Rules for Plantation Management (1853)

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Plantation Management, De Bow’s xiv (February 1853): 177-8 The following rules for the instruction of overseers, and the Management of  Negroes, are by Mr. St. Geo Cocke, one of the wealthiest and most  intelligent planters of the old dominion. They are worthy of the note of  planters everywhere: 


PLANTATION MANAGEMENT. POLICE. 

1st. It is strictly required of the manager that he rise at the dawn of day  every morning; that he blow a horn for the assembling of the hands; require  all hands to repair to a certain and fixed place in ten minutes after the  blowing of the horn, and there himself see that all are present, or notice  absentees; after which the hands will receive their orders and be started to  their work under charge of the foreman. The stable will generally be the  most convenient place for the assembling of all hands after morning call. 

2nd. All sick negroes will be required to report to the manager at morning  call, either in person, if able to do so, or through others, when themselves  confined to the house. 

3rd. Immediately after morning call, the manager will himself repair to the  stable, together with the ploughmen, and see to the proper feeding, cleaning  and gearing of the horses. He will also see to the proper feeding and care of  the stock at the farm yard. 

4th. As soon as the horse and stock have been fed and otherwise attended  to, the manager will take his breakfast; and immediately after, he will visit  and prescribe for the sick, and then repair to the fields to look after the  hands; and he will remain with them as constantly as possible during every  day. 

5th. The sick should be visited not only every morning immediately after  breakfast, but as such other times of the day and night as cases may  require. Suitable medicine, diet, and other treatment, be prescribed, to be  administered by the nurse; or in more critical cases, the physician should be  sent for. An intelligent and otherwise suitable woman will be appointed as a nurse upon each plantation, who will administer medicine and otherwise  attend upon the sick. 

6th. There will be stated hours for the negroes to breakfast and dine, and  those hours must be regularly observed. Breakfast will be at eight o’clock,  and dinner at one o’clock. There will be a woman to cook for the hands, and  she must be required to serve the meals regularly at those hours. The manager will frequently inspect the meals as they are brought by the cook,  see that they have been properly prepared, and that vegetables be at all  times served with the meat and bread. 

7th. The manager will, every Sunday morning after breakfast, visit and  inspect every quarter, see that the houses and yards are kept clean and in  order, and that the families are dressed in clean clothes. 

8th. Comfortable and ample quarters will be provided for the negroes. Each  family will have a separate room with fireplace, to be furnished with beds,  bedsteads, and blankets, according to the size of the family; each room will,  also, be furnished with a table, chairs, or benches, and chest for the clothes,  a few tin plates and cans, a small iron pot for cooking, &c. 

9th. The clothing to be furnished each year will be as follows: —  To each man and boy, 1 woolen coat, 1 pair do. pants, 1 pair of do. socks, 1  shirt, 1 pair of shoes, 1 wool hat, and a blanket every second year, to be  given 15th of November. 1 shirt, 1 pair of cotton pants, 1 straw hat, 1 pair  of shoes, to be given 1st of June.  To each woman and girl, 1 woolen frock, and to those who work in the field 1 woolen cape, 1 cotton shift, 1 pair stockings, 1 pair shoes, 1 cotton head  handkerchief, 1 summer suit of frock and shift, a blanket every second year,  and to women with more than one child, 2 blankets every second year. To children under 10 years of age, 1 winter and summer suit each. 

10th. Provisions will be issued weekly as follows: Field Hands . To each man, three and a half pounds bacon, and one and a half pecks meal. To each woman, girl and boy, two and a half pounds bacon, and one peck meal.  InDoor Hands. To each man and boy, two pounds bacon, and one peck corn  meal. To each woman and girl, two pounds bacon, and one peck corn meal.  to each child over two years and under ten years, one pound bacon, and  half a peck of corn meal.  To the above will be added milk, buttermilk, and molasses, at intervals, and  at all times vegetables, and fresh meat occasionally. 

11th. As much of the clothing must be made on the plantation as possible, wool and cotton should be grown in sufficient quantities for this purpose, and the women having young children be required to spin and weave the  same, and the managers’ wives will be expected to give particular attention  to this department, so essential to economical management. 

