The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the Reconstruction period that followed were the bloodiest chapters of American history to date. Brother fought brother as the population was split along sectional lines. The issue of slavery divided the nation's people and the political parties that represented them in Washington. The tension which snapped the uneasy truce between north and south began building over slavery and statehood debates in California. In 1848, settlers discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, starting a mass migration.
By 1849, California had enough citizens to apply for statehood. However, the debate over whether the large western state would or would not allow slavery delayed its admittance. Delegates from the south threatened to secede if California was admitted as a free state. Meanwhile, tempers also flared in New Mexico and Texas over border disputes, and abolitionists fought pro-slavery advocates over the issue of slave trading within the District of Columbia. Southern political leaders, mostly Democrats, proposed a convention in Nashville to discuss secession. In 1850, Henry Clay proposed the Compromise of 1850 to Congress.
The Compromise contained the following provisions: California would enter the union as free state. New Mexico territory would be divided into New Mexico and Utah, and offered popular sovereignty. Texas must yield disputed territory to New Mexico in return for federal assumption of its state debt. Trading, but not possession, of slaves would be banned from the District of Columbia. Fugitive slave laws would be enhanced.
Zachary Taylor, who was president at the time, was prepared to veto the bills, but died suddenly. His successor, Millard Fillmore, allowed the provisions t pass one at a time with the help of Stephen Douglas. The Nashville Convention met soon afterwards and denounced the plan, but took no decisive action. This uneasy truce would last for only four years. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes further compromise practically impossible.
It granted popular sovereignty to both states, in the hopes that they would split on the slavery issue and continue the shaky equality between slave and free states. Nebraska quickly adopted an free-soil constitution and was admitted as a free state. Kansas, however, was badly split along sectional lines, and opposing political forces ratified both a free and a slave constitution in 1855. Riots broke out everywhere, and "Bleeding Kansas" fell into chaos.
John Brown, an infamous and rebellious abolitionist, killed five pro-slavery activists in 1856 in retaliation for the murder of five abolitionists. This "Pottawatomie Massacre" further heightened a feeling of an impending war over slavery. The peace between abolitionists and slaveowners was not helped by three events which occurred in 1857. One was an economic "panic" which threw support to the newly formed Republican party.
The Republicans had promised high protective tariffs, against the lowering of import duties imposed by the Democrats. However, they also maintained a strongly abolitionist platform. The support they gained from the tariff issue also brought increased support to their abolitionist aims. Second, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, responding to violent mobs protesting slavery, decided in favor of the abolitionists. Third was the Dred Scott decision. In Dred Scott vs. Sanford, the slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriett, sued for their freedom from their master, because he had taken them into Michigan, which was a free state.
They insisted that since they had lived on free soil, their bonds of slavery were no longer valid. The Supreme Court decided in a shocking decision that not only was the Scotts' claim invalid, but the entire case had been unconstitutional, because blacks, according to their claims, had no right to sue whites in any court, much less the United States Supreme Court. This total denial of blacks' rights ignited a violent fury in abolitionists everywhere, and inspired an equally defiant spirit among pro-slavery activists. In 1859, John Brown again made headlines by raiding an armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown apparently hoped to gain control of the arms magazine and distribute weapons to free and enslaved blacks in the area. His ill-devised plan failed miserably.
Brown was convicted of treason in a Virginia court and hanged. The animosity between the two sides of the slavery argument continued to intensify. Sectionalism had grown so prevalent throughout the states that the election of 1860 saw two opposing candidates, both from the Democratic party: Stephen Douglas from the north, and John C. Breckinridge from the south. The Republicans, confident after their success in 1856, nominated Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of Douglas's in the Illinois senate race.
The Constitutional Union Party, consisting largely of displaced and elderly Whigs, tried to downplay sectionalism, and spoke only of preserving the Union and the Constitution. They nominated John Bell. The race became a two-man battle between Lincoln and Breckinridge. Lincoln won a majority of electoral votes (180 of 303) but only gained 39% of the popular vote. Lincoln had made considerable abolitionist noise in the past, and several states had threatened to secede. Now that Lincoln had been elected, South Carolina carried out its threats, electing to secede on December 20, 1860.
