The 20 Most Significant Events of the Civil War: A Ranking

The 20 Most Significant Events of the Civil War: A Ranking

by Alan Axelrod


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This is the first book to not only select the events that most influenced the causes and outcome of America’s Civil War, but also to rank them in order of significance. In each of the book’s 20 detailed essays, author/historian/speaker Alan Axelrod presents an engaging narrative about the event, and also explains how the event shaped the course of the war, and ultimately the future of the country.

The author’s selection and ranking criteria include:
Effect as cause or trigger of the war
Decisiveness: whether it was a war-winning or war-losing event (both in military terms and in terms of public opinion, morale, and support)
Magnitude and scope: size and cost of a battle
Enduring postwar significance in American history, politics, society, culture and/or in military history and technology
From Lincoln’s Inauguration, Antietam, and John Brown’s raid, to the New York draft riots and Stonewall Jackson dying as a result of friendly fire – never before has the Civil War been explored quite this way. The Civil War was a violent argument between the North and the South. The purpose of this book is to start another argument about its history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510715202
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 177,713
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Alan Axelrod is the author of nearly 150 books on leadership, management, history, career development, general business, and other nonfiction. As founder and president of the Ian Samuel Group creative services firm, he has also ghostwritten, collaborated on, edited and provided consulting services to some of the largest corporations in America. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt


May 22, 1856

The Gentleman from South Carolina Canes the Gentleman from Massachusetts

Why it's significant. The first battle of the Civil War opened on April 12, 1861, when P. G. T. Beauregard fired the first of some 4,000 cannonballs against Fort Sumter. The war itself, however, may have started five years earlier, not with an artillery bombardment, but with a battery of blows from a Southern congressman's gold-headed walking stick rained down upon the head and body of a Northern senator. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death in the US Senate chamber because the Northern abolitionist had made speech denouncing "slave power." That political debate should be preempted by violence — one lawmaker against another, within the very heart of the national Capitol — foretold the coming war between the states.

The beating seemed to erupt from a rage of the heart, the product of a violent impulse. It was the afternoon of May 22, 1856. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was writing at his desk in the Senate chamber. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks approached him, spoke to him in a calm, low voice — the tone and volume of voice that, in some people, precedes a whirlwind of violence.

Confronted, Sumner began to stand. Before he could straighten himself, however, Brooks gripped his cane just below its gold head. The walking stick was made of black lacquered gutta-percha, a thick, rigid, heavy natural rubber, a material just flexible enough to resist breaking. Brooks brought it down upon the senator's head, shoulders, back, and body time and time again, as if by irresistible reflex.

As if by reflex as well, the beaten man responded. By his own recollection, everything went dark after the first few strokes of the cane. Sumner no longer saw his assailant, or anyone or anything else for that matter, in the hallowed chamber. "What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense," he later reported.

Reeling beneath the machinelike blows, Sumner slid under his desk. It afforded no protection. The desk was bolted to the floor, the chair that went with it ran back and forth on a track laid into the floor. As he sat or lay in a semi-conscious heap beneath the desk, the chair effectively imprisoned him yet still left ample room for Brooks to continue wielding his cane. Blinded by the effusion of his own blood, Sumner managed to get to his feet. In doing so, he tore the desk from the floor in an animal effort to evade the bludgeoning.

He staggered into the aisle, sightless, arms outstretched either to fend off the cane or to substitute for the sense of sight. Released from his trap beneath the desk, however, Sumner only made an easier target. Brooks was not finished with him. Using what he later admitted was the "full extent of [his] power," the South Carolinian struck him in fresh places, across the face, the shoulders, and the head. At length, the gutta-percha, as if weary of bending, broke, snapping in two. Brooks retained the end with the golden head and continued to ply it, even as it shattered into even more pieces.

"Oh Lord," Sumner was heard to gasp as he at last lost consciousness — as he faded, bellowing (Brooks subsequently mocked him) "like a calf."

The Southerner would not let him lie, but, before his victim crumpled fully to the floor, he took hold of his lapel, in one hand gathering a fistful of the cloth, pulling the unconscious man partially upright before him. He now used the much-shortened stick to continue the beating at face-to-face range.

* * *

An act of passion — dreadful, awful, ungovernable, unstoppable. But hardly spontaneous. In fact, the force that drove the muscle that wielded the walking stick had been decades in gathering. Its accumulation began when the architects of American independence failed to face, let alone resolve, the issue of slavery. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (a slave owner himself) condemned slavery, but other hands deleted the condemnation in subsequent drafts. When the Constitution was being drawn up in 1787, there were calls to include the abolition of slavery, but those voices were neither very loud nor very enthusiastic. In the end, the conservative voices prevailed. Yet the Constitution did not entirely ignore the subject of slavery. By stipulating that the importation of slaves — that is, the slave trade — was to cease by 1808 (Article I, Section 9), the framers (some have insisted) seem to have implicitly acknowledged an inherent wrong in the institution of slavery. At the same time, however, those same men created a document that both recognized and explicitly protected slavery. Article IV, Section 2 specified that slaves who escaped into a free state were not thereby freed; on the contrary, the government of a free state into which a slave escaped was obligated to ensure that the fugitive would be "delivered up on claim of the party to whom such labor may be due."

In the end, the Constitution was all but silent on slavery, and when it did speak, it spoke both ambiguously and ambivalently, implying that slavery was an evil, yet also protecting it — in those states that did not outlaw it. These were all in the South or along the border between South and North, places where plantations were a form of agribusiness, enterprises that did not merely furnish food for subsistence or local consumption, but cultivated crops for widespread domestic sale and export — chiefly cotton, rice, and indigo dyestuffs. All of these were labor-intensive crops, and the cheapest form of labor was that of slaves. Economic conditions and matters of climate ensured that slavery in the United States would be regional. By protecting slavery wherever it existed, the Constitution unwittingly fostered a deepening divide between South and North, slave states and free states.

As moral objections to slavery — an abolition movement — developed in the North, the South feared that this more populous and more generally prosperous region, if it ever gained control of the federal government, would amend the Constitution to abolish slavery, an institution central to the Southern economy and way of life. The South's only legal defense against abolition was to block passage of any anti-slavery legislation in the Senate, where federal representation was independent of population. There, whether large or small, each state had two senators. Thus, as the nation grew following the American Revolution, the addition of each new state became an event of utmost anxiety over which way the new state would tip the balance — toward preserving slavery in the United States or toward abolishing it. The prospect of a civil war was never very remote, and it was renewed each time a US territory petitioned for statehood.

In 1836, Texas, home to many slave owners, won its independence from Mexico. Since 1821, the United States had been balanced between slave and free states, and there was great reluctance to upset this equilibrium. Congress therefore repeatedly put off the petitions of Texas for annexation and eventual statehood. Instead, Congress remained impassive while an independent Texas continued to exist as a republic. When France and Britain showed interest in colonizing that republic, however, Congress was at last moved to action. Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845 and, at the end of that year, was admitted as a state, bringing the slave/free ratio to 15:14.

The annexation and statehood of Texas triggered a US-Mexican War (1846–48). During the war's first year, Congress was eager to bring the conflict to a quick end and therefore debated a bill to appropriate $2 million to compensate Mexico for what the lawmakers euphemistically termed "territorial adjustments." Seizing opportunity where he saw it, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, an ardent abolitionist, introduced an amendment to the proposed appropriation legislation. Called the Wilmot Proviso, it would have barred (had it been enacted) the introduction of slavery into any territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War. Everyone knew that this potentially represented several new states, the addition of which would suddenly throw the slave/free balance significantly in favor of the North. The Wilmot Proviso therefore prompted Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina to propose four resolutions:

1. That all territories, including those acquired as a result of the war, be regarded as the common and joint property of the states.

2. That Congress, acting as agent for the states, could make no law depriving any state of its rights with regard to any territory.