12th. A vegetable or kitchen garden will be established and well cultivated,  so that there may be, at all seasons, an abundance of wholesome and nutritious vegetables for the negroes, such as cabbages, potatoes, turnips, beets, peas, beans, pumpkins, &c. 

13th. A horn will be sounded every night at nine o’clock, after every negro  will be required to be at his quarters, and to retire to rest, and that this rule  may be strictly enforced, the manager will frequently, but at irregular and  unexpected hours of the night, visit the quarters and see that all are present, or punish absentees. 

14th. Each manager will do well to organize in his neighborhood, whenever practicable, patrol parties, in order to detect and punish irregularities of the  negroes, which are generally committed at night. But lest any patrol party  visit his plantation without apprising him of their intention, he will order the  negroes to report to him every such visit, and he will promptly, upon receiving such report, join the patrol party and see that they strictly conform  to the law whilst on this plantation, and abstain from committing any abuse. 

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The Dead of Antietam: Photography in the Civil War


This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896) was one of the earliest photographers in American history, best known for his scenes of the Civil War.

Continue reading “The Dead of Antietam: Photography in the Civil War”

Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom

This lesson was reported from:

A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Gettysburg

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The fighting at Gettysburg was ferocious, as if Lee knew this was his last chance to take the war to the North. After the battle, Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee scored numerous tactical victories.  Like his distant relation George Washington who was over-matched by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lee was most skilled at ensuring that no single Confederate defeat was decisive. On the other hand, the much more populous Union simply mustered new armies and tried again after each battle. Believing that the North’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville gave him his chance to go on the offensive, Lee struck northward into Pennsylvania at the beginning of July 1863, almost reaching the state capital at Harrisburg. A strong Union force intercepted him at Gettysburg, where, in a titanic three‑day battle—the largest of the Civil War—the Confederates made a valiant effort to break the Union lines. They failed, and on July 4 Lee’s army, after crippling losses, retreated behind the Potomac.  The Battle of Gettysburg would be the last serious Southern offensive of the war.  From that time onward, the war was entirely defensive on their part.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers and almost 4,000 Confederates died at Gettysburg; wounded and missing totaled more than 20,000 on each side. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln dedicated a new national cemetery there with perhaps the most famous address in U.S. history, his so-called Gettysburg Address, running approximately 250 words.  This speech elevated the symbolic meaning of the war, serving as a reaffirmation of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln speak of “a new birth of freedom” – a second chance to actually live up to the promise that all men are created equal, not in Jefferson’s limited sense of those words, but in a more modern sense that you and I would recognize:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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A crowd of citizens and soldiers gather around Abraham Lincoln (indicated with a red arrow) as he delivers his Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

Unconditional Surrender

On the Mississippi, Union control had been blocked at Vicksburg, where the Confederates had strongly fortified themselves on bluffs too high for naval attack. In early 1863 Grant began to move below and around Vicksburg, subjecting it to a six‑week siege. On July 4, he captured the town, together with the strongest Confederate Army in the West. The river was now entirely in Union hands. The Confederacy was broken in two, and it became almost impossible to bring supplies from Texas and Arkansas.

The Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the turning point of the war, although the bloodshed continued unabated for more than a year-and-a-half.

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Lincoln brought Grant east and made him commander-in-chief of all Union forces. In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee’s Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat.

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Sherman’s men destroying a railroad in Atlanta.

In the West, Union forces gained control of Tennessee in the fall of 1863 with victories at Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain, opening the way for General William T. Sherman to invade Georgia – his so-called March to the Sea. Sherman outmaneuvered several smaller Confederate armies, occupied the state capital of Atlanta, then marched to the Atlantic coast, systematically destroying railroads, factories, warehouses, and other facilities in his path. He also liberated slaves under the authority of the Emancipation Proclamation – all of this reduced Southern capacity to feed and supply itself and brought the destruction of war to its homefront.  Sherman said, “I will make Georgia howl!” His men, cut off from their normal supply lines, ravaged the countryside for food. From the coast, Sherman marched northward; by February 1865, he had taken Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Sherman, more than any other Union general, understood that destroying the will and morale of the South was as important as defeating its armies.

