Modern history

Civil War



Though born into slavery in 1818, by 1860 Frederick Douglass had become a celebrated orator, editor, and abolitionist. He ensured his fame in 1845 with publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In it, he described his experiences of slavery in Maryland, his defiance against his masters, and his eventual escape to New York in September 1838 with the help of Anna Murray, a free black servant.

Frederick and Anna married in New York and then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and changed their last name to Douglass to avoid capture. But in 1841 Frederick began lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Society, offering stirring accounts of his enslavement and escape. By publishing his Narrative four years later, Douglass made his capture even more likely, so in August 1845 he left for England, where wildly enthusiastic audiences attended his lectures and supporters raised funds to purchase his freedom. Douglass returned to Massachusetts in 1847, a truly free man.

A year later, Frederick moved to Rochester, New York, with Anna and their five children to launch his abolitionist paper, the North Star. Over the next decade, he became the most famous black abolitionist in the United States and an outspoken advocate of women's rights. He also broke with the Garrisonian branch of abolitionists by joining the Liberty Party and later the Free-Soil and Republican parties. He was thus well placed when war erupted in April 1861 to lobby President Lincoln to make emancipation a war aim and enlist African Americans in the Union army.

Douglass embraced electoral politics and the use of military force to end slavery. His greatest fear was that Lincoln was more committed to reconstituting the Union than to abolishing slavery. But after the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Douglass spoke enthusiastically on its behalf. At the same time, he continued to believe that military service was essential for black men to demonstrate their patriotism. His stirring editorial "Men of Color, to Arms" was turned into a recruiting poster, and he urged his own sons to join the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Colored Infantry, one of the first African American regiments. But Douglass also protested discrimination against black troops and lobbied for federal protections of black civil rights.

Like Douglass, Rose O'Neal was born on a Maryland plantation, but she was white and free. Her father was likely John O'Neal, a planter who was slain by a slave in 1817, when Rose was four years old. In early adolescence, she moved to Washington, D.C., with her older sister. They lived with an aunt who ran a fashionable boardinghouse near Capitol Hill. The boarders included John C. Calhoun, whose states' rights views Rose eagerly embraced. Intrigued by the lively political debates that marked the Jacksonian era, she was also schooled in the social graces. Charming and beautiful, Rose was welcomed into elite social circles, including invitations from Dolley Madison. In 1835 she married Robert Greenhow, a cultivated Virginian who worked for the State Department.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow quickly became a favorite Washington hostess. Like Dolley Madison, she entertained congressmen, cabinet ministers, and foreign diplomats with a wide range of views. In the midst of this social and political whirl, Rose gave birth to four daughters. Yet she also remained deeply invested in her husband's career. She assisted Robert in the 1840s as he researched U.S. land claims in the Pacific Northwest. Ardent proslavery expansionists, the Greenhows supported efforts to acquire Cuba, and in 1850 they traveled to Mexico City to study California land claims. When Robert died in 1854, Rose moved into a smaller house in Washington but continued to entertain political leaders and sustained friendships with powerful men like President James Buchanan.

In May 1861, just as the Civil War commenced, a U.S. army captain about to join the Confederate cause recruited Greenhow to head an espionage ring in Washington, D.C. With her close ties to southern sympathizers working in government offices and her extensive social network, Greenhow gathered important intelligence on Union political and military plans. Although she initially avoided suspicion, by August Greenhow was investigated and placed under house arrest. When she continued to smuggle out letters, embarrassing Union officials, she was sent to the Old Capitol Prison in January 1862. Once again, Greenhow managed to transmit information and riled up the other prisoners. In June, she was exiled to Richmond, where Confederate president Jefferson Davis hailed her as a hero and awarded her $2,500.

Union family in camp of Thirty-first Pennsylvania Infantry near Washington, D.C., 1862. Library Congress



of Frederick Douglass and Rose O’Neal Greenhow were shaped by the sectional conflict over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. Both were born on Maryland plantations, one as a slave and the other a daughter of slave owners. Both honed their innate talents, one as an orator and a writer, the other as a hostess and gatherer of intelligence. And both embraced the Civil War as the last best hope for national salvation, one on the side of union and emancipation, the other on the side of secession and slavery. They were among hundreds of thousands of Americans—men and women, black and white, North and South—who saw the war as a means to achieve their goals: a free nation, a haven for slavery, or a reunited country.

The Nation Goes to War

When Abraham Lincoln took office, seven states in the Lower South had already formed the Confederate States of America, and the threat of more secessions remained. Lincoln had promised not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but many southern whites were unconvinced by such assurances. By seceding, the southern slaveholding class also proclaimed its unwillingness to become a permanent minority in the nation. Still, not all slave states were yet willing to cut their ties to the nation, and Northerners, too, disagreed about the consequences of secession and the appropriate response to it. Once fighting erupted, however, preparations for war became the primary focus in both the North and the South.

The South Embraces Secession

Confederate president Davis joined other planters in arguing that Lincoln’s victory jeopardized the future of slavery and that secession was, therefore, a necessity. Advocates of secession contended that the federal government had failed to implement fully the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision. With Republicans in power, they were convinced that the administration would do even less to support southern interests. White Southerners also feared that a Republican administration might inspire a massive uprising of slaves. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, one southern newspaper warned that the region was “slumbering over a volcano, whose smoldering fires may, at any quiet starry midnight, blacken the social sky with the smoke of desolation and death.” Secession would allow whites to maintain greater control over the South’s black population.

Slaveholders were also anxious about the loyalty of white Southerners who did not own slaves. “I mistrust our own people more than I fear all of the efforts of the Abolitionists,” claimed a South Carolina politician in 1859. He went on to argue that by denouncing social and economic inequality, Republicans might recruit nonslaveholders to their party and thereby create a “contest for slavery . . . in the South between people of the South.” Secession would effectively isolate southern yeomen from potential Republican allies.

