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The Civil War: The Senate's Story


The United States Senate played a crucial role during the Civil War. Although the history of the war is often told from the perspective of President Abraham Lincoln and his military commanders, the Senate faced war-related issues even before Lincoln took the oath of office and continued to address and influence national events throughout the war. Following the firing on Fort Sumter, the Capitol soon was teeming with soldiers. Even the Senate Chamber became a temporary headquarters. The Capitol housed a bakery to feed the troops and served as a makeshift hospital to provide medical care. Over the next four years, the Senate endured numerous constitutional crises as it fulfilled its legislative duties and provided oversight to executive action. Working with colleagues in the House of Representatives, the Senate passed landmark legislation that continues to shape our nation today. In the post-war Reconstruction years, senators led the debates over emancipation, civil rights, and the readmission of Southern states to representation, and they proposed constitutional amendments to guarantee rights of citizenship. This is the Senate’s Civil War story.

The Road to War

Between 1820 and 1850, a period known as the Senate’s Golden Age, the Senate was a focal point of the growing sectional crisis. In the Senate, where the Constitution established an equality of states, there existed a delicate balance between North and South, slave and free states, and senators skillfully crafted legislation designed to resolve sectional conflicts and avoid secession and civil war. In the 1850s, however, further efforts at compromise failed, and the Senate endured a violent and turbulent decade that brought an end to its Golden Age and propelled the nation to the brink of war.
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Compromise of 1850

On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a set of resolutions designed to quiet sectional strife and avoid civil war. Clay's resolutions, which offered concessions to both the North and the South, were combined into one "omnibus bill" that became known as the Compromise of 1850. When the omnibus bill failed to pass, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois took up the cause, breaking the comprehensive measure down into five separate and ultimately successful bills.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was introduced by Illinois senator Stephen Douglas “to organize the Territory of Nebraska,” an area covering the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, for statehood. The act provided that the settlers, through “popular sovereignty,” could allow or prohibit slavery in this territory. This undermined the 1820 Missouri Compromise, further inflamed the passions of North and South, and brought the nation closer to civil war.

Caning of Charles Sumner

As Charles Sumner sat franking mail at his desk on a warm May day in 1856, it was an unusually quiet moment for the senator from Massachusetts. Just days earlier the abolitionist Sumner had released all of his oratorical fire to condemn pro-slavery senators in his infamous "Crime Against Kansas" speech. In retaliation, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Sumner as he sat at his desk.

Jefferson Davis' Farewell

In one of the most dramatic moments in Senate history, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi delivered his farewell address to the Senate on January 21, 1861, before leaving the Senate to become president of the Confederacy. Just days earlier, the states of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had joined South Carolina in deciding to secede from the Union. Rumors flew that Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas would soon follow.

Crittenden Compromise

During the months between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, many members of Congress clung to the hope of reconciliation. Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden led a last-ditch effort at compromise, proposing a collection of constitutional amendments. At the heart of the plan was an amendment to extend to the Pacific the line drawn by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30' parallel, sanctioning the continuation of slavery in the South.

The War Begins

The secession crisis grew with each passing week, forcing the Senate to deal with vacant seats and diminishing quorums. By the time Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, rumors were circulating of a threatened Confederate attack at Fort Sumter. Northern Republicans, backed by an abolitionist press, demanded military action. “Reinforce Fort Sumter at all hazards!” became the Northerners’ cry. Lincoln agreed to re-supply the fort, but with food rather than weapons. Fort Sumter fell. Now the lines were drawn, not only in the Senate, but across the nation. “Every man must be for the United States or against it,” proclaimed Senator Stephen Douglas. “There can be no neutrals in this war.”
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The Senate Reacts to Secession

The secession of Southern states and the withdrawal of their elected representatives forced an unprecedented constitutional crisis in Congress. On March 14, 1861, senators debated what to do with seats left vacant by their Southern colleagues. Did the states or their representatives have the right to leave the Union? After a heated debate, the Senate declared the seats of six of their departed colleagues “vacant.”