With Malice Toward None

For the North, the war produced a still greater hero in Abraham Lincoln—a man eager, above all else, to weld the Union together again, not by force and repression but by warmth and generosity. In 1864 he had been elected for a second term as president, defeating his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, the general he had dismissed after Antietam.

At a time when victory over secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery in all of the Union was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness.  He sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South by reminding his listeners of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier.  Lincoln balanced that rejection of triumphalism, however, with recognition of the unmistakable evil of slavery, envisioning the war as the nation’s penance.  Lincoln’s second inaugural address closed with these words:

“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”. With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Peace at Last

Grant, meanwhile, lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia for nine months, before Lee, in March 1865, knew that he had to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond in an attempt to retreat south. But it was too late. On April 9, 1865, surrounded by huge Union armies, Lee surrendered to Grant at the town of Appomattox Courthouse. Although scattered fighting continued elsewhere for several months, the Civil War was over.

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Wilmer McLean was an American wholesale grocer from Virginia. His house near Manassas, Virginia, was involved in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. After the battle he moved to Appomattox, Virginia, to escape the war thinking that it would be safe. Instead, in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s house in Appomattox. His houses were, therefore, involved in one of the first and one of the last encounters of the American Civil War.

The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide admiration through the brilliance of his leadership and his greatness in defeat.

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the Lost Cause’s ideology – that the Civil War was an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery – through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.

Two days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he unfolded a generous reconstruction policy. On April 14, 1865, the president held what was to be his last Cabinet meeting. That evening—with his wife and a young couple who were his guests—he attended a performance at Ford’s Theater. There, as he sat in the presidential box, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Virginia actor embittered by the South’s defeat. Booth was killed in a shootout two weeks later in a barn in the Virginia countryside. His accomplices were captured and later executed.

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John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14,1865. Moments later Booth would leap from the balcony onto the stage, yelling to the audience in Latin, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants”)

Lincoln died in a downstairs bedroom of a house across the street from Ford’s Theater on the morning of April 15.

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Military units marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. during the state funeral for Abraham Lincoln on April 19, 1865. After the April 14, 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, a three-week series of events mourned his death and memorialized his life. Funeral services and lyings in state were held in Washington, D.C., and then in additional cities as a funeral train transported his remains for burial in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

Reconstruction

The first great task confronting the victorious North—now under the leadership of Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union—was to determine the status of the states that had seceded. Lincoln had already set the stage. In his view, the people of the Southern states had never legally seceded; they had been misled by some disloyal citizens into a defiance of federal authority. And since the war was the act of individuals, the federal government would have to deal with these individuals and not with the states. Thus, in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed that if in any state 10 percent of the voters of record in 1860 would form a government loyal to the U.S. Constitution and would acknowledge obedience to the laws of the Congress and the proclamations of the president, he would recognize the government so created as the state’s legal government.

Congress rejected this plan. Many Republicans feared it would simply entrench former rebels in power; they challenged Lincoln’s right to deal with the rebel states without consultation. Some members of Congress advocated severe punishment for all the seceded states; others simply felt the war would have been in vain if the old Southern establishment was restored to power. Yet even before the war was wholly over, new governments had been set up in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

To deal with one of its major concerns—the condition of former slaves—Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 to act as guardian over African Americans and guide them toward self-support. And in December of that year, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery except as punishment for a crime.

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An 1866 poster attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for giving recently freed slaves what some whites considered to be unfair advantages. The Freedmen’s Bureau aided these freed slaves, who had no education, savings, or property after their sudden freedom from a lifetime of servitude, by providing them with food, clothing, and shelter on a temporary basis as they were liberated. The Bureau also helped African Americans find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. It arranged to teach them to read and write since they had been denied these skills while enslaved. The Bureau also encouraged former major planters to rebuild their plantations and urged freed blacks to return to work for them.

Throughout the summer of 1865 Johnson proceeded to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction program, with minor modifications. By presidential proclamation he appointed a governor for each of the former Confederate states and freely restored political rights to many Southerners through use of presidential pardons.

