HistoryWired About the Program Help Comments Smithsonian Institution
Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

The Civil War (1861-1865) was perhaps the most momentous event in American history. The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk, and on the outcome of the war depended on the nation's ability to bring to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, human dignity, and justice.

Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 brought to a climax the long-festering debate about the relative powers of the federal and the state governments. By the time of his inauguration, six southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, soon to be followed by five more. The war that followed between North and South put constitutional government to its severest test. After four bloody years of war, the Union was preserved, four million African American slaves were freed, and an entire nation was released from the oppressive weight of slavery. The war can be viewed in several different ways: as the final, violent phase in a conflict of two regional subcultures; as the breakdown of a democratic political system; as the climax of several decades of social reform; or as a pivotal chapter in American racial history. However interpreted, the Civil War stands as a story of great heroism, sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.

As important as the war itself was the tangled problem of how to reconstruct the defeated South. Encouraged by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, African Americans at last nourished hopes for full equality. Their hopes were to be dashed. By 1877, Southern white resistance and the withdrawal of federal supervision brought about the "redemption" of the South and African Americans were disenfranchised. The redemption measures enforced greater racial separation and increased white intimidation and violence.



In 1619, a year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, African slaves were first brought to Virginia. Negro slavery was gradually institutionalized on a legal basis by the end of the 17th century; black skin color and slave status were virtually synonymous.

Moral opposition to slavery stirred slowly, beginning with New England diarist Samuel Sewall's tract, "The Selling of Joseph," in the 1730s. Later in the century Quakers openly encouraged abolition, and in Philadelphia they organized the first American antislavery society in 1775.

Despite language of freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution safeguarded slavery as a compromise with southern states to secure their entry into the union. Slavery had become the basis of the agrarian economy of the South. Thus, with the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of "cotton culture," slavery became more entrenched than ever. Of little economic reward in the North, slavery was gradually abolished there.

In the 1830s, a general reform movement gave great impetus to the crusade for abolition. Free blacks joined white abolitionists in writing, preaching, lecturing, organizing, and deluging Congress with petitions against slavery. Abolition overshadowed all other reform movements of the early 1800s. Whether the Negro should be slave or free became the central issue of American life, an issue that finally erupted into the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the Civil War in 1863, had been proclaimed as a military measure affecting only the slaves in those portions of the country then in rebellion. Because the Constitution had guaranteed the status of the institution of slavery, a constitutional amendment was needed to abolish it. On January 31, 1865, an amendment to accomplish that purpose was passed by the House of Representatives. It was ratified during the year by the required number of states and on December 18, 1865, was proclaimed in effect. The 13th Amendment forever abolished slavery everywhere in the United States.

From "We the People: The American People and Their Government" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975) 63.


"Battle Hymn of the Republic"

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" from the recording Ballads of the Civil War 1831-1865, Folkways F 5004, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1954 Used by permission.

Julia Ward Howe, famous woman abolitionist and fighter for women’s rights, wrote this poem to the tune of "John Brown’s Body" (an old Negro Hymn tune). It was first published in the February 1862 edition of the "Atlantic Monthly".

"I knew and was content to know that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung I chorus by the soldiers," she said.

Partial Lyrics:
"…Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored.

He has loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

His truth is marching on ...!"


Start HistoryWired | About the Program | Help | Comments

Smithsonian Institution | Terms of Use | Privacy