Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
When Abraham Lincoln became President on March 4, 1861, no
one knew what to do about the claims of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas
that they were no longer part of the United States. Was secession
legitimate? The Founding Fathers had made no provision for a state to
withdraw from the country. They assumed that it would not occur. If it was an
illegitimate act, what should the United States do? What would be the
consequences of using force? Some people outside the South said let them go in
peace or good riddance. Abolitionists wanted a holy war to end the
enslavement of humans and believed claims of secession gave the United States
the right to wage one. In the middle were those who said the Union must be
preserved but wanted to avoid war.
Lincoln was an enigma. He was not well known although he had fame in some quarters because of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. He has been the candidate of a sectional party which was a minority party and he had won the presidency without receiving a single vote in the South and with only 39% of the national popular vote. He had said little between his election and inauguration but he made it clear that he would not budge from the Republican Party's position against allowing slavery to expand into the territories. Compromise would kill the Republican Party, which had only been formed in 1854. Those who understood him knew that he would not lead an abolitionist crusade as demagogues in slave states asserted. He repeatedly said that he would do nothing to interfere with slavery where it existed.
In his inaugural address , he argued that secession was unconstitutional and that he would enforce US laws in all the states and keep US property in the rebellious states. He promised that his administration would not try to eliminate slavery where it existed but would vigorously oppose any efforts to extend it into the territories. He was trying to keep the majority of slaves states (8 of 15) from seceding and buying time so that he could persuade the seceded seven to resume their normal place in the United States. He was overestimated the amount of Unionist sentiment in the slaves states.
The seceded seven had taken control of all US property except Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in South Carolina. Lincoln knew that sending more troops to Fort Sumter might trigger a war but to do nothing was to give control of the situation to South Carolina. So he decided to supply the fort with food and tell everyone that was what he was doing. The Confederates attacked the United States on April 14, 1861. Taking the fort within two days. When Lincoln issue a call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded.
Both people in the United States and the erstwhile Confederate States of America assumed it would be a quick, easy war; naturally, each assumed that it would win. Perhaps the misjudgment resulted from the romanticism of war; perhaps from not understanding how the industrial revolution had been changing the killing business. John Y. Simon argues that
One of the myths of the Lost Cause is that Confederates were aware from day one that they were a minority, that they lacked the resources to win, but battling for principle, fought anyway. Nonsense; not true. The population advantage was nineteen million to twelve million in the Union's favor, and this included four million slaves who were an uncertain factor when the war began. It is true that the North had twice the railroad mileage, five times greater industrial production, but it is important to remember also that the South almost won the Civil War.
The superiority in numbers of the United States, a population of 22
million whereas the Confederacy had 5.5 million, and that the United States could field
twice as many soldiers were not as important as it might seem.. The US had 80% of the factories in the pre-war country
and most of the coal and iron mines. It had a much better industrial base to use
to fight a war. Moreover, it had 22,000 miles of railroad track, much of
which connected the east and west. The Confederacy had only 9,000 miles of track
and it tended to have been built to move goods to ports and not to interconnect
the region. What was needed was the ability to move troops and supplies to
On the other hand, the Confederacy only had to fight a defensive war and could enjoy safe internal supply lines. It was much harder to invade and conquer. A significant number of US generals decided nit to honor their oath to defend the United States against all of it enemies but, instead, had resigned their commissions to become officers in their home state armies and to serve as Confederate Army troops. Robert E. Lee was one of these. Its military leadership helped offset its disadvantages. Lincoln had to experiment with generals until he finally found Ulysses S. Grant.
After some ferocious battles in the eastern theatre, the war there was basically stalemated for years; the war in the west, was different and more difficult. As Russell Weigley said :
The critical Civil War campaigns in the East were fought on and near the 120-mile line between Washington to the north and Richmond and Petersburg to the south. The western theater, in contrast, demanded marches and railroad and river journeys of many hundreds of miles. Its vast extent of space principally differentiated the West from the East. Its distances posed immensely more daunting logistical perplexities for campaigns of subtle and adroit maneuver. The sheer extent of Western space tended to distract military commanders from the classical strategic objective, the enemy army, so that they focused their attention on acquiring and retaining territory.
