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History of the American Civil War

The American Civil War, also known as the War between the States and the War of the Rebellion, was fought primarily over the issue of slavery. Previous political divisions had included regional overtones. Federalists were strong in New England, while Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans originally did well in the South. Support for high tariffs came from sections with manufacturing, while others depending on agriculture opposed them. However, the consensus for national unity had allowed compromisers to find solutions.

Slavery was different. Viewed as essential to the Southern way of life, slavery in those states was considered non-negotiable by the slaveowning classes, and in this period, there was almost no chance slavery there would have been abolished. Opposition to slavery on a moral basis was limited to a minority of Northern abolitionists. The majority felt concern not for the existence of slavery but its possible extension into new lands.

However, feeling insecure in its future as the West developed and the prospect of additional free states loomed, the South pushed for a better deal. In retrospect, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, viewed at the time as a win for the pro-slavery forces, instead set in motion the events that resulted in the formation of the Republican Party. By 1860, the Republican menace was viewed with such alarm that Southern Democrats split the party over their demands for a strongly pro-slavery platform. The Democratic split ensured a Republican victory, which induced the Deep South to secede. At Fort Sumter, they provoked a war they couldn`t win and were determined not to compromise, leading in the end to the loss of everything they fought for.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law on May 31, 1854. Even before then, the first meetings of what was to become the Republican Party had taken place, the earliest in Ripon, Wisconsin, on February 28. The actual passage of the bill brought things rapidly to a head. The first convention to select a slate of statewide candidates was held at Jackson, Michigan, on July 6, 1854. Many others were held on July 13, the anniversary of the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. At the urging of Horace Greeley, the adherents to the new party adopted the name "Republican," to recall the original party of Thomas Jefferson.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had been intended as a means to offer the South the future state of Kansas in exchange for the organization of the Nebraska territory. Things turned out differently. With the responsibility to decide slavery handed to the settlers through the principle of Popular Sovereignty, waves of settlers of both persuasions streamed into Kansas and bloody fighting broke out. Competing state constitutions were "adopted" by extralegal methods, and when the residents finally got a chance to freely express their will, they chose to be free rather than slave.

While gaining nothing for the South, the Kansas-Nebraska Act galvanized Northern opinion and by 1860, the remnants of the Whig, Free-Soiler and No-Nothing parties had all gravitated to the Republicans. Meeting in their 1860 convention, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln for president and adopted a platform calling for the abolition of slavery. The Democratic Party split due to the insistence of its Southern branch for a strongly pro-slavery platform. The remnant compromisers became the Constitutional Union Party and fielded their own candidates for president. In the Election of 1860, the Republicans won and Lincoln earned a majority in the Electoral Colelge with only a plurality of the vote.

Waiting long enough to be certain of the results, South Carolina called a convention and seceded in December. Others followed and in February, seven former states of the Union created the Confederate States of America. With the indecisive James Buchanan still in the White House, the Confederates were able to seize federal military installations and property within their boundaries with impunity.

Upon his inauguration in March, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was faced with the problem of Fort Sumter at the mouth of Charleston harbor in South Carolina. South Carolina demanded that it be surrendered, and although it had little military value, Lincoln realized that to give it up without resistance would be tantamount to admitting that secession was an accomplished fact. Instead, he dispatched a resupply fleet. The South Carolinians preemptively bombarded the fort on April 13 and forced its surrender the next day. The bombardment killed no one, but two men died during the ceremony following.

Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion and so many signed up that by July, Washington DC was bursting with Union soldiers. Encouraged by the thought that a quick thrust to Richmond would bring the war to an early close, a Union force advanced part way but encountered the Confederates at the Battle of Bull Run and were driven back in disarray. Soon, everyone realized that a long war was in store.

On the political front, President Lincoln had to contend with opposition within his own party from the Radical Republicans, who favored a more aggressive approach to emancipation and a punitive attitude towards the rebels. On the other side, the Copperheads, known also as the Peace Democrats, were urging a speedy conclusion to hostilities on whatever terms could be negotiated with the Confederacy. The Republicans lost some seats in the 1862 elections and prior to the Election of 1864 seemed on the verge of losing the White House. Seeking a coalition, the Republicans ran Lincoln with a Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as vice-president under the banner of the National Union Party. Military successes late in 1864 carried Lincoln to victory in November.

In Europe, there was generally more support for the Confederacy than the Union, particularly among the ruling classes, but this inclination was tempered by a consideration of the likely winner. The South was so confidant that Europe required its cotton exports that they could hardly believe that England would not support them. A number of Confederate raiders, such as the Alabama were built in English shipyards and at times, both the French and English seemed on the brink of recognition, but as the tide of war showed a greater chance of Union victory, both chose neutrality.

At the outbreak of the war, the Union advantage in manufacturing was enormous. In addition to its population advantage of more than two to one, it possessed the vast majority of industrial plants, including nearly all armament factories, and a far better developed rail system. The South was able to develop a wartime manufacturing capability, but never on the same scale.

After Bull Run, the activity was relatively low for the balance of 1861. When it resumed, the military campaigns proceeded east and west of the Appallachians very differently. In the eastern theater, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy kept a series of Union generals at bay with brilliant tactics. Lee`s forces kept the Union off balance and several times threatened the national capital. In the summer of 1863, Confederate forces invaded Maryland and threatened Pennsylvania, but were turned back at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the West, General Ulysses S. Grant achieved significant victories, New Orleans was captured in late April, 1862, and the Mississippi River was soon open to Union navigation. Chattanooga, Tennessee, was captured in 1863, opening the way for Sherman`s drive to Atlanta and subsequent March to the Sea in 1864.

Lincoln brought General Grant east and gave him command of all Union armies in 1864. Grant decided to wear down the Confederacy with battles in which the Union alone could absorb the casualties. Huge losses during The Wilderness and later campaigns did not shake Lincoln`s support for Grant. Lee could win occasional battles but the war was being lost. In April, 1865, after holding off Grant at Fredeicksburg for many months, Lee realized that his only militarily viable option was to link up with General Johnston in the west. He disengaged from Grant but found himself cut off.

The end came quickly at Appamattox Courthouse. Lee requested a parley. Grant met him and offered generous terms, which Lee accepted. With Lee`s Army of Northern Virginia gone, the remaining elements of the Confederate Army soon surrendered and the war came to an end. In a final tragedy, Abraham Lincoln was asssassinated before he could lead the nation to a lasting reconciliation.