The Crucible of War, 1861-1865 An account of ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass opens this chapter. When news arrived of the Confederacy firing on Fort Sumter, Douglass cheered the outbreak of the fighting and Lincoln’s vow to maintain the Union. Douglass recognized that the Union was fighting solely to uphold the Constitution and preserve the nation, not to end slavery; but he also understood, much earlier than most, that a war to save the Union would inevitably become a war to end slavery. ‘And the War Came ” President Lincoln was determined to stop the spread of secession and to take no action that would push the still undecided Upper South into seceding. He sought to reassure the Deep South of the safety of slavery, giving Unionists there the possibility of reasserting themselves and overturning the secession decision, but at the same time he made it clear that he was determined to uphold the Union. His Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, was equally resolved to see an independent Confederate States of America.
While neither man sought war, both knew one side would provoke it sooner or later, and the war would come. The Surrender of Fort Sumter Fort Sumter, a federally manned fort inside Charleston harbor, was a hateful symbol to the Confederacy of the nation it had abandoned. Union forces at the fort were running short of supplies and, unless they were re provisioned, would have to evacuate. Lincoln knew that to surrender Sumter would be to abandon his commitment to preserving the Union, so he sent a relief expedition, telling Confederates that there would be no attempt to send troops or munitions unless the supply ships were attacked. The Confederates faced a dilemma: If they allowed the ships through, they would be submitting to federal authority, but taking the fort would make them the aggressors.
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The decision was made on April 12. When Fort Sumter’s Union commander refused the southern order to surrender, Confederate shore batteries began shelling the fort, which surrendered on April 14, 1861. The Civil War had begun. The Upper South Chooses Sides Lincoln’s proclamation calling for the loyal states to muster 75, 000 volunteers to put down the rebellion forced the other slave states to choose sides. Over the next five weeks, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded. The Confederacy now contained eleven of the fifteen slave states.
In the border slave states of Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri, secession was thwarted by a combination of local Unionism and federal intervention, including the use of martial law to suppress Confederate sympathizers. The Combatants The outbreak of fighting at Fort Sumter had ended indecision, now that Yankee ‘aggression’ and Confederate ‘insurrection’ were no longer just theoretical possibilities. In the spring and summer of 1861, both sides took stock of their resources for fighting, began mobilizing their forces, and came up with their respective military and diplomatic strategies. What They Fought For Confederate leaders defined their cause as a defense of states’ rights, self-determination, and liberty. They appealed to the fervid patriotism of most white Southerners from planters to yeomen to artisans who — united in their belief in slavery and in the inherent inferiority of blacks — viewed Yankee domination as a form of tyranny similar to that faced by American patriots in 1776. For their part, Northerners viewed secession as an attack on the best government on earth, one that they believed best protected their property and interests, and they were determined to defend and preserve it.
How They Expected to Win The balance sheet of war was overwhelmingly in favor of the North, whose population, industrial capacity, and transportation networks far exceeded those of the South. Initially, however, the North’s material advantages were not as decisive as they eventually became. The southern armies, for the most part, fought a defensive war on familiar terrain. In addition, Southerners believed their fighters (not to mention their cause), though fewer in number, were far superior to the North’s.
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The North would have to conquer a massive region, and this factor emboldened southern leaders, who alluded to the War for Independence, when the British, with superior resources, had failed to conquer the colonies. Southerners also reasoned that dependence on southern cotton would incline foreign leaders to favor and perhaps even come to the aid of the Confederacy. For both sides, the Civil War would prove to be the first ‘total war,’ one that mobilized entire populations and severely tested the morale of their societies, as well as the strength of their economies and political systems. Lincoln and Davis Mobilize Both the southern and northern political leaders ended up defying expectations. The aristocratic Jefferson Davis, unanimously elected to head the Confederacy, had superb qualifications, but proved an ineffective administrator and an opinionated but un inspirational leader.
