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Civil War and Reconstruction: 1851-1877

This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history, and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development during the years of Civil War and Reconstruction, 1851 to 1877 (click on title for full story).

May 1, 1851

The growth of the nation westward brought many new states to the Union by 1850. For each new state added, two new senators and a varying number of representatives crowded into the Capitol building. In 1851 President Millard Filmore decided to enlarge the Capitol to accommodate the new members.

July 4, 1851

On the Fourth of July, 1851,  a festive crowd watched the dedication of the cornerstone for the Capitol's expansion. Secretary of State, and former senator, Daniel Webster delivered a two-hour speech and included his message in a time capsule sealed in the cornerstone: "Be it known that on this day the Union of the United States of America stands firm, . . .”

June 5, 1852

In June of 1852 veteran senator Rufus R. King of Alabama became the first sitting senator to be nominated for vice president, setting a precedent followed by many senators since that time. Running with presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, King team won the election, but deteriorating health kept him from fulfilling the duties of his office.

June 29, 1852

"I don't like Clay," proclaimed John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. "He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him!"  Henry Clay, the Senate's controversial "Great Compromiser," died of tuberculosis on June 29, 1852, and became the first person to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

May 30, 1854

In 1854 Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois presented a bill destined to be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in our national history. Ostensibly a bill “to organize the Territory of Nebraska,” an area covering the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, contemporaries called it “the Nebraska bill.” Today, we know it as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

May 19, 1856

On May 19, 1856, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, the crusading antislavery Republican, rose to speak on the Senate floor. He intended to address the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state.

May 22, 1856

As Charles Sumner sat franking mail at his desk on a warm May day in 1856, it was an unusually quiet moment for the senator from Massachusetts.  Just three days earlier the abolitionist Sumner had released all his oratorical fire to condemn pro-slavery senators in his infamous "Crime Against Kansas" speech.  In retaliation, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Sumner as he sat at his desk.

November 1857

During the first half of the 19th century the Senate Chamber became not only the workplace of the U.S. Senate, but the focus of Washington society and setting for many theatrical productions.

November 2, 1858

Almost by spontaneous combustion, the Republican Party burst forth in 1854 in response to the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. Beginning at the local level, a coalition of former Whigs and northern Democrats organized under a new party label—Republican—and called for the immediate repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It took several years and a series of dramatic events to fuel the movement toward electoral success, but after the 1858 midterm election, Republicans took control of the House and swept northern gubernatorial races. This set the stage for 1860, when Republicans took control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency.

January 4, 1859

The Old Senate Chamber (1810-1859) hosted events both trivial and monumental during the period known as the Senate's "golden age."  By the 1850s, however, the elegant but small chamber could no longer hold the growing body of senators, nor could the small visitors' gallery accommodate the large crowd of spectators. The Senate needed a new, larger chamber, complete with modern amenities.

September 13, 1859

Early in the morning of September 13, 1859, on the shores of Lake Merced just south of San Francisco, Senator David Broderick of California became the only sitting senator to die in a duel.  The victor: California's Chief Justice David Terry.

June 25, 1860

In June 1860, the Senate freed a man whom it had previously sent to the District of Columbia jail. Nearly four months earlier, the Senate sergeant at arms had arrested Thaddeus Hyatt, who failed to answer a summons to appear before a Senate investigating committee.

December 18, 1860

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November of 1860, Southern senators began leaving the Senate to attend secession conventions, while Northern senators called for military preparedness. The nation faced its greatest crisis. Was a peaceful solution to this crisis still possible? Could Congress take action to avert civil war? One Kentucky senator proposed just such a plan.

January 21, 1861

In one of the most dramatic moments in Senate history, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi delivered his farewell address to the Senate on January 21, 1861, before leaving the Senate to become president of the Confderacy.

March 4, 1861

On March 4, 1861, Hannibal Hamlin, who had represented Maine in the United States Senate for 12 years, became vice president of the United States. With little to do as vice president, he enlisted as a private in the Maine state coast guard at the start of the Civil War, and later was promoted to corporal. When the Republicans chose Andrew Johnson as Lincoln's running mate in 1864, Hamlin rejoined the political ranks, and in 1869, he happily resumed his old seat in the Senate.

April 12, 1861

Traditionally, Fort Sumter has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War. In the Senate, however, the fall of Sumter was the latest in a series of events that culminated in war. Long before those fateful shots were fired, the Senate faced its own civil war. Yet, it managed to fulfill its constitutional duties during these months, confirming five cabinet secretaries and a Supreme Court justice, and passing important legislation, such as the 1861 tariff bill that provided badly needed revenue.

April 19, 1861

The fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln's subsequent call for troops brought thousands of Union soldiers to Washington, D.C. To accommodate the numbers, the U.S. Capitol became a barrack, and even the new Senate Chamber served as dormitory, mess hall, and medical office.

April 19, 1861

When President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, the first group of soldiers to arrive was the 6th Massachusetts Regiment. Attacked by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore, they arrived at the Capitol bloodied and bruised and were housed in the Senate Chamber. Among those aiding the soldiers was a young government clerk named Clara Barton. Thus began a career that culminated in the creation of the American Red Cross in 1881. This is a familiar tale, no doubt, but less known is the essential role played in this story by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.

