The American Civil War (Part III): A House Divided.
Show Notes and Sources Cited
Episode 26: Show Notes and Citations
Nat Turner's Rebellion (2:45)
We begin with the infamous rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831. Nat Turner was a charismatic and eloquent slave preacher with incredibly deep religious and biblical convictions. So deep were his convictions that they led him to believe he was being spoken to by God directly, he heard voices and was sure that these were a sign from God that it was his duty to lead an uprising of slaves against their white owners. Very similar to John Brown’s own convictions no doubt led these two men to carry out a plan for general slave insurrection in order to change the nation. Now up until this point in the country slaves rarely if ever rebelled or attempted an escape against their owners. If they did and they were caught or unsuccessful in an uprising it was an action that would be met with dire consequence. Nationally, there were very few rebellions by slaves at all, among them almost none were successful and were met with such harsh punishments it was enough to discourage any rebellious slaves from considering an attempt of their own for quite some time.
Among all the attempts of an uprising the most successful of them by far was the uprising led by Nat Turner and his fanatical religious perceptions. In Southhampton County, Virginia he and his followers hatched their plan and began the uprising. They went throughout the county and killed about sixty white men, women and children and ran amok wreaking havoc all over before they were finally quelled and captured. In retaliation for his uprising, around 400 slaves in the area were killed, this shows the fanatical foundations for both Turner and his followers in starting a murder spree but also the slave owners in the area for disregarding human life, not to mention the fact (and I say this very cautiously) that the economic effects of killing 400 of their workers they relied on for livelihood could have on them. But it shows the fanatical methods these people on either side of the argument were willing to employ in order to defend their side versus the other. Nat Turner issued a confession in which he stated
“a loud voice in the heavens said time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
It’s important to point out that such militant abolitionism such as this behavior was a VERY small minority of the movement to abolish slavery as a whole. That said, the south was saw this violent message and the militant actions of people like John Brown and Nat Turner and were so threatened by that message that they conflated them with anyone who was an anti-slavery advocate which then amplified the abolitionists impact. Its not all dissimilar to the metaphor of being unable to look away from a speeding train about wreck. You know what the end result will be and of course you don’t want to see it happen, but you can’t look away from the end result that everyone knows is well on its way.
The Fugitive Slave Act (8:30)
As difficult and divisive as the property issue was it paled in comparison to the next event which follows the pattern of out-doing its predecessor in terms of divisiveness and fortifying both sides further into their own extremes. The fugitive slave act was passed on September 18, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850 which was a grouping of multiple acts supposedly serving to tamp down the debate and calm both sides by acting as a compromise between the pro and anti slavery groups, spoiler alert: it made things much worse.
The law required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. Abolitionists nicknamed it the "Bloodhound Law" for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves. The law made the federal government responsible for the apprehension and return of runaway slaves but it also forced northern residents, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to not only allow but to actively assist in this work. Not only that, the law was retroactive in nature; meaning slaves who had escaped northward before 1850 and who may have been living as free people for years were to be apprehended and returned. It even threatened the liberty of thousands of free black men who were born free men and didn’t have a method to prove their own nativity in the United States as a freed black man.
Needless to say the law was attacked by the abolitionist movement from every angle and often resulted in mob violence such as the violent protests that occurred in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and others. In 1854 one such episode occurred when a mass meeting was called in Boston to protest the arrest of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia. The protest was organized by a well known abolitionist by the name of Theodore Parker. During the rally the national abolitionist moment took an ever important turn towards extremism in a way that those attending the rally surely didn’t realize at the time but looking back is clear that the point of violent protesting had eclipsed the non-violent and would only grow in its strength, frequency and popularity.
Parker spoke to the crowd and issued his proclamation for violence boldly asserting:
“I have heard hurrahs and cheers for liberty many times, I have not seen a great many deeds done for liberty. I ask you are we to have deeds as well as words?…I am a clergyman and a man of peace; I love peace. But there is a means and an end: Liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means toward it.”
His speech so frenzied the crowd that they rose up and attacked the courthouse where the captured slave Anthony Burns was being held, killing a policeman in the process. Angry abolitionists like Parker, who openly admitted to hating not only the sin of slavery itself but also the “slave-hunters, slave-breeders, and slave-holders” had officially abandoned nonviolent protests from this point on; the result was significantly adding to the already fevered atmosphere of the 1850’s.
The Kansas-Nebraska Bill (14:25)
After John Brown’s raid, political anarchy ruled and the notion of partisanship became a virtue of the past. With the increasing expansion westward and addition of new territories to populate, the North and South again disagreed over a key issue. This time slavery wasn’t the root and instead it was the railroad. To simplify it into the most basic terms, the north wanted a northerly route and the south wanted a southerly route for the new railroad in the Nebraska territory. In one of the most bizarre debates in American political history to date, the nation received the Kansas-Nebraska Bill which added to the national tension in a new way, universal and extreme distrust of politicians.
The bill nullified the old Missouri Compromise which excluded slavery above the Southern border of Missouri, then applied popular sovereignty to the unorganized territory of the Louisiana purchase (where the residents decide on slave or anti-slave status) and the bill divided the Territory of Nebraska in half while renaming the Southern portion Kansas. It is impossible to overstate how much turmoil was created by this bill, the anti-slavery advocates saw it as a deep conspiracy within the government in order to undermine their movement. They saw the Fugitive Slave act, then this bill abolishing the Missouri Compromise to keep slavery illegal being abolished as a governmental expansion of slavery and a threat to their movement and beliefs.
In reality, the abolitionists had misconstrued the events just as poorly as the southern pro-slavery had done time and time before them. The reason for the result was the congressman named Stephen Douglas, he owned the land that the railroad would travel through if it was a southerly route and stood to gain a substantial amount of money. In order for the Southerly railroad to happen he was able to come up with the terms he genuinely thought would make both sides happy. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, at all.
The Dred Scott Decision (16:40)
In perhaps the most famous, or at least one of the most infamous court cases in the history of the United States Judiciary, we have the case of the Missouri slave named Dred Scott. He sued for his freedom claiming that by residing with his master in Illinois and Wisconsin, he had become a free man. What followed was years of very complex litigation that finally landed his case in front of the high court in 1856. Dred Scott v. Sandford, also known simply as the Dred Scott case, was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on US labor law and constitutional law. It held that "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves”, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.
Dred Scott, an enslaved man of "the negro African race” who had been taken by his owners to free states and territories, attempted to sue for his freedom. In a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court denied Scott's request. The decision was only the second time that the Supreme Court had ruled an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional. Although Taney hoped that his ruling would finally settle the slavery question, the decision immediately spurred vehement dissent from anti-slavery elements in the North. Many contemporary lawyers, and most modern legal scholars, consider the ruling regarding slavery in the territories to be dictum, not binding precedent. The decision proved to be an indirect catalyst for the American Civil War. It was functionally superseded by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which gave African Americans full citizenship.
The Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford is unanimously denounced by scholars. Bernard Schwartz says it "stands first in any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions—Chief Justice C.E. Hughes called it the Court's greatest self-inflicted wound”. Junius P. Rodriguez says it is "universally condemned as the U.S. Supreme Court's worst decision”. Historian David Thomas Konig says it was "unquestionably, our court's worst decision ever".
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (20:55)
Enter one of the most famous American politicians, presidents, and people in American History to date: Abraham Lincoln. Although Lincoln had already once retired from politics and had since become an important member of society as a prominent and successful Illinois lawyer, he still had political ambitions. He combined his political ambition with a growing concern over the expansion of slavery in order to catapult onto the scene in the upstart Republican Party. While speaking at a Republican Convention (cementing his reputation today as one of the most gifted speakers in presidential history) he addressed the crowd with words that have since echoed throughout history:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand…” Reasoning that a government could not endure “…half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
In the ensuing months Lincoln would become the South’s scapegoat as the face of national conspiracy towards abolition; prompting the first real threats of a state to secede from the Union should Lincoln become the president in 1860
hat is easily the most tumultuous election in the nation’s history (yes, even more than the 2016 Trump v. Hillary election) saw Abraham Lincoln become the victor of the race and the nation’s 16th president. Over 80% of the electorate in the nation turned out to vote, to date still the second highest percentage in the nation’s history; a turnout that points to the realization of the people to just how important this election was for the future of the country politically, economically, socially and racially. Lincoln would win with 180 electoral votes against a combined 123 for his opponents.
Secession from the union (30:45)
During the next three months, the slave states of the deep south reacted to Lincoln’s victory by Seceding from the Union. Secession had been an unthinkable action to most American minds but had just become a deep, terrifying reality; Southerners had lost faith in the American political system. To be clear, both the north and south feared a possible debasement of white hierarchical society where the black slave would, happy in his confinement (as they saw it) would turn into a “buck negro” that would savage white men, rape white women and children and cause total upheaval in the nation.
The debate of politics had changed into a political debate where it was viewed as a debate over morality and depending on the way a person saw it, one was right and one was wrong.
Lincoln's First Inaugural Address (36:20)
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln delivered a carefully crafted address to the nation. He showed the nation he was not interested in war, he was not interested in furthering the divide of the nation and he was not going to be the first to take action that could be conceived as an act of war by the Confederate states. In an attempt to draw seceded states back into the Union he issued a pledge that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed, along with a promise to sponsor a constitutional amendment to that affect; and he promised to enforce the fugitive slave law on top of everything else. In a portion of his address he spoke to the Confederate States of America directly and in doing so he ensured that the burden of future action was shifted to fall squarely on the shoulders of that nation rather than himself:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will no assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”
In effect, Lincoln issued a sort of contradictory address that could be expected to be given by any good lawyer; his claims that he issued were soon tested on a global stage.
The fort sumter Crisis (40:00)
The issued claim by Lincoln during his address was immediately tested with the question of what to do about Fort Sumter, as it was squarely in the heart of Confederate territory within the Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The Union had operated and maintained the fort and the secession of South Carolina meant that the Fort was technically (depending on which way you look at it) either a fort in home land occupied by soldiers of an enemy nation; OR it was a fort occupied by Union soldiers surrounded by an enemy nation suddenly; either way it was a difficult situation for Lincoln and the Union as the fort required a quick re-supply of munitions, food and general supplies.
What ensued was a decision to send a fleet to resupply the fort, but only with nonmilitary goods, mainly just food. The Union would send a fleet to sail into Charleston harbor but “with an un-warlike intent”.
On April 9th of 1861 President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis issued to his commander General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard an order to issue an ultimatum to the Union garrison held up within Fort Sumter. He sent word to the Union commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, to evacuate immediately. Anderson agreed to surrender by noon of April 15 “should I not receive prior to that time controlling instructions from my Government or additional supplies.”
While Anderson may not have been aware that supplies were on the way, Beauregard was aware that they were and on April 12th in the dawn hours of morning he began his bombardment of Fort Sumter; the official beginning of the Civil War in America.
After thirty four hours of continual bombardment, his garrison crumbling, ammunition nearly gone, miraculously zero men killed and with his honor and dignity maintained, Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to General Beauregard and the Confederate force.
As the first shots had been fired, the nation rushed to war where most thought it would be quick and over soon; men feared that they wouldn’t be able to enlist before the war was already over. How horribly and tragically wrong those thoughts would be were soon to be realized by all.
The Battle of Bull Run (54:04)
The Battle of Bull run is often seen as the first real battle of the civil war as it was the first large scale organized conflict to occur. It was not a surprise conflict as there were spectators who gathered on nearby hilltops to watch the battle unfold which were comprised of citizens and government officials such as congressman.
The Battle was fought on the morning of July 12th, 1861 in and around the rolling farmland of Manassas Junction, Virginia. It was a victory for the Confederate forces but in a way it was a loss for both the Confederate States of America and the Union; it showed the nation that the war was not going to be over quickly as they initially had thought, and that they were in for a large scale conflict in which the loss of life would be extravagant for both sides. The day after battle the U.S. Congress increased the call for troops to a total of 500,000 volunteers, up from the previous call for 75,000, to serve for no more than three years but no less than six months.
The union defeat curbed the “war euphoria” of the North as they realized the impact of the war that they were about to be drug into. Colonel William T. Sherman called the battle of Bull Run “but the beginning of a long war.” Sherman hoped he was wrong about the length of the war and that the people of the south would “yet see the folly of the unjust rebellion against the most mild and paternal government ever designed for men.”
General Ulysses S. Grant takes Forts Henry and Donelson (1:01:53)
With an infantry force roughly 15,000 men strong, combined with a flotilla of ships under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, General Ulysses S. Grant was tasked with taking Forts Henry and Donelson; the acquisitions in turn would secure Kentucky and its rivers which would offer a Union threat reaching deep into Confederate territory.
These two battles I include in the story in order to draw attention to the importance that the navy played for best sides in this war. The vast river system in America offered the ability to transfer men and supplies rapidly and across large distances. In order to secure Kentucky’s vast rivers, including the Mississippi River, The Tennessee River and the Cumberland River. Grant easily took Fort Henry as it was incomplete and guarded by a garrison of roughly 100 men. Fort Donelson was much more difficult to take and had the confederate commanders paid attention to the 5 mile long line of Grant, which they had succeeded in breaking through, they would have been able to surround Grant. They were too busy arguing amongst each other about what to do and Grant was able to receive reinforcement and eventually took the fort.
This fort was commanded by an old friend of Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Simon B. Buckner, from their mutual time in the American Army. Had Buckner been hoping for a warm and amicable terms of surrender due to his past with Grant, he would be sorely disappointed. Ulysses S. Grant demanded an “unconditional” and immediate surrender in which newspapers played on the Union commander’s initials by calling him Unconditional Surrender Grant. They also included a “puffed” account that the confederates capitulated nearly 15,000 prisoners, 20,000 muskets, 65 cannon and thousands of horses.
The union victory absolutely stunned the Confederate South which had, up until this point, been victorious on nearly every other front. Not only had they just lost all of Kentucky, but suddenly Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were now directly threatened; as they saw it, the entire deep south and heart of Confederate America was now at risk.
Sources Used (whole Series)
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Vintage Books, 2000.
Winik, Jay. April 1865 the month that saved America. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008.
Blight, David W. Race and reunion: the Civil War in American memory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
Fellman, Michael, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland. This terrible war: the Civil War and its aftermath. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.
Coski, John M. The Confederate battle flag: Americas most embattled emblem. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Taylor, Michael W. The Cry is War, War, War. Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, 1994.
Geer, Walter. Campaigns of the Civil War. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2009.