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Unit Overview

The American Civil War was the deadliest conflict in American history. It marked a watershed moment in many ways for the United States. Northern victory meant that the central tension inherent in the concept of federalism was forever decided: The federal government would reign supreme over the states. In the coming decades, the size and scope of federal power would inexorably grow and reach into every aspect of the lives of Americans. In addition, the war meant that the economic values of the North triumphed; the work ethic, industrialization, and commerce would come to dominate the American social landscape.

Of course, African Americans at last received their nominal freedom with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. However, true freedom for African Americans would not come for another 100 years. Northerners had little stomach for the work of Reconstruction after the war; many were more concerned with making their fortunes at the expense of Southern whites than with establishing just treatment for blacks, and carpetbaggers poured into the former Confederacy. When President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction, southern blacks were left abandoned, and racist Southern whites reclaimed political power. The Klan and Jim Crow would then rise in the South (and in parts of the North, especially the Midwest).

Other American wars pale in comparison to the Civil War. No war, before or since, has cost as many American lives and caused as much destruction of American property. Its duration and its viciousness are indicative of the fact that much was at stake in the conflict, politically, socially, and culturally.

Causes of the Civil War

The causes of the Civil War are still hotly debated today. Though the issue of slavery played a significant role in the conflict, too often Americans view the war through a simplistic prism of free states versus slaves states, abolitionism versus the “slaveocracy,” good versus evil. In fact, the North protected slavery in four states (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky) during the entire conflict, and Abraham Lincoln refused to touch the institution in conquered areas of the South until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 went into effect.

Once a vibrant institution in the North—more than forty percent of colonial New York City households owned slaves—slavery had petered out north of the Mason-Dixon Line mainly because it became economically unfeasible. Northern climate and settlement precluded the establishment of large-scale plantations on which slavery was profitable. Much of Northern opposition to slavery was born of racism and economic self-interest. Abolitionism was the philosophy of a tiny minority of Yankees, and even among many abolitionists, racism ran deep. Northerners did not wish to have blacks living among them and wanted to keep white labor from having to compete with slave labor in the newly settled Western territories. “Free labor, free soil, free men” was the mantra of Lincoln’s new Republican Party in the 1850s.

The war was not a crusade to end slavery at its outset and only became that somewhat accidently and expediently. Lincoln himself repeatedly declared before the war and in its early months that he had no intention to interfere with slavery where it existed. In fact, in his first inaugural address, he offered to sponsor a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that would protect slavery in areas where it already existed in perpetuity. When early in the war his own generals began freeing slaves in conquered regions of the South, Lincoln quickly reversed these orders and reprimanded the generals who issued them.

Nevertheless, it is clear that both Lincoln and the Republican Party hoped that slavery would die a natural death if its expansion was halted and if it remained encircled by free states. Lincoln clearly did not like the institution of slavery, but he also resisted the idea of black equality. Moreover, the latest research has shown that Lincoln pursued the idea of deportation of freed slaves until his dying day. Indeed, Lincoln could not imagine blacks and whites living together in America and believed that colonization in Africa or elsewhere was an essential part of any scheme of emancipation.

Of course, several of the states in the Deep South declared their desire to protect slavery to be their primary motivation in leaving the Union in 1860-1861. Newly inaugurated Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens also infamously proclaimed in his “Cornerstone Speech” of March 1861 that the new government’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Though Confederate President Jefferson Davis repudiated Stephens’ speech, and Stephens qualified his meaning years later after Southern defeat, there is little doubt that most Southerners viewed the slave system as an integral part of the Southern economy and Southern culture.

The Northern economy was also hugely dependent on Southern slavery. Northern factories imported Southern cotton and other raw materials, and many wealthy Northern magnates made their fortunes on the backs of African American slaves. It is no surprise that when the Southern states began seceding in 1860, president-elect Lincoln received scores of letters from Republican party donors in the North, urging him not to allow secession, lest their economic empires be threatened.

In addition, most of the federal government’s revenue came from the Southern states, which paid more import duties than Northern states. The federal government had consistently adopted a policy of protectionism, levying duties on foreign manufactured goods in order to protect Northern manufacturing interests. As John C. Calhoun showed, most of the federal government’s revenue was in turn spent in the North on internal improvements. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was a disciple of Henry Clay, whose “American system” called for protectionist economic policies, a high tariff, and a program of internal improvements.

