History of the United States (1849–1865)

History of the United States (1849–1865)

The History of the United States (1849-1865) included the American Civil War and the turbulent years leading up to it, which included many events that were critical in its origins.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought the issues raised by the Wilmot Proviso to the forefront of discussion. The admission of California into the Union was settled by the Compromise of 1850 whereby the status of the rest of the territory acquired from the Mexican-American War was to be determined by popular sovereignty. Debates over the Fugitive Slave Law and Sectionalism were common.

In 1854, the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act abrogated the Missouri Compromise by providing that each new state of the Union would decide its stance on slavery. The settlement of Kansas by pro- and anti-slavery factions, and eventual victory of the anti-slavery camp, was fuelled by convictions signalled by the birth of the Republican party. By 1861, the admission of Kansas to the Union signalled a break in the balance of power. It also gave rise to various sundry movements which occasioned many anti-abolitionist and pro-slavery sentiments that still exist to this day.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln, eleven Southern states seceded from the union between late 1860 and 1861, establishing a rebel government, the Confederate States of America on February 9, 1861. The Civil War began when Confederate General Pierre Beauregard opened fire upon Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

The next four years were the darkest in American history as the nation tore itself apart over the long and bitter issues of slavery and states rights. The increasingly urban, industrialized Northern states (the Union) eventually defeated the mainly rural, agricultural Southern states (the Confederacy), but between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans on both sides were killed, and much of the land in the South was devastated. Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and an extraordinary 18% in the South.cite web|last=Lambert|first=Craig|title=The Deadliest War|publisher=Harvard Magazine|date=May-June 2001|url=http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/050155.html|accessdate=2007-10-14] In the end, however, slavery was abolished, and the Union was restored.

Different societies, different cultures

The debates in the Philadelphia Convention over the construction of the new country of America seemed to suggest that the Founding Fathers of America believed that the major strain on the new country would be between large states such as New York and Virginia and small states such as Delaware and Rhode Island. By 1820, however, it was apparent that the divisions within America would be North-South. The Missouri Compromise was one of the first measures to expose these sectional divisions. In a famous letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

:"I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bank to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened me and seized me with terror. I considered it at once to be the death knell of the Union."

When Missouri applied for statehood in 1819, slavery had already been a fact of life in the territory. Representative James Tallmadge of New York proposed that Missouri should not be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state. A way out was offered by the application of statehood made by Maine later that year. The Senate agreed to combine the Maine and Missouri proposals for admission into a single bill. Moreover, the Missouri Compromise also prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30' boundary of Arkansas.

While the crisis was averted, the debates it triggered exposed sectional tensions already present in the new Union. The North and South were founded in different manners and developed quite differently over the years. A transportation revolution created as a result of the construction of the Erie Canal spurred economic development and industrialization in the North. The development of steamboats and, more importantly, railroads helped further this economic expansion. This process of industrialization largely ignored the South which remained primarily based in agriculture. Slavery drove Southern economic life. As a result, the two geographic regions were constantly at odds in the Senate and House.

Wilmot Proviso

The acquisition of new territory from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo renewed the sectional debate that had gripped the nation during the admittance of Missouri. Congressmen either feared (if they were Northern) or hoped (if they were Southern) that slavery would be extended into the new territories. Soon after the war began, Democratic Congressman David Wilmot proposed that territory won from Mexico should be free from the institution of slavery. The Wilmot Proviso was as much about the extension of slavery as it was about party politics within the Democratic Party. Northern Democrats were upset that Martin Van Buren was not given the presidential nomination because he would not endorse the annexation of Texas. They were also fed up with Southern domination of the Democratic Party. The bill was never passed, but Southerners were upset at what they saw as an attack upon their social systems.

California Gold Rush

The election of 1848 produced a new President from the Whig Party, Zachary Taylor. President Polk did not seek reelection because he gained all his objectives in his first term and because his health was declining. From the election emerged the Free Soil Party, a group of abolitionists who supported Wilmot's Proviso. The creation of the Free Soil Party foreshadowed the collapse of the Second party system; the existing parties could not contain the debate over slavery for much longer.

