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The Civil War 1850–1865

History SparkNotes


Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms


John Brown

A zealous, itinerant radical who crusaded violently against slavery in the 1850s. Brown moved to Kansas with his family in the mid-1850s to prevent the territory from becoming a slave state. In 1856, he and a band of vigilantes helped spark the Bleeding Kansas crisis when they slaughtered five border ruffians at the Pottawatomie Massacre. Three years later, Brown led another group of men in the Harpers Ferry Raid to incite a slave rebellion. He was captured during the raid and hanged shortly before the election of 1860. Brown’s death was cheered in the South but mourned in the North.

James Buchanan

A pro-Southern Democrat who became the fifteenth president of the United States in 1856. Buchanan defeated John Frémont of the new Republican Party and former president Millard Fillmore of the Know-Nothing Party in one of the most hotly contested elections in U.S. history. During his term, Buchanan supported the Lecompton Constitution to admit Kansas as a slave state, weathered the Panic of 1857, and did nothing to prevent South Carolina’s secession from the Union.

Jefferson Davis

A former Senator from Mississippi who was selected as the first president of the Confederacy in 1861. Overworked and underappreciated by his fellow Confederates, Davis struggled throughout the Civil War to unify the Southern states under the central government they had established.

Stephen Douglas

An influential Democratic senator and presidential candidate from Illinois. Douglas pushed the 1854Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress to entice railroad developers to build a transcontinental railroad line in the North. The act opened Kansas and Nebraska territories to slavery and thus effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. A champion of popular sovereignty, he announced his Freeport Doctrine in the Lincoln-Douglas debates against Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Although Douglas was the most popular Democrat, Southern party members refused to nominate him for the presidency in 1860 because he had rejected the Lecompton Constitution to make Kansas a slave state. As a result, the party split: Northern Democrats nominated Douglas, while Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge. In the election of 1860, Douglas toured the country in an effort to save the Union.

Ulysses S. Grant

The Union’s top general in the Civil War, who went on to become the eighteenth U.S. president. Nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, he waged total war against the South in 1863 and 1864.

Robert E. Lee

Arguably the most brilliant general in the U.S. Army in 1860, who turned down Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union forces in favor of commanding the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederacy. Although Lee loved the United States, he felt he had to stand by his native state of Virginia. His defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the turning point in the war in favor of the North. Lee made the Confederacy’s unconditional surrender at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865 to end the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln

A former lawyer from Illinois who became the sixteenth president of the United States in the election of 1860. Because Lincoln was a Republicanand was associated with the abolitionist cause, his election prompted South Carolina to secede from the Union. Lincoln, who believed that the states had never truly left the Union legally, fought the war until the South surrendered unconditionally. During the war, in 1863, Lincoln issued the largely symbolic Emancipation Proclamation to free all slaves in the South. Just at the war’s end, in April 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, D.C.

George McClellan

A young, first-rate U.S. Army general who commanded the Union army against the Confederates during the Civil War. Unfortunately, McClellan proved to be overly cautious and was always reluctant to engage Confederate forces at a time when Abraham Lincoln badly needed military victories to satisfy Northern public opinion. McClellan did manage to defeat Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, which gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln eventually fired McClellan, however, after the general began to criticize publicly the president’s ability to command. In 1864, McClellan ran for president as a Peace Democrat on a platform for peace against Lincoln but was defeated.

Franklin Pierce

Fourteenth president of the United States, elected in 1852 as a proslavery Democrat from New England. Pierce combined his desire for empire and westward expansion with the South’s desire to find new slave territories. He tacitly backed William Walker’s attempt to seize Nicaragua and used the Ostend Manifesto to try to acquire Cuba from Spain. Pierce also oversaw the opening of trade relations with Japan, upon the return of Commodore Matthew Perry, and authorized the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853.

William Tecumseh Sherman

A close friend of Ulysses S. Grant who served as a general in the Union army during the Civil War. Sherman, like Grant, understood that the war would only truly be won when the Union forces had broken the will of the Southern public to fight. Sherman is best known for the total war he and his expedition force waged on the South during his March to the Sea.