Two Cultures

By 1860 the North and South had also developed distinct cultures and political philosophies. Southerners valued leisure as a good in itself while Yankees put an emphasis on hard work and money-making. A foreign traveler in America observed as early as 1814: “A Bostonian would go in search of his fortune to the bottom of Hell; a Virginian would not go across the road to seek it.” Caricatures of the lazy Southerner and the money-grubbing Yankee permeated both regions and furthered discord between the regions.

On the eve of the Civil War, most Northerners still lived on farms, but the North’s economy relied more and more on finance and manufacturing; the South’s economy was dependent on larger plantations worked by slaves. “King Cotton” became the leading crop of the South, its profitability soaring with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. As slavery became more deeply entrenched in the South in the 1830s and 1840s, so did Southern defenses of “the peculiar institution” become more vociferous. Though most Southerners did not own slaves, most defended the right of slaveholding; the peculiar institution served to provide a sense of solidarity among all white Southerners, regardless of class.

Southerners held a different political theory of the Union. Following the lead of Calhoun and jurist Abel Upshur, they adhered to the compact theory of the Union, which held that the federal government was a creature of the states. Lincoln and most Northerners adopted instead the theory of jurists John Marshall and Joseph Story, who argued that the United States was a creation of the people as a whole, not of the states or the people of the individual states. The implication was that the central government was supreme and that the country was an indivisible nation.

The election of 1860

The issue of slavery’s expansion divided the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings. As the presidential election of 1860 approached, Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their presidential candidate. Southern Democrats chose John C. Breckinridge. A new party, the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell. The Republicans, a sectional party united by an opposition to slavery expansion and a devotion to Clay’s American system, met in Chicago and chose Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln won a minority of the popular vote in a four-way race, but he received a majority of the electoral votes cast, and he received virtually no support from the South (in most Southern states, in fact, he received no votes at all). Alarmed that Lincoln’s victory meant domination by the North, seven southern states seceded between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861. These states would soon form the Confederate States of America, with a Constitution modeled on that of the United States; notable changes included the explicit recognition of the right to secede and the right to hold slaves. The capital was established in Montgomery, Alabama (later, Richmond, Virginia), and the Confederacy’s first president was Jefferson Davis, former United States Senator from Mississippi.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln made his way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol building to take the oath of office and deliver his first inaugural address as the sixteenth President of the United States. Outgoing President James Buchanan was riding at his side in an open carriage. Lincoln had been advised against this procession because there were rumors he would be assassinated. Sharpshooters were placed on rooftops along the route to protect Lincoln.
For his first speech to the American people, Lincoln sought advice from other leaders of the Republican Party, chose his words carefully, and made many revisions to the speech. The task before Lincoln was daunting.

Lincoln faced a country on the brink of civil war. In his speech, Lincoln addressed the concerns by first reiterating his promise to allow slavery to continue in the states where it already existed. This was a position he had stated many times. He spoke to this issue by restating his support for the Fugitive Slave Law and the related clause in the Constitution. Lincoln assured the Southern states the Constitution would be followed, “to this provision as much as to any other.” He even pledged his support for a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, protecting slavery in perpetuity in the areas where it already existed. Lincoln argued that the Constitution had no provision for terminating the Union and that the Union was in fact older than the Constitution. Lincoln cautioned his “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” that if they became the aggressors, he would uphold the laws and retain control of government property.

Fort Sumter and the Beginning of War

The first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, a federal fort in the state’s waters. After South Carolina seceded from the Union, the state government demanded that all United States troops vacate the fort. An attempt by President James Buchanan to resupply the fort had been repulsed in January of 1861. The newly-inaugurated President Lincoln refused to abandon Sumter, and when he sent a second supply convoy, protected by armed ships, Confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter early on April 12, 1861. Federal troops under the command of Major Robert Anderson returned fired, but Anderson surrendered a day later. The only casualties of the battle—one Confederate and two Union soldiers—were killed due to accidents, not enemy shells. The Confederates’ firing on Fort Sumter provided President Abraham Lincoln and the Union the moral advantage of claiming that Southerners had fired the fired the first shots of the Civil War.

In response to the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. The President’s decision to use violence to prevent secession provoked Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas to secede from the Union. It also resulted in Colonel Robert E. Lee’s decision to reject Lincoln’s offer to command all Union forces during the coming war; Lee instead chose to follow the lead of his “country,” Virginia, in leaving the Union. The Confederate government would soon discover that it had on its side the country’s greatest general.


