The Civil War, 1861–1865
The Civil War between the North and the South (1861–1865) was the most costly of all American wars in terms of the loss of human life and also the most destructive war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. The deaths of 620,000 men was a true national tragedy, but constituted only part of the impact of the war years on American society. As a result of the Civil War, 4 million people were freed from slavery, which gave the nation, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, a “new birth of freedom.” The war also transformed American society by accelerating industrialization and modernization in the North and largely destroying the plantation system in the South. These changes were so fundamental and profound that some historians refer to the Civil War as the Second American Revolution. While this chapter summarizes the major military aspects of the Civil War, students should also place at least equal emphasis on understanding the social, economic, and political changes that took place during the war.
The War Begins
When Lincoln was inaugurated as the first Republican president in March 1861, it was not at all clear that he would employ military means to challenge the secession of South Carolina and other states. In his inaugural address, Lincoln assured southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery or any other southern institution. At the same time, he warned, no state had the right to break up the Union. Lincoln concluded by appealing for restraint:
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.
Despite the president’s message of both conciliation and warning, the danger of a war breaking out was acute. Most critical was the status of two forts in the South that were held by federal troops but claimed by a seceded state. One of these, Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, was cut off from vital supplies and reinforcements by southern control of the harbor. Rather than either giving up Fort Sumter or attempting to defend it, Lincoln announced that he was sending provisions of food to the small federal garrison. He thus gave South Carolina the choice of either permitting the fort to hold out or opening fire with its shore batteries. Southern guns thundered their reply and thus, on April 12, 1861, the war began. The attack on Fort Sumter and its capture after two days of incessant pounding united most northerners behind a patriotic fight to save the Union.
Use of executive power. More than any previous president,Lincoln acted in unprecedented ways, drawing upon his powers as both chief executive and commander in chief, often without the authorization or approval of Congress. He did so for the first time in the Fort Sumter crisis by (1) calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the “insurrection” in the South, (2) authorizing spending for the war, and (3) suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Since Congress was not in session, the president acted completely on his own authority. Lincoln later explained that he had to take strong measures without congressional approval “as indispensable to the public safety.”
Secession of the Upper South
Before the attack on Fort Sumter, only seven states of the Deep South had seceded. After it had become clear that Lincoln would use troops in the crisis, four states of the Upper South Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—also seceded and joined the Confederacy. The capital of the Confederacy was then moved to Richmond, Virginia. The people of western Virginia remained loyal to the Union, and the region became a separate state in 1863.
Keeping the Border States in the Union
Four other slaveholding states might have seceded, but instead remained in the Union. The decision of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky not to join the Confederacy was partly due to Union sentiment in those states and partly the result of shrewd federal policies. In Maryland, pro-secessionists attacked Union troops and threatened the railroad to Washington. The Union army resorted to martial law to keep the state under federal control. In Missouri, the presence of U.S. troops prevented the pro-South elements in the state from gaining control, although guerrilla forces sympathetic to the Confederacy were active throughout the war. In Kentucky, the state legislature voted to remain neutral in the conflict. Lincoln initially respected its neutrality and waited for the South to violate it before moving in federal troops.
Keeping the border states in the Union was a primary military as well as political goal for Lincoln. Their loss would have increased the Confederate population by more than 50 percent and also would have severely weakened the North’s strategic position for conducting the war. Not wanting to alienate Unionists in the border states, Lincoln was reluctant to push for early emancipation of slaves.
Military. The South entered the war with the advantage of having to fight only a defensive war to win, while the North had to conquer an area as large as Western Europe. The South had to move troops and supplies shorter distances than the North. It had a long, indented coastline that was difficult to blockade and, most importantly, experienced military leaders and high troop morale. The North’s hope was that its population of 22 million against the South’s free population of only 51 million free whites would work to its favor 2 in a war of attrition. The North’s advantage was enhanced during the war by 800,000 immigrants who in large numbers enlisted in the Union cause. Emancipation also brought over 180,000 African Americans into the Union army in the critical final years of the war. The North could also count on a loyal U.S. Navy, which ultimately gave it command of the rivers and territorial waters.
