While economic, cultural, and political differences between the North and South all played a role in the Civil War, the underlying cause was slavery. The increasingly violent clashes between North and South over the issue of slavery, such as the bloody altercation at Harpers Ferry, proved that a compromise between the two sides could not be reached.The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the place of common equality with all other varieties of men.
- Frederick Douglass
The raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, organized by militant abolitionist John Brown, was a precursor to the Civil War. Brown's audacious plan was to raid a federal arsenal and use the arms to lead a slave revolt. His attack on the federal government became his last stand, as Frederick Douglass had prophesied when Brown had asked him to join in. "I told him, and these were my words, that he was going into a perfect steel trap and that once in he would never get out alive."
Brown and his 21 men, five of whom were black, succeeded in capturing the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in the part that would become West Virginia). But word of the raid spread fast, and by morning farmers and militia men had descended on the raiders, followed by federal troops. In the bloody battle that followed, ten of Brown's men were killed, and seven were captured to stand trial, including Brown himself, who was later hung. Brown was immediately heralded as a martyr to the abolitionist cause. Throughout the North, thousands flooded churches, meeting halls, and city streets to mourn his death and proclaim him a hero. The song "John Brown's Body" resounded in black churches. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau eulogized him in verse." John Brown
I pray daily and hourly ... that so, in the end, though we meet no more on earth, we shall meet in heaven, where we shall not be parted by the demands of the cruel and unjust monster Slavery.
- raider John Copeland, written a few hours before his death
The Raid on Harpers Ferry
"Harpers Ferry" Headline
John Brown's Black Raiders
John Brown's Address to the Court
Last words from John A. Copeland to family
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who was committed to keeping slavery out of the new western territories, was elected president. Southerners saw this commitment as threat to their way of life, for they knew that to survive as an institution, slavery would need to expand into new lands. South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by six more southern states by February 1861. When Lincoln delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1861 to a nation divided, he was determined to maintain the Union, but he refused to make any concession to the South on the question of slavery. Lincoln did not make concessions to the abolitionists either. He stated that he had no intention of ending slavery where it already existed, or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Act. His intent was to stop slavery from spreading; in Lincoln's mind, this would be enough to kill it. This is what Southerners believed too, and what they feared. Announcing that the only dispute was that "one section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended," Lincoln stated that the Union was indissoluble, and pressed for reconciliation. "I am loath to close," he said at the end of his speech. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." With the attack by Confederate artillery on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, and Lincoln's call for volunteers to put down the rebellion, America's divided house fell.
Black men rushed to join the Union army in 1861, but they were turned away, since Lincoln thought their conscription would alienate Northern whites and the border slave states which had remained loyal. At a Boston meeting, blacks passed a resolution: "Our feelings urge us to say to our countrymen that we are ready to stand by and defend our Government as the equals of its white defenders; to do so with 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,' for the sake of freedom, and as good citizens; and we ask you to modify your laws, that we may enlist, -- that full scope may be given to the patriotic feelings burning in the colored man's breast."
As Union forces moved south, they were met by fleeing slaves. Since there was no official policy regarding fugitive slaves, their fate was left to the discretion of individual commanders. The passage of the Confiscation Act of August 6, 1861 provided that any property used in insurrection against the United States was to be taken as contraband, and when that property was slaves, they were to be set free. In December 1862, Rufus Saxton, head of the Department of the South, declared that black families were to be given two acres of abandoned lands for their own use, provided that they raised a certain amount of cotton for the government. However, only a small amount of land was allotted for ex-slave use. Superintendents were appointed to look after the well-being of blacks, but while some performed their duty, others did not. Many fugitives ended up living in contraband camps, where suffering and death led to an estimated 25 percent death rate from 1862 to 1864.
For Lincoln, the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union. He proposed a gradual emancipation of slaves, with compensation to their owners, and favored colonizing freed slaves to other parts of the world. His slow, cautious approach angered abolitionists, who demanded immediate emancipation. Abolitionist groups created relief organizations such as the National Freedmen's Relief Association to provide food, clothing, and education to the newly freed blacks. Education for blacks gradually reached all areas occupied by Union troops.
More than 200,000 blacks fought for the Union, and 38,000 died, the majority of disease.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared all slaves in areas rebelling against the United States to be free on January 1, 1863. (One million slaves in Union territory remained officially enslaved). Many slaves in the South did not even hear about the proclamation until months later. And many of those who did hear of it were forced to continue as slaves without Union soldiers to enforce the edict.
"War Begun" headline
Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry
With the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation, black troops were finally allowed to join the fight. Black soldiers were also recruited for the Confederate army beginning in 1863. At first, black Union soldiers were unfairly treated, given inferior arms, relegated to fatigue duty, and paid less than half of what white soldiers were. Some black soldiers refused any pay for 18 months to protest the unfair treatment, and were eventually granted equal pay and improved conditions. More than 200,000 blacks fought for the Union, and 38,000 died, the majority of disease.
After four years of fighting, and the death of 617,000 Americans, the Civil War came to a close with the surrender of the Confederate Army in 1865. The end of the war marked the end of 250 years of slavery in North America and the beginning of a new era of freedom for African Americans. But the questions raised by the abolitionist movement, of whether we can live as a multi-racial society, are still with us well over a century later.
The problem of race in America at the end of the twentieth century is not the problem of slavery. If it had been the problem of slavery, it'd have been over in 1865. But as a nation that saw itself as a Christian nation, as a nation that saw itself built on the principles of freedom, we had to tell ourselves that there was something about the slave that justified slavery. It is that justification of slavery that we are still trying to deal with, more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery.
- James Horton, historian
Can this be a society of equality between people of different backgrounds and different colors, different races? That question is still not really answered. As long as that question still remains to agitate our country, as long as there are people who feel aggrieved because they are the descendants of slaves and they have not fully shared in the blessings of liberty that our Constitution promises to everybody, the history of slavery will be relevant to the present society. Not because we're going to relive that history, but because if we don't understand it, we will never really know how the country got to the condition it is in now, on the eve of the 21st century."
- Eric Foner, historian
Part 4 Narrative:
Map: From Coast to Coast
Fugitive Slaves and Northern Racism
The Civil War
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