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The story of the American Civil War: 32 key moments in the landmark conflict

With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, 13 former British colonies became the United States of America, but by the 1830s it was clear the new nation was divided. Adam IP Smith explains how the issue of slavery, above all, created discord between north and south, and forced political tension to rise...

An illustration showing the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act,  passed by Congress in 1850. The law aimed to make it easier for slaveholders to reclaim runaway ‘property’ in the free states, and contributed to rising political tension. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
Published: April 11, 2019 at 4:25 pm
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Over three parts, Adam IP Smith charts the key moments of the American Civil War: first, the rising tensions between the North and South since independence…


The cause of the trouble: slavery

At the time of the American revolution, it was legal to hold human beings as ‘property’ in all the British colonies that rebelled. But in the wake of the revolution, slavery was abolished in New England and, gradually, in the mid-Atlantic states as well. In the south though, where most enslaved people were held, abolitionism stalled and slavery expanded rapidly. Between the revolution and 1860, the slave population increased from 700,000 to nearly 4 million, geographically concentrated in the south. The increase was driven by the profits to be made from the sale of raw cotton – and to a lesser extent sugar, rice and tobacco – on world markets.

The bronze statue in Washington DC celebrating Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves shows the 16th president standing over a shackled African American. Lincoln is "one of the towering figures in the story that Americans tell about themselves," writes Lucy Worsley. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

As Abraham Lincoln was later to say, “all knew” that “somehow” slavery was the cause of the war. This is not the same as claiming that northerners and southerners went to war in 1861 with the desire to attack or defend slavery as a prime motivation: most did not. However, it became increasingly difficult to sustain a nation divided, “half slave and half free” in Lincoln’s phrase.

Americans in 1861 had much in common with one another: a reverence for the Founding Fathers and a shared belief in freedom, opportunity and providential God. Most people, both north and south, worked on the land; almost all white folk assumed racial superiority, whatever their views on slavery. However, slavery shaped the south in ways that made the north see it as a threatening and alien society, just as northern attacks on slavery pushed southerners to see Yankees as their enemies.


Abolitionism versus proslavery

Slavery was a capitalist institution: it depended on ‘owners’ being able to buy, sell and invest in human beings. That in turn required confidence on the part of buyers that their ‘property’ would be protected and recognised. This was why the rising antislavery movement, with campaigners’ core claim that human beings could never be turned into mere property, was so threatening to slaveholders. Unlike other moral issues that enter politics, abolitionism threatened billions of dollars of investments. Most Americans in both sections shared the common aspiration of property ownership and believed they lived in an open, free society where hard work was rewarded. The difference was that most southerners were comfortable with the idea that black people were just another type of property.

In the 1830s, the abolitionist movement grew into a loud, if minority, force in the north. It was a transatlantic movement inspired by abolition in the British Empire, powered by evangelical fervour and horror at the human cost of slavery, not least in terms of the destruction of family life and the violation of women. From the 1830s onwards, the open discussion of emancipation in the south became impossible. Slaveholders needed the free states to recognise the legitimacy of their slave property. They tried, and briefly succeeded, to ban antislavery material from the US mail and to prevent the discussion of antislavery petitions in congress. They were caught in a cycle whereby, as more and more people denounced slavery, they needed ever-greater reassurances.


The Mexican War breaks out

In 1846, President James K Polk, a Democrat and a slaveholder, used a border dispute as a pretext to invade Mexico. Southerners were excited by the prospect of acquiring new slave territory but many northerners supported the war as well, assuming that it was the destiny of whites to settle the entire continent. The Mexican War was probably the most successful war of imperial expansion in modern history: a decisive and relatively low-cost victory for the USA that led, in 1848, to the annexation of the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico as well as parts of Texas and Colorado.

However, the war also set the nation on a collision course over slavery. Very few northerners were out-and-out abolitionists but most, it turned out, were against the expansion of slavery into these new territories in the west. Increasing numbers of northerners believed that if the new territories were allowed to become a ‘vast slave empire’ then the character of the nation would be changed forever, and the ‘right to rise’ for the honest white working man would be sacrificed in the interest of a slaveholding class. Free white men did not want to have to compete for land with privileged slaveholders. Nor did they want to end up competing as labourers against black slaves.

