Civil War, 1861-65
When Abraham Lincoln became President on March 4, 1861, no
one knew what to do about the claims of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas
that they were no longer part of the United States. Was secession
legitimate? The Founding Fathers had made no provision for a state to
withdraw from the country. They assumed that it would not occur. If it was an
illegitimate act, what should the United States do? What would be the
consequences of using force? Some people outside the South said let them go in
peace or good riddance. Abolitionists wanted a holy war to end the
enslavement of humans and believed claims of secession gave the United States
the right to wage one. In the middle were those who said the Union must be
preserved but wanted to avoid war.
Lincoln was an enigma. He was not well known although he had
fame in some quarters because of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. He has
been the candidate of a sectional party which was a minority party and he had
won the presidency without receiving a single vote in the South and with only
39% of the national popular vote. He had said little between his election and
inauguration but he made it clear that he would not budge from the Republican
Party's position against allowing slavery to expand into the territories.
Compromise would kill the Republican Party, which had only been formed in 1854.
Those who understood him knew that he would not lead an abolitionist crusade as
demagogues in slave states asserted. He repeatedly said that he would do nothing
to interfere with slavery where it existed.
In his inaugural
address , he argued that secession was unconstitutional and that he would enforce US laws in
all the states and keep US property in the rebellious states. He promised that his administration
would not try to eliminate slavery where it existed but would vigorously oppose any efforts to
extend it into the territories. He was trying to keep the majority of slaves
states (8 of 15) from seceding and buying time so that he could persuade the seceded seven
to resume their normal place in the United States. He was overestimated the
amount of Unionist sentiment in the slaves states.
The seceded seven had taken control of all US property except Fort Pickens in Florida and
Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in South Carolina. Lincoln knew that sending more troops to
Fort Sumter might trigger a war but to do nothing was to give control of the situation to South
Carolina. So he decided to supply the fort with food and tell everyone that was what he was
doing. The Confederates attacked the United States on April 14, 1861. Taking the fort within two
days. When Lincoln issue a call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in South
Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded.
Both people in the United States and the erstwhile
Confederate States of America assumed it would be a quick, easy war; naturally,
each assumed that it would win. Perhaps the misjudgment resulted from the
romanticism of war; perhaps from not understanding how the industrial revolution
had been changing the killing business. John
Y. Simon argues that
One of the myths of the Lost Cause is that Confederates were aware from day one that they were a minority, that they lacked the resources to win, but battling for principle, fought anyway. Nonsense; not true. The population advantage was nineteen million to twelve million in the Union's favor, and this included four million slaves who were an uncertain factor when the war began. It is true that the North had twice the railroad mileage, five times greater industrial production, but it is important to remember also that the South almost won the Civil War.
The superiority in numbers of the United States, a population of 22
million whereas the Confederacy had 5.5 million, and that the United States could field
twice as many soldiers were not as important as it might seem.. The US had 80% of the factories in the pre-war country
and most of the coal and iron mines. It had a much better industrial base to use
to fight a war. Moreover, it had 22,000 miles of railroad track, much of
which connected the east and west. The Confederacy had only 9,000 miles of track
and it tended to have been built to move goods to ports and not to interconnect
the region. What was needed was the ability to move troops and supplies to
On the other hand, the Confederacy only had to fight a defensive
war and could enjoy safe internal supply lines. It was much harder to invade and
conquer. A significant number of US generals decided nit to honor their oath to
defend the United States against all of it enemies but, instead, had resigned
their commissions to become officers in their home state armies and to serve
as Confederate Army troops. Robert E. Lee was one of these. Its military
leadership helped offset its disadvantages. Lincoln had to experiment with
generals until he finally found Ulysses S. Grant.
After some ferocious battles in the eastern theatre, the war
there was basically stalemated for years; the war in the west,
was different and more difficult. As Russell Weigley said :
The critical Civil War campaigns in the East were fought on
and near the 120-mile line between Washington to the north and Richmond and
Petersburg to the south. The western theater, in contrast, demanded marches and
railroad and river journeys of many hundreds of miles. Its vast extent of space
principally differentiated the West from the East. Its distances posed immensely
more daunting logistical perplexities for campaigns of subtle and adroit
maneuver. The sheer extent of Western space tended to distract military
commanders from the classical strategic objective, the enemy army, so that they
focused their attention on acquiring and retaining territory.