Economic. The North’s great strength was an economy that controlled most of the banking and capital of the country, over 85 percent of the factories and manufactured goods, over 70 percent of the railroads, and even 65 percent of the farmlands. The skills of northern clerks and bookkeepers also proved valuable in the logistical support of large military operations. The hope of the southern economy was that overseas demand for its cotton would bring recognition and financial aid. History supports the belief that outside help is essential if wars for independence are to be successful.
Political. Its struggle for independence may seem to have given the South more motivation than the North’s task of preserving the Union. However, the South’s ideology of states’ rights proved a serious liability for the new Confederate government. The irony was that in order to win the war, the South needed a strong central government with strong public support. The South had neither, while the North had a well-established central government, and in Abraham Lincoln and in the Republican and Democratic parties it had experienced politicians with a strong popular base. The ultimate hope of the South was that the people of the North would turn against Lincoln and the Republicans and quit the war because it was too costly.
The constitution of the Confederacy was modeled after the U.S. Constitution, but it provided a nonsuccessive six year term for the president and vice president and presidential item veto. Its constitution denied the Confederate congress the powers to levy a protective tariff and to appropriate funds for internal improvements, but it did prohibit the foreign slave trade. President Jefferson Davis tried to increase his executive powers during the war, but southern governors resisted attempts at centralization, some holding back men and resources to protect their own states. At one point, Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, in defense of states’ rights, even urged the secession of Georgia in response to the “despotic” actions of the Confederate government.
The Confederacy always faced a serious shortage of money. It tried loans, income taxes (including a 10 percent tax in-kind on farm produce), and even impressment of private property, but these revenues paid for only a small percentage of the war’s costs. The government was forced to issue more than $1 billion in inflationary paper money, which reduced the value of a Confederate dollar to less than two cents by the closing days of the war. The Confederate congress nationalized the railroads and encouraged industrial development. The Confederacy sustained nearly 1 million troops at its peak, but a war of attrition doomed its efforts. The real surprise is that the South was able to persist for four years.
First Years of a Long War: 1861–1862
Northerners at first expected the war to last no more than a few weeks. Lincoln called up the first volunteers for an enlistment period of only 90 days. “On to Richmond!” was the optimistic cry, but as Americans soon learned, it would take almost four years of ferocious fighting before northern troops finally did march into the Confederate capital.
First Battle of Bull Run. In the first major battle of the war (July 1861) 30,000 federal troops marched from Washington, D.C., to attack Confederate forces positioned near Bull Run Creek at Manassas Junction, Virginia. Just as the Union forces seemed close to victory, Confederate reinforcements under General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson counterattacked and sent the inexperienced Union troops in disorderly and panicky flight back to Washington (together with civilian curiosity-seekers and picnickers). The battle ended the illusion of a short war and also promoted the myth that the Rebels were invincible in battle.
Union strategy. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, veteran of the 1812 and Mexican wars, devised a three-part strategy for winning a long war:
- Use the U.S. navy to blockade southern ports (the Anaconda Plan, as it was called) and thereby cut off essential supplies from reaching the South
- Divide the Confederacy in two by taking control of the Mississippi River
- Raise and train an army 500,000 strong to take Richmond
- As it happened, the first two parts of the strategy were easier to achieve than the third, but ultimately all three aspects of Scott’s plan were important in achieving northern victory.
- After the Union’s defeat at Bull Run, federal armies experienced a succession of crushing defeats as they attempted various campaigns in Virginia, each less successful than the one before.
Peninsula campaign. General George B.McClellan,the new commander of the Union army in the East, insisted that his troops be given a long period of training and discipline before going into battle. Finally, after many delays that sorely tested Lincoln’s patience, McClellan’s army invaded Virginia in March 1862. The Union army was stopped as a result of brilliant tactical moves by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who emerged as the commander of the South’s eastern forces. After five months, McClellan was forced to retreat and was ordered back to the Potomac, where he was replaced by General John Pope.
Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee took advantage of the change in Union generals to strike quickly at Pope’s army in northern Virginia. He drew Pope into a trap, then struck the enemy’s flank, and sent the Union army backward to Bull Run. Pope withdrew to the defenses of Washington.
Antietam. Following up his victory at Bull Run, Lee led his army across the Potomac into enemy territory in Maryland. In doing so, he hoped that a major Confederate victory in the North would convince Britain to give official recognition and support to the Confederacy. By this time (September 1862), Lincoln had restored McClellan to command of the Union army. McClellan had the advantage of knowing Lee’s battle plan, because a copy of it had been dropped accidentally by a Confederate officer. The Union army intercepted the invading Confederates at Antietam Creek in the Maryland town of Sharpsburg. Here the bloodiest single day of combat in the entire war took place, a day in which over 22,000 men were either killed or wounded.
Unable to break through Union lines, Lee’s army retreated to Virginia. Disappointed with McClellan for failing to pursue Lee’s weakened and re- treating army, Lincoln removed him for a final time as commander of the Union army. The president complained that his general had a “bad case of the slows.” While technically a draw, Antietam in the long run proved to be a decisive battle, because it stopped the Confederates from getting what they so urgently needed—open recognition and aid from a foreign power. Lincoln too found enough encouragement in the results of Antietam to claim it as a Union victory. Grasping at a rare opportunity to make a bold change in policy, Lincoln used the partial triumph of Union arms to announce plans for the Emancipation Proclamation (see page 272).
Fredericksburg. Replacing McClellan with the more aggressive General Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln discovered that a strategy of reckless attack could have even worse consequences than McClellan’s strategy of caution and inaction. In December 1862, a large Union army under Burnside attacked Lee’s army at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and suffered immense losses: 12,000 dead or wounded compared to 5,000 Confederate casualties. Both Union and Confederate generals were slow to learn that improved weaponry, especially the deadly fire from enemy artillery, took the romance out of heroic charges against entrenched positions. By the end of 1862, the awful magnitude of the war was all too clear with no prospect of military victory for either side.
The second year of war, 1862, was a disastrous one for the North except for two engagements, one at sea and the other on the rivers of the West.
Monitor vs. Merrimac. The North’s hopes for winning the war depended upon its ability to maximize its economic and naval advantages by shutting down the South’s sources of supply. Establishing an effective blockade of southern ports (the Anaconda Plan) was crucial to this objective. During McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, the North’s blockade strategy was placed in jeopardy by the Confederate ironclad ship the Merrimac (a former Union ship, rebuilt and renamed the Virginia) that could attack and sink the Union’s wooden ships almost at will. The Union navy countered with an ironclad of its own, the Monitor, which fought a five-hour duel with the southern ironclad near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862. Although the battle ended in a draw, the Monitor prevented the South’s formidable new weapon, an ironclad ship, from seriously challenging the U.S. naval blockade.
The Monitor-Merrimac duel was also important for another reason. The ease with which these two ironclads destroyed wooden sailing ships was to revolutionize the future of naval warfare.
Grant in the West. The battle of the ironclads occurred at about the same time as a far bloodier encounter in western Tennessee, a Confederate state. The North’s campaign for control of the Mississippi River was partly under the command of a West Point graduate, Ulysses S. Grant, who had joined up for the war after an unsuccessful civilian career. Striking south from Illinois in early 1862, Grant used a combination of gunboats and army maneuvers to capture Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River (a branch of the Mississippi). These stunning victories, in which 14,000 Confederates were taken prisoner, opened up the state of Mississippi to Union attack. A few weeks later, a Confederate army under Albert Johnston surprised Grant at Shiloh, Tennessee, but the Union army held its ground and finally forced the Confederates to retreat after terrible losses on both sides (over 23,000 dead and wounded). Grant’s drive down the Mississippi was complemented in April 1862 by the capture of New Orleans by the Union navy under David Farragut.
