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The American Civil War: A Hands-on History

The American Civil War: A Hands-on History

by Christopher J. Olsen

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Succinct, with a brace of original documents following each chapter, Christopher J. Olsen's The American Civil War is the ideal introduction to American history's most famous, and infamous, chapter. Covering events from 1850 and the mounting political pressures to split the Union into opposing sections, through the four years of bloodshed and waning Confederate fortunes, to Lincoln's assassination and the advent of Reconstruction, The American Civil War covers the entire sectional conflict and at every juncture emphasizes the decisions and circumstances, large and small, that determined the course of events.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809016402
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/24/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Christopher J. Olsen is an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830–1860.

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Excerpted from The American Civil War: A Hands-on History by Christopher J. Olsen. Copyright © 2006 by Christopher J. Olsen. Published in August, 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Political Sectionalism Before 1850

When the majority of white Southerners opted to secede from the Union in 1860 and 1861 it signaled a failure of the American political system and its renowned ability to compromise difficult problems. For most of the antebellum period, nearly all politicians tried to avoid a national discussion of slavery or slavery expansion, believing such a debate would be too divisive for the country. At times, though, the questions were unavoidable, and threatened to destroy the Union. In turn, Northerners and Southerners negotiated a series of compromises, a practice that stretched back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and that over the decades engaged the efforts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and others. These well-known figures effected compromises at the national level, but the debate over slavery eventually reached into America’s communities and entered the conversations and feelings of ordinary folks, too. Most men and women across the country ultimately took positions on the growing sectional divide, and those individual choices determined the coming of the Civil War.

What provoked these moments of national crisis? First, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of white Americans considered the practice of slavery a very different political or legal issue from slavery’s expansion into territories where it nominally existed or did not exist. There was widespread agreement that slavery in the individual states was a local issue to be decided by residents of those states. In other words, even if the national government—that is, the majority of the voting public acting through Congress—wanted to abolish slavery, it could not, because abolition was not permitted under the Constitution. But the expansion of slavery was something else. Territories were governed directly by Congress, and therefore the issue of whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand was a matter for the national government in Washington.

Even before the Constitution was written, in fact, slavery in the West was an issue for the national government. America’s earliest governing body, the Confederation Congress (constituted under the Articles of Confederation), approved the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, barring slavery from the Northwest Territory. In 1784 the Congress had considered a proposal from Thomas Jefferson (as part of his ordinance to grant early statehood) that would have prohibited slavery in all western lands, including the Southwest. When the antislavery provision failed by one vote, Jefferson famously lamented that “the fate of millions unborn” hung “on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment.” In the mid-1780s, Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was in the flush of revolutionary rhetoric about equality and liberty, and whatever antislavery impulses he had ever felt were at their most intense.

The expansion of slavery caused heated division for a variety of reasons. For some it was a matter of morality—slavery was wrong and therefore should be limited as a first step toward abolition; others saw it as an economic matter, part of the competition for good land and resources; many Northern whites wanted to restrict slavery in the hope of creating an “all-white” society in the West. All of these factors, and others, helped to energize Northerners and Southerners and made the question of slavery expansion an explosive national issue. Ultimately, the compromises effected in Congress between the North and South involved basic questions of political power in the national government—votes in the House and the Senate, votes in the Electoral College, votes to help decide the makeup of the Supreme Court. Thus—and this is the critical point—for the large majority of all whites, whether or not slavery expanded to the West involved a series of questions unrelated to the fate of black people. In short, the expansion of slavery was a vital and urgent issue for whites, even while most of them did not care whether or not slavery itself continued in the South. This explains why the Civil War was “somehow” about slavery, as Abraham Lincoln said, even though the vast majority of whites had no interest in abolition—and neither cared nor probably even thought much about slaves.

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from Northern and Southern states discovered that two issues related to slavery divided them. First was the question of counting slaves for representation and taxation. Most Southerners wanted to count slaves as people when it came to proportional representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, but not when figuring each state’s tax liability. Most Northerners wanted it the other way around. In the end, it was primarily a matter of finding an acceptable ratio that counted slaves as a portion of a person, for both representation and taxation, with delegates finally settling on 5:3—each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. The question of slavery’s legitimacy was not part of the discussion, which was strictly a political debate.

The other issue at the Constitutional Convention, which had far more potential to divide the new nation, was the international slave trade from Africa. The trade was still legal, although abolitionists in Great Britain were already turning public opinion against the practice as unchristian and immoral. Most of the constitutional delegates also opposed the overseas trade, including many slaveowners such as Virginia’s George Mason, who spoke passionately against it. The trade was easier to attack than slavery itself: the death rate was appallingly high; often mothers and children were separated; slaves were torn from their families and culture. On the other hand, most whites believed that slavery itself “uplifted” black men and women by bringing them in contact with Christianity and “civilization.” If they survived the trade and made it to the United States, the argument ran, slaves were infinitely better off than they would have been in Africa. However, many Southerners considered opposition to the international trade a slippery slope, and any discussion that included words such as immoral in the same sentence as slavery made them uncomfortable. Representatives from Georgia and South Carolina insisted that the international trade remain open for economic reasons: their economies were just beginning to take off, and the planters in those states believed they needed a reliable, fresh supply of workers straight from the Old World. They even threatened to leave the new country if the international slave trade was disallowed. True to form, the Founders compromised: the overseas trade could not be banned in fewer than twenty years (in 1808, Congress did outlaw it). In those two decades, planters from the Deep South imported tens of thousands of men and women from Africa.

