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In 1861, the United States faced its greatest crisis to that time. The northern and southern states had become less and less alike – socially, economically, and politically. The North had become increasingly industrial and commercial while the South had remained largely agricultural.
More important than these differences, however, was African-American slavery. Northerners generally wanted to limit the spread of slavery; some wanted to abolish it altogether. Southerners generally wanted to maintain and even expand the institution. Thus, slavery became the focal point of a political crisis.
Following the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, eleven southern states eventually seceded from the Federal Union in 1861. They sought to establish an independent Confederacy of states in which slavery would be protected.
Northern Unionists, on the other hand, insisted that secession was not only unconstitutional but unthinkable as well. They were willing to use military force to keep the South in the Union.
Even Southerners who owned no slaves opposed threatened Federal coercion. The result was a costly and bloody civil war. Almost as many Americans were killed in the Civil War as in all the nation’s other wars combined.
After four years of fighting, the Union was restored through the force of arms. The problems of reconstructing the Union were just as difficult as fighting the war had been.
Because most of the war was fought in the South, the region was devastated physically and economically. Helping freedmen and creating state governments loyal to the Union also presented difficult problems that would take years to resolve.
The South during the Civil War
Most of the fighting during the American Civil War took place on Southern soil. In part, this was the result of the war strategies of both sides. To win the war, the South had only to survive.
On the other hand, for the North to win, the Union had to be restored. Thus, Union forces had to conquer the South in order to win the war. War action around their homes created many hardships for Southerners.
The hardships increased or intensified for other reasons as well. As an agricultural region, the South had more difficulty than the North in manufacturing needed goods–for both its soldiers and its civilians.
One result was that Southern civilians probably had to make more real sacrifices during the war than Northern civilians did. In addition, part of the Union war strategy was to use the Navy to blockade Southern ports. The Union hoped to stop the flow of goods between the South and other countries and strangle its foe economically.
The North during the Civil War
The Civil War had fewer devastating effects on the North than the South simply because most of the combat of the Civil War occurred on Southern soil.
Even so, it is difficult to imagine a civil war that does not affect all portions of the society in which it takes place, and the Civil War affected the North and its civilians in many ways.
From time to time, Confederate cavalry raided into the North to bring the war home to Northerners and, they hoped, to influence Northern morale and support for the war.
Southern supporters living in the North or border states sometimes fought deadly guerrilla warfare or simply bushwacked people they considered enemies in those regions.
On the other hand, Unionists in the border states often mistreated Confederate sympathizers who lived among them. The war affected the Northern economy both positively and negatively and changed the life course of many women.
African Americans during the Civil War
In 1862, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation opened the door for African Americans to enlist in the Union Army. Although many had wanted to join the war effort earlier, they were prohibited from enlisting by a federal law dating back to 1792.
President Lincoln had also feared that if he authorized their recruitment, border states would secede from the Union. By the end of the war, approximately 180,000 African-American soldiers had joined the fight.
In addition to the problems of war faced by all soldiers, African-American soldiers faced additional difficulties created by racial prejudice. Although many served in the infantry and artillery, discriminatory practices resulted in large numbers of African-American soldiers being assigned to perform non-combat, support duties as cooks, laborers, and teamsters.
African-American soldiers were paid $10 per month, from which $3 was deducted for clothing. White soldiers were paid $13 per month, from which no clothing allowance was deducted.
If captured by the Confederate Army, African-American soldiers confronted a much greater threat than did their white counterparts.
In spite of their many hardships, African-American soldiers served the Union Army well and distinguished themselves in many battles.
Of their service to the nation Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”
African-American soldiers comprised about 10 percent of the Union Army. It is estimated that one-third of all African Americans who enlisted lost their lives.
Civil War Soldiers’ Stories
It is virtually impossible to measure the human costs of the Civil War, the hardships and suffering it caused. What we do know is that millions of people grieved for the loss of loved ones. In all, around 360,000 Union soldiers died as a direct result of the war.
The Confederacy lost 260,000 dead. Many more soldiers were wounded; some wounds maimed their victims for life.
The overall number of dead that resulted from the Civil War nearly equals the number of American soldiers killed in every other military action up to the present.
