On April 12, 2011, the United States marked the sesquicentennial – 150th anniversary – of the start of the Civil War. Heralded as the bloodiest war the United States ever participated in and pitting brother against brother, the Civil War offers many lessons Americans today would be wise to heed. The political climate which permeated the country prior to the War Between the States bears a great many similarities to that of today.
When asked the main reason for the Civil War, a large percentage of people immediately consider slavery the answer. However, this was not the case. At no time did Abraham Lincoln advocate an intention to abolish slavery. He also withheld comments regarding the rules in Illinois which prohibited blacks from testifying against whites. New York’s Gerrit Smith was the true abolition candidate and won few votes. Lincoln instead endeavored to pursue the idea of “a house divided.” During his inaugural speech, President Lincoln clearly stated he would not interfere with slavery where it existed. The speech was made after the South seceded, but Lincoln kept the door open for the Southern states to return. In addition, when the Confederate Constitution was written, African slave trade was abolished.
The real culprit in this situation was a domineering federal government which continued to grow in size and ignore the complaints of law abiding citizens regarding high tariffs (taxes). As far back as 1816, the citizens of Georgia made a strong effort to have their opinions heard, only to discover their words fell on deaf ears.
During the 1800’s, the economy of the South prospered due to the profitable agriculture business made possible by the region’s climate. The population of the South, however, remained relatively small, while that of the North began to swell, as did the number of northern manufacturers.
In 1824, presidential politics came face-to-face with the regionalism which had developed in the country. Four candidates ran for office that year – John Quincy Adams from the North; Henry Clay from the Mid-West; George Crawford from the Deep South and Andrew Jackson, supported by the area known at that time as the West. Due to the intensity of the rift between these four regions, 1824’s election was decided by the House of Representatives. Adams won this election, much to the chagrin of Jackson’s supporters. Four years later, Jackson defeated Adams in his re-election campaign. He would go on to be the only two-term president between the Compromise of 1820 and the Civil War.
As the North became aware of the sizeable cash reserves in the South, industry in the North considered the South to be a prime area for sale of their manufactured goods. The prices charged by the North, however, did not compete with those charged for the same goods offered abroad. In an effort to ‘protect’ the northern economy, President Jackson placed a tariff on all imported goods which competed with those manufactured by northern states.
In November 1832, South Carolina refused to collect the tariff, passed the Ordinance of Nullification and threatened to secede from the union. President Jackson retaliated by sending federal troops to Charleston. South Carolina’s secession was averted for a time due to a compromise being reached in the Senate through the efforts of Henry Clay. Congress also revised the Tariff of Abominations in February 1833.
Though the secession crisis was postponed, the nullification calamity created a huge change in the political climate. Terms such as Whig and Democrat gave way to new designations of States Rightist, Pro-Union, and either loose or strict constructionalists. Between 1837 and 1861, eight different presidents were elected – none of which won a second term. By the time James Buchanan was elected in 1856, the country found itself divided over a large variety of issues.
In 1837, panic set in on the economic picture of the United States. The subsequent depression created despair in the economy of the North; whereas the South’s economy was virtually untouched due to the fact Southern cotton sold abroad was responsible for 57% of all American exports at this time.
In an effort to further their cause, abolitionists intensified the clash between the agriculturally affluent South and the economically struggling industrial North. By 1850, rifts between the North, South and West intensified due to conflicting signals sent out by politicians who sought to appease their particular groups. The results, however, were futile. The citizens of Georgia were upset over the fact the federal government was controlled by industrialists located in the North who showed no real concern for situations Georgians faced, even though both the North and West benefitted from tariffs collected from Georgia.
In addition to the sectionalism, the Panic of 1857 had a devastating effect on both the industrial North and the West, which was dominated by the railroad. Merchandise began to pile up in the North, which led to large scale layoffs. In the West, the excessive expansion of the railroad caused a number of lines to disintegrate. The collapse of the railroad took with it thousands of land speculators. The North and West now began to seek help from the federal government to increase protective tariffs and for support of failing banks and railroads.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina officially declared its secession from the union. Six days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson secretly relocated the 1st US Artillery E & H Companies, composed of 127 men, to Fort Sumter. Originally based at Fort Moultrie, Major Anderson felt Fort Sumter offered a stronger defense, and thus would help to delay an attack by the militia from South Carolina. Unfortunately, due to military downsizing by President James Buchanan, the fort contained less than half the canons it was designed to hold. The Union attempted to restock the fort on January 9, 1861, but met with stiff resistance when shots were fired by cadets from the Citadel.
Throughout the next few months, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard of the Confederate Army (a former student of Major Anderson’s), called for the evacuation of Fort Sumter by the Union troops. His orders, however, were ignored. On April 11, 1861, General Beauregard sent three aides to demand the fort’s surrender. Again the order was ignored. Following a consultation with Secretary of War Leroy Walker, General Beauregard sent Colonel James Chestnut, Jr. word to decide whether or not force should be used to regain control of the fort. Major Anderson was offered one last opportunity to surrender. After learning Anderson’s conditions, Colonel Chestnut’s aides left the fort. Confederate troops then proceeded to Fort Johnson, located nearby, where Colonel Chestnut gave the order to open fire on Fort Sumter. The attack continued for the next 34 hours.
Fort Sumter was unable to return fire for at least two hours due to being inadequately prepared for battle. What ammunition the fort did contain was ill suited to the task. Fuses for the explosive shells were missing, leaving only solid cannon balls to be used against the Rebel forces. Captain Abner Doubleday is credited with firing the first Union shot from Fort Sumter, but his efforts were ineffective due to the placement of the gun used.
On April 13th, Fort Sumter surrendered and the Union colors fell. One Confederate soldier was the only casualty; this due to a misfiring cannon. By the end of the Civil War, Fort Sumter lay in ruins, but was later restored.
The war begun at Fort Sumter continued until May 1865. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House. On April 18, 1865, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to General William Tecumseh Sherman. Over the course of these years, more than 620,000 Americans died. Of that number, for each person lost in battle, two died of disease. 50,000 survivors would return home as amputees.
When the political and economic situations of today are compared with those responsible for the Civil War, it lends credence to the fact if we choose not to study and learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them.