American Civil War: Introduction

After the War of Independence the United States of America was governed by the Articles of Confederation. This provided for a weak central government and strong state governments. However, it proved unworkable and a new Constitution was adopted that resulted in a stronger Federal government with powers which included regulating interstate commerce as well as foreign affairs.

The different states had varying policies concerning slavery. In some areas of the country where religious groups such as the Quakers played a prominent role in political life, there was strong opposition to having slaves. Rhode Island abolished slavery in 1774 and was soon followed by Vermont (1777), Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1781), New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut (1784), New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804). The new states of Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Oregon, California and Illinois also did not have slaves. The importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808. However, the selling of slaves within the southern states continued.

Conflict grew in the 19th century between the northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. The northern states were going through an industrial revolution and desperately needed more people to work in its factories. Industrialists in the North believed that, if freed, the slaves would leave the South and provide the labour they needed. The North also wanted tariffs on imported foreign goods to protect their new industries. The South was still mainly agricultural and purchased a lot of goods from abroad and was therefore against import tariffs.

In 1831 Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan established the first Anti-Slavery Society in New York. When two years later it became a national organization, Tappan was elected its first president. William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, Samuel Eli Cornish, Angelina Grimke, Sarah Grimke Robert Purvis, Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf Whittier, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, William Wells Brown soon emerged as the main figures in the organization. Its main supporters were from religious groups such as the Quakers and from the free black community. By 1840 the society had 250,000 members, published more than twenty journals and 2,000 local chapters.

The growth in the Anti-Slavery Society worried slaveowners in the South. They feared that the activities of the abolitionists would make it more difficult to run their plantation system. Where possible they wanted to see an expansion of slavery into other areas. They therefore supported the annexation of Texas as they were certain it would become a slave state. They also favoured the Mexican War and agitated for the annexation of Cuba.

Conflict grew in the middle of 19th century between the northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. The northern states were going through an industrial revolution and desperately needed more people to work in its factories. Industrialists in the North believed that, if freed, the slaves would leave the South and provide the labour they needed. The North also wanted tariffs on imported foreign goods to protect their new industries. The South was still mainly agricultural and purchased a lot of goods from abroad and was therefore against import tariffs.

In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. In future, any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. People suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without warrant and turned over to a claimant on nothing more than his sworn testimony of ownership. A suspected black slave could not ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her behalf. Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Those officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee and this encouraged some officers to kidnap free African Americans and sell them to slave-owners.

Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier led the fight against the Fugitive Slave Law. Even moderate anti-slavery leaders such as Arthur Tappan declared he was now willing to disobey the law and as a result helped fund the Underground Railroad.

In 1854 Stephen A. Douglas introduced his Kansas-Nebraska bill to the Senate. These states could now enter the Union with or without slavery. Frederick Douglass warned that the bill was "an open invitation to a fierce and bitter strife". The result of this legislation was to open the territory to organized migrations of pro-slave and anti-slave groups. Southerners now entered the area with their slaves while active members of the Anti-Slavery Society also arrived. Henry Ward Beecher, condemned the bill from his pulpit and helped to raise funds to supply weapons to those willing to oppose slavery in these territories.

Kansas elected its first legislature in March, 1855. Although less than 2,000 people were qualified to take part in these elections, over 6,000 people voted. These were mainly Missouri slave-owners who had crossed the border to make sure pro-slavery candidates were elected. The new legislature passed laws that imposed the death penalty for anyone helping a slave to escape and two years in jail for possessing abolitionist literature.

In 1856 Abraham Lincoln joined the Republican Party and unsuccessfully challenged Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the Senate. Lincoln was opposed to Douglas's proposal that the people living in the Louisiana Purchase (Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, and parts of Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming) should be allowed to own slaves. Lincoln argued that the territories must be kept free for "poor people to go and better their condition".

Abraham Lincoln raised the issue of slavery again in 1858 when he made a speech at Quincy, Illinois. Lincoln argued: "We have in this nation the element of domestic slavery. The Republican Party think it wrong - we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong. We think it is wrong not confining itself merely to the persons of the States where it exists, but that it is a wrong which in its tendency, to say the least, affects the existence of the whole nation. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, insofar as we can prevent it growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it."

Lincoln's speech upset Southern slaveholders and poor whites, who valued the higher social status they enjoyed over slaves. However, with rapid European immigration taking place in the North, they had a declining influence over federal government.

Opponents of slavery were also becoming more militant in their views. John Brown and five of his sons moved to Kansas Territory to help anti-slavery forces obtain control of this region. With the support of Gerrit Smith and other prominent Abolitionists, Brown moved to Virginia where he established a refuge for runaway slaves.

