Civil War and Reconstruction, 1848-1877

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Course Length:
15 weeks
3 credits

History 355 -- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1848-1876

Introduction and Course Description:

Union Soldiers of the 23rd Ohio
Union Soldiers of the 23rd Ohio

On April 18, 1861, Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia confronted the decision of a lifetime.

Six days earlier, Confederate forces had begun the thirty-three hour bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina that resulted in the surrender of the federal garrison there and the beginning of the Civil War. With the news from Sumter, secessionist feeling ran high on the streets and in the convention halls of Richmond, Virginia. Now, on the 18th, Lee learned both that President Lincoln had chosen him to command the Union Army and that his native Virginia had passed an ordinance of secession. Would Lee remain loyal to the nation and to the United States Army in which he had served since graduating from West Point thirty years before? Or would he defend his home and his heritage as scion of one of the first families of Virginia?

Fellow Virginian and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott hoped Lee would accept Lincoln's offer and, like Scott, fight to uphold the federal government in Washington, D.C. Scott had reason to be hopeful. Lee believed slavery a "moral and political evil" and until the day Virginia left the Union, he had opposed secession. But Virginia's ordinance changed everything in Lee's mind. Therefore, he declined Lincoln's offer, resigned from the U.S. Army, accepted appointment as commander-in-chief of Virginia's military forces and soon after became a general for the Confederacy. "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children," Lee told one northern friend. "Lee," Winfield Scott reportedly said to his colleague, "you have made the greatest mistake of your life." Lee sensed the magnitude and perhaps, too, the tragedy of his choice: "I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal," he wrote, "a necessary expiation...for our national sins."

Robert E. Lee's dilemma illustrates one of the central issues we will examine in this course. In a revolutionary era such as the Civil War, moderates like Lee were forced to choose sides: to join the extremists and to abide by their extreme solutions or to join the conservatives who wished to do nothing amid the nation's collapse. This course will seek to answer other crucial questions: What was America like in the decades before the war? Why did the sectional crisis of the 1850s end with explosive violence and radical change? How did slavery and racism factor into the conflict's outbreak? And how did slavery influence the course of the war? And why, in America, did the path to modern nationhood lead through the bloodiest of all nineteenth-century conflicts?

Course Objectives:

Grant and Lee
Grant and Lee

This course will deepen your awareness of the issues and events surrounding the American Revolution and the nation's first decades. It will also hopefully make you want to learn more about this topic in general. In specific terms, at the end of this course, you will:

1. understand the major historical figures, key events, and significant social, military, and economic transformations that shaped the nation from 1848-1877.

2. be able to place important historical figures and occurrences in time. This does not mean that you will simply memorize dates and events. Instead you will be able to place events in chronological order and within a larger and more meaningful context.

3. develop your critical reading and writing abilities as well as increase your oral communication skills. (After you graduate from college, you will find that these are truly marketable skills. To be frank, your future employers will not really care that you can recite Grant's terms to Lee on the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but they will expect you to be able to express your ideas clearly in writing and to contribute effectively in conversations.)

Course Readings:

The following books are available at the Campus Bookstore:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly (Penguin edition)
  • James B. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades
  • Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America
  • Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
  • David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Optional Book (strongly recommended):

  • Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual, 4th edition

The History Department requires that all bibliographies and source citations in research papers be in the Chicago form. Hacker's volume is excellent in discussing this form of source citation and documentation. You may also access her website:

There will also be a number of documents and articles that you will access online and which you will need to read. The dates upon which reading assignments are to be completed are listed below under specific dates in the "Schedule of Topics." Note that there will be in-class writing exercises and class discussions on the readings.

There is no textbook for this course. However, those students who wish to read one during the semester should consult James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. A copy of this book is on 2-hour reserve at the Trible Library.

You should also own a standard dictionary of the English language (preferably a hardbound edition). If you don't, go out and buy one. You are expected to know the meaning(s) of every word in the assigned reading and to correctly spell the words that you write.

Course Assignments:

  • Nine in-class writing exercises at scheduled times (60 points total, 15% of total final grade). These quizzes will be on the assigned books and primary documents. They will consist of 2 or 3 short-answer questions which will be provided in advance.