This two-front war, divided by the Appalachian Mountains, involved incredible
slaughter and maiming of men. Grant
was willing to pay the price. He laid siege to the Confederate citadel at
Vicksburg, Mississippi, finally taking it on July 4, 1863 and, thus, breaking
the Confederacy in half. William T. Sherman, named commander of the western
armies of the United States in 1864, drove his army from Chattanooga
to Atlanta to Savannah then northward into the Carolinas. He proved the
Confederacy was hollow. The United States Park Service provides a listing of all
the battlefields of the war
by state and
The human capital cost was horrendous. No
other US war has cost as many lives of its citizens (558,052). The number of
wounded (412,175) was almost as high. Both in terms of the percentage of its
forces dead and wounded, the Confederates suffered more. These are only people
in uniform. Civilians in the South suffered as well because that is where most
of the war was fought.
The Confederacy was not well run either. President Jefferson Davis had to do almost everything himself, partly because he did not have able subordinates in his Cabinet or in the Confederate Congress. He was not a good administrator and a bad judge of men. His efforts were also hurt by the states' rights provisions of the Confederate Constitution which allowed state governors to ignore or countermand his orders.
The Confederacy hoped to get aid from Europe, particularly from the United Kingdom and France. Its leaders believed, correctly, that the upper classes there would naturally sympathize with the Confederacy, a society was run by an upper class and used to having the lower classes obey. Moreover, it believed that these monarchies needed Confederate cotton for their mills. Instead of building trade credits with the two, Davis tried economic coercion, withholding cotton in hopes that the two would recognize the Confederate States of America. Although the British and Napoleon III of France recognized the belligerency status of the Confederacy, they never gave it diplomatic recognition. It did not work because Britain had a year's supply of cotton; by the time its supply ran out, it was too late. The working classes of Britain and France had little sympathy with slavery; they were pro-democracy. The upper classes could not ignore this.
Lincoln tried to blockade the Confederacy and capture its ships on the high seas. There were missteps, however. On November 8, 1861, Captain Wilkes of USS San Jacinto stopped the British ship H.M.S. Trent and removed the Confederate agents Mason and Slidell who were in transit to England. The British government protested. The diplomatic work of Charles Francis Adams 1 saved the day. Lincoln apologized and the two were released. Lincoln said he wanted only "One war at a time." The blockade helped the United States cause but did not work. There was too much coastline and too few ships. Confederate raiders and smugglers made a difference.
All Southerners had not supported the war and, as it continued, disaffection became a serious problem. Army desertions increased. Governor Brown of Georgia and Governor Vance of North Carolina refused to let their troops fight out of state.
Lincoln had his own problems with support for the war. They had always been a sizable number of persons who believed that the Confederacy should be allowed to depart in peace. There were person who did not want to free blacks. The northern Democratic Party had lost to Lincoln in1860 and had no desire for him to succeed. Peace Democrats, a minority in the party, constantly campaigned against "Mr. Lincoln's War." Even with his own Republican Party, Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, created on December 10, 1861, constantly second guessed Lincoln. Radical Republicans called for Lincoln to make the war one to end slavery. The Confederacy first instituted a military draft and even recruited blacks into its army, but the March, 1863 national conscription act created serious problems for Lincoln. Draftees would be called by lottery but could then hire a substitute for $300.2. There were two days of bloody riots in New York City, partly Irish against blacks. Lincoln had to send troops.
On the other hand, Lincoln and the Republicans were able to pass most of their program while the South refused to send representatives to Congress. The Morrill Tariff of 1861 raised taxes on imports to record levels. In 1862 and 1864, they were raised still higher not to be reduced until 1913. With the Homestead Act of 1862, the party fulfilled its promise to give a handout of public land to people who would settle the Trans-Mississippi West. That same year, Congress passed a second land act3, the Morrill Land Grant Act, which followed the Northwest Ordinance in giving national public land to the states for education. The Morrill Act specified higher education where the students would be taught military tactics, the arts and sciences, engineering, and agriculture. Also in 1862, the United States gave 30 million acres of public lands and millions in government bonds to private companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railways, to build a railroad connecting Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California. In 1863, Congress created a national banking system which began issuing paper money (Greenbacks).
