19th Century America

By Tim Lambert

Early 19th Century America

In 1803 American territory was greatly increased by the Louisiana Purchase. France claimed a vast amount of land in central North America around the Missouri River and the Arkansas River. In 1803 Napoleon agreed to sell the lot for $15 million. Buying the French land meant there was now no bar to the USA spreading across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Louisiana became the 18th state of the union in 1812.

The War of 1812

Meanwhile the Americans and British fought another war. This war came about partly because, after 1807, the British navy blockaded European ports during the war with Napoleon and they prevented American ships from delivering their cargoes. They also boarded American ships looking for deserters. Some of the men they arrested were not deserters at all. Finally, some Americans wished to invade Canadian territory. War was declared on 18 June 1812. The senators voted 19 to 13 for war.

However, not all Americans actively supported the war. Some were, at best, lukewarm in their support. This dissension weakened the American war effort. On the other hand, American sailors were all volunteers while many sailors in the British navy were forced to join by press gangs. Volunteers were, generally, better than pressed men, one reason why America did well in naval battles.

However, an American attempt to invade Canada failed. However, the American navy had more success. They won a victory on Lake Erie in September 1813. However, Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 allowing the British to send more forces to North America. In August 1814 a British expedition landed and captured Washington. They withdrew after a few weeks. A peace treaty was signed at the end of 1814. However, a major battle was fought after it was signed. The British were severely defeated at the Battle of New Orleans on 8 January 1815.

The Growth of America

In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore what is now the northwest United States. In 1805 they followed the Missouri River to its headwaters then crossed the Rocky Mountains and reached the Pacific. They returned in 1806.

By 1810 the population of the USA was over 7.2 million and it continued to grow rapidly. By 1820 it was over 9.6 million and by 1840 over 17 million. More and more states were added to the union. Indiana was admitted in 1816. Mississippi followed in 1817. Illinois became a state in 1818 and Alabama in 1819. Missouri became a state in 1821. It was followed by Arkansas in 1836 and Michigan in 1837.

The American economy also grew rapidly. In the south cotton expanded rapidly after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. It also grew because Britain was industrializing. There was a huge cotton industry in Britain in the early 19th century, which devoured cotton from America. In the North trade and commerce grew rapidly.

By 1860 more than 60% of the world’s cotton was grown in the USA. In the decades after the war of 1812, the Northern States began to industrialize. Coal mining and manufacturing industries boomed. In 1817 the New York legislature authorized a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The canal was completed in 1825 and it cut the cost of transporting freight. Furthermore, the first railroad was built in the USA was built in 1828.

After 1814 there was fighting between Seminole Indians from Florida and settlers from Georgia. The Seminoles also allowed runaway slaves to live among them, which annoyed the Americans. Eventually, in 1818 Andrew Jackson led a force into Florida (although it was Spanish territory). This was the first Seminole War. Spain ceded Florida to the USA in 1821. Florida became a US state in 1845.

Texas Joins the USA

In the 1820s the Mexican government welcomed Americans who wished to settle in its thinly populated territory of Texas. However in the American settlers soon quarreled with their Mexican masters and in 1835 they began a rebellion. On 1 March 1836 a convention met and on 2 March 1836 they signed a Texas Declaration of Independence. Meanwhile, a force of Mexicans under Santa Anna besieged about 189 men in the fortress at Alamo. All the defenders were eventually killed and the Alamo passed into legend. Apart from Americans Scots fought at the Alamo, so did Irishmen and Englishmen. There was also a Welshman and a Dane.

However, on 21 April 1836 Texan troops under Sam Houston routed the Mexican army under Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto. Texas became independent and Sam Houston became its first president. In 1845 the USA annexed Texas and it became the 28th US state. However, the Mexicans never accepted the independence of Texas and they were infuriated when the Americans annexed the territory. The US annexation of Texas led directly to war with Mexico.