  • Attendance and participation in periodic class discussions (20 points, 5% of final grade). A word about class discussions: Although many people feel intimated by class discussions, learning to participate in such conversations involves social and intellectual skills that are an essential part of your liberal arts education. These include: listening to others and learning to absorb and synthesize their remarks; learning to respond constructively and analytically to others' ideas; learning to develop and articulate positions of one's own; being able to respond to criticism; and learning to modify or discard an argument in favor of another, more satisfactory one. You should come to class eager to exchange ideas about the topics under study, ready to speculate and to question and also to ask for explanations when you feel confused. In short, if you put the effort in, you can gain a considerable amount from these meetings.

  • Midterm Examination (100 points, 25% of final grade). This examination will cover the first half of the course and consist of a combination of a) essay questions in which you will analytically discuss a specific topic(s) dealt with in the course; and b) short-answer identification in which you will identify and note the significance of various persons, places or events noted in the readings and lectures. Students are required to supply their own Bluebooks for the exam.

  • Writing Assignment (100 points, 25% of final grade). All students in Civil War/Reconstruction will complete a research paper that will be approximately 8-10 pps. in length (typed, double-spaced). You may select any topic of the Civil War and/or Reconstruction era that is of interest to you. Your research should be based upon at least some primary (i.e., original) documents. All topics must be approved by me. Toward this end, you will submit to me a one-paragraph summary of your topic, along with a list of at least four sources from which you will begin your research (no encyclopedia or Internet sources at this stage). All footnotes or endnotes as well as the bibliography must use the Chicago form of citation.

  • Final Examination (120 points, 30% of final grade). This examination will cover the latter half of the course and will be structured like the Midterm Exam. The date for the Final Exam will be announced y the Registrar's Office.

Timeline of Events:

Please see the following timelines, each of which will give you a stronger sense of the chronology of the 19th century as well as the events of 1861-1865:

Timeline of the 19th century:
Timeline of the Civil War, 1861-1865:
Timeline of Reconstruction:
Slave Auction
Slave Auction

Schedule of Topics:

Because of the complexity and quantity of material we are covering, this schedule is tentative.


  • Week 1, Class 1: Introduction: How to Think About the American Civil War

  • Week 1, Class 2: The Mexican War and Its Ominous Outcome

  • Week 1, Class 3: The South as a Slave Society, Part 1

  • Week 2, Class 1: The South as a Slave Society, Part 2
Cotton Plantation -- Currier & Ives print
Cotton Plantation -- Currier & Ives print

  • Week 2, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. United States Congress. Joint Resolution offering terms of annexation to the Republic of Texas, Mar 1, 1845
2. Battle Report - Thornton Affair, 25 April 1846
3. Solomon Northup, excerpt from Twelve Years a Slave
4. Frederick Douglass to Hugh Auld, Oct 4, 1857
5. "In Search of Despotic Sway: Hammond as a Master of Slaves," from James Henry Hammond and the Old South, Chapter Five, by Drew Gilpin Faust (to be handed out)
6. James Henry Hammond, "Cotton is King" speech
  • Week 2, Class 3: The North and Its Abolitionists
Anti-Slavery Print
Anti-Slavery Print
  • Week 3, Class 1: The North and Its Anti-Abolitionists

  • Week 3, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. William Lloyd Garrison, "To the Public," The Liberator, Jan 1, 1831
2. David Walker, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, 1829 (excerpt)
3. Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"


Brooks-Sumner Beating
Brooks-Sumner Beating
  • Week 3, Class 3: The Deepening Sectional Crisis, 1850 to 1854

  • Week 4, Class 1: Research Day: - We will discuss submission of "Research Topic Proposals" and guidelines for writing an effective research paper

  • Week 4, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:

1. "Read and ponder the Fugitive Slave Law!" Broadside, 1850
2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852
3. "Notices of New Works," Southern Literary Messenger, Volume 18 (Oct 1852), pp 630-638;cc=moajr…
  • Week 4, Class 3: "Bleeding Kansas" -- Violence on the Prairie

  • Week 5, Class 1: The Evaporating Middle Ground -- Dred Scott and

Growing Militancy

  • Week 5, Class 2: The Election of Abraham Lincoln and the Secession Winter of 1860-61
Abraham Lincoln in 1860
Abraham Lincoln in 1860

  • Week 5, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. Timeline of John Brown's Life" and a brief biography and
2. Abraham Lincoln, House Divided Speech, 16 June 1858
3. Stephan A. Douglas Speech at Freeport, Illinois, 27 Aug 1858
4. Abraham Lincoln's Rejoinder to Douglas at Freeport, 27 Aug 1858
5. Declaration of the Immediate Causes ... [of] the Secession of South Carolina, 24 Dec 1860


  • Week 6, Class 1: Stalemate(I) -- From Fort Sumter to Bull Run
Battle of First Bull Run
Battle of First Bull Run

  • Week 6, Class 2: Stalemate (II) -- Assuming a War-Footing

  • Week 6, Class 3: Stalemate(III) -- From the Peninsula Campaign to Antietam

  • Week 7, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades (entire book)
2. Jefferson Davis's Inaugural Address, 18 Feb 1861
3. Abraham Lincoln, Special Session Message to Congress, 4 July 1861 ("This is a People's Contest")
4. Correspondence between Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 1862
5. Alexander Gardner Photographs at Antietam, September 1862
6. Account of battle of Antietam from the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light (a paper published in Hagerstown, MD), September 1862
  • Week 7, Class 2: Why Did the Civil War Become So Violent? Weapons, Tactics, Leaders

  • Week 7, Class 3: Midterm Examination


  • Week 8, Class 1: Experimentation: Toward Emancipation in the North and South
The First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation...[engraving after Carpenter]
The First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation...[engraving after Carpenter]

  • Week 8, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery
2. Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation
3. Southern Caricature of Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation
  • Week 8, Class 3: Homefronts: Wartime Governments, the Women's Perspective, and the War Drags On

  • Week 9, Class 1: July 1863:The War Reaches Its Turning Point

  • Week 9, Class 2: July 1863:The War Reaches Its Turning Point (Continued)

  • Week 9, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
2. New York Draft Riots, July 13-16, from "Mr. Lincoln and New York" website (be sure to read all parts of the website concerning the riots)
3. Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"
  • Week 10, Class 1: The War in 1864 - The Bloodiest Year Yet

  • Week 10, Class 2: The War in 1864 - The Bloodiest Year Yet (Continued)

  • Week 10, Class 3: Culminating Battles: Lincoln's Vision of the New Order and the War Ends

  • Week 11, Class 1: Culminating Battles: Lincoln's Vision of the New Order and the War Ends (Continued)


  • Week 11, Class 2: The Struggle Over Reconstruction: Johnson in Charge

  • Week 11, Class 3: The Struggle Over Reconstruction: Congress in Charge

  • Week 12, Class 1: Reconstruction Runs Aground in the South

  • Week 12, Class 2: Reconstruction Runs Aground in the South (Continued)

  • Week 12, Class 3: Reconstruction Runs Aground in the North

  • Week 13, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and class discussion on:
1. David Blight, Race and Reunion (Assigned pages: Introduction, Chapters 1-4)
2. An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, 1865
3. Mississippi Black Code (1865)…
4. "Reconstruction And How It Works", Harper's Weekly, 1 Sept 1866…
5. 14th Amendment to the US Constitution…
6.Freedman's Bureau Report of Outrages committed in South Carolina, Oct 1865-Nov 1868


  • Week 13, Class 2: The Changing World of the 1870s

  • Week 13, Class 3: Reunion and Reaction - The 1876 Election and Its Consequences

  • Week 14, Class 1: Reunion and Reaction - The Civil War and the Jim Crow Era

  • Week 14, Class 2: The Legacy of the Civil War -- the 1915 film Birth of a Nation

  • Week 14, Class 3: Discussion and Review for Final Examination

Date for FINAL EXAMINATION will be announced by the Registrar's Office