America suffered its most contentious and destructive period in the 1860s. Slavery ripped the Union apart leading to civil war. Following the war, the North and South fought over the peace. This secondary conflict ended in 1877. In the final analysis, the North won the war at a tremendous cost while the South won the peace.
Lincoln elected president (November 6, 1860):
The newly formed Republican Party came within a hair of defeating the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election. Four years later, Southern Democrats ensured the party’s defeat by throwing a tantrum at the convention and breaking off to run their own candidate. Stephen Douglas ran as the Northern Democratic candidate while Vice President John C. Breckinridge campaigned as the Southern Democratic nominee. The remnants of the old Whig Party reconstituted itself as the National Union Party and put forth John Bell as a candidate. The Republicans nominated moderate Abraham Lincoln. The South refused to allow Lincoln’s name on the ballot. Despite this handicap, the larger Northern population combined with the Democratic split ensured Lincoln’s election. In response, South Carolina and several other southern states withdrew from the Union.
After a decade of extreme political strife, the South lost confidence in the political system and seceded from the United States. Although veiled in states rights’ rhetoric, the South left the Union and launched the civil war to protect and expand slavery. If slavery had not existed, the two sections would never have gone to war. Lincoln remained quiet on secession until his inaugural. Upon taking office, he promised to leave the institution of slavery alone and attempted to reassure the South. However, he also considered secession illegal. This meant the South would return to the Union either peacefully or by bayonet. The South made their choice when they fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862):
During the war’s early days, President Lincoln attempted to avoid the slavery issue. Northern policymakers framed the conflict as a “war to preserve the Union.” Both sides considered it a “white man’s war.” However, as the conflagration wore on, Lincoln’s views changed. He finally decided on freeing the slaves. However, several slave states remained loyal to the Union. Therefore, any blanket emancipation might result in another round of secession deeply hampering the North’s ability to wage war. Lincoln solved his problem by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the rebel states, but left the slaves in the Union alone. Technically, Lincoln freed only people in militarily controlled territory. As the Union armies advanced, more people gained freedom. Additionally, the proclamation sent the nation on the path toward full emancipation, which came in 1865.
Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863):
The Army of the Potomac struggled against Robert E. Lee for two years forcing Lincoln to change commanders several times. In June 1863, Lee moved north to try to force an end to the conflict. Lee’s forces literally bumped into George Gordon Meade’s army at Gettysburg. The two armies fought for three days. On day one, the Union army barely held. On day two, Joshua Chamberlain saved the North with a bayonet charge. On the final day, Lee committed suicide when he launched Pickett’s Charge. The two sides combined for 50,000 casualties. From this point onward, Lee could not replace the dead and the conflict degraded into a war of attrition.
Lee Surrenders (April 9, 1865):
Lincoln eventually appointed U.S. Grant the head of Union armies. Grant planned to bludgeon Lee into submission. He had the numerical and material advantage and wanted to use it. By 1865, Lee’s army had been ground to a pulp. Lee recognized the inevitable and surrendered. Some Confederates advocated running to the hills and waging a guerilla war. Lee refused and the war concluded.
Lincoln Assassinated (April 14, 1865):
By April 1865, Lincoln seemed like a new man. The war’s end lifted a major burden and he began acting like a young man. Despite the end of the Civil War, some Confederates did not share Lee’s vision of peace. John Wilkes Booth formed a conspiracy designed to kidnap Lincoln. He changed his plans in favor of a bold stroke aimed at the heart of the American government. Booth planned to murder Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. He succeeded while his co-conspirators failed. Lincoln’s death changed the course of Reconstruction.
Andrew Johnson becomes president (April 15, 1865):
Lincoln selected Andrew Johnson as his 1864 running mate to balance the ticket. The southerner Johnson hated secession and felt slavery oppressed white people. When Lincoln died, Johnson assumed office and worked to undermine Reconstruction and black rights. The new president hoped his policies would elect him president in his own right in 1868.
The Reconstruction Amendments (1865, 1868, and 1869):
Until 1865, Amendments to the Constitution restricted federal action against individuals. In 1787, people did not conceive of oppressive state and local governments. The North knew they needed to guarantee black rights against the southern states. As a result, they passed three amendments designed to end slavery and secure black rights. Within a generation, courts undermined the amendments leaving African American rights to the states.
The Transatlantic Cable (1866):
After several attempts, a permanent transatlantic cable finally took root. The 1866 cable enjoyed a more durable construction and survived. Before, communication between North America and Europe took weeks by ship. The cable cut the time from weeks to minutes.
The Black Codes (1866):
The South worked to undermine the Reconstruction Amendments and Northern efforts to reform the region. As part of this campaign, various states instituted black codes designed to restrict the legal, social, economic, and civil rights of African Americans. The codes served as the foundation for the apartheid-like system instituted in the region following the Reconstruction period. Courts soon upheld many of the practices and they became ingrained in the Southern culture.
Johnson Impeached (February 24, 1868):
Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act designed to protect Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s job. The act declared that the president had no authority to fire a cabinet member without congressional approval. President Johnson felt this infringed on his prerogatives and fired Stanton. By this point, congress had enough of Andrew Johnson. He had interfered with Reconstruction and worked to undermine the gains made in the Civil War. They impeached him for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A senate trial acquitted Johnson. For the remainder of his term, Johnson and Congress worked to avoid conflict. His term expired in March 1869.