The Mexican War

In 1845, fearing the Mexicans would invade Texas, President Polk sent troops under Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande. The Mexicans ambushed an American patrol north of the river. However, the Americans defeated the Mexicans at the battles of Palo Alto on 8 May 1846 and Resaca de la Palma on 9 May 1846. On 13 May 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico. On 21 September Taylor attacked Monterrey. An armistice was agreed and the Mexican troops withdrew. Santa Anna counterattacked on 22 February 1847 but he was defeated.

Then General Scott captured Veracruz on 28 March 1847. He then marched on Mexico City and captured it in mid-September 1847. The Mexican War was ended by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the USA.

The Pacific Coast of the USA

The population of California boomed when a gold rush occurred. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on 24 January 1848. In the fall of 1848 newspapers in the East published the news that gold could be found in California and a gold rush began. By early 1849 large numbers of men set out for California hoping to make their fortune. By 1852 the population of California reached 250,000. The huge wave of migrants created a huge demand for industrial products and the Californian economy prospered. California was admitted to the union as a state in 1850.

Meanwhile, in the 1840s and 1850s, many settlers traveled along the Oregon Trail. The trail was used by trappers from the early 19th century but the first wagon train traveled along it in 1842. It was followed by many others but railroads eventually made the trail obsolete. Oregon was admitted to the union as a state in 1859.

The Indian Wars

As the USA expanded westward there were many wars with the Indians. In 1790 Chief Little Turtle of the Miami defeated an American force under Josiah Harmar. The next year the Americans were defeated again. However in 1794 American troops decisively defeated the natives at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. By the treaty of Greenville, in 1795, the natives were forced to cede most of Ohio to the Americans.

During the war of 1812 some natives sided with the British. The Creeks won a battle against the Americans at Fort Sims in 1812. However, troops led by Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in 1814. The Treaty of Fort Jackson forced the Creeks to cede more than half their land to the Americans. (It later became the state of Alabama).

Andrew Jackson later became President and in 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Bill which forced Indians east of the Mississippi River to move to Oklahoma. The Choctaws were forced to move. So were the Creeks and the Chickasaw. The Cherokees were forced to move in 1838-39. (So many of them died on the trail it was called the ‘Trail of Tears’).

However, one tribe, the Seminoles of Florida, resisted deportation. In the years 1835-1842, they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans. This was the Second Seminole War. However, in 1837 their leader, Osceola, was captured. Most of the Seminoles eventually surrendered and were forced to move to Oklahoma but several hundred escaped and fought another war in 1855-1858. This was the Third Seminole War.

In the 1850s the USA also fought wars with the natives of the Northwest. The natives were defeated in the Rogue River War of 1855-56 and the Yakima War of 1855-58. Afterward, they were forced onto reservations.

The USA in the mid-19th Century

The USA continued to grow rapidly and by 1860 its population was 31 million. New states were added. Iowa was added to the union in 1846. Wisconsin followed in 1848. Oregon was admitted in 1859 and Kansas was admitted in 1861.

However, the rapidly growing nation was torn apart by the issue of slavery. When the constitution was written in 1787 many people hoped that slavery would die out of its own accord. However, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery new importance in the southern states. In the northern states, slavery was gradually abolished and the USA became divided into ‘free states’ and ‘slave states’.

In 1803 the USA bought land from France. This was known as the Mississippi Purchase. In 1819 part of the territory asked to be admitted to the union as a state in which slavery was allowed. However, at that time the USA was evenly divided between free states and slave states. Another slave state would upset the balance. Furthermore, northerners feared that more slave states would be created in the future. Representative James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment, which would have ended slavery in Missouri. However, it did not become law.

A row occurred between Northerners who believed that Congress had the power to ban slavery in new states and Southerners who believed that new states had the right to allow slavery if they wished. Eventually, an agreement was reached. Missouri was admitted as a slave state but at the same time, part of Massachusetts became the state of Maine so the balance of slave and free was preserved.

