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John Brown's Body by Pete Seeger
Causes of the Civil War
Before tracing the events that led to the Civil War, figuring out the reason(s) for the worst war in our history might be helpful. There is no unanimous theory among historians. Of course, the most common reason given was slavery. Others argue it was over states' rights (to have slaves). Some say it was over economics (the economics of slavery), and Abraham Lincoln will argue it was over constitutional issues (on whether or not to have slaves). [Parentheses my wisecracks] I have added another cause in the Wanda Jones theory of history. The lack of leadership when the U.S. needed it most certainly did not help. That included politicians and the Supreme Court. You get to evaluate and come up with your own theory as to the cause(s) of the Civil War. Please ignore my wisecracks (but they are pretty good you have to admit).
The politics of the 1840s and 50s did little to prevent the Civil War. If you recall, James Polk was elected in 1844 and guided the U.S. into the Mexican War intensifying the slavery debate. Polk chose not to run in 1848. Democrats nominated Michigan Senator Lewis Cass instead. His approach to the slavery debate was "popular sovereignty." He suggested that each territory or state have an election to decide whether to allow slaves or not. This appealed to many people since it sounded democratic. At the same time, it would destroy the Missouri Compromise and could lead to the expansion of slavery into the North. But, it got politicians off the hook.
Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, hero in the Mexican War, and known as "Old Rough and Ready." He had no political experience and had never even voted. He was also a Louisiana slaveowner so the Whigs avoided the slavery issue.
That let anti-slaverites out in the cold. So, anti-slavery Whigs joined a third party, the Free-Soil Parkty and nominated former President Martin Van Buren and opposed the expansion of slavery.
The election was an exercise in avoiding the slavery issue for the two major parties. Many southerners voted for Taylor because he owned slaves and felt they could not trust Cass, a northerner. So, Taylor won. His wife, Margaret Smith did not want to be First Lady and refused to participate in any activities. She said she wanted to put wax in his ears so he would not hear the call to serve in Washington DC.
When Taylor took over as President, he had several major problems facing him that he tended to make worse with his confrontational approach. First, California was in chaos. So many arrived so quickly that it was a society of strangers. California changed from an agricultural to a gold economy. California also became predominantly Anglo rather than Hispanic and changed from predominantly Catholic to predominantly Protestant.
The "Get Rich Quick" mentality swept the whole nation. In 1849-50, some people made $30,000 to $50,000 a day. In 1849, $40 million in gold was discovered. It was easy to find with basic tools. Americans became obsessed with gold. And those who went to California were not like previous settlers. The new settlers were exploiters, transients and in a hurry to make money and go home.
Next Taylor had to deal with Texas. The consensus was Texas was too big since it reached into today's Colorado. But, Texans wanted "assumption" by the federal government and assume debts from the era as an independent republic. Otherwise, Texans were reluctant to give up territory. President Taylor threatened to use force to bring Texas in line which did not help things at all.
At the same time, the slavery issue was becoming more emotional. Northerners wanted abolition of slavery in Washington DC, but the South feared a free oasis. The South wanted federal commitment to shut down the underground railroad and pursue runaways. By 1850, some southern states were threatening to secede or leave the U.S. Taylor was unwilling or unable to calm the crisis. Then he dropped dead suddenly of unknown causes in July, 1850. He was dug up a few years ago to see if he had been poisoned, but no results suggested that.
Vice President Millard Fillmore took over. His wife, Abigail Powers, will be much happier in her role of First Lady than Mrs. Taylor. She was the first First Lady to have held a paying job as a teacher. She basically educated her husband. She was a 20 year old teacher and Millard her 18 year old student. As First Lady she started the White House Library and got running water installed. They had two children. She will die a few weeks after leaving office.
Millard Fillmore was feared by Democrats and the South. He was viewed as anti-slavery since he was from New York. But, he was more willing to compromise than his predecessor. This approach led to the Compromise of 1850 that was actually a series of laws. First, California was made a free state. Texas boundaries were also redrawn and Texans given $10 million to cover debts and compensate for the lost territory. Eventually, Texas will received another $7.5 million to cover debts and paved the way for a spending spree with $4 million left over. By 1860, Texas was back in debt to the tune of $1 million.