The Confederacy adopted the strategy of a defensive war and attempted to make alliances with more powerful countries such as Britain and France. To encourage European alliances, the Confederacy needed to demonstrate that it could win the war. This resulted in the South launching attacks into Union territory in order to impress potential allies, as well as to draw Union troops away from the South. Many among the South’s leadership believed that the need of European manufacturers for “King Cotton” would sway Britain and France to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. The Confederates also sought to inflict casualties to demoralize the North. As the war continued, the strategy became one of evading the Union army and continuing the war as long as possible.

On the Union side, the commander-in-chief of federal forces, General Winfield Scott, suggested halting Southern trade with his Anaconda Plan. This plan would impose a blockade and enable the North to control the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the Union army would divide and isolate sections of the South and capture its vital cities and the capital of Richmond, Virginia. Under General Ulysses S. Grant, the North’s strategy became one of keeping pressure on General Robert E. Lee’s army, constantly reducing the Confederate army’s numbers, thereby taking advantage of the North’s larger population.

The North had many material advantages. Northern factories could far out-produce the South in terms of war materials. Roads, railroads, and canals in the North also were more numerous, allowing both goods and soldiers to be shipped more efficiently. The North had a more effective and organized centralized government, whereas the South had to create a central government from scratch.

On the other hand, Southerners had the advantage in morale, in that they were fighting for their very existence and way of life. They knew the terrain on which most of the war would be fought and had the advantage of interior lines, whereas the Union had to subdue a vast area of land in order to achieve victory. Confederate military leaders were generally superior to their Union counterparts, at least at the beginning of the war. The Lincoln government was hamstrung throughout the war by the need to award generalships to politicians as part of the Republican Party’s patronage system and as part of the need to placate Northern Democrats. In addition, corruption often hindered the military efforts of the North; entire campaigns, like the Red River campaign in Texas, were designed to allow Union generals to line their pockets by seizing as much cotton as possible from conquered farms and shipping the crop back North.

The War in the East: 1861-1863

Both sides believed that the war would be a short affair. Spectators from Washington, D.C. journeyed to northern Virginia in July to observe the first clash between Union and Confederate forces at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861. Most believed this would be the war’s only battle and would inevitably result in a Union victory. These onlookers, however, joined the panicked retreat of the Union army back to Washington, as Confederate forces won the day. The idea of a short war was gone.

In the wake of this stunning defeat, Lincoln appointed General George B. McClellan as the commander of Union forces in the east. McClellan named his army the Army of the Potomac. McClellan built the North’s main army into an effective fighting force and raised morale; his soldiers loved the commander many called “The Young Napoleon.”

In the spring of 1862, McClellan moved his army by boat to the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in Virginia. He attempted to take Richmond, coming within six miles of the Confederate capital. But he is thwarted by Confederate forces, first under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston and then, when Johnston is wounded, under General Robert E. Lee, who renames the army the Army of Northern Virginia. After pushing back McClellan, Lee went on the offensive against a Union army commanded by General John Pope, defeating him at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July 1862.

Emboldened, Lee decided to take his army into Maryland. There he met McClellan at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), and the two armies fought the bloodiest one-day battle in the history of the country. Lee was compelled to withdraw to Virginia, where in December of 1862 he inflicted a devastating defeat on the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General Ambrose Burnside. Lee seized the initiative in the spring of 1863, whipping his adversaries, commanded by yet another new general, Joseph Hooker, at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

In June Lee decided to again cross into the North. The Army of the Potomac, under its fourth commander, General George Meade, pursued him, and the two forces met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the war’s greatest battle. The issue was decided on the third day of the conflict was Pickett’s Charge failed to route Union forces from the field. Lee’s army retreated to Virginia, never to return to the North.

The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln recognized the danger the possibility of a British alliance with the Confederate States of America posed to the United States. He recognized that though there were many reasons the British might favor a Southern victory in the Civil War, there was a major weakness in the Southern position that might make it politically impossible for Britain to join forces with the South — slavery. The British had abolished slavery in Britain in the 1730s and throughout the British Empire by 1833. The South’s devotion to slavery was very unpopular in England. Lincoln believed that in order to keep England neutral, he needed to adjust Union war aims to keep British public opinion on the Union side. Lincoln believed if he made the abolition of slavery a clear goal of the war, it would be politically impossible for the British government to ally with the South.

When the war started, the goal of United States was to preserve the Union. Lincoln avoided making slavery an issue of the war, since some states that remained in the Union allowed slavery. Lincoln did not want to antagonize these states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. To this end, Lincoln rescinded the orders of some of his generals, like John C. Fremont and Benjamin Butler, who proclaimed slaves free in Southern territory conquered by their forces. Lincoln too was no abolitionist. He had no burning desire to free slaves, though he despised the institution and did not want to see it expand westward.

