Civil War, American (April 12, 1861-May 26, 1865), devastating military conflict between the United States of America and 11 of its former states that had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. The war took more than 600,000 lives but brought freedom to 4 million African American slaves.

The immediate and primary cause of the Civil War was the South's support for and the North's increasing opposition to slavery; however, several other economic and political factors conspired to make the issue of slavery potent.

Economic Causes

 

Since its settlement, the southern United States received most of its income from farming, which depended heavily on slave labor. By 1860 cotton — King Cotton, — as it became known was the chief crop of the South and totaled 57 percent of all U.S. exports. Largely because of the dominance of cotton, the South resisted the industrialization that swept the North in the nineteenth century. Thus the South manufactured little, and most manufactured goods had to be bought from the North or imported from overseas. Meanwhile, the North by the eve of the Civil War had become an established industrial society. For economic and moral reasons the North did not use slave labor, instead relying on its own workers and European immigrants to power its factories, build its railroads, and settle the West.

Northerners demanded high tariffs on imports to protect their goods from cheap foreign competition. The South, however, wanted just the opposite: low tariffs on the many goods it imported. The persistent conflict over the tariff was crucial because at the time the federal government had few other sources of revenue — neither personal nor corporate income taxes existed. Thus the tariffs funded the turnpikes, railroads, and canals that were so important to Northern industrialization and Western expansion. The South preferred to do without these improvements in return for lower tariffs. This conflict was never fully resolved until after the Civil War.

Compromise over Slavery

 

 

In 1819 Alabama was admitted to the Union, balancing the number of free states and slave states. As long as the balance held, Congress would be forced to compromise on questions involving slavery; however, both free and slave states were loath to find out what would happen if the other side gained the upper hand. The balance was threatened almost as soon as it was achieved. In 1803 the United States had completed the Louisiana Purchase, and by the late 1810s many of the settlers in the Purchase, and particularly in the area now known as Missouri, were petitioning for statehood. Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government could not interfere with slavery inside a state; however, the government was free to refuse to admit a state whose constitution allowed slavery. A two-year struggle ensued in Congress over Missouri, as Northerners tried to ban slavery in the territory, while Southerners argued that the territory should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. The result was the Missouri Compromise, which passed Congress in 1820. Under the compromise, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state and, to maintain the balance, Maine was admitted as a free state. In the rest of the Purchase, slavery was prohibited north of Missouri's southern boundary (with the exception of Missouri) and allowed south of the boundary.

The Missouri Compromise held until the United States acquired vast new western lands in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and, shortly thereafter, gold was discovered in the new territory. California in particular received a large number of settlers, who were petitioning for statehood. Again Northerners wanted slavery banned, while Southerners pressed for their share of slave states. Because tensions over slavery had been mounting since the Missouri Compromise, secession and/or civil war seemed a possible outcome of the conflict. Instead, the outcome was the Compromise of 1850. Under the new compromise, Congress admitted California to the Union as a free state, and decreed that other territories could decide the question of slavery for themselves. A harsh new Fugitive Slave Law, also part of the compromise, required Northerners to return escaped slaves to the South. The Compromise of 1850 did little to ease tensions. Many Northerners called openly for people to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law, and the harshness of the law itself played a large role in making abolitionism — then considered an extreme position — respectable. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison gained more influence in the North. In the South, many people believed Northerners would go to any lengths, including subversion of the Constitution, to undermine slavery.

From Compromise to Confrontation

 

 

The following year, the country was further stirred by the serial publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published as a book in 1852, the antislavery novel was widely read in the North, West, and South: many Northern and Western readers became more accepting of abolitionism, while Southerners angrily denounced the book.

In 1854 U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, introduced and Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowing territories to decide the issue of slavery for themselves. Many Northerners were outraged, and both Northerners and Southerners responded by sending settlers into the territories to oppose or promote slavery. Tensions escalated and a series of conflicts known as the Border War broke out. Combined with the Compromise of 1850 and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the dispute over Kansas and Nebraska triggered a massive political shift in American politics that allowed antislavery groups to found the Republican Party. By 1856 the party had enough support to run a candidate for president, and by 1860 the party had supplanted the once-popular Whig Party.

