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SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR

In the first quarter of the 19th century, the frontier of settlement moved west to the Mississippi River and beyond. In 1828 Andrew Jackson became the first outsider elected president: a man from the frontier state of Tennessee, born into a poor family and out-side the cultural traditions of the Atlantic seaboard.

Although on the surface the Jacksonian Era was one of optimism and energy, the young nation was entangled in a contradiction. The ringing words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, were meaningless for 1.5 million slaves.

In 1820 southern and northern politicians debated the question of whether slavery would be legal in the western territories. Congress reached a compromise: Slavery was permitted in the new state of Missouri and the Arkansas Territory but barred everywhere west and north of Missouri. The outcome of the Mexican War of 1846-48 brought more territory into American hands -- and with it the issue of whether to extend slavery. Another compromise, in 1850, admitted California as a free state, with the citizens of Utah and New Mexico being allowed to decide whether they wanted slavery within their borders or not (they did not).

But the issue continued to rankle. After Abraham Lincoln, a foe of slavery, was elected president in 1860, 11 states left the Union and proclaimed themselves an independent nation, the Confederate States of America: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The American Civil War had begun.

The Confederate Army did well in the early part of the war, and some of its commanders, especially General Robert E. Lee, were brilliant tacticians. But the Union had superior manpower and resources to draw upon. In the summer of 1863 Lee took a gamble by marching his troops north into Pennsylvania. He met a Union army at Gettysburg, and the largest battle ever fought on American soil ensued. After three days of desperate fighting, the Confederates were defeated. At the same time, on the Mississippi River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured the city of Vicksburg, giving the North control of the entire Mississippi Valley and splitting the Confederacy in two.

Two years later, after a long campaign involving forces commanded by Lee and Grant, the Confederates surrendered. The Civil War was the most traumatic episode in American history. But it resolved two matters that had vexed Americans since 1776. It put an end to slavery, and it decided that the country was not a collection of semi-independent states but an indivisible whole.