Overview of the Civil War
by Leah Jewett
As perhaps the most complex period in American history, the Civil War’s major causes, events, and outcomes cannot be adequately summarized in a few paragraphs. This overview is therefore intended merely to place the exhibit Beyond Face Value: Depictions of Slavery in Confederate Currency into a historical context (For more information on all aspects of the Civil War era, including how the war affected soldiers, civilians, and slaves, visit the USCWC Index).
With the colonization of America in the 17th century, immigrants as well as slaves from various national and ethnic backgrounds settled the landscape of what would become a new nation: the United States of America. The new inhabitants applied and modified familiar modes of production and agriculture on American soil. Geography, economics, and technology influenced the ways in which individuals made their livings.
By the 1850s, a pronounced sectionalism had developed between the industrial North and agricultural South. The two sections disagreed about economics, statehood, and slavery- issues that, in the minds of politically active Southerners, comprised one main issue: states’ rights.
Northern states had outlawed the “peculiar institution” of slavery by the early 19th century. Subsequent federal legislation regarding tariffs, territory, statehood, and changes in Congressional representation held negative consequences for the South, whose economy still depended upon slave labor. Southern politicians and property owners interpreted these laws as interference from the federal government, jeopardizing the sovereignty of the states and the integrity of the Constitution. In the South, slaves were considered “chattel,” or property, and they were bought and sold like livestock. The type and degree of physical labor, access to education, and subjection to violence slaves experienced varied throughout the South, as did the size of plantations and the number of slave holders. Though some scholars speculate that the South would have abandoned the institution of slavery eventually and without war, slavery’s demise came about only after the sacrifice of thousands of Americans, both Union and Confederate.
Secession and War
The late 1850s saw an outbreak of violence in America as sectional tensions increased. Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election to the presidency was unacceptable for Southern Democrats, who believed his stand against the expansion of slavery would ruin the South.
Considering its actions legal, South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed, and they joined together to form the Confederate States of America. Delegates of the Confederate Congress elected Jefferson Davis president. A Mississippi planter and Mexican War veteran who had served as both a U.S. Senator and Secretary of War, Davis took the oath of office in Montgomery, Alabama, shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Citizens in the new Confederacy began to seize U.S. property, and both the North and the South raised armies. In April 1861, soldiers led by Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard fired artillery shells into federally occupied Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, after President Lincoln refused to turn back federal supply ships on their way to the fort. After Fort Sumter fell to the Confederacy, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee seceded. The slave-holding states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware were known as border states because their citizenry was divided in its allegiance.
Although Confederate politicians claimed the seceding states simply wanted to be “left alone,” recent scholarship concludes otherwise by showing how Confederate military strategy was reflected in its desire to acquire new territory. Some Northerners argued to allow secession, but Lincoln believed firmly that the fate of democracy, the “experiment” begun by the founding fathers, was at stake. Ironically, both sides of the conflict asserted that they were fighting to preserve the spirit of the Constitution as it was originally intended. Some Confederate supporters even referred to the war as the Second American Revolution.
In the hopes of receiving international aid, the Confederacy strove to gain official recognition as a sovereign nation from France and Great Britain. Encouraged by such abolitionists as Frederick Douglass , Lincoln gradually came to the decision that the abolition of slavery would be an effective war measure, but he waited to announce it until the North won a decisive victory. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 (though it would not go into effect until January 1863) soon after the Battle of Antietam (called “Sharpsburg” by the Confederates), knowing that this new focus would extinguish any possibility that European powers might acknowledge the Confederacy’s independence. Britain and France had outlawed slavery many years earlier, and Britain actively sought to suppress the international slave trade.
Newly freed slaves and property-holding African Americans provided an important source of manpower for the army. Though some saw action, most members of the United States Colored Troops were relegated to manual labor.
Another effect of emancipation was to undermine the Confederacy by drastically reducing the labor supply crucial to the maintenance of its agricultural resources and by aiding in the destruction of the slave labor system. After two more years of war, and facing superior Union numbers in men and supplies, the Confederacy surrendered in April 1865.
Federal troops continued to occupy the South after the war, and in many states this period known as Reconstruction did not end until 1877. The federal government banned loyal Confederates from public office, and Black Republicans held a variety of political positions. Social unrest marked the era. As federal troops moved out of the Southern states, “home rule” was re-established, and white Southerners reclaimed political offices. With Reconstructions end, African Americans eventually became the subjects of disfranchisement and violence for almost a hundred years.
- Battle of Antietam
- Bleeding Kansas
- John Brown
- Compromise of 1850
- Stephen Douglas
- Dred Scott Decision
- 15th Amendment
- Fort Sumter
- Kansas-Nebraska Act
- Abraham Lincoln
- Mason-Dixon Line
- Missouri Compromise
- States’ rights
- 13th Amendment