In 1859 John Brown led a party of 21 men in a successful attack on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry. Brown hoped that his action would encourage slaves to join his rebellion, enabling him to form an emancipation army. Two days later the armory was stormed by Robert E. Lee and a company of marines. Brown and six men barricaded themselves in an engine-house, and continued to fight until Brown was seriously wounded and two of his sons had been killed. Brown was executed on 2nd December, 1859.

Southern slaveholders were outraged when in 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate in 1860. They looked to the Democratic Party to defend its interests but when it met in Charleston in April, 1860, it selected, Stephen A. Douglas. Unhappy with this decision, Southern delegates decided to hold another convention in Baltimore in June, where they selected John Breckenridge of Kentucky to fight the election. The situation was further complicated by the formation of the Constitutional Union Party and the nomination of John Bell of Tennessee as its presidential candidate.

Abraham Lincoln won with 1,866,462 votes (18 free states) and beat Stephen A. Douglas (1,375,157 - 1 slave state), John Breckenridge (847,953 - 13 slave states) and John Bell (589,581 - 3 slave states).

In the three months that followed the election of Abraham Lincoln, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Representatives from these seven states quickly established a new political organization, the Confederate States of America.

On 8th February the Confederate States of America adopted a constitution and within ten days had elected Jefferson Davis as its president and Alexander Stephens, as vice-president. Montgomery, Alabama, became its capital and the Stars and Bars was adopted as its flag. Davis was also authorized to raise 100,000 troops.

At his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln attempted to avoid conflict by announcing that he had no intention "to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." He added: "The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors."

President Jefferson Davis took the view that after a state seceded, federal forts became the property of the state. On 12th April, 1861, General Pierre T. Beauregard demanded that Major Robert Anderson surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Anderson replied that he would be willing to leave the fort in two days when his supplies were exhausted. Beauregard rejected this offer and ordered his Confederate troops to open fire. After 34 hours of bombardment the fort was severely damaged and Anderson was forced to surrender.

On hearing the news, Abraham Lincoln called a special session of Congress and proclaimed a blockade of Gulf of Mexico ports. This strategy was based on the Anaconda Plan developed by General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the Union Army. It involved the army occupying the line of the Mississippi and blockading Confederate ports. Scott believed if this was done successfully the South would negotiate a peace deal. However, at the start of the war, the US Navy had only a small number of ships and was in no position to guard all 3,000 miles of Southern coast.

On 15th April, 1861, Abraham Lincoln called on the governors of the Northern states to provide 75,000 militia to serve for three months to put down the insurrection. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, all refused to send troops and joined the Confederacy. Kentucky and Missouri were also unwilling to supply men for the Union Army but decided not to take sides in the conflict.

Primary Sources

(1) John Caldwell Calhoun, speech in the Senate (4th March, 1850)

How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty; and that is, by a full and final settlement, on the principle of justice of all the questions at issue between the two sections. But can this be done? Yes, easily; not by the weaker party, for it can of itself do nothing - not even protect itself - but by the stronger. The North has only to will it to accomplish it - to do justice by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled and to cease the agitation of the slave question.

(2) William Seward, speech, Rochester, New York (25th October, 1858)

The slave system is one of constant danger, distrust, suspicion, and watchfulness. It debases those whose toil alone can produce wealth and resources for defense to the lowest degree of which human nature is capable, to guard against mutiny and insurrection, and this wastes energies which otherwise might be employed in national development and aggrandizement.

In states where the slave system prevails, the masters directly or indirectly secure all political power and constitute a ruling aristocracy. In states where the free-labor system prevails, universal suffrage necessarily obtains and the state inevitably becomes sooner or later a republic or democracy.

The two systems are at once perceived to be incongruous - they are incompatible. They never have permanently existed together in one country, and they never can. Hitherto, the two systems have existed in different states, but side by side within the American Union. This has happened because the Union is a confederation of states. But in another aspect the United States constitute only one nation. Increase of population which is filling the states out to their very borders, together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate, is rapidly bringing the states into a higher and more perfect social unity of consolidation. Thus, these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results.

The Democratic Party derived its strength originally from its adoption of the principles of equal and exact justice to all men. So long as it practised this principle faithfully, it was invulnerable. It became vulnerable when it renounced the principle, and since that time it has maintained itself not by virtue of its own strength, or even of its traditional merits, but because there as yet had appeared in the political field no other party that had the conscience and the courage to take up, and avow, and practice the life-inspiring principle which the Democratic Party surrendered.

