The Civil War 1860-1865

AS THE Presidential elections of 1860 drew near, the Democratic party was as hopelessly divided as the nation. The Southern Democrats broke away from the party and nominated John C. Brekinridge of Kentucky as their candidate. He demanded that Congress pass laws protecting slavery in all the American territories, whether the people of the territories wanted slavery or not. Democrats from the northern and border states nominated Stephen A. Douglas, who promised to allow each new state in the West to decide the slavery question tor itself by popular vote.

With the Democrats divided, the Republicans were almost certain to win the election, but they needed a candidate and a program that would appeal to most of the voters in the free states. They promised free land for all settlers and one of their campaign slogans was “Vote yourself a farm.” They promised factory owners and workers of the Northeast a high import tax to protect American industry. They also promised that the national government would encourage and help pay for the building of a railroad across the continent.

The Republicans chose as their candidate Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. He was a Westerner and a man of the people who had risen in life by his own labour and ability. Even more important politically, he had made fewer enemies than any of the other leading candidates. He was known to be a moderate and sensible man; he was no Abolitionist or extremist. At the same time, he was firmly opposed to slavery and supported the Republican position that slavery must not be allowed to spread beyond the South.


While others argued whether or not slavery was lawful under the Constitution, Lincoln went back to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln greatly admired Jefferson. Lincoln maintained that Jefferson’s ideas of true democracy were set forth in the Declaration of Independence and that these were the ideas on which the free society of the United States was based. The Declaration made it clear that the rights of man are far more important than man’s property rights. T hose who defended slavery were, therefore, turning away from the Declaration; they were putting the property rights of slave owners above the rights of the Negro slaves.


Lincoln said, “Republicans are for both, the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict, the man before the dollar.” He also said, “As a action we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal. We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.” Lincoln pointed out that when people begin deciding who are equal and who are not, liberty becomes a meaningless word.

Lincoln won the election, and the South looked upon this as the worst possible disaster. They were afraid that Lincoln would use his powers as President to do away with slavery if he could. If he could not, he would surely encourage slave revolts and raids like that of John Brown.

Many Southerners were confused as well as frightened. They did not agree with the radicals, the Southern extremists who were urging the South to secede from the Union. The radial leaders insisted that time was running out; the North was growing at a much faster rate than the South. Furthermore, in the last ten years California, Minnesota and Oregon had joined the Union as free states, while not one slave state had been admitted. The balance of power was tipping toward the North and if the South were ever to leave the Union, it must be now.


The radicals said that as an independent nation, the South would have a bright future. It could do away with the hated import tax and buy manufactured goods directly from Europe at much cheaper prices. It could expand southward, taking over Cuba and other Caribbean Islands, Mexico and perhaps Central America. The South could build up a great slave empire and be one of the leading nations of the world.

The radicals won over the South, and in December of 1860, South Carolina left the Union. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas soon followed its example. The seven states held a meeting at Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4, 1861, and drew up a constitution for a new nation, which they called the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was appointed to serve as president until an election could be held. The radicals were overjoyed; they were sure that the North would not fight to save the Union.

All this took place before Lincoln became President on March 4, 1861. When he took the oath of office that day, he was faced with a tremendous question: Did a state or group of states have the right to leave the Union? In his inaugural address, Lincoln made his position clear. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” he declared. Then he went on to say that “no state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.”

Having given this answer, Lincoln was faced with a further question. How could he save the Union when the South had already seceded and formed its own government? Peaceful methods had been tried without success. The only way to defend the Union was to use military force, but that would look like the invasion of a peaceful country and might turn many Northerners against him.


Lincoln felt he could not run the risk of an unpopular war; he needed the full support of the people. As it was, a number of Northerners, including the Abolitionists, were pleased that the South had broken away. The New York Tribune spoke for them when it said, “If the cotton states shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace.” Lincoln realized that the North would be united only if the South struck the first blow.

Then Lincoln received a message from Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter, at the month of Charleston Harbour in South Carolina. This was Confederate territory and Lincoln had promised that he would try to hold all Federal property in Confederate territory. Anderson reported that his men were desperately in need of food and Lincoln decided to send him food by ship. He informed the governor of South Carolina that the ships were on a peaceful mission and would carry no arms or ammunition.

Now it was the Confederate authorities who faced a decision. If they allowed the ships to reach the port, it would seem to the world that they were allowing the United States to hold property in Confederate territory. European countries would then have no respect for the Confederacy as a nation and would probably not recognize it or help it in any way. No, the Confederates must take the position that the United States had no right to have forts in southern harbours. They demanded that Major Anderson withdraw his men from the fort.


Anderson refused and at four o’clock on the morning of April 12, 1861, the Confederates began firing on Fort Sumter. Their cannon hammered at the fort for thirty-four hours, until Anderson was finally forced to haul down the American flag and surrender.

The boom of the big guns signaled the start of war and excitement raced across the country like a roaring, raging fire. Virginia and three other states joined the Confederacy. Everywhere, north and south, cheering crowds thronged the streets. No one thought the war would last more than a few months.

The first battle took place in July of 1861, on a stream in Virginia called Bull Run, about twenty-five miles from Washington. Many people rode out from the city to watch it, taking along picnic lunches. They enjoyed the battle until the Confederates brought up more men, smashed through the Union lines and sent soldiers and civilians alike into a wild stampede for Washington. The Union then launched one attack after another on Richmond, but all were beaten back.



As the war went on, it became clear that the North had certain advantages. It had a population of 22,000,000 persons; the South had about 9,000‚000‚ some 5,500‚000 of which were Negro slaves. The North had twice as many railroads, roads and canals as the South and great industrial centres that could produce the arms, munitions and other supplies needed by the army. The South had far fewer factories and when the Union navy became powerful enough to blockade Southern ports, the Confederates found it difficult to import manufactured goods from Europe.

The South, on the other hand, had such brilliant military leaders as Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, who won a number of victories during the early years of the war. The South was more united than the North and did not need to invade the North in order to win. If the Confederates could fight long and hard enough, Northerners would become convinced that victory would be too costly to be worthwhile. They would refuse to support the war and the government would have to make peace.


As it turned out, however, the war continued for more than four years and the South was almost completely destroyed. The South had expected that France and England’s need for cotton would drive them to break the blockade and enter the war on the side of the South but, while the governments of France and England did sympathize with the South, they needed the North’s wheat as much as they needed the South’s cotton.

At first, the working classes of Europe had mixed feelings about the war, because the North insisted that it was fighting to keep the Southern states from leaving the Union. Then, after 1862, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves in the South, most of the common people of Europe favoured the North. They believed that the North was fighting for democracy and the rights of man, while the South was fighting for slavery and special privilege.

So many Englishmen favoured the North that their government put off recognizing the Confederacy. Besides, England’s business with the North increased as the war went on and the English had no wish to end this profitable trade by helping the South openly. Both England and France did run the blockade and do some trading with the South and both helped the Confederate sea raiders, which were armed ships that patrolled the Atlantic and sank Northern merchant ships. As for the fighting itself, although Richmond was only about a hundred miles or so from Washington, General Lee skillfully defended it against many attacks from the North. Neither his victories nor those of General Jackson were decisive. All the North had to do was raise another army and attack again.


When Lee invaded the North in the summer of 1862, he was met by a Union army under McClellan at Antietam in western Maryland. Neither side won a victory, but Lee withdrew. The following summer he struck northward again, this time marching up through Maryland into Pennsylvania. A Union army led by General George Meade met the Confederates near Gettysburg in what proved to be the turning point of the Civil War. On the third day of the battle, 10,000 Confederates led by General George E. Pickett charged across a small valley to strike at the center of the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. Most of them were killed by a deadly hail of cannon balls. Pickett’s charge was turned back and the South had suffered the most costly defeat in its short history.

A day later, on July 4, 1863, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, on the east bank of the Mississippi River fell to Union forces commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. This gave the North complete control of the Mississippi and cut Texas and the Arkansas country off from the rest of the South. The following November, Grant, supported by Generals Thomas and Sherman, won the battle of Chattanooga in Tennessee.

The Union forces were now in a good position to drive into Georgia. Grant was given command of all Union forces and brought east to hammer at Lee’s army in Virginia.


In May of 1864, General Sherman began his march into Georgia. He took Atlanta in September and marching toward the sea along a sixty mile front, he burned cities and towns and destroyed railroads as he went. He captured Savannah in December. Turning northward in February, 1865, he entered the Carolinas and captured Columbia and Charleston. Meanwhile, Grant was carrying out his campaign against Lee in Virginia. The Confederates kept between him and Richmond, the capital of the South and stood off his attacks time after time. Although Grant suffered costly defeats, he continued his advance, keeping constant pressure on the Confederates until they finally ran short of food and clothing and ammunition. Lee abandoned Richmond and led his desperate army of 30,000 veterans on their last retreat, with Grant following close behind. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Civil War was over.

Lincoln, perhaps more than anyone else, realized the importance of the Civil War, not only to the United States, but to the world. It had been fought for more than an end to slavery, for more than the preservation of the Union. It had been fought, as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address, so that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” It had been fought to prove that democracy, far from being merely the dream of a few revolutionaries, was a practical form of government that could defend itself against rebellion. It had been fought to demonstrate that the ideals of Jefferson and the other founders of the nation, the ideals set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were things that men could live by.

The victory of the North ended slavery in the United States, saved the Union and gave new hope and faith to all men who believed in nationalism, democracy and freedom.



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