The South’s hopes for securing its independence hinged as much on its diplomats as on its soldiers. Confederate leaders fully expected that cotton would indeed prove to be “king” and induce Britain or France, or both, to give direct aid to the South’s war effort. Besides depending on southern cotton for their textile mills, wealthy British industrialists and members of the British aristocracy looked forward with pleasure to the breakup of the American democratic experiment. From the North’s point of view, it was critically important to prevent the Confederacy from gaining the foreign support and recognition that it so desperately needed.
Britain came close to siding with the Confederacy in late 1861 over an incident at sea. Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell were traveling to England on a British steamer, the Trent, on a mission to gain recognition for their government. A Union warship stopped the British ship, removed Mason and Slidell, and brought them to the United States as prisoners of war. Britain threatened war over the incident unless the two diplomats were released. Although he faced severe public criticism for doing so, Lincoln gave in to British demands. Mason and Slidell were duly set free, but after again sailing for Europe, they failed to obtain full recognition of the Confederacy from either Britain or France.
The South was able to gain enough recognition as a belligerent to purchase warships from British shipyards. Confederate commerce raiders did serious harm to U.S. merchant ships. One of them, the Alabama, captured over 60 vessels before being sunk off the coast of France by a Union warship. After the war, Great Britain eventually agreed to pay the United States $15.5 million for damages caused by the South’s commerce-raiders.
The U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, prevented a potentially much more serious threat. Learning that the Confederacy had arranged to purchase Laird rams (ships with iron rams) from Britain for use against the North’s naval blockade, Adams persuaded the British government to cancel the sale rather than risk war with the United States.
Failure of Cotton Diplomacy
In the end, the South’s hopes for European intervention were disappointed. “King Cotton” did not have the power to dictate another nation’s foreign policy, since Europe quickly found ways of obtaining cotton from other sources. By the time shortages of southern cotton hit the British textile industry, adequate shipments of cotton began arriving from Egypt and India. Also, materials other than cotton could be used for textiles, and the woolen and linen industries were not slow to take advantage of their opportunity.
Two other factors went into Britain’s decision not to recognize the Confederacy. First, as mentioned, General Lee’s setback at Antietam played a role; without a decisive Confederate military victory, the British government would not risk recognition. Second, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863) made the end of slavery an objective of the North, a fact that appealed strongly to Britain’s working class. While conservative leaders of Britain were sympathetic to the South, they could not defy the pro northern, antislavery feelings of the British majority.
Even though Lincoln in the 1850s spoke out against slavery as “an unqualified evil,” as president he seemed hesitant to take action against slavery as advocated by many of his Republican supporters. Lincoln’s concerns included (1) keeping the support of the border states, (2) the constitutional protections of slavery, (3) the prejudices of many northerners, and (4) the fear that premature action could be overturned in the next election. All these concerns made the timing and method of freeing the slaves fateful decisions. Slaves were freed during the Civil War as a result of military events, governmental policy, and their own actions.
Early in the war (May 1861), Union General Benjamin Butler refused to return captured slaves to their Confederate owners, arguing that they were “contraband of war.” The power to seize enemy property used to wage war against the United States was the legal basis for the first Confiscation Act passed by Congress in August 1861. Soon after the passage of this act, thousands of “contrabands” were using their feet to escape slavery by finding their way into Union camps. In July 1862 a second Confiscation Act was passed that freed the slaves of persons engaged in rebellion against the United States. The law also empowered the president to use freed slaves in the Union army in any capacity, including battle.
By July 1862 Lincoln had already decided to use his powers as commander in chief of the armed forces to free all slaves in the states then at war with the United States. He would justify his policy by calling it a “military necessity.” Lincoln delayed announcement of the policy, however, until he could win the support of conservative northerners. At the same time, he encouraged the border states to come up with plans for emancipating slaves, with compensation to the owners.
