Article

A Brief Overview of American History from the 1850s - 1960s

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The Civil War Era

As the 1850s began, it seemed for a time that the issue of slavery and other sectional differences between North and South might eventually be reconciled. But with the westward thrust of the American nation, all attempts at compromise were thwarted, and diverging economic, political, and philosophical interests became more apparent. The resulting civil war transformed the American nation.

Political Fragmentation.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act threw open the huge unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase to popular sovereignty, repealing the Missouri Compromise line of 1820. The North exploded in rage. Thousands defected from the Whig party to establish a new and much more antisouthern body (and one wholly limited to the northern states), the Republican party. The Republicans were aided by an enormous anti-Catholic outburst under way at the same time, aimed at the large wave of Irish Catholic immigration. Anti-Catholicism was already draining away Whigs to a new organization, the American party, soon known as the Know-Nothing party. When in 1856 it proved unable to hold together its members, north and south, because of disagreements over slavery, the anti-Catholics joined the Republicans.

In Kansas civil war broke out between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates, as settlers attempted to formalize their position on the institution prior to the territory's admission as a state. The Democratic presidents Franklin Pierce (1853-57) and James Buchanan (1857-61) appeared to favor the pro-slavery group in Kansas despite its use of fraud and violence. In 1857 the Supreme Court, southern dominated, intensified northern alarm in its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court ruled that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from the territories and thus, that the Missouri Compromise line had been unconstitutional all along. Thousands of northerners now became convinced that a "slave conspiracy" had infiltrated the national government and that it intended to make slavery a nationwide institution.

In 1860 the political system became completely fragmented. The Democrats split into northern and southern wings, presenting two different candidates for the presidency; the small Constitutional Union party attempted to rally the former Whigs behind a third. The Republicans, however, were able to secure the election of Abraham Lincoln to the White House.

Southerners had viewed the rise of the Yankee-dominated Republican party with great alarm. They were convinced that the party was secretly controlled by abolitionists (although most northerners detested the abolitionists) and that Yankees believed in using government to enforce their moralistic crusades. In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., hoping to incite a slave insurrection. His action-and his subsequent deification by some northerners-helped persuade southerners that emancipation of the slaves, if northerners obtained control of the country, was sooner or later inevitable.

Secession.

Southern leaders had threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln won the election of 1860. Many South Carolinians, in particular, were convinced that Republican-sponsored emancipation would lead to bloody massacres as blacks sought vengeance against whites. In order to prevent this horror South Carolina seceded in December 1860, soon after the victory of Lincoln, an undeniably sectional candidate; it was optimistic about the eventual outcome of its action. Before Lincoln's inauguration (March 1861) six more states followed ( Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas). In February their representatives gathered in Montgomery, Ala., to form the Confederate States of America. On Apr. 12, 1861, when President Lincoln moved to reprovision the federal troops at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, Confederate shore batteries launched a 34-hour battering of the installation, forcing its surrender. The U.S. Civil War had begun.

The War between the States.

Lincoln moved swiftly. On April 15 he called the remaining states to provide 75,000 troops to put down the Confederacy; Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee reluctantly seceded. The capital of the Confederacy moved to Richmond. On July 21, 1861, the first major battle between Union and Confederate forces occurred-at Bull Run, south of Washington, D.C.-resulting in a dramatic southern victory. Thereafter, both sides settled down to a long conflict.

It became an immense struggle. With a total U.S. population of fewer than 32 million, the number of dead reached 620,000 (360,000 northerners out of an army of about 1.5 million and 260,000 southerners in an army of about 1 million). In contrast, during World War II, when the American population was 135 million and its military forces fought for 4 years throughout the world, the total dead reached 400,000. In 1861 about 22 million people lived in the North, as against some 9 million people in the South, of whom 3.5 million were black. Although the North possessed a vigorous system of industry and a well-developed railroad network, Europeans were highly skeptical of a northern victory because the Confederacy was practically as large as Western Europe and fought with a determined passion for its independence. The North had to invade and defeat the opposition in order to win; the South had only to defend its borders. The conflict was not so uneven as it seemed.

Lincoln launched an all-out effort: he declared a naval blockade of the Confederacy; worked hard to maintain the loyalty of the slaveholding border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri); invaded Tennessee to gain a base of power in the heart of the Confederacy; cut the South in two by taking the Mississippi River; and looked for a general who could win. This last task took him 2 years. Gen. George B. McClellan proved disappointingly conservative, and his successors were bumblers. After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant won major victories in the western theater, Lincoln brought him to Washington in 1864 to face the brilliant Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee.

By mid-1863 the South was in desperate straits, lacking both food and supplies. A great northward thrust was turned back at Gettysburg, Pa., in July of that year. Thereafter, Grant mounted a relentless campaign that hammered down toward Richmond, at hideous cost in casualties. Union Gen. William T. Sherman, meanwhile, was slashing through Georgia to the sea, leaving a wide swath of total destruction, and then turning northward through the Carolinas. By April 1865, Grant had finally rounded Lee's flank, and on the 9th of that month, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Confederate president Jefferson Davis intended to fight on, but it was hopeless. The Civil War was over.

A Nation Transformed: The North.

