For a few years following the Compromise of 1850 it appeared that the issue of the expansion of slavery had been effectively addressed. Slowly, however, the question began to creep back into the national consciousness.
Slavery was effectively ignored by the major parties in the Election of 1852, but the joint issues of California, the railroads, and the Gadsden Purchase ended the short-lived serenity. The Kansas-Nebraska Act ignited tensions resulting in “Bleeding Kansas.”
The Election of 1856 brought James Buchanan to the presidency. He wrongly interpreted the Dred Scott case as a solution to the expansion of the slavery issue. Sectional issues were also aired in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois. The degree to which the nation had fractured was evident in the reactions to the events at Harper’s Ferry in 1859; the slavery issue was interpreted vastly differently in the North and South.
The Election of 1860 ushered in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, but also touched off a secession crisis and the formation of the Confederacy. Efforts to compromise failed. The first shots of the Civil War were exchanged at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
At the outbreak of war the opposing sides possessed starkly differing aims, strategies and prospects.
The Civil War
The Union plan for victory included three components:
1. A blockade of the South – an effort to deny supplies from and trade with outside sources; it appeared for a while that Britain was receptive to Confederate aims in the construction of the Alabama, which preyed upon Union shipping; France toyed with recognition of the South, but contented itself with an invasion of Mexico.
2. A move to split the Confederacy in two – beginning with U.S. Grant’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. The war in the West continued with New Orleans, guardian of the mouth of the Mississippi, falling to Union forces in April. Both sides suffered heavy casualties at Shiloh. An indecisive encounter at Perryville was followed by a Union victory at Murfreesboro, ending a Confederate push into Kentucky. The West was sealed off from the remainder of the Confederacy following the Union victory at Vicksburg in July 1863. Northern forces began a thrust into enemy territory in the Chattanooga campaign and later in the Atlanta campaign. William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” ended with the occupation of Savannah in late 1864.
3. A campaign to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, required nearly the entire course of the war to accomplish, due in large part to Robert E. Lee's skillful maneuvers. The First Battle of Bull Run showed that the conflict would not be won easily. In the spring of 1862, Union General George B. McClellan opened a lackluster Peninsular Campaign, which was intended to take Richmond. A Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run opened the door to an invasion into Maryland. A long-awaited Union victory occurred at Antietam, providing a morale boost for the North and an opportunity for Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. Fortunes again turned in favor of the South in a stunning victory at Fredericksburg. In 1863 the Confederates won a costly victory at Chancellorsville, but their northward push ended at Gettysburg in July. A war of attrition took place in the Wilderness Campaign. The siege of Petersburg and the fall of Richmond occurred in early April 1865. Lee surrendered on April 9. Less than a week later President Lincoln was assassinated.
Reconstruction was the period in American history immediately following the Civil War during which the South was, at least in theory, put back together. Reconstruction initially referred to the political process in which the seceded states were readmitted to the Union; this aspect was completed in 1877. Reconstruction also had a social context which lasted much longer and mixed the contending forces of blacks and whites, and federal and local governments.
Not surprisingly the war had created two different nations; the social and economic conditions of North and South were vastly different in 1865.
Even before the war had ended, various reconstruction plans were advanced. As soon as peace was achieved, the Radical Republicans in Congress imposed Republican governments on the seceded states; these unpopular state and local regimes depended upon black votes to survive. Political tensions were intense on the national level and eventually resulted in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. The Election of 1868 brought U.S. Grant, the Union war hero, to the presidency; his terms in office marked the beginning of a Republican ascendancy in American politics.
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