Were the Freedmen Really Free? – An Analysis of Three Documents

How did whites use sharecropping, black codes, and violence to perpetuate slavery, despite Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg that the Civil War would bring “a new birth of freedom?”

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

Two Snakes

“Slavery wus a bad thing en’ freedom, of de kin’ we got wid nothin’ to live on wus bad. Two snakes full of pisen. One lying wid his head pintin’ north, de other wid his head pintin’ south. Dere names wus slavery an’ freedom. De snake called slavery lay wid his head pinted south and de snake called freedom lay wid his head pinted north. Both bit de nigger, an’ dey wus both bad.”

-Patsy Mitchner, former slave in Raleigh, NC; interviewed in 1937 (at age 84) for the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Document A: A Sharecropper’s Agreement

Read and analyze the following, a contract between Thomas J. Ross of Tennessee, a plantation owner, and a group of freedmen, perhaps his former slaves, laying out the terms by which these freedmen would work Ross’s land.

Things to consider:

  1. Create a table with two columns — “Obligations of Thomas J. Ross” and “Obligations of the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation.” Complete this table using information you glean as you read the following document.
  2. Who benefits the most from the arrangement outlined in this contract? Who is most likely to lose?
  3. Refer to these rules for the management of enslaved people on a plantation in 1853. In your opinion, how different is the situation of the freedman from their previous status as slaves?
  4. Why would a freed slave enter into an agreement like this?

This indenture of Bargain and agreement made and entered into in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight and Sixty Five (1865) Dec 23 by and between Thomas J. Ross of the County of Shelby & State of Tennessee of the first part and the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation in County & State aforesaid whose names will appear below of the second part, witnesseth that whereas the said Thomas J. Ross agrees to employ the said Freedmen to plant and raise a crop on his Rosstown Plantation for the year 1866 in Shelby County, Tenn. On the following Rules, Regulations and Renumerations. To wit-the said Ross agrees to furnish the land to cultivate, and a sufficient number of mules & horses and feed them to make and house said crop and all necessary farming utensils to carry on the same and to give unto said Freedmen whose names appear below one half of all the cotton, corn and wheat that is raised on said place for the year 1866 after all the necessary expenses are deducted out that accrues on said crop. Outside of the Freedmen’s labor in harvesting, carrying to market and selling the same and the said Freedmen whose names appear below covenant and agrees to and with said Thomas J. Ross that for and in consideration of one half of the crop before mentioned that they will plant, cultivate, and raise under the management control and Superintendence of said Ross, in good faith, a cotton, corn and oat crop under his management for the year 1866. And we the said Freedmen agrees to furnish ourselves & families in provisions, clothing, medicine and medical bills and all, and every kind of other expenses that we may incur on said plantation for the year 1866 free of charge to said Ross. Should the said Ross furnish us any of the above supplies or any other kind of expenses, during said year, are to settle and pay him out of the nett proceeds of our part of the crop the retail price of the county at time of sale or any price we may agree upon-The said Ross shall keep a regular book account, against each and every one or the head of every family to be adjusted and settled at the end of the year. We furthermore bind ourselves to and with said Ross that we will do good work and labor ten hours a day on an average, winter and summer. The time to run from the time we commence to the time we quit. The time we are going to and from work shall not be computed or counted in the time. We further agree that we will loose all lost time, or pay at the rate of one dollar per day, rainy days excepted.

A sharecropper family chopping the weeds from cotton near White Plains, in Georgia, US (1941). The systems of sharecropping and legal segregation put into place at the end of the Civil War persisted well into the 1960s.

     We furthermore bind ourselves that we will obey the orders of said Ross in all things in carrying out and managing said crop for said year and be docked for disobedience and further bind ourselves that we said Freedmen will keep up the fences around the enclosures, and lots especially and if any rails be missing by burning or otherwise destroyed by said Freedmen, we will pay for the same or otherwise reconstruct the fence anew at our expense…

     –All is responsible for all farming utensils that is on hand or may be placed in care of said Freedmen for the year 1866 to said Ross and are also responsible to said Ross if we carelessly, maliciously maltreat any of his stock for said year to said Ross for damages to be assessed out of our wages for said year, all of which is understood by us Freedmen in the foregoing contract, or agreement, the said Ross assigning his name and ours following. It is further agreed by us whose names appear below that we will keep a sufficiency of firewood hawled up at all times and make fires in the room of said Ross, when desired, attend to all stock properly, under direction of said Ross.


Former slave with horn historically used to call slaves, Texas, 1939.