In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories. The Court's ill-constructed reasoning and the polemical nature of its opinion further galvanized abolitionists. The following year Republican Abraham Lincoln challenged Douglas for his seat in the U.S. Senate. In a series of debates, Lincoln argued eloquently against extending slavery to the territories, swaying many Northerners and, thus, provoking fears in many Southerners. Although the Illinois legislature reelected Douglas, the Republican Party swept the state and gained considerable influence nationally. In 1859 John Brown conducted his ill-fated raid on a federal outpost at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, from which he intended to march an army of liberation to free slaves in the South. Captured, convicted, and executed, Brown became a martyr for Northern abolitionists and a reminder to the South that abolitionists were increasingly willing to fight to end slavery.

The final blow to national unity was the presidential election of 1860, which focused almost exclusively on slavery. At their nominating convention in April, southern Democrats refused to support Northerner Stephen Douglas because of his moderate position on slavery. The Southerners walked out of the convention and eventually nominated their own presidential candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Northern Democrats rallied behind Douglas. The Republicans nominated Lincoln, who won easily in November against the divided Democrats. Several leading Southerners had cautioned that if the Republicans won the election, the South might secede. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina made good on the promise. In January and February, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas also seceded. Shortly after Lincoln took office in March, he called on states to send militias to suppress the rebellion. The remaining Southern states — Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee — refused to send troops and seceded between April and June. Lincoln apparently hoped that the states would rejoin the Union without coercion, but this hope vanished on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked federal troops at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina.

African Americans Volunteer to Fight

 

 

Led by Frederick Douglass and other prominent abolitionists, most African Americans in the North viewed the Civil War as a fight to overthrow slavery. By the thousands, blacks volunteered for service in the Union army, only to be refused by President Lincoln. Lincoln argued repeatedly that the war was not being fought to end slavery but rather to restore the Union. Hoping that the war would be short-lived and that the Union would be quickly restored, he did not want to unnecessarily antagonize the South by enlisting black troops to fight against them — a sure sign that Lincoln accorded African Americans equality with white Americans. Lincoln was also concerned about maintaining the support of two other groups: the slave-owning border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware — that remained loyal to the Union; and the large number of proslavery, or at least nonabolitionist, Northern Democrats. A few Northern states, notably Massachusetts, disagreed with Lincoln's policy and pressured him to allow blacks to serve; however, many other states enacted laws banning blacks from state militias.

Many African Americans reacted to Lincoln's opposition by declaring that the blood of blacks was not worth spilling for a racist United States. Others, however, argued that African Americans had an obligation to demand equal treatment for themselves and to put an end to slavery for their Southern brothers and sisters. In the end, this voice won out and many Northern blacks supported the war effort in nonmilitary roles, such as working in munitions factories and hospitals. Still others enlisted in the Union navy, which had always allowed blacks to serve. By the end of the war, roughly 9000 blacks fought as sailors, but sailors were necessarily a small part of the 2.2 million men in uniform.

Blacks in Union Camps

 

 

 

Regardless of federal policy, as Union regiments pressed into the South, they encountered slaves who regarded them as liberators and who fled to their protection. Union commanders had differing reactions to self-emancipated blacks. Abolitionists like General Benjamin Butler, who fought initially in Virginia, declared escaped slaves contraband of war (the South, after all, maintained that slaves were only property), sheltered them in his camps, and put them to work, for example as cooks. Furthermore, Butler argued that because the Confederacy had declared itself a separate nation, the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply to freed people. Later Butler, fighting in the Mississippi Valley, and General James Lane, fighting in Kansas, went so far as to use escaped slaves as scouts and soldiers. Many other generals, however, regarded the contrabands with indifference or, in accordance with Lincoln's policy, returned them to their masters. The earliest unit made entirely of African American enlisted men was probably the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment. Formed by General David Hunter in May 1862, the First South Carolina was Hunter's solution to his desperate need for combat-ready soldiers in the South Carolina Sea Islands. Lincoln's War Department reprimanded Hunter, disbanded the regiment, and reiterated that slaves should be returned to their owners.