The question of slavery became all the more urgent with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The next year, there was a massive influx of prospectors and miners looking to strike it rich. Most migrants to California (so-called 'Forty-Niners') abandoned their jobs, homes, and families looking for gold. It also attracted some of the first Chinese Americans to the West Coast of the United States. Most Forty-Niners never found gold but instead settled in the urban center of San Francisco or in the new municipality of Sacramento.

Compromise of 1850

The influx of population led to California's application of statehood in 1850. This created a renewal of sectional tension because California's admission into the Union threatened to upset the balance of power in Congress. The imminent admission of Oregon, New Mexico, and Utah also threatened to upset the balance. Many Southerners also realized that the climate of those territories did not lend themselves to the extension of slavery. Debate raged in Congress until a resolution was found in 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 was brokered by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and supported by "The Great Compromiser," Henry Clay. Through the compromise, California was admitted as a free state, Texas was financially compensated for the loss of its Western territories, the slave trade (not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed as a concession to the South, and, most importantly, the New Mexico Territory (including modern day Arizona and the Utah Territory) would determine its status (either free or slave) by popular vote. The Compromise of 1850 temporarily diffused the divisive issue, but the peace was not to last long.


The debate over slavery in antebellum America has several sides. Abolitionists grew directly out of the Second Great Awakening and the European Enlightenment and saw slavery as an affront to God and/or reason. Abolitionism had roots similar to the temperance movement. The publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", in 1852, galvanized the abolitionist movement.

Most debates over slavery, however, had to do with the constitutionality of the extension of slavery rather than its morality. The debates took the form of arguments over the powers of Congress rather than the merits of slavery. The result was the so-called "Free Soil Movement." Free-soilers believed that slavery was dangerous because of what it did to whites. The "peculiar institution" ensured that elites controlled most of the land, property, and capital in the South. The Southern United States was, by this definition, undemocratic. In order to fight the "slave power conspiracy," the nation's democratic ideals had to be spread to the new territories and the South.

In the South, however, slavery was justified in many ways. The Nat Turner Uprising of 1831 had terrified Southern whites. Moreover, the expansion of "King Cotton" into the Deep South further entrenched the institution into Southern society. John Calhoun's treatise, "The Pro-Slavery Argument", stated that slavery was not simply a necessary evil but a positive good. Slavery was a blessing to so-called African savages. It civilized them and provided them with the lifelong security that they needed. Under this argument, the pro-slavery proponents believed that the African Americans were unable to take care of themselves because they were biologically inferior. Furthermore, white Southerners looked upon the North and Britain as soulless industrial societies with little culture. Whereas the North was dirty, dangerous, industrial, fast-paced, and greedy, pro-slavery proponents believed that the South was civilized, stable, orderly, and moved at a 'human pace.'

According to the 1860 U.S. census, fewer than 385,000 individuals (i.e. 1.4% of whites in the country, or 4.8% of southern whites) owned one or more slaves. [Grooms, R.M. [http://americancivilwar.com/authors/black_slaveowners.htm "Dixie's censored subject - Black slaveholders"] , "The Barnes Review" via americancivilwar.com, 1997. Retrieved October 24, 2007.] [Olsen, O.H. [http://www.southernhistory.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=9406&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0 " Historians and the extent of slave ownership in the Southern United States."] , "Civil War History" via southernhistory.net, December 2004. Retrieved October 24, 2007.] 95% of blacks lived in the South, comprising one-third of the population there as opposed to 1% of the population of the North. [James McPherson, Drawn with the Sword, page 15]

Kansas-Nebraska Act

With the admission of California as a state in 1851, the Pacific Coast had finally been reached. Manifest Destiny had brought Americans to the end of the continent. President Millard Fillmore hoped to continue Manifest Destiny, and with this aim he sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in the hopes of arranging trade agreements in 1853.

A railroad to the Pacific was planned, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas wanted the transcontinental railway to pass through Chicago. Southerners protested, insisting that it run through Texas, Southern California and end in New Orleans. Douglas decided to compromise and introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In exchange for having the railway run through Chicago, he proposed 'organizing' (open for white settlement) the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.

Douglas anticipated Southern opposition to the act and added in a provision that stated that the status of the new territories would be subject to popular sovereignty. In theory, the new states could become slave states under this condition. Under Southern pressure, Douglas added a clause which explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise. President Franklin Pierce supported the bill as did the South and a fraction of northern Democrats.