     –It is further agreed by a special agreement with Herod and his wife Linda, whose names appear below that the said Ross furnishes one fourth of provisions consisting of meal, and meat for said year. Furnish medicine and hire attention whilst in sickness to himself wife and four children, RalphRindaOsborn and ZackeryRinda is to act as nurse and have her meals and clothing free for her services to said Ross. Osborn & Zackery to wait in minor matters, Ralph to work on the farm. The foregoing obligations are sufficiently understood by us as Freedmen and hereby assign our marks with names attached, with a witness, the said Ross assigning first.

Witness

Wm. Stublen                                                                            Thomas J. Ross 
                                                                                                Herod (X) Pap

The special agreement with Herod & wife Linda applies to all below.

Witness to the last five names                            Thomas J. Ross
C. W. Hill                                                                Samuel (X) Johnson 
                                                                               Thomas (X) Richard
 
                                                                                  Tinny (X) Fitch
 
                                                                                 Jessie (X) Simmons
 
                                                                                 Sophe (X) Pruden
 
                                                            She assigns for Henry & Frances
                                                                                 Henry (X) Pruden
 
                                                                              Frances (X) Pruden
 
                                                                                  Elijah (X) Smith

Document B: The Black Codes

The Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866 in the United States after the American Civil War with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom, and of compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. Black Codes were part of a larger pattern for Southern whites, who were trying to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African-American slaves, the freedmen. Mississippi was the first state to legislate a new Black Code after the war. It is extensive, but excerpted below.

Things to consider:

  1. As you read the document below, create a simple list of rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
  2. Considering what you know about sharecropping arrangements (described above) as well as the legal requirements for employment detailed below, why would it be hard for a freedman to move away?
  3. Are the freedmen free? Explain your answer.

CIVIL RIGHTS OF FREEDMEN

Section 3: . . . [I]t shall not be lawful for any freedman, free negro or mulatto to intermarry with any white person; nor for any person to intermarry with any freedman, free negro or mulatto; and any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall be confined in the State penitentiary for life; and those shall be deemed freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes who are of pure negro blood, and those descended from a negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been a white person.

Section 5: . . . Every freedman, free negro and mulatto shall, on the second Monday of January, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, and annually thereafter, have a lawful home or employment, and shall have written evidence thereof . . .

Section 6: . . . All contracts for labor made with freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes for a longer period than one month shall be in writing, and a duplicate, attested and read to said freedman, free negro or mulatto by a beat, city or county officer . . . and if the laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service, without good cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.

Section 7: . . . Every civil officer shall, and every person may, arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freedman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause . . .

VAGRANT LAW

Section 1: . . . That all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming-houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants, under the provisions of this act, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding one hundred dollars, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding ten days.

Section 2: . . . All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawful assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freed woman, freed negro or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro or mulatto, fifty dollars, and imprisonment at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days . . .


Convicts leased to harvest timber circa 1915, in Florida.

Section 5: . . . All fines and forfeitures collected by the provisions of this act shall be paid into the county treasury of general county purposes, and in case of any freedman, free negro or mulatto shall fail for five days after the imposition of any or forfeiture upon him or her for violation of any of the provisions of this act to pay the same, that it shall be, and is hereby, made the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free negro or mulatto, to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine and forfeiture and all costs . . .

CERTAIN OFFENSES OF FREEDMEN

Section 1: . . . That no freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife, and on conviction thereof in the county court shall be punished by fine . . .

Section 2: . . . Any freedman, free negro, or mulatto committing riots, routs, affrays, trespasses, malicious mischief, cruel treatment to animals, seditious speeches, insulting gestures, language, or acts, or assaults on any person, disturbance of the peace, exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel without a license from some regularly organized church, vending spirituous or intoxicating liquors, or committing any other misdemeanor, the punishment of which is not specifically provided for by law, shall, upon conviction thereof in the county court, be fined not less than ten dollars, and not more than one hundred dollars, and may be imprisoned at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days.

Section 3: . . . If any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto any fire-arms, dirk or bowie knife, or ammunition, or any spirituous or intoxicating liquors, such person or persons so offending, upon conviction thereof in the county court of his or her county, shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days . . .

Document C: The Ku Klux Klan

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.

An interview with Ben Johnson, 85, of Hecktown, Durham, Durham County, May 20, 1937.

Uncle Ben, who is nearly blind and who walks with a stick, was assisted to the porch by his wife who sat down near him in a protecting attitude. He is much less striking than his wife who is small and dainty with perfect features and snow white hair worn in two long braids down her back. She wore enormous heart shaped earrings, apparently of heavy gold; while Uncle Ben talked she occasionally prompted him in a soft voice.