After the Battle of Antietam, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a warning that slaves in all states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863 would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” As promised, on the first day of the new year, 1863, the president issued his Emancipation Proclamation. After listing states from Arkansas to Virginia that were in rebellion, the proclamation stated:
. . . I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, shall recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
Consequences. Since the president’s proclamation applied only to slaves residing in Confederate states outside Union control, it did not immediately free a single slave. Slavery in the border states was allowed to continue. Even so, the proclamation was of major importance. Not only did it commit the U.S. government to a policy of abolition in the South, but it also enlarged the purpose of the war. Now, for the first time, Union armies were fighting against slavery, not merely against secession and rebellion. The proclamation gave added weight to the Confiscation acts, increasing the number of slaves who sought freedom by fleeing to Union lines. Thus, with each advance of northern troops into the South, more slaves were liberated. As an added blow to the South, the proclamation also authorized the recruitment of freed slaves as Union soldiers.
Standing in the way of full emancipation were phrases in the U.S. Constitution that seemed to legitimize slavery. To free the slaves in the border states, a constitutional amendment was needed. Even the abolitionists gave Lincoln credit for playing an active role in the political struggle to secure enough votes in Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. By December 1865 (months after Lincoln’s death), this amendment abolishing slavery was ratified by the required number of states. The language of the amendment could not be simpler or clearer:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Freedmen in the War
After the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), hundreds of thou- sands of southern blacks—approximately one-quarter of the slave population— walked away from slavery to seek the protection of the approaching Union armies. Almost 200,000 African Americans, most of whom were newly freed slaves, served in the Union army and navy. Segregated into all-black units, such as the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, black troops performed courageously under fire and won the respect of northern white soldiers. Over 37,000 African American soldiers died in what became known as the Army of Freedom.
By the beginning of 1863, the fortunes of war had turned against the South. Although General Robert E. Lee started the year with another major victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, the Confederate economy was in desperate shape, southern planters and farmers were losing control of their slave-labor force, and an increasing number of poorly provisioned soldiers were deserting from the Confederate army.
The decisive turning point in the war came in the first week of July when the Confederacy suffered two crushing defeats in the West and the East.
Vicksburg. In the West, by the spring of 1863, Union forces controlled New Orleans and most of the Mississippi River and surrounding valley. Thus, the Union objective of securing complete control of the Mississippi River was close to an accomplished fact when General Grant began his siege of the heavily fortified city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Union artillery bombarded Vicksburg for seven weeks before the Confederates finally surrendered the city (and nearly 29,000 soldiers) on July 4. Federal warships now controlled the full length of the Mississippi and cut off Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy.
Gettysburg. Meanwhile, in the East, Lee again took the offensive by leading an army into enemy territory: the Union states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. If he could either destroy the Union army or capture a major northern city, Lee hoped to force the North to call for peace or at least to gain foreign intervention for the South. On July 1, 1863, the invading southern army surprised Union units at Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. What followed was the most crucial battle of the war and the bloodiest, with over 50,000 casualties. Lee’s assault on Union lines on the second and third days, including Pickett’s charge, proved futile, and destroyed a good part of the Confederate army. What was left of Lee’s forces retreated to Virginia, never to regain the offensive.
Grant in Command
Lincoln finally found a general who could fight and win. In early 1864 he brought Grant east to Virginia and made him commander of all the Union armies. Grant’s approach to ending the war was simply to outlast Lee by fighting a war of attrition. Recognizing that the South’s resources were dwindling, he aimed to wear down the southern armies and systematically destroy their vital lines of supply. Fighting doggedly for months, Grant’s Army of the Potomac suffered heavier casualties than Lee’s forces in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. But by never letting up, Grant succeeded in reducing Lee’s army in each battle and forcing it into a defensive line around Richmond. In this final stage of the Civil War, the fighting foreshadowed the trench warfare that would later characterize World War I. No longer was this a war “between gentlemen” but a modern “total” war against civilians as well as soldiers.
