Civil War Politics and Racism

views updated

Civil War Politics and Racism










Many historians consider the American Civil War (1861–1865) to be the completion of the American Revolution (1776–1781). The Civil War ended American subservience to England, signaled its emergence as a world-class industrial power, put the Northern industrialists and bankers in charge of the political life of the nation, and ended chattel slavery. The issue of slavery had dominated America’s political life throughout the nation’s history. For example, the slave-holding states produced thirteen of the first sixteen American presidents, even though they had smaller voting populations than the Northern states.

The political domination of the “slavocracy” can be partially explained by slavery’s impact on wealth production in the nation. In the early eighteenth century, tobacco was the dominant cash crop in the South. However, after the invention of the cotton gin in 1810, cotton took over, and by 1859 cotton made up 61 percent of all American exports. The cotton industry depended on slave labor, and the institution of slavery helped create a small class of wealthy landed gentry in the South. This group of Southern elites wielded political influence over American life far in excess of its numbers.

The cotton production system relied on a rigid system of class, which was based upon the concept of race. The vast majority of Southern labor was accomplished using slaves, including the limited amount of manufacturing in the South. This meant that all other occupations in the South revolved around the slave system. For free whites, the choices included being slave overseers, slave catchers, or farming marginal land in the hopes of earning enough to someday be a slave owner. This state of affairs explains, in part, the irrational support of slavery among the majority of Southern whites, most of whom did not own slaves.

African Americans resisted slavery by every means possible, including work slowdowns, sabotage, arson, mass flight, and rebellion. Slave masters feared for their lives, and not without reason, for domestic slaves often poisoned their masters. The South was always on guard against slave rebellion, such as those of Denmark Vessey in 1822, Nat Turner in 1831, and John Brown in 1859. Slaves burned down Dallas, Texas, in 1860. This resistance explained, in part, why slavery was such an inefficient economic system.

However, by the 1830s, national sentiment was beginning to turn against slavery. In the Northern states, the abolition movement, the National Negro Convention, and Free-Soil movements had grown rapidly. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, played an important role in publicizing the abuses of slavery by selling 300,000 copies between 1852 and 1853. Stowe had been an organizer for the underground railway in Cincinnati. The book was translated into several languages and sold throughout Europe. Upon meeting Stowe in

1862, Abraham Lincoln quipped: “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war!”


The “Missouri Compromise,” passed by the U.S. Congress in 1820, was an attempt to appease both the pro-slavery and antislavery factions. Under this law slavery was forbidden north of the 36° 30’ parallel, Missouri would be a slave state, and Maine would be a free state. The intent, however, was to allow voters to determine, under the principle of “popular sovereignty,” whether any new state or territory would allow slavery. Abolitionists saw the “Compromise” as a capitulation to slaveholding interests.

The idea of popular sovereignty was further strengthened by the Compromise of 1850, which allowed California to become a new free state but also allowed New Mexico to decide its own status. This compromise included the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, which required U.S. citizens to assist in capturing runaway slaves. These actions, along with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, signaled that abolitionist forces were in retreat and that slaveholders were becoming more assertive in maintaining their “property rights” by violent means.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up Kansas for settlement and repealed the Missouri Compromise. The issue of slavery was to be decided in this territory by popular sovereignty. Proslavery societies tried to subvert this process by organizing an immigration movement into Kansas and seizing the premier land. They also moved in with organized armed bands that included artillery. Northern Free-Soilers, meanwhile, organized emigrant aid societies. Despite Jim Crow laws that forbade them to take up government land, Frederick Douglass agitated for the emigration of free African Americans into Kansas. By March 1855, 10,000 settlers had migrated to Kansas.

