The Center for the Study of the Civil War Era

Civil War Timeline: 1850-1860


1850

Compromise of 1850 allows for the admission of California as a free state and applies the notion of “popular sovereignty” to the Utah and New Mexico territories.  Congress abolishes the slave trade in the District of Columbia, but strengthens the Fugitive Slave law.

“The parties in this conflict [over slavery] are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders.  They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republican Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.  In one word, the world is the battleground, Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity [is] at stake.” ~Reverend James H. Thornwell.

March 20, 1852

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin published.

1854

Republican Party formed.

May 21, 1856

Lawrence, Kansas sacked.

May 22, 1856

Caning of Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks

“You have learnt from painful experience, that the forbearance of the South has limits which even you dare not impinge without impunity.“ ~'Friend' to Senator Charles Sumner following his caning by Congressman Preston Brooks

May 24, 1856

John Brown kills five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek.

May 26, 1856

“I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute a state.  I think that we must get rid of slavery or we must get rid of freedom.  Life has no parity of value in the free state and in the slave state."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The Assault Upon Mr. Sumner.”

May 28, 1856

“Hit him again.” Edgefield, S.C., Advertiser on the caning of Charles Sumner

June 1, 1856

“Mr. Brooks is a very naughty man and if I had been there I would have torn his eyes out and so I would do now if I could.” ~Young constituent to Senator Sumner

November 4, 1856

Election of Democrat James Buchanan over Republican John C. Fremont and Know-Nothing/American candidate Millard Fillmore.  The electoral difference is 174-114-8 respectively, with 149 out of 296 necessary for a majority.  The popular vote is 1,836,072 (Buchanan), 1,342,345 (Fremont) and 873,053 (Fillmore).

February-March, 1857

Dred Scott decision issued March 6 with majority opinion given by Chief Justice Roger Taney that slaves were not U.S. citizens and could not sue in Federal Court.

March 19 - March 20, 1857

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gives his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

March 4, 1858

“But if there were no other reason why we should never have war, would any sane nation make war on cotton?  Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they make war on us we could bring the whole world to our feet.” ~South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, “Mudsill Speech.”

June 16, 1858

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” ~Abraham Lincoln.

August-October, 1858

U.S. Senate race debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas at seven sites in Illinois.

October 25, 1858

“Shall I tell you what this collision means?  They who think it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether.  It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means the United States must and will, sooner or later, become entirely a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.” ~William H. Seward, Rochester, New York.

October 16, 1859

John Brown and party reaches Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

October 17, 1859

President James Buchanan orders Robert E. Lee and U.S. Marines to respond to the Harpers Ferry Raid.

October 18, 1859

The Marines storm the enginehouse and subdue the raiders.

October 25 - November 2, 1859

John Brown’s trial.

October 30, 1859

 “I foresee the time when . . . at least the present form of Slavery shall be no more here.  We shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown.  Then, and not till then, we will take our revenge.”
~Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain Brown.”

November 2, 1859

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done—in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.” ~John Brown’s final court address.

December 1859

“I know of no mission which this Government has to perform except to protect the citizen in his life, his liberty, and his property.  When it fails in these great essentials, it has failed in everything . . . and whenever the Government fails . . . it ought to be abolished." ~Mississippi Senator Albert G. Brown.

December 2, 1859

John Brown executed.

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land:will never be purged away; but by Blood.” ~ John Brown.

December 5, 1859

“The strongest argument against this unnatural war upon negro slavery in one section by another of the same common country, is that it inevitably drives to disunion of the states, embittered with all the vengeful hate of civil war.” ~Virginia Governor Henry Wise following John Brown’s execution.

1860

“Perhaps even now, the pen of the historian is nibbed to write the story of a new revolution.” ~William Yancey in Charleston at the adjournment of the Democratic Convention.

Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden maintains, “This Union was established by great sacrifices.  The Union is worthy of great sacrifices and great concessions for its maintenance.  I trust there is not a senator here who is not willing to yield and to compromise much, in order to preserve the government and the Union.”

In Western Virginia, disgruntled Unionists gather at Wheeling to begin the implementation of a loyal government for their state.

A fascinating meeting also takes place in St. Louis, Missouri, between Nathaniel Lyon and Francis Blair for the North and Governor Claiborne Jackson and Sterling Price for the South, but no peaceful resolution of differences will be possible as indicated when Lyon blurts out to his visitors in frustration:

“This means war.  One of my officers will conduct you out of my lines in an hour.”

In Washington, Elizabeth Blair Lee, wife of Union naval officer Samuel Phillips Lee, observes with pleasure the actions of the British government and press toward the Confederate States.  She is particularly overjoyed when London accounts disparage the secessionist tone, referencing the Confederate President’s wife specifically:  “Queen Varina will feel snubbed.”

January 10, 1860

Federal troops pull out of Romney, Va., as the Confederates under Jackson approach.

At Middle Creek, Ky., Colonel James A. Garfield’s Union forces disperse Confederate recruitment efforts being carried out under the authority of Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall in fighting that produces almost a hundred combined casualties. 

The U.S. Consul in Bermuda, Charles Maxwell Allen, informs his government that the Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell have reached Bermuda in transit to Europe and laments:

“The sympathy of the people of these Islands is almost entirely with them and their cause; and they are very bitter against the government of the United States.” 

February 27, 1860

“It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace. . . .  Let us Republicans do our part to have it so.  Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper.  Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.” ~Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union Speech, New York.

April 9, 1860

Abraham Lincoln expresses his exasperation with George McClellan after the general has maintained that the administration is not supporting his efforts “properly.”  The Union chief executive conclude

“And, once more, let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow.  I am powerless to help this.  You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted , that going down the [Chesapeake] Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty—that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, intrenchments, at either place.  The country will not fail to note—is now noting—that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated.”

April 23 - November 30, 1859

Democrats meet in Charleston, S.C., but William Lowndes Yancey leads a walkout of 8 Southern delegations over a plank in the party platform to protect slavery.

May 1860

Democrats adjourn without nominating a candidate after 57 ballots.

Formation of the Constitutional Union Party in Baltimore, Md.

May 16, 1860

Republicans meet in Chicago.  233 votes needed to secure the nomination.

  • First ballot: William Seward 173.5, Abraham Lincoln 102
  • Second ballot: Seward 184.5, Lincoln 181
  • Third ballot: Lincoln secures the nomination
June 18 - June 23, 1860

Northern Democrats meet in Baltimore and select Stephen Douglas as their standard-bearer.

June 28, 1860

Southern Democrats meet and choose John C. Breckinridge as nominee.

August 1860

“[The South] has come to the conclusion that in case Lincoln should be elected . . . she could not submit to the consequences, and therefore, to avoid her fate, will secede from the Union.” ~Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden.

September 6, 1860

“The Federal Union must be preserved.” ~ Presidential Candidate Stephen Douglas, Baltimore, Maryland

November 6, 1860

The Republican ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin (Maine) receives sufficient electoral support for the men to become President-elect and Vice President-elect, respectively, of the United States of America.  Defeated candidate Stephen Douglas expresses his belief (and hope) that the results of the contest will not guarantee secession.

November 7, 1860

The first post-election action of a Southern state comes when officials in Charleston, South Carolina, detain an officer who attempts to supervise the transfer of military stores from the city arsenal to the Federal installation of Fort Moultrie.

November 9, 1860

Lame-duck President James Buchanan holds a meeting of his Cabinet to determine the government’s response to the crisis.  Opinion is decidedly mixed, largely along geographical lines, with Georgia’s Howell Cobb, the Secretary of the Treasury, arguing in favor of the theory and appropriateness of secession.

November 14, 1860

Congressman Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia tells state lawmakers at Milledgeville that he does not believe that “good governments” can be created or sustained out of the “impulse of passion.”  He expresses a preference to leave threats to the U.S. Constitution to the “fanatics of the North.”

November 18, 1860

The Georgia state legislature authorizes a disbursement of one million dollars for the purpose of arming its militia.

November 23, 1860

Newly arrived Major Robert Anderson, of Kentucky, assesses the situation in Charleston from the Federal perspective in bleak terms, both as to conditions of facilities there and the state of rising tensions.  Anderson argues for peace and security through strengthening capabilities so that “it would be madness and folly to attack us.”

December 4, 1860

President James Buchanan sends his state of the union message to Congress.  He finds fault with extremists on both sides of the Mason Dixon divide.  On the one hand, “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects,” he laments.  On the other, “the election of any one of our fellow-citizens to the office of President does not of itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union.”  President Buchanan hopes the storm will subside, but considers secession equivalent to revolution.

December 8, 1860

Secretary of the Treasury and Georgian Howell Cobb resigns from his post.  “The evil has now passed beyond control,” he warns President Buchanan, “and must be met by each and all of us, under our responsibility to God and our country.”

December 14, 1860

The Georgia legislature calls on the Deep South states to send delegates for a meeting to form a separate confederation.

Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi observes solemnly, “The argument is exhausted.  All hope of relief in the Union through the agency of committees, congressional legislation or constitutional amendments, is extinguished.”  There can be but one conclusion as he sees it:  “We are satisfied the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people require the organization of a Southern confederacy."

December 17, 1860

A secession convention opens in Columbia, South Carolina.

December 20, 1860

The South Carolina convention adopts an ordinance of secession dissolving its connection with the United States of America.

In the U.S. Senate, Georgian Robert Toombs joins a prestigious “Committee of Thirteen,” that includes high profile associates Jefferson Davis (Miss.), Stephen Douglas (Ill.) and William Seward (NY) to consider appropriate steps.

December 22, 1860

President-elect Abraham Lincoln tells Congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia that his in-coming government will not interfere with slavery.  “The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of [George] Washington.”  But, he is doubtful this assurance will be accepted.  “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong ought to be restricted.  That I suppose is the rub.”

December 26, 1860

The U.S. flag comes down over historic Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C., as the garrison departs for an unfinished fortification in the middle of the harbor called Sumter.

December 27, 1860

South Carolina troops take possession of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney.  Georgia agrees to send troops to their neighbor’s aid if hostilities open.

December 30, 1860

The Federal arsenal in Charleston is now in Southern hands.

December 31, 1860

The Senate Committee of Thirteen reports its failure to reach any agreement.  Louisiana’s senator, Judah Benjamin, observes ominously, “The day for adjustment has passed.”  Pleading for accepting the course of the inevitable he calls upon his Northern colleagues, “let this parting be in peace.”