During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.Read more
The summer of 1864 was one of dismay for President Abraham Lincoln and his administration: throughout the Union, the appetite for war had rapidly shrunk; particularly as compared to the heady days of 1860 that ushered Lincoln into the White House. While some voters in the North saw the continued prosecution of the war as nothing more than an attempt to manifest Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery—and therefore a war not worth fighting—others had naturally, in view of the mounting casualties, developed a fatigue for war and, if they had a choice in the matter, would have opted for a negotiated peace. If Lincoln were to lose the election—so the argument ran—then families could be reunited and the violence could come to an end. For Confederates, northern voter despair was precisely the ingredient that was needed in the giant pot that was political discourse in the Union, but it was not all that was needed: the rebels had dreamt of forcing a negotiated peace, and now, with the election in sight, they had hope that Lincoln would be voted out and the war could be brought to a favorable end. Read more
By the spring of 1863, the Union had given the Confederacy every reason to remain defensive: for the duration of the war, federal troops had invaded points throughout the south forcing the rebels to shift to the location of each incision. Allowing this dynamic to continue to play out meant the only way for a Confederate success was a negotiated peace. On May 15, the southern brain trust, including General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis, convened in Richmond to discuss strategy. Lee proposed that he lead an effort that would remove the threat to Richmond, throw the Yankees on their heels, spell political doom for the Republicans (led by Abraham Lincoln in the White House), open up the possibility of Britain or France recognizing the Confederacy, and, at worst, an armistice that resulted in the Confederate States of America coexisting with the United States.[i] While Postmaster-General John Reagan and other Confederates felt that Lee should have sent troops to protect Vicksburg and the west from the trouble Ulysses S. Grant and his men were causing, Lee did not want to oblige the Confederacy to remain on the defensive but instead introduce the “prospect of an advance” as it would change “the aspect of affairs.”[ii] Read more
In the western theater of war, Ulysses S. Grant had set his sights on a goal early in his campaigning: Vicksburg, a town hugging the Mississippi River on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. Taking the city would not only secure the Mississippi River; taking it would give the Union a lasso around the Confederacy. Just as spring of 1863 was getting underway, Grant had drawn up a plan to take the town and tighten the Union grip on the Confederacy. Read more
Few events in American history rival the magnitude and luridness of the Civil War, with its seemingly innumerable tales of sacrifice and Shakespearean drama. Each generation, from the War’s conclusion in 1865 to present, has taken up the task of dissecting and analyzing its causes and effects to discern its many lessons and to engage in a great deal of introspection as to the meaning of the War and being an American citizen. The War’s impact on American life continues to the present day. Its impact just after the midpoint of the 19th Century could hardly be overstated: if the Revolutionary War secured the existence of the states and if the War of 1812 created a sense of nationalism amongst the inhabitants of those states, the Civil War represented the fragility and value of the national union that the various states formed. Read more
Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution. Read more
By 1859, the northern and southern sections of America had developed different economic systems, cultural norms, and approaches to permitting slavery. Congress and the political parties had been able to overlook those differences for the sake of self-preservation and advancement of the collective agenda. As 1859 concluded and 1860 sprang, Americans understood that the status quo of compromise was not to continue much longer. Read more
In the 15 years leading up to the Civil War, a wide variety of theories emerged for how the federal government should deal with slavery expanding, or not expanding, into the territories acquired by the United States.
President James Polk, expecting a fast resolution to the Mexican-American War, “requested from Congress in August 1846 a $2 million appropriation for ‘defraying any extraordinary expenses which may be incurred in the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations.'” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 766 quoting James Polk, Diary, II, 76-77 (Aug. 10, 1846). Shortly after Congress followed this instruction and drafted a bill, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced an amendment to specify that slavery would not be lawful in any territory acquired. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 767.
The labor movement gained significant momentum during the 1830s and 1840s, paving the way for future generations of Americans to secure extensive workers’ rights.