A History of the Civil War, from the Preceding Crisis to the End of Reconstruction


“The Great Meeting in Union Square, New York, to Support the Government, April 20, 1861” originally published in Harpers’ Weekly May 4, 1861 / Wikimedia Commons

Examining the initial fractures, course, and ultimate resolution of the Civil War that divided the nation.


Decade of Crisis

Slave Resistance

During the 1850s, Americans witnessed a decade of sectional crises that threatened the very existence of the Union. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right in predicting that the Mexican Cession would reignite the explosive issue of slavery expansion. The newly acquired territory lay beyond the Louisiana Purchase and therefore was not part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Californians were clamoring for statehood, the residents of Utah and New Mexico deserved territorial governments, abolitionists wanted to prohibit slavery in Washington, and Southerners demanded a more effective fugitive slave law. The sectional battle lines were forming. Southerners took an increasingly aggressive stance in defending their “peculiar institution,” while criticism of slavery intensified in the north. The debate was sharpened by the refusal of African-Americans to passively accept their bondage.

Most slaves led harsh and brutal lives. They were frequently whipped and sometimes branded or mutilated. On the larger plantations the majority of slaves worked in the fields, generally from daybreak until sundown, under the supervision of an overseer and his drivers. Domestic slaves might wear fine clothes and be trusted with the raising of their master’s children, but they were under constant white supervision and subject to the whims of their owners. Slave families could be heartlessly separated, and free blacks—in the north and south—were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Illustration of Gabriel Prosser / Public Domain

Black resistance to enslavement took many forms, and played an important role in fashioning a compromise to the sectional controversy in 1850. Armed rebellion by the slaves was extremely rare, but a few potentially violent plots were uncovered during the early nineteenth century. The first was organized in 1800 by Gabriel Prosser, and involved about 50 slaves living near Richmond, Virginia. Hundreds of slaves learned about the planned uprising, and two of them informed the white authorities. Governor James Monroe called out the militia and Prosser and 25 of his followers were executed, although their owners received compensation. Denmark Vesey, a literate carpenter who purchased his freedom from lottery winnings, spent five years devising an elaborate scheme to seize control of Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey also was betrayed by slaves and hanged along with 35 fellow conspirators, in the summer of 1822.

The only significant slave insurrection during the antebellum period was Nat Turner’s Rebellion. A literate slave, Turner believed that it was his divine mission to “slay my enemies with their own weapons.” In 1831, he led about 30 slaves on a murderous rampage through tidewater Virginia, killing close to 60 men, women, and children. A wholesale slaughter of blacks took place before the uprising was put down. Turner eluded his pursuers for two months before being captured, tried, and executed. In response to the revolt, southern states strictly enforced laws prohibiting the education of slaves, and increased surveillance of free African-Americans. Northern black sailors were sometimes incarcerated while their ships were anchored in southern ports, and throughout the countryside mounted “slave patrols” were increased to prevent blacks from meeting without whites present and to catch runaway slaves.

African-Americans usually took less desperate measures than armed rebellion in their struggle against the “peculiar institution.” White Southerners frequently complained of slaves refusing to work hard, breaking their tools, stealing food, and committing petty acts of sabotage or arson. Many slaves ran away, sometimes in an effort to avoid punishment or to visit nearby family members. Most were soon caught or returned voluntarily after a few days. On average, about 1,000 slaves succeeded in fleeing to free states each year, using their skills and cunning to outwit their owners and pursuers. Henry “Box” Brown managed to be shipped in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia. Ellen Craft disguised herself as a sickly male slaveholder and escaped to the North with her husband, who posed as her slave.

Some fugitive slaves were aided by the Underground Railroad once they reached the free states. Although its effectiveness and scope were exaggerated after the Civil War, the “railroad” was a loosely organized group of abolitionist “conductors” who operated safe-house “stations” in northern states and transported their “passengers” to freedom in Canada, beyond the reach of slave catchers. Harriett Tubman, dubbed “the Moses of her people,” was the most famous Underground Railroad conductor. She escaped from Maryland in 1849, and risked her freedom by returning from Canada 19 times to rescue some 300 slaves—including her parents. During the Civil War, she served as a Union spy.

It is likely that more slaves were emancipated by their owners or purchased their freedom than ever escaped, but fugitive slaves increased sectional tensions. In 1842, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Prigg v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that Congress had the sole power to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This led to the passage of “personal liberty laws” in several northern states, designed to protect the rights of alleged fugitive slaves by prohibiting state officials from assisting in their capture. Southerners complained that these laws made it impossible to return their escaped property, and demanded a more stringent fugitive slave act. Adding further fuel to an already explosive issue, some Northerners called upon Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and ban it from the Mexican Cession. Clearly, a political compromise was needed to settle the sectional controversy.

The Compromise of 1850

The United States after the Compromise of 1850 / Golbez, Wikimedia Commons

When California residents applied for statehood after the Gold Rush swelled the population, Congress faced a dilemma. Northerners were a solid majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate was equally divided between 15 free and 15 slave states. Southerners dominated the Supreme Court and Zachary Taylor, who owned plantations and slaves in Louisiana and Mississippi, was in the White House. California sought admission as a free state, and this threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance. Northerners also expected Utah and New Mexico, in need of territorial governments, to eventually join the Union as free states.

It was Senator Henry Clay, the “Great Pacificator,” who attempted to settle the sectional crisis in a sweeping political compromise. In January 1850, the 72 year-old Kentucky Whig introduced a series of resolutions that called for the admission of California as a free state; the organization of territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico, without “any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery”; the abolition of the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia; a more stringent fugitive slave act, to circumvent the various personal liberty laws; and the scaling back of the Texas boundary claims in return for the federal assumption of the state’s debts. Clay implicitly supported the popular sovereignty principle regarding the Mexican Cession, rejecting both the Wilmot Proviso and a federal slave code for the western territory.

Clay defended his proposals in a lengthy two-day speech delivered to the Senate in February, but not everyone in the audience was prepared to compromise. John C. Calhoun was too feeble to speak as scheduled on March 4, so his defiant final thoughts on the sectional crisis were read to the Senate by James M. Mason of Virginia. Calhoun argued that Southerners had “no compromise to offer,” because the North had been chipping away at the political equality of slaveholders since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Northerners must concede to the South the right to carry slaves into the Mexican Cession, return all fugitive slaves, and “cease the agitation of the slave question.” Calhoun died before the month ended, but his unyielding opposition to compromise was espoused by Jefferson Davis and a younger generation of southern “fire-eaters”—the most aggressive supporters of slavery and, ultimately, secession.

Daniel Webster, along with Clay and Calhoun part of the “Great Triumvirate,” rose in the Senate for his last significant address on March 7. “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union,” he began, “Hear me for my cause.” The Massachusetts Whig eloquently upheld Clay’s resolutions, claiming that the Wilmot Proviso was unnecessary because the “laws of nature” prevented slavery from flourishing in the inhospitable western climate and soil. He failed to convince New England abolitionists, however, who denounced Webster for also supporting a stronger fugitive slave law. John Greenleaf Whittier dismissed the once “God-like Daniel” in a vitriolic poem, “Ichabod”.

William Henry Seward, a 48 year-old New York Whig and an implacable foe of compromise, spoke on March 11. He demanded the immediate admission of California as a free state, without any concessions to the South. Seward argued, “There is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain.” This extra-Constitutional “higher law” idea was frightening to Unionists, and came back to haunt Seward when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Lewis Cass, “The Father of Popular Sovereignty,” joined the Senate debate and echoed Webster’s support for Clay’s proposals in an effort “to calm this agitation.”

On April 18, the Senate chose Henry Clay to chair a Committee of Thirteen, formed to draft compromise legislation. The other 12 members, including Webster and Cass, were equally divided between Northerners and Southerners, and Whigs and Democrats. In May, the committee reported three bills to the Senate. The first, dubbed the “Omnibus bill,” called for the admission of a free California, settled the Texas boundary, and established territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico. The other bills strengthened the fugitive slave law and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Henry Clay / Wikimedia Commons

As the debate continued through the hot summer months, it became clear that Clay’s strategy was failing because senators who opposed any section of the Omnibus bill were prepared to vote against it. President Taylor, for his part, saw no reason why California’s admission to the Union should be linked to a larger compromise. On the Fourth of July, the president endured hours of oratory under a broiling sun. Upon returning to the White House, he attempted to cool off by consuming excessive amounts of cucumbers, cherries, and iced milk. He died five days later of a violent stomach disorder. Millard Fillmore, who was sworn in as the thirteenth president, was pledged to support a legislative compromise. Nevertheless, a majority of the Senate still opposed the Omnibus bill in its entirety and, on August 1, only the provision establishing the Utah territorial government was passed.

Bitterly disappointed, Clay gave up the struggle and left Washington for the more healthful climate of the Rhode Island seashore. But the victory of those opposed to a comprehensive accord was short-lived. Stephen A. Douglas, a young Democratic senator from Illinois, assumed the task of dividing Clay’s remaining proposals into individual bills and steering them through Congress. By late September, the legislation collectively known as the Compromise of 1850 was signed into law by President Fillmore. California was admitted as a free state, Utah and New Mexico were created as territories, Texas was compensated with ten million dollars for accepting its present-day borders, the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia, and a more stringent fugitive slave law was enacted. Stephen Douglas, nicknamed the “Little Giant,” proudly declared that “the whole country” accepted the Compromise as the “final settlement” to the sectional controversy.

Americans generally supported the Compromise of 1850, with the exception of political extremists in both the north and the south. The Fugitive Slave Act was particularly galling to many Northerners. Alleged runaways were not permitted a jury trial or allowed to testify at their hearing, and the commissioners who decided the cases were paid ten dollars if they returned accused fugitives to slavery but only five dollars if they released them. In addition, “all good citizens” were “commanded to aid and assist in the prompt execution of this law.” Anyone obstructing the return of a fugitive slave or participating in a rescue was liable to a maximum fine of 1,000 dollars and a six-month term of imprisonment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected the feelings of many Northerners when he wrote, “This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write.” He asserted that no one could obey the Fugitive Slave Act without the “loss of self-respect.” A fellow New Englander put it even more bluntly—the law he reckoned placed the value of an escaped slave at 1,000 dollars, and the price of a Yankee soul at five.

Northern opposition to the law flared when slave catchers attempted to return fugitives to their owners. One of the first arrests took place in October 1850 at Detroit. Giles Rose, employed as a laborer by a former governor of Michigan, was accused of escaping from Tennessee and placed in the custody of the federal marshal. Armed blacks, including several hundred that crossed over from Canada, surrounded the jail and threatened to free Rose. Before blood was shed in a rescue attempt, a town meeting was held and 500 dollars was swiftly raised to purchase his freedom.

More spectacular rescues took place in the year following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Ellen and William Craft were rushed to safety by Boston abolitionists before a Georgia slave catcher could claim them. Frederick “Shadrach” Minkins (variously known as Wilkins or Jenkins), working as a waiter in a Boston coffeehouse, was arrested as a fugitive but freed by a band of African-American citizens. In Syracuse, New York, the Liberty Party was holding its state convention when William “Jerry” Henry, a known fugitive from Missouri, was arrested. An angry crowd marched on the building where he was held. Led by Gerrit Smith, one of the wealthiest men in the state, and Jermain Loguen, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and himself a fugitive, the rescuers broke down the door with a battering ram. Henry was taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario to freedom in Canada.

Despite some successes by antislavery Northerners, more than 200 runaways were returned to the south under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When an abolitionist newspaper editor in Wisconsin, Sherman Booth, was jailed in 1854 for assisting in the rescue of an escaped slave, the state legislature declared the federal law to be “void, and of no force.” The slavery issue transcended Constitutional theory—even northern states were willing to embrace Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification in the sectional struggle. Several other northern states also passed new “personal liberty laws,” making it difficult for federal authorities to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1859 the Supreme Court ruled in Abelman v. Booth that the law was constitutional, and Booth returned to jail. Nonetheless, the Fugitive Slave Act was essentially unenforceable in many parts of the North by the mid-1850s.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Title page for Volume I of the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) / Wikimedia Commons

The most significant response to the Fugitive Slave Act came from the pen of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin ran serially for nearly a year in an abolitionist newspaper, before it was published as a book in early 1852. It was an immediate and phenomenal success—selling 10,000 copies its first week in print, and 300,000 within a year. By the time of the Civil War, several million copies were in circulation, and many Union soldiers received their first lessons in the “peculiar institution” from the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More than anything else, Stowe’s novel released pent-up feelings of guilt and revulsion toward slavery among Northerners who previously had not given much thought to the sectional controversy. What was once primarily a political or constitutional issue, took on the trappings of a moral crusade.

The visceral impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was due largely to the enchanting characters that seemingly leaped to life from its pages. Tom was vividly described as a long-suffering saintly slave; Eva, an angelic daughter of white slave owners; and Simon Legree, a native of Vermont, was the brutal slave driver who whipped Tom to death. A melodramatic plot captured the imaginations of readers and moved many to tears. In one memorable scene a mulatto slave, Eliza Harris, heroically fled across the ice floes of the Ohio River with her son clutched in her arms and the slave catchers’ bloodhounds baying at her heels. Stowe championed domestic and family values, and graphically depicted how the institution of slavery corrupted the Christian virtues of both whites and blacks. She later remarked that God wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and certainly she was profoundly influenced by the Second Great Awakening. Her father, brother, and husband were all evangelical ministers who embraced abolitionism. Stowe was denounced in the south as that “vile wretch in petticoats,” but her novel was a propaganda victory for the antislavery cause.

Southern writers attempted futilely in the ensuing “cabin wars” to portray slavery as a benign institution. Aunt Phyllis’s Cabin, for example, described Christian masters who neither whipped their slaves nor broke up families. Literary defenders of the “peculiar institution” contended that the slaves themselves were more satisfied with their lot than the desperate “wage slaves” of the northern factories. Such efforts did little, however, to change Northern sentiments toward slavery. Instead, Uncle Tom’s Cabin inflamed public opinion in both the north and the south during the 1850s. For millions of Americans, Stowe imbued the slavery issue with an emotional fervor that hastened the Civil War.

The Ostend Manifesto

Manifest Destiny remained a driving force in the years following the war with Mexico. Throughout the nation Democrats, especially, flocked to the “Young America” movement, which championed the European revolutionaries of 1848 and the spread of democratic ideals around the globe. Expansionists also sought new markets and further territorial acquisitions. Southerners particularly coveted Cuba, the final remnant of Spain’s once grand empire in the Western Hemisphere, and they had an ally in the White House. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat from New Hampshire, defeated General Winfield Scott for the presidency in 1852, despite being derided by abolitionists as “a northern man with southern principles.” The Pierce administration actively sought to annex Cuba, lying 90 miles off the Florida Keys, even though President James K. Polk’s previous offer of 100 million dollars for the island had been scornfully rejected by the Spanish government.

On February 28, 1854, an incident took place in Havana, Cuba, that heightened the tensions between the United States and Spain. An American merchant ship, the Black Warrior, was seized by Spanish authorities and its owners subsequently fined six thousand dollars for violating customs regulations. Southerners were willing to use this affront to national honor as a pretext for war with Spain, expecting to gain Cuba in the process. Spanish officials, however, realized the gravity of the situation and soon released the Black Warrior. This temporarily defused the diplomatic crisis, but the Pierce administration responded with a secret plan to acquire Cuba.

Pierre Soulé, the driving force behind the Ostend Manifesto / The Historic New Orleans Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Secretary of State William L. Marcy, a New Yorker, instructed several American diplomats in Europe to devise a solution to the Cuba question. Two of the ministers were aggressively in favor of extending slavery—Pierre Soulé of Louisiana, who represented the U.S. in Madrid; and James M. Mason of Virginia, ambassador to France. The third was James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, minister to Great Britain, who joined many northern Democrats who supported territorial expansion, be it slave or free. The American ministers first met in Ostend, Belgium, before concluding their talks at Aix-la-Chapelle in Prussia. They drafted a truly remarkable document, known as the Ostend Manifesto, on October 18, 1854. Soulé, Mason, and Buchanan claimed that Cuba was “an unceasing danger, and a permanent cause of anxiety and alarm” to the United States. They urged the Pierce administration to “purchase Cuba from Spain at any price for which it can be obtained.” If the Spanish refused to sell the island, however, Americans, “By every law, human and divine, . . . shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power.” The Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the New York Herald, and it created a furor in the north. The Pierce administration appeared ready to go to war with Spain to acquire more slave territory. Secretary of State Marcy publicly disavowed the “buccaneering document,” and Soulé resigned in protest. The Ostend Manifesto, coupled with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, drove a wedge between the North and the South and undermined the effectiveness of the Compromise of 1850 as the final solution to the sectional controversy.

The Approaching War

Kansas-Nebraska Act

Many Americans believed that a transcontinental railroad would unify the United States by linking eastern and western points of the rapidly expanding nation. Not everyone, however, agreed where the railroad should be built. U.S. minister to Mexico James Gadsden, a Southerner, wanted the route to go through Texas and the New Mexico Territory to the Pacific Ocean. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, meanwhile, supported a plan to wind the railroad through Chicago and the Nebraska Territory, where he owned a sizable amount of land. Douglas’s proposal, though, faced substantial obstacles—the U.S. government had designated the region as Indian Territory and banned white settlers.

Douglas refused to let anything block his plan. He supported the decision by the federal government to revoke earlier land grant promises and force the Indians to move. The senator then developed a political scheme to win the support of Southerners, the primary backers of Gadsden’s plan. In 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which split the territory into two sections, slave state Kansas and free state Nebraska. He believed in popular sovereignty and pushed to let the residents of each territory decide whether their state would permit slavery. Douglas called for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30’ line because both Nebraska and Kansas were located north of the line.

Missouri Compromise line (36°30′ parallel) in dark blue, 1820. Territory above this line would be reserved for free states, and below, slave states. / Wikimedia Commons

The senator realized that the opportunity to create another slave state would entice Southerners to support his plan, which they did with enthusiasm. He drove the bill through Congress and, in the process, angered a majority of his fellow Northerners. Douglas knew that Southerners would whole-heartedly support his plan; however, he seriously miscalculated reaction from Northerners. Outraged protesters declared the compromise repeal “a gross violation of a sacred pledge.” The decision to reopen the slavery issue to allow more slave states re-ignited decades-old conflict between Northerners and Southerners and set the foundation for the coming Civil War.

Kansas’ fertile farm land and its location next to Missouri, a slave state, made it the most likely of the new territories to support slavery. However, since popular sovereignty gave the citizens of the territory the right to decide the issue, both abolitionists and “proslavery-ites” recruited settlers to establish a majority there. One organization, the New England Emigrant Aid Company, sent thousands of people to Kansas. The company armed the pioneers with rifles nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles,” after the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher who raised money to purchase the weapons. The group traveled to the new territory singing a marching song penned by Quaker poet Whittier.

Southerners who supported Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act became irate when abolitionists attempted to make both Nebraska and Kansas free states. Leading Southerners refused to lose both territories to the “Negro-loving free-soilers,” and encouraged many settlers, including several slave-owners, to claim Kansas land. The proslavery-ites, who like their Northern counterparts were also well-armed, shouted their own rallying cry.

As the two groups convinced more and more followers to move to Kansas, their anger and hostility toward each other swelled. Skirmishes took place throughout the territory and conflicts over land claims often grew violent. In 1855, residents went to the polls to elect members of the territory’s first legislature. However, armed slavery supporters from Missouri, angry that “foreigners” from New England were trying to “steal” Kansas, poured across the border to vote repeatedly. Although a census recorded almost 3,000 eligible voters, more than 6,000 votes were cast. The Missourian’s strong-arm tactics vaulted slavery supporters to victory and established Kansas as a slave state. Abolitionists considered the government fraudulent and arranged their own regime based in the town of Topeka. Both groups claimed authority over the territory but neither had secured the right legally.

President Pierce fanned the flames of controversy by denouncing the free state government. In 1856, the crisis reached its boiling point when a mob of proslavery-ites raided the free-soil town of Lawrence. They looted stores, burned buildings, and destroyed the town’s printing press. The violent attack was just the first of many to come and prompted journalists to call the escalating conflict “Bleeding Kansas.”

The controversy in Kansas reflected a growing crisis that was consuming the entire nation. Tension between American-born citizens and immigrants, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews altered the political landscape. New political parties emerged to support the various religious and ethnic causes. The Know-Nothings maintained an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic platform, but bigotry was not an effective base for a national party and they soon disbanded. Many northern Know-Nothings, Whigs, and Democrats angry at President Pierce for his Kansas policy joined forces in the summer of 1854 to form the Republican Party.

The new party, comprised of mostly Northerners, clashed with Southerners over many federally funded programs, including harbor and river improvements and the trans-continental railroad. Although many abolitionists voted Republican, not all Republicans were strictly antislavery. Many of the party members simply did not want blacks—free or slave—in the territory. The Republican Party grew quickly throughout the northern states and soon became a prominent player in American politics.

Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott c. 1857 / Wikimedia Commons

The controversy surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act affected the 1856 Democratic presidential nomination. Party members vetoed the selection of two prominent figures involved with the act—Stephen Douglas and Franklin Pierce. Rather, delegates elected James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania lawyer not connected with the Kansas-Nebraska affair. Therefore, Democratic leaders believed he was safe from Republican scrutiny.

Buchanan sailed to an easy victory over Republican candidate John Frémont and ex-president Millard Fillmore, who represented the Know-Nothings. At the core of the Buchanan victory was a group of southern ruffians who violently threatened war and secession should the “slave-loving” Frémont take office. The threats worried Northerners, who made up the majority of the Republican Party. Since the Republicans were primarily businessmen, and the possibility of losing their profitable business connections with the South would be a financial disaster. Therefore, many Republicans begrudgingly voted for Buchanan.

Two days after Buchanan took the oath of office, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that would push the nation one step closer to Civil War. The case involved Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who frequently traveled with his owner through Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. In 1846, Scott sued his owner’s widow for his freedom. He claimed that his residence in free state Illinois, and in the Wisconsin Territory, where the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery, made him a free man.

After several years in litigation, the case made it to the United States Supreme Court. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney announced the dismissal of Scott’s case. The Supreme Court—with five of its nine members from slave states—ruled that black people were not citizens of the United States. Since Scott was not a U.S. citizen, he could not sue for his liberty. Taney also announced that even if Scott had been considered a citizen, his residence in the Wisconsin Territory did not qualify him to be free. Taney argued that, in his opinion, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it deprived citizens of their property—slaves in this case—without the due process of the law outlined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Taney’s ruling declared that since slave owners could take their “property” anywhere, Congress could not ban slavery from the territories.

The Supreme Court’s decision shocked and angered blacks, abolitionists, and popular sovereignty supporters who had fought to end—or at least limit—the expansion of slavery. Republicans responded by declaring that the Court’s ruling was an opinion and, therefore, was not enforceable. Southerners were outraged at the Northerners’ blatant defiance of the Supreme Court’s verdict and promptly revisited their secession discussions. With these actions, the nation crept closer to war.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates / U.S. Post Office, Wikimedia Commons

The Dred Scott case played a pivotal role in the 1858 Illinois senate race and in the 1860 presidential election. Eyeing Stephen Douglas’s seat in the Senate, Abraham Lincoln challenged the incumbent to a series of debates. The two politicians differed in almost every respect. Lincoln, a tall and lanky Republican with a high-pitched voice, relied on his whit and integrity to provide a comforting sense of sincerity. Douglas, meanwhile, was a short, barrel-chested Democrat whose sweeping gestures and booming voice consistently captured the attention of his audiences. Many historians call Douglas the best speaker of his time, which emphasizes the boldness of Lincoln’s challenge.

The seven debates took place in cities throughout Illinois but garnered national attention. The topics discussed on the plains of the Midwest mirrored the issues that concerned all Americans. The viewpoints and ideas presented by both Lincoln and Douglas set the tone for political discussions for years to come.

Perhaps the most famous Lincoln-Douglas debate took place in Freeport, Illinois. Referring to the Dred Scott case, Lincoln asked his opponent if the residents of a territory could exclude slavery before the territory became a state. The Republican, who, like the majority of his party, believed slavery to be a moral issue, hoped to back Douglas into a corner by forcing him to comment on popular sovereignty and slavery. If Douglas continued to support popular sovereignty, his views would contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling that seemed to prohibit a territorial legislature from excluding slavery before statehood. Douglas replied that in order for slavery to exist, laws were necessary to protect it. If no such laws were established, slave-owners would not reside there and the territory would be free. He concluded that if the residents did nothing, slavery would essentially be excluded from the territory. Douglas effectively answered the question without offending pro or antislavery supporters. His famous response became known as the Freeport Doctrine.

Although Lincoln proved to be a formidable challenger, Douglas employed his superior debating skills to maintain his position in the Senate. Lincoln, however, was by no means a loser. He showed his strengths as a leader not just to the citizens of Illinois, but to the people of America. The modest, Kentucky-born lawyer placed Republican ideals before a national audience and influenced the fledgling party’s strong showing in the 1858 congressional elections.

During the next several months leading up to the 1860 presidential election, Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine would resurface and cost him the Democratic nomination. Many Southerners, primarily boisterous Democrats who influenced many party members, focused on the senator’s statement that the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision could be circumvented. They refused to support a candidate who did not completely back their views on slavery.

Lincoln, on the other hand, catapulted to the top of the Republican Party and received its nomination for president. The emergence of the Republican Party in the north put southern Democrats on the defensive. Although neither party actually campaigned for or against slavery, antislavery supporters began to associate themselves with Republicans while proslavery backers tended to support Democrats. A wall of hostility and bitterness soon separated Northerners from Southerners. As the election of 1860 approached, and Abraham Lincoln’s popularity soared, southern radicals openly discussed secession should the Republican win the White House.

John Brown’s Raid

Harper’s Weekly illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown’s “Fort” / Wikimedia Commons

Tension between the North and South over the slavery issue grew more intense as the election of 1860 drew near. Violent reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act spread rapidly throughout the nation. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision deepened the divide between Northerners and Southerners—antislavery supporters and proslavery-ites. In 1859, fifty-nine-year-old John Brown devised a plan to provoke a slave revolt to answer the “sacking” of Lawrence, Kansas by radical slavery backers three years earlier.

The Bible-toting abolitionist believed that he was appointed by God to rid the nation of slavery. He turned his home in Ohio into a station on the Underground Railroad, and for a brief period lived in North Elba, a free black community in New York. While Brown planned his retaliatory strike in Virginia, he was a wanted man for several violent raids in Kansas and Missouri. In 1856, two days after Missouri marauders attacked Lawrence, Brown gathered a group of volunteers and raided Pottawatomie Creek. The group savagely murdered five proslavery supporters, mutilating the bodies beyond recognition. Brown and his band moved from town to town, raising havoc in the name of God and antislavery supporters.

The fight over slavery in Kansas pressed President Buchanan to establish a legitimate government there. He appointed Robert Walker as territorial governor to oversee the election of a constitutional convention in 1857. However, those wanting a free state feared that proslavery forces would use intimidation and violence to garner fraudulent votes and boycotted the election, which was held in Lecompton. Consequently, slavery supporters dominated the convention and eventually drafted a proslavery constitution called the Lecompton Constitution. As Buchanan pushed Congress to approve the constitution, Northerners and antislavery supporters, including Brown, became irate.

During the next year, Brown formulated a plan to start a slave rebellion and form a free state for blacks. The heart of the plan involved attacking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He rented a farmhouse a few miles from the armory and studied the site’s layout. With each passing month, more volunteers, including Brown’s sons, arrived at the farmhouse to join the operation. Brown also secured financial backing for his plan from several wealthy Northerners, commonly referred to as The Secret Six. He shared his strategy with approximately 20 volunteers, but he left most of the plan’s details to divine guidance. Brown believed that that God would intervene to provide exactly what the group needed to succeed.

On a crisp fall night in 1859, Brown and his gang advanced toward Harpers Ferry and cut the telegraph lines. The men overpowered the few night watchmen assigned to guard the armory and took several townspeople hostage. Brown then sent his men to look for more hostages. They particularly wanted to find Lewis Washington, a local slaveholder and the great-grandnephew of George Washington. Brown believed that a hostage of his stature would attract additional attention to his cause. The group returned with a handful of hostages, including Washington. Brown explained his mission to the hostages and anyone else within earshot.

“I came here from Kansas, and this is a slave State. I want to free all the negroes in this State; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood.”

Word of Brown’s scheme quickly spread throughout the town. The abolitionist figured it was only a matter of time before droves of runaway slaves and sympathetic whites arrived at the armory to pick up their weapons and fight for freedom for all slaves. He and his men shuffled the hostages into the compound’s engine house and waited for the next phase of the plan. However, the slaves never showed up. Ironically, the area Brown selected for his slave uprising had very few slaves, and the ones living there were well off and in no hurry to cause trouble.

Early the next morning, Brown’s men shot a railroad employee. The townspeople heard the shots and sent for help. Before long, Brown and his gang were surrounded by local militiamen and a company of United States Marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee. President Buchanan, who had been told that the uprising involved more than 700 blacks and whites, ordered three artillery companies and Lee’s unit to respond. Since the Marines were based nearby, they were the first soldiers to arrive.

Brown repeatedly tried to negotiate freedom for his surviving followers, but a cease fire never happened. Lee and his Marines eventually rushed the building and captured Brown and four of his men. The fight left Brown beaten, bleeding, and unconscious. Inside the engine house and the home that Brown and his group rented, federal forces found crates filled with weapons intended to arm the defiant slaves.

Brown and the surviving members of his gang were charged with murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state of Virginia. Brown’s lawyer planned to enter an insanity plea, but the accused refused to go along because he wanted to become a martyr in death. The trial lasted four days, and the jury deliberated for less than one hour before finding Brown guilty and sentencing him to death. The devout abolitionist, lying on a cot in the court room because he was still weak from the wounds he suffered during his capture, was granted an opportunity to address the people. Brown spoke slowly so reporters could capture every word for the following day’s newspapers.

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is not wrong, but right. Now, it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.” Although Brown’s actions were backed by a small group of wealthy New Yorkers, Southerners linked the violence to all Northerners. Additionally, since Northerners comprised a majority of the Republican Party, Democrats used the incident to claim that “the raid was the result of the teachings of the Republican Party.” To many Southerners, Civil War now seemed inevitable.

The Civil War

Military Strategy

View of Richmond above the Canal Basin, after the Evacuation Fire of 1865 / U.S. Archives, Wikimedia Commons

When the Civil War began, there were fewer than 20,000 soldiers in the national army, and thousands of those troops soon moved south to fight for the Confederacy. The secession of Virginia also prompted a large exodus of some of the military’s most experienced officers. President Lincoln quickly called for northern states to send volunteers, totaling 75,000, to join the Union army. The Confederacy did not have an established army or navy and also turned to militia groups from the southern states to supply soldiers.

As leaders for both sides mobilized their troops, strategic plans began to take shape. It became obvious that politics would play a major role in military tactics. Southerners sought their independence and prepared for a defensive battle while Northerners developed offensive campaigns to preserve the Union. Lincoln believed that the time to negotiate had passed and Northerners would have to physically overpower the Confederates to win control of the southern states.

The Union’s attention focused directly on Richmond, Virginia, the new capital of the Confederacy. During the spring of 1861, the Confederate government voted to move its capital from Montgomery, Alabama to the larger city in Virginia where railroad transportation was more readily available. The move also underscored the Confederacy’s dedication to defend the Upper South. The new location placed the Northern and Southern capitals within 100 miles of each other. As events unfolded, the area became one of the war’s most active theaters of operation.

When Lincoln announced the call for troops, he requested that the men sign three-month service agreements. Neither side figured the war would last that long. Southerners hoped that Northerners would tire of the war and give in to the Confederacy’s demands. However, Southerners misjudged the Union’s commitment to reunite the nation, and Northerners failed to realize the difficulty of subduing the Confederate army.

When Southerners attacked Fort Sumter, many northern politicians rallied around Lincoln. Democrat Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln defeated for the presidency, offered the Republican leader his support. “There can be no neutrals in this war,” said Douglas, “only patriots or traitors.”

After a few failed attempts by Northerners to advance into enemy territory in Virginia, Lincoln gathered his advisors to discuss their options. The president then decided to initiate a blockade on all southern ports and gain control of the Mississippi River. Referred to as the Anaconda Plan, Lincoln intended to cut off all routes to the south, essentially placing a stranglehold on imports and exports. If the Union could stop weapons, food, and clothing from entering the southern states, and prevent cotton and tobacco sales, Lincoln rationalized that he could starve the Southerners into surrendering.

The fighting was not always limited to the battlefield. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats clashed over legislation to support the war, and not everyone agreed on how to finance the campaign. A group of Democrats, called the “Copperheads,” opposed any effort to support the fighting. Some say they got their name from the copper pennies they wore around their necks; others claim their enemies named them after the poisonous snake. The group planned to get enough followers elected to win control of Congress and force peace negotiations. Although they were not considered disloyal to the Union, they did not generate much support from Northerners who had friends and family members in the military.

Many Southerners theorized that European nations would support their independence. They believed that England would like to see the United States split to eliminate the threat to their economic and territorial ambitions. However, a wholesale endorsement never materialized because the majority of Britons detested slavery. England and France did declare themselves neutral and allowed merchants from the two countries to trade with both Southern and Northern forces. The Confederacy, however, never received exclusive support from foreign nations.

The high-level military strategies for the North and South continued to be attack and defend. Union soldiers attempted to advance on southern soil to capture Confederate land, while Southerners entrenched themselves in key locations to defend their territory.

The Battles

The Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup / Wikimedia Commons

With the beginning of the war still fresh in their minds, and expectations that fighting would be intense but short, Union troops were eager for action. Cries of “On to Richmond” echoed across the hills surrounding Washington as the troops advanced on Confederate forces near Bull Run, approximately 30 miles southwest of the northern capital. President Lincoln believed an attack on a smaller Confederate unit would boost morale and clear a path to Richmond, where he hoped to capture the Confederate capital. A quick end to the war would save the Union and avoid severe damage to the economy.

The inexperienced Union troops, however, encountered determined Confederate soldiers who refused to give up their ground. On July 21, 1861, a Virginia brigade led by Thomas J. Jackson blocked the Yankee advance like a stone wall. Jackson became a southern war hero and the nickname “Stonewall” Jackson stuck. The counterattack by the Southerners effectively pushed back the Union troops. Many Yankee soldiers even dropped their guns and supplies in their hasty retreat.

The impressive win at Bull Run greatly boosted the Confederates soldiers’ confidence—and egos. Southerners bragged about their victory and believed they had proven their military superiority. A feeling of pride swept through the south and many thought the war was over. Southern enlistment numbers dropped sharply, and plans to advance through northern territory to capture Washington were slow to materialize. Although the victory over the Union army at Bull Run was a mighty success, it would later be discovered that it actually harmed the cause of the Confederacy.

The humbling defeat at Bull Run required the Union army to regroup. The Yankees made plans for a longer and more difficult struggle. Congress authorized the enlistment of 500,000 troops. This time, however, they were signed to three year agreements to make sure there was enough manpower to survive an extended war.

In late 1861, Lincoln appointed General George McClellan to lead a major Union force called the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln believed that McClellan, a well-liked and passionate leader, would be able to drill the Union troops into battle-ready shape. McClellan worked on raising the morale of his troops and preparing them for war. But the red-haired general was overly cautious and believed that the Confederate army heavily outnumbered him. He expanded the training for the Yankee troops for several more months. The Union army’s inactivity worried Lincoln. The Commander-in-Chief wanted to engage the enemy and move ahead with his plans to capture Richmond and divide the Confederacy by marching through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Lincoln finally ordered McClellan to advance. The general formulated a plan to bypass the difficult terrain of Virginia and use a water route to approach Richmond. The capital city rested on the western portion of a narrow peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers. The Peninsula Campaign called for McClellan and about 100,000 troops to slowly work their way up the James River toward Richmond. In the spring of 1862, as the Union soldiers moved along the eastern coastline toward the peninsula, fighting in the area moved to the water. The USS Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack participated in history’s first fight between armored ships. The powerful ironclads battled to a standstill when the Merrimack began taking on water and returned to Norfolk.

The Union’s naval technology and perseverance secured the waterway for the North and helped the Yankees capture Yorktown. McClellan proceeded up the river where he was scheduled to meet up with reinforcements before attacking the capital. Lincoln, however, diverted the reinforcements to attack Stonewall Jackson’s regiment that was raising havoc in the Shenandoah Valley and threatening the security of Washington, D.C.

With the unexpected change in plans, McClellan’s group stalled near Richmond. The delay gave Robert E. Lee time to launch an attack on the Union troops. The Seven Days’ battles took place between June 26 and July 2, 1862 and eventually forced McClellan back to the coast. More than 10,000 Union soldiers died and nearly 20,000 Southerners lost their lives in the week-long fighting. Once again, the Confederacy pinned an embarrassing loss on the North and forced Union leaders to re-evaluate their plans.

General George B. McClellan / Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln grew tired of McClellan’s leisurely pace and intense focus on capturing Richmond without demolishing the army protecting it. The president realized that to win the war, enemy forces had to be dismantled. McClellan’s vision of war as a chess game featuring more strategy than fighting, did not appeal to Lincoln or Congress. Consequently, the president relieved the general of his authority and placed him under General Henry Halleck.