In due time conventions were held in each of the former Confederate states to repeal the ordinances of secession and draft new state constitutions. Johnson called upon each convention to invalidate the secession, free all slaves within their borders, and ratify the 13th Amendment.

Wide public support in the North gradually developed for those members of Congress who believed that African Americans should be given full citizenship. Congress passed a 14th Amendment to the Constitution, stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This repudiated the Dred Scott ruling, which had denied slaves their right of citizenship.

All the Southern state legislatures, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment, some voting against it unanimously. In addition, Southern state legislatures passed “Black Codes” to regulate the African-American freedmen. The codes differed from state to state, but some provisions were common. African Americans across the South were required to enter into annual labor contracts with white landowners, often their former masters, with penalties of jail imposed in case of violation; children were subject to compulsory apprenticeship and corporal punishments by masters; vagrants could be sold into private service if they could not pay severe fines.

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The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans.

Many Northerners interpreted the Southern response as an attempt to reestablish slavery and repudiate the hard-won Union victory in the Civil War. It did not help that Johnson, although a Unionist, was a Southern Democrat with an addiction to intemperate rhetoric and an aversion to political compromise. Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866. Firmly in power, the Radicals imposed their own vision of Reconstruction.

In the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, Congress, ignoring the governments that had been established in the Southern states, divided the South into five military districts, each administered by a Union general. Escape from permanent military government was open to those states that established civil governments, ratified the 14th Amendment, and adopted African-American suffrage. Supporters of the Confederacy who had not taken oaths of loyalty to the United States generally could not vote. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. The 15th Amendment, passed by Congress the following year and ratified in 1870 by state legislatures, provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

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Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867.  Black Codes and violence would soon suppress the black vote, ending scenes like this, and ensuring that, despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the old white masters remained firmly in control of the South.  

The word slavery would die with the 13th Amendment, but the practice would continue – barely altered – using tools like Black Codes, tenant farming, debt, segregation, lynching, police intimidation, mass incarceration, and other forms of extralegal violence well into the 1960s and beyond.  Slavery had ended, but institutional racism would live on into the modern day.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. A Nation Divided: The American Civil War
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction

To Break Our Bonds of Affection: The Coming of Civil War

This lesson was reported from:

A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Secession and Civil War

Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of November 1860 made South Carolina’s secession from the Union on January 31 a foregone conclusion. The state had long been waiting for an event that would unite the South against the antislavery forces. By February 1, 1862, five more Southern states had seceded. On February 8, the six states signed a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. The remaining Southern states as yet remained in the Union, although Texas had begun to move on its secession.

Less than a month later, March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he declared the Confederacy “legally void” and denounced secession as anarchy, explaining that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of republicanism:

“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”

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Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration, March 4, 1861, beneath the unfinished capitol dome.

Desperately wishing to avoid this terrible conflict, Lincoln ended with this impassioned plea:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

But the South turned a deaf ear. On April 12, Confederate guns opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union,” which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states.  A war had begun in which more Americans would die than in any other conflict before or since.

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina.

In the seven states that had seceded, people responded positively to the Confederate action and the leadership of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Both sides now tensely awaited the action of the slave states that thus far had remained loyal. Virginia seceded on April 17; Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed quickly.

No state left the Union with greater reluctance than Virginia. Her statesmen had a leading part in the winning of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, and she had provided the nation with five presidents. With Virginia went Colonel Robert E. Lee, who declined the command of the Union Army out of loyalty to his native state.

Between the enlarged Confederacy and the free-soil North lay the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which, despite some sympathy with the South, would remain loyal to the Union.

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The evolution of the Confederate States of America.

Each side entered the war with high hopes for an early victory. In material resources the Union, or the North,enjoyed a decided advantage. Twenty-three states with a population of 22 million were arrayed against 11 states inhabited by nine million, including slaves. The industrial superiority of the North exceeded even its preponderance in population, providing it with abundant facilities for manufacturing arms and ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. It had a greatly superior railway network.

