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UWBTS — Chapter 31:


Chapter 31 — The Cost of the War to the Northern States – They Also Lost Their State Rights

By Steve Litteral of Illinois, S.I.S.H.



For those of you who already know a bit about “State Rights” and what is called the “Lost Cause,” you might find it strange that we are presenting the “Loss of State Rights” as a loss suffered by the North.  Why would the victorious Northern States damage themselves by loss of the State Rights that they had always enjoyed?   Very good question.  Keep that in mind as you read this chapter.  In the long run, the loss of State Rights was equally destructive to the North as to the South.  After the war and 10 years of Republican Political Reconstruction in the conquered states, and although the Democratic Party had once again become active, the people in every state found that they had lost the self-government that State Rights had afforded their grandfathers.  It’s as if the people in the North killed the big bad bear and then shot themselves in the foot.  Here is the relevant history in the words of Steve Litteral.

Loss of Citizens’ Rights on the Home Front

Before 1861, the Northern States had a long history of demonstrating to the Federal Government that they had the power to govern their own people.  For example, the Hartford Convention was held in 1814 over concerns about the War of 1812 and encroachment of Federal power into the states. Delegates from five New England states attended the convention and discussed everything from secession from the Union to negotiating a separate peace with Britain.  Only Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans and the end of the war let the steam out of the New England secession movement.

During the prewar period, many, perhaps most, of the citizens of the Northern states accepted the right of a state to withdraw from the Union.  This was not controversial before the war.  (Illinois’s state motto was “State Rights and Union.”)  At the start of the war, Republican editor Horace Greeley said that if Southern states wanted to leave the Union they should be allowed to go in peace.  But when Lincoln claimed that secession was “rebellion,” he assumed the right to imprison anyone who criticized his actions as guilty of being “disloyal” and treasonable.   Eventually, thousands of people across the Northern states were imprisoned and hundreds of newspapers were forced out of business. Many newspapers were shut down, sometimes violently, by Union soldiers and Republican mobs across the Union for criticizing the Lincoln administration. Anti-Lincoln publications were also denied the use of the mails and telegraph.

In March 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act which allowed the Federal government to arrest any U.S. citizen at the discretion of any army officer. Often arrests were for minor infractions: like criticizing Lincoln or the Republicans, whistling “Dixie,” questioning the legality of the draft, or even, if you were a clergyman, refusing to pray for Lincoln.  Often people were seized on the basis of anonymous accusations.   Threats were made to arrest Chief Justice Taney of the Supreme Court and ex-President Pierce, though these were not carried out.  In reality, Lincoln had been doing this since 1861, but the Republicans passed the 1863 law to make it seem as if it was legal, because the Supreme Court and many State courts had ruled Lincoln’s earlier action illegal.  (Habeas corpus could constitutionally be suspended by Congress, not by the President.)  For the first time the U.S. government was creating “political prisoners.”  Consider the experience of these victims.  Soldiers knock down your door in the middle of the night and carry you away to a place in another State of which your family is not informed.  You have no right to counsel, to confront accusers, or even to know what specific law you have violated.  You will remain in a military prison until you take a forced “loyalty oath.”  Or you might be tried and punished by a court of army officers.  This in the Northern States where the regular courts were open and no war was going on.  Many thoughtful people realized that Northerners were being made victims of the government as well as the “rebels.”  These measures against civilians were even more harshly and comprehensively carried out in the Border States and occupied areas of the Confederacy than in the North.

Two Democratic governors replaced the Republican governors of 1861: Horatio Seymour in New York and Joel Parker in New Jersey.  They attempted to challenge the legality of the Federal conscription laws and practices in the courts but were ignored.  American citizens have ever since had no constitutional protection from military conscription at the order of the Federal Government.  

Lincoln’s harsh tactics did not sit well in his home state of Illinois.  The unrest resulted in political victories by Democrats over the Republican Party.  Democrats controlled the 1863 legislature in Illinois (13 to 12 in the Senate and 54 to 32 in the House of Representatives).  There were many reasons why the Democrats were elected in Illinois – war weariness, army persecution of civilians, feeling that the Emancipation Proclamation had changed the purpose of the war from restoring the Union to overturning Southern society.   Richard Yates, Governor of Illinois, was a staunch Republican.  He was not interested in sharing power with the newly-elected Democrats.  In an unprecedented act, Yates dissolved the two houses of the legislature on a technicality, disregarding the vote of the people and becoming a virtual dictator.  The Republican governor of next-door Indiana acted even more arbitrarily and more brutally to critics.  Lincoln had already set a dangerous precedent at the national level, and he became an example for governors to emulate at the state level.  Citizens of the North were learning that their war on the Southern states had led to disregarding of the Constitution and robbing them of their basic freedoms on the home front.

