Three Monkeys Online

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America: From Colony to Superpower. Part I: 1776-1876

Democrat James Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election. The North detested him and he was seen as a southern president. He tried to force slavery on Kansas even after its residents voted against it several times. The South’s influence over the American government had never seemed so strong. But southerners realised that the North did not support their slaveholding policies, and that sooner or later a northern president would once again rule the country. What then would happen to the South? John Brown’s attempted slave rebellion of 1859 in Virginia startled southerners, even before it emerged that he had been backed by northern abolitionists. For the South, slavery was the backbone of their society. If it was abolished the whole area would be utterly changed. Rich slaveholders would lose a lot of money. The South was an area of agriculture, cotton plants and slavery. The North was a growing industrial power. Their very social structure was different. The minority of the South believed that government policies would always favour the northern majority. Many southerners began to believe that only a separate southern nation would protect their interests.

The 1860 presidential election was perhaps the most important in the country’s history. The Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was committed to prevent the extension of slavery in the United States. The Democratic party was so divided that it was forced to run a northern and a southern candidate. Lincoln won the election narrowly. Southern politicians assembled and talked of secession. On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina passed an ordinance of secession amid scenes of wild jubilation. South Carolina’s actions induced other southern states to follow suit. Soon all of the Deep South had seceded- Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. By February 1861 these states had joined South Carolina to form a new government in Montgomery, Alabama: the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was chosen as their president and the Confederacy began to function independently of the United States.

Whilst Lincoln held on to federal fortifications in the South as he attempted to end the crisis, Jefferson Davis realised that the Confederacy could not claim to be a separate sovereign nation if its ports were under foreign control. On April 12th, 1861, Confederate forces attacked the federal garrison in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The American Civil War had begun.


The Civil War


No State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances


– President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 186110

The war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end


– Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army during the Civil War11

On July 21st the two sides met in the first serious battle of the Civil War in Bull Run, Virginia. Inspired by their leader, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, the Confederate forces won the day. Their unexpected defeat at Bull Run forced many northerners to revise their estimates on the war. Despite their huge numerical and material advantages, a quick victory would not be easy. Ulysses S. Grant, who would become the Union army commander, had a similar renaissance of thought following the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. After several days of fighting and thousands massacred, no clear victor emerged. Grant had previously believed that the South would soon become tired of the war, but now realised that it was prepared to fight, and that only its complete conquest would bring the war to a close.

The South adopted an essentially defensive position. Its numerical deficit and its claim that it simply wanted to be left alone made this the ideal strategy. The Confederacy did attempt to go on the offensive from time to time. In September 1862 the Confederate army commander, General Robert E. Lee, was driven back from his invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Sharpsburg. Even at this point the South realised that it could not hope to defeat the Union militarily. Its best bet was to reach a military stalemate, gain international recognition for its sovereignty, and sue for peace.

In July 1863 two crucial battles- at Vicksburg and Gettysburg- brought crushing defeats for the Confederacy. Under Grant, Union forces seized Vicksburg, which was the last major fortification on the Mississippi River in southern hands, on July 4th. That same day, Confederate forces withdrew from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, where Lee had again attempted to push the war into Union territory. The results were disastrous for the Confederacy. It was split in two and its heartland was exposed to invasion. By 1864 it also had become clear that no European country was prepared to recognise the independence of the Confederate States of America. Although opposition to the war was increasing all over the country, it hit the South hardest. Unlike the Union, the Confederacy did not have the sheer manpower to make up for the increased number of deserters from its army ranks.

Amidst the violence and thunder of war, a presidential election was held in 1864. Jefferson Davis was determined that the South would repel northern invasion long enough that the American people would realise it could not be defeated. He then hoped that they would reject Lincoln and elect a president who would sue for peace. However, this strategy unravelled. General Sherman was given command of 100,000 battle-hardened Union troops for a deep raid into the South. Determined to end the war and enact revenge on the men whom they believed started the war, these troops tore through Georgia, rampaging and pillaging as they went. They cut a path fifty to sixty miles wide and more than two hundred miles long. They left total destruction in their wake. Their occupation of Atlanta in September all but secured Lincoln’s re-election as voters realised that the tide of war was very much turning in the Union’s favour. After reaching Savannah in December, they turned northwards and rolled on into the Carolinas.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Grant spent the spring and summer of 1864 constantly attacking Lee’s diminishing army. The Union suffered appalling losses but Grant was determined to chip away at his enemy until he had nothing left. Finally Lee’s army shrank so much that he could not afford offensive action, the Confederate commander-in-chief surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Within weeks Jefferson Davis was captured, and the remaining Confederate forces laid down their arms and surrendered. With Lee’s surrender Lincoln knew that the Union had been saved, yet he would not live to serve out his second term as president. On the evening of April 14th, 1865, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. by an embittered southern sympathiser, John Wilkes Booth.

The costs of the Civil War were enormous. More than 1 million men died- a huge death toll for a country of 31 million people. More men died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined until Vietnam. Interest on the war debt and payment of Union soldiers’ pensions would cause a great strain on the federal budget for several decades to come. Thousands of acres of southern land were ruined. And the war left deep scars that would take a long time to heel. But its most immediate result was on the issue of slavery. Lincoln had emancipated all slaves in 1863, calling for a &ldquonew birth of freedom” in America. How would the government go about achieving this emancipation, and how would white southerners react to such monumental changes in their society?


Reconstruction in the Aftermath of the Civil War


I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, shall recognise and maintain the freedom of said persons


– President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 186312

The new president, Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln following his death), and Congress fought bitterly over the shaping of the plan of Reconstruction of the country, principally the South. Johnson felt that the Congress measures were too pro-black and harmful on the South. But eventually Congress was able to push through most of its proposals. The Fourteenth Amendment promoted the voting rights of black men (female citizens, black and white, were still ignored). In 1867 it passed the Reconstruction Act, which called for a return to military authority in the South until new governments could be set up. Although these measures legally acknowledged emancipation and gave black men the right to vote, they required no redistribution of land and guaranteed no basic change in southern social structure.

In 1868 Ulysses S. Grant, running as a Republican, was elected president. Grant was much more helpful in aiding Congress with Reconstruction than Johnson, although he was careful not to alienate white southerners. In 1870 and 1871 the violent campaigns of a new terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan (a secret war veterans’ club that began in Tennessee) forced Congress to pass two Enforcement Acts and an anti-Klan law. These laws made acts by individuals against the civil and political rights of others a federal crime for the first time. But in states where Klan violence flourished, federal prosecutors were slow to enforce the laws if at all. In 1872 Grant was re-elected. He defeated a candidate backed not only by the Democrats but also by the Liberal Republicans, a group that had left the Republican party in protest over Reconstruction. They were against federal intervention in the South, and their emergence made it clear that the North was growing tired with the issues of emancipation and blacks’ rights.

Reconstruction was soon over. The Supreme Court had continuously interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment in incredibly narrow terms, thus trivialising its usefulness to black Americans. In 1876 the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had become president. He withdrew any lingering federal troops from the South as the United States turned its back on the original aims of Reconstruction. In 1877 thousands of black southerners migrated to Kansas, realising that the situation in the South would not be changing. Although they were no longer slaves, they continued to be treated as inferior beings, and were stilled forced to rely on white people for employment and money. The basic social elitism of the South remained the same despite the apparent seismic shift that emancipation promised. These migrants were known as the Exodusters.

The issues of racism and elitism down south would linger and fester for a long time, but now many Americans in the North had turned their attention to other things. The Civil War had preserved the Union. The United States could resume its growth and development. Industrialisation and expansion would see the country emerge as a global power as the twentieth century dawned.


1 See pg. 5 of The Making of the Constitution by Gordon S. Wood (Waco, 1987)

2 Pg. 63 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, Fifth Edition, 1991)

3 Ibid, pg. 176

4 Pg. 240 of The National Experience: A History of the United States (Fort Worth, Eighth Edition, 1993)

5 Ibid, pg. 241

6 Pg. 237 of The National Experience: A History of the United States (Fort Worth, Eighth Edition, 1993)

7 Ibid, pg. 246

8 Pg. 118 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, Fifth Edition, 1991)

9 Pg. 220 of The National Experience: A History of the United States (Fort Worth, Eighth Edition, 1993)

10 Pg. 147 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, Fifth Edition, 1991)

11 Pg. 666 of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (New York, 1885)

12 Pg. 156 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, Fifth Edition, 1991)














Part II 1876-1929 America: From Colony to Superpower

Part III 1929-1960 America: From Colony to Superpower

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