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The American Civil War and Reconstruction: 1861 - 1877

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We are going to show the importance of long-lasting phenomena in understanding history, since the independence of the United States there have been rising tensions between the slave-owning North and the slave-owning South.

The Civil War was the most deadly war in the United States. The Supreme Court played an important role in the development of policy in the United States in order to realize that the evolution of societies and history does not always lead to progress. The freedom, equality, and citizenship that African Americans gained in 1865 would last only a few years and be followed by a veritable flashback to the Civil Rights Movement 100 years later.

The causes of the war[edit | edit source]

The Abolitionist (blue) and Slavery (red) States in 1861.
Poster affixed to the walls of Boston informing the black population of the presence of police officers tracking fugitives in 1851.

During the first half of the 19th century, the gap between the South and the North of the United States widened considerably after the acquisition of Oregon and the new territories taken over from Mexico. The 1850 compromise that was supposed to settle the balance between the slave states and the free states lasted mainly because it included the Fugitive Slave Act, which obliged the federal government to arrest fugitives who fled to the North and return them to their masters in the South. When a slave refugee from the North denounced the unconstitutionality of this law, up to the Supreme Court, which is dominated by judges from the South, concluded that a slave remained a slave even in the states that had abolished slavery.[8][9][10][11]

Starting in 1850, runaway slaves had to flee to Canada because they could be arrested anywhere. This strengthened the abolitionist movement in the north with Fréderic Douglas, a runaway slave, who published his book Fugitive slave. Harriet Stowe publishes Uncle Thom's Cabin, which will sell more than 10 million copies in 10 years for a population of 30 million at the time. This book will upset readers in the North and enrage slavers in the South.[12][13][14][15]

This 1854 map shows the slave states (gray), the abolitionist states (red) and the US territories (green) with Kansas (uncolored).

In 1854, the question of the balance between slave and free states was reopened by a slave-democrat who pushed through Congress the Kansas - Nebraska Act. This act opened up the plains that had not yet been transformed into states to colonization; in addition, this act decreed that these territories would be able to decide by vote of their inhabitants whether they wanted to be slave or free, bringing the potential frontier of slavery up to Canada.[16][17][18][19][20][21]

Daguerreotype of Lincoln by Alexander Gardneren 1863.

Supporters of slavery and abolition will flood into these new territories to obtain a majority in the vote; there are sometimes bloody clashes which further polarise public opinion both in the North and in the South.

The party of the Whigs, the ancestor of the Republican Party in the North, did not resist this crisis, in 1854 it was divided between a fundamentally anti-immigrant American party and a Republican party opposed to slavery, but also to the Irish.[22][23][24][25]

Democrats who were also slaves won the presidential elections of 1856. The gap between southerners and northerners widened with violent incidents that exacerbated the elections.

At this point in the presidential elections of 1860, the Slavery Democrats were unable to nominate a single candidate and split. The new Republican Party introduced Abraham Lincoln, who embodied the American dream because he was born very poor, a self-made man who became a lawyer on his own, and he was going to ally himself with a much more nuanced vice president.[26]

Lincoln was against the extension of slavery to the new territories, which he wanted to reserve for whites only, but at the same time he declared that nothing justified the exclusion of blacks from the natural rights guaranteed by the declaration of independence.

Secession and the outbreak of the Civil War, or Civil War[edit | edit source]

Animated map of the Secession, the Civil War and the readmission of States.

1860 - 1861[edit | edit source]

Lincoln was elected in 1860, and for the first time since the founding of the United States there was a president opposed to slavery, but Republicans did not have a majority in Congress and the Supreme Court.

Almost immediately after Lincoln's election, South Carolina convened a convention that almost unanimously decided to remove the state from the Union. Soon Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Texas also voted to secede, forming the Confederacy of American States.

Its constitution is much the same as that of the Union except that it gives supremacy of state law over federal law and makes the abolition of slavery virtually impossible. The president of the confederacy is Jefferson Davis, who quickly formed a cabinet, himself a relatively moderate Democrat, a large Mississippi slave owner, and a veteran general in the Mississippi Army.

1861 - 1863[edit | edit source]

The United States in the Civil War. In blue, the States of the Union; in light blue, the States of the Union where slavery was allowed. In red, the Confederate States. In white, the territories that were not yet states, essentially under the control of the Union.

Lincoln's inaugural speech did not close the door on secessionists, "We are not enemies, but friends[27] » insisting on the need to keep or regain the Union, but warns that the federal government will react by force if the secessionist states attempt to seize the federal domains which are the military forts and customs posts in the South. The confederates announce that they will defend themselves by force against any federal attack on the territory quickly mobilizing an army of 100,000 volunteers.

Assault on Fort Sanders, by Kurz and Allison, 1891.

The war began at Fort Sanders in South Carolina when the secessionists laid siege to the fort's federal troops, beat them and raised the Confederate flag on the fort. In response, Lincoln mobilized 75,000 men against the South without difficulty.

In the south, four more states entered Confederation, which would strengthen it, but there were slave states that decided to stay in the Union, they chose to be cautious since they were on the border between Confederation and the Union, thus weakening the south since not all the slave states entered Confederation.