Nevertheless, the timing had to be right. Through most of 1862, the news from the battlefield was of Union defeats as Confederate forces won victory after victory. If Lincoln made abolition a goal for the war at that time, it might be seen as a sign of desperation by a government unable to win on the battlefield but proclaiming a noble cause it could not support. Lincoln believed he had to wait.

Finally, seizing on the opportunity of what he billed as the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln made his move. On September 22, 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” In other words, the Proclamation only applied to slaves in Confederate-held territory, not to slaves protected by the United States in the four loyal states, certain loyal parts of states, plus the District of Columbia. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves, in theory, where the United States government had no authority. Not a single slave was immediately freed by the Proclamation. However, as the Union army advanced in the coming months, word of the Proclamation preceded it; and slaves by the thousands abandoned their work and crossed Union lines for freedom and to join the war effort. The Proclamation also provided for enlisting freed slaves in the war effort.

Lincoln’s Proclamation had its intended effect on British opinion. British political leaders who supported an alliance with the Confederacy found little support at the polls, and Britain never allied with the Confederate States of America. In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation laid the foundation for the Thirteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1865, banning slavery throughout the United States.

The Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech, on November 19, 1863. He delivered the speech for the dedication of the cemetery at the battle site, where some 45,000 men had fought and died just four and a half months earlier. In fact, the audience still could faintly smell the bodies of fallen soldiers that had not yet been recovered or had been buried hastily in shallow graves. A large crowd gathered to hear Lincoln and the famous orator, Edward Everett, who spoke first for more than two hours before Lincoln rose to speak. Lincoln spoke for about two minutes, and his speech received limited mention in the newspapers. Some eyewitnesses said later that Lincoln’s voice was difficult to hear. Lincoln did not think the speech went over particularly well.

Of course, Lincoln’s poignant words have been remembered, while Everett’s have been forgotten. Lincoln’s speech was pure poetry, and the historical interpretation he presented was bold. Lincoln insisted that in 1776, a “new nation” was created by the Founders, one “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln thus elevated the Declaration of Independence to the status of America’s key document. In proclaiming that America was one nation dedicated to equality from its inception, Lincoln in one statement justified his policy of emancipation and delegitimized the idea of secession. Lincoln also called on the North to complete the “unfinished work” of the fallen Union soldiers, thereby implying that opposition to the war constituted dishonoring the graves of the dead. Lincoln finished his short speech by equating defeat in the war to the end of government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The War in the West

Union forces generally fared better in the western theater in the early part of the war, making steady gains. In February 1862, Union soldiers commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant and naval forces under Flag Officer Andrew Foote captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River. These victories helped bring the Tennessee River under Union control. In April 1862, however, Grant was caught by surprise in his encampment on the Tennessee by the attack of a Confederate Army under General Albert Sidney Johnston. Union reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell arrived just in time to push Confederate forces back. The bloody two-day Battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing) shocked Americans North and South and was the deadliest battle of the war until Antietam later that year.

On May 1, Flag Officer David Farragut captured the important port city of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Later that month, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg, Mississippi, capturing the city on July 4, 1863, a day after the crucial Union victory at Gettysburg.

After dividing the Confederacy with the capture of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River, Union forces sought to further divide the enemy by moving through Tennessee. In early September 1863, Union forces under General Rosecrans forced Confederate General Bragg out of Chattanooga, a major railroad hub between the east and west. Bragg retreated to Georgia, where he regrouped and began receiving reinforcements from General James Longstreet, sent from the east by General Lee via railroad. On September 19, Bragg was able to exploit a gap in the Union line, and the Confederates routed much of the Union army, who retreated back to Chattanooga.

The Confederates then besieged Chattanooga. In response, the War Department sent reinforcements to break the siege. From the west, General William Sherman brought men to Chattanooga. From Virginia, reinforcements under General Joe Hooker were transported to Chattanooga via railroad. General Rosecrans was replaced by General George Thomas, and General Grant was also assigned to take command of all Union forces in the area.

Grant took the offensive and forced Confederate forces to retreat towards Atlanta. In March 1864, Lincoln made Grant commander of all Union armies, and he journeyed east to oversee the operations of the Army of the Potomac. General William Sherman took command of the western armies, and he chased Confederate forces back to Atlanta.

