A Gold Rush Leads to War A Gold Rush Leads to War The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the Reconstruction period that followed were the bloodiest chapters of American history to date. Brother fought brother as the population was split along sectional lines. The issue of slavery divided the nation’s people and the political parties that represented them in Washington. The tension which snapped the uneasy truce between north and south began building over slavery and statehood debates in California. In 1848, settlers discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, starting a mass migration. By 1849, California had enough citizens to apply for statehood.
However, the debate over whether the large western state would or would not allow slavery delayed its admittance. Delegates from the south threatened to secede if California was admitted as a free state. Meanwhile, tempers also flared in New Mexico and Texas over border disputes, and abolitionists fought pro-slavery advocates over the issue of slave trading within the District of Columbia. Southern political leaders, mostly Democrats, proposed a convention in Nashville to discuss secession. In 1850, Henry Clay proposed the Compromise of 1850 to Congress. The Compromise contained the following provisions: California would enter the union as free state. New Mexico territory would be divided into New Mexico and Utah, and offered popular sovereignty. Texas must yield disputed territory to New Mexico in return for federal assumption of its state debt.
Trading, but not possession, of slaves would be banned from the District of Columbia. Fugitive slave laws would be enhanced. Zachary Taylor, who was president at the time, was prepared to veto the bills, but died suddenly. His successor, Millard Fillmore, allowed the provisions to pass one at a time with the help of Stephen Douglas. The Nashville Convention met soon afterwards and denounced the plan, but took no decisive action. This uneasy truce would last for only four years. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes further compromise practically impossible. It granted popular sovereignty to both states, in the hopes that they would split on the slavery issue and continue the shaky equality between slave and free states.
Nebraska quickly adopted an free-soil constitution and was admitted as a free state. Kansas, however, was badly split along sectional lines, and opposing political forces ratified both a free and a slave constitution in 1855. Riots broke out everywhere, and “Bleeding Kansas” fell into chaos. John Brown, an infamous and rebellious abolitionist, killed five pro-slavery activists in 1856 in retaliation for the murder of five abolitionists. This “Pottawatomie Massacre” further heightened a feeling of an impending war over slavery. The peace between abolitionists and slaveowners was not helped by three events which occurred in 1857.
One was an economic”panic” which threw support to the newly formed Republican party. The Republicans had promised high protective tariffs, against the lowering of import duties imposed by the Democrats. However, they also maintained a strongly abolitionist platform. The support they gained from the tariff issue also brought increased support to their abolitionist aims. Second, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, responding to violent mobs protesting slavery, decided in favor of the abolitionists. Third was the Dred Scott decision.
In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriett, sued for their freedom from their master, because he had taken them into Michigan, which was a free state. They insisted that since they had lived on free soil, their bonds of slavery were no longer valid. The Supreme Court decided in a shocking decision that not only was the Scotts’ claim invalid, but the entire case had been unconstitutional, because blacks, according to their claims, had no right to sue whites in any court, much less the United States Supreme Court. This total denial of blacks’ rights ignited a violent fury in abolitionists everywhere, and inspired an equally defiant spirit among pro-slavery activists. In 1859, John Brown again made headlines by raiding an armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Brown apparently hoped to gain control of the arms magazine and distribute weapons to free and enslaved blacks in the area. His ill-devised plan failed miserably. Brown was convicted of treason in a Virginia court and hanged. The animosity between the two sides of the slavery argument continued to intensify. Sectionalism had grown so prevalent throughout the states that the election of 1860 saw two opposing candidates, both from the Democratic party: Stephen Douglas from the north, and John C. Breckinridge from the south. The Republicans, confident after their success in 1856, nominated Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of Douglas’s in the Illinois senate race. The Constitutional Union Party, consisting largely of displaced and elderly Whigs, tried to downplay sectionalism, and spoke only of preserving the Union and the Constitution. They nominated John Bell.
The race became a two-man battle between Lincoln and Breckinridge. Lincoln won a majority of electoral votes (180 of 303) but only gained 39% of the popular vote. Lincoln had made considerable abolitionist noise in the past, and several states had threatened to secede. Now that Lincoln had been elected, South Carolina carried out its threats, electing to secede on December 20, 1860. One after the other, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas joined South Carolina and formed the Confederate States of America, with their new capital at Montgomerey, Alabama. The hastily assembled congress appointed Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to the posts of provisional president and vice president. In 1861, John J. Crittenden of Kentucky tried to save the union by proposing a thirteenth amendment which, instead of abolishing slavery (as it does now), would forever guarantee it in states where it already existed. The proposal also provided for an extension of the Missouri Compromise, dividing slave and free territories.
Lincoln furthered the preservationist spirit by insisting that the rebellious states were still part of the Union. However, before Crittenden’s amendment could be sent to the states for approval, on April 12, 1861, troops in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on Fort Sumter, a United States installation in Charleston’s harbor. The next day, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina join the Confederacy, choosing not to fight against their fellow slave states in the deep south. In November, Davis and Stephens won the first (and only) presidential election in the Confederacy unopposed, and moved the capital to Richmond, Virginia. The dreaded civil war had begun.
Once the Democrats from the south left the Union Congress, the Republicans met the demands of the northern merchants and industrialists. They raised the protective tariffs to encourage industry, and set up national banks and issue war bonds to cover the cost of the war. For the first time, civilians are directly involved in supporting the war effort. In 1862, both the Union and Confederacy passed conscripion acts. Thus “total war”, or war in which every citizen is involved in the war effort, began in both the north and the south. Two critical battles in 1862 turned the tide of the war against the Confederacy.
In March, the “ironclad” battleship Virginia, formerly the Union Merrimack, tried to break the Union blockade around the Chesepeake Bay. The Union, hearing of the Virginia’s construction, built their own ironclad vessel, the Monitor, to intercept the Virginia before it broke through the blockade. The two ships met in battle, and after endless hours of shelling each other, both ships withdrew. Neither vessel would survive the damage they incurred in the battle. The other critical loss the rebels suffered was at Antietam, one of the Confederacy’s precious few offensive campaigns.
Until then, the British had considered aiding the Confederacy, despite their claims of neutrality and the negative reactions they received from Russia and France, which the British feared. The British hoped that a major offensive victory would turn the tides of the war, gain the support of other European powers, and provide Britain with a powerful ally against the United States in the future. However, the Union armies defeated the already exhausted force at Antietam, …