In the beginning, the North believed it could win very quickly because it had twice the population of the South, almost all of the country's industrial production was in the North, the railways were well developed and they had enough grain and food for the troops. Almost everywhere, the Union is the strongest except for the percentage of men eligible for service.

Flag of the United States from 1861 to 1863. The southern states are always represented by the number of stars since their secession was considered illegal by the northern states. In 1863, a star was added to represent the new state of West Virginia.

The troops of these two parties are not really organised, in the North they are made up of city-dwellers who are ill-prepared to invade the South, while in the South the men are much more motivated to defend their territory, all the more so as they are rural men, peasants who have a hard life; it is a war that will be both land and sea since the Union is trying to occupy the secessionist border states subjecting the South to an embargo on its ports.

To the great astonishment of the North, the South is responding very well; it is a war unlike any other, because it is the first time in the history of the Western world that so many armies have been launched against each other and also with such destructive weapons, since each battle provokes hecatombes.

War destroys the South more than the North, it is mainly played out in the southern states. In the beginning, the South responds well and even manages to bring the war into slave-free states. It is the countryside that suffers the most destruction and in the South trade with the North is stopped, cotton exports are blocked as a result of the embargo imposed by the North; in the South, goods are scarce and expensive and the inflation rate reaches 7,000%.

The South, which was then profoundly rural, is forced to embark on small-scale substitute industrialisation.

The war undermined certain components of the present ideology, notably patriarchy and the dogma of the white housewife. With the departure for war of 90% of men fit to fight, more and more women are called upon to replace them at the head of farms, plantations and even in government. The war demands the concentration of power in the hands of the president, who must set up a large central administration that nibbles away at the powers of the confederate states.

The rioters start hitting the blacks.

The gap between rich and poor in the South, which was very large at the time, will grow very quickly, as we will soon have to move from voluntary to compulsory recruitment; more and more rich people are avoiding military service by buying poor replacements. They put notices in the newspaper asking to be replaced in the war.

The discontent of the poor reached another peak when a law of confederation decreed that any man who supervised more than 20 slaves was exempt from military service; there was growing talk of a war of the rich being fought by the poor. The sacred union of white Southerners around the defence of slavery and white privilege began to fragment.

The North is less affected economically since it is not the scene of the war except in Pennsylvania, even more so than in the South the military mobilization affects unskilled workers, immigrants and the poor while a whole series of entrepreneurs take advantage of federal needs to inflate prices, lower workers' wages and get rich. More and more women are also replacing men in factories as agriculture is being mechanized to cope with the lack of men's arms. At the same time, the very high mortality rate provoked more and more resistance in the North with a refusal of mobilization, desertion, riots against recruitment; these riots were directed against blacks and particularly in New York in 1863 which caused 105 deaths.

1863 - 1865[edit | edit source]

Reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

1863 is the turning point of the war first of all because in January 1863 there is the famous declaration of emancipation of Lincoln's slaves. This declaration was in fact only theoretical since it did not free the slaves from the slaveholding states that remained in the Union, but it did denounce the slavery in the States of the Confederacy.[28][29][30][31]

What is interesting is that it is a statement that will galvanize free blacks in the North and encourage slaves in the South to flee en masse to join the armies of the Union. In all, 200,000 blacks, including 100,000 runaway slaves, voluntarily enlisted against the South.[32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39]

This means that 20% of adult black men enlist for the defence of the Union and against slavery. In addition, 40,000 of these black volunteer soldiers will die in this war.

Their commitment is made in a context of very strong racism, the regiments are segregated, they are entrusted with the most ungrateful and risky tasks while their pay is lower than that of the whites.

Poster with portraits of Lincoln and Johnson in two medallions next to each other. The background consists of an open red curtain with an eagle and several American flags.
Poster for the Lincoln/Johnson ticket made by Currier and Ives.

For these black people who are involved, their participation in the war is a way of showing their humanity, equality and full right to citizenship. Moreover, as Douglas notes, in several free states the legal status of blacks improves permanently after their military service in the civil war.[40][41][42][43][44]

En même temps en 1863 l’armée de l’Union change de tactique pour passer à une offensive en profondeur à l’intérieur du Sud où elle va désarçonner de plus en plus que les troupes confédérées.

Thure de Thulstrup - L. Prang and Co. - Battle of Gettysburg - Restoration by Adam Cuerden.

The last great battle of the war is at Gettysburg, it is a huge battle in Pennsylvania; a terrible battle where more than 20,000 southern and northern soldiers are killed or wounded. The war continued until 1864 and the North was increasingly asserting its victory, but lost thousands of men in each battle.[45][46][47][48]

In 1864, Lincoln was re-elected, to everyone's surprise, when the South decided to form and arm battalions of slaves to fight for confederation in exchange for the promise of freedom.[49][50]

Finally in April 1865 the Confederate government abandoned and burned down its capital city of Richmond to take refuge in Texas. General Lee with the 25,000 men of the southern army surrendered, there was no reprisal, they were only sent home.

Five days later, Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern man who questioned the future of the Union.

