February 4, 1861: The Confederate States of America is formed.
In November of 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a one-term U.S. representative and candidate for the newly-formed Republican Party, was elected President of the United States with just under 40% of the popular vote. Rather than remain in a union whose president had won the election with a party promising “free labor, free land, free men”, seven southern slaveholding states seceded. The first was South Carolina, birthplace of John C. Calhoun and historical hotbed of states’ rights sentiment, and the last of the original seven was Texas, which seceded in February, a little over a month before Lincoln took office.
Six delegates convened in Montgomery, Alabama in the chambers of the state senate on February 4, 1861. Their first meeting marked the founding of the Confederate States of America, and in the coming months the Montgomery Convention drafted a Constitution and appointed former Secretary of War and veteran congressman Jefferson Davis president opposite the comparatively inexperienced Abraham Lincoln. In his Cornerstone Speech (March 21, 1861), the Confederate States’ vice president Alexander Stephens asserted that “our peculiar institution African slavery" was the "immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution”. He also declared that the founding principle of the new Confederate state, for which hundreds of thousands of lives would soon be spent, should be the principle of black racial inferiority:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
November 19, 1863: Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address.
150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous 2-minute-long, 260 word speech at the dedication of a soldiers’ cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - where, in July of the same year, Union and Confederate forces fought the bloodiest battle of the entire war. In his speech, Lincoln affirmed the value of the Union’s struggle in the context of the United States’ founding principles of liberty and equality. Since its delivery, the Gettysburg Address has been absorbed into American culture as a national symbol and as an iconic, defining moment in its history.
Text of the speech (of which several versions exist):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
July 13, 1863: The New York City draft riots begin.
The United States employed a national conscription system for the first time during the American Civil War via the Enrollment Act of 1863, which established a quota of troops from each congressional district. Commutation was possible - if a draftee could afford to pay $300. Already relations between the diverse groups populating New York City at the time were tense because of job competition, but particularly between poor white laborers and black workers. Now there was the fact that the affluent could pay their way out of the army, and the fact that many fresh, friendless immigrants had been wrangled by political machines into becoming citizens and voting without realizing that this made them eligible to be drafted (whereas black non-citizens were not). Anger over the draft and problems surrounding it and the war as a whole erupted in a four-day riot that ended with over a hundred dead.
Many of the rioters were Irish workers who competed with black workers for the same low wage jobs and, with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863, feared further competition as freed slaves headed north, searching for work. Because of these deep-rooted concerns, anger initially directed at the government and conscription soon found a new target/scapegoat: the city’s free black population. On the first day of rioting, the Colored Orphan Asylum was looted and then burned to the ground; black homes and businesses were destroyed, along with buildings affiliated with Republicans and abolitionists. Interracial couples were also attacked, and over a hundred people were killed by furious mobs - one black man was attacked by several hundred people at once, then strung up high and set on fire. At this time, few soldiers were stationed in New York, having been sent south to repel invading Confederate forces. State militias were eventually called in to quell the violence, and it was quelled, but property damage reached several million dollars, and African-Americans subsequently fled the city or relocated out of their mixed race neighborhoods.
July 3, 1863: Confederate forces are defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the turning points of the American Civil War, marking the high tide of the Confederacy and producing the largest number of casualties in any battle of the entire war, with each side suffering around 23,000. The battle took place in Pennsylvania - north of the Mason-Dixon Line, making it one of the only major Civil War battles (or perhaps the only) fought north of the line that traditionally divided the Northeastern and Southern halves of the United States. Until then, virtually all of the fighting and destruction had taken place in the South. It also marked the end of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the Union after the failed Maryland Campaign; this time around, he and the Army of Northern Virginia aimed to penetrate the Union as far north as Philadelphia to relieve pressure off the war-torn South. His campaign was thwarted by the Union Army of the Potomac under George Meade, who had just three days earlier replaced Joseph Hooker, which outnumbered Lee’s own forces by 20,000.
The armies met on July 1 and fought fiercely for two days. One area of the battlefield located at the foot of the Little Round Top hill was dubbed the “Slaughter Pen” because, by the end of the battle, “ the ground was found in many places to be almost covered with the dead and wounded”. On July 3, George Pickett and two other Confederate generals launched an infantry assault now known as “Pickett’s Charge”, the “high-water mark” of the Confederate advance into the North, its best chance of victory, and ultimately a failure. The fighting came to a standstill on July 4, and by the evening Lee’s forces were in retreat, after Union forces elected to cease its attack. The Army of the Potomac then failed to pursue the fleeing forces and relinquished an important opening to destroy Robert E. Lee and the bulk of the Confederate army in one fell swoop, a cautious move for which George Meade was heavily criticized, even if his victory at Gettysburg was widely celebrated.
Simultaneously a turning point, a moral victory (for the North, now optimistic over the fact that Robert E. Lee was not, in fact, unbeatable), and a squandered opportunity, the Battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg stamped out any hope the Confederacy still maintained for a victory or at the very least an equal truce to end the war. At the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg four months later, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address.
April 14, 1865: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.
Five days after the surrender and deactivation of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House (the effective end of the war), Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, a stage actor and Confederate sympathizer. The demise of the Confederacy pushed Booth, a strongly pro-South, anti-Lincoln Maryland native, over the edge, and he abandoned a kidnapping plot that he and co-conspirators Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen and John Surratt had been formulating since 1864 in favor of simple assassination.
On April 14, they learned that President Lincoln would be attending a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, D.C., later that evening. He and the conspirators gathered once more, and it was decided that Lewis Powell and David Herold would attack Secretary of State William Seward, that George Atzerodt would carry out an assassination attempt on Vice President Andrew Johnson, and that Booth himself would kill Lincoln. The only attack of these that resulted in a death was Booth’s. He entered the Lincolns’ private theatre box during a particularly humorous moment in the play and shot the President once in the head, before leaping onto the stage, where he yelled either the Virginia state motto - “Sic semper tyrannis” - or “the South is avenged!” Booth broke his leg sometime between the fall and his escape, and he went on the run before being shot outside a barn in Virginia on April 26.
Lincoln, meanwhile, was moved to a house across the street from the theatre; he was pronounced dead early the next morning, the day before Easter Sunday. Utterly divisive as a leader in life, Lincoln was nevertheless mourned by millions in both the North and South in death.
April 12, 1864: The Fort Pillow Massacre takes place.
The battle over Fort Pillow, a fort in Tennessee situated in a strategic position on the Mississippi, ended in its capture by Confederate forces and in a massacre of surrendered black Union troops. African-Americans had been serving in Union regiments since mid-1862, although these regiments were commanded by white officers, and opening military service to African-Americans did not do much to lessen the prejudice and racism that they faced in Northern society. Confederate policy toward these soldiers regarded them not as prisoners of war but as slaves in insurrection, and decreed that captured black soldiers be dealt with accordingly. Captured white officers were tried for “inciting servile insurrection” (for which the punishment was death), and their soldiers were to “be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the law of said States”. This often involved returning freed/escaped slaves to slavery, although in some cases, Confederate officers chose instead to allow their soldiers to massacre surrendering troops rather than take them prisoner. Thus there always existed a dangerous uncertainty over what treatment black soldiers (and their white officers) might face if they were captured, or if they surrendered in Union uniform.
The Confederate force at Fort Pillow was under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, later first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and they outnumbered the Union soldiers (made up of both black and white men) around 2,000 to 600. Even after the overwhelmed Union troops threw down their guns in surrender, Confederate soldiers indiscriminately slaughtered both black and white soldiers, though black soldiers made up a disproportionately large amount of those killed (which was around half the total force of 600) and a disproportionately small amount of those taken prisoner. An excerpt from a letter “from a naval officer’, reflecting on the aftermath of the battle:
I had some conversation with rebel officers, and they claim that our men would not surrender, and in some few cases they could not control their men, who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not.
In June of that year, Congress passed laws equalizing pay between black and white soldiers; while advocating equal pay, one Massachusetts senator claimed that he believed the Union’s treatment of African-Americans was nearly as bad as that of the Confederate soldiers who had carried out the massacre at Fort Pillow.