The Senate Calls for the Dispatches of Major Anderson

On March 25, 1861, the Senate, meeting in special session, agreed to a resolution introduced by Kentucky senator Lazarus Powell requesting that the new president, Abraham Lincoln, furnish the Senate with the dispatches of Major Robert Anderson. Anderson was in command of Fort Sumter, one of only two forts remaining in Union possession within the seven states comprising the newly formed Confederacy.

An Extraordinary Recess

On April 14, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas privately met with his long-time political rival, and now president, Abraham Lincoln. The president showed Douglas a draft of his proclamation calling forth the state militias and summoning Congress to return for an extraordinary session on July 4. In the days of congressional recess leading up to this extraordinary session, Douglas and his fellow senators pursued a variety of war-related activities.

Soldiers Occupy the Senate Chamber

The fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln's subsequent call for troops brought thousands of Union soldiers to Washington, D.C. To accommodate the numbers, the U.S. Capitol became a barrack, and even the new Senate Chamber served as dormitory, mess hall, and medical office. Upwards of 4,000 troops eventually occupied the building. This overwhelming human influx proved costly, and conditions in the Capitol quickly deteriorated.

Senators Witness the First Battle of Bull Run

On July 21, 1861, United States senators and other spectators gathered near Centreville, Virginia, to witness the first land battle of the Civil War—the Battle of Bull Run. Bringing along picnic baskets and opera glasses, these Northerners expected an easy Union victory that day, but they soon learned that war was unpredictable. The "picnic battle," as it became known, resulted in a major Union defeat.

Senator Killed in Battle

Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, veteran of the Mexican war, well-known lawyer and orator, and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln, answered his country's call to battle in 1861. Although Baker turned down a commission as brigadier general so that he could remain a senator, he felt that he could engage in combat while Congress was adjourned. On October 21, 1861, Baker led his troops into the Battle of Ball's Bluff and became the Senate's first and only sitting member to die in battle.

Capitol Construction During the War Years

Despite the wartime emergency, work progressed on the new dome for the Capitol. Although the War Department announced that it could not ensure funding for completion of the dome, workers agreed to continue without pay. A full year after workers had decided to carry on, Congress renewed the contract for construction. At noon on December 2, 1863, a solemn ceremony marked completion of the dome and the placement of the Statue of Freedom.

The Senate's Work Continues

Saddened by the death of Senator Baker and alarmed by Union military defeats at the first battle of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff, Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan presented a resolution to create the Joint Committee to Investigate the Conduct of the War. “Because it is in Congress to declare war, and in Congress to provide the means of carrying on war, it behooves us most carefully to look at the course of proceedings relating to the conduct of the war,” agreed Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine. During the war years, Northern members also took advantage of the withdrawal and expulsion of Southern lawmakers to pass not only legislation to support the war effort, but also a series of landmark bills that previously had fallen victim to sectional conflict.
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President Lincoln Calls Congress into Emergency Session

On April 15, 1861, just three days after the attack on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling forth the state militias, to the sum of 75,000 troops, in order to suppress the rebellion. Lincoln’s proclamation also summoned Congress to return for an extraordinary session beginning on July 4, “to consider, and determine, such measures as, in their wisdom, the public safety, and interest, may seem to demand.”

Speech of Senator Charles Sumner on the Trent Affair

In 1861, an international crisis developed when former senators James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana were captured en route to England on the British mail steamer Trent. After several weeks of suspenseful discourse, the crisis ended when the Lincoln administration agreed to release the prisoners. Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner rose in the Senate Chamber on January 9, 1862, in support of the President’s controversial decision.

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

Senator Zachariah Chandler introduced a resolution on December 5, 1861, to investigate the battles at Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Other senators demanded a broad inquiry into the conduct of the war. A concurrent resolution, passed on December 10, 1861, created a joint committee composed of three senators and four representatives and granted its members the power to “inquire into the conduct of the present war and to send for persons and papers.”