Both proslavery and Free-Soil forces attempted to form state governments for federal recognition during 1856. On May 21, 1856, proslavery forces attacked Lawrence, Kansas, reputedly to serve a warrant against a wanted fugitive. They used an artillery piece to blow up the Lawrence jail. Four days later, on May 25, 1856, John Brown and his five sons retaliated by wiping out several proslavery settlers at Dutch Henry’s Crossing. The war in Kansas continued, with bands from both sides burning, robbing, and pillaging. The American Civil War had begun, though no one realized it yet. By 1859, Free-Soilers had become the majority in Kansas and elected a legislature and executive branch.

In 1857 John Brown decided to strike a blow directly at slave power by starting an insurrection in Virginia. He chose to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry hoping to seize the 100,000 to 200,000 rifles stored there. Brown was so convinced of the justice of his actions that he made the plan semi-public in the North (it was even given to the secretary of war).

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown’s contingent of twenty-two men, including five African Americans, moved on Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, the slaves did not flock to John Brown’s banner, for he had done little preparation and Harpers Ferry had few field slaves. Brown’s forces were quickly overwhelmed by federal forces and he was severely wounded in the battle. Within a week of the battle his trial began. Judge Richard Parker, in Charleston, Virginia, sentenced him and the survivors to death on November 2, 1859. John Brown’s final statement to the court was prophetic: “I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”


Throughout his political career, Abraham Lincoln was opposed to slavery, arguing that it was incompatible with American democracy. “When the white man governs himself,” he said, “that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man—that is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another” (Lincoln 1854). Yet Lincoln was clear to state that while he was opposed to slavery, he did not believe that the Northern states had the right to interfere with slavery where it currently existed. He also carefully distanced himself from what he considered to be violent abolitionism, such as that carried out by John Brown and his supporters. In May 1860 the Republican National Convention met in Chicago, and only Lincoln was an acceptable candidate to all factions of the party. The Democrats held their convention in Charleston, South Carolina. The party was deeply split into Northern and Southern factions over the slavery question. The convention nominated Stephen Douglas for president, but Southern delegates later held a separate convention and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (Breckinridge was vice president to the incumbent president, James Buchanan).

The 1860 campaign was one of the most bitterly fought in the history of the United States. When the votes were tallied, Lincoln received 180 electoral votes, a majority. John Breckinridge, who carried the entire Deep South, was second with 72; John Bell, a Tennessean (of the Constitutional Union Party) received 39, and Douglas won only 12. Lincoln failed to win a single electoral vote in ten Southern states. Thus, despite the results of the Electoral College, Lincoln won only 40 percent of the popular vote.

Even before election day, Southern militants had threatened to secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected. In December, after Lincoln’s victory was final, South Carolina seceded. By February, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed. These states joined together to form the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy.

President Buchanan did nothing to stop the secessionist movement, and President-elect Lincoln was powerless to intercede. Lincoln remained silent on the issue, hoping that Union sentiment might reassert itself in the South. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln was sworn in as the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln attempted to allay Southern fears in his inaugural address. Opening the address he stated: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” However, he flatly rejected the right of any state to secede from the Union. He announced that he would “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.” The rebellious states had already seized federal forts, arsenals, and customhouses within their boundaries. Lincoln feared that taking direct action against the Confederacy would lead to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.


The Confederate seizure of Fort Sumter forced Lincoln to act. The fort was located at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. The Confederates demanded the evacuation of the fort because it was in their territory. Early in April, Lincoln decided to resupply the fort by sea. He informed Francis Pickens, the governor of South Carolina, of his intention, and Pickens notified the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Davis and his cabinet instructed Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard to demand the fort’s surrender. The fort’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused this ultimatum, and at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, Beauregard’s guns opened fire on Fort Sumter. Lincoln’s relief party was unable to land supplies, and two days later Anderson surrendered the fort. Lincoln reacted promptly. He asked the loyal states to provide 75,000 militia for three months’ service and he ordered a special session of Congress to convene on July 4. The Civil War had now officially begun.