Sherman’s March. The chief instrument of Grant’s aggressive tactics for subduing the South was a hardened veteran, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Leading a force of 100,000 men, Sherman set out from Chattanooga, Tennessee, on a campaign of deliberate destruction that went clear across the state of Georgia and then swept north into South Carolina. Sherman was a pioneer of the tactics of total war. Marching relentlessly through Georgia, his troops destroyed everything in their path, burning cotton fields, barns, and houses—everything the enemy might use to survive. Sherman took Atlanta in September 1864 in time to help Lincoln’s prospects for reelection. He marched into Savannah in December and completed his campaign in February 1865 by setting fire to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina and cradle of secession.
Sherman’s march had its intended effects: helping to break the will of the Confederacy and destroying its will to fight on.
The election of 1864. The Democrat’s nominee for president was the popular General George McClellan. The Democrats’ platform calling for peace had wide appeal among millions of voters who had grown weary of war. The Republicans renamed their party the Unionist party as a way of attracting the votes of “War Democrats” (those who disagreed with the Democratic platform). A brief “ditch-Lincoln” movement fizzled out, and the Republican (Unionist) convention again chose Lincoln as its presidential candidate and a loyal War Democrat from Tennessee, Senator Andrew Johnson, as his running mate. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket won 212 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 21. The popular vote, however, was much closer, for McClellan took 45 percent of the total votes cast.
The End of the War
The effects of the Union blockade, combined with Sherman’s march of destruction, spread hunger through much of the South in the winter of 1864– 1865. On the battlefront in Virginia, Grant continued to outflank Lee’s lines until they collapsed around Petersburg, resulting in the fall of Richmond (April 3, 1865). By now, everyone knew that the end was near.
Surrender at Appomattox. The Confederate government tried tonegoti- ate for peace, but Lincoln would accept nothing short of restoration of the Union and Jefferson Davis nothing less than independence. Lee retreated from Richmond with an army of less than 30,000 men. He tried to escape to the mountains only to be cut off and forced to surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The Union general treated his longtime enemy with respect and allowed Lee’s men to return to their homes with their horses.
Assassination of Lincoln. Only a month before Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered one of his greatest speeches—the second inaugural address. He urged that the defeated South be treated benevolently, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
On April 14, John Wilkes Booth, an embittered actor and southern sympathizer, shot and killed the president while he was attending a performance in Ford’s Theater in Washington. On the same night, a coconspirator attacked but only wounded Secretary of State William Seward. These shocking events aroused the fury of northerners at the very time that the South most needed a sympathetic hearing. The loss of Lincoln’s leadership was widely mourned, but the extent of the loss was not fully appreciated until the two sections of a reunited country had to cope with the overwhelming problems of postwar Reconstruction.
Effects of the War on Civilian Life
Both during the war and in the years that followed, American society underwent deep and wrenching changes.
The electoral process continued during the war with surprisingly few restrictions. Secession of the southern states had created Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Within Republican ranks, however, there were sharp differences between the radical faction (those who championed the cause of immediate abolition of slavery) and the moderate faction (Free-Soilers who were chiefly concerned about economic opportunities for whites). Most Democrats supported the war but criticized Lincoln’s conduct of it. Peace Democrats and Copperheads opposed the war and wanted a negotiated peace. The most notorious Copperhead, Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, was briefly banished from the United States to Canada for his “treasonable,” pro- Confederacy speeches against the war.
Civil liberties. In wartime, governments tend to be more concerned with prosecuting the war than with protecting citizens’ constitutional rights. Lincoln’s government was no exception. Early in the war, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland and other states where there was much pro- Confederate sentiment. Suspension of this constitutional right meant that per- sons could be arrested without being informed of the charges against them. During the war, an estimated 13,000 people were arrested on suspicion of aiding the enemy; without a right to habeas corpus, many of them were held without trial.