In 1820 a line was drawn across the continent. States north of it were to be free, south of it they were to be slave-owning. However, the Missouri Compromise was only a temporary solution. Gaining new territory from Mexico created new tensions. In 1846 a man named David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which stated that slavery should not be allowed in any territory taken from Mexico. It was added as an amendment to bills but was never passed by Congress. Nevertheless, the Wilmot Proviso alienated the south.

The Compromise of 1850

Eventually, a compromise was reached. The Compromise of 1850 stated that the territories of New Mexico and Utah could decide for themselves whether they wished to allow slavery or not when they applied to become states. A fugitive slave law was also passed which said that slaves who ran away to the north should be returned to their masters.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 organized the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It also ended the Missouri Compromise. The compromise drew a line across the continent and banned slavery north of it. Although Kansas and Nebraska were north of the line the Act allowed them to choose whether to permit slavery or not when they applied to become states.

In Kansas supporters and opponents of slavery came to blows in a series of violent incidents called ‘Bleeding Kansas’. Feeling against slavery in the North was strengthened by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1852.

In the Dred-Scott case of 1857, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court decided that slaves were not and never could be US citizens. It also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The case enraged public opinion in the north.

The Civil War was not caused just by the question of slavery. North and South were also divided over tariffs. The northern states began to industrialize in the early 19th century. By the middle of the century, the North was becoming an industrial, urban society. Northerners wanted tariffs to protect their industries. However, the South remained an agricultural society. Its economy was based on plantations worked by slaves. Southerners objected to tariffs because they bought goods from the north or from Europe and tariffs made them more expensive. North and South were quite different economically and culturally.

The Outbreak of the Civil War

The Civil War was finally provoked by the election of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865 as president. Lincoln did not believe he had the power to abolish slavery in states where it already existed. However, he firmly opposed the expansion of slavery into territories of the USA, which were likely to become states in the future. His policy meant that in the future free states would outnumber slave ones. As a result of his election, South Carolina ceded from the union on 20 December 1860. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed it early in 1861. Together they formed the Confederate States of America on 4 February 1861. Jefferson Davis(1808-1889) became the President.

Fighting began on 12 April 1861. Fort Sumter was a Unionist stronghold under Major Robert Anderson. On 12 April Confederate General Beauregard ordered the Unionists to evacuate the fort. The Unionists rejected his terms and that day southern artillery bombarded the fort. Fort Sumter was forced to surrender the next day but the Unionist soldiers were allowed to retreat to the north. Afterward, both sides began arming for war. Following Fort Sumter, Arkansas ceded from the Union on 6 May 1861. It was followed by Tennessee and North Carolina.

However, the South was easily outmatched by the North. In the South, there were only 5 1/2 million whites and over 3 1/2 million slaves. The north outnumbered the south by 4 to 1 in men of military age. Furthermore, while the North had begun to industrialize the South remained an agricultural society. About 90% of the manufacturing industry was in the north of 2/3 of US railroads. Furthermore, the South suffered from disunity. Since they were firm believers in state’s rights the Confederate states could not form a firmly united federation. Despite these disadvantages, the South won some early victories.


In July 1861 General Beauregard was in charge of 22,000 Confederate troops at Manassas Junction by the Bull Run River. General McDowell marched south with over 30,000 Unionist soldiers. They attacked the Confederates on 21 July 1861. However, they were held in check by troops led by Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Eventually, the Unionists retreated.

However, in the west, the Unionists won a significant victory at Shiloh on 6-7 April 1862. On the first day, the Confederates had some success but they were unable to drive the Unionists off the field completely. Unionist reinforcements arrived that night and on 7 April the Confederates were forced to retreat with heavy losses. In Louisiana, Unionists occupied New Orleans on 1 May 1862.

In April 1862 the Army of the Potomac, led by General McClellan began the Peninsular Campaign. They captured Yorktown on 4 May 1862. By late May McClellan reached the outskirts of Richmond. However, in late June 1862, General Robert E. Lee attacked and fought a series of battles called ‘The Seven Days’. McClellan was forced to retreat.