The Compromise of 1850 also abolished the slave trade but not slavery in Washington DC. New Mexico and Utah territories were give the right to "popular sovereignty" in determining the slave issue. A stronger fugitive slave law was also passed. Runaways would receive no jury trial and could not testify in their own defense. Penalties also were established for those who aided the escape of slaves. Nobody was happy with the Compromise of 1850 but it did delay the Civil War for eleven years.
When the 1852 election rolled around, tension over slavery increased with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The strong anti-slavery theme of the book about the truth about slavery, energized the abolitionist. But, the election of 1852 did little to resolve anything.
The Democrats nominated Franklin Pierce from New Hampshire and a Mexican War veteran basically unknown despite serving in the House and Senate. His main interest was Manifest Destiny. The Whigs were in turmoil since many had opposed the Compromise of 1850 and blamed Fillmore. So, they nominated Winfield Scott, another Mexican war hero from Virginia. He did not say much about anything.
This was an issueless, spiritless, and hopelessly dull election based on personal attacks. Even poet Walt Whitman got into it by describing Pierce as a man who "eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on the States." Meanwhile, Pierce accused Scott of atrocities during the Mexican War and of being a "pompous ass" who wanted to be a dictator. Scott accused Pierce of cowardice during the Mexican War and of being an alcoholic. Pierce won a landslide (254 to 42 in the Electoral College).
When his wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, heard he had been nominated for President, she fainted. She despised politics, hated Washington DC, and found his friends to be uncouth. The January before his March inauguration, their only living child was killed in a train accident. She never got over it nor did he. There was no inaugural ball due to mourning and she wore black his entire term. She was described as a "like a shadow."
Meanwhile, her husband began his presidency with an obvious goal to ignore slavery and focus on Manifest Destiny." Accidentally, his expansionist efforts made the slavery issue worse.
First Pierce went after the northern states of Mexico. He had to settle for a small section, the Gadsden Purchase, for $10 million. He had offered $50 million for most of the rest of Mexico. With the Gadsden Purchase, however, he had territory he wanted to build a railroad from Texas to California next to the Gila River.
I have a personal story about the Gadsden Purchase that reinforced my belief that you never know when knowledge will come in handy. My husband and I were on an Amtrak trip to El Paso. We loved Amtrak. It was always an adventure! We particularly loved the dining car where you sit with strangers and get to know all kinds of people. While we were in the dining car near Sanderson, Texas, someone said "isn't this part of the Gadsden Purchase?" I was very polite but just mentioned that it was not and where it was. Then, diners began asking me questions so I had the stage for about 10 minutes and got a round of applause at the end...lol I have always seen since that that you never know who is listening. There could have been a movie producer who wanted to make me a star in the dining car. There wasn't, but there could have been.
Pierce also tried to buy Cuba but failed. These and other efforts scared abolitionists who saw southern expansion as an effort to expand slavery. Then, in 1854, the slavery issue exploded in Pierce's face. It began as a debate over railroad development. Senator Stephen Douglas (D - IL) had interests in Nebraska Territory and wanted railroad development to encourage settlement and development. Douglas wanted to organize the territory into a state. But, there was no motivation among southerners since it was free territory under the Missouri Compromise. So, Douglas came up with a plan that gave concessions to the South. Called the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), it broke the Midwest into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. The law established popular sovereignty there and, therefore, broke the Missouri Compromise. Despite northern opposition, the law passed.
The results were dramatic. Aside from destroying the Missouri Compromise, it destroyed the Whig party. They were severely divided and some were wavering on the slavery issue believing slavery might go away by itself. The Whigs disappeared and a new party form, the Republicans of today. Their platform was no expansion of slavery. It was almost totally sectional. But, in their first election of 1854, they won 100 seats in Congress.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856. Both pro- and anti-slavery forces poured into Kansas to influence the election to establish and the government and decide the status of slavery. Although there were no slaves in Kansas due to the Missouri Compromise, pro-slavery forces won the election mainly with the help of Missouri citizens who crossed the border and voted. Abolitionist ignored the election and established their own government. Violence erupted.
