The Civil War

[Civil War Senate]
Unknown Artist
ca. 1863

"The Great Uprising of the North—An Anniversary Picture—April 12, 1862."
Unidentified Artist, after C. Parsons
Harper's Weekly
April 19, 1862


The 36th Congress was the one immediately preceding the great Civil War, and the Senate’s discussions in the spring of 1860 developed those grave differences of opinion which were subsequently submitted to the arbitrament of arms. The short session, ending in March, 1861 was marked by the withdrawal of the senators from the seceding states, as they assumed to leave the Union. Most of the retiring senators signalized their departure by fueling addresses, some of which were filled with gloomy forebodings, while others were radiant with prophecies of success for the revolutionary movement. [17A14-17A15]

Part IV

The four years from 1861 to 1865 constituted the most eventful period of our history. While armies of immense, almost unparalleled magnitude were engaged in the actual conflict of battle, the legislators’ task was to devise the mode of calling them forth and embodying them, and to provide the machinery by which the means of supporting and supplying them should be obtained. This was a task which called forth the ability of senators and representatives.

When the Senate met in special session at the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln in March, 1861, the Republican Party which had elected him, was for the first time in the majority in both Houses. This majority was partly due to the withdrawal of the senators from the States which had seceded; but the border states and Texas were still represented. Soon after the adjournment of the Senate the attack on Sumter aroused the national heart, and while the immediate results were to draw Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas into the confederacy with their more Southern sisters, the movement was met by the nation's authorities by [a] call for all troops and by proclamation convening Congress in extraordinary session on the fourth of July, 1861.

When the Senate convened on that day, the seats from 11 states were vacant. With the single exception of that of Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, who denied the right of a state to secede and maintained his allegiance to the Union and its flag.

This extra session was brief and confined to measures for calling forth troops and raising money, and to enact defining the character of the insurrectionary movement and regulating commercial intercourse with the insurrectionary states. This latter act was the product of the brain of Senator Collamer and had great influence in setting the legal relations between the adhering and the rebellious states.

At the regular session of the 37th Congress, which began in December, 1861, the main measures were the legal tender bill, the internal revenue bill, the confiscation bill, and various loan bills. They were all debated at length and with ability. The divisions upon them were not marked by party lines. The dicussion of the legal tender question was especially noticeable for the great ability displayed on a subject not very attractive to the casual auditor, but which involved legal and constitution principles of great moment and lasting consequence. The opposition to the measure was led by Collamer and Cowan, and it was advocated by Sumner, Sherman and Mr. Douglas.

During the sessions while the war lasted it was no unusual occurrence for the deliberations to be interrupted by the presiding officer presenting a dispatch from the War Department announcing the result of some engagement or the completion of some important strategic movement. When the news thus received proclaimed victory for the Union arms, it was received with applause.

Perhaps, of all the scenes enacted during the thirty-seventh Congress the most exciting and dramatic was one between Baker of Oregon and Breckinridge, of Kentucky, in July, 1861.

Baker, (who soon after lost his life at Ball’s Bluff), was in actual command of a regiment of volunteers, who were encamped about a mile from the Capitol, but had not received a commission, the acceptance of which would have vacated his seat in the Senate. He rode from the camp to the Capitol daily and entered the Senate Chamber “booted and spurred” but otherwise in civilian garb. Breckinridge on one occasion was discussing the action of the administration in severe terms. When he had concluded Baker arose and poured forth such a torrent of invectives as has has rarely been heard in any legislative hall. Breckinridge replied, and Baker responded in such denunciation of treason and of traitors as will be recited by schoolboys of generations to come. Breckinridge did not return to the Senate after that session, but joined the army of the Southern Confederacy, in which he became a general officer.

This Congress is memorable also for the measures by which the state of Virginia was divided and the new Common Wealth of West Virginia was formed. The various steps in this process are not commonly understood as they should be. After the ordinance of secession was passed by the Convention of Virginia in April, 1861 a large portion of the people, principally in the northern and western counties determined to remain true to their allegiance to the general government, and acting of this determination, a convention of the people assembled at Wheeling, declared the secession ordinance null and void, and treating the state offices as vacant, provided for filling them by a new election. An election was held and a legislature chosen, which selected senators to fill the seats vacated by members Mssrs. Hunter and Mason. The gentlemen thus chosen presented themselves at the session of July, 1861 and after examination and debate, were admitted to seats in the Senate. Representatives elected under the same authority were admitted to seats in the lower House. The executive recognized the governor and legislature of reorganized Virginia as the legal government of the state.

