Storming Fort Wagner
Robert Gould Shaw
Artist: Kurz & Allison Lithography Company
Chromolithograph on paper
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
By the 1850s, slavery had become a moral and political issue that divided the nation. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, South Carolina, followed by ten other Southern states, seceded from the Union in protest of having to free enslaved people. Initially, he used his presidential power in an effort to avoid a crisis, but war proved to be inevitable. As the Civil War advanced beyond anyone’s expectations, Lincoln, who viewed the war as a means of preserving the Union, realized that the unity of the country hinged on freeing slaves and granting civil rights to all citizens.
In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 1863, he argued for another revolution, one that would bring forth a “new birth of freedom” to restore the Union and reestablish American democracy. But because he was assassinated in April 1865, he could not guide the process of national reconciliation known as Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, failed to integrate the four million freed African Americans into society or to structure society in a way that would ensure their civil rights.