The Confederacy, or the South nonetheless had certain advantages. The most important was geography; the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory. It could establish its independence simply by beating off the Northern armies. The South also had a stronger military tradition, and possessed the more experienced military leaders.

The Confederacy

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Despite never having historically represented the Confederate States of America as a country, nor officially recognized as one of its national flags, the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack and the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia are now flag types commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag. They both have become a widely recognized symbol of the Southern United States. It is also known as the rebel flag, Dixie flag, and Southern cross.

Lincoln had never called for the immediate abolition of slavery, but for Southern states, the writing was on the wall – their political clout had diminished in the face of the North’s larger population, and they feared that his policies would lead to abolition in the future. Although the South was fighting a pro-slavery war, it’s important to note that, at least in the beginning, the North was not fighting an anti-slavery war. The North was fighting to preserve the Union – fighting for the principle that no state had the right to secede.  After all, where in the Constitution is the clause describing the process by which a state may leave the United States?  Lincoln’s argument is that divorce, so to speak, was impossible.

Many Southerners today like to claim that the Confederacy was not primarily about slavery or racism, but about pride and states’ rights against federal power. Back in the time of the Civil War, however, Confederate leaders were much more honest about their motives. They believed that blacks were inferior to whites. They believed that slavery was a good thing. They were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery and they said so openly over and over again.

In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said that the Declaration of Independence had been wrong to say that all men are created equal: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

The Southern states that published declarations setting forth their reasons for seceding from the Union all said that a commitment to the institution of slavery and a belief in black inferiority were at the heart of their cause.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” said Mississippi’s declaration.

Georgia declared, “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

South Carolina justified its secession on the basis of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Texas declared that it was committed to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race.”

Western Advance, Eastern Stalemate

The first large battle of the war, at the First Battle of Bull Run, near Washington, DC, stripped away any illusions that victory would be quick or easy. It also established a pattern, at least in the Eastern United States, of bloody Southern victories that never translated into a decisive military advantage for the Confederacy.

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The First Battle of Bull Run (the Union named battles after nearby bodies of water), also known as the First Battle of Manassas (the Confederacy named battles after nearby towns), was fought on July 21, 1861 in Prince William County, Virginia, about 25 miles west-southwest of Washington, D.C. It was the first major battle of the American Civil War. The Union’s forces were slow in positioning themselves, allowing Confederate reinforcements time to arrive by rail. Each side had about 18,000 poorly trained and poorly led troops in their first battle. It was a Confederate victory, followed by a disorganized retreat of the Union forces.

In contrast to its military failures in the East, the Union was able to secure battlefield victories in the West and slow strategic success at sea. Most of the Navy, at the war’s beginning, was in Union hands, but it was scattered and weak.

In April 1861, Lincoln announced the Union blockade of all Southern ports – the so-called Anaconda Plan, which sought to suffocate the Southern economy. The South had almost no factories of its own, meaning that guns, ammunition, clothing, shoes, and most everything else had to be traded for, mostly with the North or with Britain, and both of these avenues were now closed.  “King Cotton” was dead, as the South could export less than 10 percent of its cotton. The blockade shut down the ten Confederate seaports with railheads that moved almost all of its cotton, including New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. By June 1861, warships were stationed off the principal Southern ports, and a year later nearly 300 ships were in service.

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Proposed by Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott, the Anaconda Plan emphasized a Union blockade of the Southern ports, and called for an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Because the blockade would be rather passive, it was widely derided by a vociferous faction of Union generals who wanted a more vigorous prosecution of the war, and who likened it to the coils of an anaconda suffocating its victim. The snake image caught on, giving the proposal its popular name.

The Southern economy nearly collapsed during the war. There were multiple reasons for this: the severe deterioration of food supplies, especially in cities, the failure of already limited Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, foraging by Northern armies, and the seizure of animals and crops by Confederate armies.

In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces won an almost uninterrupted series of victories. They began by breaking a long Confederate line in Tennessee, thus making it possible to occupy almost all the western part of the state. When the important Mississippi River port of Memphis was taken, Union troops advanced some 320 kilometers into the heart of the Confederacy. With the tenacious General Ulysses S. Grant in command, they withstood a sudden Confederate counterattack at Shiloh, on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. Those killed and wounded at Shiloh numbered more than 10,000 on each side, a casualty rate that Americans had never before experienced. But it was only the beginning of the carnage.