After the reorganized government was set in motion, the movement to create the new state of West Virginia made rapid strides. The consent of the legislature was given; a convention was called which formed a constitution for the new the state, and on its submission to Congress the consent of that body was given, but not without fierce opposition [and] protracted debate. In December, 1863, the senators from West Virginia appeared and were admitted. One gentleman, Mr. Willey, was a senator from Virginia from July, 1861 to March, 1863 and from West Virginia from December, 1863 to March 1871.

The 38th Congress was a repetition of the 37th, in its loan bills and measures for providing troops and supplies; and when it adjourned it was felt that the end of the strife could not be very far off. And, in less than six weeks after its adjournment, the Confederacy collapsed, on the surrender of Lee’s and Johnston’s armies.

The vicissitudes of the war had much effect on public men and measures. [17A15-17A21]

Editor's Note:

Despite the exit of the Southern senators during the Civil War, the U.S. Senate continued to push forward with its legislative duties. Some senators left the Senate in order to aid the military efforts of the war, while others attempted to balance careers in the Senate and on the battlefield. Edward Baker, a Republican senator from Oregon, led a regiment of Union volunteers and camped not far from the Capitol. He was killed in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. The Senate succeeded in fulfilling its function and even created a new state, West Virginia. Bassett, through his writings, provides a glimpse into how the Senate functioned during the Civil War years.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Abraham Lincoln (Republican – IL) president of the United States 1861-1865.
  • Sumter (Fort Sumter, South Carolina) - Between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and his inauguration as president in March 1861, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Confederate forces seized control of Federal forts within their boundaries, mostly without incident. However, a few Union strongholds remained, including Fort Sumter. On April 6, 1861, during a relief expedition by the Union forces, the Confederate Army opened fire on Fort Sumter in an attempt to force its surrender. Union soldiers surrendered the fort on April 13, 1861. Following the battle at Fort Sumter, four more states seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy.
  • Andrew Johnson (Democrat - TN) U.S. senator 1857-1862 and 1875; vice president of the United States 1865; president 1865-1869.
  • Jacob Collamer (Opposition, Republican - VT) U.S. senator 1855-1857 and 1857-1865.
  • Legal Tender Bill  - This refers to Congress passing legislation authorizing issuing of greenbacks (paper money).
  • Internal Revenue Bill - This refers to Congress passing the first federal income tax.
  • Edgar Cowan (Republican - PA) U.S. senator 1861-1867.
  • Charles Sumner (Free Soil, Opposition, Republican, Liberal Republican - MA) U.S. senator 1851-1855, 1855-1857, 1857-1873, and 1873-1874. He is well remembered for his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, in which he insulted the South and Southern senators, and as a result he was assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks.
  • John Sherman (Republican - OH) U.S. senator 1861-1877 and 1881-1897.
  • Stephen Arnold Douglas (Democrat - IL) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • Presiding officer - The presiding officer sits in a chair in the front of the Senate Chamber and announces vote results, controls debates by calling on members to speak, and may rule on any point of order. The Constitution mandates that the vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate and as such is the presiding officer of the Senate, but does not vote except to break ties. The Constitution also authorizes the Senate to elect a president pro tempore (traditionally the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service) to preside in the vice president’s absence. Today the president pro tempore does not normally preside over the Senate, but instead delegates that responsibility to junior senators of the majority party.
  • Edward Dickinson Baker (Republican - OR) U.S. senator 1860-1861.
  • John Cabell Breckinridge (Democrat - KY) U.S. representative 1851-1855; vice president of the United States 1857-1861; U.S. senator 1861. He was expelled from the Senate for his support of the Confederacy.
  • Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter (Democrat - VA) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • James Murray Mason (Democrat - VA) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • Waitman Thomas Willey (Unionist - VA) U.S. senator 1861-1863; (Unconditional Unionist, Republican - WV) U.S. senator 1863-1865 and 1865-1871.
  • Robert E. Lee - When Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, eventually becoming commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
  • Joseph Eggleston Johnston - Johnston was a general in the Confederate army, serving in both Virginia and North Carolina.