In August 1862 the two armies clashed at a battle known as Second Bull Run or Second Manassas. It was a decisive southern victory and the northern army retreated. Lee invaded the north and the two armies fought at Antietam. Lee was forced to retreat into Virginia. However, the Unionists were severely defeated at Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862. Robert E. Lee won another brilliant victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863.

Lee invaded the north again in June 1863. The turning point of the war was at Gettysburg in July 1863. The two armies clashed on 1-3 July. At first, the Confederates had some success. Eventually, however, they were forced to retreat with heavy losses. The South also suffered defeat at Vicksburg on the Mississippi. General Grant laid siege to the town and captured it on 4 July 1863. From the middle of 1863, the South’s fortunes gradually waned. In November the South suffered another defeat at Chattanooga. In May 1864 both sides suffered heavy losses at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. The Unionists were unable to capture Petersburg or Richmond for many months.

Meanwhile, after Chattanooga, General Sherman began to advance through Georgia towards the sea. His army entered Atlanta on 3 September 1864. On 21 December 1861 Sherman’s troops captured Savannah on the coast. The Confederacy was cut in half. Then, in February 1865, Sherman headed north into South Carolina. He reached Columbia on 17 February 1865. Then he pressed on into North Carolina.

Further north Robert E. Lee faced increasing pressure from Grant’s forces in Virginia. On 2 April 1864, the Confederates abandoned Petersburg and Richmond. Finally, on 9 April 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. That was effectively the end of the civil war. The rest of the Confederate forces surrendered soon afterward. Johnston surrendered to Sherman on 18 April and the last Confederate army surrendered on 26 May 1865. However Lincoln did not live to see the end of the war. John Wilkes Booth shot him on 14 April 1865. Lincoln was watching a play in Ford’s Theater when Booth shot him in the head. The president died the next day. Andrew Johnson took his place.

At first, Lincoln was reluctant to abolish slavery in the South. However, he eventually changed his mind. On 23 September 1862, he made the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves would be made free in any states still in rebellion on 1 January 1863. However, this only applied to areas occupied by the Unionist army after that date it did not apply to areas already under Unionist control. However, the proclamation was followed by the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. It was ratified by December 1865.

Reconstruction in the South

Johnson appointed provincial governors for the former Confederate states. In each of them, a constitutional convention was elected to draw up a new constitution. However although they were forced to accept the end of slavery southern governments drew up ‘black codes’ which restricted black people’s rights, such as depriving them of the right to vote or to sit on juries. Southern whites were completely unwilling to accept the former slaves as equals. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It stated that all people born in the USA were now citizens regardless of race, color, or previous condition (i.e. if they were former slaves). Johnson vetoed the act but Congress overrode his presidential veto.

Johnson’s refusal to take firm action against the South alienated Congress. They passed the first Reconstruction Act in 1867. (It was followed by other acts). The southern governments were removed from power and the former Confederate states were placed under military rule again. They were forced to allow black men the right to vote.

However, the southern states were gradually re-admitted to the union and allowed to send senators and representatives to Congress again.

In 1875 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. By it, all people regardless of race, color, or previous condition, were entitled to full and equal treatment in ‘inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters and other places of public amusement’. However, in 1883 the Supreme Court decided the Act was unconstitutional.

When Rutherford Hayes was inaugurated as President in 1877 he withdrew troops from the south. The former Confederate states were then left to go their own way without any interference from the North. In the South white people re-asserted their rule and black people were forced to become subservient. Between 1890 and 1908 black people were deprived of the right to vote in all the former Confederate states. Furthermore, in 1866-1867 the Ku Klux Klan was formed to terrorize black people. They played an important role in restoring white rule by scaring black people into not voting.