Defining a Quorum in the Wake of Secession

Before the war, the Senate typically considered a quorum to be a majority of all authorized seats, whether or not those seats happened to be filled, but the enormous effect of secession on Senate membership caused the Senate to reconsider what constituted a quorum. After a heated debate in 1864, the Senate defined itself, for purposes of conducting business, as an assembly of members who have been duly chosen to serve.

Landmark Legislation

Throughout the war years, the Senate operated, according to Ohio senator John Sherman, like “a laborious committee where bills are drawn as well as discussed.” For decades Congress had argued over a number of issues, only to have them fall victim to sectional conflict. Northern senators therefore took advantage of the withdrawal and expulsion of Southern lawmakers to pass not only legislation to support the war effort, but also a series of landmark bills.

The "Ironclad Test Oath"

Oath-taking by newly elected members of Congress continues a constitutional rite that is as old as the Republic. While this practice dates from a simple 14-word statement enacted by the First Congress in 1789, the current oath is a product of the 1860s—drafted by Civil War-era members of Congress intent on ensnaring traitors. In 1864, Senator James A. Bayard of Delaware objected to Congress' new oath of office, the infamous "Ironclad Test Oath," resigning from the Senate in protest.

Victory, Tragedy, and Reconstruction

As news spread of the fall of the Confederate capital in Richmond in April 1865, Washingtonians rejoiced. The war was over, but jubilation would soon turn to sadness and grief. The euphoria of Union victory came to a sudden halt on the night of April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln was shot by an assassin. At war’s end, Congress faced many challenges, particularly how to readmit Southern states, and how to integrate four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of a war-torn nation. A very visible result of progress for African Americans was the election of Blacks to Congress. On February 25, 1870, onlookers in the Senate galleries cheered as Hiram Revels strode into the Senate Chamber to take the oath of office as the first African American senator.
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Lincoln Catafalque

President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, appealing to the country to move forward, “with malice toward none…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” One month later, the war was over, but the euphoria of Union victory came to a sudden halt on the night of April 14, when the president was shot by an assassin. Lincoln's body was placed on a hastily constructed catafalque to lie in state beneath the Capitol dome.

Joint Committee on Reconstruction

When Congress convened on December 4, 1865, some of the newly elected legislators from former Confederate states presented credentials, expecting to be seated in the Senate. Questions about the validity of the credentials prompted the House and Senate to establish a Joint Committee on Reconstruction. This 15-member committee investigated “the conditions of the States which formed the so-called confederate States of America” to determine whether they “are entitled to be represented in either House of Congress.”

Landmark Legislation

Long before the Union victory, Congress had been preparing for the many challenges the nation would face at war’s end, particularly the integration of four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation. In the years following the war, battles over Reconstruction legislation severely strained relations between President Andrew Johnson and Congress. The Senate continued to shape important national issues in the aftermath of war, especially the evolving debate over civil rights in America.

Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson

The battles over Reconstruction-era policies severely strained relations between the executive and legislative branches. After President Andrew Johnson defied the Tenure of Office Act—a congressional attempt at keeping Lincoln appointees in office—the House impeached him, and on March 5, 1868, the first presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history began.

First African American Senator

A visible sign of progress during the Reconstruction era was the election of African Americans to Congress. On February 25, 1870, onlookers in the Senate galleries cheered as Hiram Revels of Mississippi strode into the Senate Chamber to take the oath of office as the first African American senator. Revels sat at the desk once occupied by former senator and president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

The “Old Soldiers’ Roll of the Senate”

Civil War veterans thronged the Capitol's corridors in the postwar era desperately seeking support through government pensions or congressional jobs. Up to the time of World War I, the Senate staff included Civil War veterans working as clerks, elevator operators, and doorkeepers. Predominately soldiers of the Union army, most of these men owed their appointments to Republican senators, who controlled the Senate—and thus the majority of its patronage—for all but four years between 1861 and 1913.

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