3. That enacting any national law regarding slavery would violate the Constitution and the doctrine of states' rights.

4. That the people have the right to form their state governments as they wish.

Calhoun warned that failing to accept his resolutions would upset the balance between the demands of the North and the South and would therefore inevitably mean civil war. Wilmot's provocative Proviso and Calhoun's even more provocative resolutions set into motion a three-year debate on how to shore up the existing Missouri Compromise. Enacted in 1820 in response to Missouri's request to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, the Missouri Compromise granted that request but also split off Maine from Massachusetts and admitted it as a free state, thereby maintaining the slave/free balance. As part of the compromise, Congress also passed legislation drawing a line across the former Louisiana Territory, establishing a boundary between free and slave regions that would apply to the creation of future states. In 1850, two years after the war with Mexico ended, California, formerly a possession of Mexico, was admitted into the Union directly, without going through an interim territorial status. Southerners objected, assuming (correctly) that California would vote itself free. So, to stave off the civil war Calhoun had warned of, Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts worked out a new compromise. California was to be admitted as a free state, but the people in the other territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War would be given "popular sovereignty," voting themselves as either "free" or "slave," without interference from the federal government. To appease the South further, Congress passed a strong fugitive slave law, forbidding anyone to aid or harbor escaped slaves. To sweeten the deal even more, the federal government agreed to assume debts Texas (admitted as a slave state in 1845) incurred before it was annexed to the United States.

In 1854, when the territories of Nebraska and Kansas applied for statehood, Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise and passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This extended "popular sovereignty" — the right of citizens of a territory to vote themselves free or slave when they became a state — beyond territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War, and it erased the 1820 boundary between free and slave territories. A majority of Nebraskans clearly favored admission into the Union as a free state, but the balance was much closer in Kansas, and the antislavery and pro-slavery factions erupted into a guerrilla civil war so deadly that the territory was dubbed "Bleeding Kansas."

* * *

Charles Sumner was Boston-born, the son of a Harvard-educated lawyer who was not only an early abolitionist, but a pioneering advocate of racially integrated public schools and an opponent of laws barring marriage between the races. Under his father's influence, young Charles grew up hating slavery. He became a lawyer and a Harvard lecturer on law, earned a reputation as a powerful abolitionist orator, and helped found the Free Soil Party, an important precursor of the Republican Party. Until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures, not by the people. Running on the Free Soil ticket, Sumner won election to the US Senate by a single vote of the Massachusetts General Court (which functioned as the state's legislature) on April 24, 1851.

On May 19, 1856, with Kansas awash in blood, Sumner began to deliver on the floor of the Senate the first part of a speech so long that it had to be carried over into the next day. Known as the "Crime against Kansas" speech, it argued for immediate admission of Kansas as a free state, and it contained an especially incendiary condemnation of so-called "Slave Power," meaning the disproportionate influence slave owners exercised on government and public policy. The speech framed "Slave Power" in especially violent, even sexually charged terms, speaking of a "lust for power" and the "rape of a virgin Territory," which was being forcibly compelled into "the hateful embrace of slavery." The result of such a "depraved desire," Sumner argued, would be the birth a "new Slave State, hideous offspring of ... crime."

Then Sumner made the speech personal, calling out Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He "has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage," Sumner declaimed. "Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery."

South Carolina representative Preston Brooks, a committed champion of slavery, was Andrew Butler's cousin. Outraged by Sumner's words, he consulted his fellow South Carolina congressman Laurence M. Keitt on the etiquette of dueling, for he intended to challenge Sumner. But no, Keitt advised. Duels were properly fought between gentlemen of equal social standing. The offensive vulgarity of Sumner's speech had already revealed the Bostonian as no gentleman. Keitt advised instead that the appropriate response for such as Charles Sumner was to administer a beating with that symbol of true gentlemanly status, the walking stick.

And so the fury of Preston Brooks was channeled through a code of chivalry that both he and Keitt believed worthy of Southern gentlemen. Two days after the speech, Brooks entered the Senate chamber in the company of Keitt and Henry A. Edmundson, a congressman from Virginia. The Senate was in session, but the chamber was nearly empty. The trio scanned the galleries, anxious to ensure that no ladies were present to witness the violent retribution about to be meted out. It was, after all, unseemly for a Southern gentleman to cane a man in the presence of the fairer sex.

Brooks was a tall man, thirty-seven years old. He had attended South Carolina College — today the University of South Carolina — but had been expelled because he threatened local police officers with shooting. Later, in 1840, he actually did fight a duel, with Louis T. Wigfall, a future senator from Texas. Wigfall shot his challenger in the hip, which was why Brooks was obliged to walk with the aid of a cane. In contrast to Brooks, Sumner appeared older and frailer than his forty-five years. He certainly had no interest in duels, but was passionate about art and architecture, having traveled as a young man throughout Europe. In Paris in his late twenties, he fell in love with the treasures of the Louvre, the works of Leonardo and Raphael touching his mind, he wrote in his journal on January 19, 1838, "like a rich strain of music." It is surprising that a man of such refined sensibilities could have written so fiery a speech.

Brooks did not approach Sumner with stealth. On the contrary, with his witnesses in tow, he confronted him openly at his Senate desk.

"Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully," he said in a low, calm voice. "It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." With that, the beating commenced.

A number of senators and others attempted to intervene, but Edmundson interposed himself and blocked them. Keitt brandished his own cane at those who approached, and then he drew a pistol.

"Let them alone, God damn you," he menaced. "Let them alone!"

Among the senators who tried to stop the beating was John J. Crittenden of Kentucky. A born peacemaker, he would, on December 18, 1860, offer before the Senate a set of six constitutional amendments designed to protect slavery while simultaneously limiting its spread. It was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to avert civil war, but the so-called Crittenden Compromise never had a chance. For Crittenden's sons, the Civil War proved literally to be a conflict of brother against brother. One son resigned his commission as lieutenant colonel in the US Army to join the Confederate army. Another, who had been a member of a pro-Confederate Kentucky militia, joined the Union army, as did a third Crittenden boy. One grandson enlisted in the Confederate forces, while another graduated from the US Naval Academy and became an officer in the Union navy.


Excerpted from "The 20 Most Significant Events of the Civil War"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Alan Axelrod.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: For the Sake of Argument and Understanding xi

A Civil War Timeline 1

1 May 22, 1856: The Gentleman from South Carolina Canes the Gentleman from Massachusetts 7

2 March 4, 1861: "Black Lincoln" Is Inaugurated 18

3 April 12, 1861: General Beauregard Opens Fire on Fort Sumter 31

4 September 22, 1862: Lincoln Issues the "Preliminary" Emancipation Proclamation 44

5 April 9, 1865: Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia 56

6 November 19, 1863: Two Minutes at Gettysburg 68

7 November 4, 1864: Lincoln Wins Reelection 86

8 July 13, 1863: New York Draft Rioters Set Fire to the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children 93

9 April 14, 1865: John Wilkes Booth Assassinates Abraham Lincoln 102

10 July 21, 1861: The Rebels Win at Bull Run 117

11 June 1, 1862: Lee Rises to Top Command in the Confederacy 128

12 July 4, 1863: Vicksburg Falls to Grant 139

13 May 7, 1864: Defeated, Grant Advances 149

14 April 6-7, 1862: Shiloh Creates a New American Reality 159

15 May 20, 1862: Congress Passes the Homestead Act of 1862 171

16 May 2, 1863: Stonewall Jackson Falls to Friendly Fire at Chancellorsville 178

17 November 7, 1862: Lincoln Chooses Burnside to Lead the Army of the Potomac 189

18 August 28-30, 1862: Lee Divides and Conquers at the Second Battle of Bull Run 201

19 October 16-18, 1859: John Brown Raids Harpers Ferry 208

20 March 8, 1862: The Ironclads Clash at Hampton Road 219

21 Lest We Forget 231

The 20 Most Significant Civil War Books 250

Index 254

About the Author 270

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