The United States Senate played a crucial role during the Civil War. The history of the war is often told from the perspective of President Abraham Lincoln and his military commanders, but the Senate faced war-related issues even before Lincoln took the oath of office and continued to influence national events throughout the war and its aftermath.
When South Carolina senator James Chesnut left the Senate on November 10, 1860, the Senate faced a secession crisis. “If you desire at this last moment to avert civil war, so be it,” stated Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis on January 10, 1861. “If you will not have it thus . . . , a war is to be inaugurated the like of which men have not seen.” Following the firing on Fort Sumter, the Capitol soon was teeming with soldiers. Even the Senate Chamber became a temporary headquarters. Bakeries were created to feed the troops, and makeshift hospitals provided 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. When the long, bloody war ended in April of 1865 and the nation mourned the death of its president, senators looked ahead to Reconstruction.
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a continuing series of online features explores the Senate's wartime experience.