Lincoln, while he lacked the demeanor of a cultured gentleman and impressive credentials, soon proved an able and inspirational leader in the North’s drive for victory. Guided by their respective presidents, the North and South began mobilizing their armies. The South’s lack of infrastructure meant it had to build much of its war machine from scratch, while Northerners had to convert their superior numbers and industrial resources into war readiness. To meet the challenge of financing the war, both sides resorted to selling bonds, printing large quantities of paper money that ultimately caused inflation to soar, and finally to raising taxes. The North proved far more able than the South to adapt its public finances to meet the extraordinary demands of a wartime economy. The Battlefields, 1861 – 1862 During the first year and a half of the war, the armies fought a dramatic campaign in Virginia-Maryland in the East and a decisive one in Tennessee-Kentucky in the West.
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All the while, the numbers of casualties rose at an alarming rate. Stalemate in the Eastern Theater The Union and the Confederacy fought their first major battle of the war in northern Virginia on July 21, 1861, at Bull Run, or Manassas junction. The battle was a severe defeat for the Union as well as a severe blow to Union morale and to the president’s confidence in his officers. Lincoln replaced his first general with George B. McClellan, who took the dispirited Army of the Potomac and molded it into a powerful, well-trained force.
In the spring of 1862, McClellan launched an offensive on the Confederate capital of Richmond, but was stopped by Confederate forces. The two armies met again at Antietam Creek and fought the bloodiest battle of the war on September 17, 1862. At Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862, McClellan launched a series of attacks against the forces of commander Robert E. Lee, all of them bloody, all of them hopeless. This was one of the worst Union defeats. By the end of 1862, military struggle in the East had settled into a long and frustrating stalemate.
Union Victories in the Western Theater The first decisive operations in 1862 occurred in the western theater of war, where the Union forces were attempting to capture the West’s rivers to divide the Confederacy and give the North easy access to the southern heartland. Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, Union forces captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Grant then pushed on to meet Confederate forces at the battle of Shiloh Church in Tennessee. Beaten on the first day of battle, Grant called for reinforcements and drove the Confederates from the field on the second day. By the end of 1862, most but not all of the Mississippi Valley lay in Union hands.
War and Diplomacy in the Atlantic Theater The Union had an overwhelming advantage in naval power and its blockade against the southern coast grew tighter every month, shutting the Confederacy off from supplies and weakening its military strength. The Confederates made bold attempts to break the blockade, including using the new ironclad warship, but the Union government was soon building ironclads of its own. Southern attempts to draw cotton-starved European nations into the war as allies failed for several reasons. English manufacturers had surplus cotton on hand in 1861 and could withstand a temporary loss of access to American cotton, especially since they had begun importing cotton from India and Egypt. Moreover, a thriving trade between the Union and Britain encouraged Britain to remain neutral. Last but not least, in the fall of 1862, Lincoln announced a new policy that made an alliance with the Confederacy an alliance with slavery.
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Union and Freedom In spite of Lincoln’s assertions, the war to preserve the union ultimately became a war for African American freedom. In the field among soldiers and commanders, in Congress, and in the White House, the truth gradually became clear: Since the Confederate war machine depended heavily on the labor of slaves, to win the war against the South, the North would have to destroy slavery. From Slaves to Contraband At the beginning of the war, Congress refused to declare it a crusade against slavery, stating that the war was for the preservation of the Union and not to change the domestic institutions of any state. However, in March 1862, Congress authorized the government to confiscate runaway slaves, who came to be called ‘contraband,’ and a year earlier it had passed the first Confiscation Act, allowing the seizure of any slave employed in the Confederate military. Still, Lincoln consistently refused to allow his commanders to free slaves in the areas occupied by Union forces, because he feared alienating Unionist elements in the border states. He also knew that one of the main obstacles to emancipation was northern white racism and was pessimistic about prospects for black equality in the United States.
He thus coupled moderate proposals with a plea for government subsidies to support ‘colonization’ of freed blacks outside the United States — an idea few African Americans embraced, especially after such an attempt in the Caribbean failed miserably. From Contraband to Free People Despite the president’s cautious views about emancipation, momentum began to gather behind it, especially in Congress. In 1862, congressional radicals pushed through the second Confiscation Act, which declared free the slaves of persons supporting the insurrection. The measure also authorized the president to employ blacks, including freed slaves, as soldiers.
