and in the
midst of Pickett’s charge, Meade ordered his men to open fire. Though
momentarily penetrating Union lines, Pickett’s division was quickly
wiped out. In this, the bloodiest battle of the war, the Confederates
sustained their heaviest losses with more than twenty-eight thousand
casualties, while the Union lost twenty-three thousand men. The Battle
of Gettysburg ended on July 3, 1863, with the Confederates retreating
to Virginia. Surviving Union forces were traumatized and exhausted from
the hard fought campaign, and General George Meade ignored presidential
orders to pursue General Lee’s crippled forces.
Coinciding with the Gettysburg victory was the Union conquest of the Mississippi
River. The port of Vicksburg, Mississippi served as the Confederate Army’s primary
supply center, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant spent much of 1863 on a drive
toward this strategic stronghold, vanquishing enemy battalions throughout Tennessee
and Arkansas. By springtime, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg, but Mississippi Confederates
held their ground. With the Union Navy blocking the port, Grant launched a series
of battles that endured through much of the summer of 1863. On July 4th, one day
after the Union victory at Gettysburg, General Grant secured the surrender of Confederate
General John C. Pemberton, ending the Vicksburg campaign. Five days later, Confederate
forces at Fort Hudson in Louisiana surrendered, placing the entire Mississippi River
under Union control. The South was geographically divided.
Though early Confederate regiments were racially integrated,
it was not until late in the war that Americans of African descent were allowed
to fight for the Union, and even then, segregated from white regiments. The 54th
Massachusetts was the Union Army’s first all-black regiment, and they distinguished
themselves on July 18, 1862 by leading an assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
Nearly half were killed in the courageous charge, and the Confederates held the
On September 19th and 20th, Union forces suffered another setback when troops under
General William Rosecrans were overwhelmed by Braxton Bragg’s Confederates at the
Battle of Chickamauga in northwestern Georgia. The intervention of Union fighters
under General George Thomas enabled Rosecrans’ men to escape, but they quickly found
themselves surrounded at Chattanooga, Tennessee. During the siege, President Lincoln
appointed Ulysses S. Grant to command all Union armies between the Appalachian Mountains
and the Mississippi River. General Grant journeyed to Chattanooga, ordering
a three-pronged assault on Braxton Bragg’s troops at Lookout Mountain. Directing
the Union forces were George Thomas, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the reassigned
“Fighting Joe” Hooker. Bragg’s Confederates were routed, placing Tennessee under
On November 19, 1863, northerners gathered for the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania, site of the momentous battle some four months earlier. Main speaker
Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration, but it was the two-minute closing speech
by President Abraham Lincoln that gripped the audience. Immortalized as his
Lincoln called upon the people to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in
vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
The wartime presidency had transformed Abraham Lincoln from an
unbending, overconfident taskmaster to a humble, compassionate public servant. His
encounters with wounded Confederate prisoners at various field hospitals instilled
him with empathy for those he initially deplored. Though the toll of war weighed
heavily upon his shoulders, he remained convinced that emancipation was a righteous
cause. Conversations with Frederick Douglass and other former slaves dashed his
earlier misconception that Americans of African descent were intellectually inferior
to whites. Moreover, Lincoln came to embrace the Christian faith he once mocked
as superstition. Proclaiming the Bible as the “best gift God gave to man,”
the president went on to say, “I know the Lord is always on the side of the right.
But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the
With the Confederate Army in decline, Lincoln drafted his postwar
“Reconstruction Plan” to aid newly liberated slaves and repatriate those rebelling
states conquered by Union forces. Within his “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction”
was a “Ten Percent Plan,” restoring representative governments to returning states
where ten percent of the population pledged loyalty oaths to the Union. Though Tennessee,
Arkansas, and Louisiana achieved their ten percent minimums, Lincoln’s merciful
policy was thwarted by the Radicals, a splinter group of Republican congressmen
led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. The Radicals insisted on punishing seceding
states, rather than forgiving them.