Things to consider:

  1. For you, what is the most remarkable story that Ben tells?
  2. Did Ben mention police, judges, courtrooms, or trials at any time? Why is this important?
  3. Based on Ben’s memories, how do the Ku Klux Klan fit into system of sharecropping and black codes outlined above?

AN EX-SLAVE STORY

“I wuz borned in Orange County and I belonged ter Mr. Gilbert Gregg near Hillsboro. I doan know nothin’ ’bout my mammy an’ daddy, but I had a brother Jim who wuz sold ter dress young missus fer her weddin’. De tree am still standin’ whar I set under an’ watch ’em sell Jim. I set dar an’ I cry an’ cry, ‘specially when dey puts de chains on him an’ carries him off, an’ I ain’t neber felt so lonesome in my whole life. I ain’t neber hyar from Jim since an’ I wonder now sometimes if’en he’s still livin’.

“I knows dat de marster wuz good ter us an’ he fed an’ clothed us good. We had our own gyarden an’ we wuz gittin’ long all right.

“I seed a whole heap of Yankees when dey comed ter Hillsboro an’ most of ’em ain’t got no respeck fer God, man, nor de debil. I can’t ‘member so much ’bout ’em do’ cause we lives in town an’ we has a gyard.

“De most dat I can tell yo’ ’bout am de Ku Klux. I neber will fergit when dey hung Cy Guy. Dey hung him fer a scandelous insult ter a white ‘oman an’ dey comed atter him a hundert strong.

“Dey tries him dar in de woods, an’ dey scratches Cy’s arm ter git some blood, an’ wid dat blood dey writes dat he shall hang ‘tween de heavens an’ de yearth till he am daid, daid, daid, an’ dat any nigger what takes down de body shall be hunged too.

“Well sar, de nex’ mornin’ dar he hung, right ober de road an’ de sentence hangin’ ober his haid. Nobody’ud bother wid dat body fer four days an’ dar hit hung, swingin’ in de wind, but de fou’th day de sheriff comes an’ takes hit down.

J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith were young African-American men who murdered in a spectacle lynching by a mob of thousands on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. They were taken from jail cells, beaten, and hanged from a tree in the county courthouse square. They had been arrested that night as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob; an unknown woman and a local sports hero intervened, and he was returned to jail. As was typical in lynchings, no one was ever charged for their deaths

“Dar wuz Ed an’ Cindy, who ‘fore de war belonged ter Mr. Lynch an’ atter de war he told ’em ter move. He gives ’em a month an’ dey ain’t gone, so de Ku Kluxes gits ’em.

“Hit wuz on a cold night when dey comed an’ drugged de niggers out’n bed. Dey carried ’em down in de woods an’ whup dem, den dey throws ’em in de pond, dere bodies breakin’ de ice. Ed come out an’ come ter our house, but Cindy ain’t been seed since.

“Sam Allen in Caswell County wuz tol’ ter move an’ atter a month de hundret Ku Klux come a-totin’ his casket an’ dey tells him dat his time has come an’ if’en he want ter tell his wife good bye an’ say his prayers hurry up.

“Dey set de coffin on two cheers an’ Sam kisses his ole oman who am a-cryin’, den he kneels down side of his bed wid his haid on de piller an’ his arms throwed out front of him.

“He sets dar fer a minute an’ when he riz he had a long knife in his hand. ‘Fore he could be grabbed he done kill two of de Ku Kluxes wid de knife, an’ he done gone out’n de do’. Dey ain’t ketch him nother, an’ de nex’ night when dey comed back, ‘termined ter git him dey shot ano’her nigger by accident.

“I ‘members seein’ Joe Turner, another nigger hung at Hillsboro in ’69 but I plumb fergot why it wuz.

“I know one time Miss Hendon inherits a thousand dollars from her pappy’s ‘state an’ dat night she goes wid her sweetheart ter de gate, an’ on her way back ter de house she gits knocked in de haid wid a axe. She screams an’ her two nigger sarvants, Jim an’ Sam runs an’ saves her but she am robbed.

“Den she tells de folkses dat Jim an’ Sam am de guilty parties, but her little sister swears dat dey ain’t so dey gits out of it. “Atter dat dey fin’s out dat it am five mens, Atwater, Edwards, Andrews, Davis an’ Markham. De preacher comes down to whar dey am hangin’ ter preach dar funeral an’ he stan’s dar while lightnin’ plays roun’ de dead mens haids an’ de win’ blows de trees, an he preaches sich a sermon as I ain’t neber hyard before.