This policy could not hold. As the war widened, thousands of slaves sought freedom behind Northern lines, and the logistics of re-enslaving them were staggering. Increasingly, their owners had fled the Northern advance so that even slaves who remained on plantations were essentially free. The newly freed slaves presented problems to the Union army regarding shelter, food, and health; they also choked roads in their exodus, severely hampering the movement of Union troops. At the same time, it was becoming clear to Lincoln and his advisers that the war would not be brief and that the North would need more manpower than initially anticipated.

Blacks Behind Confederate Lines

Of the 9 million people living in the South at the time of secession, more than 3.5 million were African American slaves. Although slaves did not fight for the South — the Confederacy even forbade a group of free black Louisianans from volunteering for service — every slave who contributed to the Confederate economy allowed a white Southerner to leave the plantation or the factory for the battlefront. While hundreds of thousands of slaves continued the plantation work they had always done, thousands more were forced into other roles. They built forts and bridges, assembled munitions, drove horse teams to transport troops and supplies, cooked meals, nursed the wounded and ill, and served as blacksmiths and laundresses. Because of black labor, an estimated 80 percent of military-age Southern men were able to serve in uniform. Throughout the war, Southerners feared slave revolts and increased patrols of rural areas accordingly; however, their fears were never fulfilled.

Slaves suffered from many of the wartime conditions that afflicted all Southerners, though more acutely. Food was scarce, and malnutrition and sickness grew with the war. Manufactured Northern clothes and tools also dwindled with time and were replaced with less reliable homemade articles. As slaveholders faced increasing financial burdens, slaves were sold more often, causing the separation of families; however, as more slaves were sold, their prices fell. As noted above, many thousands of slaves fled to the protection of Union troops when the opportunity arose, yet many thousands more were herded by their owners further into the Southern interior. Other slaves stayed with their owners out of simple affection, while still others felt too dependent on their owners or too frightened of the consequences to leave. For large numbers of slaves, these dislocations provided them with their first glance at the world beyond the plantation where they had lived their entire lives.

Momentum for Abolitionism

 

The arguments of Northern abolitionists gained ground as the war continued, in part because of the value of slaves to the South but also because Northerners were stunned at the lengths Southerners would fight for slavery. The North was also interested in denying the South imports and other aid from foreign countries, especially from Great Britain. One way to do this was to declare that the war was a war to end slavery; Britain, having abolished slavery decades earlier, would have a difficult time helping a nation fighting to preserve slavery. For these and other reasons, Frederick Douglass's vocal campaign to change the war to a fight against slavery was increasingly supported by prominent white Northerners.

In the summer of 1862 Congress finally authorized Union troops to confiscate Southern property, including slaves, who could then be used in military-support roles. Freed slaves still could not fight, but Congress hoped the act would give them an incentive to flee toward advancing Union troops. No longer hopeful of luring the South back into the Union, Congress also put an end to slavery in Washington, D.C., and banned slavery in the territories. In September 1862 Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the South (though not in Northern border states, where slavery was still protected by the Constitution). The Emancipation Proclamation also finally permitted Southern freedpeople and Northern blacks to enter the armed services. Not everyone was pleased with the proclamation. Many whites still believed the war should be fought only to restore the Union, not to free slaves. Combined with Lincoln's controversial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (by which accused criminals are brought before a court to determine whether their detention is lawful), with mounting losses on the battlefield, and with an unpopular military draft (beginning in 1863), the Emancipation Proclamation helped bring about minor and major rebellions in the North.

Official Black Troops

 

 

 

For Northern blacks, however, the Emancipation Proclamation represented an enormous victory, and many urged their sons to enlist. In Massachusetts, abolitionist governor John A. Andrew immediately mustered a regiment of African Americans — the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts — and other governors, tentative at first, followed. At the time, there was widespread skepticism among whites about whether blacks would fight and, even if they did, about whether they would fight capably. Although the few African Americans who had fought thus far in the Civil War had often done so with distinction, their service was little publicized. Initially, then, most of the newly recruited black regiments were confined to support roles. Only after the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts made a heroic and widely publicized assault in July 1863 on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, were blacks given a wider role in fighting. Even then, however, blacks were almost never allowed to become officers. Black soldiers were also paid at lower wages than whites until a protest by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts prompted Congress in 1864 to equalize salaries and issue back pay — not, however, before William Walker of the Third South Carolina Volunteers was court-martialed, convicted of mutiny, and executed for leading black soldiers in refusing to fight until pay was equalized.

