American Civil War Timeline

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Before the civil war - Trigger events

1619-1865
Pre-Civil War
The Peculiar Institution

Slavery arrived in North America along side the Spanish and English colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries, with an estimated 645,000 Africans imported during the more than 250 years the institution was legal. But slavery never existed without controversy.

1820
Pre-Civil War
Missouri Compromise

In the growth years following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Congress was compelled to establish a policy to guide the expansion of slavery into the new western territory. Missouri’s application for statehood as a slave state sparked a bitter national debate. In addition to the deeper moral issue posed by the growth of slavery, the addition of pro-slavery Missouri legislators would give the pro-slavery faction a Congressional majority.

1931
Pre-Civil War
Nat Turner’s Rebellion

In August of 1831, a slave named Nat Turner incited an uprising that spread through several plantations in southern Virginia. Turner and approximately seventy cohorts killed around sixty white people. The deployment of militia infantry and artillery suppressed the rebellion after two days of terror.

 
1846-1850
Pre-Civil War
The Wilmot Proviso

The Wilmot Proviso was a piece of legislation proposed by David Wilmot (D-FS-R PA) at the close of the Mexican-American War. If passed, the Proviso would have outlawed slavery in territory acquired by the United States as a result of the war, which included most of the Southwest and extended all the way to California.

 
1850
Pre-Civil War
The Compromise of 1850

With national relations soured by the debate over the Wilmot Proviso, senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas managed to broker a shaky accord with the Compromise of 1850. The compromise admitted California as a free state and did not regulate slavery in the remainder of the Mexican cession all while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which compelled Northerners to seize and return escaped slaves to the South.

 
1852
Pre-Civil War
Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional exploration of slave life was a cultural sensation. Northerners felt as if their eyes had been opened to the horrors of slavery, while Southerners protested that Stowe’s work was slanderous.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second-best-selling book in America in the 19th century, second only to the Bible. Its popularity brought the issue of slavery to life for those few who remained unmoved after decades of legislative conflict and widened the division between North and South.

1854-1859
Pre-Civil War
Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established Kansas and Nebraska as territories and set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas” by its adoption of popular sovereignty. Under popular sovereignty, it is the residents of the territories who decide by popular referendum if the state is to be a free or enslaved. Settlers from the North and the South poured into Kansas, hoping to swell the numbers on their side of the debate. Passions were enflamed and violence raged. In the fall of 1855, abolitionist John Brown came to Kansas to fight the forces of slavery. In response to the sacking of Lawrence by border ruffians from Missouri whose sole victim was an abolitionist printing press, Brown and his supporters killed five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre in Kansas in May, 1856. Violence existed in the territory as early as 1855 but the Sack of Lawrence and the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre launched a guerilla war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Although the violence was often sporadic and unorganized, mass feelings of terror existed in the territory. Although President Buchanan tried to calm the violence by supporting the Lecompton Constition, his relentless support for this consitution created a political crisis among the Democratic Party and only further aggravated sectional tensions. The violence subsided in 1859, the warring parties forged a fragile peace, but not before more than 50 settlers had been killed.

1857
Pre-Civil War
Dred Scott v. Sanford

Dred Scott was a Virginia slave who tried to sue for his freedom in court. The case eventually rose to the level of the Supreme Court, where the justices found that, as a slave, Dred Scott was a piece of property that had none of the legal rights or recognitions afforded to a human being.

The Dred Scott Decision threatened to entirely recast the political landscape that had thus far managed to prevent civil war. The classification of slaves as mere property made the federal government’s authority to regulate the institution much more ambiguous.

Southerners renewed their challenges to the agreed-upon territorial limitations on slavery and polarization intensified.

 
1858
Pre-Civil War
Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Dred Scott Decision threatened to entirely recast the political landscape that had thus far managed to prevent civil war. The classification of slaves as mere property made the federal government’s authority to regulate the institution much more ambiguous.

Southerners renewed their challenges to the agreed-upon territorial limitations on slavery and polarization intensified.

1859
Pre-Civil War
John Brown’s Raid

Abolitionist John Brown supported violent action against the South to end slavery and played a major role in starting the Civil War. After the Pottawatomie Massacre during Bleeding Kansas, Brown returned to the North and plotted a far more threatening act. In October 1859, he and 19 supporters, armed with “Beecher’s Bibles,” led a raid on the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to capture and confiscate the arms located there, distribute them among local slaves and begin armed insurrection. A small force of U.S. Marines, led by Col. Robert E. Lee, put down the uprising. There were casualties on both sides; seven people were killed and at least 10 more were injured before Brown and seven of his remaining men were captured. On October 27, Brown was tried for treason against the state of Virginia, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 2.

1860
Pre-Civil War
Abraham Lincoln’s Election

Abraham Lincoln was elected by a considerable margin in 1860 despite not being included on many Southern ballots. As a Republican, his party’s anti-slavery outlook struck fear into many Southerners.

On December 20, 1860, a little over a month after the polls closed, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more states followed by the spring of 1861.