On the war front, the president appointed General Ulysses S. Grant his final general-in-command
of the entire Union Army. Though General George Meade retained command of the Army
of the Potomac, Grant accompanied him to prevent any loss of nerve in the campaign
to invade the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. During the first week of
May 1864, these Union forces were initially repelled by Robert E. Lee’s Confederates
at the Battle of the Wilderness, south of the Rappahannock River. However, General
Grant ordered Union fighters to regroup and reengage the enemy. From May 7th through
the 19th, the two armies clashed at Spotsylvania, with no conclusive victor. Exhausted
armies withdrew, then clashed again on June 1st at Cold Harbor on the outskirts
of Richmond. Unable to penetrate enemy lines, Grant advanced on Petersburg for a
southeastern approach to the Confederate capital. Though his troops assaulted the
rail junction supplying Lee’s men, the Confederates remained well entrenched around
Richmond, and a nine-month stalemate ensued.
S. Grant appointed longtime colleague William Tecumseh Sherman to lead the Union
Army’s western forces on a march to destroy the strategic enemy rail depot in Atlanta,
Georgia. On their approach to the city, Sherman’s fighters were repelled by Joseph
Johnston’s Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864. Suffering heavy casualties,
Sherman changed his strategy, maneuvering around enemy encampments. The Union general
employed psychological warfare to terrify southerners, destroying towns along the
path to Atlanta. Insecurities about his own commanders compelled Confederate President
Jefferson Davis to hastily replace General Joseph Johnston with John Bell Hood,
and during July of 1864, Hood fought Sherman in three fierce but indecisive battles,
settling into a stalemate that endured through August. In an attempt to sever Union
supply lines and draw Sherman’s forces away from Atlanta, Hood marched his army
toward the Tennessee border. Refusing to be baited, General Sherman dispatched a
small portion of his men under General George Thomas to pursue Hood’s troops, while
the bulk of Union fighters proceeded to Atlanta, invading the Georgia capital on
September 2, 1864. Sherman’s men destroyed Confederate rail lines and set the conquered
city ablaze before remobilizing on a 250-mile trek to the Georgia port of Savannah.
The Union victory improved Abraham Lincoln’s prospects for reelection.
In the 1864 campaign, War Democrats merged Republicans to form the National Union
Party, nominating Lincoln for a second term. His opponent was the embittered general
he fired, George B. McClellan, running as a Northern Peace Democrat on a platform
of negotiated terms with the Confederacy. However, news of Atlanta’s fall made McClellan
appear cowardly and unpatriotic, securing a landslide victory for the incumbent
president. Lincoln’s disloyal vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, was replaced by Andrew
Meanwhile, southerners in Savannah, Georgia, mortified by the
burning of Atlanta, chose to cooperate with General Sherman’s forces upon their
December 1864 arrival. In turn, the appreciative Union general spared the port city
and turned troops northward up the Atlantic coastline, where his men resumed their
destructive rampage, burning Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina.
second inaugural address,
President Abraham Lincoln presented a policy of healing and forgiveness to the South:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as
God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind
up the nation’s wounds.”
under General Robert E. Lee had held their ground under the Union siege at Petersburg,
Virginia, only to learn that General Sherman’s forces were on the way. Lee decided
to act before Sherman arrived, launching assaults on Union lines outside Richmond
during March of 1865.
Outnumbered three to one, the Confederates failed in two attempts.
General Lee then mobilized his men to draw Union forces away from Richmond so that
the Confederate government under Jefferson Davis could safely evacuate the city.
Fleeing Virginians set their own capital ablaze, denying Union forces the satisfaction
of looting the city. Efforts by Lee’s dwindling army to reach rail transportation
were thwarted by General Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry. Thereafter, Ulysses S.
Grant’s forces cornered the Confederates near Appomattox, Virginia. Depleted of
rations and lacking an escape route, the Confederate general accepted the reality
that Union victory was eminent and that further resistance would bring unnecessary
bloodshed. A somber Robert E. Lee requested a meeting with Ulysses S. Grant to discuss
terms of the Confederate surrender. At Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865,
the Civil War officially came to an end. More than six-hundred thousand Americans
had died in the conflict, including many prisoners of war who could not be adequately
sustained in times of food shortages.
Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14th, Abraham Lincoln attended a play entitled
“Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. John Wilkes Booth, a
disgruntled actor with southern sympathies, gained access to the presidential box,
shooting the president in the back of the head with a derringer. The gravely wounded
president was taken across the street to receive medical attention at a private
house. Despite his physician’s best efforts, Abraham Lincoln died the following
morning, April 15, 1865, exactly four years after proclaiming the insurrection of
the South. Several days later, the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, died from an apparently
self-inflicted gunshot wound after being cornered by the Union cavalry. Others believed
to be involved in the conspiracy were tried, convicted, and hanged, including the
unwitting doctor who had treated an ankle injury sustained by Booth as he fled Ford’s
RECONSTRUCTION AND REPRISALS
southerners generally despised Abraham Lincoln, he had been the South’s best hope
for postwar recovery without retribution. Vice President Andrew Johnson ascended
to the executive office, and though he shared Lincoln’s vision for southern reconciliation,
he lacked the political clout to restrain a vengeful Congress. On May 29, 1865,
Johnson issued his Amnesty Proclamation, enabling all southerners except Confederate
military officers to reclaim seized property, upon pledging allegiance to the Union.
The new president followed a month later with the Reconstruction Proclamation, appointing
governors to southern states meeting minimum loyalty oath requirements. Except for
Texas, all repatriated states complied by December of 1865, but their Senators and
Representatives were turned away by the Radical faction of Republicans in Congress.
Determined to punish southerners, the Radicals in the House of Representatives were
led by Thaddeus Stevens, while those in the Senate were directed by an embittered
Charles Sumner, the man who had endured the brutal physical beating on the Senate
floor nine years earlier. The Radicals declared southern states conquered land,
insisting that territorial governments be imposed.
The president and Congress found common cause in the issue of slave reparations,
and the federal government constructed a vast number of Freedmen’s Bureaus to provide
immediate food and medical support to former slaves. In a partnership with the American
Missionary Association, Freedmen’s schools, universities, and hospitals were established
to educate and serve newly liberated Americans of African descent.
On December 18, 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
was ratified, abolishing slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. When
local governments in former Confederate cities adopted “Black Codes” to block interracial
marriage and liquor sales to former slaves, Congress passed the April 1866 Civil
Rights Act, rendering such codes illegal. Congress also drafted a Fourteenth Amendment
to the Constitution, with its first section guaranteeing citizenship to all persons
born or naturalized in the United States. However, its other sections denied voting
and public service rights to former Confederates, and declared only Union war debts
valid for repayment. All southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify the
Fourteenth Amendment, and Congress retaliated by passing the Military Reconstruction
Act of 1867, sectioning all former Confederate states, except Tennessee, into five
Congress flagrantly encroached on the powers of the executive and judicial branches
of government. Instead of allowing Andrew Johnson to replace a dead Supreme Court
justice, Congress reduced the court’s size by two members. In March of 1867 the
Army Act was passed, reducing presidential authority over the military. This was
followed by the Tenure of Office Act, prohibiting the president from firing members
of his own cabinet without Senate approval. These measures were designed to protect
War Secretary Edward M. Stanton, and presidential vetoes were overridden by a two-thirds
majority in Congress. Refusing to be intimidated, Andrew Johnson fired Stanton in
February 1868, prompting the House of Representatives to issue articles of impeachment.
The Senate, however, acquitted the embattled president by a mere one-vote margin.
Though Johnson remained in office, the shock of impeachment left him reluctant to
fight the Radicals further. Intimidated southern states also bowed to the will of
Congress, ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment in July of 1868.
Meanwhile, the federal government resumed land acquisition activities. When leaders
in Russia expressed a desire to rid themselves of their vast territory northwest
of Canada, Secretary of State William Seward offered 7.2 million dollars. This tract,
known as Alaska, was initially mocked as “Seward’s folly” by the American people,
since its fur resources had long been depleted by Russian trappers, and the land
appeared to offer little else.
