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CCRI professors share history of the Civil War
April 25, 2011
In the predawn of April 12, 1861, Southern Confederate forces began a fierce cannon bombardment of the U.S. Military’s Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina, shattering the quiet of the morning as well as a fragile peace between North and South.
The American Civil War had begun.
The Community College of Rhode Island commemorated this historic event with a free public presentation on the Knight Campus on April 12 by Associate History Professor John “Jack” Every and Associate Professor/Librarian Kathy Blessing. Their presentation was titled, “American Civil War Sesquicentennial: CCRI Commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Civil War.” See photos.
Every discussed the political issues that led the country to war with itself and Blessing described the impact on Rhode Island soldiers and explained how to research Rhode Island Civil War military records.
Every said that the cause of the war was an intractable debate over slavery in America. He said there has been some disagreement among historians about this, particularly during the Civil War Centennial celebration of 1961, with some people arguing the war was caused by more basic economic factors or the issue of state’s rights in the face of federal power.
However, Every said that historians today, even those born and raised in the South, mostly agree that the war was started by the slavery issue, even if many of the soldiers at the time were more motivated by simple patriotism.
Every said this debate began at the time of the founding with the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise,” in which black slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for census reasons and slavery was allowed to continue in America.
“Starting with the Revolution going into the mid-19th Century, the slavery issue had been compromised and put off,” Every said.
In the 1840s and 50s, these compromises were beginning to be insufficient.
As new states entered the Union, legislation had to decide whether they would be “slave” or “free” states, that is, states that allowed slavery. Northern Republican members of Congress wanted to contain the number of slave states and a minority party of mostly Southerners wanted to expand the institution into the new states.
To win compromises, lawmakers passed legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, by which runaway slaves who made it to the North were returned to bondage. Every said that with this law and similar ones that formed the so-called 1850 Compromise, “There was great celebration by Americans that the issues dividing North and South had been laid to rest.” “Actually,” he added, “it only put off the inevitable for 10 years.”
Every said that contrary to intentions, this law contributed to divisiveness in America because Northern abolitionists were unhappy about returning runaway slaves to their masters. This law also inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her famous “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
In the late 1850s the unresolved slavery question led to open violence in Kansas, which came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
The Territory of Kansas was involved in a political debate about whether to enter the Union as a slave or a free state, and the two factions there were involved in violent altercations.
One of these partisan fighters, John Brown, went on to lead a violent but unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia in 1859. This act further divided the nation, Every said.
Northern abolitionists considered John Brown a martyr and there were many commemorative celebrations for his action.
“Southerners looked at that and said, ‘these people in the North are really different people, celebrating a murderer with no respect for the law,’” Every said.
By now, North-South relations had deteriorated to the point that with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican committed to containing slavery who earned only two-fifths of the popular vote, seven Deep South states bolted from the Union.
When Lincoln ignored an ultimatum from secessionist South Carolina challenging him not to re-supply Fort Sumter, the rebel army shelled the fort, forcing its surrender and the beginning of the war.
Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellion, arousing Southern patriotism and spurring four more states to secede.
During the second half of the presentation, Blessing talked about Rhode Island’s contribution to the Civil War and explained ways to research the records of the state’s soldiers and regiments.
She said the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, available online, is an excellent place to start.
“Rhode Island troops were active within days of the attack on Fort Sumter,” Blessing said. Among the first units to answer the call to war was Rhode Island’s 2nd Infantry, which fought in the war’s first major battle at Bull Run (First Manassas) in Virginia on July 21, 1861, under the leadership of Col. John Slocum.
One of the forts built to protect Washington D.C. from Confederate attacks was named in his memory – Fort Slocum.
Blessing said many of Rhode Island’s Civil War casualties were caused by disease in unsanitary army camps and prisons. She said Rhode Island’s regiment of black soldiers, the 14th Infantry, lost more than 350 men to ailments such as typhoid, dysentery,and tuberculosis when the unit became part of a federal force stationed in the Gulf region.
Blessing said records preserved in the Rhode Island State Archives, the State Library, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Northeast Regional branch in Waltham, Mass. and its main office in Washington, D.C., provide access to detailed records of Rhode Island Civil War military personnel and their units. The available documentation includes enlistment, military service records and pension records.
Some pension records cover surprisingly long periods, Blessing said. The federal government issued its last recognized Union widow’s pension payment in early 2003, when Gertrude Janeaway passed away at age 93 in Tennessee. She was a teenager when she married John Janeaway, an elderly Civil War Union veteran, in 1927.