How flagrant was Lincoln’s abuse of civil liberties? At the time, Democrats said that Lincoln acted no better than a tyrant, but few historians today would go that far in their judgment of the habeas corpus issue. Especially in the border states, it was often hard to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Moreover, the Constitution does state that the writ of habeas corpus “shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” After the war, in the case of Ex Parte Milligan (1866), the Supreme Court ruled that the government had acted improperly in Indiana where, during the war, certain civilians had been subject to a military trial. The Court declared that such procedures could be used only when regular civilian courts were unavailable.
The draft. At first, those who fought in the Civil War were volunteers, but as the need for replacements became acute, both the North and the South resorted to laws for conscripting, or drafting, men into service. The Congress’ first Conscription Act, adopted in March 1863, made all men between the ages of 20 and 45 liable for military service but allowed a draftee to avoid service by either finding a substitute to serve or paying a $300 exemption fee. The law provoked fierce opposition among poorer laborers, who feared that—if and when they returned to civilian life—their jobs would be taken by freed African Americans. In July 1863, riots against the draft erupted in New York City, in which a mostly Irish American mob attacked blacks and wealthy whites. Some 117 people were killed before federal troops and a temporary suspension of the draft restored order.
Political dominance of the North. The suspension of habeas corpus and the operation of the draft were only temporary. Far more important were the long-term effects of the war on the balance of power between two sectional rivals, the North and the South. With the military triumph of the North came a new definition of the nature of the federal union. Southern arguments for nullification and secession ceased to be issues. After the Civil War, the supremacy of the federal government over the states was treated as an established fact.
Furthermore, the abolition of slavery—in addition to its importance to freed African Americans—gave new meaning and legitimacy to the concept of American democracy. In his famous Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, Lincoln rallied Americans to the idea that their nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln was probably alluding to the Emancipation Proclamation when he spoke of the war bringing “a new birth of freedom.” His words—and even more, the fact of slavery being abolished—advanced the cause of democratic government in the United States and inspired champions of democracy around the world.
The costs of the war in both money and men were staggering and called for extraordinary measures by both the Union and Confederate legislatures.
Financing the war. The North financed the war chiefly by borrowing $2.6 billion, obtained through the sale of government bonds. Even this amount was not enough, so Congress was forced to resort to raising tariffs (Morrill Tariff of 1861), adding excise taxes, and instituting the first income tax. The U.S. Treasury also issued over $430 million in a paper currency known as Greenbacks. This paper money could not be redeemed in gold, a fact that contributed to creeping inflation; prices in the North rose by about 80 percent from 1861–1865. To manage all the added revenue moving in and out of the Treasury, Congress created a National Banking System in 1863. This was the first unified banking network since Andrew Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Bank of the United States in the 1830s.
Modernizing northern society. The war’s impact on the northern economy was no less significant. Economic historians differ on the question of whether, in the short run, the war promoted or retarded the growth of the northern economy. On the negative side, workers’ wages did not keep pace with inflation. On the other hand, there is little doubt that many aspects of a modern industrial economy were accelerated by the war. Because the war placed a premium on mass production and complex organization, it speeded up the consolidation of the North’s manufacturing businesses. War profiteers took advantage of the government’s urgent needs for military supplies to sell shoddy goods at high prices. Fortunes made during the war (whether honestly or dishonestly) produced a concentration of capital in the hands of a new class of millionaires, who would finance the North’s industrialization in the postwar years.
Republican politics also played a major role in stimulating the economic growth of the North and the West. Taking advantage of their wartime majority in Congress, the Republicans passed an ambitious economic program that included not only a national banking system, but also the following:
- The Morrill Tariff Act (1861) raised tariff rates to increase revenue and protect American manufacturers. Its passage initiated a Republican program of high protective tariffs to help industrialists.
- The Homestead Act (1862) promoted settlement of the Great Plains by offering parcels of 160 acres of public land free to whatever person or family would farm that land for at least five years.
- The Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) encouraged states to use the sale of federal land grants to maintain agricultural and technical colleges.