In the 1868 presidential election, embattled incumbent Andrew
Johnson found himself lacking political support for a second term. Democrats nominated
New York Governor and former Union General Horatio Seymour, while Republicans chose
the victorious Union Army commander, Ulysses S. Grant. For the first time, some
700-thousand Americans of African descent participated in the election, giving General
Grant a 300-thousand vote majority.
Misery abounded in the former Confederate states, where prominent cities were in
disarray. One-tenth of all white males in the South had been killed in the war,
and many survivors were maimed for life. Southern property values declined to one-tenth
their pre-war prices, while Confederate currency and war bonds were worthless. The
new president, Ulysses S. Grant, refused to interfere with congressional measures
to punish and humiliate the former rebel states.
A number of unscrupulous opportunists sought to profit from reconstruction
legislation. Northerners arriving in the South were called “carpetbaggers,” in reference
to their use of carpet bags to transport personal belongings, while southerners
willing to work for the federal government were branded “scalawags.” In an effort
to thwart repressive government measures, southern Democrats and former Confederates
formed a secret militaristic society called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Founded
by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the vigilante group rapidly
degenerated into a band of racist marauders, committing acts of violence and intimidation
on former slaves.
The federal government remained committed to the restoration of order, as well as
the economic recovery of the nation. The postwar period marked the onset of the
railroad age, as war veterans and immigrants from Ireland and China formed construction
teams at eastern and western points on the continent, laying railroad tracks until
they reached one another. On May 10, 1869, the two lines met at Promontory Point
near Ogden, Utah, completing America’s first transcontinental railroad. To mark
the occasion, railroad officials drove a golden spike in the final rail tie. Its
inscription read, “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad
unites the two great Oceans of the world.”
In February of 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing voting
rights to citizens of all races, was ratified. Ironically, the amendment was unpopular
in the North where many former slaves assumed jobs previously held by white workers.
The southern states, with large blocks of black voters under the protection of federal
troops, provided the necessary support for ratification of the amendment. With the
enforcement of black voting rights, Americans of African descent gained the majority
in the South Carolina state legislature. Other former slaves became lieutenant governors
in southern states, and history was also made at the federal level when fourteen
black Americans won U.S. congressional seats. All of these black office holders
Despite the enormous advances made by former slaves, some southerners
resisted the changes to their old way of life. Newly impoverished whites were beginning
to live under conditions similar to those long experienced by blacks, and resentments
were inevitable. Sporadic acts of violence prompted Congress to pass three Force
Acts, collectively called the Ku Klux Klan Acts, during 1870 and ‘71. Election sites
in the South were placed under federal jurisdiction, and federal troops occupied
areas of heavy Klan activity.
With southern agricultural enterprises in disarray, many former
slaves and yeoman white farmers were forced to become sharecroppers, farming fields
owned by others, while paying rent with a portion of the crops they harvested. Younger
Americans of African descent were able to escape these hardships through broad new
educational programs established by the federal government as an ongoing part of
Though shame had been foisted upon the former Confederacy for
the iniquity of slavery, little had been done to address political corruption in
Washington, DC. As colleagues of the president’s brother-in-law, financiers Jay
Gould and Jim Fisk gained Ulysses S. Grant’s trust, and were allowed to manipulate
gold prices to benefit themselves. Their meddling triggered “Black Friday,” a stock
market crash, in September of 1869.
Corruption also infected northern governments at the local level.
