Civil War Era
Connections Essay - Civil Ear Era
The Civil War and Virginia
During the American Revolution, there was no such place as “North” or “South.” Between 1861 and 1865, North and South fought a Civil War. Virginia was at the cross-roads of that transition.
In 1776, all thirteen colonies allowed slavery and contained people who disagreed about many things, including the role of the federal government, but most agreed that slavery should be eliminated eventually. They also agreed that white men should enjoy economic opportunity and political equality. After the Revolution, Americans disagreed about how to achieve those ideals. Northern states gradually abolished slavery, but the institution grew in the South.
A worldwide Market Revolution altered the nineteenth-century economy. Textbooks portray an “industrialized North” and an “agricultural South,” but reality was more complex, especially in Virginia. The Market Revolution transformed most white Americans from subsistence farmers into commercial farmers who sold surplus crops and purchased goods. In the southern states, slave-grown staples like cotton, tobacco, and sugar created astounding profits that discouraged diversification. Cheap cotton enticed investors with access to water power to establish textile factories in a few places in the Northeast, but the majority of Northerners grew food on small family farms. Containing food cultivation and manufacturing (one of the nation’s largest ironworks, operated with half slave and half free labor, was Tredegar in Richmond) Virginia’s economy leaned northern, with one key difference: Virginia contained the highest number of slaves of any state, and gained more revenue from the sale of slaves than any other source.
Social and political change also occurred. As states dropped property requirements for voting, emphasis on equality grew. The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival, spread evangelical fervor. As economic change heightened income disparity, white Southerners relied on black slavery to guarantee that all whites were equal in not being slaves. Moreover, they believed that slave states deserved an equal role within the federal government. Evangelicalism in the North inspired reform movements, including abolitionism, but devout Southerners believed that religion should focus on personal salvation, not slavery. The slave population grew from 800,000 to 4 million in two generations, stoking white Southerners’ fears of race war.
Virginians’ fears were acute in 1831. A tiny number of white Northerners began publicly to question slavery through publications like The Liberator. That same year, slave Nat Turner led an uprising in Southampton County. The state legislature debated gradual emancipation, which northwestern Virginians tended to favor, but tightened slavery laws instead.
In the 1840s, westward expansion forced Congress to face slavery. White Americans regarded western territories as repositories of white equality and opportunity. Many people in slaveholding states considered slavery necessary to maintaining those ideals, and believed that slavery had to grow for the South to maintain parity within the federal government. Yet many residents of nonslaveholding states believed that slavery mocked American ideals, and wanted slavery—and slaves—barred from the territories.
Enslaved Virginians wanted freedom. Penniless and usually illiterate, runaway slaves rarely escaped; they faced almost impossible odds against armed patrols, despite the “underground railroad,” an informal aid network consisting mainly of other blacks. Nonetheless, runaways assumed symbolic significance, leading to a stringent Fugitive Slave Law in 1850.
In the 1850s, violence flared. When Congress allowed Kansas settlers to vote on slavery, bloodshed erupted. Taking part in the violence was John Brown, an abolitionist willing to use violence, who next turned East. With a small group of white and black co-conspirators, Brown occupied a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October 1859 before getting captured and hanged. His brief raid excited white fears.
Southern worries could be mollified as long as Southerners controlled the federal government, as they had since the nation’s founding. When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election on a platform pledging to halt the westward expansion of slavery, everything changed. Seven states seceded immediately, explaining that the election of an anti-slavery President, northern reluctance to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, and the rise of northern anti-slavery justified secession.
With strong northern and southern ties, Virginia faced a dilemma. Secession would bring war to Virginia, whereas if Virginia stayed in the Union, fighting would occur below the northern borders of South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. A convention rejected secession, but passed a coercion clause, declaring that if the federal government used force or infringed on slaveholding rights, Virginia would side with the slave states. When South Carolina fired on U.S. troops at Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to quell rebellion. The next day, April 17, 1861, Virginia invoked its coercion clause and seceded. The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, and Virginia’s northern border became the border between the Confederacy and the United States. The first major battle occurred at Manassas, Virginia in July.
Many Virginians opposed secession. Northwestern counties formed West Virginia, admitted to the Union as a free state on June 20, 1863.
Lincoln tried to woo states back by downplaying slavery, but the Emancipation Proclamation (effective January 1, 1863) irrevocably linked Union and emancipation. Even earlier, enslaved Virginians flocked to the Union Army in Alexandria, Hampton, and Army of the Potomac camps between Washington and Richmond. By their presence, they forced the Army to forge emancipation policy before Washington took official action.
The Union’s initial military goal in Virginia was to capture Richmond, but the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee, blocked all efforts. Industrially, places like Tredegar flourished, but a Union Navy blockade prevented food importation. Shortages resulted. The Union and Confederacy experimented with ironclad ships; U.S.S. Monitor battled C.S.S. Virginia near Norfolk, but the blockade held. Armies swept across the state, leaving civilians destitute. In July 1863, the Union took control of the Mississippi River. The general most responsible, Ulysses Grant, came East to lead the Army of the Potomac in 1864. Grant’s objective was to capture Lee’s Army. Casualties rose, and Virginians, like all Americans, mourned. The Army of Northern Virginia burned Richmond in early April 1865 and evacuated. Grant’s Army caught up at Appomattox, and on April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered.
The tasks of Reconstruction included readmitting seceded states and assisting the transition of 4 million black Americans from slavery to freedom. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became President and clashed with Congress. Congress established a Freedman’s Bureau, but, handicapped by Johnson’s opposition, the Bureau could do little to help former slaves begin new lives without land, possessions, or education. Virginia faced the destruction of infrastructure, death and debility of thousands, and erasure of its greatest source of wealth, slaves. It re-entered the Union in 1870. By then, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment recognized the citizenship of black Americans, and the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to blacks. Yet violence against blacks reverberated throughout the South, and sharecropping, a new economic system in which small black and white farmers worked planters’ lands in return for part of the crop, disappointed hopes raised by emancipation. The Civil War’s results were mixed, but war ensured, in the words of Lucy Buck, that Virginians “shall never any of us be the same.”
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