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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

A Concise History of The Civil War



"We divorced, because we have hated each other so." That is how Mary Chesnut of South Carolina summed up what happened in America in the early months of 1861. North and South, wedded by bonds of history, blood, and sacrifice, simply could no longer make the marriage work. As with any marriage, theirs contained the seeds of breakup from the very outset, and as with any marriage, their life together had seen periods of harmony and cooperation intermingled with stresses and discords settled only by compromise, by each giving in a little to the other. But by 1860-1861 the stresses were greater, the compromises fewer and less effective, and finally what millions have known as "irreconcilable differences" emerged on a national scale to drive the sections apart. Only there was no judge to sit in deliberation on the dispute between North and South or to impose a settlement. The struggle for their divorce would have to be played out in a different sort of courtroom, across ten thousand battlefields on the land itself. When the Founding Fathers first agreed upon the Constitution, they little envisioned the struggle for balance of power between the sections that the next century would bring. Expansion and settlement of new territories to the west led inevitably to new states joining the original thirteen. Gradually North and South developed along different lines, dictated largely by geography and immigration. In the states south of the Ohio River, soil and climate lent themselves chiefly to large-scale agriculture and the planting of cash crops, first tobacco and then cotton. Industry never saw much expansion because there seemed to be little need for it, and the raw materials proved less abundant than in the North. Instead, large stores of cheap labor were needed to till and harvest the fields, a practice for which slavery was ideal. Few cities emerged, and none of any size other than New Orleans. Such as there were sprouted mainly on the coastline as shipping ports to send the produce of Southern fields to the North and Europe.


By contrast, the soil of the North, plus its colder climate, favored much more the small holding of the individual farmer rather than the larger plantation-style agriculture. Instead, the abundant raw materials in the earth encouraged a growth of industry. That, in turn, sparked the growth of many and larger cities than in the South, and they soon offered the lure of jobs and a new chance to untold thousands of immigrants from Europe, which swelled the North's numbers even more. Although slavery initially existed in the North, too, it quickly died out, being both impractical for the needs of small farmers and growing industry, as well as odious to the new immigrants and to their largely strict Protestant fellow Northerners.

It required but a single generation after the Constitution's ratification for the pressures of population and growth to lead to the inevitable challenge to the balance of power. So long as the slave states of the South stood evenly numbered with the nonslave states of the North, political representation—and therefore power—in Washington remained unthreatened. Each state was entitled to two members in the Senate, and an even North-South split of the states ensured that in the Senate, the interests of one section would not overpower those of the other. By 1820 this became vitally important to Southerners, because the growth of population, and its location, dictated that the House of Representatives moved steadily toward a Northern majority thanks to the influx of immigrants to the North. At least the Senate provided a check on the House, and since by 1820 all but one of the presidents had come from Virginia, the South stood in no fear of becoming a minority in Washington.

(George Skoch)

But then Missouri applied for statehood. It would be the "odd" state, if admitted with a prohibition of slavery, the so-called "free" states would finally have a majority in the Senate as well. If Missouri was admitted with slavery, the slave states would control the Senate. The controversy quickly escalated into the first major crisis over sectionalism faced by the young America. The Compromise of 1820, the so-called Missouri Compromise, settled the issue, but that settlement only postponed the controversy. It decreed that an artificial line be drawn across the continent. All territories above that line would be prohibited from embracing slavery when they became states, while all new states from below the line could have it if they chose.


For a time the compromise worked, but when war with Mexico came in 1846, Southerners quickly seized upon the opportunity to acquire huge new tracts of Mexican land below the Missouri Compromise line that might become new slave states. The North largely opposed the war, and for the same reason, and the resulting agitation between the sections heated the controversy even more. Meanwhile, already faced with minority status, the South had seen the rise of a growing sentiment for an alternative to majority rule. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina promoted a policy of "concurrent majority" whereby any act of the national government would not be binding on the minority states, unless a "majority" within those states also concurred in the measure. Failing to do so, the minority states could declare such acts null within their borders. This policy of "nullification" became itself a major controversy, though the South never attempted to put it into practice seriously. But the declared alternative to nullification came more and more to be discussed—secession.

Two years after the conclusion of the Mexican War, the crisis escalated to a higher level in 1850, when California sought admission to statehood. Hard and inventive work by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Henry Clay of Kentucky crafted a patchwork compromise. Their Omnibus Bill, which came to be called the Compromise of 1850, admitted California as a free state and organized New Mexico and Utah as territories without restrictions on slavery. The argument was put forth that territories could decide the issue of slavery for themselves at the time of their organization as territories. Southerners, notably Calhoun, argued that this could prevent slaveholders from coming into a new territory after its organization, virtually guaranteeing that when it achieved statehood, its people would be overwhelmingly free staters and opt to prohibit slavery. Only on applying for statehood itself, said Calhoun, should the people of a territory be allowed to choose for or against slavery. That way, Southern interests would have a chance to expand, too. Very quickly the new lands to the west were becoming a tool in the hands of those in the East, a lever that each side sought to use to pry advantage to its side. The compromise also contained the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a crime for any Northerner to refuse to give aid to those from the South seeking to recapture runaway slaves.