The Rise of the USA

In the late 19th century the population of the USA grew very rapidly. In 1860 the population was 31 million. By 1900 it was almost 76 million. Immigrants from Europe poured into the USA hoping for a better life. Many people were lured by the Homestead Act of 1862. Settlers were offered 160 acres of land free provided they agreed to till it for 5 years. (However Chinese immigration into the USA was ended by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).

American industry also boomed. In the late 19th century the USA was the fastest growing industrial nation in the world. By the end of the century, it had surpassed Britain in the production of iron and steel. The American railroad network also grew rapidly. In 1850 there were 9,000 miles of railways. By 1900 there were 190,000 miles. The first transcontinental railroad was built in 1869. Meanwhile, in 1859, Edwin Drake (1819-1899) struck oil in Pennsylvania. Soon there was a flourishing oil industry in Pennsylvania. The first oil pipeline was built in 1865.

An increasing number of Americans lived in cities. By 1900 almost 1/3 of them did. by then there were more than 40 cities with a population of over 100,000. (It wasn’t until 1920 that the majority of Americans lived in cities). Conditions in the industrial cities were often appalling. Many people lived in overcrowded slums.

Meanwhile, American agriculture continued to boom. It was helped by new technology. Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical reaper in 1834. John Deere (1804-1886) invented the steel plow in 1838. In 1854 the first successful self-governing windmill (that changed direction automatically to face the wind) was made. In 1874 barbed wire was patented.

The Plains Indians

Westward expansion inevitably meant wars with the Plains Indians. From the 1860s to the 1880s a series of wars were fought. Eventually, all the Indian Wars were won by the whites because of their superior technology. They also hunted the buffalo, the main food supply, almost to extinction. The plains tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux were all forced to move onto reservations.

Conditions on the reservations were appalling. Rations were inadequate and in some cases, there was near starvation. Then in 1888 a Paiute Indian called Wovoka claimed that soon North America would be restored to the Natives and the plains would run black with buffalo again. His followers did the ghost dance.

This new religious movement alarmed white men. It ended with a massacre at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890. Soldiers were sent to disarm a group of Indians but one man refused to surrender his gun. Somebody started shooting and the rest of the soldiers followed killing many Indians (possibly as many as 350). The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Indian Wars and the final triumph of the white man.

Meanwhile, in 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor which showed how unjustly the native people had been treated. However, in 1887 the Dawes Act was passed. It stated that tribal lands should be divided up into individual holdings. The intention was to undermine the tribal way of life and force the natives to adopt the white way of life.

Furthermore, after the land was divided a great deal was left over. It was declared ‘surplus’ and sold. As a result, the amount of land held by Indians declined drastically. The year 1890 was significant for another reason. By then the frontier had disappeared as settlers moved across the continent.

In the late 19th century several new states were added to the union. West Virginia was admitted in 1863. Nevada followed in 1864. Nebraska was admitted in 1867. It was followed by Colorado in 1876. In 1889 four new states were admitted to the union, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington. In 1890 Idaho and Wyoming were admitted. Utah followed in 1896.

The Spanish War

In 1898 the USA fought a war with Spain. In the 1890s Cuba rebelled against Spanish rule and the Spanish dealt with the rebels very harshly. That enraged American public opinion. On 15 February 1898 an American battleship, Maine, blew up in Havana Harbor, killing 260 men. It is not certain what caused the explosion but many people blamed the Spanish. On 25 April 1898, the USA went to war. On 1 May Spanish ships were destroyed in Manila Harbor. US soldiers landed in the Philippines and they captured Manila on 13 August.

Meanwhile, a Spanish fleet was destroyed outside Santiago on 3 July. US soldiers landed in Cuba and captured Santiago on 17 July. The last Spanish troops in Cuba surrendered on 26 July. An armistice was signed on 14 August. By a peace treaty, which was signed in Paris on 10 December 1898, Cuba became independent while the USA took the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

The Spanish War proved the USA was now a great power. By 1910 the USA had overtaken Britain as the richest and most powerful nation in the world. By then the population of the USA had reached 92 million.