“Bob Boylan falls in love wid another oman so he burns his wife an’ four youngins up in dere house.

“De Ku Kluxes gits him, of course, an’ dey hangs him high on de old red oak on de Hillsboro Road. Atter dey hunged him his lawyer says ter us boys, ‘Bury him good, boys, jist as good as you’d bury me if’en I wuz daid.’

“I shuck han’s wid Bob ‘fore dey hunged him an’ I he’ped ter bury him too an’ we bury him nice an’ we all hopes dat he done gone ter glory.”

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Build Your Own American System

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

The American System was an economic plan that played an important role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century. Rooted in the “American School” ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the plan “consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements’ to develop profitable markets for agriculture.” Congressman Henry Clay was the plan’s foremost proponent and the first to refer to it as the “American System.”

state outlines Fresh United States America USA Free Maps Blank In Us Map State
Right click to download.

Use this map to plan infrastructure improvements to 19th Century United States.  Link different regions to improve economic connections between different regions – remember, you have to sell your plan to Congress, so you need to make it profitable to as many states as possible in order to secure their votes.

Label:

  • the borders of the United States circa 1840
  • The most important big cities circa 1840: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh
  • The rivers: Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac
  • The mountain ranges
  • The Great Lakes (by name)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three canals linking various regions (naming at least one commodity that will travel in each direction – find out what resources/products come from the cities you’re linking)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three railroads linking various regions (name the commodities)
  • Proposals for the routes of three toll roads (name the commodities)
products before the civil war

The Bottom Line

  1. Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
  2. Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure?  In what ways does it impact your daily life?
  3. We often refer to the United States as a capitalistic country, successful because the government’s lack of intervention in the economy.  Does the existence of the American System support or refute this label?

Comparing Slavery and Factory Life

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

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself—and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . .   -George Fitzhugh, 1857

Lewiston Mill Regulations, 1867, and Rules of Plantation Management, 1853.

Use the documents contained in the link above to develop a 5-6 sentence answer for each question below.  Each answer requires direct quotes or examples from the documents to support it.  

  1. Compare and contrast the way time is organized on the plantation with the way time is organized in the factory.
  2. Describe a regular day in the life in both the factory and on the plantation.
  3. What do the rules as written miss about the experience of slaves and workers? 
  4. Do you agree with George Fitzhugh’s claim that slaves are better off than workers? Can we (and should we?) compare the lives of factory workers to those of the enslaved?
  5. How would you compare the factory and plantation rules to the rules of your school? – Take a look at your school handbook and cite specific examples to support your answer.
  6. Consider the real children’s book below, published in 2016 — given what you have learned here, what false impressions might it give children about the experience of slavery?

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From the publishers description: “Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem–they are out of sugar.

This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.

New York Times food writer Ramin Ganeshram and acclaimed illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton serve up a slice of history in a picture book narrative that will surely satisfy.”

“Why did the colonists declare independence?” Children’s Book

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

If you had to explain the causes of the American Revolution to your kid sister, how would you do it??  Believe it or not, being able to streamline and simplify your explanation of key events is a great way to check your own understanding.

Start with:

  1. Agitation, Taxation, and Representation by Other Means
  2. The Shot Heard Round the World, Common Sense, and Independence

For tomorrow: Take one page of notes filled with basic facts and chronology of the colonies from French and Indian War to American Revolution, drawn from the pages above, all with the general question in mind — “Why did the colonists declare independence?”

Use the information contained in these notes to create a minimum eight page storybook, illustrated, answering the question — “Why did the colonists declare independence?”  Your book should tell the story of how the Revolution came to be – roughly from the French and Indian War to the Declaration of Independence.  It should utilize at least 10 vocabulary words or key terms and tell a story that makes sense.

Your book will be read aloud during a class-wide story time – so make sure it has cadence (and maybe rhymes?)

Bonus points if you include a cute talking animal to gloss over uncomfortable social truths.

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

Gettysburg-960x640
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.

civilwar

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.

Sherman_railroad_destroy_noborder
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

A Nation Divided Against Itself

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.

A Divided Nation

During the 1850s, the issue of slavery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together. It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second. It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties. It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court.

The moral fervor of abolitionist feeling grew steadily. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year. Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand. Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and posited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions—indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.

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Full page illustration from the first edition Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the brutality of slavery in unflinching terms – imagine if Harry Potter carried a social message.

In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.

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Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri and opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act – “What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress, completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it!”

Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well. Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.

