By the time the Civil War started in 1860, slavery had been a part of American life for more than 200 years. There had never been a time in all of the history of the United States when slaves had not lived in the “Land of the Free.”
But slavery had not always been popular. The Founding Fathers had thought about slavery. Northerners had tried to find ways to end slavery, but decided that creating the United States was more important so they let Southerners keep their slaves.
In the Antebellum Period, the time before the Civil War, more and more people wanted the abolition of slavery and questions about slavery in the new lands in the West split the country between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South. Even though there were political compromises that kept the North and South together for a time, in 1860 everything fell apart and 11 southern states seceded, or left the country The result was four years of Civil War.
In 1865 as the war was ending, President Abraham Lincoln talked about the death and destruction that had happened. He asked if maybe the war was God’s way of punishing Americans, that maybe God would let the war go one “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
And that is the question for you. Did America deserve this war? Was slavery such a terrible thing that the only way to make things right was to pay with blood? Was the Civil War, in which more Americans died than any other in our country’s history, as Lincoln called it, a righteous punishment for slavery?
As we already learned, slavery had been a part of American history since just after the arrival of the first English settlers in the 1600s. By the middle of the 1800s, America was becoming a rich country by growing and selling cotton. In the North, factory owners were making fabric and clothing out of cotton from the South. In the South, plantation owners sold their cotton to factory owners in the North, and also to people in Europe. Cotton was so important to America that it was called King Cotton, and slaves did all the work to grow it.
In the early years after the United States became a country, the Founding Fathers had thought that plantation owners in the South would stop using slaves as workers on their own. However, the invention of a machine called the cotton gin put an end to that hope. The Cotton gin made it easy and fast to take the seeds out of raw cotton, and plantation owners in the South created new fields so they could grow and sell more. And to work in these new fields, they wanted more slaves. Instead of going away, slavery became so important to the economy that few leaders in the North or South could imagine a way to get rid of slavery without ruining to the whole country.
Slavery was also important to the social order of the South. There were only a few rich Whites who owned slaves, so for the most Whites, thinking that they were better than African Americans and thinking that someday they might be rich enough to buy a slave was a signal of social standing.
Southerners said that slaves were actually better off than the free workers of factories of the North because Slaves always had a place to live, food, and work. But none of these Southerners offered to trade places with the slaves, which shows that they probably didn’t believe their own arguments.
CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR
In the early 1800s, a movement began to end slavery. This was called the abolition movement. It did not start by itself. In fact, at that time in history, people were excited about fixing all kinds of problems and there were reform movements about alcohol and religion going on as well. The most important abolitionists were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Abolition was not popular at first, and many abolitionists were attacked, and some were killed. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bestseller and after reading it, many Northerners decided that slavery was wrong. Her book was banned in the South.
Many slaves ran away from their owners using a system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. As part of a larger deal, Congress passed a law that required Northerners to help catch runaway slaves. This made Northerners who thought slavery was wrong angry.
You learned about westward expansion in the last lesson. The expansion of the United States made problems that led to the Civil War. As the country grew, leaders had to decide if slavery would be allowed in the new lands or not. The real reason this was a problem was that it was connected to the balance of power between slave states and free states in the Senate. The House of Representatives would always be unbalanced because many more people lived in the North, but for 40 years, keeping an equal number of slave and free states had kept the country together. So long as there were the same number of slave and free states, one part of the country could never be more powerful than the other.
After the Mexican-American War, the biggest question was if slavery was going to be legal in the Mexican Cession. The Wilmot Proviso was a law that banned this, but it was not passed. The fight over the Proviso made Northerners think that “slave power” was taking over the government.
Primary Source: Photograph
A photograph of a family of slaves working the cotton fields in the 1850s.
One idea to solve the problem was called popular sovereignty. This idea was to take the fight about slavery in the new lands out of Congress and give it to the people. Under popular sovereignty, the people of each new state would vote for themselves to decide if they would be a slave or free state. This was put to the test with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and led to a time called Bleeding Kansas as pro-slavery and anti-slavery people fought in Kansas.
In the 1850s, the Supreme Court tried to solve the question of slavery. One slave, Dred Scott, had gone to court against his owner after his owner took him into the North. Dred Scott said that because he was in a free state, he was free. The Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that he was not. This decision did not solve the problem. Instead, it meant that any slave owner could take slaves into free states, and so slavery could spread into all the states. The Dred Scott case scared many Northerners.