The War in the East: 1864-1865

On September 2, 1864, Union forces under General Sherman captured Atlanta, Georgia. This dramatic event helped secure victory for Lincoln in the presidential election of 1864. Leaving 60,000 troops to garrison the city, Sherman received approval to march the rest of his army to the Atlantic Ocean, thereby dividing the eastern area of the Confederacy and depriving the South of much-needed food and supplies. Many innocent civilians, black and white, were murdered and raped along the way. Though not sanctioned by the high command, Sherman largely turned a blind eye to the atrocities his men committed. Total war had come to the South. Sherman’s troops burned buildings and infrastructure and many towns and cities along the way. Capturing Savannah, Georgia on December 22, 1864, Sherman offered the city to Lincoln as a “Christmas present.”

In the meantime, General Grant dispatched General Phillip Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley, to clean it out of Confederate forces and to make war on the civilian population. Grant ordered that farms be destroyed, so that there would be so little food left that “a crow could not fly from one end of the valley to the other without carrying its own provisions.”

In his confrontation with General Lee, Grant decided on a policy of constant combat, so that the superior manpower resources of the North could be brought to bear on the enemy. Grant ceased prisoner exchanges and showed a willingness to sacrifice his own soldiers on one-to-one, or worse, ration with Lee. The Union army lost more than twice as many soldiers at the fierce Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, but Grant was undaunted. Instead of retreating as his predecessors usually did when losing a battle to “Bobby Lee,” Grant pressed on, telling Washington that he intended “to fight along this line if it takes all summer.”

Grant’s forces eventually forced Lee back to Petersburg, on the outskirts of Richmond, the Confederate capital. A siege ensued, in which both sides dug elaborate systems of trenches to shelter their troops. Grant wanted to cut Lee’s food and artillery supply lines and render the Confederates unable to retreat.  He attacked Confederate forces at the Battle of Cold Harbor, which lasted from May 31 to June 12, 1864. Union forces again suffered much higher casualties than Confederate, this time in a four-to-one ratio. On July 30, 1864, Grant tried to break Lee’s lines around Petersburg by detonating a massive stockpile of explosives in a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. However, Union forces were repulsed in a bloodbath that again saw disproportionate casualties on the Union side.

In the spring of 1865, Confederate forces were finally forced to retreat from Petersburg. On April 3, Union forces occupied both Petersburg and Richmond, where Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government fled in advance of Grant’s men. Lee desperately tried to maneuver his army so as to join forces with the army of General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina, but Grant was able to trap the Army of Northern Virginia, and Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. General Johnston continued to fight to the south but eventually surrendered to General Sherman on April 26, 1865. The last major Confederate army had given up the fight.

Lincoln’s Assassination

John Wilkes Booth was a well-known actor from a famous American acting family that hailed from Maryland. His brother, Edwin, was the greatest American actor of his day and was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and his war against the South. But younger brother John, who often performed in Northern theaters, was a supporter of slavery and champion of the Confederacy.

Booth, who may have worked with Confederate agents in Canada, began plotting the kidnapping of President Lincoln soon after General Grant suspended the exchange of prisoners in the spring of 1864. Booth planned to hold Lincoln hostage and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. Booth assembled a team of accomplices but their attempt to kidnap Lincoln failed when Lincoln did not appear.

When word reached Booth that General Lee had surrendered his army, Booth changed his plan from one of kidnapping to that of murder. Booth planned to decapitate the United States government, killing not only Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. This, he thought, might give the remaining Confederate forces in the field a last chance at victory. Booth saw Lincoln as a modern-day Caesar, who had assumed tyrannically powers in prosecuting the unjust war he had made upon the South. Booth saw himself as an American Brutus and like the assassin of antiquity he would bring down the tyrant and restore liberty to his people. Booth’s father had indeed named his son after the great hero of English liberty, John Wilkes. The Booth brothers had also appeared the previous November in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which John had played Mark Antony.

On the morning of April 14, Booth learned Lincoln was to attend a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., He planned to execute his plot that night, assigning Lewis Powell (or Payne) to kill Seward, and David Atzerodt to kill Johnson. Booth himself planned to kill Lincoln.

Because he was an actor and had performed there frequently, Booth knew the inside of the theatre well. He also knew the play and waited for a certain laugh line as the time to strike. Luck was with him, as the man who had been assigned to guard the door to Lincoln’s box was not at his post. Booth easily slipped into the presidential box and shot Lincoln with a Derringer pistol in the back of the head. Lincoln slumped over his chair, and Major Henry Rathbone, who along with his fiancée were the Lincolns’ guests, attempted to stop the assassin. Booth, however, stabbed Rathbone twice in the arm with a knife and then jumped from the presidential box to the stage below, breaking his left leg as he did so. Upon landing on the stage, he raised his knife over his head and yelled, “Sic simper tyrannis!” The line was Brutus’ from Shakespeare’s play and meant “thus always to tyrants.” Booth ran from the theatre, mounted his horse, and made off for Virginia.