The act split the Whigs. Northern Whigs generally opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act while Southern Whigs supported it. Most Northern Whigs joined the new Republican Party. Some joined the Know-Nothing Party which refused to take a stance on slavery. Southern Whigs were partyless until the American Party emerged in the late 1850s.

Bleeding Kansas

With the opening of Kansas, settlers rushed into the new territory. Both pro- and anti-slavery supporters rushed to settle in the new territory. Violent clashes soon erupted between them. Abolitionists from New England settled in Topeka, Lawrence, and Manhattan. Pro-slavery advocates, mainly from Missouri, settled in Leavenworth and Lecompton.

In 1855, elections were held for the territorial legislature. While there were only 1,500 legal voters, migrants from Missouri swelled the population to over 6,000. The result was that a pro-slavery majority was elected to the legislature. Free-soilers were so outraged that they set up their own delegates in Topeka. A group of anti-slavery Missourians sacked Lawrence on May 21, 1856. Violence continued for two more years until the promulgation of the Lecompton Constitution.

The violence, known as "Bleeding Kansas," scandalized the Democratic administration and began a more heated sectional conflict. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a speech in the Senate entitled "The Crime Against Kansas." The speech was a scathing criticism of the South and the "peculiar institution." As an example of rising sectional tensions, days after delivering the speech, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks approached Sumner during a recess of the Senate and caned him.

Election of 1856

President Pierce was too closely associated with "Bleeding Kansas" and was thus not renominated under the Democratic ticket. Instead, Democrats nominated James Buchanan as their presidential candidate. They campaigned heavily in the South. They warned that the Republicans were extremists and were promoting civil war.

The Know Nothing Party nominated former President Millard Filmore, who campaigned on a platform which mainly concerned immigration.

The Republicans nominated John Frémont under the slogan of "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont." Frémont won most of the North and nearly won the election. A slight shift of votes in Pennsylvania and Illinois would have resulted in a Republican victory. As a result, they completely abandoned the South and became a predominantly Northern party. The Democrats won the election but increasingly became a Southern party. Thus, the country was now polarized along North-South sectional lines, with the Republicans being the party of the North and the Democrats, the South. This began the Third Party System which lasted until 1896.

Immediately following Buchanan's inauguration, there was a sudden depression, known as the Panic of 1857, which weakened the credibility of the Democratic Party further. In the spring of 1857, President Buchanan launched a military expedition to the Utah Territory that resulted in the Utah War (also known as Buchanan's Blunder) of 1857-1858.

Dred Scott decision

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court became involved in the crisis. Dred Scott, a black slave, was taken by his master (Dr. John Emerson) in 1834 from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state because of the Northwest Ordinance. Scott was then taken to what later became Minnesota in 1838. They moved back to St. Louis in 1846 where his owner died. Dred Scott then sued Emerson's wife for his freedom on the grounds that his living in a non-slave territory made him a free man. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Taney declared that Dred Scott was a slave, not a citizen and thus had no rights under the Constitution. His ruling was significant because the Supreme Court had decided that slaves were not citizens of the United States and that no black could ever become a citizen since they were "beings of an inferior order," and "less-capable." It also stated that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because of the Fifth Amendment. The Missouri Compromise unlawfully took away property without due process. Thus, Dred Scott was not free. Scott was bought by the sons of his first owner and freed, but he died of tuberculosis a year later on September 17, 1858.

The decision strengthened Northern opposition to slavery. On October 13, Minnesota ratified its constitution which outlawed slavery. Ohio also made it a penal offense to own or claim slaves. Politically, it was trivial since the Kansas-Nebraska Act had already nullified the Missouri Compromise; symbolically, however, the Supreme Court had sanctioned the hardline Southern view. This emboldened Southerners and convinced Northerners that there was a vast "slave power conspiracy" to control the Federal government.

Lincoln-Douglas debates

The seven famous Lincoln-Douglas debates were held for the Senatorial election in Illinois between incumbent Stephen A. Douglas and the previously unknown Abraham Lincoln. The debates are remembered for their relevance and eloquence.

Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery into any new territories. Douglas, however, believed that the people should decide the future of slavery in their own territories. This was known as popular sovereignty. Lincoln, however, argued that popular sovereignty was actually pro-slavery since it was inconsistent with the Dred Scott Decision. Lincoln said that Chief Justice Roger Taney was the first person who said that the Declaration of Independence did not apply to blacks and that Douglas was the second. In response, Douglas came up with what is known as the Freeport Doctrine. Douglas stated that while slavery may have been legally possible, the people of the state could refuse to pass laws favourable to slavery.

In his famous "House Divided Speech" in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln stated:

:"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 that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest further the spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well a new, North as well as South." [Hanson, Henry. "The Civil War: A History". New American Library: New York, 1961, pg 29]

During the debates, Lincoln argued that his speech was not abolitionist, writing at the Charleston debate that:

:"I am not in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office." [Hanson, 30]

The debates attracted thousands of spectators and featured parades and demonstrations. Lincoln ultimately lost the election but vowed:

:"The fight must go on. The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even 100 defeats." [Hanson, 31]

John Brown's raid

The debate took a new, violent turn with the actions of an abolitionist from Connecticut. John Brown was an active abolitionist who advocated guerrilla warfare in order to combat pro-slavery advocates. Receiving arms and financial aid from a group of prominent Massachusetts business and social leaders known collectively as the Secret Six, Brown participated in the violence of Bleeding Kansas and directed the Pottawatomie Massacre on May 24, 1856, in response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas. In 1859, Brown went to Virginia to liberate slaves. On October 17, 1859, Brown seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan was to arm slaves in the surrounding area, creating a slave army to sweep through the South, attacking slaveowners and liberating slaves. Local slaves did not rise up to support Brown. He killed five civilians and took hostages. He also stole a sword that Frederick the Great had given George Washington. He was captured by an armed military force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. He was tried for treason to the Commonwealth of Virginia and executed on December 2, 1859. On his way to the gallows, Brown handed a jailkeeper a note, chilling in its prophecy, predicting that the "sin" of slavery would never be cleansed from the United States without bloodshed. [ [http://www.civilwarhome.com/johnbrownbio.htm John Brown Biography Page] ]

The raid on Harper's Ferry horrified Southerners who saw Brown as a criminal, and they became increasingly distrustful of Northern abolitionists who celebrated Brown as a hero and a martyr.

Election of 1860

The Democratic National Convention for the Election of 1860 was held in Charleston, South Carolina, despite it usually being held in the North. When the convention endorsed the doctrine of popular sovereignty, 50 Southern delegates walked out. The inability to come to a decision on who should be nominated led to a second meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. At Baltimore, 110 Southern delegates, led by the so-called "fire eaters," walked out of the convention when it would not adopt a platform that endorsed the extension of slavery into the new territories. The remaining Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. The Southern Democrats held a convention in Richmond, Virginia, and nominated John Breckinridge. Both claimed to be the true voice of the Democratic Party.

Former Know Nothings and some Whigs formed the Constitutional Union Party which ran on a platform based around supporting only the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Abraham Lincoln won the support of the Republican National Convention after it became apparent that William Seward had alienated certain branches of the Republican Party. Moreover, Lincoln had been made famous in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and was well known for his eloquence and his moderate position on slavery.

Lincoln won a majority of votes in the electoral college, but only won two fifths of the popular vote. The Democratic vote was split three ways and Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States.


Lincoln's election led almost immediately to the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860. When Lincoln took office, six other states seceded from the Union: Mississippi, (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10), Alabama (January 11), Georgia, (January 19), Louisiana (January 26), and Texas (February 1).

Men from both North and South met in Virginia to try to hold together the Union, but the proposals for amending the Constitution were unsuccessful. In February 1861, the seven states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed a new nation: the Confederate States of America. The first Confederate Congress was held on February 4, 1861, and adopted a provisional constitution. On February 8, 1861, Jefferson Davis was nominated President of the Confederate States.

Civil War

On April 12, 1861, after President Lincoln refused to give up Fort Sumter, the federal base off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, the new Confederate government under President Jefferson Davis ordered General P.G.T. Beauregard to bombard and destroy the fort. It fell two days later, spreading the flames of war across America. Within two months, four more states seceded from the Union: Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas, (May 6, 1861), Tennessee (May 7, 1861), and North Carolina (May 20, 1861). The four remaining federal slave states, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky, under heavy pressure from Washington, did not secede.