This two-front war, divided by the Appalachian Mountains, involved incredible
slaughter and maiming of men. Grant
was willing to pay the price. He laid siege to the Confederate citadel at
Vicksburg, Mississippi, finally taking it on July 4, 1863 and, thus, breaking
the Confederacy in half. William T. Sherman, named commander of the western
armies of the United States in 1864, drove his army from Chattanooga
to Atlanta to Savannah then northward into the Carolinas. He proved the
Confederacy was hollow. The United States Park Service provides a listing of all
the battlefields of the war
by state and
The human capital cost was horrendous. No
other US war has cost as many lives of its citizens (558,052). The number of
wounded (412,175) was almost as high. Both in terms of the percentage of its
forces dead and wounded, the Confederates suffered more. These are only people
in uniform. Civilians in the South suffered as well because that is where most
of the war was fought.
The Confederacy was not well run either. President Jefferson
Davis had to do almost everything himself, partly because he did not have able
subordinates in his Cabinet or in the Confederate Congress. He was not a good
administrator and a bad judge of men. His efforts were also hurt by the states'
rights provisions of the Confederate Constitution which allowed state governors
to ignore or countermand his orders.
The Confederacy hoped to get aid from Europe, particularly
from the United Kingdom and France. Its leaders believed, correctly, that
the upper classes there would naturally sympathize with the Confederacy, a
society was run by an upper class and used to having the lower classes
obey. Moreover, it believed that these monarchies needed Confederate
cotton for their mills. Instead of building trade credits with the
two, Davis tried economic coercion, withholding cotton in hopes that the two
would recognize the Confederate States of America. Although the British and
Napoleon III of France recognized the belligerency status of the Confederacy,
they never gave it diplomatic recognition. It did not work because Britain had a
year's supply of cotton; by the time its supply ran out, it was too late. The
working classes of Britain and France had little sympathy with slavery; they
were pro-democracy. The upper classes could not ignore this.
Lincoln tried to blockade the Confederacy and capture its
ships on the high seas. There were missteps, however. On November
8, 1861, Captain Wilkes of USS San Jacinto stopped the British ship H.M.S.
Trent and removed the Confederate agents Mason and Slidell who were in
transit to England. The British government protested. The diplomatic work of
Charles Francis Adams 1
saved the day. Lincoln apologized and the two were released. Lincoln said he
wanted only "One
war at a time." The blockade helped the United States cause but did not
work. There was too much coastline and too few ships. Confederate raiders and
smugglers made a difference.
All Southerners had not supported the war and, as it
continued, disaffection became a serious problem. Army desertions increased.
Governor Brown of Georgia and Governor Vance of North Carolina refused to
let their troops fight out of state.
Lincoln had his own problems with support for the war. They
had always been a sizable number of persons who believed that the Confederacy
should be allowed to depart in peace. There were person who did not want to free
blacks. The northern Democratic Party had lost to Lincoln in1860 and had
no desire for him to succeed. Peace Democrats, a minority in the party,
constantly campaigned against "Mr. Lincoln's War." Even with his
own Republican Party, Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens
of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, created on December 10,
1861, constantly second guessed Lincoln. Radical Republicans called for Lincoln to
make the war one to end slavery. The Confederacy first instituted a military
draft and even recruited blacks into its army, but the March, 1863 national
conscription act created serious problems for Lincoln. Draftees would be called
by lottery but could then hire a substitute for $300.2. There were two days of bloody riots in New York City,
partly Irish against blacks. Lincoln had to send troops.
On the other hand, Lincoln and the Republicans were able to
pass most of their program while the South refused to send representatives to
Congress. The Morrill Tariff of 1861 raised taxes on imports to record levels.
In 1862 and 1864, they were raised still higher not to be reduced until
1913. With the Homestead Act of 1862, the party fulfilled its promise to give a
handout of public land to people who would settle the Trans-Mississippi
West. That same year, Congress passed a second land act3, the Morrill Land Grant
Act, which followed the Northwest Ordinance in giving national public land to
the states for education. The Morrill Act specified higher education where the
students would be taught military tactics, the arts and sciences, engineering,
and agriculture. Also in 1862, the United States gave 30 million acres of public
lands and millions in government bonds to private companies, the Union Pacific
and the Central Pacific Railways, to build a railroad connecting Omaha, Nebraska
and Sacramento, California. In 1863, Congress created a national banking system
which began issuing paper money (Greenbacks).