June 3, 1861

On June 3, 1861, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas died in a Chicago hotel room after an exhausting effort to rally public support for the Union. Known as the "Little Giant," Douglas fought for passage of the Compromise of 1850 to preserve the Union and avoid civil war. He then undid his own handiwork by promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act to enable westward expansion in the young nation.

July 4, 1861

This emergency first session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress lasted only five weeks, but circumstances of the day made it an extraordinary session. Under the threat of Confederate forces, Congress enacted sixty-seven major public laws, making this one of the most productive legislative sessions.

July 11, 1861

Nebraska’s George Norris,  the man many consider history’s “greatest United States senator,” was born on July 11, 1861. He served in the Senate for 30 years, from 1913 until 1943. In his 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote of Norris, “Nothing could sway [George Norris] from what he thought was right, from his determination to help all the people, from his hope to save them from the twin tragedies of poverty and war.”

July 11, 1861

When the South seceeded from the Union in 1861, the Senate faced a difficult dilemma.  What to do with senators representing those southern states?

July 21, 1861

On July 21, 1861, United States senators and other spectators gathered near Centreville, Virginia, to witness the first land battle of the Civil War--the Battle of Bull Run. Northerners expected an easy Union victory that day, but they soon learned that war was unpredictable. The "picnic battle," as it became known, resulted in a major Union defeat.

October 21, 1861

Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, veteran of the Mexican war, well-known lawyer and orator, and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln, answered his country's call to battle in 1861. Leaving the Senate Chamber behind, Baker led his troops into the Battle of Ball's Bluff and became the Senate's first and only sitting member to die in battle.

February 5, 1862

In February of 1862 the Senate expelled Jesse Bright of Indiana, a shrewd and hot-tempered politician whose mastery of Senate rules and procedures earned him the position of president pro tempore on several occasions. Although the Senate has considered other expulsion cases through the years, Bright still holds the distinction of being the last senator expelled.

February 18, 1862

On February 18, 1862, the Confederate Congress convened for the first time at the Virginia state capitol in Richmond. On its first day of operation, the Confederate Senate counted 20 of its 26 members present and elected a president pro tempore.  Because the Confederate Senate held many of its sessions in secret, did not use official reporters of debates to record public proceedings, and lost extensive records to the chaos of war, today we know very little about its operations.

February 22, 1862

It is a Senate tradition dating back to 1862.  On February 22 of that year, to boost morale during the bloody days of civil war, members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the president's cabinet gathered in the Senate Chamber to hear Secretary of the Senate John Forney read Washington's Farewell Address.  Eventually becoming a yearly event, Washington's famous farewell has been read in the Senate every year since 1893.

December 2, 1863

At noon on December 2, 1863, a solemn ceremony marked completion of the dome and the placement of the Statue of Freedom. “I shall always identify Washington with that huge...towering bulge of pure white,” exclaimed Walt Whitman, that “vast eggshell, built of iron and glass...a beauty and [a] genuine success.” Completed against all odds during an era of tragic and violent disunion, the Capitol dome became a lasting symbol of a nation both strong and unified.

January 29, 1864

Senator James A. Bayard of Delaware objected to Congress' new oath of office, the infamous "Ironclad Test Oath" written during the Civil War to weed out traitors.  Bayard argued that the new oath was unconstitutional and interfered with the president's pardoning power.  When the oath became mandatory in 1864, Bayard dutifully swore the oath and then resigned from the Senate.

April 8, 1864

The 2012 film Lincoln told the story of President Abraham Lincoln and the final month of debate over the Thirteenth Amendment, leading to its passage by the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. What the film did not portray, however, was the Senate’s part of that story.

March 4, 1865

The second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln began with the traditional swearing in of the vice president in the Senate Chamber. After delivering brief farewell remarks, outgoing vice president Hannibal Hamlin yielded to his successor, Andrew Johnson. As Johnson stood to address the Senate, it was immediately apparent that the man was seriously intoxicated.

March 9, 1865

South Carolina holds a significant Senate record.  For thirty-six years, from 1966 to 2003, it sent the same two senators to Washington: Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings. Virginia, by contrast, holds a uniquely different record.  In eight years of the Civil War-era, between 1861 and 1869, it sent nine senators.  This number appears even larger considering that Virginia had no senators for four of those eight years.


The Vatican fresco artist Constantino Brumidi came to the United States from Italy in 1852 looking for work. Brumidi had the good fortune of arriving in Washington just as the superintendent of the project to construct new wings for the Capitol was looking for skilled artists. From the mid 1850s until his death twenty-five years later, he earned the title "Michelangelo of the Capitol."

March 28, 1866

The March 1866 death of the Senate's senior member, 64-year-old Solomon Foot of Vermont, inspired revealing tributes by his colleagues. Regrattably, we know little of this esteemed senator today. He seldom spoke in the Senate, and, most unfortunately, he ordered his survivors to burn his papers.