- The Pacific Railway Act (1862) authorized the building of a transcontinental railroad over a northern route in order to link the economies of California and the western territories with the eastern states.
Although no part of American society away from the battlefield was untouched by the war, those most directly affected were women of all ages, whose labors became more burdensome, and African Americans, who were emancipated from slavery.
Women at work. The absence of millions of men from their normal occupations in fields and factories added to the labors and responsibilities of women at home. Southern and northern women alike stepped into the labor vacuum created by the war. They operated farms and plantations by themselves or, in the cities, took factory jobs normally held by men. In addition, women played a critical role as military nurses and as volunteers in soldiers’ aid societies.
When the war ended and the war veterans returned home, most urban women vacated their jobs in government and industry, while rural women gladly accepted male assistance on the farm. Of course, for the women whose men never returned—or returned disabled—the economic struggle continued for a lifetime.
The Civil War had at least two permanent effects on American women. First, the field of nursing was now open to women for the first time; previously, hospitals employed only men as doctors and nurses. Second, the enormous responsibilities undertaken by women during the war gave impetus to the movement to obtain equal voting rights for women. (The suffragists’ goal would not be achieved until women’s efforts in another war—World War I— finally convinced male conservatives to adopt the Nineteenth Amendment.)
End of slavery. Both in the short run and the long run, the group in American society whose lives were most profoundly changed by the Civil War were those African Americans who had been born into slavery. After the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, 4 million people (3.5 million in the Confederate states, 500,000 in the border states) were “freed men” and “freed women.” For these people and their descendants, economic hardship and political oppression would continue for generations, but even so, the end of slavery represented a momentous step. Suddenly, slaves with no rights were protected by the U.S. Constitution, with open-ended possibilities of freedom.
While four years of nearly total war, the tragic human loss of 620,000 men, and an estimated $15 billion in war costs and property losses had enormous effects on the nation, far greater changes were set in motion. The Civil War destroyed slavery and devastated the southern economy, and it also acted as a catalyst to transform America into a complex modern industrial society of capital, technology, national organizations, and large corporations. During the war, the Republicans were able to enact the probusiness Whig program that was designed to stimulate the industrial and commercial growth of the United States. The characteristics of American democracy and its capitalist economy were strengthened by this second American Revolution.
Historical Perspectives: Why The North Won
The North’s victory in the Civil War was by no means inevitable. Why did the North win and the South lose? To be sure, the North had the advantage of a larger population and superior wealth, industry, and transportation. On the other hand, the South’s advantages were also formidable. The Confederacy needed merely to fight to a stalemate and hold out long enough to secure foreign recognition or intervention. The North faced the more daunting challenge of having to conquer an area comparable in size to Western Europe.
Some historians blame the South’s defeat on the overly aggressive military strategy of its generals. For example, Lee’s two invasions of the North leading to Antietam and Gettysburg resulted in a much higher loss of his own men, in percentage terms, than of his opponent’s forces. If the Confederates had used more defensive and conservative tactics, they may have secured a military stale- mate—and political victory (independence).
Other historians blame the South’s loss on its political leader- ship. They argue that, compared to the Lincoln administration, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were ineffective. Another weakness was the lack of a strong political party system in the South. Its absence meant that Davis had trouble developing a base of popular support. Southerners’ traditional emphasis on states’ rights also worked against a unified war effort. Governors of Confederate states would withhold troops rather than yield to the central government’s urgent requests for cooperation. Vital supplies were also held back in state warehouses, where they remained until war’s end.
Historian Henry S. Commager argued that slavery may have been responsible for the South’s defeat. For one thing, slavery played a role in deterring European powers from intervening in support of the South and its backward institution. Beyond this, Commager also believed that slavery undermined the South’s ability to adapt to new challenges. It fostered an intolerant society, which lacked the “habit of independent inquiry and criticism.” Thus, according to Commager, the failure of the Confederacy was not a “failure of resolution or courage or will but of intelligence and morality.” If so, then the South’s attachment to an outdated institution, slavery, was what ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat.