The Election of 1848

Some historians have called the Mexican War the first battle of the Civil War, for it revived intense and heated debate about the expansion of slavery in the West. Tensions came to a head when Pennsylvanian congressman David Wilmot set forth the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, proposing that slavery be banned in the West. Not surprisingly, Southerners killed the proviso in the Senate before it could become law.

Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and expansion of slavery remained the hot topic in the election of 1848. The Whigs nominated war hero General Zachary Taylor on a rather noncommittal platform (they didn’t want to lose Southern votes), while the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass. Hoping to appeal to voters from both regions, Cass proposed applying popular sovereignty to the slavery question, arguing that the citizens living in each territory should decide for themselves whether theirs would become a slave state or a free state. Taylor won the election, but he died after only sixteen months in office, and Vice President Millard Fillmore became president in 1850.

The Compromise of 1850

Because Taylor and Fillmore had never made their views on slavery in the West clear, the issue remained unresolved. When California applied for admission as a free state, the debate picked up right where it had left off. In Congress, heavyweights Daniel Webster and Henry Clay met for the last time to hammer out a compromise. After much debate, the North and South finally came to an agreement that both sides thought would be lasting and binding.

There were five components to this Compromise of 1850. First, California would be admitted as a free state. Second, popular sovereignty would determine the fate of the other western territories. Third, Congress would cancel some of Texas’s debts and, in exchange, give some of Texas’s western land to New Mexico Territory. Fourth, slave trading would be banned in Washington, D.C. Finally, Congress would pass a tougher Fugitive Slave Law, to reduce the number of slaves who escaped to the North and Canada every year. Although Southerners had not conceded a lot in making the bargain, Northerners were still offended by the new law, and many refused to obey it.

Pierce and Expansion

The pro–Southern Democrat Franklin Pierce replaced Fillmore after defeating Whigs and Free-Soilers in the election of 1852. Playing off manifest destiny and the Southern desire for new slave states, Pierce supported a variety of proposals to acquire more territory. He tacitly supported adventurer William Walker’s attempt to annex Nicaragua but backed off after Walker was deposed and executed. Pierce also investigated the possible acquisition of Cuba from Spain, but the plan backfired after his machinations were leaked to Northerners in the Ostend Manifesto. More productively, he sent the U.S. Navy to Japan to open trade negotiations and bought a small strip of land in present-day Arizona and New Mexico in the 1853Gadsden Purchase.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Hoping to attract railroad development through the North, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and pushed it successfully through Congress. The act carved the territory into the Kansas and Nebraska territories and, more controversially, declared that popular sovereignty would determine the future of slavery there.

The Death of the Missouri Compromise

Southerners jumped at this opportunity, because the act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that had banned slavery north of the 36˚ 30' parallel. As soon as the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, hundreds of Missourians crossed the state line into Kansas with their slaves to push for slavery. These “border ruffians” set up a government in Lecompton, Kansas, and rigged elections to get more proslavery delegates sent to the constitutional convention. Northerners were shocked and astonished that Southerners had managed to repeal the almost-sacred Missouri Compromise.

Bleeding Kansas

Fearing that Kansas would become the next slave state, hundreds of Northern abolitionists also flocked to the territory and set up their own government in Lawrence. A band of proslavery men, however, burned Lawrence to the ground in 1856. In revenge, an abolitionist gang led by John Brown killed five border ruffians at the Pottawatomie Massacre.

These two events sparked an internal war so savage that many referred to the territory as “Bleeding Kansas.” The Kansas crisis was so shocking and so controversial that it even ignited tempers in Washington, D.C. In the most infamous case, one Southern congressman nearly caned abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner to death on the Senate floor for speaking out against the act and its authors.

The Election of 1856

Bleeding Kansas was the hottest topic in the presidential election of 1856. Democrat James Buchanan eventually defeated his Republican and Know-Nothing foes after many Southern states threatened to secede if a Republican became the next president. Just days after Buchanan took office, a new controversy hit: Chief Justice Roger Taney, along with a majority of the other justices of the Supreme Court, declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the 1857Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. The ruling startled Northerners because it meant that slavery technically could no longer be banned anywhere in the United States.

The Buchanan Years

Several states flat-out ignored the ruling, and Stephen Douglas challenged the Court when he proclaimed in his Freeport Doctrine during the Lincoln-Douglas debates that only popular sovereignty could decide the slavery question. But Buchanan backed Taney and also accepted the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, which border ruffians had drafted to make Kansas a new slave state. Douglas and others, however, blocked the constitution in the Senate.

Buchanan’s presidency was also marred by John Brown’s attempt to incite a massive slave uprising by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in present-day West Virginia). The Harpers Ferry Raid went awry, however, and resulted only in Brown’s capture. While Northerners mourned his execution, Southerners cheered.

The Election of 1860

The election of 1860 took place amid this supercharged atmosphere. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, who was morally opposed to slavery but wanted to maintain the Union above all else. Northern Democrats wanted Stephen Douglas to run, but Southerners in the party refused to back him after he betrayed the South by opposing the Lecompton Constitution. As a result, the party split: Northern Democrats nominated Douglas, while Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge. The Constitutional Union Party, a minor offshoot of the Republican Party, nominated John Bell.

Southerners again threatened to secede if a Republican was elected. On Election Day, Lincoln received 40 percent of the popular vote and more electoral votes than all the other candidates combined.


South Carolina made good on its threats and seceded from the Union shortly after Lincoln’s election. Six other states soon followed. Together, they established a new government called the Confederate States of America in Richmond, Virginia, and chose Jefferson Davis as its first president. Four slave states, however, chose to remain in the Union. These border states proved invaluable to the North in the war.

In April 1861, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Union forces fell after intense bombardment, and the Civil War had begun. Shortly after the battle, four more states seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Both sides initially believed the war would end quickly. The Union had greater population, a larger army, and a robust industrial economy. The Confederacy, however, thought it stood a good chance because it would be fighting a defensive war with better military commanders. The South also was confident that cotton-dependent Britain would take its side. Illusions of an easy victory vanished for both, however, after the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 and the bloody Battle of Shiloh in 1862.

A Strong Federal Government

President Lincoln pushed the limits of the Constitution several times throughout the war, believing that desperate times called for desperate measures. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, illegally increased the size of the army, and ordered a naval blockade of the South. The Supreme Court often objected, but Congress usually sided with Lincoln.

Congress itself took bold action by passing a series of progressive new laws such as the Morrill Tariff, the Legal Tender Act, and the National Bank Act. These acts helped industry and gave the federal government unprecedented control over the economy. A draft was also enacted to increase the size of the army, much to the consternation of poorer Americans. Protests and riots, such as the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, erupted throughout the country.

Antietam and Emancipation

The 1862 Union victory at the very bloody Battle of Antietam convinced Britain to abandon the struggling South and find new sources of cotton. Antietam also convinced Lincoln to fire the incompetent General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, who was too battle-shy to engage the Confederacy’s General Robert E. Lee. Lincoln also used the Antietam victory to issue his 1863Emancipation Proclamation, which nominally freed all slaves in the secessionist South.

1863 and 1864

The Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Vicksburg, both in 1863, were the major turning points in the war: Union troops crushed Lee’s forces at Gettysburg, while General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi and cracked the South in two.

In 1864, Grant also sent General William Tecumseh Sherman on his now-famous March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Sherman’s men destroyed everything in their path, including crops, homes, livestock, and the entire city of Atlanta. Sherman’s rampage, along with the devastated economy, brought the South to its knees.

The Election of 1864

As the war dragged on into its fourth year, many Northerners began clamoring for peace. None were as loud as the Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, who wanted to negotiate a settlement with the South. They nominated George McClellan to run against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864. Lincoln and the Republicans, on the other hand, campaigned for continuation of the war until the South surrendered unconditionally and the Union was restored. Lincoln won, with 55 percent of the popular vote.

The Final Months

Lincoln’s reelection spelled doom for the South. Unable to control his government, secure any outside help, or even feed his people, Davis requested peace negotiations as a final attempt to save the Confederacy. Lincoln, however, rejected his requests at the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865, because Davis was unwilling to accept anything less than full independence. A month later, retreating Confederates burned Richmond to prevent Union troops from taking it before Grant cornered and defeated the remains of Lee’s bedraggled army. Lee’s unconditional surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, ended the war.

Popular pages: The Civil War 1850–1865