But other events scared Southerners. Also, in the 18050s, a man named John Brown attacked an army station at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. He wanted to use the guns he stole to start a slave uprising. In the end, he failed, and he was captured, put on trial and hung for treason. John Brown became a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Northerners might have seen the Dred Scott case as proof that slave power had taken over the government, but Southerners thought John Brown’s attack showed that abolitionists do anything to take away their slaves.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln won as the first Republican President. He was not on the ballot in any southern state. Southerners thought his victory was proof that the North would do anything to get its way and that the South, with fewer people, would be the losers in the end.
Eleven southern states seceded and started the Confederate States of America. Four slave states chose not to secede and stayed in the Union. Lincoln took office hoping to keep the country together but warned the South that if they tried to leave, it would mean war. When Southerners attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Civil War began.
FIGHTING THE CIVIL WAR
The North and South each had strengths and weaknesses going into the Civil War. The North had more people, more factories and more money. However, the North had to take the fight to the South and win. The South just had to hold out until the North gave up. The Southerners saw themselves as fighting for their freedom, which helped them get men to sign up at the start of the war. Later, Northerners saw their armies as fighting to end slavery, a good cause of their own. Most of the army’s best generals were from the South. This hurt the North in the first years of the war until they were able to find new generals.
Both sides thought it would be a short war. After the first battles, it became clear that this was not true. Although the Union general McClellan was good at planning and training the army, he did not want to send them 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 led some to become rich. The government spent a lot of money on guns, uniforms and other equipment for the war, which led to many new factories being built. Although many men wanted to join the army at the start of the war, Lincoln started a draft as the war went on which led to rioting.
To prevent the South from selling its cotton to Europe, the North used the navy to create a blockade of Southern ports. The blockade also stopped ships from bringing food into the South. Women rioted because there was no food to buy.
In both the North and South, the rich found ways to avoid the army, while women ended up in new roles in industry, farming, and the war effort. The Red Cross was started by women during the war.
The turning point of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg. Southern general Robert E. Lee led his army into the North to try to force the North to give up. Although no one won the battle, Robert E. Lee lost more men than he could replace, and it was the last time he would try to take his army into the North. At that same time, Union armies in the South took control of the city of Vicksburg and were able to control all of the Mississippi River. This split the South in half.
It took two more years of fighting after Gettysburg for the North to finally win the war. General William T. Sherman led his Union army through Georgia, destroying everything he could in the first example of modern total war. General Ulysses S. Grant of the North finally destroyed the Confederate capital of Richmond and forced General Lee to surrender.
THE MEANING OF THE WAR
Of course, the war was about slavery, but it had many layers of meaning to the people who lived through it, and also to Americans ever since.
The North and the South both thought their side was fighting for what was right. Northerners fought the war to keep the country together. Later in the war, they started to think they were also fighting to end slavery. Southerners said they were fighting for freedom from control by the North. Both sides thought God was on their side.
Part way through the war, President Abraham Lincoln wrote and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This law freed slaves in places that fighting against the government, so it did nothing for slaves in the four border states that had not joined the Confederacy, or in territory that the Union army had already take over. However, it inspired slaves in the South to run away, and gave the North a moral reason 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 connected to the Revolution back in 1776. The phrase “Four score and seven years ago” is about the Declaration of Independence.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln showed his idea that forgiveness was important and he wanted to rebuild the South without punishing the Southerners. He described the war as a punishment by God against all American for slavery and questioned if anyone could really say God was on their side.
Lincoln was killed two days after the South surrendered. Instead of the war starting up again as those who planned the killing had hoped, it left the country without a strong leader. Andrew Johnson, the vice president who took over, was from Tennessee and was hated by the Republicans who led Congress. They argued again and again about how to rebuild the South.
Primary Source: Photograph
The last known photograph of President Lincoln, taken just a few days before his assassination in 1865.
After the war, Northerners got on with their lives. In the North, you could hardly tell that there had been a war at all. 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 a lot of problems. 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 sharecroppers, working on the same land they did as slaves and giving a part of what they grew 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 right 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. Johnson pardoned Southern leaders and returned their property, except for 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 President to Congress.
Primary Source: Illustration
An illustration of “The Misses Cooke’s school room,” one of many schools operated the South by the Freedman’s Bureau. This illustration appeared in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1866.
After the Civil War, the country made three amendments, or changes to the Constitution. 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. These three amendments are still important today.
Even though there were some good changes for African Americans during Reconstruction, White southern leaders retook control of their states. They passed laws to stop African American from voting. Groups such as the KKK killed African Americans who wanted to have equal rights and scared others. Reconstruction ended in 1877 when Republicans and Democrats compromised. A Republican, Hayes was elected president and northern soldiers left the South. Without the army to make them follow the new laws passed by the Radical Republicans, White southern leaders took over and started the Jim Crow system of segregation. Over time, Redeemers worked to change the meaning of the war. They tried to make people forget that the war was about slavery and tried to get people to think that Southerners were fighting for freedom. The South may have lost the war, but they won the peace.
So, there it is, the story how millions of Americans had to solve the questions of slavery and secession. In the end, our leaders did not keep peace, we had our worst war ever, which the North won. It ended slavery and kept the Union together.
However, as you now know, the war, for all it changed, did not really remake the South or bring real equality for all Americans. And this is why many historians have said that the North won the war, but the South won the peace.
Slavery was terrible for both the slaves and Whites who were doing such a terrible thing. White Americans may have gotten rich because of the work of millions of slaves, but in the end, there was a price to pay.
That price, President Lincoln said, was the war. He thought it was God who let the war come as a punishment for slavery.
What do you think? Was the Civil War a righteous judgement of America for having had slavery?
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- Next: Conclusion
BIG IDEA: In the 1800s, slavery divided America. In 1860 things fell apart and the northern states and southern states fought a long, bloody civil war. The North won, preserving the country, and ending slavery. However, southern White leaders were able to maintain the social hierarchy that kept African Americans at the bottom of the social structure.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
John Brown: A fierce abolitionist who moved to Kansas with his family. He led the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre and later led an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in the hope of leading a slave rebellion that would bring about the end of slavery. He was hated by Southerners but became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.
Abraham Lincoln: President during the Civil War. He started the process to end slavery. Many people think he was our nation’s greatest president.
Ulysses S. Grant: General who led the Union armies at the end of the war. He won the Battle of Vicksburg and Lincoln promoted him to commander of all of the Union Armies. He accepted Lee’s surrender at the end of the war and later was elected president.
Sharecroppers: Farm workers who used land that belonged to someone else and paid by sharing some of what they grew.
Freedmen: Former slaves
Triangle Trade: The trade of slaves, raw materials and finished products between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the British Colonies.
King Cotton: The idea that the cotton industry was the key to the Southern, and more generally American economy.
Abolition: The movement to end slavery.
The Underground Railroad: The antebellum volunteer resistance movement that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom. Although it was not a railroad, the participants of the system used railroad terminology. Safe places for escaped slaves to stay were called stations and the people who guided the slaves were conductors.
Popular Sovereignty: The idea that the residents of each territory should decide for themselves if they would join the Union as a free or slave state. Stephen Douglas supported this idea and it was the heart of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Jim Crow: The nickname for a system of laws that enforced segregation. For example, African Americans had separate schools, rode in the backs of busses, could not drink from White drinking fountains, and could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels, etc.
Dred Scott v. Sanford: A landmark Supreme Court case in 1857 in which Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that the federal government did not have the power to regulate slavery, effectively allowing slavery in all states, North and South, as well as the territories. The outcome of the case infuriated abolitionists who saw it as a major expansion of the power of slave owners over the federal government.
Gettysburg Address: Lincoln’s famous speech in 1863 in which he outlined the purpose of the war.
Confederate States of America: Also called the Confederacy – the slave-holding states from the South that seceded.
Battle of Gettysburg: The turning point battle of the war. Lee led his army into Pennsylvania hoping to force the North to give up but lost the battle.
Reconstruction: The time period after the Civil War ended when the North tried to remake the society of the South. During this time important amendments were passed, but in the end many things didn’t change.
Emancipation Proclamation: President Lincoln’s official order freeing all slaves in the rebelling territories (but not in the Border States that had remained in the Union).
13th, 14th and 15th Amendments: The three amendments to the Constitution ratified after the Civil War during Reconstruction. They ended slavery, gave citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and gave voting rights to all men.