One after the other, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas joined South Carolina and formed the Confederate States of America, with their new capital at Montgomery, Alabama. The hastily assembled congress appointed Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to the posts of provisional president and vice president. In 1861, John J. Crittenden of Kentucky tried to save the union by proposing a thirteenth amendment which, instead of abolishing slavery (as it does now), would forever guarantee it in states where it already existed. The proposal also provided for an extension of the Missouri Compromise, dividing slave and free territories. Lincoln furthered the preservationist spirit by insisting that the rebellious states were still part of the Union. However, before Crittenden's amendment could be sent to the states for approval, on April 12, 1861, troops in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on Fort Sumter, a United States installation in Charleston's harbor.
The next day, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina join the Confederacy, choosing not to fight against their fellow slave states in the deep south. In November, Davis and Stephens won the first (and only) presidential election in the Confederacy unopposed, and moved the capital to Richmond, Virginia. The dreaded civil war had begun. Once the Democrats from the south left the Union Congress, the Republicans met the demands of the northern merchants and industrialists. They raised the protective tariffs to encourage industry, and set up national banks and issue war bonds to cover the cost of the war. For the first time, civilians are directly involved in supporting the war effort.
In 1862, both the Union and Confederacy passed conscription acts. Thus "total war", or war in which every citizen is involved in the war effort, began in both the north and the south. Two critical battles in 1862 turned the tide of the war against the Confederacy. In March, the "ironclad" battleship Virginia, formerly the Union Merrimack, tried to break the Union blockade around the Chesapeake Bay. The Union, hearing of the Virginia's construction, built their own ironclad vessel, the Monitor, to intercept the Virginia before it broke through the blockade. The two ships met in battle, and after endless hours of shelling each other, both ships withdrew.
Neither vessel would survive the damage they incurred in the battle. The other critical loss the rebels suffered was at Antietam, one of the Confederacy's precious few offensive campaigns. Until then, the British had considered aiding the Confederacy, despite their claims of neutrality and the negative reactions they received from Russia and France, which the British feared. The British hoped that a major offensive victory would turn the tides of the war, gain the support of other European powers, and provide Britain with a powerful ally against the United States in the future. However, the Union armies defeated the already exhausted force at Antietam, and Britain gave up any serious hopes of a Confederate victory. With Britain's vote of confidence also went the possibility of European support for the Confederacy.
Without this vital link with the outside world, the Confederacy lost all advantage in the war. Amidst all the turmoil of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, ending slavery in all territories, including the South, which Lincoln continued to insist was under Union jurisdiction. Recognition of the Proclamation became a required element of Lincoln's "ten-percent plan", whereby 10% of the population of any seceded state could reform the state government and apply for readmission to the Union. The Proclamation would also prove to be a valuable precedent from which the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) would find support. The Confederacy suffered severe losses of both territory and men in 1863.
A provisional government in Wheeling, Virginia, rallied the support of fifty surrounding counties and seceded from the Confederacy, forming the state of West Virginia. The United States admitted the state soon afterwards. Also in 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee staged one last offensive against the Union at Gettysburg, PA. Again, the Union forces hold off the offensive, and Lee is forced to withdraw to Virginia. On the same day that Lee withdrew from Gettysburg, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to a Union siege.
The fall of Vicksburg returned full control of the Mississippi River to the Union, and divided the Confederacy in half, with strong Union armies expanding from the middle. The Confederacy was being torn down from the inside out. In July of 1864, the Union Congress proposed the Wade-Davis Bill, which would have made re acceptance into the Union more difficult for the rebels who wished to set up provisional Union governments in occupied states. Lincoln defeated the bill by a pocket veto, meaning he kept the bill unsigned for ten days, w hereafter the bill became invalid. This angered the "Radical Republicans" who wished to take revenge on the south for their atrocities, but allowed for the light Reconstruction policy which would eventually take effect at war's end. Meanwhile, Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were making a name for themselves fighting the rebels.
With the Confederacy split along the Mississippi River, Grant commanded Sherman to move eastward, cutting the eastern section in half again and further disabling their resistance. Sherman marched from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, burning and pillaging every city in his path, leaving only destruction in his wake. On September 2, 1864, the city of Atlanta fell to Sherman's forces. Sherman turned north to meet Grant, who was enjoying bittersweet success in his so-called "Wilderness Campaign". Grant was moving southward from Maryland through northern and central Virginia, pursuing Lee's retreating resistance force.
Finally, Grant surrounds Lee's army and beseiges Richmond and Petersburg. Meanwhile, the states of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas established provisional governments under Lincoln's ten-percent plan. Lincoln himself gained reelection in 1864 over George McClellan, the infamously inept Union general who had failed to win the Peninsular Campaign despite venturing within sight of Richmond, his eventual goal. The Confederacy's hopes of independence were finally defeated on April 9, 1865, when Lee, fleeing from Richmond, surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, VA, ending the war. Five days later, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln while the president was watching a play in northern Virginia.
Booth and everyone who allegedly aided or conspired with him were executed. Seemingly before Lincoln was cold in his grave, the radical Republicans tried to gain support of his successor, Andrew Johnson. However, Johnson's policies on Reconstruction were more similar to the ten-percent plan imposed by Lincoln than the strict laws proposed by the radicals in Congress. One issue both parties did agree on, however, was the abolition of slavery. While Union troops began the long and oppressive military occupation of the south, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in all United States territories and possessions. Tennessee's new state government almost immediately ratified the amendment, and was freed from military control in 1865.
The news was met with mixed feelings among both whites and blacks. The former slaveholders in the south now feared riots by mobs of vengeful blacks, and a "black rule" where former slaves made up a majority of the houses of Congress in the southern states. The blacks, while they enjoyed their freedom, were uncertain about the amendment's effectiveness, and fearful that their rights would be restricted despite federal law. Though the whites' fears of wide-scale racial violence were not immediately realized (those would not become reality for almost 100 years), the blacks' fear of oppression began almost immediately. In 1866, several southern states adopted "black codes". While these new laws did grant blacks a few new rights (such as the right to testify in courts of law), they also restricted their involvement in almost every other activity, especially suffrage and labor.
Abolitionists everywhere cried out against the black codes, deeming them a disguised re institution of slavery. President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which would have given the Bureau more power in enforcing blacks' rights. Angered by Johnson's opposition, the still dominant radical Republicans revised the bill and overrode another Johnson veto to finally make it law. Also, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, declaring that all blacks were legal citizens of the United States, and enjoyed all rights that citizenship entails. Later in 1866 was the proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment, which amplified the Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill. Tennessee was again the first of the former Confederate states to ratify the amendment, and in 1866, was readmitted to the Union.
Congress, with the Reconstruction Act of 1866, divided the remaining states into five "military districts", and offers each state readmission if they follow Tennessee's example and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, over yet another veto from a now frantic and ineffective Johnson. In 1868, feeling his political influence waning all too quickly, Johnson tried to hamper Congress's Reconstruction efforts by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. However, Congress had recently passed the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade any Senate-approved appointed official from being removed by the president without the consent of the Senate. Radicals and Democrats alike were delighted, because they thought they now had sufficient grounds to impeach Johnson. They quickly did so, but fell short of convicting Johnson of "high crimes and misdemeanors" by only a single vote. Amidst the political turmoil in Washington, six former Confederate states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
Alabama, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana all ratified the amendment and gained readmittance to the Union. However, military control was withdrawn only from Alabama, Arkansas, and North Carolina. In 1870, Congress proposed a Fifteenth Amendment, which revoked suffrage restrictions on the grounds of race. Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, which had all been refused readmittance because of their unwillingness to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, now ratified both and were readmitted. Military control was withdrawn from all four, and the territorial Reconstruction of the United States was completed. While the Reconstruction policies instituted by even the radicals were lenient, a feeling of extreme bitterness still prevailed among many southerners, especially in the deep south.
Military control was not withdrawn from Florida until 1876, and South Carolina and Louisiana suffered Union occupation until 1877. The atrocities of some of the military deputies and their units, along with the racial tension between displaced whites and newly freed blacks, armed a time bomb between the races which built up strength for almost 100 years. The Civil War and the Reconstruction set a precedent for racial, territorial, and social prejudice which this country suffers from to this day.