Many historians believe that if McClellan had not surrendered his position outside Richmond and had captured the city when he had the chance, the war might have ended, the Union might have been saved, and slavery might have remained as it was before fighting began. Up to that point, Northerners were still fighting to save the Union, not to eliminate slavery. However, by losing another battle to the South, the war was prolonged. Lincoln, who was determined to make the Confederacy pay for the damage it had caused to the Union, focused more attention on freeing the slaves and began work on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now in charge of Union troops in Virginia, General Halleck decided to pull back his forces. Robert E. Lee took advantage of the Yankee regrouping to quickly advance his men north. The group overpowered General John Pope’s regiment and forced them to retreat from Bull Run, the same site where 13 months earlier Union forces suffered their first Civil War defeat.

Reeling from the incompetence of his military leaders, Lincoln again turned to McClellan to get the Union army back on track. As Lee boldly moved his Confederate forces northward, McClellan gained information from captured Confederate communications that provided details of Lee’s position. In the fall of 1862, McClellan revised his strategy and eventually cornered Lee and approximately 40,000 Confederate troops between the Potomac and Antietam Creek. McClellan maneuvered his men to end the battle and capture Lee. He still had reserves available and Union troops arrived by the hour to lend their support. But darkness fell and McClellan held his positions. When morning broke, Lee anticipated an aggressive attack from the Northerners but none ever came. An entire day passed and McClellan still refused to order his men to advance on the trapped Southerners. As night fell, the Confederate soldiers scampered across the Potomac and back into Virginia.

McClellan had successfully prevented the Confederates from carrying out their mission, but again the general failed to claim a victory on the battlefield. And, even worse, he allowed Lee to escape to rebuild his army for another day. Lincoln angrily dismissed McClellan from his command for a second and final time. Although he was furious that the Union army did not destroy the Confederate regiments, Lincoln played up the fact that the Southerners were forced to retreat. He took the opportunity to announce to the public the Emancipation Proclamation.

Southern forces continued to tally victories. But during a battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in 1863, the Confederate army suffered a severe blow—Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men when he returned from a reconnaissance mission. The loss of Jackson’s exceptional leadership and battlefield experience forced the Confederate army to re-evaluate its strategy.

After Antietam, Lincoln appointed a series of generals to lead the Army of the Potomac, and each commander was just as successful in failure as his predecessor. In late June, 1863, General George Meade was handed the reins of the army. He and Lee were friends and served together during the Mexican War. When Lee heard of Meade’s promotion, he knew he was up against a formidable opponent. Meade took command of nearly 100,000 men at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the soldiers were battling 76,000 Confederate troops. For three days, between July 1 and July 3, momentum shifted from the South to the North and back to the South.

On July 3, when Union guns went silent and Confederate soldiers thought they had the upper hand, Southern General George Pickett led a charge against Union lines. However, as the Confederates marched closer and closer, Union forces sprang back to life and annihilated the advancing divisions. The Union suffered more than 23,000 casualties, the South 28,000. The Battle of Gettysburg became the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Later that year on a cold autumn day, President Lincoln visited the site where so many men lost their lives. He was scheduled to dedicate the cemetery and offer a short speech. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was quickly branded as “ludicrous” and “silly” by critics, but it would become one of the most famous speeches ever spoken.

In battles taking place in the west, Lincoln finally found a general he could rely on. General Ulysses S. Grant was a hard drinking West Point graduate who was commonly stationed at remote frontier posts. Grant’s first success in the Civil War happened in February, 1862, when he led the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

After northern forces seized New Orleans, Grant led his army to attack Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Confederacy used an area between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana to transport cattle and other supplies from the west to southern cities. After intense fighting, Grant seized Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Less than a week later, he dealt the Confederates a significant blow with the capture of Port Hudson. Grant’s victories coupled with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg shifted the tide of momentum in the Union’s favor. The change of events forced England and France to cancel major contracts to supply weapons and ships to the South.

By the summer of 1864, the North had General Lee on the ropes several times but they could never deliver the knockout punch. As Union forces continued to chase Lee and his company throughout the Upper South, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched his troops through Georgia to the sea. In his wake he left Confederate cities and towns in ruins so Southerners would not have anything left to use against the Union troops.

Sherman told Grant that if a regiment of Northern soldiers could march through the south, Confederates would realize that the Union could do whatever it wanted. Sherman’s march marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The South’s resistance began to weaken as Confederate soldiers grew weary of being outnumbered. On December 22, 1864, Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia, and in February overpowered southern troops in Columbia, South Carolina.

Southern forces continued to deteriorate as Union troops conquered more Confederate cities. Then, on April 3, 1865, Grant ordered more than 100,000 troops to surrounded Lee and his 30,000 men outside Richmond. The decorated Confederate leader realized the end was near and resistance was futile. On April 9, 1865, Lee and Grant met at Appomattox Court House to agree to the terms of surrender. Per Lincoln’s orders, the Union’s only requirement was to have the Confederate soldiers lay down their arms.

After fours years of fighting and 600,000 soldiers killed—totaling nearly as many lives lost than all American wars combined—the Civil War finally ended. One out of every four Confederate soldiers died or suffered debilitating injuries while one in ten Union troops lost their lives. The year following the surrender, Mississippi allocated one-fifth of its budget to buy artificial limbs for its veterans. The South, which lost one-fourth of its white male population between the ages of 20 and 40, vowed to rebuild its land and remember its heroes.

The Economy during the Civil War

Certificate of homestead in Nebraska given under the Homestead Act, 1862 / U.S. Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The Civil War affected northern and southern economies differently. When the war began, the north, with its large factories and well-established companies, generated a great deal of the country’s business. After the first volleys of battle, the north experienced a slight depression due to the uncertainty of the war and the loss of southern business associations. However, after the initial shock passed, the northern economy flourished. The federal government moved quickly to plan for its financial future. Congress increased excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, tariffs were created to protect manufactures from foreign competition, and an income tax was introduced for the first time in the history of the nation.

Congress also passed a series of measures that were long desired by the north but consistently killed by southern opposition. In 1862, the Homestead Act provided 160 acres to settlers who agreed to farm the land for five years. Also passed was the Morrill Land Grant Act which offered states land, approximately 30,000 acres for each Congressman, to support agricultural colleges.

In 1863, the National Banking Act was authorized by Congress to stimulate the sale of government bonds and to establish a uniform currency. Banks that joined the National Banking System could issue reliable paper money and buy government bonds. The system functioned until 1913 when it was replaced by the Federal Reserve System.

As Northerners prospered, Southerners experienced an abundance of financial difficulties. The blockades ordered by Lincoln cut off money generated from the import and export goods. Since the South relied heavily on revenue from the sale of cotton and tobacco, the backbone of their financial system collapsed. In many instances, Southerners were forced to recycle goods because they had no way to receive new products. For example, as the condition of railroad tracks declined, Southerners were forced to pull rails from one line to repair another. Metal items, like the weights from windows, were melted down to create bullets for the troops.

The harsh times did not deter citizens from trying to improve the conditions. When hundreds of thousands of men were called to duty, women in the north and south stepped up to take their places in the farms and factories. Many women also trained as nurses to tend to the growing number of injured soldiers. The huge armies created a massive demand for clothing, shoes, and blankets. Companies raced to keep up with production orders and turned to machines to lend support. Since most of the manufacturing industry was located in the north, and tight blockades choked Southern trade, Yankee businessmen grew wealthy while Confederate farmers grew hungry. With each passing day, the war slowly squeezed the life from the once proud southern states.

Abolition of Slavery

Lincoln and Civil Liberties

President Abraham Lincoln was a minority president, having been elected in 1860 with only 40 percent of the popular vote. He inherited a country divided by secession and at the brink of war, and an opposing foe in Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lincoln had many challenges to overcome to make his mark in history.

Lincoln had never accepted the legality of secession, and during his inauguration he vowed to preserve the Union and uphold the Constitution. However, his initial acts as President reflected his belief that, at least temporarily, one vow must be broken to uphold the other. Lincoln believed that bending the Constitution was necessary to preserve the Union—and even the Constitution itself.

The Constitution states in Article I, Section VIII, paragraph 12 that only Congress can increase the size of the Federal Army, but with a declaration Lincoln did just that. Several of the nation’s military institutions were located in the south, giving them a significant military advantage with better trained and organized forces. Lincoln felt his only chance would be to overwhelm the forces of the south by outnumbering them. Unfortunately, Congress was not in session, so Lincoln took it upon himself to enlarge the army by 75,000 men. Congress later approved the measure in a display of solidarity, but a few feathers had been ruffled over the expropriation of power.

Lincoln also revoked some civil liberties during his tenure without the prior approval of Congress. The writ of habeas corpus was, and is, one of the basic tenets of American’s civil liberties. It allows the examination of the circumstances of a person’s arrest and imprisonment to determine if that individual should be detained. The purpose of habeas corpus is to prevent unjust or illegal imprisonment.

Lincoln negated the writ for the purpose of summarily arresting anti-Unionists. This act was in open defiance of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling in the 1861 case of Ex Parte Merryman, which stated that the suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional without an act of Congress.

In addition, Lincoln violated other constitutional liberties during his Presidency. These violations include the suspension of several newspapers and the arrest of their editors on grounds that they were obstructing the war effort. He also instituted supervised voting in the border states, making voters march between two lines of armed troops. Many voters were intimidated by this process, especially since it was the norm to provide ballots on paper colored to identify a voter’s party affiliation, but Lincoln believed these actions were necessary for the good of the Union.

Emancipation Proclamation

The five-page original document, held in the National Archives Building. Until 1936 it had been bound with other proclamations in a large volume held by the Department of State. / Wikimedia Commons

Although President Lincoln had a reputation for being an abolitionist, his political record indicated this label was not completely accurate. Lincoln focused his political stance regarding slavery on the prevention of its spread into the territories. After becoming president he initially resisted laws by the federal government called the Confiscation Acts that pushed the Union toward abolition. The first of these acts, the Confiscation Act of 1861, approved on August 6, 1861, granted freedom for all slaves who had served in the Confederate military. It also allowed for Union seizure of all rebel property. This act was only enforced in areas where the Union Army had a presence.

President Lincoln resisted this act because he feared the effect it would have on the political climate. He worried this act might influence the border states—so critical to the Northern cause—toward secession to protect their slavery system. In an attempt to curb the emancipation, he ordered Union commanders to refuse escaped and liberated slaves admittance to their military units.

However, Congress pushed forward toward emancipation with a second Confiscation Act on July 17, 1862. This act was more direct, declaring freedom for the slaves of civilian and military Confederate officials. Although a vital step toward complete emancipation, this act also was only enforced in areas with a Union military presence.

Lincoln continued to refrain from offering full-fledged support of abolition, believing that the political climate was not ready to support it. The abolitionists grew impatient, but Lincoln believed that such a revolutionary change should only follow a significant victory on the battlefield. His opportunity came following the battle of Antietam.

Antietam Creek, Maryland, was the site of a showdown between the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Union General George McClellan on September 17, 1862. It proved to be the bloodiest single day of fighting of the entire Civil War. The battle had no clear winner, but the Union demonstrated surprising strength, giving Lincoln the positive political climate he sought for his proclamation.

The preliminary proclamation came on September 23, 1862, immediately following Antietam. In this address, Lincoln outlined the terms of freedom for slaves in states that were still in rebellion. It also indicated that Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation would be issued January 1, 1863. Despite its title, the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free any slaves since it could not be enforced in those states it targeted. Although the Proclamation foreshadowed the end of slavery, those expecting an immediate effect were sorely disappointed.

Lincoln’s purpose for the Proclamation was not the immediate freedom of all slaves. Rather, he hoped the declaration would weaken the moral cause of the South, while strengthening the Union’s moral cause. He felt that with the Proclamation the Civil War now had a “higher purpose,” which Lincoln sought to leverage for the Union.

Reaction to the Proclamation was varied. Some questioned the constitutionality of the decree, while others ignored it completely. Border states were not affected by the Proclamation but they continued to watch Lincoln’s actions with a wary eye. Northerners—particularly those in the northwest—took a harsher view, believing that Lincoln had again acted with too-heavy a hand, while abolitionists approved of the measure and sought stricter enforcement. Meanwhile, Southerners continued to fear an insurrection by their slaves.

Since most slaves were illiterate, news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached them largely by word of mouth. About 800,000 slaves should have been freed by the declaration, but none gained immediate freedom. Slave owners did not voluntarily free their slaves, but many blacks took advantage of the declaration to leave their owners and join the Union Army to support those who had upheld their freedom.