The documents listed tell stories of and about soldiers during the Civil War. Several address the reasons why young men and boys joined up enthusiastically.
Others tell of the experience and suffering of being a prisoner of war. Still others speak about action during the war and provide glimpses into how the Civil War was fought and how the soldiers experienced the war.
The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment freed all slaves in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the South faced new difficulties: finding a way to forge an economically independent life in the face of hostile whites, little or no education, and few other resources, such as money.
The situation was made all the more difficult because of attitudes such as those of freedman Houston Hartsfield Holloway, who said “…we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
In fact, many African Americans were quite prepared for freedom, as they demonstrated in 1865 and after by demanding their civil rights, the vote, the reunion of their families, education and economic opportunities.
For its part, the federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau, a temporary agency, to provide food, clothing, and medical care to refugees in the South especially freed slaves. Special boards were established to set up schools for African Americans in the South, and black and white teachers from the North and South worked to help young and old become literate.
Some African Americans in the South were encouraged to move to Northern cities where jobs would be available. Extending the vote to black Americans was hotly debated.
Reconstruction and Rights
When the Civil War ended, leaders turned to the question of how to reconstruct the nation. One important issue was the right to vote, and the rights of black American men and former Confederate men to vote were hotly debated.
In the latter half of the 1860s, Congress passed a series of acts designed to address the question of rights, as well as how the Southern states would be governed. These acts included the act creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and several Reconstruction Acts.
The Reconstruction Acts established military rule over Southern states until new governments could be formed. They also limited some former Confederate officials’ and military officers’ rights to vote and to run for public office.
(However, the latter provisions were only temporary and soon rescinded for almost all of those affected by them.) Meanwhile, the Reconstruction acts gave former male slaves the right to vote and hold public office.
Congress also passed two amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment made African-Americans citizens and protected citizens from discriminatory state laws.
Former Confederate states did not get congressional representation until they adopted this amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote.
Most of the documents in this section are related to the right to vote and how voting actually occurred in Southern states. Other rights are also discussed in some of the documents.
As you read the documents, weigh the various arguments that are made. Also, look for similarities with issues or concerns that have been raised in more recent U.S. history.
The Travails of Reconstruction
The aftermath of any war is difficult for the survivors. Those difficulties are usually even worse after a civil war. Such was certainly the case in the period after the U.S. Civil War.
With several notable exceptions, most of the fighting during the Civil War took place in the South. As a result, most of the devastation of the war affected the South and its people to a much greater extent than people in the North.
In addition, portions of the South were occupied by Federal armies from virtually the very beginning of the war. Over time, Union forces occupied more and more Southern territory and governed those places as well.
Reconstruction was a period of political crisis and considerable violence. Many white Southerners envisioned a quick reunion in which white supremacy would remain intact in the South. In this vision, African Americans, while in some sense free, would have few civil rights and no voice in government.
Many Northerners, as well as Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, shared these views.
On the other hand, both black Southerners and a large number of Northern Republicans thought that before the Southern states were restored to their place in the Union, the federal government must secure the basic rights of former slaves.
Conflicts over the nature of Reconstruction led to President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment by Congress. Congress was in recess from shortly after Johnson took the oath of office in April 1865 until December 1865.
While Congress was in recess, Johnson, a member of the Democratic party, started a process of Southern Reconstruction that included pardoning those former Confederates willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.
After Congress returned, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and two Freedmen’s Bureau bills. Many members of the Republican Party objected to these and some of the other policies Johnson put into place.
In the election of 1866, a large number of Republicans who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction program were elected to Congress and proceeded to roll back some of Johnson’s policies, institute military law in the southern states, and implement measures that reined in the power of the President.
In March of 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which was intended to prevent Johnson from replacing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
In February of 1868, Johnson fired Stanton, and in response the House of Representatives prepared and sent forward articles of impeachment. Johnson was tried by the Senate in 1868 and was found not guilty.
In passing civil rights legislation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Republican Congress was attempting, for the first time in history, to create a truly interracial democracy.
Faced with violent opposition in the South and a retreat from the ideal of racial equality in the North, Reconstruction proved short-lived. It would take another century for the nation to begin to live up to this era’s promise of equality for all its citizens.
Credit: the Library of Congress (Backlink)