At last, the Republican Party had appeared. It avows now, as the Republican Party of 1800 did, in one word, its faith and its works, "Equal and exact justice to all men." The secret of its assured success lies in that very characteristic, which in the mouth of scoffers constitutes its great and lasting imbecility and reproach. It lies in the fact that it is a party of one idea; but that idea is a noble one - an idea that fills and expands all generous souls - the idea of equality - the equality of all men before human tribunals and human laws, as they are equal before the divine tribunal and divine laws.

(3) Abraham Lincoln, debate with Stephen Douglas in Alton, Illinois (15th October, 1858)

Stephen Douglas assumes that I am in favor of introducing a perfect social and political equality between the white and black races. These are false issues. The real issue in this controversy is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. One of the methods of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger.

(4) Abraham Lincoln, speech at Quincy, Illinois (1858)

We have in this nation the element of domestic slavery. The Republican Party think it wrong - we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong. We think it is wrong not confining itself merely to the persons of the States where it exists, but that it is a wrong which in its tendency, to say the least, affects the existence of the whole nation. Because we thing it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, insofar as we can prevent it growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it.

(5) The journalist, Henry Villard, described the Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debate at Ottawa, Illinois, on 21st August, 1858.

The first joint debate between Douglas and Lincoln, which I attended, took place on the afternoon of August 21, 1858, at Ottawa, Illinois. It was the great event of the day, and attracted an immense concourse of people from all parts of the State.

Senator Douglas was very small, not over four and a half feet height, and there was a noticeable disproportion between the long trunk of his body and his short legs. His chest was broad and indicated great strength of lungs. It took but a glance at his face and head to convince one that they belonged to no ordinary man. No beard hid any part of his remarkable, swarthy features. His mouth, nose, and chin were all large and clearly expressive of much boldness and power of will. The broad, high forehead proclaimed itself the shield of a great brain. The head, covered with an abundance of flowing black hair just beginning to show a tinge of grey, impressed one with its massiveness and leonine expression. His brows were shaggy, his eyes a brilliant black.

Douglas spoke first for an hour, followed by Lincoln for an hour and a half; upon which the former closed in another half hour. The Democratic spokesman commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practiced speaker.

As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favour of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch.

Yet the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions. There was nothing in all Douglas's powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic cords. Lincoln's speech excited and sustained the enthusiasm of his audience to the end.

(6) Henry David Thoreau, A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859)

I read all the newspapers I could get within a week after this event, and I do not remember in them a single expression of sympathy for these men. I have since seen one noble statement, in a Boston paper, not editorial. Some voluminous sheets decided not to print the full report of Brown's words to the exclusion of other matter.

But I object not so much to what they have omitted as to what they have inserted. Even the Liberator called it "a misguided, wild, and apparently insane-effort." As for the herd of newspapers and magazines, I do not chance to know an editor in the country who will deliberately print anything which he knows will ultimately and permanently reduce the number of his subscribers.

A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we hear people and parties declaring, "I didn't do it, nor countenance him to do it, in any conceivable way. It can't be fairly inferred from my past career." I, for one, am not interested to hear you define your position. I don't know that I ever was or ever shall be. I think it is mere egotism, or impertinent at this time. Ye needn't take so much pains to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours. He went and came, as he himself informs us, "under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else."

Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians, men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that he acted "on the principle of revenge." They do not know the man. They must enlarge themselves to conceive of him. I have no doubt that the time will come when they will begin to see him as he was. They have got to conceive of a man of faith and of religious principle, and not a politician or an Indian; of a man who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.

I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.

(7) Lucius Bierce, the uncle of Ambrose Bierce, made a speech when John Brown was executed that was reported in the Summit Beacon in Ohio (7th December, 1859)

The tragedy of Brown's is freighted with awful lessons and consequences. It is like the clock striking the fatal hour that begins a new era in the conflict with slavery. Men like Brown may die, but their acts and principles will live forever. Call it fanaticism, folly, madness, wickedness, but until virtue becomes fanaticism, divine wisdom folly, obedience to God madness, and piety wickedness, John Brown, inspired with these high and holy teachings, will rise up before the world with his calm, marble features, most terrible in death and defeat, than in life and victory. It is one of those acts of madness which history cherished and poetry loves forever to adorn with her choicest wreaths of laurel.

(8) In his book, Life and Times, Frederick Douglass described the 1860 Presidential Election.