In Virginia, by contrast, Union troops continued to meet one defeat after another in a succession of bloody attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates enjoyed strong defense positions afforded by numerous streams cutting the road between Washington and Richmond. Their two best generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson, both far surpassed in ability their early Union counterparts. In 1862 Union commander George McClellan made a slow, excessively cautious attempt to seize Richmond. But in the Seven Days’ Battles between June 25 and July 1, the Union troops were driven steadily backward, both sides suffering terrible losses.

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Lincoln with McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. McClellan repeatedly failed to engage in decisive conflicts with the Confederate Army out of a mistaken fear that he was outnumbered by the enemy.

After another Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland. McClellan again responded tentatively, despite learning that Lee had split his army and was heavily outnumbered. The Union and Confederate Armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, in the bloodiest single day of the war: More than 4,000 died on both sides and 18,000 were wounded. Despite his numerical advantage, however, McClellan failed to break Lee’s lines or press the attack, and Lee was able to retreat across the Potomac with his army intact. As a result, Lincoln fired McClellan.

Although the Battle of Antietam was inconclusive in military terms, its consequences were nonetheless momentous. Great Britain and France, both on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, delayed their decision, and the South never received the diplomatic recognition and the economic aid from Europe that it desperately sought.

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The Battle of Antietam still holds a record as the single bloodiest day in United States history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing.

Antietam also gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in states rebelling against the Union were free. In practical terms, the proclamation had little immediate impact; it freed slaves only in the Confederate states, while leaving slavery intact in the border states. Politically, however, it meant that in addition to preserving the Union, the abolition of slavery was now a declared objective of the Union war effort.

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Areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation are in red. Slave holding areas not covered are in blue.

The final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, also authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, a move abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass had been urging since the beginning of armed conflict. Union forces already had been sheltering escaped slaves as “contraband of war,” but following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army recruited and trained regiments of African-American soldiers that fought with distinction in battles from Virginia to the Mississippi. About 178,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops, and 29,500 served in the Union Navy.

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The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were regiments in the United States Army composed primarily of African-American (colored) soldiers, although members of other minority groups also served with the units. They were first recruited during the American Civil War, and by the end of that war in April 1865, the 175 USCT regiments constituted about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army. About 20% of USCS soldiers died, a rate about 35% higher than that for white Union troops. Despite heavy casualties, many fought with distinction.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first black regiment recruited in the North. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the 25 year old son of very wealthy abolitionist parents, was chosen to command – a position still limited to white men. On July 18 came the supreme test of the courage and valor of these black soldiers; they were chosen to lead the assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort on Morris Island at Charleston. In addressing his soldiers before leading them in a charge across the beach, Colonel Shaw said, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

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Mary Smith Peake was an American teacher, humanitarian, and a member of the black elite in Hampton, Virginia, best known for starting a school for the children of former slaves starting in the fall of 1861 under what became known as the Emancipation Oak.

While some blacks chose to join the military, others fought by other means. An American teacher named Mary S. Peake worked to educate the freedmen and “contraband.” She spent her days under a large oak tree teaching others near Fort Monroe in Virginia. (This giant tree is now over 140 years old and called Emancipation Oak). Since Fort Monroe remained under Union control this area was somewhat of a safe location for refugees and runaways to come to. Mary’s school would house around 50 children during the day and 20 adults at night.

Despite the political gains represented by the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the North’s military prospects in the East remained bleak as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued to maul the Union Army of the Potomac, first at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and then at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But Chancellorsville, although one of Lee’s most brilliant military victories, was also one of his most costly. His most valued lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, was mistakenly shot and killed by his own men.

The war was far from over, but increasingly, the writing was on the wall – the North’s will to fight was just as strong as any rebel in the South, but the North had the economic drive and manpower to go the distance.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. A Nation Divided: The American Civil War
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction