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The End of the American Civil War

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A collage made up of the rival flags of the American Civil War, a clash of stars and stripes

By 1865, the American Civil War was coming to an end. The soldiers of the Confederacy were demoralised, tired and had almost no way of winning the war. It had started with the secession of many Southern states over the issues of slavery, states' rights and the election of Abraham Lincoln, and it had to end with bringing together all the states, and unfortunately the end of the presidency of Lincoln.

The collapse of Vicksburg and the Union victory at Gettysburg had begun the end of the South. The South was able to win a few battles, but was unable to gain any sort of a strategic advantage. By early April, the Mississippi was controlled by the Union, the blockade of the South was basically complete, and morale was low. In addition to the Anaconda strategy, Grant had developed and succeeded in a strategy of his own. Philip Sheridan had run the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley and destroyed anything of military value in it. Sherman had destroyed much of the Deep South in his epic march. And finally, of course, Grant had destroyed the Confederate government in Richmond. There was absolutely no way the South could have escaped this situation.

On the Union end, Abraham Lincoln won re-election in 1864, against former General George McClellan. This indicated that Union morale and satisfaction with the war was running high. Finally, it seemed that this bloody conflict was coming to an end.


After Petersburg, Lee fled into Appomattox County. Grant chased him and on 9 April, seven days after Richmond was captured, Lee made a fateful decision. In order to avoid further casualties when he knew that Grant would win a battle between them, Lee met Grant at the town of Appomattox Courthouse. He offered Joshua Chamberlain the surrender of his army, which he accepted. The Union and Confederate men showed great respect towards each other.

Grant gave Lee generous terms, as Lincoln had instructed him to do. The Confederates were allowed to go home and keep their mules and horses. It doesn’t sound like much, but Grant could have had them imprisoned if he had liked.

With the Army of Northern Virginia dead, the Union could claim victory, as Sherman's victory against the remaining Confederate forces was a foregone conclusion. In fact, many historians claim the end of the Civil War to be the day when the Army of Northern Virginia gave in. However, another major battle, Mobile Bay, took place after Lee surrendered. After Lee gave up, Jefferson Davis refused to admit that the country he loved wasn't able to defend itself. In fleeing from Richmond, he met with Generals Johnston and Beauregard, who convinced his Secretary of War that the fight was over. Davis took quite a lot of convincing.

As a free citizen, Lee spoke about not implementing a guerrilla warfare policy, which with the great respect given to him by Southerners helped to end the war in their eyes. He spoke about the death of Lincoln, and denounced it. Even Jefferson Davis said that, though he didn't like Lincoln, there were a lot of people he would rather see die before him.

A few armies that remained decided to surrender eventually. Most significantly, Joseph Johnston surrendered his army to William Sherman on 26 April at Durham, North Carolina. This was after the death of Lincoln (see below), and as Sherman shared the news of his death, Johnston was scared of retribution against the South for it, and wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. He called the Southern Secretary of War, John Breckinridge, down to help negotiate. They spoke peacefully and intelligently and Sherman granted them a similar surrender to the one Grant had given Lee. However, he laid out a plan for peace with the South that was very favourable to the seceded states. The government felt Sherman overstepped his authority, though, and ended the agreement. Grant was sent to deal with Sherman, and he asked Johnston to agree to Lee's terms. President Davis ordered Johnston to fight on, but he did not obey. He felt it would be a crime to continue the war as many people would be killed for no real purpose.

Davis was determined to fight bitterly until he was utterly defeated. He told his cabinet that they would fight on. However, he was captured by Union men, humiliated as his wife had given him some clothing of hers to disguise him. He was the last of the important men to surrender.

Death of Lincoln

On 15 April, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth probably killed Lincoln because he believed the President was a tyrant, but Booth was also a southern sympathiser who wanted the South to rise again.

In killing Lincoln, however, he killed a President who would have been kind and moderate to the South during Reconstruction. As a result of Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as President. Johnson, a Southerner from Tennessee, attempted to treat the South well, but Lincoln’s skills of compromise and his intelligence would have probably been able to push his Reconstruction acts through Congress. Johnson had more trouble...


Since the main goal of the North in the war was to preserve the Union, and the Rebel states were now within Union control, all that was left to do was to bring the Rebel states back into the Union. This was the main issue in the period of Reconstruction following the war1.

This all sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Lincoln thought it would be, and implied before he was assassinated that he would allow the Confederacy’s states back into the Union with minimal hassle from the Federal government. However, as Lincoln died, so did this idea.

The US Congress was heavily populated with Radical Republicans - a group of the Republican Party that believed the South should be punished for its actions. Since the Southern states weren’t going to be allowed back into the Union right away, they had no representation in US Congress, which meant that their fate was to be decided by President Andrew Johnson and a Congress dominated by Radical Republicans. Johnson came from Tennessee, so the Southerners were somewhat optimistic that he would treat them fairly in readmitting them. He believed that he should follow the plan of Abraham Lincoln, which was moderate. However, the Radical Republicans used the death of Lincoln to try to incite hatred against the south.

Johnson was in fact possibly the worst person one could choose as President to run a moderate Reconstruction proposal through Congress. Northerners didn’t trust him because he was from Tennessee. People from border states (those slave states that didn’t join the Confederacy) weren’t happy with him either. He was personally not a very nice person, being stubborn, arrogant, and sometimes outright mean. This didn’t earn him many friends in Congress. And finally, he didn’t possess any great political skills, and those he had he wasn’t able to use effectively.

However, Johnson firmly believed that the President, and not Congress, should run Reconstruction. Congress was naturally inclined to believe it should be in charge of Reconstruction. With this conflict, Johnson had yet another thing working against him - the Constitution. It provided that if the President vetoed any bill from the Congress, Congress would be able to override that veto with two-thirds of the vote and the bill would pass - and luckily for them, the Radical Republicans had nearly two-thirds of the vote in Congress. Johnson couldn’t simply ignore the Constitution, which he had promised to preserve, honour and defend shortly before.

Lincoln had managed to begin a Reconstruction Plan relatively early in the war. It said that amnesty would be granted to all ex-Confederates who would pledge loyalty to the US and that states would be recognised if 10% of the population took oaths of loyalty. Lincoln didn’t believe that the Confederate states had ever really left the Union, because they didn’t have the right to secede. As Johnson extended this offer to the Rebel states, he considered them to have rejoined the Union and recognised their governments.

Congress wasn’t so sure though. Even when Rebel states elected Congressmen to Washington, they refused to recognise that the Confederate states had rejoined the Union and turned them away. They set up a joint committee of 15 Congressmen to come up with proposals suitable to Congress.

Johnson was unable to accomplish much early on, and problems were mounting. Mississippi enacted the notorious Black Codes, which allowed for discrimination. The Thirteenth Amendment had already been passed, banning slavery, and a Freedmen’s Bureau was established to help freed slaves adjust. In 1866, the Civil Rights Act gave rights to all men, over Johnson’s veto and protest2. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, and it didn’t take effect.

Congress Takes Control

The Southern states didn’t ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, so Radical Republicans did what was necessary to pass and enforce it. In 1867, they passed the First Reconstruction Act on 2 March and sent it to Johnson, who vetoed it as soon as he could. Congress overrode his veto that same day. The act had two important points:

  • The South would be divided into five military districts (Virginia as the first, the Carolinas second, Georgia, Alabama and Florida third, Arkansas and Mississippi fourth and Texas and Louisiana fifth) that would be run by martial law and a Union General.

  • To be readmitted to the Union, states would have to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and recognise the right of freed black men to vote.

With this act, Congress took control of Reconstruction and was effectively able to ignore everything Johnson wanted. He was only President in principle, as Congress flagrantly disregarded the Constitution and stripped him of powers. Two more Reconstruction acts passed over his vetoes.

Though the Constitutional ability of Congress to override Presidential vetoes was a detriment to Johnson, he had several things in the Constitution working on his side. The Supreme Court often stopped Congress’s unconstitutional laws from taking effect. In fact, it later agreed with Lincoln in declaring that the states had never left the Union because they didn’t have the right to. Whether you agreed with the motives of the Radicals or not, it was clear that their methods of implementing their laws were incredible abuses of their power. This is best shown by their attempt to have Johnson impeached and removed from office.

Johnson Impeached

One law was passed by the Radical Republicans which was designed to make Johnson violate a law so that they could kick him out of office. It was called the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval before the President could fire a cabinet member. Johnson vetoed the act, and Congress again overrode his veto.

Congress did this because it knew that Johnson was going to try to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom he couldn’t work with. Johnson tried to suspend him, but the Senate refused to confirm this suspension. Johnson attempted to put Ulysses S Grant into the office, but Grant refused to take the office when Stanton was still technically in it. Johnson ignored the Tenure of Office Act and fired Stanton, sending Lorenzo Thomas to replace him. Stanton, however, stubbornly defended his office and refused to allow his replacement in.

The leaders of the Radical Republicans knew their plan had come into place. They moved to impeach Johnson, and the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 for impeachment on 24 February 1868. There were eleven articles of impeachment, including violating the law because of his defiance of the Tenure of Office Act and conspiracy against Congress because he claimed that Congress did not represent the nation, without some southern Congressmen3.


On 13 March 1868, the Senate convened as a court with Chief Justice Salmon P Chase. Johnson didn’t appear at the trial, though a number of lawyers defended him. The Congressmen who were pressing the attack on Johnson had a relatively weak case, and Johnson’s defence lawyers were smart and skilled. Most of the Senators already had their minds made up, but a two-thirds vote was required to throw Johnson out of office.

There were 54 members of the Senate, and 36 'yes' votes were required to take Johnson from office. 19 votes were needed to keep Johnson in office. There were nine Democrats and three Republicans Johnson knew would vote for acquittal. There were 12 swing votes, and he needed seven of them. He earned many of his votes from senators who disliked his would-be replacement, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, more than him.

True courage is an attribute mustered by individuals during moments of crisis. A courageous act is made without weighing its popularity or unpopularity. Instead, it relies solely on the belief that the act must be done because it is the right thing to do. In all cases, courage is being brave enough to take a stand, regardless of the outcome, regardless of potential praise or criticism.
-Edmund G Ross

As it turned out, one man would decide the fate of the President. This man was Edmund G Ross, an otherwise undistinguished, young Senator from Kansas who had been appointed to the seat to fill in for the Senator Jim Lane. He was a Radical Republican, and by party lines, he should have voted for impeachment. Ross didn't declare his position on the issue, but it was known that he was generally against impeachment, as he didn't think it was right. The most powerful men in Washington, leaders of the Radical Republicans, tempted him. They actually promised that they would help him become the next President of the US if he voted for impeachment, but let him know that a no vote would destroy him in politics. When it came time to vote, Ross stood up, and dramatically announced he was against the impeachment of the President. The plan of the Radicals was foiled, and in revenge, they kept the young Ross out of Republican politics from them on.

However, his courage did stop the Congress from abusing its power and disgracing the Constitution in a way never since equalled. That’s some consolation prize...

The Union Back on Track

Soon enough, all of the states had been basically forced back into the Union the hard way. They had preferred remaining under martial law and a military government to satisfying the demands of the First Reconstruction Act, but the Radical Republicans got them back into the Union kicking and screaming.

And they all lived happily ever after...

Further Reading

1Though the name might conjure up images of rebuilding Atlanta and Savannah, that wasn’t the really controversial part of Reconstruction.2Not because Johnson was against civil rights, but he felt it was invading states’ rights to make a law regarding them before they were represented in Congress.3The men from southern states that Johnson declared had regained statehood but Congress did not.

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