Nearly 200,000 black soldiers played an important role in the Civil War, with 16 eventually earning Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for valor. However, they faced great challenges throughout the war, even from the people who were employing them to fight. Black Union soldiers received a net monthly pay of $7, while their white counterparts received almost double that amount.

USCT black soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Black soldiers also faced the threat of torture and death if they were captured by the Confederacy. President Lincoln declared that the Union would retaliate if black Union Prisoners of War were tortured by their Confederate captors, but this declaration was largely ignored. In light of these threats, it is noteworthy that former slaves accepted the risks of military service over slavery and the risks of trying to integrate into civilian society.

These former slaves filled a void created by increasing desertions of Union soldiers. The deserters were unhappy with the shift in the purpose of the war. Many men felt that the only true purpose should be the fight for unity of the North and the South, and they were unhappy that the cause had shifted to include abolitionism.

The Emancipation Proclamation also had a profound effect on the congressional election of 1862. Northerners spoke with their votes, letting the administration know that they were not happy with the current political tide. Although it was not a presidential election year, Congressional elections saw several changes from the previous election. Republicans faired poorly in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even Republican President Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, although the Democrats still did not have the numbers to take control of Congress.

Another important political effect of the Proclamation was the changing sentiment in Europe. During the Battle of Antietam, the British and French governments had been on the verge of rushing in to provide mediation, but that urgency cooled with General Lee’s retreat across the Potomac. When the Emancipation Proclamation was declared, European working classes sympathized with the measure and the Union won its favor. With this action, Europe no longer felt intervention was necessary.

Thirteenth Amendment

Representative James Mitchell Ashley proposed an amendment abolishing slavery in 1863. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

The effect of the Emancipation Proclamation on slaves was more emotional than physical. Many slaves were free in theory but had been convinced to remain working for their former owners out of loyalty or a lack of alternatives. Many simply did not believe that the Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed their freedom, and those who did understand the Proclamation realized that it did not guarantee their safety if they left their masters.

Those doubts would finally be laid to rest after the war’s conclusion with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. With these words, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the U.S. or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” Congress completely and finally abolished slavery. The Amendment was approved in December of 1865 with a two-thirds vote in Congress, and went in effect fully when three-fourths of the states ratified it.

Although Lincoln’s proclamation had put abolition in motion, he was not able to see it through to completion. Attending Ford’s Theater in Washington on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, less than a week after General Lee’s surrender, he was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, a radical pro-Southern actor.

Lincoln’s assassination actually served to improve his reputation as a powerful historical figure. Despite his numerous positive attributes, Lincoln, a product of the most divisive period in U.S. history, made many political enemies and garnered limited popular support. However, his sudden and dramatic death blurred the edges of his shortcomings from the memories of his detractors and promoted him to legendary status. He is remembered for his vision of a nation where all people “are created equal,” as he stated in his Gettysburg Address delivered during the Civil War near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, was never quite comfortable filling Lincoln’s shoes. Nonetheless, Johnson attempted to follow Lincoln’s plan for abolition and urged the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Undoubtedly, both men had a hand in ending slavery but ultimately, victory on the battlefield was the true emancipator.

Ramifications of the Civil War

Election of 1864

Lincoln and Johnson campaign poster / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

The presidential election of 1864 transpired at a time when the country was divided, both geographically and politically, by war. The outcome of the election would ultimately be decided by swiftly changing political tides.

The majority of Republicans backed the current president, Abraham Lincoln; but Lincoln had a significant number of detractors even within his own party. They accused Lincoln of being too eager to compromise, lacking conviction, and of offering up ill-timed jokes, putting Lincoln’s renomination at first in doubt.

However, his Republican supporters had a plan. Dissention within the Democratic Party, due in part to the recent death of their leader, Stephen A. Douglas, divided the northern Democrats into three factions: War Democrats, Peace Democrats, and Copperheads. War Democrats put patriotism above party loyalty and supported Lincoln, and the Republicans sought an alliance with them. A partnership with the War Democrats brought a temporary end to the Republican Party, as the new alliance named themselves the Union Party.

Lincoln won the nomination of the Union Party, and selected Andrew Johnson as the Vice Presidential candidate on his ticket. Johnson, a War Democrat and slave owner from Tennessee, had never attended school but taught himself to read. Apprenticed to a tailor at the age of ten, he became active in politics as a teenager and stood out as a powerful orator. Johnson rose through the political ranks to become a congressman, governor of Tennessee, and a United States senator. He campaigned for the rights of impoverished white planters, but refused to secede from the Union with his home state. Lincoln believed that choosing Johnson as his Vice-Presidential running mate would give him the widespread appeal necessary to achieve re-election.

The Peace Democrats were party loyalists, and they withheld their support of Lincoln but did not take any radical action against him. The Copperheads, however, openly demonstrated their disdain for the Lincoln administration with physical and political attacks against Lincoln, the draft, and emancipation.

The Copperheads, aptly named after the snake that strikes without warning, were led by a notorious man named Clement L. Vallandingham. Venomously outspoken against the war, he was eventually brought before a military tribunal on the charge of making treasonable utterances. Convicted in 1863, he served a prison term and was banished from the Union.

However, Vallandingham did not quietly go away. He eventually resurfaced in Canada, and ran for the governorship of his home state of Ohio from foreign soil. He was not victorious in that election but did garner a significant number of votes. He eventually made his way back to Ohio, but was never prosecuted for violating his exile.

After the War Democrats joined forces with the Republicans, the Copperheads and the Peace Democrats comprised what was left of the Democratic Party. They nominated General George B. McClellan as their candidate for president in 1864. Known affectionately as “Little Mac” by his soldiers, McClellan was a stern perfectionist who demanded precision from his troops. However, his methodical practices had earned him the nickname “Tardy George” from his critics, including President Lincoln, who in 1862 had grown weary of McClellan’s reluctance to move forward on the battlefield. Lincoln finally issued a direct order for McClellan to approach and fight at the Peninsula Campaign, where the Seven Days Battles occurred. Although McClellan was defeated at the Peninsula, he had managed to garner enough popular support to earn the Democratic nomination for President in 1864.

Throughout the presidential campaign the country was at war, and the campaign itself was no different. The Union Party hurled insults at the Democrats and the Democrats responded in kind. Lincoln began to grow despondent, believing that he had lost the campaign even before the first vote was cast. But the face of the war was constantly changing, and the political tide rolled back in Lincoln’s favor.

The catalyst for this change was a series of Northern victories in Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. With these victories, Lincoln had the faith of the people, particularly the soldiers. Leaving nothing to chance, many Northern soldiers were furloughed during the election to improve Lincoln’s vote count. Other Northern soldiers were allowed to vote multiple times to log the votes of their counterparts who were still on the battlefields. When the results were tallied, Lincoln carried the popular vote by only about 400,000 votes out of four million cast, but he garnered 212 Electoral College votes to McClellan’s 21.

Effects of the War on the South

A print showing Union Army General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant accepting Confederate General in Chief Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865 / Granger Historical Picture Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln interpreted his re-election as a validation of his war policy—battling against the South for unity and emancipation. He charged General Ulysses S. Grant with the responsibility of surging forward toward Richmond, the Confederate capitol. Grant’s troops were finally successful in April of 1865, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.

While the North savored the victory, the South took account of the costs of the war. The physical destruction in the South was profound. Major cities, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Atlanta had been burned to the ground, and many smaller towns had suffered the same fate. The physical destruction extended to individual homes, including many impressive mansions that were reduced to shambles.

The bountiful cotton fields were badly scarred, as well. Entire crops had been burned by Northern soldiers, and those that had escaped intentional destruction had fallen into an unproductive disarray of weeds.

Livestock on the southern plantations had suffered a similar fate. When Northern soldiers invaded the south, many livestock were killed or left to fend for themselves after their shelters and food sources were burned.

Southerners who returned to what was left of their homes not only had to endure this overwhelming physical destruction, but also the economic effects of the war. The Southerners had to abandon their wartime currency and return to Union currency, which had undergone wartime changes itself. Banks and businesses in the south had been shut down during the war. Planters had no source of capital with which to rebuild their homes or their livelihoods. Crops could not be restored without seed, and no seed was available for purchase.

It is estimated that Southern planters had lost over $2 million in human chattel when their slaves were emancipated. Any crops that might be salvaged lay idle because planters had lost their labor source. Southerners who had once lived the high life were now poverty-stricken, struggling to get by. It would be ten years before the South’s agricultural output would return to pre-Civil War numbers, and even then the most productive region would be the burgeoning southwest.

Reconstruction Begins

The Southern economy had been ruined by the war. Charleston, South Carolina: Broad Street, 1865 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

While Southerners were mourning the loss of their financially lucrative labor source, more than four million former slaves were trying to find their way as freedmen. The majority of the emancipated blacks were illiterate, with limited skills and financial resources.

The one factor that connected most former slaves was a thirst for religion. Many masters had allowed their slaves to worship beside them, but with the Emancipation Proclamation former slaves began developing their own churches. Between 1850 and 1870, the black Baptist Church had grown by 350,000 members, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church quadrupled its membership. Many blacks were driven toward literacy largely out of their desire to read the Bible.

In response to the desire for literacy, black schools were established—some with black teachers and others with white teachers, primarily female missionaries from the American Missionary Association. It was not uncommon to see grandmothers attend school alongside their grandchildren. However, there were not enough teachers to meet the demands, and eventually the federal government stepped in to help.

At President Lincoln’s encouragement, along with pressure from influential Northern abolitionists, Congress developed the Freedmen’s Bureau on March 8, 1865. This early social welfare program was dedicated to educating, training, and providing financial and moral support for former slaves. One strong supporter of the Bureau was Union general Oliver O. Howard, the eventual founder and president of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

With Howard’s support, over 200,000 blacks learned to read through the programs offered by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Unfortunately, the system became corrupt and it was never able to achieve its potential. The catch-phrase of the day was “40 acres and a mule,” as that was what was promised to the emancipated slaves, with the plan to settle them on land confiscated from the Confederates. However, corrupt officials usually kept the land for themselves and manipulated many former slaves into signing labor contracts that essentially placed them back in a slave-like environment.

White Southerners campaigned against the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many felt that although they had lost the right to own slaves, they still possessed racial superiority. The Freedmen’s Bureau threatened that presumption. When President Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, and Andrew Johnson stepped into office, the Freedman’s Bureau lost an ally in the White House. Johnson, a Southerner, had been raised with the same racial biases as those who opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau, and he allowed the program to expire in 1872.

Despite its flaws, the Freedmen’s Bureau had helped a majority of former slaves achieve some degree of success. Freed slaves began to develop a political unity and refused to be discouraged. Their primary political vehicle was the northern-based Union League, which educated freedmen on civil responsibility and campaigned for Republican leaders who supported the freedmen’s cause.

Blacks themselves also began to assume political roles. Sixteen black men served in the Senate and the House of Representatives between 1868 and 1876, and numerous others took on roles in state and local government. This was much to the dismay of their former masters, who scorned the white allies of these black political leaders. The whites who allied themselves with blacks became known as either “scalawags” or “carpetbaggers.” Scalawags were Southerners who opposed secession and were accused of harming the South by helping the blacks and stealing from their state treasuries. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who were accused of putting all their worldly belongings into a carpetbag suitcase and coming to the south at war’s end to gain personal profit and power. The name-calling on occasion erupted into violence, suggesting that Southerners believed that they were superior not only to blacks, but to black-friendly whites, as well. This disharmony was typical of the early stages of Reconstruction.

Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction Plans

Presidential Reconstruction

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865, entitled “The Rail Splitter At Work Repairing the Union.” The caption reads (Johnson): Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever. (Lincoln): A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War came to an end, leaving over 620,000 dead and a devastating path of destruction throughout the south. The North now faced the task of reconstructing the ravaged and indignant Confederate states. There were many important questions that needed to be answered as the nation faced the challenges of peace:

  • Who would direct the process of Reconstruction? The South itself, Congress, or the President?
  • Should the Confederate leaders be tried for treason?
  • How would the south, both physically and economically devastated, be rebuilt? And at whose expense?
  • How would the south be readmitted and reintegrated into the Union?
  • What should be done with over four million freed slaves? Were they to be given land, social equality, education, and voting rights?

On April 11, 1865, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his last public address, during which he described a generous Reconstruction policy and urged compassion and open-mindedness throughout the process. He pronounced that the Confederate states had never left the Union, which was in direct opposition to the views of Radical Republican Congressmen who felt the Confederate states had seceded from the Union and should be treated like “conquered provinces.”