In the meantime, Atzerdot lost his nerve and did not try to kill Vice President Johnson, choosing to get drunk instead. Powell did attack Secretary Seward in his bed at his home, but Seward, who was recovering from a serious carriage accident, survived the assault. Booth had his injured leg tended to by Dr. Samuel Mudd of Maryland and managed to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. There, however, he was hunted down and surrounded by Union soldiers in a barn and shot through the neck. Paralyzed and in great pain, he died a few hours later.

Lincoln’s wound was also mortal. The doctors who treated him, knowing this, had him moved to a boardinghouse across the street from Ford’s Theater. Lincoln was pronounced dead on the morning of April 15.

The Booth conspirators were rounded up and, controversially, tried by military tribunals. Four were eventually executed: Powell, Atzerodt, David Herold (who was Booth’s companion during his escape), and Mary Surratt, who ran the boardinghouse where Booth lived and whose son, John, was a Confederate agent and close confidant of Booth. Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the United States government, according to some, unjustly, as her guilt still remains in doubt.

The South in Defeat

The war had resulted in the deaths of some 750,000 American soldiers, the maiming of countless more, the deaths of thousands of civilians, including slaves, and untold suffering. Thousands of young men who survived battle came home without limbs, and their psychological scars, though hidden, were just as real.

The South was devastated by defeat. The Lincoln-Grant-Sherman policy of total war had ensured that the South’s economy was ruined and that recovery would take decades. The defeated planter class, the architects of secession, were rendered powerless, and the question of who would fill government positions became an important issue. The former ruling class wanted to maintain the hierarchical nature of antebellum Southern society to the extent it was possible. African Americans had been given their freedom, but it was not clear how they would make their way in Southern society. Many indeed chose to stay on their former masters’ farms and work for low wages, becoming sharecroppers. Many poor whites were forced to choose this way of life also.

Under sharecropping, the landowner would rent a house and farmland to the sharecropper. The landowner would also loan the sharecropper enough money for him to buy the farming supplies and living expenses for his family. The sharecropper would plant and harvest the crop on the rented land, and “share” the profits with the landowner when the crop was sold. Out of his “share” the sharecropper would repay the rent on the land and house, the cost of farming supplies, and living expenses his family had incurred during the year. After making these payments, few sharecroppers would make a profit; and most were trapped in a continuing spiral of debt to the landowner. The sharecropper was tied to the land until he could repay his debt. Therefore, life after emancipation was not very different from life before emancipation for many former slaves. Few former slaves had the resources to travel north to find a new life and new work.

Another important segment of Southern society was the white yeoman farmer, many of whom had not owned slaves, and who sought, as before, to expand their landholdings. They sought more political power in the wake of the demise of the elite plantation owners.

Into this mix came Northern migrants, who were termed “carpetbaggers” because they supposedly sought only to fill their empty suitcases by devious means with riches stripped from the South. Though this was certainly the case with many of them, they were in truth a diverse group. Some moved south to teacher former slaves or to set up schools for African Americans. Others sought to modernize Southern industry or to make farming more efficient. Many promoted education and looked to build colleges and universities. A great number went south either to start a business or to work as representatives of Northern companies hoping to do business in the South. Some of these carpetbaggers became wealthy landowners by buying land and hiring former slaves as laborers. In many cases, these men were former Union soldiers who invested their savings in the hope of achieving wealth. They were usually well-educated, middle-class men seeking success. Of course, some were involved in government corruption and were more concerned with money than helping to redevelop the country.

The carpetbaggers assumed risks by going south. The ruined economy of the South held out the possibility of tremendous reward but also of spectacular failure. The animosity of southerners towards their former enemies also posed the risk of violence. Anyone who wanted to help the former slaves was especially a target. Southerners who cooperated with the carpetbaggers were derisively termed “scalawags.”  


Lincoln had advocated a magnanimous approach to Reconstruction. His death, however, gave the Radical Republicans, who sought to wreak their vengeance upon the South, an opening. Led by Senators Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Benjamin Wade, this faction sought to exclude former plantation owners from the political process and to turn land and political power in the South over to former slaves.

In the way of the Radicals stood the new president, Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean, who had remained loyal to the Union when war came and who had replaced Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s vice president during the election of 1864. A man who rose from poverty, Johnson detested the Southern planting class, yet he also disliked the Radicals. He became a thorn in their side as they attempted to implement their program for the rebuilding of the South.