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As the war progressed, increasing numbers of Northerners accepted emancipation as a central aim of the war; nothing less, they believed, would justify the enormous sacrifices of the struggle. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced his intention to issue an executive order freeing all the slaves in the Confederacy. On New Year’s Day, 1863, Lincoln issued the final E Proclamation, forever freeing all the slaves in the Confederacy. The edict did not apply to the border slave states, which had never seceded from the Union. The order also committed the federal government to the fullest use of African Americans to defeat the Confederates.
War of Black Liberation With the Militia Act of July 1862, Congress authorized enrolling blacks in the armed forces. Approximately 180, 000 African Americans, most of them newly freed slaves, eventually served in the Union armed services and made a vital contribution to the North’s victory. Although they were enrolled in segregated units under white officers, were initially paid less than white soldiers, and were used disproportionately for garrison duty or heavy labor behind the lines, ‘blacks in blue’ fought heroically in several major engagements during the last two years of the war. The South at War Though white Southerners were initially strongly united in their war against the Union, efforts to centralize power to prosecute war more effectively convinced many that the Confederacy had proven false to them and to the South’s cause. In addition, severe economic privation, whose effects were felt more by some Southerners than by others, hurt solidarity among whites. Revolution from Above The Southern economy was much less adaptable to the needs of total war than was the North’s.
As the Union blockade became more effective, the Confederacy had to rely increasingly on a government-sponsored cash program to produce war materiel. In addition to promoting private initiatives, the government built its own munitions plants and other industrial enterprises. Despite its determination, the Richmond government failed to transform the slave-labor, staple-producing agricultural economy into an industrial one. As Confederate armies became more desperate for materiel and food, the Davis administration resorted to impressment, which allowed officials to take from private citizens whatever they deemed essential for the war effort. The Confederate government also nationalized railroads and shipping.
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Though such centralizing policies were necessary to prosecute the war, many Southerners felt that their government, more than the Yankees, had become their main oppressor. Resistance from Below Ironically, the greatest dividing force in the Confederacy came to be the principle of states’ rights — the foundation of southern political philosophy — for which the South had seceded. A continual struggle between Richmond and the states for control of money, supplies, and soldiers obstructed the government’s war efforts at many points. Thewar’s principal social effect on the South was widespread suffering and privation. Once the full effects of the blockade were felt, the South experienced shortages of almost everything. Because the region for so long had produced cotton and other export crops, it did not grow enough food to meet its own needs.
As the war continued, the many hardships contributed to the increasing volatility of southern society. There were major food riots in many cities, and resistance to conscription, impressment, and taxation was widespread, as increasing numbers of Southerners became aware that the privations of war were not equally shared by people of different classes. The Disintegration of Slavery In countless ways, the war disrupted the entire matrix of bondage. Almost immediately, traditional male authority on the plantation dissolved, as masters were called away to war, leaving white women to assume managerial roles. Many slaves were impressed into war service by Confederate officials, thus severing master-slave relationships. Slaves running away to Union lines became endemic.
In short, the war caused the balance of power between master and slave to shift in the slave’s favor. Perhaps surprisingly, few slaves took revenge upon whites for two centuries of bondage; instead, they undermined white mastery by taking greater control of their own lives. The North at War Northern farms, factories, and cities remained untouched by the fighting, because battles generally remained within Confederate borders. Still, the northern home front was profoundly affected by the war, experiencing great social and economic changes. The Government and the Economy While in the North the war produced considerable discord and suffering, it also had the salutary effect of accelerating the growth in agriculture and industry that had been underway since the antebellum period. With southern representatives out of Congress, the Republican Party had free rein to enact an aggressive program to promote economic development.
Examples of this program included the 1862 Homestead Act to aid western development; the Pacific Railroad Act, which provided massive federal aid to build a line from Omaha to San Francisco; the National Banking Act of 1863, which created a new national banking system; and the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which created a national paper currency. Women and Work on the Home Front The Civil War touched nearly every American life. As fathers and sons joined the army, women assumed the management of farms or moved to the cities and took jobs in factories producing war goods. Thousands of women became nurses, fighting to save lives in hospitals that too often were centers of filth and death. Women like Dorothea Dix, superintendent of Union army nurses, and Clara Barton, who later founded the Red Cross, put up with enormous personal privation to comfort those in pain. For many women, the war was a crucial moment in the redefinition of female roles and in the awakening of a sense of independence and new possibilities.