When Lincoln was inaugurated, legislators in the Upper South still hoped a compromise could be reached. Although many Northerners believed that the secessionists needed to be punished, Lincoln sought to bring the Confederates back into the Union without using military force. Yet he also sought to demonstrate Union strength to curtail further secessions. He focused on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor, where a small Union garrison was running low on food and medicine. On April 8, 1861, Lincoln dispatched ships to the fort but promised to use force only if the Confederates blocked his peaceful effort to send supplies.

Lincoln’s action presented the Confederate government with a choice. It could attack the Union vessels and bear responsibility for starting a war, or it could permit a “foreign power” to maintain a fort in its territory. President Davis and his advisers chose the aggressive course, demanding the unconditional surrender of Fort Sumter before supplies arrived. The commanding officer refused, and on April 12 Confederate guns opened fire. Two days later, Fort Sumter surrendered. On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the southern insurrection.

The declaration of war led whites in the Upper South to reconsider secession. Some small farmers and landless whites in the region were drawn to Republican promises of free labor and free soil and remained suspicious of the goals and power of secessionist planters. Moreover, their land sat in the direct path of military engagement. Yet the vast majority of southern whites, rich and poor, defined their liberty in relation to black bondage. They feared that Republicans would free the slaves and introduce racial amalgamation in the South.

Fearing more secessions, Lincoln used the powers of his office to keep the border states that allowed slavery—Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky—in the Union. He waived the right of habeas corpus (which protects citizens against arbitrary arrest and detention), jailed secessionists, arrested state legislators, and limited freedom of the press. Despite these measures, four more slave states—North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas—seceded. Of these, Virginia was by far the most significant. It was strategically located near the nation’s capital. Richmond was also home to the South’s largest iron manufacturer, which could produce weapons and munitions. By June 1861, the Confederacy had moved its capital to Richmond in recognition of Virginia’s importance.

When the first seven states seceded, outrage and anxiety escalated in the North. Textile manufacturers feared the permanent loss of the southern cotton crop, and bankers worried whether Confederates would repay their loans. In northeastern cities, stock prices plummeted, banks shut their doors, factories laid off workers, and unsold goods piled up on docks. But the firing on Fort Sumter prompted many Northerners to line up behind Lincoln’s call for war. Manufacturers and merchants, once intent upon maintaining economic links with the South, now rushed to support the president, while northern workers, including immigrants, responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers. They assumed that the Union, with its greater resources and manpower, could quickly set the nation right. New York editor Horace Greeley proclaimed, “Jeff Davis and Co. will be swingin’ from the battlements at Washington at least by the 4th of July.” A Philadelphia newspaper echoed, “This much-ado about nothing will end in a month.” Greeley and his fellow journalists were sadly mistaken.

Both Sides Prepare for War

At the onset of the war, the Union held a decided advantage in resources and population. The Union states held more than 60 percent of the U.S. population, while the Confederate states held less than 40 percent. And the Confederacy included several million slaves who would not be armed for combat. The Union also outstripped the Confederacy in manufacturing and even led the South in agricultural production. The North’s many miles of railroad track ensured greater ease in moving troops and supplies. And the Union could launch far more ships to blockade southern ports (Figure 13.1).

Yet Union forces were less prepared for war than were the Confederates, who had been organizing troops and gathering munitions for months. To match their efforts, Winfield Scott, general in chief of the U.S. army, told Lincoln he would need at least 300,000 men committed to serve for two or three years. But the president, who feared unnerving Northerners, asked for only 75,000 volunteers for three months. Recruits poured into state militias, and thousands more offered their services directly to the federal government. Yet rather than forming a powerful national army led by seasoned officers, Lincoln left recruitment, organization, and training largely to the states. The result was disorganization and the appointment of new officers based more on political connections than on military expertise.


Economies of the North and South, 1860 This figure provides graphic testimony to the enormous advantages in resources the North held on the eve of the Civil War. Perhaps most surprisingly, the North led the South in farm acreage as well as factories and commodity output. Over four years of war, the North's significantly larger population would also prove crucial.

Source: Data from Stanley Engerman, "The Economic Impact of the Civil War," in The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, ed. Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman (New York: Harper and Row).

Confederate leaders also initially relied on state militia units and volunteers, but they prepared for a prolonged war from the start. Before the firing on Fort Sumter, President Davis signed up 100,000 volunteers for a year’s service. The labor provided by slaves allowed a large proportion of white working-age men to volunteer for military service. And Southerners knew they were likely to be fighting mainly on home territory, where they had expert knowledge of the terrain. When the final four states joined the Confederacy, the southern army also gained important military leadership. It ultimately recruited 280 West Point graduates, including Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, and others who had proved their mettle in the Mexican-American War.

The South’s advantages were apparent in the first major battle of the war. But Confederate troops were also aided by information on Union plans sent by Rose Greenhow. Confederate forces were thus well prepared when 30,000 Union troops marched on northern Virginia on July 21, 1861. At the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), 22,000 Confederates repelled the Union attack. During the fighting, 800 men lost their lives, giving Americans their first taste of the carnage that lay ahead. Civilians from Washington who traveled to the battle site to view the combat had to flee for their lives to escape Confederate artillery.

Despite Union defeats at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in August 1861, the Confederate army did not follow up with major strikes against Union forces. Meanwhile the Union navy began blockading the South’s deepwater ports. When the armies settled into winter camps in 1861—1862, both sides recognized that the war was likely to be a long struggle demanding a far greater commitment of men and resources than anyone had imagined just months earlier.


• What steps did Lincoln take to prevent war? Why were they ineffective?

• What advantages and disadvantages did each side have at the onset of the war?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!