March 6, 1867

The Senate established its Committee on Appropriations in 1867, half a century after creating its other permanent "standing" committees.  Quickly, the committee became a Senate powerhouse, and its members the envy of other senators.

April 8, 1867

It’s been called “Seward’s Folly,” but it could just as well be known as “Sumner’s Project.” As history books tell the story, in 1867 Secretary of State William Seward secretly negotiated with Russian officials to purchase the Alaskan territory for $7.2 million, putting Alaska on the road toward statehood in 1959. That is just part of the story. That treaty had to be approved by the Senate. To clear that hurdle, the Secretary of State needed the support of the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner.

November 1867

In 1867, Senator William Stewart of Nevada hired the brother of a Nevada official as his personal secretary. In those days, senators had no Capitol Hill offices and they paid staff from personal funds. The new staffer, a down-on-his-luck character known as Mark Twain, needed a salary and a place to finish writing his first book. Twain moved into Stewart’s downtown boardinghouse. As he struggled to finish Innocents Abroad, he also answered constituent correspondence.

February 8, 1868

In 1868 a Senate employee named Kate Brown was seriously injured when she was denied a seat in a railroad car and ejected onto the platform—because she was African American. When her story gained the attention of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, a Senate committee investigated the incident and reported in her favor. Brown then sued the railway. When the District of Columbia Court ruled in her favor, the railway appealed. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

May 16, 1868

On May 16, 1868, seven Republican senators defied their party leaders and voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson, saving him from conviction by a single vote. Their action possibly saved the institution of the presidency, but left unresolved key issues that prompted impeachment, particularly the role of the Senate in removing presidential appointments.

March 4, 1869

In his day, Republican Schuyler Colfax was widely considered a cunning and duplicitous vice president. Today, he is virtually unknown.

September 8, 1869

Largely forgotten today, Senator William Pitt Fessenden played a key role in the Senate during the tumultuous years of Civil War and Reconstruction.  Less controversial than contemporaries such as Charles Sumner, Fessenden's quiet but efficient management of the Senate Finance Committee, and later the Committee on Appropriations, helped fund the war and devise a workable system of Reconstruction.

December 9, 1869

The matter of Senate Chamber floor access for non-members has provoked controversy for as long as there has been a Senate Chamber. On December 9, 1869, when most senators had no other office space but their desk in the Chamber, the Senate adopted a rule directing its sergeant at arms to clear the floor of visitors minutes before going into session. The problem of floor congestion persisted until all members finally got their own personal offices with the opening of the Russell Building nearly a century ago in March 1909.

February 7, 1870

In 1870, a New York Times reporter looked down from the Senate press gallery to offer his readers word-portraits of several dozen notable senators. Eight of those senators included Charles Sumner, Matthew Carpenter, Lyman Trumbull, Carl Schurz, William Stewart, Roscoe Conkling, Edmund Ross, and Garrett Davis.

February 25, 1870

An educator and minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American senator on February 25, 1870.

January 17, 1871

In January 1871, Delaware’s Democratic Senator Willard Saulsbury notified his state’s legislature that he wished that body to reelect him to the office he had held for two terms.  He expected no serious opposition from that small and solidly Democratic body in gaining the 16-vote-majority necessary for election.  Yet, to his frustration, two other candidates emerged.  Not only were these contenders from his own party, they were also from his own family—his two elder brothers.

January 22, 1873

Since the days of the Continental Congress, members have enjoyed "franking privileges"—the ability to send mail by signature rather than postage.  The invention of rubber stamps, however, led to the abuse of franking privileges, leading Congress to temporarily suspend the practice in the 1870s.

March 11, 1874

Sixty-three year old Charles Sumner, champion of civil rights and racial equality, died on March 11, 1874, bringing to a close an illustrious Senate career that lasted more than two decades.

March 5, 1875

On March 5, 1875, newly elected Mississippi senator Blanche K. Bruce stood to take the oath of office as the Senate’s second African American member. Senate tradition dictates that a new senator be escorted to the presiding officer’s desk by the senior senator from his state, but Mississippi’s senior senator refused to provide that escort. Senator James Alcorn’s refusal to accompany Bruce to the well of the Senate is one of the “great insults” of Senate history, but what motivated that insult?

July 31, 1875

Controversy always swirled around Andrew Johnson.  In 1861 he was the only southern senator to remain loyal to the Union. Four years later, Vice President Johnson succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  In 1868, he became the first president to be impeached. In 1875, six years after leaving the White House, Johnson returned to Washington as a senator, taking his seat in the very chamber that witnessed his impeachment trial.

May 1876

An impeachment trial for a secretary of war occupied much of the Senate’s time during May 1876. At issue was the behavior of William Belknap, war secretary in the administration of President Ulysses Grant. Many questioned how he managed such a grand life style on his $8,000 government salary. By early 1876, answers began to surface.  A House of Representatives’ committee uncovered evidence supporting a pattern of corruption blatant even by the standards of the scandal-tarnished Grant administration.

January 29, 1877

On the third floor of the U.S. Capitol hangs Cornelia Fassett's dramatic painting, The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission. In brilliant color and rich detail, the artist captured the Electoral Commission's deliberations over the disputed presidential election of 1876.