These compromises largely removed the issue of slavery from national politics for more than three decades. In that time, free and slave states were added to the Union in nearly matched pairs: Indiana (1816) and Mississippi (1817), and Illinois (1818) and Alabama (1819), for instance. In 1819, however, the population of Missouri Territory exceeded sixty thousand, the minimum required for statehood. The land was part of the Louisiana Purchase, in which slavery was legal under French and Spanish laws, and many Southerners had settled there after coming down the Ohio River Valley and through St. Louis. In 1819, slaves constituted about one- sixth of the territory’s population. While considering legislation to allow Missourians to write a constitution, an obscure New York congressman, James Tallmadge, offered an amendment that provided for gradual emancipation of all enslaved residents of Missouri in about thirty years. To the surprise and horror of most white Southerners, Tallmadge’s amendment passed the Northern-dominated House of Representatives, after several vitriolic debates. Gradual emancipation, though, was defeated in the Senate, where Southerners had parity with the North. The debate over Missouri’s application and Tallmadge’s amendment sharpened sectional differences and revealed an undercurrent of moral opposition to the spread of slavery. The aging Thomas Jefferson declared the controversy a “fire bell in the night” that “filled me with terror.”

The crisis lasted nearly two years as Northern and Southern politicians searched for common ground. Southerners asserted their constitutional argument for the legality of slavery in all U.S. territories, which was based on the Fifth Amendment. The territories, they maintained, were the common possession of all American citizens, and slaves were property like any other kind of property. Therefore, if the federal government denied planters the right to own slaves in any territory, then it was a violation of their due process rights under the Constitution. This argument remained the cornerstone of the “Southern position” on slavery in the territories for the rest of the antebellum years—during which time more and more Northerners expressed a strong desire that slavery not spread beyond its present borders. The reasons for this ranged from political jealousy to hatred of Southern planters to moral antipathy for the South’s “peculiar institution.” Some Northerners argued that as the free states now enjoyed a much greater, and fast-growing, population, they should also have a majority of votes in the Senate. To Southerners this idea was particularly threatening, since the debate over Tallmadge’s amendment underscored how important their equality in the Senate was, and how much power they had lost in the House of Representatives. In 1820, just over 40 percent of congressmen came from slave-owning states. Much more offensive to Southerners were comments such as those from New York’s Rufus King, who declared slavery against the “laws of God.” Lastly, others suggested that slavery violated the provision that each state have a republican form of government. Men from Virginia and the rest of the South—like all nineteenth-century Americans obsessed with their revolutionary heritage—were livid.

After months of deadlock, the young Speaker of the House, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, helped win approval of compromise legislation that admitted Missouri to the Union and solved the question of slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Often called “Handsome Harry” or “Harry of the West,” Clay was known for his love of bourbon, cigars, and poker. He ran for president and lost—three times—but he helped engineer three major sectional agreements to earn his most lasting moniker, “The Great Compromiser.” To solve the deadlock, Maine (formerly a part of Massachusetts) was admitted as a free state, paired with pro-slavery Missouri. Of more immediate consequence was an agreement to limit slavery in the remaining Louisiana Purchase to lands south of a line drawn from the southern border of Missouri: latitude 36°30’ north (see map 1). The Missouri Compromise, then, resolved the question of slavery in the territories so long as no new land was added to the country (which did not occur until 1848). The 36°30’ line became a nearly sacred piece of text to many Americans, who considered it almost equivalent to a constitutional amendment.

Table of Contents


Time Line,
Chapter 1 Political Sectionalism Before 1850,
Chapter 2 Abolitionists, Fugitive Slaves, and the Northern View of the South,
Chapter 3 The Proslavery Arguments and Sectional Conflict,
Chapter 4 The 1850s: Free Soil and the Creation of a Republican Majority,
Chapter 5 The Election of 1860, Secession, and the Confederate States of America,
Chapter 6 Fort Sumter and the Beginning of the War,
Chapter 7 Organization, Strategy, and the First Battle of Bull Run,
Chapter 8 War on Land and at Sea in 1862,
Chapter 9 Families at War in 1861–1862,
Chapter 10 Military Strategy and the War in 1862: Runaway Slaves, the Battle of Antietam, and the Emancipation Proclamation,
Chapter 11 Union Families, the Peace Movement, and Northern Politics in 1863,
Chapter 12 The War in 1863: Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga,
Chapter 13 European Diplomacy, the Union Blockade, and Confederate Families at War in 1863,
Chapter 14 The War and Union Politics in 1864: Sherman, Grant, and Lincoln,
Chapter 15 Confederate Families at War in 1864–1865,
Chapter 16 1865: Emancipation, Surrender, and Assassination,
Chapter 17 From Presidential to Congressional Reconstruction: 1865 and 1866,
Chapter 18 From Congressional Reconstruction to Redemption: 1867 to 1877,
Chapter 19 African Americans and the Transition to Freedom,
Suggested Readings,

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