The outcry from both North and South after 1850 was more of outrage over the losses incurred in the compromise than glee over gains. Inevitably, the patchwork peace could not last, and in 1854 when talk of Kansas coming into the Union emerged, the explosion erupted. The Kansas-Nebraska bill abolished the Missouri Compromise line, outraging the North, destroying the old Whig Party, and leading to the rise of a new, entirely sectional Republican Party dedicated to containing slavery where it existed. Moreover, it provided for "popular sovereignty," the power of the inhabitants of a territory to decide the slavery issue for themselves prior to statehood. The North felt outrage at what appeared a massive giveaway to the slave interests. The South quickly sought to capitalize on it, and soon, both pro- and antislave men flocked to Kansas to try to constitute a majority. For the next four years Kansas literally bled as they fought, connived, plotted, and plundered, in the attempt to intimidate each other and dominate the slave issue. A fanatical old man named John Brown soon emerged on the antislave side, willing to murder any slaveholder indiscriminately. Soon the Southerners reciprocated, and what could be called the first shots of civil war were fired. The failure of a proslavery constitution in 1858 largely ended the bloodshed, and a Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott that affirmed the unconstitutionality of the old Missouri Compromise left slavery virtually intact in the Kansas territory and still technically a possibility in all the remaining territories then established or yet to be.



Through all of the controversy over the decades, a number of issues arose to divide North and South. A protective tariff that favored Northern interests rankled Southerners, and with justification: For their part, Southerners came increasingly to suspect and then resent a growing centralization of power in the Federal government, an aggregation of power that seemed to them to reject the original notion of their fathers in forming the Union as a "compact" of independent states, banding together for mutual defense and benefit but yielding none of their individual sovereignty.

These and other arguments flew back and forth, but in the end the one overriding irreconcilable difference was slavery. Inevitably, when any cry of "state's rights" was reduced to its bedrock, slavery lay there. After decades of debate and argument, North and South each evolved extreme positions that had as much to do with serving their political interests as with any genuine feeling about the morality of slavery itself. Virtually all people of the time regarded Negroes as inferior, mentally unable to care for themselves or to function in a white society. Even among the most prominent Northern abolitionists, dedicated to abolishing slavery by law, there were few who believed in racial equality. They simply did not like the idea of one man owning another. Most anti-slavery people in the North would have shipped all the freed slaves back to Africa, where the nation of Liberia had been formed many years earlier expressly for that purpose.

Southerners were no more racist than Northerners. Believing in black inferiority, they looked on slavery as a benevolent institution that provided food, clothing, and shelter for their slaves, in return for their labor. It was, they argued, the only way the two races could live in the same country together. Southerners, in fact, felt a mortal fear of what would happen if the slaves in their midst should be freed. By 1860 there were 9 million Southern whites and more than 4 million slaves. Freed, without property, money, education, or trades, the blacks might become a dread danger to the fabric of Southern economy and society. And of course, they were the labor upon which Southern economy was founded. Planters had an enormous capital investment in slavery. Abolition could ruin them. By 1860 slavery was not an institution that the Southerners of the time had created. Many even felt uncomfortable with it, for moral, religious, and other reasons. But it was an institution that they were stuck with. And for both North and South, it had become the single issue over which power in America was to be defined, and with it the future of the Union.


Matters came to a head with alarming speed. In October 1859 old John Brown, now at the head of a tiny "army" of fellow fanatics dedicated to overthrowing slavery by violent means, led an early morning raid on the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to seize the arms and use them to equip thousands of slaves whom he expected to rally to him. Instead, he bungled the raid, was trapped and besieged, and finally captured. Two months later he and his companions were hanged. A failure in life, John Brown became, in death, a martyr for the abolition cause and a lightning bolt to electrify Southern fears of a conspiracy to overturn slavery. The next year, when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency at the head of the Republican Party, Southerners believed their worst fears had been realized. From their point of view, there was no alternative but secession from the Union if they were to protect their institutions from Northern assault.

Each state's action was entirely separate; they did not leave the Union in a group, nor did they coordinate their movements.

South Carolina went first in December, to be followed shortly by Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Each state's action was entirely separate; they did not leave the Union in a group, nor did they coordinate their movements. And they did not leave one nation with the specific intent of creating another. Nevertheless, it became evident quickly that their strength lay in banding together. On February 4, 1861, delegates from the states then seceded met at Montgomery, Alabama, and created a new government, the Confederate States of America. In a remarkably short time they drafted a constitution, elected Jefferson Davis their president, and set up the basis of a working government.