In the end, a compromise was struck: California was admitted as a free state (just as the Gold Rush made it a magnet) but most of the rest of the former Mexican land was opened to the possibility of slavery, should the local settlers so desire it.


The Fugitive Slave Act 1850

Among the reassurances demanded by southerners was a new Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in 1850 against northern opposition, which aimed to make it easier for slaveholders to reclaim runaway ‘property’ in the free states. Ironically in view of southerners’ later protestations about states’ rights, the act led to a massive expansion of the federal government, giving it the right to override northern states’ law-enforcement procedures.

Southerners saw the law as a test of how far the north was prepared to accommodate what they called their ‘peculiar institution’. “Respect and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law as it stands,” one proslavery editor warned the north. “If not, WE WILL LEAVE YOU!” By demanding that freemen be shackled and returned to slavery against the wishes of the local community, the Fugitive Slave Act made a formerly abstract issue frighteningly real.

A number of high-profile cases of allegedly runaway slaves being returned to bondage electrified the north. In 1854, thousands of Bostonians shouting “shame!” and “kidnappers!” watched in horror as Anthony Burns, a black man who had been living as a freeman in the city, was marched in chains by federal troops to the wharfside to be taken back south into slavery. This was the backdrop to the phenomenal popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a grim depiction of the harshness of plantation life that further raised northerners’ awareness of slavery.


Kansas-Nebraska Act 1854

Did railroads help cause the civil war? It was the desire to build a railroad to California that led Congress in 1854 to organise land to the west of Illinois, creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This was land that had been part of the United States for half a century but had been barely settled by European Americans, and from which slavery had been banned under the terms of the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

Southerners in Congress only supported the bill once the prohibition on slavery was lifted. To millions of northerners, including many who had never previously considered themselves antislavery, this was a betrayal of a sacred promise that the lands of Kansas and Nebraska would be open to the free settlement of poor white men. More than that, it seemed to be evidence that the government was in the hands of sinister and ‘aristocratic’ proslavery interests.

President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland, 1 October 1862. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the single most important catalyst for the rise of a new political party, the Republican Party, which presented itself as the only true defender of northern interests against the aggressions of the south. ‘The North is discovered!’ was one of many Republican campaign songs. If the party could unite the northern states, it could capture enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency even without having any support at all in the south.

It didn’t manage this in 1856. Hapless Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan won instead. But in the coming few years, the new party built support further as the south demanded even greater protection for its slave ‘property’.


The rise of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in a log cabin in what was then the frontier state of Kentucky. Despite having virtually no formal education, Lincoln made his own way in life, shrugging off his subsistence-farming background and the whiskey-soaked roughness that went with it. He became a leading lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and with a keen interest in politics, he also became a prominent state politician, arguing for transportation improvements and secure banks.

After one term in Congress in the late 1840s, his political career appeared to be over. But like many others, he thought the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a challenge that had to be faced. In a speech given at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln expressed the shame and anger so many northerners felt at the potential expansion of slavery. “Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust,” he declared. “Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood of the revolution.”

Although Lincoln repeatedly said that he disapproved of slavery as a violation of the rights of men to the fruits of their labour, he was not an abolitionist and he revered the American Constitution, even though it protected slavery within states that allowed it. But while he did not advocate the immediate overthrow of slavery, he said again and again that it should be placed “on the path to ultimate extinction”.

In Lincoln’s view, the United States would become either a slave nation or a modern free-labour nation. For the future president, the time had come to be clear about the final destination.


John Brown’s raid of 1859

In October 1859, the messianic abolitionist John Brown launched an amateurish raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His aim was to distribute the arms among local slaves and spark a general insurrection. Brown was quickly apprehended by US troops under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee.

Brown’s raid struck southern society at its weakest point, but shocking as it was for white southerners that violence had been used on their home soil, the most frightening aspect of the affair was the northern response. While most mainstream politicians, including Republican leaders, condemned Brown’s acts, there was also admiration for his bravery. In antislavery strongholds, including Massachusetts, supporters raised funds for Brown’s legal defence and to help his family.

