More American blood was spilled in one war than all other wars together: the Civil War.
Recent research has raised the accepted death toll from both sides to about 750,000. They fought over what some framed as “State’s rights,” but others framed the conflict more honestly. What the Southern states called their “peculiar institution” was in fact slavery.
The nation was slow to fully acknowledge the full scope of the evil, even in the North. Laws forbade helping escaped slaves. Other laws obligated Northerners to help return escapees to those who claimed them as property.
But the Underground Railroad spread and developed. Those station masters knew that if they were caught aiding escaped slaves, the slave catchers would kill them.
It was not mere “civil disobedience,” it was putting everything on the altar of freedom.
Those helpers command honor in history, particularly because they personally already had freedom. A religion called by the nickname “Quakers,” and calling themselves “Society of Friends,” often operated stations on the Underground Railroad.
But the collective American conscience began to feel the inconsistency of slavery. People became more aware of the atrocities. In 1845, the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” was published. His authentic story began to strip off the veil of acceptable decency the institution of slavery had enjoyed.
An author named Harriet Beecher Stowe had been collecting narratives from slaves for years. In 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exploded on the American scene, quickly becoming a bestseller.
Southerners accused her of romanticizing slaves. Others said she exaggerated. It would be years before more slaves published their stories, proving the accuracy of Stowe’s depiction in her novel.
An unverified story has persisted through time which tells of Stowe meeting President Lincoln once the Civil War was underway. The story credits Lincoln with saying “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Whether Lincoln actually said it or not, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sharp sword, unsheathed by public opinion and national morality in the Northern states.
John Brown, often described as “wild eyed” and “crazy,” dedicated his life to ending slavery. His idea was to raid the armory at Harper’s Ferry and arm the slaves. He believed that the slaves could only be freed by rising up in a united rebellion, but the cause got little momentum.
The October 1859 raid failed, and John Brown was executed.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs was published in January of 1861, just a few months before the nation erupted in war. In her autobiography, she offered a new insight into the particular atrocities against women held in slavery.
She spent seven years in the attic of a shed where she could not stand up, rather than submit to the sexual overtures of the man who owned her. At last, she escaped to the North with her children.
On April 12, 1961, the war began. At first, the North was plagued by inept generals, miscalculations and false assumptions. The South had fewer resources, but a seasoned general named Robert E. Lee.
He had distinguished himself in the U.S. Army, but he ultimately decided that he was a Virginian first. His vast estate overlooked the Potomac River in a place called Arlington.
The U.S. soon captured Lee’s plantation at Arlington and began a national cemetery. The first burials were made immediately around the Lee home. It was a way of salting the earth so that Lee could never return to farm his plantation.
But Lee himself made some errors in judgment catastrophic for the Confederate army. Much of the Southern army was obliterated in the fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Lee tried to invade the North.
The anti-slavery commitment was not drawn along geographic lines. There were many regiments of troops from Southern states that fought with the North.
Right triumphed, but only after rivers of blood had been spilled. The laws prevented slavery, but it would be another century before The Civil Rights Act would eliminate the last shreds of legal discrimination against Black citizens.
Hundreds of thousands of heroes, known and unknown, gave their all to truly unite Americans as one nation, free to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.