A brilliant martial enthusiasm seized the South at the same time. Volunteers poured out of every city and state, flocking to Montgomery, seizing United States property in their states, or gathering at Pensacola, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, where Federal garrisons still refused to give up Forts Pickens and Sumter. Within barely more than two months, the Confederates had more than 20,000 men under arms, actually outnumbering the United States Army, which at the time had barely over 13,000 soldiers, most of them scattered around frontier posts in the West.


Thus, when Lincoln took office on March 4, he faced a terrible dilemma. His oath of office obliged him to hold and occupy all Federal property, and his concept of the Constitution and of the Union as being perpetual required that he view the Confederates not as a separate people but as Americans in rebellion. Yet he, like they, did not want to come to blows. Unfortunately, conflict seemed inevitable. Confederate emissaries came to Washington to attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement of differences, seeking to get the Union troops out of Forts Sumter and Pickens, and prepared to discuss compensating the Union for Federal property seized in the South. But Lincoln could not meet with them without constituting a form of recognition of their independence, which he denied. Nor could he abandon the forts without betraying his oath and crippling his administration at its outset.

As a result, while intermediaries unofficially tried to put off the Southern commissioners in the hope that the passage of time would dampen their enthusiasm, Lincoln and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles planned to resupply the starving garrison of only 79 men in Fort Sumter. But then, just as the relief expedition was ready to sail for Charleston, the Confederate emissaries decided that their mission was futile and notified Montgomery. At once President Davis telegraphed to his general commanding Confederate forces in Charleston, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter on threat of bombardment.


Fort Sumter was a massive masonry edifice on an island of rubble in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Still unfinished, it mounted only a few of the heavy guns it was designed to hold, and the tiny garrison, commanded by Major Robert Anderson, was hardly large enough to work even the few cannon in place. A Southerner himself, Anderson felt some sympathy with the Confederates, but his uniform and flag meant more to him, and he resolutely stood by his orders to hold the fort. Only his dwindling rations might force him out. Hoping to avoid bloodshed, he told Beauregard that he could not hold out beyond April 15, at which time, his supplies exhausted, he would have to evacuate. Beauregard was willing to wait, but when word came that the relief expedition was on its way, he realized that Anderson might hold out indefinitely if resupplied. Consequently, late on the night of April 11-12 Beauregard demanded Anderson's surrender. If he refused, the Confederate batteries on the shore ringing Sumter would open fire at 4:30 A.M., April 12. Anderson had no choice but to refuse.


The bombardment commenced with the skies still dark, the shells tracing blazing paths across the skies over the harbor. All of Charleston turned out to watch the event. At first Anderson did not fire back, having little ammunition, few working guns, and no desire to expose his men to harm. But in time he began to return a sporadic fire, and the Confederates actually cheered when he did. They did not want a victory in which the foe refused to fight back. All through that day and the night following the bombardment continued. By the morning of April 13 wooden barracks inside Fort Sumter had been set afire, Anderson's men could not fight the fire without exposing themselves to the shells exploding in their parade ground, and the flames were creeping closer and closer to the powder magazine. At 1:30 in the afternoon Anderson signaled that he would give up. The next day, allowed to carry out his arms and to fire a salute to his flag, Anderson and his unhurt garrison marched out of Fort Sumter and boarded a ship to take them north. Such as it was, the Confederates had a victory.



North and South were stunned by the events in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports, and began making plans first to protect Washington and then to invade the South. In Montgomery, Davis and his government redoubled their own efforts, calling for up to 100,000 more volunteers. Great news came just days after Sumter's fall when Virginia seceded. Like other states on the border between North and South, the Old Dominion had ties to both sections and remained neutral at first. But when the firing broke out and Lincoln made it clear that he would attempt to coerce the South back into the Union by force, most of the border states took sides. Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed Virginia into the Confederacy, while Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland wavered but eventually remained in the Union.

With Virginia's secession it became evident that it would be the first target of the army Lincoln was building in Washington. Deciding that Montgomery was too remote, the Confederate Congress voted to move the capital to Richmond, and in the last week of May Davis and his cabinet made the move, followed by the rest of the government. Already Davis had been concentrating new volunteer regiments in northern Virginia near Manassas on what would have to be the main route of any Yankee advance toward Richmond. He assigned the South's new hero Beauregard to command there, while building a smaller army led by General Joseph E. Johnston 100 miles to the west in the Shenandoah Valley. In case of advance against either army, the Confederates could use a railroad between them to travel to each other's aid.

They did not have to wait long. Lincoln and Scott built an army mostly of volunteers numbering over 30,000 in and around Washington. A former major, Irvin McDowell, now commanded it as a brigadier general in spite of never having led troops in battle before. It was to be a time of amateurs, North and South, for no one had experience with armies of the size the Civil War would see, and those officers who had seen action in the Mexican War had rarely led more than a company of soldiers. Everyone had to learn on the job now, and those who learned the fastest would be the first to succeed.

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