Early America—Civil War Period

1850 to 1877
Compromise of 1850 to End of Reconstruction

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Civil War Period

Rising Tensions—The issue of slavery was a controversial subject from the beginning of American history. By the mid 19th century, all of the northern states had outlawed slavery, as had almost all European countries. Spain abolished slavery in the 16th century, but did not enforce the ban in its colonies. France abolished slavery in 1818, England in 1833, and even Mexico outlawed slavery as soon as it established its independence. By the mid 1800s, the American south was one of the last bastions of slavery in the New World.

During the early 19th century the political interests of the north and south diverged sharply on other issues besides slavery. The north had industrialized while the south remained largely dependent on cotton, and the states differed on tariffs, states' rights, and foreign policy. As more states were admitted to the union, southern politicians became fearful that the critical balance of power between free and slave states would be in jeopardized. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise was passed, an act which attempted to force the balance of power.

The issue arose again in 1850, when California sought to be admitted as a free state, and this time, the dispute was papered over with the Kansas-Nebraska act and Fugitive Slave Law. Both of these acts, however, were controversial and created more problems than they solved. At the same time, opposition to slavery in the north was becoming more strident and in 1854 the Republican Party was formed. Led by anti-slavery activists, it quickly became the dominant political party in the North. When Abraham Lincoln, an outspoken opponent of slavery was elected president, the southern states realized they could not maintain their institutions under a Republican government and voted to secede. By the time Abraham Lincoln took office, in March 1861, seven states had voted to leave the Union, and the country was on the brink of war.

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Early Battles: 1861-1863—Abraham Lincoln was scarcely sworn in as president when the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. Although he opposed slavery he was not impatient and advocated a gradual approach to dealing with the problem. He did not lead the country into war to "free the slaves" but rather to "preserve the union", for he did not believe that a house divided against itself could stand.

The war got off to a rough start in the north. Union forays into central Virginia during the first two years of the war resulted in a series of defeats and inconclusive battles. The southern states were well-drilled and led by Robert E. Lee, an exceptional commander. Lincoln struggled to find a general for the Union troops with comparable skill and replaced the commander-in-chief several times in the first few years.

In spite of battlefield losses in Virginia, the North made excellent progress on several important fronts. It used its navy to good effect by taking several key southern ports and blockading most ships provisioning the south. In 1862, the Union navy under Admiral Farragut took New Orleans and closed off access to the Mississippi River from the south. The navy then worked its way up the river, cutting off Confederate access to supplies from their western allies.

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On the western front, the union also had much success. The border states of Kentucky and Missouri were slave states that did not secede but had divided loyalties. The Union army managed to drive the Confederates out of these key regions and moved south with the object of controling critical waterways. By the summer of 1863, Vicksburg was the last confederate stronghold on the Mississippi and it was under siege by Ulysses Grant. Vicksburg fell on the same day as the famous Battle of Gettysburg, and the two critical Union victories, taken together, were the turning point of the war.

Late Battles: 1863-1865—By the summer of 1863 the Confederacy was surrounded and cut off from outside provisions, but the Union still had not taken significant Confederate territory. However, Grant's success in the west convinced Lincoln that he was the man to lead the Union armies, and from the time he was appointed commander-in-chief, the Union took a much more aggressive stand.

Under Grant's direction, William Sherman took command in the west and conducted his famous "March to the Sea" across Georgia, destroying everything in his path. This further weakened the Confederacy and isolated Lee's army, who were still resisting Union forces in Virginia. Grant understood that the North could survive a war of attrition much better than the South, so he forced Lee to fight continuous battles on all sides. The Confederates were irrepressible, but Grant did not retreat even after suffering losses. Unable to get adequate provisions or replace men lost in battle, Lee understood he had no other option and surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865.

Five days after Lee's surrender, President Lincoln was assassinated and the leader who could have been most effective in healing the wounds of war was lost to history.

Reconstruction—Immediately after the war, congress passed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and forced the Confederate states to accept this as a condition of re-entry into the Union. Unfortunately, many of the freed slaves had neither the skills nor family structures necessary to survive independently and to make things worse, the economy of the south was in tatters. Lincoln established a Freedman's Bureau to help ease the transition, but did not live to see the project through.

There was no easy way forward for the south after the war, but vicious partisan politics managed to make things worse. Both Lincoln and Johnson favored a gradual reconciliation with the south and did not want to impose harsh terms on ex-confederates. The Radical Republicans in congress, however, sought to force the south to change their economic structure, grant equal rights to freedmen immediately, and backed a military occupation of the region to enforce their agenda. They first dis-enfranchised all men who had taken arms against the Union and then worked with former slaves to elect their Republican allies to Congress.

The intentions of many of the Republican reformers were good, but the southerners could not be coerced. Many southern states willingly passed the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, but balked at the 14th amendment, which guarentees "equal protection" to all citizens. Southerners who had been stripped of their ability to govern themselves legally felt justified in forming secret societies and militias to oppose the northern schemes. The Klu Klux Klan was the most famous of these groups, but it was only one of many ways that southerners conspired to frustrate unwelcome interference.

While some progress was made in favor of the freed slaves, the effects of Reconstruction were mostly negative. After the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877, Congress agreed to remove the federal troops who were propping up Republican governments in the southern states. Left to their own devices, southern whites elected Democrats and passed laws permitting segregation of races.

Characters—Civil War Period

Character/Date Short Biography


William Lloyd Garrison
Prominent abolitionist, well-known as the publisher of the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper.
Jefferson Davis
President of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln
President of the United States during the American Civil War.
Charles Sumner
Anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts who was an imortant ally of Lincoln, and influential during the Reconstruction era.