Slavery was not ignored. The Radical Republicans pushed
Lincoln to abolish slavery and make the war an anti-slavery crusade. Lincoln was
more moderate and tried to interest Congress and the loyal slave states in a
plan of gradual emancipation with the public paying the costs. Neither was
interested. In 1862, Congress did abolish slavery in the District of Columbia
and in the territories. As a war tactic, the Second Confiscation Act in
1862 declared forfeit all property of those people supporting the rebellion and
proclaimed escaped or captured slaves forever free. In other words, stop
rebelling if one wanted to keep one's property. The same principle was used in
Proclamation, which freed slaves only in areas still
fighting the United States but left them enslaved in areas which were not.
Freedom came with the advancement of the United States Army. Many slaves freed
themselves, rushing to the armies for protection.4 In 1865, Congress passed and the states ratified the
13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery.
Lincoln timidity regarding slavery (his goal was the win the
war not launch a social crusade) caused the Radical Republicans to try to block
his nomination by the party for the presidential election; Lincoln formed the
Union Party and chose Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as his vice presidential
running mate. Johnson provided some balance to the ticket because he represented
those parts of the South which opposed secession and slavery. The
Democrats ran General George
B. McClellan, trying to dislodge with the tactic of
presenting a general as an alternative to a civilian. Had the war been going
badly enough at the time of the election, McClellan would have won.
While General Sherman was driving his army through Georgia
and the Carolinas, General Grant was pushing southwards from Washington, DC to
Richmond, slowly beating General Robert E. Lee down, Finally, Lee had no where
to go. He surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 1865. For all
practical purposes the was was over.
Even before the end of the war, Lincoln and Congress had to
decide what to do about the losers. The US government had always contended that
the states had not seceded but were simply in a state of rebellion. One possible
solution to their status would be resume life as if nothing had happened. But no
one believed in doing that. Too many lives had been lost and too many people had
been wounded. Lincoln was conciliatory. By the time the US regained control of
Arkansas in December, 1863, Lincoln was proposing his 10% plan. He would grant
amnesty and restore confiscated property to all Confederates who would take a
simple loyalty oath, high-ranking civilian officials and military officers being
excluded. As soon as 10% of the state's 1860 electorate 5
took the oath, they could write a new constitution and resume their normal role
in the United States. The Radical Republicans found this unacceptable for
they believed, correctly, that the freedmen would be little better off than
before, that they would have no protection against the enslavers. That faction
of the Republican Party demanded that freemen be given the right to vote and
that the leadership of the rebellion be excluded from holding public office.
Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill in 1864 which would require a majority of
the citizens of a Confederate state to take a loyalty oath to the United States.
Lincoln killed it with a pocket veto. So Congress, as was its right, refused to
seat the newly-elected ex-Confederates.6 Moreover, in March, 1865, it passed the
Freedmen's Bureau bill to create an agency to help ex-slaves make the transition
We do not know how this what would have played out, for
Lincoln was shot and killed on April 14, 1865 while seeing a play at Ford's
Theatre. He became a martyr. Although severely criticized by both
Republicans and Democrats during his presidency, almost all was forgiven with
his death. Criticism was moot.
The Civil War changed the United States. It ushered in the
age of big government and mass armies. It made it clear that secession would not
be tolerated. It gave power to the industrialists and financiers who would use
that power to make the US the world's great industrial power.8 It
eventually left a legacy of bitterness in the United States. It was mythologized
as many epic events in human history are.
1. Charles Francis Adams was the son of President John Quincy Adams and the grandson of President John Adams.
This was more than the annual earnings of the average working man. In 1900, he
earned only about $450.
The Morrill Act was based upon the earlier land grant act. Morrill argued,
successfully, that Congress should extend the benefits of the Northwest
Ordinance to all the states.
They were a tremendous burden to armies which were ill-equipped and disinclined
to be encumbered by civilians while trying to fight a war. There are plenty of
documents attesting to their displeasure.
Notice that the choice of 1860 guaranteed that the whites who took their states
into war would be given control.
6. The Constitution gives Congress the right to judge the qualifications of its
The Freedmen's Bureau was unprecedented because it tried to help individual
citizens. It was a social welfare agency at a time when Americans believed that
the role of the government was limited.
8. The Civil War retarded the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The
Industrial Revolution was well underway (the value of manufactured goods
surpassed the value of agricultural products by 1850). The
Civil War meant that capital which could have been invested in mines and
factories was expended on weapons of war.
Donald J. Mabry