At this point, Stephen A. Douglas enraged all free-soil supporters. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850, having left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slavery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise. His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. It permitted settlers to carry slaves into them and eventually to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states.

Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever. Yet in May 1854, Douglas’s plan, in the form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce. Southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire. But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.

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Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic Senator from Illinois, explaining popular sovereignty and his Kansas-Nebraska Act – “The great principle of self government is at stake, and surely the people of this country are never going to decide that the principle upon which our whole republican system rests is vicious and wrong.”

The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had avoided taking a strong stand on the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose in the North – the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slave holders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict. Each hoped to win popular sovereignty at the ballot box when it came to vote on the question of slavery, but this potent mix of those with the most passionate pro- and antislavery – the people who cared enough about the issue to move halfway across the country to influence a vote on the matter – meant that soon the territory was being called Bleeding Kansas.  A simmering, low-intensity civil war had erupted that would continue for years – the federal government seemed powerless to stop the tit-for-tat violence between free-soilers and proslavery forces.

In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called “The Crime against Kansas”) Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.

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Lithograph of Preston Brooks’ 1856 attack on Sumner; the artist depicts the faceless assailant bludgeoning Sumner.

The violence continued to increase. Abolitionist John Brown – who believed that God himself had commanded his holy mission – led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection with financial support from Boston abolitionists.

In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in “Bleeding Kansas” history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.

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John Brown was dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement: “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre. Brown’s actions as an abolitionist and the tactics he used still make him a controversial figure today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, and vilified as a madman and a terrorist.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had other horrifying consequences.  Prior to the organization of the Kansas–Nebraska territory in 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were consolidated as part of the Indian Territory. Throughout the 1830s, large-scale relocations of Native American tribes to the Indian Territory took place, with many Southeastern nations removed to present-day Oklahoma, a process ordered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and known as the Trail of Tears, and many Midwestern nations removed by way of treaty to present-day Kansas.  The passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act came into direct conflict with the relocations as white American settlers from both the free-soil North and pro-slavery South flooded lands promised by treaty to these Native American groups.  Once again, they were forced by squatting settlers and the U.S. government – through violence, uneven treaties, and forced land sales – to surrender their homes for the second time in as many generations, with many groups moving south into present-day Oklahoma.

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Dred Scott (c. 1799 – September 17, 1858) was an enslaved African American man in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott case.” Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years, where slavery was illegal.

Then the Supreme Court struck another blow against the antislavery movement with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. A majority of the Supreme Court—dominated by Southerners—decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories. Thus, Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery – in effect, slavery was now legal everywhere.

Lincoln, Douglas, and Brown

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, a fierce critic of the expansion of slavery, opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, Douglas won the election by a small margin, but Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.

By then events were spinning out of control. On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his sons made their next divinely-inspired move, leading a band of followers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (in what is now West Virginia). Brown’s goal was to use the weapons seized to lead a slave uprising – creating a vast army that would liberate the South.

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman.

800px-John_brown_interior_engine_house.jpgNews of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown’s men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the armory’s entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury.

After two days of fighting, Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner by a force of U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.

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A modern reproduction of the 1848 fire engine house that became known as John Brown’s Fort, c. 2007.

Virginia put Brown on trial for conspiracy, treason, and murder. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged. Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept his view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God.  Brown’s attempt confirmed the worst fears of many Southerners. Antislavery activists, on the other hand, generally hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause.

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On the day of his execution, Brown wrote his last testament, which said, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

The 1860 Election

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Lincoln in 1858, the year of his debates with Stephen Douglas over slavery. A few weeks before Lincoln was elected President of the United States, an eleven year-old girl sent him a letter urging him to grow a beard, writing, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

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The results of the 1860 election.

In 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president. The Republican platform declared that slavery could spread no farther, promised a tariff for the protection of industry, and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the West. Southern Democrats, unwilling in the wake of the Dred Scott case to accept Douglas’s popular sovereignty, split from the party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for president. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of northern Democrats. Diehard Whigs from the border states, formed into the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee.

Sectionalism had officially divided presidential politics to the point of no return.  Lincoln and Douglas competed in the North, Breckenridge and Bell in the South. Lincoln won only 39 percent of the popular vote, but thanks to the larger population of the North, swollen from decades of immigration and urbanization driven by its rapid industrialization, this was enough.  The Republican platform had won a clear majority of 180 electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states. Despite minimal support in the South, Lincoln was now president, a party hostile to slavery was in control of the nation.

As long as there was a single nation to control.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny
  2. Sectional Conflict
  3. John Brown