The presidential canvass of 1860 was three sided, and each side had its distinctive doctrine as to the question of slavery and slavery extension. We had three candidates in the field. Stephen A. Douglas was the standard bearer of what may be called the western faction of the old divided democratic party, and John C. Breckenridge was the standard-bearer of the southern or slaveholding, faction of that party. Abraham Lincoln represented the then young, growing, and united republican party. The lines between these parties and candidates were about as distinctly and clearly drawn as political lines are capable of being drawn. The name of Douglas stood for territorial sovereignty, or in other words, for the right of the people of a territory to admit or exclude, to establish or abolish, slavery, as to them might seem best. The doctrine of Breckenridge was that slaveholders were entitled to carry their slaves into any territory of the United States and to hold them there, with or without the consent of the people of the territory; that the Constitution of its own force carried slavery and protected it into any territory open for settlement in the United States. To both these parties, factions, and doctrines, Abraham Lincoln and the republican party stood opposed. They held that the Federal Government had the right and the power to exclude slavery from the territories of the United States, and that that right and power ought to be exercised to the extent of confining slavery inside the slave States, with a view to its ultimate extinction.

(9) Thomas Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909)

In the year 1860, there was great excitement in Richmond over the election of Mr. Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. The slaves prayed to God for his success, and they prayed very especially the night before the election. We knew he was in sympathy with the abolition of Slavery. The election was the signal for a great conflict for which the Southern States were ready. The question was: Shall there be Slavery or no Slavery in the United States? The South said: Yes, there shall be Slavery.

(10) James Garfield, letter to Burke A. Hinsdale (15th January, 1861)

I do not now see any way this side a miracle of God which can avoid a civil war with all its attendant horrors. Peaceable dissolution is utterly impossible. Indeed, I cannot say as I would wish it possible. To make the concessions demanded by the South would be hypocritical and sinful. They would neither be obeyed nor respected. I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission. I believe the doom of slavery is drawing near - let war come - and the slaves will get a vague notion that it is waged for them.

(11) Jefferson Davis, inaugural address (18th February, 1861)

The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of the states subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign states here represented proceeded to form the Confederacy; and it is by the abuse of language that their act has been denominated revolution.

(12) Abraham Lincoln, inaugural speech (4th March, 1861)

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

I consider the Union is unbroken. I shall take care that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all States. There need be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.

The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.

(13) William Seward, memorandum to Abraham Lincoln (1st April, 1861)

My system is built upon the idea as a ruling one, namely, that we must change the question before the public from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question upon union or disunion. In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question to one of patriotism or union.

The occupation or evacuation of Fort Sumter, although not in fact a slavery or a party question, is so regarded. Witness the temper manifested by the Republicans in the free states, and even by the Union men in the South.

I would therefore terminate it as a safe means for changing the issue. I deem it fortunate that the last administration created the necessity. For the rest, I would simultaneously defend and reinforce all the ports in the Gulf and have the Navy recalled from foreign stations to be prepared for a blockade. Put the island of Key West under martial law.

(14) Walt Whitman wrote about his thoughts on hearing about the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Specimen Days (1881).

Even after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the gravity of the revolt, and the power and will of the slave States for a strong and continued military resistance to national authority, were not at all realized at the North, except by a few. Nine-tenths of the people of the free States looked upon the rebellion, as started in South Carolina, from a feeling of one-half of contempt, and the other half composed of anger and incredulity. It was not thought it would be joined in by Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia. A great and cautious national official predicted it would blow over "in sixty days" and folks generally believed the prediction.

(15) Mary Livermore was staying in Boston with her father when the American Civil War started in 1861.

My own home had been in Chicago for years, but my aged father was thought to be dying, and the stern speech of the telegram had summoned me to his bedside. The daily papers teemed with the dreary records of succession. The Southern press blazed with hatred of the North, and with fierce contempt for her patience and her avowed desire for peace. Northern men and women were driven from Southern homes, leaving behind all their possessions, and thankful to escape with life.

The day after arrival, came the news that Fort Sumter was attacked, which increased the feverish anxiety. The telegraph, which had registered for the astounded nation the hourly progress of the bombardment, announced the lowering of the stars and stripes, and the surrender of the beleaguered garrison, the news fell on the land like a thunderbolt.

(16) Mary Livermore wrote about her feelings when it became clear that the North was at war with the South in her book My Story of the War (1887).

15th April, 1861: Drowning the exaltations of the triumphant South, louder than their boom of cannon, heard above their clang of bells and blare of trumpets, there rang out the voice of Abraham Lincoln calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months. This proclamation was like the first peal of a surcharged thunder-cloud, clearing the murky air. The South received it as a declaration of war; the North as a confession that civil war had begun; and the whole North arose as one man.

17th April, 1861: The 6th Massachusetts, a full regiment one thousand strong, started from Boston by rail. An immense concourse of people gathered in the neighborhood of the Boston and Albany railroad station to witness their departure. The great crowd was evidently under the influence of deep feeling, but it was repressed, and the demonstrations were not noisy. Tears ran down not only the cheeks of women, but those of men; but there was no faltering.