On April 14, Lincoln held a Cabinet meeting to discuss post-war rebuilding in detail. President Lincoln wanted to get southern state governments in operation before Congress met in December in order to avoid the persecution of the vindictive Radical Republicans. That same night, while Lincoln was watching a play at Ford’s Theatre, a fanatical Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth, crept up behind Lincoln and shot him in the head. Lincoln died the following day, leaving the South with little hope for a non-vindictive Reconstruction.

The absence of any provisions in the Constitution that could be applied to Reconstruction led to a disagreement over who held the authority to direct Reconstruction and how it would take place. Lincoln felt the president had authority based on the constitutional obligation of the federal government to guarantee each state a republican government.

Even before the war had ended, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863, his compassionate policy for dealing with the South. The Proclamation stated that all Southerners could be pardoned and reinstated as U.S. citizens if they took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union and pledged to abide by emancipation. High Confederate officials, Army and Navy officers, and U.S. judges and congressmen who left their posts to aid the southern rebellion were excluded from this pardon. Lincoln’s Proclamation was called the “10 percent plan”: Once 10 percent of the voting population in any state had taken the oath, a state government could be put in place and the state could be reintegrated into the Union.

Two congressional factions formed over the subject of Reconstruction. A majority group of moderate Republicans in Congress supported Lincoln’s position that the Confederate states should be reintegrated as quickly as possible. A minority group of Radical Republicans–led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Ben Wade and Charles Sumner in the Senate–sharply rejected Lincoln’s plan, claiming it would result in restoration of the southern aristocracy and re-enslavement of blacks. They wanted to effect sweeping changes in the south and grant the freed slaves full citizenship before the states were restored. The influential group of Radicals also felt that Congress, not the president, should direct Reconstruction.

In July 1864, the Radical Republicans passed the Wade-Davis Bill in response to Lincoln’s 10 percent plan. This bill required that more than 50 percent of white males take an “ironclad” oath of allegiance before the state could call a constitutional convention. The bill also required that the state constitutional conventions abolish slavery. Confederate officials or anyone who had “voluntarily borne arms against the United States” were banned from serving at the conventions. Lincoln pocket-vetoed, or refused to sign, the proposal, keeping the Wade-Davis bill from becoming law. This is where the issue of Reconstruction stood on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, when Andrew Johnson became president.

In the 1864 election, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as his vice presidential running mate as a gesture of unity. Johnson was a War Democrat from Tennessee, a state on the border of the north-south division in the United States. Johnson was a good political choice as a running mate because he helped garner votes from the War Democrats and other pro-Southern groups.

Andrew Johnson / Wikimedia Commons

Johnson was born to impoverished parents in North Carolina, orphaned at an early age, and moved to Tennessee. Self-educated, he rose through the political ranks to be a congressman, a governor of Tennessee, and a United States senator. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was the only senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union. Johnson’s political career was built on his defense of small farmers and poor white southerners against the aristocratic classes. He was heard saying during the war, “Damn the Negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”

Unfortunately, Johnson was unprepared for the presidency thrust upon him with Lincoln’s assassination. The Radical Republicans believed at first that Johnson, unlike Lincoln, wanted to punish the South for seceding. However, on May 29, 1865, Johnson issued his own reconstruction proclamation that was largely in agreement with Lincoln’s plan. Johnson, like Lincoln, held that the southern states had never legally left the Union, and he retained most of Lincoln’s 10 percent plan.

Johnson’s plan went further than Lincoln’s and excluded those Confederates who owned taxable property in excess of $20,000 from the pardon. These wealthy Southerners were the ones Johnson believed led the South into secession. However, these Confederates were allowed to petition him for personal pardons. Before the year was over, Johnson, who seemed to savor power over the aristocrats who begged for his favor, had issued some 13,000 such pardons. These pardons allowed many of the planter aristocrats the power to exercise control over Reconstruction of their states. The Radical Republicans were outraged that the planter elite once again controlled many areas of the south.

Johnson also called for special state conventions to repeal the ordinances of secession, abolish slavery, repudiate all debts incurred to aid the Confederacy, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Suggestions of black suffrage were scarcely raised at these state conventions and promptly quashed when they were. By the time Congress convened in December 1865, the southern state conventions for the most part had met Johnson’s requirements.

On December 6, 1865, Johnson announced that the southern states had met his conditions for Reconstruction and that in his opinion the Union was now restored. As it became clear that the design of the new southern state governments was remarkably like the old governments, both moderate Republicans and the Radical Republicans grew increasingly angry.

The Black Codes

Convicts leased to harvest timber circa 1915, in Florida / Wikimedia Commons

When Congress convened in December 1865, the legislative members from the newly reconstituted southern states presented themselves at the Capitol. Among them were Alexander H. Stephens–who was the ex-vice-president of the Confederacy–four Confederate generals, five colonels, and several other rebels. After four bloody years of war, the presence of these Confederates infuriated the Congressional Republicans, who immediately denied seats to all members from the eleven former Confederate states.

Adding to the controversy, the new southern legislatures began passing repressive “Black Codes.” Mississippi passed the first of these laws designed to restrict the freedom of the emancipated blacks in November 1865. The South intended to preserve slavery as nearly as possible in order to guarantee a stable labor supply.

While life under the Black Codes was an improvement over slavery, the codes identified blacks as a separate class with fewer liberties and more restrictions than white citizens. The details of the Codes varied from state to state, but some universal policies applied. Existing black marriages were recognized, blacks could testify in court cases involving other blacks, and blacks could own certain kinds of property.

In contrast, blacks could not serve on a jury and were not allowed to vote. They were barred from renting and leasing land and in many states could not carry firearms without a license. The Codes also had strict labor provisions. Blacks were required to enter into annual labor contracts and could be punished, required to forfeit back pay, or forced to work by paid “Negro catchers” if they violated the contract. Vagrants, drunkards, and beggars were given stiff fines, and if they could not pay them, they were sentenced to work on a chain gang.

Most former slaves lacked capital and marketable skills and had only manual labor as a means of support. The black activist Frederick Douglass explained: “A former slave was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet.”

Thousands of freedmen became sharecropper farmers, which led them to becoming indentured servants, indebted to the plantation owner and resulting in generations of people working the same plot of land.

The situation in the south left Northerners wondering what they had gone to war for, since blacks were essentially being re-enslaved. Even moderate Republicans started to adopt the views of the more radical party members. Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction plan, along with the South’s aggressive tactics, led Congress to reject Johnsonian Reconstruction and create the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.

Congressional Reconstruction

Radical Republican U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens / Wikimedia Commons

A clash between President Johnson and Congress over Reconstruction was now inevitable. By the end of 1865, Radical Republican views had gained a majority in Congress, and the decisive year of 1866 saw a gradual diminishing of President Johnson’s power.

In June of 1866, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction determined that, by seceding, the southern states had forfeited “all civil and political rights under the Constitution.” The Committee rejected President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan, denied seating of southern legislators, and maintained that only Congress could determine if, when, and how Reconstruction would take place. Part of the Reconstruction plan devised by the Joint Committee to replace Johnson’s Reconstruction proclamation is demonstrated in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Northern Republicans did not want to give up the political advantage they held, especially by allowing former Confederate leaders to reclaim their seats in Congress. Since the South did not participate in Congress from 1861 to 1865, Republicans were able to pass legislation that favored the North, such as the Morrill Tariff, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act. Republicans were also concerned that the South’s congressional representation would increase since slaves were no longer considered only three-fifths of a person. This population increase would tip the congressional leadership to the South, enabling them to perpetuate the Black Codes and virtually re-enslave blacks.

The strained relations between Congress and the president became increasingly apparent in February 1866 when President Johnson vetoed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau had been established in 1865 to care for refugees, and now Congress wanted to amend it to include protection for the black population. Although the bill had broad support, President Johnson claimed that it was an unconstitutional extension of military authority since wartime conditions no longer existed. Congress did override Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping it last until the early 1870s.

Striking back, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866. This Bill granted American citizenship to blacks and denied the states the power to restrict their rights to hold property, testify in court, and make contracts for their labor. Congress aimed to destroy the Black Codes and justified the legislation as implementing freedom under the Thirteenth Amendment. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, which prompted most Republicans to believe there was no chance of future cooperation with him. On April 9, 1866, Congress overrode the presidential veto, and from that point forward, Congress frequently overturned Johnson’s vetoes.

The Republicans wanted to ensure the principles of the Civil Rights Act by adding a new amendment to the Constitution. Doing so would keep the Southerners from repealing the laws if they ever won control of Congress. In June 1866, Congress sent the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which in the context of the times was a radical measure, to the states for ratification:

  • It acknowledged state and federal citizenship for persons born or naturalized in the United States.
  • It forbade any state to diminish the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, which was the section that struck at the Black Codes.
  • It prohibited any state to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law.”
  • It forbade any state to deny any person “the equal protection of the laws.”
  • It disqualified former Confederates from holding federal and state office.
  • It reduced the representation of a state in Congress and the Electoral College if it denied blacks voting rights.
  • It guaranteed the federal debt, while rejecting all Confederate debts.

All Republicans agreed that no state would be welcomed back to the Union without ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. In contrast, President Johnson recommended that the states reject it. Johnson’s home state of Tennessee was the first to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, while the other 10 seceded states rejected it. During this same time, bloody race riots erupted in several southern cities, adding fuel to the Reconstruction battle. Radical Republicans blamed the indiscriminate massacre of blacks on Johnson’s policies.

The congressional election of 1866 widened the divide between President Johnson and Congress. President Johnson embarked on a “swing around the circle” tour where he gave speeches at various Midwestern cities to rally the public around his policy of lenient Union recognition for the southern states. His tour was a complete failure as he exchanged hot-tempered insults with the critics in the crowd. To counter Johnson’s rhetoric, Congressional Republicans took to “waving the bloody shirt”–appealing to voters by reminding them of the sacrifices the Union made during the Civil War. When the congressional election was complete, the Republicans won more than the two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate that they needed to override any presidential vetoes.

If the southern states had been willing to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment, coercive measures might have been avoided. On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which became the final plan for Reconstruction and identified the new conditions under which the southern governments would be formed. Tennessee was exempt from the Act because it had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.

This legislation divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each occupied by a Union general and his troops, whom Southerners contemptuously called “bluebellies.” The officers had the power to maintain order and protect the civil rights of all persons. The southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and adopt new state constitutions guaranteeing blacks the right to vote in order for their representatives to be admitted to Congress and military rule to end (which paved the way for easy ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment later). However, the Act did not go as far as giving freedmen land or education at federal expense.

Although peacetime military rule seemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, the Supreme Court allowed it. The hated “bluebellies” remained until the new Republican regimes were firmly established in each state. It was not until 1877 that the last federal troops left the south.

Radical Republicans were still concerned that once the states were re-admitted to the Union, they would amend their constitutions and withdraw black suffrage. They moved to safeguard their legislation by adding it to the federal Constitution with the Fifteenth Amendment. The amendment prohibited the states from denying anyone the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1870, the required number of states had ratified the amendment, and it became part of the Constitution.

The Fifteenth Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote regardless of sex, which outraged feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Equally disappointing to feminists was the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment marked the first appearance of the word “male” in the Constitution. Efforts to include female suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment were defeated, and 50 years passed before an amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote.

While most of the southern states had quickly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment under pressure from the federal government, Democratic Party dominance in those states assured the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were largely ignored. Literacy tests and poll taxes were often used to keep blacks from voting. Intimidation and lynching were also common means to keep blacks from the polls. Full suffrage for blacks was not realized until 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last congressional Reconstruction measure. It prohibited racial discrimination in jury selection, transportation, restaurants, and “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” It did not guarantee equality in schools, churches, and cemeteries. Unfortunately, the Act lacked a strong enforcement mechanism, and dismayed Northerners did not attempt another civil rights act for 90 years.

The End of Reconstruction

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Theodore R. Davis’s illustration of President Johnson’s impeachment trial in the Senate, published in Harper’s Weekly / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

In 1867, the political battle between President Johnson and Congress over southern Reconstruction came to a confrontation. The Radical Republicans in Congress were not content with curbing Johnson’s authority by overriding his vetoes–they wanted to remove him altogether. Under the laws of the time, removing Johnson meant that Ben Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate, would become president.

While many considered Johnson to be an inadequate president, he had done nothing to merit removal from office. Johnson believed that everything he did was in the interest of preserving a constitutional government. When Congress passed laws retracting powers granted to the president by the Constitution, Johnson refused to accept them.

For example, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which prohibited the president from removing senate-approved officials without first gaining the consent of the Senate. The Senate’s goal was to keep Johnson from firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had been appointed by President Lincoln. Stanton was a staunch supporter of the Congress and did not agree with President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.