Johnson generally followed Lincoln’s plan of granting amnesty to former Confederates who would take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union. When ten percent of a state’s population had taken such an oath, the state would be readmitted to the Union. Johnson amended this plan by excluding the wealthiest plantation owners, those who owned in excess of $20,000 worth of property, from the amnesty plan. These men could only receive a pardon and citizenship rights if they personally requested forgiveness from Johnson himself. In the end, Johnson issued 13,000 such pardons, and several former high-ranking Confederate leaders, such as Alexander Stephens, were elected to Congress because of his plan.

Once Congress came back into session, the Radicals attempted to enact their own version of Reconstruction. They won passage of the Confiscation Acts, which stipulated that the abandoned land of “treasonous” people—mainly plantation owners who had fled the coming of Union armies—could be confiscated. The freedmen hoped to get those lands and, indeed, one duty of the Freedman's Bureau, created in 1865 and officially titled the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was to oversee the redistribution of some several hundred thousand acres of land. However, President Johnson issued an order to rescind the redistribution of land.  Johnson also opposed the Fourteenth Amendment which made blacks citizens, and he did little about anti-black violence in the South.

In 1868, the House of Representatives brought charges of impeachment against President Johnson. The real motive of the Republicans who brought the charges was to oust the troublesome Johnson from office so that the Radicals’ Reconstruction plan could be passed in full. To this end, Congress had passed over Johnson’s veto, the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval for the president to remove certain government officials, including cabinet officers. The Radicals pounced when Johnson removed Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War without approval by the Senate. The Constitution stipulates the impeachment trial to be held by the Senate. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to convict. Johnson avoided conviction by one vote.

War hero Ulysses Grant was the Republican nominee in 1868, and he became president in 1869. The Radicals now had an ally in the Executive Mansion. Over the next several years in the South, blacks were elected to state legislatures and to the United States Congress as Republicans. Many Southern Democrats resented the rise of black power and resorted to violence, as paramilitary societies like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African American homes, schools, and communities. Despite the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed blacks political and voting rights, southern states passed “black codes” to keep the rights of freedmen in check.

Federal Reconstruction came to an end with the contested presidential election of 1877. Disputed election results in several states prevent both Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden from claiming victory. A deal was struck between the two parties in which the disputed electoral votes were awarded to Hayes in return for a promise that the Republican would remove all federal troops from the South upon his ascendancy to office. The Compromise of 1877 in effect returned political control in the South to white “Redeemers,” who would try to re-establish white supremacy in the region. The struggle for racial equality in the South would last for almost another century.