Long before the war, large cities were overrun by extortionist political gangs,
the most notorious being William Marcy “Boss” Tweed’s Democratic Party machine at
Tammany Hall in New York City. Tweed siphoned government funds for Tammany cohorts,
then awarded contracts, appointments, and financial grants exclusively to loyal
followers. Though the Tweed Ring was publicly exposed in 1871, postwar corruption
In 1872, Americans learned of the Credit Mobilier Scandal, in which the Union Pacific
Railroad created a dummy company to skim government funds earmarked for the transcontinental
railroad. Mounting financial losses prompted Congress to launch an investigation,
and it was revealed that several government officials had taken bribes to look the
other way. Though President Grant was not involved in the scandal, public mistrust
of his administration grew. Nevertheless, rival political parties failed to offer
viable choices for the presidential election of 1872. At that time, the Republican
Party split into two entities, with the Radical faction supporting Grant, and the
Liberal group favoring New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Democrats also nominated
the ill-tempered Greeley, but his eccentric behavior and bizarre campaign speeches
forced voters to choose the least unappealing candidate. With his second term secured,
Ulysses Grant signed a legislative bill informally dubbed the “Salary Grab Act,”
permitting Congress to give itself a fifty percent pay raise at a time of economic
turmoil. To procure Grant’s approval of the bill, Congress also included a one-hundred
percent salary increase for the president.
Because western mining had made silver more plentiful, the federal
government placed the U.S. dollar on the gold standard alone in February of 1873.
Critics of the Coinage Act called it the “Crime of ’73,” as it rendered wartime
“greenback” currency worthless and drastically reduced the nation’s money supply.
Postwar reconstruction projects and mounting railroad debts drained the federal
treasury, and the American financial firm Jay Cooke and Company failed, triggering
the September monetary crisis known as the “Panic of 1873.” Angry voters purged
the Radical faction from the Republican Party in the congressional election of 1874,
and with the moderates in control, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act of
1875, imposing a four-year delay on the resumption of the gold standard, so that
greenback currency could be phased out incrementally. Almost immediately after the
bill was signed into law, American financial markets recovered and the economic
The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was further tainted by scandal in 1875 after
Grant attempted to shield his personal secretary, Orville Babcock, from prosecution
for his role in the Whiskey Ring Fraud, a plot between whiskey distillers and treasury
agents to defraud the government of excise taxes. Soon thereafter, another controversy
erupted when Grant’s War Secretary, William Belknap, was impeached by Congress for
receiving bribes. Those paying Belknap were corrupt agents from the War Department’s
Administration of Indian Affairs, already under public scrutiny after the massacre
of General George Armstrong Custer’s 264-man U.S. Cavalry regiment near the Little
Big Horn River in Montana on July 25, 1876. Custer’s men were annihilated by Sioux
fighters under the direction of such notable Indian warriors as Sitting Bull, Crazy
Horse, Gall, and Rain In The Face. Little Big Horn marked the last major Indian
war victory against white Americans.
For the presidential election in the nation’s centennial year of 1876, Republicans
ignored Ulysses Grant’s plea for a third term. They instead nominated Ohio Governor
Rutherford B. Hayes, a former military general with an unblemished reputation. Hayes
faced Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden, the New York Governor who had broken
the corrupt Tweed Ring at Tammany Hall. Though the resulting popular vote favored
Tilden, evidence of widespread voter fraud forced Congress to create a special commission
of five Representatives, five Senators, and five Supreme Court Justices to determine
the electoral outcome. Initially the political make-up of the fifteen-man
commission was evenly balanced, empanelling seven Republicans, seven Democrats,
and one neutral Supreme Court Justice, but after the neutral judge withdrew for
a Senate election in his home state, he was replaced by a Republican who subsequently
gave Hayes a one-vote margin of victory. When Tilden supporters protested, congressional
Republicans offered a series of concessions that culminated in the Compromise of
1877. Under its terms, federal troops were ordered out of former Confederate states,
and in the month following the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, punishment-oriented
reconstruction programs were discontinued in the South.
America had survived its darkest hour. No other nation in the
annals of history had sacrificed so much to end slavery. With the lifting of government
reprisals against former Confederate states, the United States entered an era that
came to be known as “The Gilded Age,” characterized by economic recovery, material
innovation, artistic creativity, global prominence, and spiritual renewal.
©2006, 2008 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved. No part of this
material may be used without permission from the author.
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