Johnson believed the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and challenged it head-on by dismissing Stanton in early 1868. In response, the House voted 126 to 47 to impeach Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and they started the procedures set up in the Constitution for removing the president. They charged him with eleven articles of impeachment, eight of which focused on the unlawful removal of Stanton.

Johnson faced a Senate tribunal, presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Johnson’s lawyers set out to prove that the Tenure of Office Act did not protect Stanton because it gave Cabinet members tenure “during the term of the President by whom they may have been appointed,” and it was President Lincoln who had appointed Stanton.

On May 16, 1868, the Senate voted and the Radical Republicans were a mere one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove Johnson from office. If Johnson had been forced from office on such weak charges, it may have set a destructive precedent and permanently undermined the executive branch of the United States government.

To appease the Radical Republicans, Johnson agreed to stop obstructing the process of Reconstruction. He named a Secretary of War who was committed to enforcing the new laws, and Reconstruction began in earnest. Ironically, in 1926 the Supreme Court found the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional.

The Reconstructed South

The Fifteenth Amendment in the National Archives / Wikimedia Commons

The postwar South, where most of the fighting had occurred, faced many challenges. In the war’s aftermath, Southerners experienced collapsed property values, damaged railroads, and agricultural hardships. The elite planters were faced with overwhelming economic adversity perpetuated by a lack of laborers for their fields. However, it was the newly freed slaves in the former Confederate states that faced the greatest challenge: what to do with their newfound freedom.

Blacks acquired new rights and opportunities, such as equality before the law and the rights to own property, be married, attend schools, enter professions, and learn to read and write. One of the first opportunities the former slaves took advantage of was the chance to educate themselves and their children. The new Radical Republican state governments took steps to provide adequate public schools for the first time in the south.

Nearly 600,000 black students, from children to the elderly, were in southern schools by 1877. Although State Reconstruction officials tried to prohibit discrimination, the new schools practiced racial segregation, and the black schools generally received less funding than white schools. Black churches, recognizing the importance of the education initiatives, helped raise money to build schools and pay teachers, and many northern missionaries moved south to serve as teachers.

Another opportunity the former slaves pursued was involvement in politics. When the Fifteenth Amendment offered the chance for suffrage, black men seized the opportunity and began to organize politically. The freedmen affiliated themselves with the Republican Party, and hundreds of black delegates participated in statewide political conventions. Blacks used the Union Leagues to organize into a network of political clubs, provide political education, and campaign for Republican candidates. Black women did not have the right to vote at the time, but they aided the political movement with rallies and meetings that supported the Republican candidates.

In the new state governments of the south, black participation was a novelty. As their political involvement grew, several freedmen were elected to office. Those who were elected generally had some education, had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, had been free before the 1860s, or had some prior experience in public service.

Nearly 600 blacks served as state legislators, and many participated in the local governments as mayors, judges, and sheriffs. Between 1868 and 1876 at the federal level, 14 black men served in the House of Representatives and two black men served in the Senate–Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both born in Mississippi and educated in the north. The freedmen’s involvement in politics caused a great deal of controversy in the south, where the idea of former slaves holding office was not widely supported.

While several black men held political offices, the top positions with the most power in southern state governments were held by the freedmen’s white Republican allies. The Confederate-minded whites soon came to call them “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” depending on their place of birth.

The Confederates described “carpetbaggers” as Northerners who packed all their belongings in carpetbag suitcases and rushed south in hopes of finding economic opportunity and personal power, which was true in some instances. Many of these Northerners were actually businessmen, professionals, teachers, and preachers who either wanted to “modernize” the south or were driven by a missionary impulse.

The “scalawags” were native Southerners and Unionists who had opposed secession. The former Confederates accused them of cooperating with the Republicans because they wanted to advance their personal interests. Many of the “scalawags” became Republicans because they had originally supported the Whig Party before secession and they saw the Republicans as the logical successors to the defunct Whig Party.

Some Southern whites resorted to savage tactics against the new freedom and political influence blacks held. Several secret vigilante organizations developed. The most prominent terrorist group was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), first organized in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866. Members of the KKK, called “Klansmen,” rode around the south, hiding under white masks and robes, terrorizing Republicans and intimidating black voters. They went so far as to flog, mutilate, and even lynch blacks.

Congress, outraged by the brutality of the vigilantes and the lack of local efforts to protect blacks and persecute their tormentors, struck back with three Enforcement Acts (1870-1871) designed to stop the terrorism and protect black voters. The Acts allowed the federal government to intervene when state authorities failed to protect citizens from the vigilantes. Aided by the military, the program of federal enforcement eventually undercut the power of the Ku Klux Klan. However, the Klan’s actions had already weakened black and Republican morale throughout the south.

As the Radical Republican influence diminished in the south, other interests occupied the attention of Northerners. Western expansion, Indian wars, corruption at all levels of government, and the growth of industry all diverted attention from the civil rights and well-being of ex-slaves. By 1876, Radical Republican regimes had collapsed in all but two of the former Confederate states, with the Democratic Party taking over. Despite the Republicans’ efforts, the planter elite were regaining control of the south. This group came to be known as the “Redeemers,” a coalition of prewar Democrats and Union Whigs who sought to undo the changes brought about in the south by the Civil War. Many were ex-plantation owners called “Bourbons” whose policies affected blacks and poor whites, leading to an increase in class division and racial violence in the post-war south.

Reconstruction Ends

Ulysses S. Grant / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

In the election of 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant, the most popular northern hero to emerge from the Civil War, became president. Grant ran on the Republican ticket with the slogan, “Let us have peace” against the Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour. The Republican platform endorsed the Reconstruction policy of Congress, payment of the national debt with gold, and cautious defense of black suffrage.

Grant swept the Electoral College with 214 votes, compared to Seymour’s 80. However, Grant only had about 300,000 more popular votes than Seymour, with the more than 500,000 black voters accounting for his margin of victory.

Unfortunately, the qualities that had made Grant a fine military leader did not serve him well as president. Grant had a dislike of politics and passively followed the lead of Congress in the formulation of policy. He was honest to the point of being the victim of unscrupulous friends and schemers. All of this left him ineffective and caused others to question his leadership abilities.

Financial problems plagued Grant’s presidency. With the end of the war, the Treasury assumed that the nearly $450 million worth of greenbacks issued during the conflict would be retired and the nation would return to using gold coins. Numerous agrarian and debtor groups resisted doing so, believing it would negatively affect the economy, cause deflation, and make it harder to pay long-term debts. In President Grant’s inaugural address, he encouraged the payment of the national debt with gold. In March 1869, he signed his first act–the Public Credit Act–which endorsed that principle.

The first major scandal of Grant’s presidency came in 1869, when two millionaire partners, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, connived with Grant’s brother-in-law to corner the gold market. They convinced Grant that the federal Treasury should refrain from selling gold because the rise in gold prices would raise farm prices. Fisk and Gould bid the price of gold up from $132 to $163 per ounce. On September 24, 1869, the Treasury was ordered to sell large quantities of gold, causing the bubble to burst.

Another scandal that rocked the Grant administration was the Crédit Mobilier scandal. It came to light during the 1872 election that the Union Pacific Railroad had formed the Crédit Mobilier construction company and then hired themselves at inflated prices to build the railroad line. The company then “bought” several prominent Republican congressmen with shares of its valuable stock. A congressional investigation led to the formal censure of only two of the corrupt congressmen.

The Whiskey Ring affair was also revealed during the 1872 election. The Whiskey Ring bribed tax collectors to rob the Treasury of millions in excise-tax revenues. Grant was adamant that no guilty man involved in the scheme should escape prosecution, but when he discovered his private secretary was involved, he helped exonerate him. Grant’s Secretary of War was also discovered to be involved in accepting bribes from suppliers to the Indian reservations.

The scandals and incompetence surrounding Grant’s administration, along with disagreement among party members, led a group of Republicans to break off and start the reform-minded Liberal Republican Party. Unlike the other Republicans, the Liberal Republicans favored gold to redeem greenbacks, low tariffs, an end to military Reconstruction, and restoration of the rights of former Confederates. The Liberal Republicans were generally well educated and socially prominent, and most had initially supported Reconstruction. They nominated Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, for president in 1872. The Democrats also endorsed Greeley’s candidacy, even though he had always been hostile toward them. Grant, as expected, won the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term.

In 1872, voters had to choose between two presidential candidates who were not politicians and who had questionable qualifications. In the end, the regular Republicans were able to sway votes by once again “waving the bloody shirt”–appealing to the hatred of northern voters and reminding them of the trials of war. Grant won with a popular majority of nearly 800,000 votes and with 286 Electoral College votes to Greeley’s 66. After Grant’s victory, the Republicans did clean house with some civil-service reform and reduction of high Civil War tariffs.

An economic crisis in America followed shortly after the presidential election of 1872. Unbridled expansion of factories, railroads, and farms and contraction of the money supply through the withdrawal of greenbacks helped trigger the Panic of 1873. This was the longest and most severe depression the country had experienced, with over 15,000 businesses filing bankruptcy, widespread unemployment, and a slowdown in railroad and factory building.

The split of the Republican Party helped the Democrats gain seats in the Senate and carry the House of Representatives in the 1874 congressional elections. With control of the House, the Democrats immediately launched more investigations into the presidential scandals and discovered further evidence of corruption.

The Panic put the issues surrounding greenback currency back into public focus. Greenbacks were valued less than gold, so people tended to spend them first and save their gold or use it to pay foreign accounts, which drained gold out of the country. The Treasury had been slowly removing the greenbacks from circulation in order to combat inflation following the Civil War.

One of the first “greenbacks,” a “demand note” of 1861, used to pay federal workers. / Library of Congress, Public Domain

“Hard money” people–primarily creditors who did not want the money they loaned repaid with depreciated dollars–looked forward to the complete withdrawal of greenbacks. In contrast, “cheap money” people–agrarian and debtor groups–pushed for the Treasury to reissue greenbacks that had been withdrawn in hopes that doing so would stimulate the economy. In 1874, President Grant vetoed a bill to issue more greenbacks. Congress then passed the Resumption Act of 1875, which called for the gradual redemption of greenbacks for gold starting in 1879, making the value of paper money equal to that of gold.

The Resumption Act infuriated the “cheap money” people and resulted in the formation of the Greenback Labor Party, which elected fourteen congressmen in 1878. The Act brought the greenbacks up to their full face value and helped restore the government’s credit. However, the contest over monetary policy persisted as one of the most divisive issues in American politics.

Although President Grant’s terms in office were tainted with corruption, his supporters urged him to run for a third term in 1876. Some believe he did not run due to the many scandals that emerged during his terms. Others believe it was because the House passed a resolution to limit presidents to two terms in office. Either way, Grant was out of the running, and the Republicans turned to a compromise candidate: Rutherford B. Hayes from Ohio. Hayes was a three-time governor of Ohio, and his chief virtue was that no one knew much about him, so both Radicals and reformers accepted him.

The Democratic Party nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a famous lawyer from New York who had overthrown the notorious Boss Tweed. Both Hayes and Tilden favored conservative rule in the south and civil service reform. Since the campaign did not generate any substantive issues, the two parties turned to mud-slinging, with Republicans claiming Democrats were Confederates and Democrats pointing to the corruption of the past Republican presidency.

On Election Day, Tilden garnered 184 electoral votes–only one short of the majority needed–and nearly 300,000 more popular votes than Hayes. However, there were 20 disputed electoral votes due to irregular returns from Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In the three disputed southern states, rival canvassing boards submitted different returns to Congress: one supporting a Democratic win and the other supporting a Republican win. Unfortunately, the Constitution had no provisions outlined for such a situation, so in January 1877, Congress set up a special electoral commission consisting of 15 men from the Senate, House, and Supreme Court.

The electoral commission reviewed the votes for Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and, by partisan result of eight Republicans to seven Democrats, gave the Republicans the electoral votes. The House voted to accept the commission’s decision, declaring Hayes President by an electoral vote of 185 to 184. Congressional Democrats threatened to filibuster and prevent the recording of the electoral vote.

Many southern Democrats began to make informal agreements with the Republicans behind closed doors. In the Compromise of 1877, Republican Congressman James Garfield met with powerful southern Democrats at the Wormley Hotel in Washington. The Republicans promised that if Hayes was elected he would withdraw the last of the federal troops from the south, allowing the only remaining Republican Reconstruction governments to collapse. Another concession the Republicans made was to promise support for a bill that would subsidize construction of the southern transcontinental railroad line. Finally, the Republicans also consented to giving the position of Postmaster-General to a southern white.