In all, African Americans fought in roughly 40 major and 400 minor battles. These included Port Hudson, Louisiana (May 1863), where blacks made several bold assaults against devastating Confederate fire; Milliken's Bend, Mississippi (June 1863), where blacks fended off Confederates in hand-to-hand fighting; Fort Wagner (July 1863); Petersburg, Virginia (1864), where blacks endured terrible casualties as part of the siege of that city; and Richmond, Virginia (1865), the Confederate capital, which blacks were among the first troops to occupy.

The Confederacy treated all black soldiers, whether freedpeople by birth or by emancipation, as slaves subject to re-enslavement and punishment. On several instances, Confederate troops simply murdered surrendering blacks, the most notorious example being Tennessee's Fort Pillow Massacre. On April 12, 1864, three years to the day after the start of the Civil War, Union troops at Fort Pillow were surprised by an overwhelming Confederate force. As African Americans surrendered, Confederates shot men, women, and children indiscriminately. They also burned wounded black soldiers in their tents and nailed several African American sergeants to logs before setting them aflame. In all, about 200 African Americans were killed. After a government inquiry, Lincoln ordered a retaliation, but no action was taken.

By the end of the war, almost 179,000 African Americans served in the Union army and navy. Almost 3000 died from battle wounds, while 33,000 more died of disease. Among the important achievements for black soldiers was the promotion of Martin Robison Delany, a doctor and writer, to the rank of major — the first African American to become a field officer. Black women, too, played important roles for the army: Harriet Tubman served as a guide and scout and Elizabeth Bowser, a slave in the Confederate White House in Richmond, doubled as a Union spy.

End of the War: The North

 

Toward the end of the war, Republican abolitionists were concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation would be viewed as a war act and thus unconstitutional once fighting ended. They were also increasingly anxious to secure the freedom of all African Americans, not just those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus pressed, Lincoln staked a large part of his 1864 presidential campaign on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery throughout the United States. The president's campaign was bolstered by separate votes in both Maryland and Missouri to abolish slavery in their states. Winning reelection in November, Lincoln pressed the lame-duck Congress to amend the Constitution immediately rather than wait for the incoming Congress to act in April. On January 31, 1865, Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery in all U.S. states and territories. The amendment was ratified by the states in December.

In the last years of the war, the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, the service of blacks in the army, and the movement for the Thirteenth Amendment created an environment that allowed African Americans to demand broader equality. In Philadelphia, where streetcars were segregated before the war, African Americans secured a desegregation law from the state legislature. In Illinois, statutes preventing blacks from testifying in state courts were overturned. Following protests by African Americans, segregated schools in Detroit and Rhode Island were desegregated. In several states, laws requiring blacks to own property before they could vote were seriously challenged for the first time. Many such activities would continue during Reconstruction.

End of the War: The South

 

Toward the end of the war, the Confederacy debated whether to enlist slaves as soldiers and, if so, whether slave-soldiers should be granted their freedom. In early 1865 the Confederate Congress passed a law that allowed a limited number of black soldiers to be conscripted. States were left to decide whether slaves who fought would be freed. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, however, allowed only slaves whose owners had volunteered them to serve in the Confederate army. By the end of the war, a few hundred were enlisted, but very few saw any significant action.

After the Confederacy was defeated, Southern blacks were confronted with freedom and the challenge of securing food and shelter. Some continued, out of necessity or choice, to work the land they had worked as slaves. Occasionally such African Americans worked out agreements with their former masters for wages or other forms of compensation like food and shelter; however, only in a few cases were their conditions much improved over slavery. Other former slaves migrated to towns and cities, hoping for work, education, or relief distributed by Northern freedpeople's aid societies and Union troops. Still others traveled more broadly, testing their freedom and seeking relatives from whom they had been separated by war or slavery. In the postwar Reconstruction years, the United States would be forced to confront these and many other issues arising from the legacy of slavery.[1]

 



[1]"Civil War, American," Microsoft® Encarta® Africana. ©&(p) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.