GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Civil War & Reconstruction

Slavery expanded significantly after the invention of the cotton gin, which was able to clean cotton. Cotton found a ready market in the textile (cloth) mills of the North and Europe. As the Industrial Revolution mechanized more and more of the U.S., the need for cotton grew. Eventually, it overtook tobacco as America’s leading cash crop.

Slavery was largely abolished in the Northern states by the early decades of the 1800s, but continued to grow in the South. Most people did not question its morality or its necessity, although the majority of people did not own slaves. Some small farmers might own two or three slaves, but large plantations often had 100 or more slaves. Slaves were bought and sold as personal property. Slave families could be broken up, and the whip was used to maintain discipline.


The Three-Fifths Compromise (1787)

The first crisis over slavery came during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Southern states demanded that slaves be counted for the purpose of representation in the House of Representatives. The North was opposed to this, but wanted to see slaves counted for purposes of assessing taxes.

Thus, the Three-Fifths Compromise was born. Each slave (the word “slave” is not found in the Constitution!) would count as three-fifths (60%) of a white person for the purposes of representation and taxation. This gave the South greater voting strength in Congress. For example:

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The Compromise of 1820 (also known as the Missouri Compromise)

Until 1819, the number of free states and slave states was equal (11). When the Missouri Territory applied for statehood, this would tip the balance. The North feared that the slave states would outstrip the free states. As a compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state. In addition, a line was drawn across the Louisiana Purchase at 36’30” of latitude. Above this, no new slavery could occur. Beneath it, new slave states could be created. This is known as the Missouri Compromise. This crisis so terrified the aged Thomas Jefferson that he called it “A fire bell in the night.”

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The Compromise of 1850

The new lands acquired from Mexico presented a problem: would they become slave states or free states. The line drawn by the Missouri Compromise didn’t apply to this new land. People feared a civil war would occur. But leaders of Congress worked out a solution: California would be admitted as a free state and a tough new Fugitive (runaway) Slave Act would be enacted. In addition, two new territories were created, and the question of whether or not to have slavery would be decided by the inhabitants of them by voting. This concept is known as popular sovereignty. No one was pleased, but civil war was averted (for now).


The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)

In order to secure Southern support for a Northern transcontinental railroad route, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed the creation of two new territories — Kansas and Nebraska — north of the Missouri Compromise line (see above). The status of slavery would be determined by popular sovereignty. In Kansas, a mini-civil war broke out between pro- and antislavery factions. “Bleeding Kansas” was virtually a practice run for the Civil War!


The Dred Scott Decision (1857)

Dred Scott was a slave who had been brought by his master, an army doctor, to free territory. He sued for his freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to regulate slavery in the territories, and thus Scott remained a slave. In addition, the Supreme Court held that no black — free or slave — could be a citizen of the United States. While the South welcomed the decision, people in the North were enraged and believed that the “slave power” of the South extended not only to Congress, but to the Supreme Court.


John Brown’s Raid (1859)

John Brown was an antislavery fanatic who believed that only violence could bring about the end of slavery in America. With a band of 20 men, he attacked a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, hoping to incite a slave uprising. Seven innocent men were killed and about a dozen injured. Brown was captured and hanged. Some considered him a madman, while others believed he was a martyr for the antislavery cause. But, clearly, the era of peaceful compromise was coming to a close.


The Election of Abraham Lincoln (1860)

Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer, gained national prominence in 1858 in a series of debates with Senator Stephen Douglas. In 1860, he ran for president on the newly formed Republican Party ticket. The Republican Party was dedicated to halting the spread of slavery, but did not directly call for the abolition of slavery. Still, Southerners believed Lincoln wanted to free the slaves (not true). In a bitterly contest four-way race (which included competing Democratic candidates), Lincoln won the presidency in November, 1860.


Secession of South Carolina and Other Southern States (1860-1861)

Lincoln was careful to state — again and again — that he had no intent to disturb slavery where it already existed. But people in the South viewed him as an abolitionist intent on destroying their way of life. Before he was even inaugurated, South Carolina seceded (withdrew) from the union, claiming it was no long a state of the United States. Lincoln maintained secession was impossible under the Constitution. The union, he stated, was perpetual. States could not “come and go” as they pleased, but at first he took no direct action. Other Southern states soon followed South Carolina’s lead, 11 states created their own country, the Confederate States of America. When Confederate troops opened fire on a U.S. fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, the Civil War — so long in the making — had begun.