Brown played the part of martyr to perfection. Republican newspapers reported his well-aimed final words as he was led to the gallows: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away – but with blood.” Brown’s raid reinforced southerners’ conception of themselves as victims. One Virginia newspaper concluded: “Thousands of men who, a month ago, scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the Union… now hold the opinion that its days are numbered.”


The 1860 election

The trigger for secession was the election of the Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. It was, in effect, two parallel elections, one in each section. The Democratic Party split, with one Democrat, Stephen

A Douglas, fighting Lincoln in the free states, while another, John C Breckinridge, fought for the votes of slave states against a more moderate third-party opponent. Lincoln won only 40 per cent of the national popular vote, but by winning almost all of the free states, he comfortably carried the Electoral College.

Antislavery men welcomed Lincoln’s election as a decisive break with the past. The patrician Bostonian Charles Francis Adams was elated that “the great revolution has actually taken place” and that “the country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders”.

In southern states, the so-called ‘fire eaters’, who had been campaigning for secession for years, appeared to have been prescient. Lincoln, like the rest of his party, believed slavery was wrong. To the leaders of southern society, this was enough for them to believe that the federal government had fallen into the hands of people who were their enemies. Irrevocably so, since the rising population of the free states meant their Electoral College advantage would only increase and leave the south politically impotent. “The election of Lincoln,” wrote one southern politician, “has placed our necks under their heels.”


Southern states secede from the Union

To no-one’s surprise, South Carolina, long the most radical proslavery region of the southern states, was the first to announce it was leaving the Federal Union, on 20 December 1860. The resolutions adopted that day made it explicit that the motive was the protection of slavery. South Carolina secessionists condemned the free states for denouncing “as sinful the institution of Slavery”.

Elsewhere, ‘fire eaters’ gained political momentum, capturing popular indignation at Lincoln’s election. By 1 February 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had passed secession resolutions. By 9 February, commissioners from the seven seceded states, meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, had adopted a provisional constitution and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi became the provisional president of the Confederate States of America.

Even so, the tide of secession was held back by Unionists in the upper south states of North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. In Virginia, still the state with the largest number of slaves, secession was opposed by those counties with fewer slaves. Although not pro-emancipation, they argued that the Union, notwithstanding the election of a president who was a ‘Black Republican’, still provided more security for slavery than an untested southern Confederacy.

Conscious that Lincoln’s election had been entirely legitimate, some urged the southern states to wait for an ‘overt act’ of aggression.

That overt act soon came. By June 1861, 11 slave states formed the Confederacy and prepared to defend their independence.

A painting depicting the Mexican-American War of 1846–48: battle of Buena Vista, also known as battle of Angostura. Since that traumatic war, the US-Mexico bilateral relationship "has experienced sharp ups-and-downs; but there have also been underlying continuities," says Professor Alan Knight. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Sumter and the outbreak of war, 1861

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at 4.30am on 12 April 1861 by South Carolina forces. Their target was Fort Sumter, an island in Charleston’s harbour garrisoned by Union troops. Perhaps deliberately, the new president, Abraham Lincoln, had precipitated this aggression by making public his plan to re-supply (though not reinforce) the fort.

By opening fire on Fort Sumter, the Confederates played into Lincoln’s hands by making the issue a test of whether a free government could and would defend itself.

The shocking image of the stars and stripes under fire stirred the north in defence of the Union, overshadowing the slavery issue. Newspapers, which the day before had called for compromise and a cooling of passions, now called for vengeance and urged their readers to rally behind the flag.

On 15 April, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers under the 1795 Militia Act to serve for 90 days, the maximum amount prescribed by the law. This was the ‘overt act’ of aggression that prompted the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee to join their fellow southern slave states in seceding. With the seceded states making clear they were fighting for nothing less than independence, the Lincoln administration mobilised for a war to bring the rebels forcibly back into the Union.


Abraham Lincoln never recognised the Confederacy: to him these states were simply rebels and the war a giant police action to restore the authority of the national government. “Secession”, Lincoln insisted, was “the essence of anarchy”.


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