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1860 Republicans bypass their party’s front-runner, Senator William Henry Seward, to nominate Abraham Lincoln for president. The Republican party takes a free-soil stance on slavery by opposing its expansion into the territories, while recognizing the institution’s legality in the South.

The Democratic party splits into two sectional factions over the issue of slavery in the territories. Southern Democrats want their party to endorse and Congress to enact a slave code for the territories, in order to protect the institution there. Northern Democrats oppose a federal slave code, preferring the territorial residents to decide the issue of slavery without federal interference (popular sovereignty). Northern Democrats nominate Senator Stephen Douglas for president, while Southern Democrats nominate Vice President John Breckinridge.

A fourth presidential candidate, John Bell, is nominated by the Constitutional Union party.

In the November presidential election, Republican Abraham Lincoln garners a plurality of the popular vote and a majority in the electoral college to win the presidency over his three rivals.

Dec. 1860 to

Feb. 1861

Seven states of the Deep South, those in which the slavery system is most entrenched, leave the Union to form the Confederate States of America. 

April 1861 Unarmed resupply ships approach Fort Sumter and are fired upon by South Carolina forces. President Lincoln calls for Union volunteers and the Civil War begins. Four more states, from the Upper South, leave the Union in April and May. 

May 1861 Union General Benjamin Butler refuses to comply with the Fugitive Slave Law, and labels the runaway slaves crossing Union lines as "contraband of war" (i.e., seized property). Congress has yet to enact a policy on the issue.

August 1861 Congress passes a law which declares that runaway or captured slaves can not be returned to their masters if they are used by their masters for military purposes.

September 1861

Lincoln overturns an emancipation order for Missouri issued by General John C. Frémont.

December 1861 Lincoln urges the border states (slaves states still in the Union) to voluntarily emancipate their slaves. 

March 1862 Lincoln proposes a formal plan of gradual, compensated emancipation. Congress passes a resolution in favor of his plan, but none of the border states accept it.

Congress prohibits, under threat of court-martial, the return of all slaves to their masters.

April 1862 Congress abolishes slavery in the District of Columbia, with financial compensation to former slaveowners.

June 1862 Congress bans slavery in the territories, without compensation to former slaveowners.

July 1862 Congress authorizes the president to enlist black military recruits, but Lincoln does not call for a general mobilization of blacks.

President Lincoln informs his cabinet that he plans to issue an emancipation proclamation. Secretary of State William Henry Seward convinces him to wait until after a major Union victory.

September 1862 Union forces repel Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at Antietam, Maryland. Lee retreats back to Virginia.

Following the desired Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announces the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If the Confederacy does not surrender by January 1, 1863, the president will free all the slaves in Confederate territory. If the Confederate states do surrender, then their slaves will not be freed.

January 1, 1863 The Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect. All the slaves in Confederate territory are declared free. The policy does not apply to the border states or to Southern territory held by the Union before January 1. Henceforth, as Union troops advance across the South, thousands of slaves are freed. The Emancipation Proclamation also reaffirms the president’s authority to enlist black servicemen, and initiates an effort to organize all-black regiments. Nearly 200,000 black men will serve as Union soldiers, sailors, or laborers.

March 1863 Congress passes the Enrollment Act, creating a military draft. (The Confederacy had resorted to a draft in April 1862.)

Summer 1863 In response to implementation of the military draft, bloody riots erupt in cities across the North. The worst occurs in New York City, where mobs demolish draft offices, lynch several blacks, and destroy large sections of the city.

July 3-5, 1863 Confederate General Lee’s second invasion of the North is checked by Union troops at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lee once again retreats to Virginia. Confederate forces surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg. The Union now controls the Mississippi River, geographically dividing the Confederacy. The dual victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg are considered a major turning point in the war.

June 1864 Congress repeals the Fugitive Slave Law.

November 1864 Lincoln wins reelection against the Democratic presidential nominee, Union General George B. McClellan.

January 1865 Congress passes the proposed 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery in the entire United States.

April 1865 Lincoln is assassinated, and Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeds to the presidency.

The Civil War ends with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.

December 1865 The requisite number of states ratify the 13th Amendment, and it becomes part of the Constitution.

Slavery Timeline Reconstruction Timeline

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