Civil War Wiki

This is a list of events leading to the American Civil War. See also Origins of the American Civil War.

1787 Northwest Ordinance bans slavery in the Northwest Territory; makes Ohio River the boundary between free and slave territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Mason and Dixon line remains the dividing line in east.
1790 Slave population in Federal Census: 698,000
1798 The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions are written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and are passed by the two states in opposition to the Federal Alien and Sedition Acts.
1801 Gabriel Plot frightens whites in Virginia who believe there was a plot for a slave uprising
1804 New Jersey enacts gradual abolition of slavery, the final northern state to do so
1808 Congress outlaws the international slave trade. Later the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy enforce the prohibition.
1816 American Colonization Society formed to send freed slaves to Liberia. About 12,000 are sent. Society led by James Monroe, Henry Clay and other prominent slave owners
1820 Slave population in Census: 1,538,000
1820 Missouri Compromise admits Maine as a free state, and Missouri as slave state, but restricts any more slavery north of 36° 30' line. Abrogated by Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
1822 Vesey Plot frightens whites in South Carolina, who believe there was a plot for a slave uprising
1828 Calhoun's South Carolina Exposition and Protest outlines nullification doctrine. Calhoun threatens secession over tariffs. Calhoun also objected to the use of taxes and tariffs collected in one state being used for internal improvements to another state.[1]
1829 David Walker publishes Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World calling on slaves to revolt.
1830 Daniel Webster delivers a memorable Reply to Hayne, denouncing the notion that Americans must choose between liberty and union. "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" he cries.
  • William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator; abolitionism takes a radical and religious turn and demands immediate emancipation
  • Nat Turner leads a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia.
  • Responding to new Christian sensibilities, the rising importance of slave labor in the Southern cotton economy, the Nat Turner uprising, and the rise of abolitionism, Southern defenders of slavery start seeing it not as a "necessary evil," but a "positive good."
1832 President Andrew Jackson threatens force to end threats of secession in South Carolina caused by the Nullification Crisis.
  • The Compromise Tariff of 1833 ends the Nullification crisis.
  • The abolitionist American Anti-Slavery Society is founded.
  • Anti-Slavery "debates" are held at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.
1836 In response to petition campaigns, the U.S. House of Representatives adopts a gag rule, by which all antislavery petitions presented to the House would be immediately tabled, without discussion. John Quincy Adams leads an eight year battle against the gag rule, arguing that the Slave Power, as a political interest, threatens constitutional rights.
1837 Mob kills abolitionist and anti-Catholic editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois;
1839 Slaves revolt on the Amistad.
1840 Slave population in Census: 2,487,000
1844 The Methodist Episcopal Church, South breaks away from Methodist Episcopal Church on issue of slavery.
1845 The Southern Baptist Convention breaks off; does not formally endorse slavery.
1845 Frederick Douglass publishes his first autobiography.
1845 Texas Annexation denounced by anti-slavery forces as evil expansion of slave territory. Whigs defeat annexation treaty but annexation is accomplished with a joint resolution on majority vote.
1846 James D.B. DeBow establishes DeBow's Review, the leading Southern magazine; warns against depending on the North economically. DeBow's Review emerges as the leading voice for secession. DeBow emphasizes the South's economic underdevelopment, relating it to the concentration of manufacturing, shipping, banking, and international trade in the North.
1846 Oregon Treaty ends Oregon boundary dispute, defines final western segment of Canada – United States border and ends war scare with Great Britain. Northern Democrats complain Polk Administration backed down on Fifty-four forty or fight and sacrificed Northern expansion.
1846 Mexican War starts when Polk Administration deploys Army to disputed Texas territory resulting in Mexican attack. Whigs denounce war; antislavery critics charge war is a pretext for gaining more slave territory. U.S. Army quickly captures New Mexico. Northern representatives pass Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in territory to be captured, but South blocks it in Senate. Proposal to extend Missouri Compromise line and other compromises fail.
  • Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirms U.S. possession of California and New Mexico. Attempts to attach Wilmot Proviso to treaty fail.
  • Radical New York Democrats and anti-slavery Whigs form the Free-Soil party. It names Martin Van Buren for president and demands Wilmot Proviso. Emphasizes fear that rich planters will buy up the good farmlands and squeeze out white yeomen farmers.
1849 General Zachary Taylor elected President after keeping views on slavery in Southwest secret during campaign, then reveals plan to admit California and New Mexico as free states covering entire Southwest and excluding creation of territories subject to slavery controversy. Taylor warns South that rebellion will be met with force.
1849 California Gold Rush suddenly populates Northern California with Northern and immigrant settlers outnumbering Southerners; state constitutional convention unanimously rejects slavery.
1850 Texas, supported by South, demands land in New Mexico. Controversy over slavery on Southwest ended by five-point Compromise of 1850, proposed by Henry Clay and brokered by Stephen A. Douglas. Southern California becomes part of a free state, and eastern New Mexico and other northern Texas claims become not part of a slave state. South is compensated with Texas debt relief, stiffened Fugitive Slave Law, and popular sovereignty theoretically allowing slavery in New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory. Slavery is retained in District of Columbia but slave trade banned. Southern Unionists prevail this time as secessionists lose momentum, but South declares no further concessions to North will be tolerated. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 turns out to offend Northerners; then Southerners angered by Northern resistance to enforcement.
1851 Southern Unionists in several states defeat secession measures; Mississippi's convention denies the existence of the right to secession.
  • George Fitzhugh's The Pro-Slavery Argument is published.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin. A forceful indictment of slavery, the novel sells 500,000 copies and stiffens northern resistance to fugitive slave law. Whig party is decisively defeated in the election and fades away, abandoned by leaders and voters.
  • Democrat Stephen A. Douglas proposes the Kansas-Nebraska Bill to open good farmland to settlement (and help railroads).
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act is passed, providing that popular sovereignty in the territories should decide "all questions pertaining to slavery." It destroys what remains of the Missouri Compromise and fuels Northern fears of a Slave Power encroaching on the North.
  • In uproar against Kansas-Nebraska Act, new Republican party is formed with anti-slavery base across North. Includes many former Whigs and Free Soilers, and some Democrats. Sweeps fall elections in northern states. Abraham Lincoln emerges as Republican leader in West
  • Know-Nothing party sweeps state and local elections in parts of North; demands ethnic purification, opposes Catholics (because of Pope), opposes corruption in local politics. The party has no real leaders and soon fades away.
  • Discussion paper (Ostend Manifesto) proposes purchase or seizure from Spain of Cuba (which had slavery). Manifesto is denounced by the free-soil press as a conspiracy to extend slavery.
1855-1856 Violence breaks out in "Bleeding Kansas"
1856 Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner on floor of Senate; North takes the lesson that compromise is harder and violence is near surface. In presidential election Republican John C. Frémont crusades against slavery; the slogan is "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!" Democrats counter-crusade, warning of civil war, and win.
  • Short economic depression in major cities; See Panic of 1857
  • Walker Tariff of 1846 is lowered still more and is supported by both North and South; it reduces protection to northern industry.
  • Southern opposition kills the Pacific Railway Bill of 1860 and homestead laws.
  • Buchanan breaks with Douglas over Kansas; bitter feud inside Democratic party.
  • George Fitzhugh publishes Cannibals All defending slavery.
  • Hinton Rowan Helper publishes The Impending Crisis of the South angering the South.
  • Supreme Court hands down Dred Scott decision, ruling that Congress lacks the power to exclude slavery from the territories.
  • The pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution is signed in Kansas.
  • Proslavery Lecompton constitution defeated by popular referendum in Kansas in August.
  • Lincoln and Douglas debate; Lincoln emerges as nationally known moderate spokesman for Republicans
  • William Yancey advocates a Southern confederacy.
  • James Hammond exclaims, "Cotton is King!", meaning Europe will intervene to protect source of vital raw material
  • John Brown attempts to ignite slave rebellion in Virginia by attack on federal armory at Harper's Ferry; no rebellion; captured, tried for treason to state of Virginia, and hung; becomes martyr to North; alarms South as exemplar of fanatical Yankee abolitionist trying to start bloody race war; Republican Party disavows Brown, who had financial support from Boston abolitionists.
1860 Slave population in Census: 3,954,000
  • Knights of the Golden Circle reach maximum popularity and try to invade Mexico to expand slave territory.
  • Southern "fire-eaters" oppose front runner Stephen A. Douglas' bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Democrats begin splitting North and South.
  • Radicals William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania are leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, along with Lincoln. Illinois out-maneuvers other states and on May 16, Lincoln wins the Republican nomination at Chicago convention.
  • The Morrill Tariff passes the House of Representatives on a strict sectional vote, supported by the north and opposed by the south; it does not pass Senate.
  • The Democratic party splits. Main group supports Douglas. Southern Democrats support John C. Breckinridge.
  • Former Whigs from the border states form the Constitutional Union Party, nominating John C. Bell for president on a one-issue platform of national unity.
  • Four candidates as parties wage campaigns. Douglas and Lincoln compete for Northern votes. Bell, Douglas and Breckinridge compete for Southern votes.
  • Abraham Lincoln wins the 1860 election.
  • Secession: South Carolina convention declared on December 20 "that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the 'United States of America' is hereby dissolved"
  • Process of secession begins.
  • The six other states of the Deep South declare their secessions, and together with South Carolina form the Confederate States of America. They are not recognized by U.S. government, or any government. Border states refuse to join Confederacy.
  • Last major N-S links broken as Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches split North and South
  • Numerous compromise proposals are rejected; they all involve protection of slavery (none involve tariffs or economic deals); Confederacy demands complete independence and will not negotiate a return to the Union.
  • Confederates capture US arsenals and forts in CSA states; General David E. Twiggs surrenders one-fourth of US Army in Texas, then joins Confederacy.
  • President Buchanan decides not to order Major Anderson out of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor[2]
  • CSA army fired on Fort Sumter; it surrenders.
  • Northern uprising—mass meetings everywhere to demand Lincoln overthrow the rebellion.
  • Lincoln calls every governor for troops (75,000) to recapture Fort Sumter & other federal properties.
  • Robert E. Lee offered command of Union army April 18. Expecting Virginia to secede, he declines, resigns from U.S. Army April 20, and accepts command of the Virginia state forces on April 23.
  • Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts send troops to Washington.
  • Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas reject Lincoln's order to provide troops; they declare secession and join CSA.
  • Kentucky refuses to send troops, and declares its neutrality. Lincoln seizes control of Missouri and Maryland; thousands of pro-CSA men under military arrest.

Summary and Main Points

The first act concerning slavery in the United States was the Northwest Ordinance Act of 1787. This act declared that there was no slavery allowed above the Ohio River. This was the beginning of the divisions of the country over the issue of slavery. It also established what made up many of the northern anti-slavery states in the Civil War. The Northwest Ordinance Act started the long series of events that led up to the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise was the next declaration that stated where slavery could exist. Henry Clay of Kentucky came up with this idea, which stated the following: Missouri is a slave state; Maine is a free state; and the 36°30' line was the official dividing line between the free North and slave South. This act, passed in 1820, kept a balance in the Senate, with twelve free states and twelve slave states. This was beneficial to the South, but only for a time, for the most of the land beneath the 36°30' line was under Mexico’s control. This meant that the North would eventually receive most of the territories in the West like Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. For the balance to remain, the South would have to gain land from Mexico.

In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso was passed. This bill said that Northern congressmen would only vote for the war if the land acquired from it became more free states. The primary reason for the South fighting this war was to gain such land for slavery. This strongly angered southerners and only widened the gap between the two changing regions.

In 1850, however, the government made a complete turn from where it formerly stood on slavery. In the Compromise of 1850, a strongly pro-southern bill, all territories were open to popular sovereignty (the majority decides on slavery in the territory), basically meaning that the Wilmot Proviso was repealed. This bill, created, too, by Henry Clay, also established the Fugitive Slave Act, which said that all U.S. citizens were required to return any runaway slaves to their owner. Even though this was not strongly enforced, its meaning infuriated Northerners; their government had essentially accepted slavery as just and was enforcing its upholding. In addition, taxpayers were required to pay Texas $10 million to give up its claims to New Mexico, which would allow the creation of yet another slave state. The only part of the Missouri Compromise that benefited the North was that California became a free state and slave trade was disallowed in Washington D.C.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act helped to even the playing field between the North and the South. Stephen Douglas from Illinois came up with such an act primarily to benefit his home state, specifically Chicago, by making these two territories states sooner, allowing for the construction of railroads. This act allowed the people of Kansas and Nebraska to choose the outcome of their states. Of course, both Northerners and Southerners rushed to these territories to express their opinion in the voting.

By 1856, the country began seeing violence between the two groups, and this started in Kansas. Pro-slavery looters known as Border Ruffians angered anti-slavery activist John Brown. In response, he and his sons massacre five men from Pottawatomie Creek. These actions became known as Bleeding Kansas, and heightened tensions all the more between the North and South.

The final, and possibly most influential, cause of the Civil War was the Supreme Court case The Dred Scott Decision. This began when a formerly free slave, Dred Scott, attempted to file a suit against his owner because he had lived in free states/territories. He lost this case, and the Court decided that: Slaves were not citizens, and, therefore, cannot sue; living in a free state/territory does not grant a slave freedom; and the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and was consequently repealed, allowing all territories to be open to slavery.

See also[]


  2. Swanberg, W.A., First Blood: The story of Fort Sumter p. 127. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957

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