Politics and Dissent Lincoln’s greatest political problem was the widespread popular opposition to the war, mobilized by Democrats, and he used extraordinary methods to suppress it. He ordered military arrests of civilian dissenters and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Initially, Lincoln only employed such measures in the border states; but in 1862, he proclaimed all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices to be subject to martial law, and many were arrested or imprisoned, albeit for relatively short periods. Another problem for the government was a provision in the 1863 Conscription Act that allowed those who could afford it to avoid service by hiring someone to go in their place or by paying the government a fee of $300.
Opposition to the measure was widespread, especially among laborers and immigrants, and occasionally violence erupted, as in the New York City draft riots during which demonstrators rampaged through black neighborhoods, killing African Americans, whom they blamed for the war. These were among the bloodiest riots in American history, with 105 people killed. Grinding out Victory, 1863 – 1865 Though the the Union’s prospects looked dim in the early months of 1863, the balance was tipped in the Union’s favor after General Ulysses S. Grant took supreme command. The North slowly ground out victory, but if the Confederacy was beaten, Southerners did not know it.
Vicksburg and Gettysburg In the spring of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant attacked the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, whose residents finally surrendered after a prolonged siege, giving the Union complete control of the length of the Mississippi River. At the same time that Grant was taking Vicksburg, the most decisive and bloody battle of the war was fought in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1 – 3, 1863. A series of Confederate attacks failed to dislodge Union General George Meade’s troops from the high ground they occupied. The following day, Lee launched a final, desperate assault, with disastrous results. Gettysburg cost Lee 28, 000 casualties, more than one-third of his army.
The defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg would prove to be the turning point of the war. Grant Takes Command By the beginning of 1864, Grant had become general in chief of all Union armies. Grant was not a subtle general; he simply believed in using the North’s superior numbers of men and materiel to overwhelm the South. He accepted large numbers of casualties as long as he was inflicting similar or greater suffering on his enemy.
After taking command, Grant ordered a multi pronged offensive to finish off the Confederacy, the main movements of which were a march on Richmond and a thrust by the western armies, now led by General William T. Sherman, to Atlanta and the heart of Georgia. In May and June, Grant and Lee fought a series of bloody battles in northern Virginia, in which twice as many Yankees as Rebels died. While Grant harassed Lee, Sherman forced the Confederate forces to Atlanta. On September 2, the city fell, and Union forces occupied the hub of the Deep South. The Election of 1864 The Democrats seemed to be in a good position to capitalize on Republican divisions and to capture the White House.
Their platform appealed to war weariness by calling for a cease-fire followed by negotiations to reestablish the Union. The party’s nominee, George B. McClellan, announced that he was not bound by the peace plank and would pursue the war. He promised, however, that he would end the war sooner by not making emancipation a condition for reconstruction. Northern military successes, however, boosted Lincoln’s popularity, and he won with 212 electoral votes and 55 percent of the popular vote. The victory was a mandate to continue the war until slavery was gone and the South surrendered.
The Confederacy Collapses The concluding military operations revealed the futility of further southern resistance. Cutting himself off from his supply lines and living off the land, Sherman marched almost unopposed through Georgia to the sea, destroying everything of military or economic value to the Confederacy. Meanwhile, Grant forced the Confederates to abandon Petersburg and Richmond on April 2, 1865, pursuing them westward for a hundred miles. Recognizing the hopelessness of further resistance, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, ending the war. But the North’s joy at victory soon turned to sorrow and anger when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14. The man who had led the nation through the war would not lead it in its postwar search for peace.
Conclusion: The Second American Revolution The Civil War, at great human cost, resolved the question of the nature of the Union, which had been debated since its inception: The nation was one and indivisible. Thewar did more than defeat a secessionist rebellion. It set the nation on a new course, transforming antebellum America from a relatively decentralized political and economic entity to a nation dominated by industrial capitalism and headed by a strong federal government. States’ rights had been dealt a severe blow. Perhaps most important, slavery was abolished and free labor triumphant. But the real meaning of emancipation was still unclear in 1865, and the nation faced the daunting task of determining the status of four million ex-slaves during Reconstruction..