The war had transformed both North and South. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slavery dead wherever rebellion existed (in the border states, it was terminated by later local action). In addition, the enormous war effort taught the North lessons in modern organization and the use of large corporations. In Washington the Republican majority enacted a classically Hamiltonian program: high protective tariffs, lavish aid to capitalists to build railroads and exploit natural resources, free homestead grants for settlers, and banking and currency legislation that created one national system of paper money. The Morrill Act of 1862 provided grants of land for the establishment of land-grant universities in each state to train the agriculturalists, engineers, and other professionals needed to run an industrialized economy.

The two-party system survived in the North despite the war. Democrats never sank below 40 percent of the vote because many northerners opposed the conflict, or at least Republican policies. In the Draft Riots of 1863, Irish Catholics and other New Yorkers fiercely protested the new conscription law, which seemed a special hardship to poor people. The rioters, as well as many other northerners, were hostile toward abolition; they feared that Republican policies would send hordes of freed slaves northward to compete for jobs. Democrats also opposed the powerful centralizing tendencies of the programs pushed by the Republicans, as well as their aid to capitalists.

Reconstruction.

A week after Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated. Now Andrew Johnson assumed office and moved quickly to establish a plan for Reconstruction. He asked southern whites only to repudiate debts owed by the Confederacy, declare secession null and void, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment (which declared slavery illegal). When Congress convened in December 1865, newly elected southerners were already on the scene waiting to be admitted to their seats. Many of them had been elected on the basis of black codes, established in the southern states in 1865-66 to restore a form of quasi-slavery. To the shocked and angered North, it seemed that the sufferings endured in the war had been in vain: politics as before the war - only now with a powerful southern Democratic bloc in Congress - would resume.

The Republican majority in Congress refused to admit southern legislators to their seats until a congressional committee reexamined the entire question of Reconstruction. Soon, Radical Republicans (those who wished to use the victory as an opportunity to remake the South in the Yankee image) were in open conflict with Johnson. He attempted to terminate the Freedmen's Bureau (an agency established in 1865 to aid refugees) and to veto legislation aimed at protecting the civil rights of former slaves. In the congressional election of 1866 a huge majority of Republicans was elected, and the Radicals gained a precarious ascendancy. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (New England-born) of Pennsylvania were among the leaders of the Radical cause.

The Fourteenth Amendment (enacted in 1866; ratified in 1868) made all persons born or naturalized in the country U.S. citizens and forbade any state to interfere with their fundamental civil rights. In March 1867 all state governments in the South were terminated and military occupation established. Federal commanders were charged with reconstructing southern governments through constitutional conventions, to which delegates were to be elected by universal male suffrage. After a new state government was in operation and had ratified the 14th Amendment, its representatives would be admitted to Congress. In February 1868 an impeachment effort sought unsuccessfully to remove President Johnson from office.

The Republican majority in Congress made no significant effort to create social equality for blacks, but only to give them the vote and to ensure them equal protection under the law (trial by jury, freedom of movement, the right to hold office and any employment, and the like). This political equality would give blacks an equal start, Republicans insisted, and they would then carry the burden of proving themselves equal in other ways. Yet Republicans well knew that antiblack attitudes persisted in the North as well as in the South. Until ratification (1870) of the Fifteenth Amendment, which made it illegal to deny the vote on the grounds of race, most northern states refused blacks the vote.

A Nation Transformed: The South.

Like the North, the South was transformed by the Civil War and its aftermath. Southerners had learned lessons in the effectiveness of a strong central government and realized the impossibility of continuing the old ways of the antebellum period. Former Whigs in the South, often called Conservatives, pushed eagerly to build industry and commerce in the Yankee style. Meanwhile, reconstructed southern state governments enacted many reforms, establishing free public schools for all, popular election of all officials, more equitable taxes, and more humane penal laws.

Republican Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 with electoral votes gained in occupied southern states. Democrats alleged that Radical Reconstruction was not genuinely concerned with aiding black people, but with using southern black votes to keep the Republicans in power in Congress and to retain their protective tariffs and other aids to industrialists. When evidence of corruption surfaced during the Grant administration, Democrats declared that it proved that the outcome of Republican friendliness to capitalists was graft and plunder.

By 1870 the antisouthern mood that had supported Radical Reconstruction had faded, as had the surge of concern for southern blacks. New domestic problems were pushing to the fore. A resurgence of white voting in the South, together with the use of violence to intimidate blacks and their white sympathizers, brought southern states back into Democratic hands. Northerners, awakened to economic questions by the great depression that began in 1873 and lasted for 5 years, tacitly agreed to return the race issue to the control of southern whites.

After the disputed election of 1876, amid evidence of electoral corruption, the Republican presidential candidate promised to withdraw the last federal occupation troops from the South. The election was decided by a congressional electoral commission, and Rutherford B. Hayes became president. As promised, he withdrew (1877) the troops; Reconstruction was over.

top

Grolier Online

Discover the content connection—the definitive, fully integrated database collection and online research portal. It includes seven encyclopedia databases: Encyclopedia America, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, The New Book of Knowledge, La Nueva Enciclopedia Cumbre, America the Beautiful, Lands and Peoples, and The New Book of Popular Science.