Slavery was not ignored. The Radical Republicans pushed Lincoln to abolish slavery and make the war an anti-slavery crusade. Lincoln was more moderate and tried to interest Congress and the loyal slave states in a plan of gradual emancipation with the public paying the costs. Neither was interested. In 1862, Congress did abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and in the territories. As a war tactic, the Second Confiscation Act in 1862 declared forfeit all property of those people supporting the rebellion and proclaimed escaped or captured slaves forever free. In other words, stop rebelling if one wanted to keep one's property. The same principle was used in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves only in areas still fighting the United States but left them enslaved in areas which were not. Freedom came with the advancement of the United States Army. Many slaves freed themselves, rushing to the armies for protection.4 In 1865, Congress passed and the states ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery.
Lincoln timidity regarding slavery (his goal was the win the war not launch a social crusade) caused the Radical Republicans to try to block his nomination by the party for the presidential election; Lincoln formed the Union Party and chose Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as his vice presidential running mate. Johnson provided some balance to the ticket because he represented those parts of the South which opposed secession and slavery. The Democrats ran General George B. McClellan, trying to dislodge with the tactic of presenting a general as an alternative to a civilian. Had the war been going badly enough at the time of the election, McClellan would have won.
While General Sherman was driving his army through Georgia and the Carolinas, General Grant was pushing southwards from Washington, DC to Richmond, slowly beating General Robert E. Lee down, Finally, Lee had no where to go. He surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 1865. For all practical purposes the was was over.
Even before the end of the war, Lincoln and Congress had to decide what to do about the losers. The US government had always contended that the states had not seceded but were simply in a state of rebellion. One possible solution to their status would be resume life as if nothing had happened. But no one believed in doing that. Too many lives had been lost and too many people had been wounded. Lincoln was conciliatory. By the time the US regained control of Arkansas in December, 1863, Lincoln was proposing his 10% plan. He would grant amnesty and restore confiscated property to all Confederates who would take a simple loyalty oath, high-ranking civilian officials and military officers being excluded. As soon as 10% of the state's 1860 electorate 5 took the oath, they could write a new constitution and resume their normal role in the United States. The Radical Republicans found this unacceptable for they believed, correctly, that the freedmen would be little better off than before, that they would have no protection against the enslavers. That faction of the Republican Party demanded that freemen be given the right to vote and that the leadership of the rebellion be excluded from holding public office. Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill in 1864 which would require a majority of the citizens of a Confederate state to take a loyalty oath to the United States. Lincoln killed it with a pocket veto. So Congress, as was its right, refused to seat the newly-elected ex-Confederates.6 Moreover, in March, 1865, it passed the Freedmen's Bureau bill to create an agency to help ex-slaves make the transition to freedom.7
We do not know how this what would have played out, for Lincoln was shot and killed on April 14, 1865 while seeing a play at Ford's Theatre. He became a martyr. Although severely criticized by both Republicans and Democrats during his presidency, almost all was forgiven with his death. Criticism was moot.
The Civil War changed the United States. It ushered in the age of big government and mass armies. It made it clear that secession would not be tolerated. It gave power to the industrialists and financiers who would use that power to make the US the world's great industrial power.8 It eventually left a legacy of bitterness in the United States. It was mythologized as many epic events in human history are.
1. Charles Francis Adams was the son of President John Quincy Adams and the grandson of President John Adams.
2. This was more than the annual earnings of the average working man. In 1900, he earned only about $450.
3. The Morrill Act was based upon the earlier land grant act. Morrill argued, successfully, that Congress should extend the benefits of the Northwest Ordinance to all the states.
4. They were a tremendous burden to armies which were ill-equipped and disinclined to be encumbered by civilians while trying to fight a war. There are plenty of documents attesting to their displeasure.
5. Notice that the choice of 1860 guaranteed that the whites who took their states into war would be given control.
6. The Constitution gives Congress the right to judge the qualifications of its members.
7. The Freedmen's Bureau was unprecedented because it tried to help individual citizens. It was a social welfare agency at a time when Americans believed that the role of the government was limited.
8. The Civil War retarded the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The Industrial Revolution was well underway (the value of manufactured goods surpassed the value of agricultural products by 1850). The Civil War meant that capital which could have been invested in mines and factories was expended on weapons of war.
Donald J. Mabry