On the surface, the Civil War should have never lasted as long as it did or caused as many casualties as it did. The North had vastly superior war potential on every level. There were twenty-three states in the Union but only eleven in the Confederacy. The Union contained 23 million people, while the Confederacy had only 9 million. In addition, 4 million of the South’s residents were African-American slaves, most of whom were actively hostile to the Confederate “cause.” The Northern army was able to muster 2,898,000 men against 1,300,000 for the Confederacy. The North also had the Union Navy, which could have effectively blockaded the Southern ports and cut off support from Great Britain. Finally, the North had three-quarters of the nation’s banking and industrial capital, along with 85 percent of the manufacturing capacity.

The only factor working in favor of the South was it had a better military officer corps at the start of the war. For example, Robert E. Lee was initially offered the command of the Union Army. Even the enlisted men were better trained, due to the fact that the South was essentially an armed state, under constant threat of slave rebellion. Another factor working against the Union was the fact that it was forced to adopt an offensive war strategy. The military tactics employed by both armies at the beginning of the war dated to the Napoleonic era. These tactics required that a massed group of men stand across from each other in open fields firing muskets at each other. The muskets and artillery in use in the Napoleonic period (1800–1812) were very inaccurate. However, by the 1860s, single-shot muzzle-loading muskets were accurate up to 500 yards. Artillery pieces were also more powerful, and explosive shells had been developed. Thus, the tactic of marching men across open fields guaranteed the slaughter of those troops. The Confederates had the advantage of taking defensive positions behind fences and stone walls, as well as fighting on their own terrain. The combination of inept military leadership, inappropriate tactics, and imprecise political strategy meant that the years 1861 and 1862 were a succession of Union military disasters.

The Union failure to win quickly resulted from its failure to comprehend exactly what the overall purposes of the war were for each side. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the Union at any cost. He did not realize that the nation had already split over the issue of slavery. Thus, victory would have been achieved more quickly if slavery had been abolished from the outset. In addition, Lincoln needed to raise African-American regiments, because no other constituency had more to gain by preserving the Union and ending slavery. Indeed, the senior officer corps of the Union was torn by their own friendships and familial relations to the senior officer corps of the Confederacy. Most of those in the Union command were not abolitionists, and many were white supremacists (including Lincoln himself). Some of the

Table 1.
Union Military Disasters of 1861 – 1862
BattleResultCasualties*CommandersMilitary Failure
Note: (killed, wounded, captured/missing)
SOURCE : Adapted from MacDonald, J. (1988). Great Battles of the Civil War, New York: Macmillan.
First Bull Run, Manassas Creek, VAArmy of Potomac routedNorth 2,896 (460; 1,124;1,312) South 1,982 (387; 1,582, 13)McDowell v. Johnston/BeauregardUnion takes too long to flank Confederate position; Jackson rallied Confederate Center.
Shiloh, Pittsburg Landing, TNDrawNorth >10,000 South >10,000Grant v. JohnstonJohnston surprises Grant, Union pushed back. Grant counter attacks on 2nd day reclaims lost ground.
Seven Pines, VA Seven Days,Union defeat McClellan v. Johnston/Lee McClellan v. LeeUnion attempt to capture Richmond via peninsula approach. McClellan retreats safely to James River.
Second Bull RunUnion defeatNorth 14,500 v. South 9,200McClellan/ Pope v. Lee/Jackson/ LongstreetPope flanked and almost cut off at Manassas Junction.
AntietamUnion victoryNorth 12,000 v. South 12,700McClellan v. LeeMcClellan turns back Lee’s invasion of Maryland.
FredericksburgUnion defeatNorth 1284, 9600, 1769 v. South 595, 4061, 653.Burnside v. LeeForced frontal attack across pontoon bridge, South held fortified heights above the city.

Union commanders also had pro-Southern sympathies (these individuals were called “Copperheads”).

From the onset of the conflict, African-American leaders agitated for ending slavery and raising African-American units. Frederick Douglass wrote, “What upon earth is the matter with the American Government and people? Do they really covet the world’s ridicule as well as their own social and political ruin? What are they thinking about, or don’t they condescend to think at all?” (Douglass 1861). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, working as European correspondents, wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that ending slavery and the raising of African-American units were necessary to win the war. Marx commented, “A single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves.” Marx also said that General George McClellan, the union commander, had “incontrovertibly proved that he is a military incompetent,” and that he waged war “not to defeat the foe, but rather not to be defeated by the foe.”


Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, because the North was on the verge of a military defeat just after the Battle of Antietam. In the following years, African Americans made several significant contributions to the war. For example, Harriet Tubman was a scout, nurse, and military leader for the Union, and she organized a sophisticated spy network among field and house slaves throughout the Confederacy. She was the first woman to ever lead and come under fire on a military raid in U.S. history when she joined Colonel James Montgomery’s forces and led a raid up the Combahee River in South Carolina (an event misrepresented in the 1989 film Glory).

Frederick Douglass’s influence with Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts allowed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry to be organized, one of the first African-American units in the war. Initially, all of the senior officers of the 54th were European-Americans. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of abolitionists, was commissioned to lead the regiment. Although Shaw was not immune to the white supremacist notions of this time, he counted the African American poet and scholar Charlotte Forten as a personal friend.

The heroism of the 54th Massachusetts at James Island and Fort Wagner is also misrepresented in the popular film Glory. For example, the majority of the soldiers who made up this unit were freedmen who could read and write, and many of them gave up farms and businesses to join the unit. The number of freedmen in this unit becomes more significant when one understands that the Confederate Congress drafted legislation calling for the execution of any African American in a federal uniform bearing arms against the Confederacy. The legislation also allowed for the execution of any European-American officer captured in command of African-American troops. Thus, the officers and men of the “colored troops” bore an additional risk in combat not experienced by the rest of the Union Army.

In addition, to add insult to injury, the U.S. Congress paid African-American troops less than European-American troops. In response, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry refused payment for their service.

Eventually, about 185,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy. Twenty-one of these men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their

heroism during the conflict. By the end of the war, 37,635 African-American troops had been killed (mostly from disease), a mortality rate of 25 percent. This was 35 percent higher than the mortality rate of Euro-American troops of the Union. This is indicative of the way African-American troops were mistreated, especially considering that they did not enter the war until eighteen months after the fighting began. Two egregious examples of the misuse of African-American troops occurred in 1864 at Fort Pillow, Confederate troops were accused of killing African-American troops after they had surrendered, and the Battle of the Crater, in which thousands of black troops were killed after being ordered to charge into a crater where thousands of Union soldiers had already been killed.


During the same month as the historic charge on Fort Wagner and Battle of Gettysburg (which changed the tide of the war), draft riots broke out in New York City. The riots were carried out mainly by Irish Catholics who had been convinced by Northern Copperheads that the war was a crusade to benefit African Americans. Irish Americans were themselves suffering from oppression at the hands of Northern Protestants (who were mainly of English ancestry). In addition, the proslavery Democratic Party in New York had been agitating among the Irish and German immigrants, saying that ending slavery would cause a flood of former slaves into New York, and that this would threaten the jobs of the immigrants. Democratic Party newspapers had been agitating against the draft for the entire month preceding the July draft lottery. Compounding this racist agitation was the fact that, as a community, the Irish had already suffered a great number of casualties due to the ineptitude of the Union command. Probably the single greatest factor fueling Irish rage over the draft was the provision that allowed wealthy persons to buy themselves out of the draft for a fee of 300 dollars, or else to hire a “substitute” to fight for them.

On July 13th, the riots began as mobs of mostly Irish men attacked the draft office and other federal offices. However, they soon turned their vengeance against any African Americans they came across. African Americans were indiscriminately lynched and beaten. The Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground, although the children had already fled. Protestant churches were also attacked, as well as the offices of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (a pro-Lincoln newspaper). The rioting lasted four days, and local police could not control it. It was eventually put down by federal troops that had been fighting for their lives at Gettysburg only two weeks earlier.


The Emancipation Proclamation, the raising of African-American regiments, and Lincoln’s decision to put the conduct of the war in the hands of competent generals (namely, Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman) brought about the end of the war. Grant realized that his numerical and technical superiority could only be realized if he maintained the offensive. His plan was to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia by using a series of rightward flanking movements directed toward Richmond. In the West, Sherman set about to divide the Confederacy in half. Sherman’s plan was to destroy the ability of the Confederate Army to supply itself by moving eastward from the Mississippi River toward Atlanta, thus cutting Confederate supply lines.

Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse. In the succeeding months the remainder of the Confederate forces surrendered. The Civil War was by far the most costly the United States has ever fought with regard to human life. A total of 360,222 Union troops and 258,000 Confederate troops were killed, out of a total population that numbered 32,300,000. This can be compared to World War II, in which the total American losses were 407,316 out of a population of 133,400,000. From a financial point of view, the war cost the Confederacy $4 billion and the Union laid out $16 billion. The final years of war left the Confederate cities in shambles. When Lincoln entered Richmond in triumph on April 3, 1865, few buildings remained standing.


The American Civil War brought about an end to chattel slavery. This broke the control that England had over Southern agricultural production, while simultaneously opening the American South for industrial growth. The settling of the slavery question also prepared America for a westward expansion. The American Indian nations would be brutally defeated by American expansionism by the end of the 1870s. The war freed four million slaves, who now would require resources and education so that they could be prepared for their new life.

The Union victory also created new political and social dynamics. The Northern bankers and industrialists were now the dominant economic and political bloc in the United States. Their political power over the nation was wielded through the Republican Party, which had control of the Union army of occupation in the South and the anti-Indian forces in the West.

The war did not settle the race question in America, however. If anything, it simply recast it in new forms. Many African Americans had fought for the Union, and some for the Confederacy, and their heroism caused some European Americans to change their views about blacks. Abraham Lincoln’s own personal views merit attention in this regard. At the beginning of the war, he saw no place for African Americans in the fight to preserve the Union, but as the war dragged on he grudgingly accepted the need for African-American troops, and later he hailed their selfless contributions. Even Robert E. Lee felt that the Confederates should have armed Negroes, and he said he would have welcomed them into the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia—if they had been willing to serve. Lincoln supported the idea of African-American soldiers receiving the vote after the war. Unfortunately, Lincoln never lived to see any of his plans for Reconstruction realized. Most consider him the “last casualty of the war.” He was assassinated by the Southern racist John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while attending a play at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

SEE ALSO Antebellum Black Ethnology; Black Civil War Soldiers; Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation Proclamation.


Aptheker, Herbert. 1948. To Be Free: Studies in American Negro History. New York: International Publishers.

Burchard, Peter. 1965. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Castel, Albert. 1958. “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence.” Civil War History 4 (1): 44–45.

Douglass, Frederick. 1861. “Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand.” Douglass Monthly (September 1861). Reprinted in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers, 1975.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1962. John Brown, Centennial ed. New York: International Publishers.

Glathaar, Joseph T. 1990. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Meridian Books.

Harris, Leslie M. 2003. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. 1995. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lincoln, Abraham. Speech at Peoria, Illinois, in reply to Senator Douglas, October 16, 1854. In Project Gutenberg E-text of The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2 of 7. Available from

MacDonald, John. 1988. Great Battles of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1964 (1861). The Civil War in the United States. In Marx/Engels Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pierce, Edward L. (correspondent for the New York Tribune).1863. Letter to Governor John A. Andrew, July 22.

Redkey, Edwin S. 1992. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African American Soldiers in the Union Army: 1861–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reynolds, David S. 2005. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

U.S. Congress Joint Committee Report on the Conduct of the War. “Fort Pillow Massacre.” House Report No. 65, 38th Congress, 1st Session.

Ward, Andrew. 2005. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. New York: Viking.

Joseph L. Graves Jr.

About this article

Civil War Politics and Racism

Updated About content Print Article