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BIG IDEA: Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. As the nation grew, slavery also grew and formed the basis for much of the nation’s wealth. The small abolition movement in the North slowly gained support and helped facilitate a system to help slaves escape to freedom in Canada.
Slavery had been a part of the American experience from almost immediately after the first British settlers arrived in Jamestown. Over time, economic and social pressures transformed the use of slave labor. By the mid-1800s, slavery was the primary source of labor south of the Mason-Dixon Line and slave codes had been passed that severely limited the rights and movement of slaves. Slaves had tried to revolt on numerous occasions, but each uprising led to more severe slave codes.
America was getting rich growing and selling cotton. Northern manufacturers produced textiles made from southern cotton and the South exported cotton to both the North and to Europe. It was so important to the overall economy that it was called King Cotton, and slaves did all the work cultivating it.
In the early years of the republic, the Founding Fathers had thought that slavery would die out. However, the invention of the cotton gin made processing cotton lucrative, and expansion into the Deep South increased the demand for slaves. Instead of disappearing, slavery became so central to the economy that few leaders in either the North or South could imagine a way to reasonably end it without massive disruption to the entire nation.
Slavery was central to the social order of the South. There were only a few wealthy Whites who owned slaves, so for the vast majority of other Whites, being superior to African Americans and having the possibility of someday being rich enough to purchase a slave was a mark of social standing.
Southerners argued that slaves were actually better off than the free workers of the industrial North since they were guaranteed housing, food, and work. Few were volunteering to trade places with the slaves, however, which is evidence that they probably didn’t believe their own arguments.
There were a few free African Americans in the United States, mostly living in the North.
The abolition movement grew in the early 1800s alongside the temperance movement, transcendentalism and the other reform efforts that were inspired by the Second Great Awakening. Some had proposed purchasing slaves and sending them to Africa. The most vocal abolitionists were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Abolition was not popular at first, and many abolitionists faced violence for their views. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bestseller and convinced many Northerners that slavery was an evil institution. Her book was banned in the South.
In an effort to find freedom, some slaves ran away along a system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. As part of a larger compromise, Congress passed a law that required Northerners to help capture runaway slaves. This infuriated moralistic Northerners.
BIG IDEA: Westward expansion increased conflicts about slavery as the addition of each new state threatened to upset the balance between free and slave states in the Senate. Politicians tried compromise and popular sovereignty to deal with this problem.
Expansion of settlement greatly increased tensions that led to the Civil War because it made the question of expansion of slavery an issue politicians could not ignore. Central to this question was the balance of power between slave states and free states in the Senate. The House of Representatives would always be unbalanced because the North was so much more populous, but for the 40 years leading up to the war, maintaining an equal number of slave and free states was essential to keeping the nation together.
The Missouri Compromise was brokered by Henry Clay in 1820. It banned slavery in new territories north of Missouri, while admitting Missouri and Maine as slave and free states. It was the first in a series of such compromises.
After the Mexican-American War, the greatest question was whether or not to allow slavery into the Mexican Cession. The proposed Wilmot Proviso specifically banned this, but it was not adopted. The fight over the Proviso led Northerners to believe that “slave power” was taking over the federal government.
The three great senators of the early 1800s, Clay, Calhoun and Webster forged the Compromise of 1850 to keep the nation together. It preserved the Union, but in the end, it made no one happy.
The idea of popular sovereignty was proposed as a way of taking the fight over the expansion of slavery out of Congress and giving it to the people. Under this proposal, the people of each new state would vote for themselves about the question of being a slave or free state. This was put to the test with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and led to a period of violence called Bleeding Kansas, a precursor to the Civil War. John Brown and Jesse James both got their first taste of violence in Kansas.
BIG IDEA: In the 1850s politicians tried but were unable to stop the increasingly divisive issue of slavery from leading to the outbreak of war between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North.
The Fugitive Slave Act required Northerners to help Southerners catch and return slaves trying to escape along the Underground Railroad. It was part of the Compromise of 1850. One slave, Dred Scott, went to court against his owner after having been brought to the North. He argued that because he was in a free state, he was free. The Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that he was not. This ruling effectively made slavery legal in all states and territories. It was terrifying for Northerners.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a series of famous debates in Illinois as they campaigned for the Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but the debates were republished widely since they were essentially a debate about the future of slavery. Douglas advocated for popular sovereignty. Lincoln argued that the nation could not survive half free and half slave. He predicted that it would become all one or all the other.
In Congress, politicians accused one another of inciting violence in Kansas, and fighting broke out on the floor of the Senate.
John Brown attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to launch a general slavery uprising. His effort failed and he was captured, tried and executed for treason. In the process he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Northerners might have seen the Dred Scott case as evidence that slave power had taken over Washington, but Southerners believed John Brown’s raid showed that abolitionists were willing to ignore the law and use violence to take away their slaves.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln won as the first Republican president. He did not appear on the ballot in any southern state. Southerners viewed his victory as evidence that the North would do anything to get its way and that the less populous South would be the losers in the end.
Eleven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four slave states chose not to secede and remained in the Union. Lincoln took office hoping to keep the nation together, but warned the South that if they insisted on leaving, it would mean war. When Southerners bombed Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Civil War began.
FIGHTING THE CIVIL WAR
BIG IDEA: The North and South both had advantages and weaknesses in the Civil War, but eventually the North’s industrial might and willingness to persevere through a long and destructive war led to victory.
The North and South each had strengths and weaknesses going into the Civil War. The North was more populous, industrialized and wealthy. However, the North had to take the fight to the South and win. The South simply had to hold out until the North gave up. The Southerners saw themselves as fighting for their freedom, which was an ideological advantage in the beginning. Later in the war, Northerners saw their armies as marching to end slavery, a moral crusade of their own. Most of the nation’s best generals were from the South. The lack of effective leadership made the North’s efforts in the first years of the war mostly ineffective.