President Lincoln’s Difficult Task

Lincoln could not make the war about slavery; Lincoln cast the struggle as one for the preservation of the Union. Many Northerners would not fight for the cause of freeing people they believed to be inferior. It was also critical that Lincoln keep four “border states” (that had slavery) in the Union: Delaware; Kentucky; Missouri, Maryland (which surrounded the national capital, Washington). These four states had a white population that was more than half of that of the 11 seceded states, and also had important industrial facilities. Keeping slaves states in the Union would also show that Lincoln was serious about making the fight about unity, not the abolition of slavery. As Lincoln noted:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and

if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could

do it by freeing some slaves and leaving others alone, I would do that.

Immediately after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, he issued a call for 75,000 volunteers. So many people volunteered that many had to be turned away. Ultimately, the Union Army grew to 2.6 million men, while the Confederate Army’s strength never exceeded 1.2 million. Most of the men who fought (on both sides) were young — under 25. In addition, the war split families. Mary Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, had four brothers who fought for the Confederacy!

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Poor military leadership hampered the North for the first two years of the war. It was not until the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) that the South’s momentum was slowed. With the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as the general-in-chief, the North’s offensive operations caused the Confederacy to retreat and, finally, collapse in the spring of 1865.


Using Slavery as a War Weapon

Once the war began to go well for the Union, President Lincoln realized that abolition could be a potent weapon for morale and the cause of the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in early 1863, freed the slaves behind enemy lines, but not the slaves in the Union’s border states. Thus, it had more symbolic effect than actual effect.

About 10% of the Union Army’s troops were free black men. There were 40,000 black soldiers who died over the four years of war.


The Terrible Cost of War

Over the long four years of war, 1861-1865, both sides suffered terribly. Men who were injured often died in filthy hospitals or were hopelessly crippled. For the average soldier in the field, there was poor food, poor supplies, and endless hardship. The South, without banking resources, began to issue paper money and experienced terrible inflation. In the North, the economy boomed, but most industrial and agricultural output went to supplying the Union Army. Finally, in early April, 1865, the South surrendered. One week later, President Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer.

The war cost the Union over $3 billion (about $45 billion in today’s dollars!), and over $1 billion ($15 billion in modern money) for the Confederacy. All told, about 600,000 soldiers died; 204,000 were killed in battle. The rest — almost 400,000 — died of diseases and infections.


Freeing the Slaves

In 1865, while Lincoln was still president, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Congress and sent to the states for ratification (approval). By the end of 1865 (Lincoln was dead by then), the amendment was enacted into law, and the 4 million slaves were free. But freedom did not result in improved economic and social circumstances for the newly-emancipated black men, women, and children. Their struggles continued.


Reconstruction (1865-1877) — a Failed Experiment

Even before the war ended, President Lincoln had been thinking about how to reintegrate the seceded states into the Union.  He proposed leniency for Confederate officials and soldiers. After his assassination, the new president, Andrew Johnson (a pro-Union politician from Tennessee) continued this policy. However, the Republicans in Congress believed that the South should be treated as a conquered territory. It placed the 11 states of the former Confederacy under military rule and attempted to ensure the rights of newly freed blacks.

The Southern states pushed back, enacting Black Codes that restricted the rights and privileges of black men and women. These were often called “Jim Crow” laws. Southern states also elected many former Confederate officials to their state legislatures.

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed. It guaranteed “equal protection” under the law, but it was poorly enforced and meant little to the African-Americans were suffering under racism and discrimination. Most worked at what they had always done — raising crops and cotton — often on the farms and plantations of their former masters. The federal government had little appetite for protecting the rights of blacks in the South. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right of African-American men to vote, but the Southern states found ways (such as literacy tests and poll taxes) to prevent them from voting.

Feeble attempts at giving African-Americans schooling and vocational opportunities failed, and in 1877, the federal troops were withdrawn from the South. It would take another century — and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement — to secure the protections afforded by the Constitution.


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