Each nation had its relative strengths and weaknesses going into the campaign. The North had a far greater population and more industry and railway lines. The South, however, had a strong military tradition and was more prepared for war. Even before Fort Sumter, the Confederate Congress had authorized a 100,000 strong volunteer army. Furthermore, the nature of the struggle meant that it would be a defensive war for the South. In order for the North to emerge victorious, it would have to conquer and occupy the Confederate States of America. The South, on the other hand, only had to keep the North at bay until the Northern public lost the will to fight.

War in the East

An initial invasion of the Confederacy was halted during the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861. Major General George McClellan of the Union was put in command of the Army of the Potomac following the First Bull Run on July 26, 1861. The war began in earnest in the spring of 1862 when McClellan launched the Peninsular Campaign, an invasion designed to capture the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. It was initially successful, but in the final days of the campaign, McClellan faced strong opposition from Robert E. Lee, the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. From June 25 to July 1, in a series of battles known as the Seven Days Battles, Lee forced the Army of the Potomac to retreat.

In August, Lee fought the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) and defeated John Pope's Army of Virginia. From there, Lee attempted to invade Maryland, but General McClellan found Lee's Special Order 191 and defeated a divided Confederate Army at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. This was the single bloodiest day in American history. Confederate pleas for diplomatic recognition from the European nations, specifically France and England, were dashed with the defeat at Antietam. The Union victory allowed Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in Confederate States.

Militarily, the Union could not follow up its victory at Antietam. General Ambrose Burnside was routed at Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. The next year also proved difficult for the Union initially. Burnside was replaced by General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, but he proved unable to stop Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson at Chancellorsville in early May 1863. Lee's second invasion of the North, however, proved disastrous. In a three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lee's forces were soundly defeated. Abraham Lincoln, was angered by George Meade's failure to pursue Lee after Gettysburg, and gave him a new commander, General Ulysses S. Grant.

War in the West

While the Confederacy fought the Union to a bloody stalemate in the East, the Union army was much more successful in the West. Confederate insurrections in Missouri were put down by the federal government by 1863 despite the initial Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Missouri. After the Battle of Perryville, the Confederates were also driven from Kentucky, resulting in a major Union victory. Lincoln once wrote of Kentucky, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game." The fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. Sherman's successes in Chattanooga and then Atlanta left few Confederate forces to resist his destruction of Georgia and the Carolinas. The so-called Dakota War broke out in Minnesota in 1862. [cite web|last=Kunnen-Jones|first=Marianne|title=Anniversary Volume Gives New Voice To Pioneer Accounts of Sioux Uprising|publisher=University of Cincinnati|date=2002-08-21|url=http://www.uc.edu/news/sioux.htm|accessdate=2007-06-06 ]

End of the Confederacy

In 1864, General Grant assigned himself as direct commander of Meade and the Army of the Potomac, and placed General William Sherman in command of the Western Theatre. Grant began to wage a total war against the Confederacy. He knew that the Union's strength lay in its resources and manpower and thus began to wage a war of attrition against Lee while Sherman devastated the West. Grant's Wilderness Campaign forced Lee into Petersburg, Virginia. There he waged—and with Lee, pioneered—trench warfare at the Siege of Petersburg. In the meantime, General Sherman seized Atlanta, securing President Lincoln's reelection. He then began his famous March to the Sea which devastated Georgia and South Carolina. Lee attempted to escape from Petersburg in March-April 1865 but was trapped by Grant's superior forces. He surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. Four years of bloody warfare had come to a conclusion.

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, four days after the news of Lee's surrender reached Washington, an air of celebration pervaded the capital. That evening, President Lincoln attended a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. During the third act, a Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. As he fled the scene, he yelled "Sic semper tyrannis," the Virginia state motto. John Wilkes Booth was tracked, twelve days later, to a farm near Bowling Green, Virginia, on April 26. He was shot and killed by Union Army Sergeant Boston Corbett. His co-conspirators were tried before a military commission and were hanged on July 7.



* Brinkley, Alan. "The Unfinished Nation" McGraw Hill: Toronto, 2000
* Hansen, Harry. "The Civil War" New American Library: New York, 2001
* McPherson, James. "Battle Cry of Freedom" Oxford University Press: New York, 1988

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