  • government set up between 1861 - 1865 composed of 11 southern states that declared secession from the United States of America in order to preserve slavery and states' rights
  • a document that states that Britain no longer rules the American colonies and lists the reasons the colonies were separating with Britain; this statement was written mostly by Thomas Jefferson and was approved by the Second Continental Congress in 1776
  • President Lincoln’s executive order that freed enslaved peoples in states still in rebellion against the Union.
  • Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
  • United States Congrssmen who favored the abolition of slavery, citizenship for freed slaves, and punishment for those who had supported the Confederacy as government officials or soldiers during the Civil War
  • Agreement that awarded the United States Presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes and effectively ended Reconstruction.
  • a speech given at an inaugural ceremony
  • the army for the southern states during the American Civil War
  • Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States.
  • framework; underlying foundation; structures needed for the operation of a society, enterprise or economy
  • public consensus on a certain issue; collective views of the people
  • additional soldiers or equipment sent to an area experiencing increased military action
  • A system of agriculture or agricultural production in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the landowner’s land in return for a share of the crop produced on that land.
  • the belief that slavery should be outlawed
  • a person who wanted to end slavery
  • a document which establishes the fundamental rights and political principals of a nation
  • the act of freeing someone from the control of another, such as a slave being granted freedom or a child reaching adulthood
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • an official public announcement; official declaration
  • a tenant farmer who gives a portion of the crops raised on the farm to a landowner as payment of rent
  • the eleven states that left the United States and formed a new country in 1861
  • a supporter of the Confederate States of America
  • the awareness that something has been seen or experienced before
  • State and local laws that severely limited the civil rights and liberties of African Americans.
  • devotion or loyalty to a leader, nation, group, or idea
  • a settlement of differences reached by mutual concessioins
  • impairment of moral principal by unlawful means
  • a machine that removes the seeds from cotton quickly and easily
  • a place where troops set up temporary accomodations such as tents
  • a government in which power is divided between a central authority and related political units; the evolving relationship between state governments and the federal government of the United States
  • site of a major Union victory during the American Civil War which ended Confederate General Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • the power to introduce a new legislative measure by way of voters signing a petition
  • providing a reason to act a certain way in order to accomplish a desired result
  • the pursuite of knowledge through rational argument; the beliefs held by a person
  • a large area in which crops are grown or cultivated usually by resident workers
  • a person who favors a republic as the best form of government; a member of the Republican Party
  • the army of the United States during the American Civil War
  • Before war, specifically references the time period before the American Civil War.
  • something, such as a trait or circumstance, that helps someone achieve a goal, especially over another person who does not have the benefit of that trait or circumstance.
  • any change or addition to the United States Constitution; a correction or improvement
  • large caliber weapons that operate by a projection of munitions
  • a war between the northern United States (known as the Union) and southern slave states (known as the Confederate States of America) over the issue of slavery which was fought from 1861 - 1865
  • a useful device, method, or improvement that did not exist before which is usually developed after study and experimentation
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • open defiance of or resistance to authority; a violent uprising against the government
  • the materials available that can be drawn upon when needed; supply
  • the act of formally withdrawing from a federation
  • all of the land and waters that belong to or are controlled by a particular country; an area of land claimed by the United States, but not officially recognized as a state 
  • two or more people, parties, or nations that agree to help one another achieve a common goal
  • the use of troops or ships to close off a city, harbor, or port to prevent the movement of people or supplies
  • the buying and selling of goods between cities or nations
  • a disagreement; opposition
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • overwhelming or intimidating; extremely difficult to do or to deal with
  • to find or gain knowledge of something for the first time
  • to rule over or control; to be much stronger or more skilled than your opponent; to be the most important part of something
  • a person who runs away or flees from the law
  • the production and sale of goods, in general; a group of businesses that make a particular good or provide a particular service (the automobile industry, the tourist industry)
  • a state of concern or attention; curiosity
  • the greater quantity; more than half the total number
  • the lesser quantity; less than half the total quantity
  • not favoring any side during a dispute; not aligned with
  • a long-term plan for achieving a particular goal
  • a person who favors Democracy; a member of the Democratic Party of the United States
  • a formal speech, usually delivered on an important occasion or to a special audience
  • the city that serves as the official seat of government in a state or nation
  • a period of one hundred years
  • the general weather conditions of a specific area over a long period of time
  • a culmination of knowledge, beliefs, and values developed through an individual's experiences in the world
  • several; various; assorted
  • the way people use what they have in order to get what they need or want
  • to provide the money needed to complete a project
  • coming from or related to a place outside of one's own country
  • time to enjoy hobbies or sports free from the restraints of work
  • freedom from the control, coercion, interference, or restriction of others; independence
  • extremely different; straying from the usual or traditional
  • the process of withdrawing back from something dangerous or difficult
  • the legal ownership of one person by another; the condition of a person who is legally owned by another
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • a change, event, or condition that is produced by a cause; a result
  • one very large area or many separate areas under the control of one person or government
  • part of a larger body of water, deep enough for ships to anchor, that provides protection from wind, waves and water currents
  • to purchase goods from foreign countries to be used, processed, or resold
  • a desire or impluse that causes a person to act in a certain way
  • a skilled public speaker
  • the belief that human beings are divided into different races, that certain races are naturally better than others, and that the better races have a right to rule over the others
  • a large continuous and usually indefinite part of the Earth's surface
  • the highest house of Congress in the United States consisting of two representatives from each state who are elected by the people to serve a six year term
  • a labor strategy in which employees, as a group, refuse to work until the employer agrees to meet their demands or negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to both parties 
  • a tax added by the government to goods produced and shipped in from other countries
  • a name that refers to all of the states that did not secede from the United States during the American Civil War
  • the area of low land between hills or mountains
  • the amount of a good or service that is available for purchase
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • people who aided slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom
  • the thing or person responsible for a specific change or result
  • the person with the highest rank or most power in a group
  • to officially make into law
  • to give permission
  • a male monarch who inherits his position by right of birth
  • physical or mental effort; work; a task
  • command; authoritative instruction
  • a system used for standardized measurment
  • a person held in servidtude who is the property of another
  • a legal proceeding that takes place in a court of law in which evidence is presented to a judge or some other competent tribunal who then hands down a decision
  • moral obligation; a required task
  • something that is greater in excellence (better) or higher in quality; favorable
  • a rule established by custom or authority
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • a law