Military Heroes

Robert E. Lee
General of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
Admiral Farragut
American Naval hero of the Civil War. At the Battle of Mobile Bay, he famously said 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
P.G.T. Beauregard
Confederate general who was influential in the early years of the civil war.
Ulysses Grant
Commander and Chief of the Union forces in the Civil War, and President of the United States.
William Sherman
American Civil War General. Marched "From Atlanta to the Sea."
Stonewall Jackson
Leading Confederate General of the American Civil War, especially notable at Bull Run. Died at Chancellorsville.
Commodore Perry
Force Japan to open its ports to the west through very skillful and forceful diplomacy.

Abolitionists and Advocates

John Brown
Radical abolitionist who condoned violence in order to abolish slavery. Led a raid on the armory in Harper's Ferry.
Frederick Douglas
American Negro orator who spoke elequently against slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Influential author of the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Abolitionist in the pre-war era.
Dorothea Dix
Reformer who sought to better the conditions of the mentally ill.
Horace Greeley
Publisher of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers of his era.
Clara Barton
Civil War Nurse and Humanitarian. Founder of the American Red Cross.
Oliver Otis Howard
Civil war General who later oversaw the Freedman's bureau, founded Howard University, and was involved in the Indian Wars.

Industry and Invention

John Ericsson
Swedish-American engineer who designed the Moniter, the first iron-clad in the United States Navy.
Elias Howe
American inventor of the sewing machine. His great innovation was the "lock stitch".
Cyrus Field
Led the effort by the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay the first transatlantic Cable.

Art and Literature

Henry Longfellow
American Poet whose works were very popular. Wrote Paul Revere's Ride and other works.

Timeline—Civil War Period

AD YearEvent

Antebellum Period

1850 The Compromise of 1850 establishes California as a free State and strenghens Fugitive Slave law.
1850 Harriet Tubman makes her first trip back to the south on the "Underground Railroad".
1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin is published by Harriet Beecher Stowe and inflamed anti-slavery sentiment in the North.
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opens new territories to Settlement.
1856-61 "Bleeding Kansas" violence between slave-owners and abolitionists.
1857 Dred Scott decision ruled that slaves were not citizens and had no rights, even in free territories.
1859 Abolitionist John Brown makes a raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
1860 Nov Abraham Lincoln, a vocal opponent of slavery, is elected President.
1860 Dec South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana secede from the Union.
1861 Feb Jefferson Davis Jefferson Davis elected president of the Confederacy.

American Civil War

Apr 1861 First Shots of American Civil War fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
Sep 1862 Battle of Antietam, deadliest one-day battle of the Civil War
Mar 1863 John Ericsson introduces the ironclad Monitor in time to defeat the Confederates' Merrimac.
Apr 1863 Stonewall Jackson is killed at the Battle of Chancelorsville
Jul 1863 Robert E. Lee advance into northern territory is stopped at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Jul 1863 U. S. Grant takes the last confederate stronghold on the Mississippie at the Battle of Vicksburg
Jan 1864 Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln declares all slaves in U.S. Territory free.
Nov 1864 Sherman Marches from Atlanta to the Charleston, cutting supplies to Lee's army in Virginia.
Apr 1865 Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Court House
Apr 1865 Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at the Ford Theatre, by a confederate sympathizer.

Reconstruction Era

1865 Beginning of "Reconstruction". Union troops occupy the south.
1865 Thirteenth Ammendment, outlawing slavery in the United States, is enacted
1866 Radical Republicans are swept into office, establish harsh terms for "reconstruction" of south.
1868 President Andrew Johnson is impeached by Republicans favoring harsher measures on the south.
1868 Fourteenth Amendment guarentees rights of former slaves, but disenfranchises many southerners.
1869 Ulysses Grant, a proponent of reconstruction, elected president.
1872 Freedman's Bureau, tasked with helping ex-slaves adjust, defunded and closed.
1877 Last federal troops are recalled from the south.

Recommended Reading—Civil War Period

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - Story of the Great Republic   The Slavery Quarrel to Hard Times in the South (32)
Marshall - This Country of Ours   Union or Disunion to The End of the War (14)

Supplemental Recommendations

Evans - America First—100 Stories from Our History   Rescue of Jerry to Surrender of Lee (10)
Pratt - American History Stories, Volume IV    entire book
Marshall - Uncle Tom's Cabin    entire book
Hamilton - The Story of Abraham Lincoln    entire book
Morris - True Stories of Our Presidents   Millard Fillmore to Andrew Johnson (5)
Morris - Historical Tales, Vol I: American   The Monitor and Merrimac to Sinking of the Albemarle (4)
Morris - Historical Tales: American II   The Raccoon Roughs to Homecoming of Lee's Veterans (9)
Merriam - The Negro and the Nation    entire book

Special Interest - Military

Fraser - Boys' Book of Sea Fights   Monitor and Merrimac to Admiral David Farragut (2)
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Gettysburg (1)
Fraser - Boys' Book of Battles   Gettysburg (1)
Hill - On the Trail of Grant and Lee    entire book
Barnes - Midshipman Farragut    entire book
Barnes - The Son of Light Horse Harry    entire book
McSpadden - Boy's Book of Famous Soldiers   Grant to Lee (2)

Also Recommended

Southworth - Builders of Our Country: Book II   Abraham Lincoln to David Glasgow Farragut (5)
Nye - Comic History of the United States   Befo' the Wah to Reconstruction Without Pain (7)
MacArthur - Harriet Beecher Stowe    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep