• The village of Appomattox Court House from the west, the McLean House is on the right.

    Appomattox Court House

    National Historical Park Virginia

November 1860

1860 Presidential candidates, top row, John Breckinridge and Abraham Lincoln, bottom row, John Bell and Stephen A. Douglas.

1860 Presidential candidates, top row, John C. Breckinridge and Abraham Lincoln, bottom row, John Bell and Stephen A. Douglas

Library of Congress

This is the inaugural article of what we hope will be a popular series with readers. One-hundred-fifty years ago, in the fall of 1860, the nation stood on the brink of civil war. Park staff from Appomattox Court House National Historical Park will contribute monthly to this column, highlighting the events and progress of the war. We also will tie local events to the larger picture, for the conflict was experienced by more than just soldiers. How did rising prices and food shortages affect civilians? What did the slaves laboring in Appomattox County’s tobacco fields think of events? What did the men who left Farmville or Lynchburg experience at places like Gettysburg, Manassas, and Petersburg?

The Civil War lasted four years, and included over 10,000 engagements. Battles were fought in New Mexico and Arizona, Ohio and Indiana, and on the high seas. Virginia by far bore the brunt of the war, with the most battles of any state. Southside Virginia was relatively free from the war’s military impact until late in the war. Yet area residents felt the conflict’s social, political, and economic effects from the beginning.

Looking back over one-hundred-fifty years reveals several important observations. First, the war is not as distant as we think it is. This author has met many people whose grandparents fought in that war. The last veterans (admittedly very young when enlisting) died in the 1950s. A handful of elderly Civil War widows were still receiving pensions until just a few years ago.

Secondly, and more importantly, the war still affects us today. Love it or hate it, whatever your personal views, the war continues to fascinate, and cause controversy.

Poet and nurse Walt Whitman wrote, “The real war will never get into the books.” Probably so, for we cannot appreciate what those who lived through it endured. War is complex, and through this series we hope to highlight the experiences of those who lived through the most traumatic period of our nation’s history. We also wish to build interest in the coming of the 150th Anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, in 2015. Over the course of the next five years, the park will hold special events and programs related to the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary. These articles are part of that effort. It will be a long, but hopefully fascinating journey; we hope you will join us- both here and in the park.

By 1860 tensions had been mounting for years, and each year the pressure seemed to increase. At the heart of the issue was the expansion of slavery in the country. Ever since the end of the Revolution, slavery had always been a controversial topic. Compromises and legal agreements had kept the issue under wraps, until now.

As the Presidential election of 1860 approached, American politics were divided like never before. The Democratic Party, once a powerful force, had split into northern and southern factions. The northern group nominated Stephen A. Douglass of Illinois, the Southerners put forth Kentucky’s John C. Breckinridge. The new Republican Party (in existence for only six years), nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lastly, a compromising Constitutional Union Party offered John Bell of Tennessee.

The split of the Democratic Party ensured a victory for Lincoln, though he only garnered 40% of the popular vote. Lincoln won only the Northern states, his name was not even on the ballot in most southern states (Virginia being the only one that did list him).

In Appomattox County, 795 men were registered to vote that fall, at the time only free white males who owned property could vote. The majority (563) voted for Breckinridge. Bell had 221 voters, while Douglass received 10. Not a single vote came in for the tall, gaunt Republican candidate.

Lincoln’s Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the new western territories, like Kansas, Nebraska, and the southwest. Many southerners feared the Republicans aimed to strike at where the institution already existed, though Lincoln had clearly stated he would not.

Slavery was the economic backbone of the South’s economy, and the basis for its social order. At the time, 54% of the people living in Appomattox County were enslaved. The Republican victory was seen as a direct threat to the region’s prosperity and power.

Lincoln’s election symbolized something more. In 1800 Virginia was the most populous state, by 1860 it was ranked fifth, behind two states (Ohio and Illinois) that didn’t even exist in 1800. Four of the first five Presidents were Virginians, but a Southerner had not held the national office for ten years now. The delicate balance of power between free and slave states in Congress was gradually tipping in favor of the more populous North, an inevitable process. Southerners could see they were losing power, population, and representation. Lincoln’s election was proof that what they feared most was coming to pass.

How would the South react? How would residents of Southside Virginia react? Secession was hotly debated as one alternative. Proponents of states’ rights in the South argued that the states had voluntarily entered the Union, and they could voluntarily leave.

For decades the country had been divided over high stakes issues, compromises and political wrangling had worked, but left both sides dissatisfied. By 1860 passions were high; all that younger generations knew was sectional conflict, and few could recall a time when there was harmony in the country. As the results of the election became known, the cry for secession grew louder across the South.

Comments or Questions? Email us. Be sure to look for this column next month.

Did You Know?

Revelutionary War hero Light Horse Harry Lee (left) Civil War General Robert Edward Lee (right)

Robert E. Lee's father, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, present at the surrender at Yorktown in 1781, wrote that General Cornwallis had shirked his responsibility by sending junior officers to meet with General Washington. Lee chose to meet personally with Grant at Appomattox.