The Civil War and Reconstruction

The Problem of Slavery

Sectionalism continued to deepen the divide in the country. The economy in the North was based on industry-manufacturing, free labor, and many kinds of farming. The economy in the South was based on single-crop plantations that relied on slave labor.

The argument over slavery was at the heart of sectionalism. The divide grew sharper as the new western territories, land controlled by the US government, were settled. Abolitionist, or antislavery, forces wanted slavery banned in new territories. Proslavery forces wanted the future states to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery in their states.

Whether the western territories joined the union as free states or slave states could tip the political balance in the US Congress. Before the new states were admitted to the Union, there were 11 slave states and 11 free states. Peace was kept only through a series of compromises.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. In addition, it prohibited slavery in the northern part of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1849, California asked to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Again Congress was divided along sectional lines. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to give both sides something of what they wan ted.

The Compromise of 1850

Northern Compromises Southern Compromises Won
California admitted as a free state no restrictions on slavery in the territories of Utah and New Mexico
slave trade outlawed in the District of Columbia passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that helped slave owners recover runaway slaves

Although the Compromise of 1850 settled the issues in Congress, many people in the North were angry over the Fugitive Slave Act.

Further events contributed to the growth of antislavery feelings:

  • In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book showed the harshness of slave life.
  • In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas introduced a bill to create the Kansas and Nebraska territories. In order for his bill to pass, Southern senators insisted that the Missouri Compromise be overturned and slavery be allowed in the new territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act undid the compromise. It allowed slavery in the territories if the people who settled there voted for it.
  • In the Dred Scott case of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that enslaved people were not citizens. They were the property of their masters. The Court said that the Constitution protected slave owners’ property rights, so Congress could make no law prohibiting slavery.
  • In 1859, John Brown, a militant abolitionist, attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (now part of West Virginia). An arsenal is a place where weapons are stored. Brown wanted to arm enslaved persons for rebellion. He failed and was hanged.

Founding of the Republican Party

The Kansas-Nebraska Act angered many members of both the Whig and the Democratic political parties. In 1854, antislavery members joined together to form the Republican Party. This new party was opposed to the spread of slavery. In 1860, its presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election.

The Civil War

The South believed that the balance of power had been permanently tipped against it by the 1850s. Northern political and economic strength grew when California, Oregon, and Minnesota joined the Union. Southern leaders feared that a Republican president meant that slavery would be abolished. In late 1860 and early 1861, seven states voted to secede, or withdraw, from the Union. They formed the Confederate States of America.

President Lincoln, however, was unwilling to allow the Union to break up. In 1861, the Civil War began between the North and the South. Each side had certain advantages.

Civil War

Northern Advantages Southern Advantages
greater population strong military tradition and excellent military leaders
industrial resources, such as factories and shops to produce weapons and other supplies most of the fighting happened on Southern land
more railroads to get supplies to troops farmers could produce plenty of food
control of the national treasury -

The Civil War began as an attempt by President Lincoln to save the Union. However, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in Confederate states. Many former enslaved persons joined the Union Army as it moved through the South. This helped strengthen the Union Army.

The Battle of Gettysburg

In 1862 and 1863, Southern troops marched steadily north. They defeated the Union in battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia. On July 1, 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Over four days, the battle raged on. There were heavy casualties (deaths and injuries) on both sides. Finally Southern troops retreated to Virginia. The battle was a turning point in the war. In November 1863, President Lincoln went to the field where the battle had taken place. Part of it was being dedicated as a military cemetery. There he gave one of his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address.

Here are portions of his speech:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. …

… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

After four long years, the North’s superiority wore down the Confederate states. General Robert E. Lee’s army was defeated. It surrendered, or gave up the fight, in the spring of 1865.

President Lincoln was re-elected in 1864. However, he was shot and killed on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth. The nation was shocked and saddened.


The time of rebuilding following the Civil War is known as the Reconstruction era. Abraham Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, proposed plans similar to Lincoln’s to try to reunite the divided nation. His plan included these features:

  • Confederate officers and politicians would be pardoned, or forgiven, if they took an oath of loyalty to the Union. High-level officers and officials had to ask the president for a pardon.
  • Southern states had to pass new constitutions. These constitutions had to repeal secession. They also had to ratify, or approve, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.
  • States had to refuse to pay Confederate war debts.

Once these conditions were met, the states could hold elections. Many Confederate officials returned to Southern legislatures in 1865. The legislatures passed what were called the Black Codes. These laws severely restricted the rights of former enslaved persons.

Radical Republicans in Congress were enraged by the actions of Southern state legislatures. They wanted protection for the rights of those people who were now free and other social changes. The Radicals were in favor of a tough policy toward the South and former Confederate officials. Their conflicts with President Johnson became so heated that they brought impeachment proceedings against him. However, the Senate did not convict Johnson of wrongdoing.

The Radicals sponsored important constitutional amendments, changes or additions to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) made African-Americans citizens with equal rights under the law. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) granted African-American men the right to vote. The Radicals’ Reconstruction plan temporarily forced many former Confederate officials out of office. For the first time, African-Americans were elected to statewide offices and to the US Senate. In the South, the Freedmen’s Bureau set up the first schools for African-Americans.

Reconstruction ended in 1877 as part of a compromise between conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats. After the disputed presidential election of 1876, an agreement gave the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In exchange, Hayes agreed to pull US troops out of the South.

Reconstruction made few economic and social changes in the South. Large plantations still remained. The freed men had little land and no economic opportunities. Many issues of justice and equality would not be settled for another hundred years.

After Reconstruction ended, a new system of segregation destroyed any remaining hopes for racial equality. Poll taxes, fees paid before voting, and literacy tests denied both African-American men and poor white men their right to vote. These abuses continued until the civil rights protests of the 1960s led to federal laws outlawing such practices.