In order to prevent the South from exporting its cotton to Europe, the North implemented a blockade of Southern ports.
Both sides believed it would be a short war. After the first battles, it became clear that this would not be the case. Although the Union general McClellan was an excellent organizer and trained a professional army, he was hesitant to take it into battle and failed to destroy the smaller Confederate army early in the war even when he had the chance.
In the North, the war helped some become rich. Vast federal expenditures led to an increase in industrial output. Although many men volunteered at the start of the war, Lincoln instituted a draft as the war dragged on which led to rioting. In the South, a blockade by the Union navy choked off trade and led to hunger and food riots by southern women. In both the North and South, the wealthy found ways to avoid the fighting, while women found new roles in industry, farming and the war effort. Women founded the Red Cross during the war.
Southern leaders had hoped to use the cotton trade to convince England and France to recognize their independence. Lincoln successfully avoided this by exporting northern wheat and reminding the English that the South was fighting to preserve slavery, a practice the English had recently banned.
The turning point of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg. Although neither side won, Robert E. Lee lost more men than he could replace, and it was the last time he would attempt to take his army into the North or try to capture Washington, DC. At that same time, Union armies in the South captured Vicksburg, thus gaining control of the Mississippi River and dividing the South in half.
During the war, Lincoln won reelection. Although he had violated the Constitution, he won because the war was going well in 1864 and because democrats were split between those who supported the war, and those who wanted to make a deal for peace with the South.
It took two more years of fighting after Gettysburg to finally destroy the South. General Sherman marched his Union army through Georgia, destroying everything he could in the first example of modern total warfare. General Grant eventually destroyed the Confederate capital of Richmond and forced Lee to surrender.
THE MEANING OF THE WAR
BIG IDEA: Northerners led by President Lincoln originally were fighting to preserve the Union. By the end of the war Lincoln had made ending slavery a part of the North’s mission, giving the war a moral purpose.
The North and the South both believed their side was fighting for the right cause. Northerners fought the war to preserve the Union, and later to end slavery. Southerners believed they were fighting for freedom from a tyrannical North that was trying to take away their right to govern themselves. Both sides thought God was on their side.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to start the end of slavery. It actually only freed slaves in territory that was actively rebelling, so it did nothing for slaves in the four border states, or in territory that the Union army had already captured. However, it inspired slaves in the South to run away, and gave the North a moral purpose for the war.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is remembered as one of the great speeches of American history. In it, he explained how the Civil War was an extension of the Revolution by connecting the present to the work of the Founding Fathers. The phrase “Four score and seven years ago…” refers to the Declaration of Independence.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln demonstrated his sense of forgiveness and a desire for a generous reconstruction of the South. He described the war as a punishment by god for the evils of slavery, and questioned whether anyone could truly claim to have god on their side.
Lincoln was assassinated two days after Lee surrendered. Instead of restarting the war, as those who conspired to kill him had hoped, it left a dangerous vacuum of leadership. Andrew Johnson, the vice president who took over, was from Tennessee and was hated by the Republicans who dominated Congress. They clashed repeatedly about the proper way to rebuild the South.
The Civil War had an enormous impact on the nation and its history. Never again would any state attempt to leave the Union. Millions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. The war was fought mostly in the South, which was devastated. In contrast, the North grew and the industrial revolution went into overdrive. Most importantly, slavery ended. For the next decade, the North and South argued that the future of the South would look like and what would happen to the new freedmen and women.
BIG IDEA: After the war ended in 1865, Northerners tried unsuccessfully to remake Southern society. Although it is often said that the South won Reconstruction, three constitutional amendments were passed that ended slavery, gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and guaranteed the right to vote to all men.
After the war, Northerners got on with their lives. There was little evidence in the North that the war had even happened. In the South, most cities had been destroyed. Southerners were surrounded by newly freed former slaves. Reconstruction was very difficult for the South.
African Americans celebrated the end of the Civil War, but faced hardship. Many began looking for lost loved ones. Some hoped to have simple things such as a little land to live on. During the war General Sherman had promised “forty acres and a mule” but this did not happen. Most became share croppers, working land they did as slaves and giving a portion of their harvests as rent. Others worked someone else’s land and paid rent. This new system was only a small step above slavery.
Leaders in the North had different ideas about the proper way to rebuild the South. Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, the new president, wanted to quickly bring the South back into the Union and forgive Southerners who had fought for the Confederacy. He pardoned Southern leaders and returned their property, with the exception of their slaves.
Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to punish Southern leaders and do more to change the social order of the South. They promoted African Americans and spent money to open schools to teach freedmen. They impeached President Johnson when he tried to stop them. He kept his job by one vote, but leadership of Reconstruction switched from the White House to Congress.
Three amendments to the Constitution resulted from the Civil War. The 13th Amendment ended slavery. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States. The 15th Amendment gave all men the right to vote.
Despite these legal gains for African Americans, White southern leaders retook control of their states. They passed laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Terrorists groups such as the KKK effectively stopped African Americans from exercising their new freedoms. Reconstruction ended in 1877 when Republicans and Democrats compromised. Hayes was elected president as a Republican and northern troops left the South. Without the army to enforce the ideas of the Radical Republicans, White southern leaders reasserted control and implement the Jim Crow system of segregation. Over time, Redeemers worked to change the meaning of the war. They deemphasized slavery and promoted the idea that Southerners were fighting for freedom. The South may have lost the war, but they won the peace.