The most famous participant was John Brown. He became one of the most violent abolitionists. He was an extremely religious abolitionist who rejected non-violence. He said God chose him to deliver slaves to freedom. Angered by the murders of abolitionists in Lawrence, Kansas, he decided to retaliate. He organized a group of seven followers including his four sons and attacked four pro-slaverites at Pottawatomie Creek in May, 1856. They were hacked to death. Brown said he did it in the "obedience to the will of God." In June, there was another attack and four killed when Brown and his followers attacked the Missouri militia. Brown said it was a "holy war." He said he was "God's instrument" and a "special angel of death." Some Americans said he was a saint. Some said he was a murderer. Others said he was just crazy.
I know the tendency is jump to a conclusion about John Brown. First, think about what he was doing. He was trying to free the slaves. He was not the only violent participant in the battle. And, slaves were dying everyday and no one paid attention. Look at textbooks. You will find paragraphs about John Brown and his murderous insanity. How much is written about the suffering he was willing to die to stop. If you really want to know the whole story, I recommend the book To Purge This Land with Blood. But we have not heard the last of John Brown.
While John Brown was on his crusade, violence erupted in the U.S. Senate. Called the Brooks-Sumner incident, it occurred during the debate of the problems in Kansas (1856). Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made some insulting remarks about South Carolina including calling the state a "prostitute of slavery" directing his remarks to Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler's nephew, Preston Brooks was a Congressman from South Carolina. Brooks, angered by the remarks of Sumner, attacked Sumner with his cane in the Senate. The beating was so severe on the head that it took Sumner five years to recover. Brooks resigned and was immediately re-elected as Congressman. Obviously emotion had overtaken reason. And the U.S. Constitution was based on the Enlightenment faith in reason.
The Election of 1856 brought no relief. The Democrats nominated James Buchanon from Pennsylvania when Pierce chose not to run. Buchanon supported popular sovereignty and had few enemies. He had been in England as a diplomat during the Kansas-Nebraska debacle so could avoid blame. He was popular in both the North and South. Republicans nominated John Fremont, an explorer and Senator from California who opposed the expansion of slavery. Another third party emerged, too, the Know-Nothing party (I'm not kidding). They opposed immigration, Catholics, and slavery. They wanted it to be harder to become a citizen and allow only native-born citizens to elected offices. They nominated former President Millard Fillmore.
James Buchanon won. He was unmarried, our only bachelor President who never married. The story goes he was engaged once and she committed suicide which is not a good sign. At any rate, he took office in time for the next crisis in 1857. This was the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court. Dred Scott, his wife, and two daughters were slaves in Missouri. Then their owner took them to Minnesota and Illinois for several years. Those were free territories. When they returned to Missouri, the Scotts obtained an attorney and argued they were free. The Supreme Court rejected their claim. In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Therefore, they could not sue in court. So the Court dismissed the case but not before adding to the decision. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country's territories. This meant a slaveholder in Alabama could take his slaves to Massachusetts, long-known as the hotbed of the abolitionist movement. It's a private property thing. Americans have the right to take their property wherever they want to go. The abolitionists went ballistic.
Dred and Harriet Scott
Just when it looked like it could not get worse, the Panic of 1857 made its appearance. This was an odd economic depression in that it only affected the North. The South was relatively unaffected. This gave southerner another defense of the slavery institution. Their economy was just fine.
Meanwhile, John Brown is up to his old tricks. He was a man with a plan. He wanted to organize a slave uprising in Virginia, take over the state, free the slaves, and establish an African-American state. You cannot say he did not have a vision. By this point, he referred to himself as the "Moses to deliver the slaves." With 20-21 followers including five African-Americans and his sons, attacked the arsenal and rifle factory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He expect the slaves to flee to his aid and abolitionist to join him in the battle to free the slaves. No one showed up either because they could not or would not. The battle began on October 16, 1859, and lasted 36 hours. When in ended, 17 were dead including two African-Americans and two of Brown's sons. Brown was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die. On December 2, 1859 (less than two months later), he was hanged. He died to free the slaves. It has been funny to me that all the years I've taught, I've told stories of the crimes of white men in history. Then, I tell a story about a white man who died to free the slaves, people don't like him either. Students say they agree with his cause but not his approach. Between 1861-65, 600,000 Americans are going to kill each other over what John Brown killed a dozen men. Yet, he gets singled out in textbooks for his "crimes." It confuses me. But for many years, African-Americans led by such leaders as W. E. DuBois will march to Brown's burial site and sing the following song to praise him.
The revolution Brown wanted was only a year away. The final straw that broke the back of the U.S. came in 1860. Anxiety was high as the election approached. The Democrats were deeply divided and broke into factions based on region, North or South. They nominated both Stephen Douglas of Illinois and John Breckinridge of Kentucky. That divided the party and lessened any chance of winning the election. (I often think about had the Democrats come up with one nominee, how different history would be.) Another third party joined the competition, the Constitutional Union party who nominated John Bell of Tennessee, a slaveowner who pledged to uphold the Constitution and Union.
Of course, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. He had little political experience serving in Congress briefly and little education. He was labeled as "unattractive" (physically) and stupid by opponents. Immediately, the leaders of South Carolina pledged to secede (leave the Union) if Lincoln won the election. But why?
Lincoln promised not to interfere with slavery but opposed expansion. He also believed in colonization of free African-Americans. He opposed rights for all but "exceptional" African-Americans.
Due to the split in the Democrats, Lincoln won the election with only 40% of the popular vote. He got a million fewer votes than the Democrats combined. With election, Lincoln began to try to appease South Carolina but South Carolina's leaders called a convention and voted to secede. They said it was over states' right not slavery. Gradually, 11 states voted to secede. Can you name them? They will make up the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as their President.
South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas seceded. Governor Sam Houston opposed secession in Texas so was kicked out of office and ostracized. West Virginia actually voted to secede from Virginia because they opposed secession and became a separate state that remained in the Union.
The new Confederacy also nullified the U.S. Constitution and established state militias while seizing to federal forts (Moultrie and Castle Pinckney). They also had surrounded Ft Sumter, a federal stronghold in Charleston Bay where all federal troops had been ordered. Lincoln did not know what to do. He decided to let South Carolina make the first move so sent a supply ship to Ft. Sumter. South Carolina's militia fired on the supply ship and ordered all federal troops out of South Carolina.
With secession, Lincoln believed war was inevitable but he too denied it was about slavery. If it wasn't over slavery then what? Lincoln said it was unconstitutional and illegal to secede.
Lincoln quickly became aware he had big problems in terms of conducting a war. Washington DC being southern was in a panic. Lincoln had basically no military experience other than serving in the Illinois militia during Black Hawk's War but saw no action. His staff was inexperienced. There were no precedents and nothing in the Constitution that guided his actions. In addition, the best military leaders were in the South including Robert E. Lee of Virginia and he chose to stay with his state. Lincoln also had trouble defining the goals of war. He refused to admit slavery had anything to do with it and banned African-Americans from the military. This caused problems with Europeans who thought if it's not about slavery then it is a War for Independence by the South as the South said. So Europeans tended to support the South saying it was just another American Revolution over independence. To make it worse, there was strong opposition to the war in the North. Riots will erupt over draft laws.
Lincoln did have some things on his side. The North was industrialized unlike the South so could produce the equipment needed. Three-fourths of the railroads were in the North, three times the wealth, and four times as many banks were in the North. Lincoln also had an established Navy and military establishment.
Jefferson Davis and the Confederate had some advantages, too. The Civil War will be mostly a defensive war so fewer troops were needed. They were familiar with the terrain and used to the weather. They also had a moral cause. They had a clear-cut goal: independence from the oppressive North. The South had the best military leaders and was self-sufficient in agriculture.
So, in the beginning, it was hard to tell who would win the "Brother's War" and families split apart over the issues related to the war, whatever they were. Most Americans agreed that it would be a short war with few casualties. Soon they discovered their error in judgement.
The first major battle was the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas (all battles had two names, one by the North and one by the South) in July, 1861. It was exciting. Politicians, their wives, and families gathered to watch the battle. It was a picnic. Then, the slaughter began. Northern (Union) troops were forced to retreat to Washington DC stampeding over the guests as they left. They had suffered 3,000 casualties (deaths and injuries). The South had 2,000 casualties. War began to lose its glamour and people quit coming to watch. The South celebrated but it was premature. The brutality had just begun.
War had changed. There both old and new weapons plus new strategies that made war more deadly than ever. The Springfield rifle could fire two shots a minute over a 1/2 mile range. Bayonets were used for hand to hand combat. They had exploding artillery shells, Howitzers, and cannons. Guerrilla warfare was common but much of the war was trench warfare. They also developed flanking techniques rather than frontal assaults. And, so the body count grew. Slowly, the Union's "Billy Yanks" gained control of the Confederacy's "Johnny Rebs." By mid-1862, the Union occupied Arkansas and half of Tennessee. But, the price was enormous.
In the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862 on the Tennessee/Mississippi border, there were 24,000 casualties. Also important at that battle was the Union discovered a new military leader, General Ulysses S. Grant. But, the war continued. The worst day of the was was on Sept. 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam (Sharpstown). There were 26,000 casualties in one day. It left the Confederate Army exhausted and General Lee retreated but was not pursued. Still, Antietam was a turning point. Europe began to doubt the Confederacy could win, border states who had slavery but had not seceded calmed, and it gave Lincoln the courage to take a dramatic step.
By 1862 Lincoln had concluded the war was God's way of ending slavery. He signed legislation to confiscate Confederate slaves, accept runaways, and abolish slavery in DC and the territories. By the end of 1862, he was ready for the next step, the Emancipation Proclamation. He issued a threat to the Confederates to stop fighting or else he would free the slaves. The Confederates did not stop so on January 1, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This freed all slaves in rebellious slaves but did not affect those in states that had not left the Union. He also opened the military to African-Americans and 250,000 will serve and suffer 70,000 casualties.
If you are interested in military history, I am very weak in that area. But here are some excellent resources if you want to read more about the battles of the Civil War.
While the war raged, Lincoln also had to deal with a complicated family life. His wife, Mary Todd, was a plump, witty, socialite from a southern slaveholding family and the first to be called "First Lady." He married up. But she hated slavery and was devoted to controlling it. Otherwise, she and her husband had little in common. He was chronically depressed and she was too. She was a shopaholic, suffered from anxiety and paranoia, had migraine headaches, even possibly had diabetes. Certainly all of her ills were exacerbated by a series of tragic circumstances during her White House tenure: the trauma of Civil War, including the allegiance of much of her family to the Confederacy and their death or injury in battle; an 1863 accident which threw her from a carriage and knocked her unconscious; the accusations by northerners that she was sympathetic to the Confederacy and the ostracizing of her as a "traitor" by southerners; the sudden death of her son Willie in 1862; and, of course, the worst incident of all, the assassination of her husband as she sat beside him in the Ford's Theater.
In 1875, she was committed to the Bellevue Insane Asylum, in Batavia, Illinois, after a court hearing. Later in the day after the verdict was made, she twice attempted suicide by taking what she believed to be the drugs laudanum and camphor - which the suspicious druggist had replaced with a sugar substance. One of the nation's first women lawyers, Myra Bradwell believed Mrs. Lincoln was not insane and being held against her will. She filed an appeal on Mrs. Lincoln's behalf and after four months of confinement, the former First Lady was released to the care of her sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield. Once a second trial on June 19, 1876 declared her sane, she moved to France. After four years abroad she returned to live again in the Edwards home, in October 1880. Her pension was increased to $5,000 in 1882.
Before all that, though, the war had to be ended and with the Emancipation Proclamation the war had changed. Now, it was a moral crusade. Northerners were not that impressed and began refusing to serve in the military because they did not want to risk their lives for African-Americans. But, the Union had to win the war to fulfill the promise of the Emancipation. Slowly and methodically, the North gained ground. By July, 1863, the North controlled the Mississippi River. Georgia fell in September, 1864, and Atlanta was destroyed. Under Ulysses S. Grant his campaign in Virginia left the South in ruins. On April 9, 1865, Grant and General Lee met at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and the South surrendered.
The results were dramatic. While the Union was preserved, the South was devastated with its economy in ruins and destroyed cities roads, and thousands of widows, orphans, and disabled veterans. The war did settle the slavery issue, however. By the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment will be ratified ending all slavery and indentured servitude in the U.S. In the worst war in U.S. history, 600,000-700,000 had been killed plus another million casualties. The war cost $15 billion but northern industrialists made a fortune that will be used as capital in the post-war Industrial Revolution.
Unfortunately, the war did not end hatred and bitterness between the North and South. Southern resentment grew with the fact that the North and Republican party controlled the government and economy. In addition, tension between whites and African-Americans was worse than ever leading to violence including terrorism by white supremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan founded after the Civil War. Rebuilding the union will be difficult. And that takes us to our next topic, Reconstruction.