Charles Sumner

A senator from Massachusetts who delivered an antislavery speech in the wake of the Bleeding Kansas crisis in 1856. In response, Sumner was caned nearly to death by South Carolinian congressman Preston Brooks on the Senate floor. The attack indicated just how passionately some Southerners viewed the popular sovereignty and slavery issue.

Zachary Taylor

A hero of the Mexican War who became the second and last Whig president in 1848. In order to avoid controversy over the westward expansion of slavery in the Mexican Cession, Taylor campaigned without a solid platform. He died after only sixteen months in office and was replaced by Millard Fillmore.


Bleeding Kansas

A violent crisis that enveloped Kansas after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. After the act passed, hundreds of Missourians crossed the border to make Kansas a slave state. Outraged by the intimidation tactics these “border ruffians” used to bully settlers, many Northern abolitionists moved to Kansas as well in the hopes of making the territory free. Tensions mounted until proslavery men burned the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas. John Brown and a band of abolitionist vigilantes countered by killing five men at the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856. In many ways, Bleeding Kansas was a prelude to the war that loomed ahead.

“Border Ruffians”

A group of hundreds of Missourians who crossed the border into Kansas, hoping to make Kansas a slave state after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The border ruffians rigged the elections to choose delegates for the Kansas constitutional convention, with the aim of making Kansas a new slave state. They succeeded and drafted the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in the winter of 1857. Outraged, many Northern abolitionists settled in Kansas to counter the border ruffians. The territory erupted into a civil war that became known as Bleeding Kansas. In 1858, the Senate rejected the Lecompton Constitution on the grounds that the elections had been rigged.

Compromise of 1850

A bundle of legislation that enabled the North and South to end, temporarily, the debate over the expansion of slavery. First proposed by Henry Clay and championed by Stephen Douglas, the Compromise of 1850 contained several provisions. California was admitted as a free state; the other western territories were left to popular sovereignty; the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was banned in Washington, D.C.; Texas ceded disputed land to New Mexico Territory; and a new Fugitive Slave Law was enacted. Though the compromise was only a temporary solution, it effectively postponed the Civil War, and this extra time allowed the Northern industrial economy to grow in the decade before the war.

Dred Scott v. Sanford

A landmark 1857 Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled that slaves were property. Dred Scott, a slave to a Southern army doctor, had lived with his master in Illinois and Wisconsin in the 1830s. While there, he married a free woman and had a daughter. Scott and his daughter eventually returned to the South. Scott sued his master for his and his family’s freedom, but Chief Justice Roger Taney and a conservative Supreme Court ruled against Scott, arguing that Congress had no right to restrict the movement of private property. Moreover, Taney ruled that blacks like Scott could not file lawsuits in federal courts because they were not citizens. The 1857 decision outraged Northerners and drove them further apart from the South.

Emancipation Proclamation

A presidential proclamation that nominally freed all slaves in the Confederacy. President Abraham Lincoln, emboldened by the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, issued the proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation did not free all slaves (North and South), because Lincoln did not want the proslavery border states to secede in anger. Though the proclamation had no immediate effect on black slaves in the South, it did mark an ideological turning point in the war, because it irrevocably linked emancipation with the restoration of the Union.

Free-Soil Party

A party formed by disgruntled Northern abolitionists in 1848, when Democrats nominated Lewis Cass for president and Whigs nominated the politically inept Zachary Taylor. Former president Martin Van Buren became the Free-Soil candidate for president, campaigning for the Wilmot Proviso and against popular sovereignty and the westward expansion of slavery. Van Buren received no votes in the electoral college but did detract enough popular votes from Cass to throw the election to Taylor.

Fugitive Slave Act

A law passed under the Compromise of 1850that forced Northerners to return runaway slaves to the South. Angered by the fact that many Northerners supported the Underground Railroad, Southerners demanded this new and stronger Fugitive Slave Act as part of the compromise. The act was so unpopular in the North that federal troops were often required to enforce it. One slave in Boston, Massachusetts, had to be escorted by 300 soldiers and a U.S. Navy ship. The law, like the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, drove the North and South even further apart.

Hampton Roads Conference

A peace conference that Jefferson Davis requested in the winter of 1865, aware that the end of the war was near. At the conference, Abraham Lincoln’s representatives opened negotiations by demanding the unconditional surrender of the South and full emancipation of all slaves. The Southern delegation, however, refused anything less than full independence. The conference thus ended without resolution. However, the war ended only a few months later, completely on Lincoln’s terms.

Harpers Ferry Raid

An October 16, 1859, raid by John Brown, the infamous Free-Soiler who had killed five proslavery men at the Pottawatomie Massacre. This time around, Brown stormed an arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), with twenty other men. He hoped the raid would prompt slaves throughout Virginia and the South to rise up against their masters. There was no rebellion, though, and Brown and his men found themselves cornered inside the arsenal. A long standoff ensued. Half the raiders were killed and the rest, including Brown, captured. After a speedy trial, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. Although his death was cheered in the South, he became an abolitionist martyr in the North.

Lecompton Constitution

The Kansas constitution that resulted when hundreds of proslavery border ruffians from Missouri crossed into Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and rigged the elections to choose delegates for the Kansas constitutional convention. The border ruffians succeeded and submitted the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in the winter of 1857. After taking office that same year, pro-Southern president James Buchanan immediately accepted the constitution to make Kansas a new slave state. Democrat Stephen Douglas, however, rejected the Lecompton Constitution in the Senate on the grounds that the elections had been rigged. The South denounced Douglas as a traitor when a new (and more honest) vote in Kansas overwhelmingly made the territory free. Kansas was admitted into the Union after the Civil War began.

Liberty Party

A Northern abolitionist party formed in 1840 when the abolitionist movement split into a social wing and a political wing. The Liberty Party nominated James G. Birney in the election of 1844 against Whig Henry Clay and Democrat James K. Polk. Surprisingly, the Liberty Party detracted just enough votes from Clay to throw the election to the Democrats.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

A series of public debates between the relatively unknown former congressman Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their home state of Illinois in 1858. Hoping to steal Douglas’s seat in the Senate in the national elections that year, Lincoln wanted to be the first to put the question of slavery to the voters. The “Little Giant” Douglas accepted and engaged Lincoln in a total of seven debates, each in front of several thousand people. Even though Lincoln lost the Senate seat, the debates made Lincoln a national figure.

Peace Democrats

A Northern party, also nicknamed the “Copperheads” after the poisonous snake, that criticized Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The Peace Democrats did not particularly care that the Southern states had seceded and wanted to let them go in peace. The Copperheads nominated George McClellan for president in 1864 on a peace platform but lost to Lincoln and the Republican Party.

Popular Sovereignty

The idea that citizens in the West should vote to determine whether their respective territories would become free states or slave states upon admission to the Union. Popular sovereignty was first proposed by presidential candidate Lewis Cass in 1848 and later championed by Stephen Douglas. The Whigs and the Republican Party flatly rejected popular sovereignty, because they opposed the westward expansion of slavery.

Pottawatomie Massacre

The killing of five proslavery men near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, by John Brown and a band of abolitionist vigilantes in retaliation for the burning of Free-Soil Lawrence, Kansas. Neither Brown nor any of his men were brought to justice. Instead, border ruffians and other proslavery settlers responded in kind and sparked the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis. Eventually, the entire territory became embroiled in a bloody civil war that foreshadowed the war between the North and South.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

A novel, published by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, that turned Northern public opinion against slavery and the South more than anything else in the decade before the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the first American bestseller almost overnight and went on to sell 250,000 copies in just a few short months. In the wake of the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, Northerners identified with the black slave protagonist and pitied his suffering. The book affected the North so much that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1863, he called her “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

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