The Compromise came at a price: It gave the Democrats justification to desert Tilden, since it would allow them to regain political rule in the south. With the compromise, the Republicans had quietly given up their fight for racial equality and blacks’ rights in the south. In 1877, Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the south, and the bayonet-backed Republican governments collapsed, thereby ending Reconstruction. Over the next three decades, the civil rights that blacks had been promised during Reconstruction crumbled under white rule in the south. The plight of southern Blacks was forgotten in the north as they were segregated and condemned to live in poverty with little hope. Radical Reconstruction had never offered more than an uncertain commitment to equality, but it had left an enduring legacy with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments waiting to be enforced.

The New South

Economic Diversification

Panoramic photograph of a cotton plantation from 1907, titled “King Cotton” / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

King Cotton was once the heralded “ruler” of the South, but following the Civil War this King shouldered the blame for the South’s losses. Many southern leaders believed that their reliance on one crop had made them vulnerable to the Union’s advances, and they pledged to diversify what they called the “New South.”

Henry W. Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, promoted the vision for the New South at a meeting of the New England Society of New York. Grady shared an optimistic view of the New South’s potential—a strong core, economic diversity, and healthy growth over time. Grady, and other intellects of his time, foresaw an agricultural society based around the growth of several crops. They also saw the importance of following the North’s example and turning toward industrialization.

Proponents of the New South first turned to secondary crops that could thrive in southern soil. Tobacco was the second most vital crop after cotton to the pre-war South. Several factors led to a resurgence in tobacco production following the Civil War. Two new varieties, bright leaf and burley were identified, and a new method for curing tobacco so that it had less “bite” was discovered. As the Union troops came south during the war, they were introduced to this tobacco, which opened up a new export market for southern tobacco production.

In addition, rice and Louisiana cane sugar became critical elements of the South’s agricultural identity. This boom was due in large part to an agriculturalist named Seaman A. Knapp. He moved to Louisiana and used the demonstration method of agriculture education to show farmers how to select the most appropriate crops for their soil and how to care for those crops. His educational exhibitions led way to the development of a network of local and regional extension offices that supported agriculture education and production.

However, Southerners were not willing to turn their backs on King Cotton completely, and that proved to be a wise move. With the textile industry beginning to boom and industrialization in full force, the number of cotton mills in the south increased from 161 to 400 after the Civil War. Partly as a cause of this boom and partly as a result, cotton consumption increased from 182,000 bales to 1,479,000 per year in the late nineteenth century.

Cotton and other crops benefited from the ever-growing rail service. With additional railroad lines crossing the country, both the North and the South were able to profit from the other’s productivity. Additionally, the advent of refrigerated rail cars allowed other southern produce to reach northern markets, which further diversified the southern economy.

Field crops were not the only industry to take advantage of improved transportation. The area around Birmingham, Alabama became known for its iron, limestone, and coal production. Coal was especially important as an energy source for the trains that transported it. Between 1875 and 1900, southern coal production increased by 44 million tons per year, from 5 million to 49 million tons.

Another important energy source revitalized the South. Hydroelectricity, or electricity generated by water, was a growing force in the southeast region of the United States. This power source provided another important step in the industrialization process.

The South also offered Southern Pine trees, which were in demand for their soft, multi-use lumber—which was used in great quantities to restore homes damaged during the war. Lumber camps grew exponentially in the south after 1870, and tree cutting rose to new heights. If not for the warm climate and quick renewal of the Southern Pines, the mass destruction of these trees might have rendered the south an ecological wasteland. Fortunately, scientific forestry grew alongside the lumber camps, and the first forestry school opened in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1898.

A host of other industries also developed in the south. The lumber industry carved the way for a bustling paper commerce. Clay, glass, and stone products were in high demand. Vegetables that were not sold fresh and transported on refrigerated railway cars were canned at one of several canneries in the south. And of course, the mint julep and moonshine reputation of the South perpetuated a thriving beverage industry.

Political Changes

Political cartoon from 1877 by Thomas Nast portraying the Democratic Party’s control of the South. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Along with a changing economic profile, the political atmosphere was also being transformed in the New South. With the loss of the Confederate government, southern residents turned to leaders within their community. These local leaders came to be known collectively as “Redeemers,” both for their efforts to redeem the South from being dominated by Yankees, as well as their redemption of the South from a one-crop society.

Republicans, Independents, and Populists alike called the Redeemers “Bourbons,” a derogatory label meant to imply that the Redeemers were not proactive but reactive. These critics believed that the Bourbons had learned nothing from the Civil War. As most Bourbons were Democrats, this label became entrenched in the Southern vocabulary to signify a leader of the Democratic Party.

Furthermore, the Redeemers’ detractors pointed out a major truth about this group—their true purpose was to undue the “progress” achieved by the Civil War and to reassert their dominance over blacks. Although as a group they did not participate in or advocate violence against blacks as did the KKK, the Redeemers benefited from those kinds of aggression. Their main goals were to repress blacks at the expense of whites and to increase their political power.

To that end, the Redeemers brought about a mini political revolution in the south. They believed strongly that a laissez-faire federal government would be more productive than the militarily enforced Reconstruction. This ideology was influenced by their desire to regain local control. The Redeemers also believed that education was important, but the cost should be borne by private benefactors rather than state governments. Most southern states did not have government funds for public education prior to the Civil War, and after the war the Redeemers felt that there were more pressing needs in the Reconstruction effort, such as business and industry.

Several philanthropists did come through with the funds to keep southern education afloat. London banker George Peabody was a major supporter of education through his Peabody Fund, which provided over $3 million to public schools in the south. Another philanthropist, John F. Slater, donated another $1 million, which was designated for the development and maintenance of black schools.

J.L.M. Curry, a former soldier, preacher, and educator, served as the manager of both these funds and developed many programs that are still in effect today, including teacher’s associations and summer schools. With the help of Curry’s programs, literacy increased to 88 percent for the native white population and 50 percent for the southern black population. In addition, the Redeemers’ influence led to teacher education schools, agricultural and mechanical colleges, and even black colleges.

Democrats campaigned for Congressional seats during the election of 1874 on the strength of programs such as the public education initiative and other Redeemer programs such as boards of agriculture and public health. The public bought into the platform of the Redeemers, and with their votes they gave the Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives as well as several prime seats in the Senate.

The changing mindset of the South allowed for several black politicians to emerge as leaders, if only of other blacks. South Carolina and Georgia both had black representatives in Congress throughout the late nineteenth century, although they always represented areas with a high density of black residents.

Most white people, although claiming racial superiority, wished no ill-will upon their black counterparts because they did not see them as threats to their social structure. Even as the white Redeemers were preaching racial superiority, they were practicing tolerance. For a brief period in the 1880s and 1890s, the black population was able to coexist with the white population in relative peace in the south.

Race Relations in the New South

The commissary or company store for sharecroppers at Lake Providence as it appeared in the 19th century / Photo by Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons

There was a tentative peace in the south between blacks and whites, but it had severe limitations. White Southerners expected blacks to keep to themselves, to socialize and worship in separate venues, to work for white people in menial jobs and for meager wages, and to never request or demand anything, including equal rights.

When slaves were emancipated, the white South lost its labor supply and the slaves lost their shelter. Instead of owning the slaves, white men became landlords, charging high rent to slave families who often could not pay with cash. These slaves effectively became indentured servants to their former owners as they tried to pay off their debts through service—an impossible task, with the interest tacked on by the landlords.

Freedmen also encountered the difficulties of sharecropping. With little land available to purchase and few skills other than knowing how to work in the fields, former slaves participated in the sharecropping system that provided a share of the crop for the worker’s service. A similar practice was known as crop liens, in which the owner of the land—usually a freedman or a poor white man—would offer a lien on his crop to a merchant in exchange for cash or supplies. Sharecropping and crop liens were idealistic plans used by crooked bookkeepers and white land owners who kept black men in perpetual debt.

Blacks did have some allies, albeit self-serving ones. The Populist Party of the 1890s needed numbers to gain power, and blacks were numerous. Populists brought blacks en masse into their folds, even giving them prominent leadership positions. Not surprisingly, these actions stirred up the Redeemers who wanted to repress the northern influence of equality for former slaves. They also did not want to lose elections to the growing Populist Party.

Since the Fifteenth Amendment ensured that the Redeemers could not outright disenfranchise blacks, they had to be crafty. Redeemers developed voting rules for their states that were known as “literacy tests,” although they were impossible tests meant solely to weed out black voters. In addition, the Redeemers implemented poll taxes that they knew many blacks could not afford to pay. While this did eliminate most of the black vote, it also kept many poor, uneducated whites from voicing their opinions at the polls. Still, the narrow-minded Redeemers considered this a victory for the South.

The Redeemers felt further justified when Mississippi took their actions a few steps further. In 1890, at a state constitutional convention, harsher voting requirements were enacted. The first of these requirements was a residency rule, which stated that all voters had to have lived in the state’s borders for a minimum of two years. Furthermore, each voter had to prove residency within their election district for a minimum of one year. Since many blacks were transient, moving to follow jobs throughout the south, few met the strict residency requirements and lost their voting privileges under the Mississippi Plan.

Those who had maintained a proper residence in Mississippi also had to meet other requirements. All taxes had to be paid by February 1st of the voting year. Even those who met this requirement were sometimes not allowed to vote when election officials “lost” the receipt in the months prior to the election. Under Mississippi’s rules, voters also had to pass a literacy test and not have been convicted of certain crimes. Again, these rules prohibited some poor white voters from participating in elections, although the rules were sometimes not enforced for the white constituency. Regardless, it was apparent to all that the harsh rules targeted blacks.

The Mississippi Plan was adopted by seven additional states over the next 20 years. Many of these states added their own exceptions that would qualify white voters who were kept from voting under Mississippi’s rules. For example, South Carolina’s literacy requirement had a loophole that exempted voters from this requirement if they owned $300 worth of property. Likewise, Louisiana invented the “grandfather clause” in 1898, which allowed illiterates to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been eligible to vote on January 1, 1867. This excluded blacks since blacks did not have voting rights at that time. Exceptions like this were the norm as governments attempted to exclude only black voters without violating the Fifteenth Amendment.

This exclusionary attitude infused the South. A series of seven cases before the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination against blacks by corporations or individuals was in violation of federal Civil Rights laws. However, their rulings did not prohibit states from enacting segregation laws.

Proponents of the New South took up the “Separate but Equal” battle cry. Under this agenda, segregation of blacks and whites became common as long as each had “equal” facilities. However, although blacks and whites might both have facilities that served the same purpose, such as public restrooms, railroad cars, and theater seats, the facilities were rarely equal. The railroad cars for white patrons would typically be cleaner and more comfortable than the car for blacks. The state laws legalizing this practice were known as “Jim Crow laws,” named after a black character in old minstrel shows.

These segregation laws were first tested in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which went before the Supreme Court in 1896. Homer Plessy was a man with one-eighth black ancestry who was ordered to leave the whites-only railroad car. He refused the order and was arrested and later convicted of this crime. He appealed the case all the way to the highest court, but the Supreme Court validated Plessy’s conviction, and the southern states took that as a green light to enact segregation laws on a wide scale.

One Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, dissented in the Plessy verdict. He believed that validating Plessy’s conviction would promote aggressive attitudes toward blacks. Such attitudes were already firmly entrenched in Southern society, and as Harlan predicted, the ruling increased the violence. Lynchings, already a common practice, hit record highs in the late 1800s, with nearly 90% of the victims being black.

Two black men, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, risked their lives to stand up against the violence and lead their fellow blacks, albeit in opposite directions. Washington, a former slave, had overcome the odds to receive an education at Hampton Institution, and he later built the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington encouraged blacks to keep to themselves and focus on the daily tasks of survival, rather than leading a grand uprising. He believed that building a strong economic base was more critical at that time than planning an uprising or fighting for equal rights. Washington also stated in his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895 that blacks had to accept segregation in the short term as they focused on economic gain to achieve political equality in the future.

W.E.B. Du Bois, born after the Civil War and the first African American to earn a Harvard PhD, was one of Washington’s harshest critics. He believed that Washington’s pacifist plan would only perpetuate the second-class-citizen mindset. Du Bois felt that immediate “ceaseless agitation” was the only appropriate method for attaining equal rights, especially for those he dubbed the “talented tenth” of African Americans who deserved total equality immediately. As editor of the black publication “The Crisis,” Du Bois publicized his disdain for Washington and was instrumental in the creation of the “Niagara Movement,” which later evolved into the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Eventually, Du Bois grew weary of the slow pace of racial equality in the United States. He renounced his citizenship and moved to Ghana in 1961, where he died two years later. Both Washington and Du Bois had loyal followers and both are legendary black leaders for the progress they made—even on different paths—toward equality. Each served as important role models for later leaders of the civil rights movement.


Originally published by AP Study Notes, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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