Suppression of Labor

While Union soldiers were still conducting military occupation of the South after the war, many of the soldiers who returned home found out that labor conditions and public ethics had changed dramatically.  Corruption stretched from the workplace to the White House (particularly during the Grant presidency, the most corrupt in U.S. history).  There was a period of good wages during the war, but after the war and disbanding of the huge Union army, workers found themselves at a great disadvantage.  Factory workers often endured horrible and dangerous conditions with long hours and low wages.  Family living conditions in the vastly expanded cities were atrocious.  By 1870, overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions for factory workers in New York caused the infant mortality rate to be 65% higher than it had been in 1810.  Northern miners and steel workers were working in very dangerous conditions as well.  Hundreds were killed in work place accidents every year. The men who had returned from the war found that a restored Union meant the rule of ruthless Republican industrialists, bankers, and crooked stock speculators.  

A National Labor Union was formed in 1866 to fight for goals such as an eight-hour work day.  In 1867 there was a general strike in Chicago to help enforce the new eight-hour workday law in Illinois.  This strike ended peacefully, but many others ended in violence.  In July 1877, Chicago workers supported a national railroad strike.  At one point over 10,000 men, women, and children filled the streets in support of the strike.  Soldiers and police were called out to disperse the workers.  By the end of the day, 30 workers were killed and over 200 were wounded.  The same government that forced people back into the Union at bayonet point was now suppressing labour organisations with bloody violence.  Republican money men had fought the war against the South to guarantee their control and profits.  They were not about to give up their advantages. 

Immigration was used by the Federal Government to keep enlistment numbers high during the war.  This same strategy was used by Northern industrialists to keep wages low after the war.  Waves of European immigrants came to the United States during the 19th Century, and many of them ended up in the urban areas of the North as cheap factory labor.  A Contract Labor Law passed during Lincoln’s presidency meant that companies could bring gangs of European immigrants to the U.S., paying their way in exchange for a contract to work for so many years.  Often this practice was abused by the companies by withholding wages from the immigrants, who were also used as strike breakers and to create division within working class communities.  A good example: in Lowell, Massachusetts, the mill owners would bring in a new wave of immigrant workers about every 10 years to keep the unions out of the factories and the wages low.  This was all done with the blessing of the Federal Government.  The same war profiteers who earned a lot of money off of the war were now turning their backs on the returning veterans.  The Union veterans had returned home to a country they did not recognize.  Political Reconstruction was not only happening in the Southern states, but the federal and state governments were being run for the benefit of Republican corporations.  Legislators were bought and paid for by corporations on a large scale.  The North as well as the South was irrevocably changed by “saving the Union.”

Other Changes

The same U.S. army officers who had burned Southern cities to the ground and were breaking strikes now unleashed their tactics against the Indians of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains like the Apache and Sioux.  For the first time in the long history of pioneer/Indian wars, the Federal Government pursued a policy of deliberate genocidal ruthlessness.  And much of the Indian resistance was caused by the corruption of Republican Indian agents and contractors who cheated the Native Americans of what they had been promised.  Native Americans who did not comply with Federal orders were labeled as ‘rebellious,’ just like Confederates.  This gave the military free range to kill anyone who was not submissive to Federal power.  If we want to find out why the military was so ruthless at this time, all we need to do is look at the leadership. William T. Sherman was Commanding General of the Army from 1869 to 1883.  During that time he was in charge of the Indian Wars that were fought in the west.  All of his generals were Union war veterans.  Sherman was a ruthless commander who had no problem destroying American cities in the South, and his methods found their way to conflicts against Native Americans.  It was Sherman who made the famous remark that the only good Indian was a dead one.  And when Republicans would take over the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, they would compare the natives to rebellious Southerners and institute the same ruthless tactics against them.

The Republicans kept the Northern public in line in several ways.  Their election campaigns “waved the bloody shirt,” reminding people that they had saved the country from Southern evils, real and imagined.  Pensions for Union soldiers and their dependents were a large item in the Federal budget for years.  A Homestead Law allowed families to acquire western land on fairly easy terms.  Much more and more valuable land was given away to railroad and mining corporations and none was available to African Americans, whose assigned role was to stay in the South and vote Republican.  Among the consequences of the Homestead Act were over-production and falling prices, and over-cultivation of areas of insufficient rainfall that led to the terrible “Dust Bowl” of the 20th century.   High tariffs were said to protect the jobs and wages of American workers, although this was questionable.


Although the war was mainly fought on Southern soil, the conflict forced radical changes on those living in the Northern states as well.  Northern victory was a defeat for individual and State Rights throughout the country. It is a harsh reality, but America’s founding documents have been dead letters since 1861.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Imagine the kind of individual freedoms that people had in the United States before 1861.  Do you think citizens were more or less free at that time in history?  What would you think of the current American President if he halted the presses of your local newspaper because he disagreed with what they were writing?

Recommended Reading

  • North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848—1877, by Ludwell H. Johnson, pub. 1993.