Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

Civil War in America

"Thou too sail on! O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union strong and great!

Humanity, with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

— Longfellow

W HILE Italy was claiming her right to become a European nation, America was fighting to preserve her hardly won nationality. The Union flag, with its stars and stripes, now waved in the breeze from coast to coast. America was one free and independent nation. But storm-clouds were rising dark and terrible over the fair skies of the prosperous Republic.

The Southern States, known as the Cotton Garden of the World, employed a large number of slaves, without which, it was impossible to produce the cotton demanded of them by foreign countries. The Northern States had long since abolished slavery, which was unnecessary to them, and they now urged the Southerners to do the same. Such a measure meant ruin to the South, and it was stoutly opposed. In 1852, a story-book called 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' came out: it painted a dark picture of the cruelties of the slave-holders and the misery of the slaves, and created a profound impression throughout the reading world. Feeling ran high as men spoke of the burning question: Should the slaves be freed in the Southern States?

In 1859 one old man took matters into his own hands. John Brown hated slavery, and one dark night, he entered Virginia with a small body of men, seized Harper's Ferry, and called on the slaves to rally round him and fight for their freedom. But John Brown was captured, tried, and hung, for his raid was illegal, if well-intentioned.

"This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which shall soon come," said the poet Longfellow, with prophetic vision. He was right. John Brown's death raised excitement over the slave-trade to fever heat, and three years later, the men of the North were marching to battle, to the solemn chant—

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

But his soul goes marching on."

The following year, Abraham Lincoln, our little colonist friend of Indiana, had been elected President of the United States. How step by step he had risen from log-cabin to the White House at Washington, is a well-known story. Tall and thin, with sad dreamy eyes, as sorrowing for his country's troubles, "slow to smite and swift to spare," he now stood to address the vast crowds, eagerly awaiting his inaugural address.

"We must preserve the Union at all costs," he cried emphatically. "The question of slavery must remained unsolved for a time."

But it was already too late. The Southern States had taken the law into their own hands. They had declared themselves independent of the Union, and elected a President of their own. The deed was done. War was inevitable now. If the Union was to be upheld by Lincoln, it must be by force of arms. He appealed to the country for men and money. The response was enthusiastic.

"We're coming, Father Abraham,

six hundred thousand strong,"

sang the men of the North as they marched under the Union flag. Boys of fifteen sat down and cried, if they were refused to serve with the colours.

Fifteen southern states, including Virginia, now took up arms against the whole North. The end was certain. But the opening battle, fought near the high-banked stream of Bull's Run, near Washington, ended in a victory for the South. It was early on the morning of July 21, 1861, that the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Before evening, the undisciplined army of the North had melted away.

One name was made famous on this day. Through the heat of that cloudless summer day, Jackson had fought with the bravest—cool, fearless, determined. At one moment, when men were wavering and hearts beginning to fail, there was a cry: "There's Jackson standing like a stone wall."

"Stonewall Jackson!" shouted the soldiers; and Stonewall Jackson was the idol of the Southern army, till the day he fell, accidentally shot by his own men.

The North now rose in its full strength. General Grant took command of the Northern army and gained a great victory at Shiloh, Tennessee, though the loss in men was terrible, exceeding 22,000.

Then the Southerners turned their eyes to the sea. They constructed a ship, that was to open a new era in naval warfare. For the Merrimac was the first iron-clad vessel in the world, that ever steamed to battle. The Southerners sent her forth to destroy the wooden navy of the North in Chesapeake Bay. She had already begun her work of destruction, when a yet stranger sea-monster was seen, ploughing its way through the stormy waves, from New York, to try its strength against the Merrimac. The Monitor, too, was an iron-clad. She had been built in hot haste, by the men of the North; but so grotesque did she appear, that she looked just like a "cheese-box on a raft." She steamed alongside the giant Merrimac, and the first battle between iron-clad ships, in the history of the world, ended in the destruction of both. From this time the old wooden three-decker was doomed.

Meanwhile Lincoln, suffering deeply at the White House, Washington, took one of the most memorable steps in American history. He declared that all slaves were free from January 1, 1863, in those States still rebelling against the Union. "The sun shall shine, the rain shall fall, and the wind shall blow upon no man, who goes forth to unrequited toil," he said, as he took his final stand against Southern slavery.

The South fought with renewed strength. Now that slavery was abolished, their struggle became desperate. Under such leaders as General Lee and Stonewall Jackson,—the "soldier-saints" of the South,—they fought hard and long.

But a heavy blow now befell the South in the death of Stonewall Jackson, who fell mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. Amid darkness and confusion he was shot by his own men by mistake at the moment of victory. For days he lay dying in the Southern camp, and men almost grudged the victory that was costing them so dear, though 18,000 Northerners lay dead and wounded on the field of Chancellorsville.

As the "soul of the great captain passed into the peace of God," an outburst of grief rose from the stricken people.

"It were better for the South had I fallen," said Lee pathetically, as he realised his loss.

Meanwhile, at the White House, Lincoln was in despair at the news of the losses at Chancellorsville.

"My God! my God! what will the country say?" he cried, with tears streaming down his cheeks.

From this time onwards the cause of the North prospered. Jackson was dead and he could not be replaced, while overwhelming numbers from the North swept through the Southern States. The city of Atlanta in Georgia had been seized, and now Sherman—one of the heroes of the North—proposed his famous march to the sea. He would take 60,000 men through the very heart of the enemy's country and seize their sea-coast towns. The risk was tremendous, and many were the voices to shout that "Sherman's dashing Yankee boys would never reach the coast." But off they started in high spirits, like schoolboys on a holiday, cutting a swathe sixty miles broad as they went. They destroyed the railways through Georgia, and finally reached the coast, capturing the important strongholds of Savannah and Charleston. This was followed by the capture of Richmond, the Southern capital, and the great surrender of General Lee and the army of the South.

The great Civil War was at an end. It had carried mourning into almost every family in the United States, it had cost 600,000 lives, but it had decided once and for all that the United States of America was one nation, without slavery in its midst.

For four years, Abraham Lincoln had guided the Ship of State, through stormy seas, and he had steered her into calm waters at last. Peace was declared early in April 1865. A few days later, the President paid for it with his life. It was a tragic end to the great war.

Lincoln was in the theatre at Washington, when he was shot through the head by a man from the South. Striding on to the stage, the murderer brandished his knife, and with one loud cry, "The South is avenged!" he vanished from sight.

A mighty wave of grief burst over the Republic. The man who had freed four millions of slaves, preserved the Union, and given peace to his country, could ill be spared at such a moment.

Sorrowfully they bore him back to his old home 2000 miles westward.

"Thy task is done: the bond are free:

We bear thee to an honoured grave,

Whose proudest monument shall be

The broken fetters of the slave."

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