With the end of the war and the defeat of the Confederacy, the abolition of slavery was proclaimed, and the militarily defeated, economically weakened Southerners were forced to free 4 million slaves. This is a further humiliation that many will never accept.

The Civil War, the deadliest in U.S. history[edit | edit source]

Charge of the Iron Brigade, near the church of Dunker, on the morning of 17 September 1862 by Thure of Thulstrup.

This civil war is the deadliest in the history of the United States. In all, there were 633,000 dead, 373,000 for the Union forces and 260,000 for the Confederates; all the major battles left thousands of dead on the ground.

The Battle of Antietam left more dead in a single day than the entire War of Independence fought against England, more than 4,000 dead.[51][52][53]

It is also the First Photographic War allowing to see the war in photography.[54]

Not only are there deaths, but also many wounded people who are parked in camps with medicine that is not adapted to the weapons used, the doctors amputate the wounded who are dying of infections. There are almost as many deaths from wounds as from the battle, there are also many starvation deaths.

If the wounded are added to the dead, the number of casualties rises to more than 1 million for a total population of 33 million.

The Reconstruction: 1865 - 1877[edit | edit source]

The reconstruction will last until 1877. Reconstruction is the name given by Lincoln to the policy of the North to reintegrate secessionist states into the Union at the end of the war under certain conditions.

These conditions are summed up in the adoption by these states of new non-slavery constitutions, but the forces to adopt new constitutional amendments, namely the XIII Amendment which abolished slavery forever, the XIV Amendment which confers American citizenship and extends the Bill of Rights to blacks born in the United States while excluding the secessionist states that have not sworn loyalty to the Union, the XV Amendment prohibits the exclusion of blacks from voting rights.

It is the whole question of blacks and their full integration into the nation that is being asked. From the outset, several visions clash, ranging from extreme southerners who want to keep slavery in disguise, to republicans who would like to transform the South in the image of the North, to radicals who would like to build a more egalitarian society for blacks and women through universal suffrage, a strong federal state, education for all, freedom of work and the redistribution of part of the land of southern planters to freed slaves and poor whites.

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln - Engraving by Currier and Ives (1865) From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincolnet John Wilkes Booth.

Apart from the fact that slavery has been abolished and blacks are gaining new legal rights in both the North and the South, the reconstruction is a failure.

First of all because Lincoln is assassinated, the vice-president who replaces him, namely Andrew Johnson, is an openly racist Democrat from the South whom Lincoln had chosen in order to attract the vote of all the border states.

On the other hand, Congress does not sit until the end of 1865, which gives Johnson a free hand, he does not talk about reconstruction, but about restoration. He hurries to forgive the Southerners who regain all political rights except Jefferson who will serve two years in prison.

Very quickly, the secessionist states approved new constitutions allowing them to rejoin the Union and Congress.

These years, especially from 1865 to 1870, were the years when the emancipated slaves of the South participated massively in politics, holding meetings to propose candidates for election. However, they will have enormous difficulties to impose themselves in front of the white people who quickly reunited behind the Democratic Party and put in place three main strategies to restore the South to their image:

  • violence and terrorism, mainly by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as anti-black riots.
  • the caricature of the law to establish black codes that use subterfuge to limit the freedom of movement and expression of black people and to exclude them from constitutional rights or to neutralise amendments.
  • the rejection of any agrarian reform with the progressive imposition of sharecropping, i.e. plantation owners enjoy plots of land in return for two-thirds of their harvest; sharecropping leads to systematic indebtedness that will also affect poor whites

In spite of everything, blacks will make an enormous effort to build their free and independent life, in particular by educating themselves massively and by reforming the families separated by slavery. The white planters succeeded in dominating them, because the blacks, even in large numbers, were a minority almost everywhere, but also because the white reformers quickly left the south abandoned, while the north quickly detached itself from the south, leaving the former slaves to their fate.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

Video[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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  2. Aline Helg - Academia.edu
  3. Aline Helg - Wikipedia
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  7. Aline Helg - Google Scholar
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  9. Campbell, Stanley W. (1970). The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1141-6.
  10. Fehrenbacher, Don E. (2002). The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515805-9.
  11. Franklin, John Hope; Schweninger, Loren (1999). Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508451-9.
  12. Reynolds, David S. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, Norton, 2011. 351 pp.
  13. "Slave narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin", Africans in America, PBS. Retrieved February 16, 2007.
  14. Hollis Robbins, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Matter of Influence", Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
  15. The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, a Multi-Media Archive.
  16. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery
  17. Kansas–Nebraska Act and related resources at the Library of Congress
  18. Millard Fillmore on the Fugitive Slave and Kansas–Nebraska Acts: Original Letter Shapell Manuscript Foundation
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  22. Cole, Arthur Charles (1913). The Whig Party in the South. online version
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  28. Text and images of the Emancipation Proclamation from the National Archives
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  30. Chronology of Emancipation during the Civil War
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  51. "Brady's Photographs: Pictures of the Dead at Antietam". The New York Times. New York. October 20, 1862.
  52. Frassanito, William A. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day. New York: Scribner, 1978. ISBN 978-0-684-15659-0.
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  54. "Home". The Center for Civil War Photography.