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Civil War Timeline 1859-1861 from the Smithsonian

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October 16–18, 1859

John Brown, in an attempt to amass arms for a slave insurrection, attacks the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

December 2, 1859

Brown is hanged for murder and treason at Charles Town, Virginia.

November 6, 1860

Abraham Lincoln is elected President, with Hannibal Hamlin as his Vice President.

December 20, 1860

As a consequence of Lincoln’s election, a special convention of the South Carolina legislature votes to secede from the Union.

January 9, 1861

Star of the West, an unarmed merchant vessel secretly carrying federal troops and supplies to Fort Sumter, is fired upon by South Carolina artillery at the entrance to Charleston harbor.

January 9–February 1

Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas follow South Carolina’s lead and secede from the Union.

January 29

Kansas is admitted as a state with a constitution prohibiting slavery.


Delegates from six seceded states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a government and elect Jefferson Davis President of the Confederate States of America.

March 4

Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the sixteenth President of the United States.

April 12–13

Fort Sumter is bombarded and surrenders to South Carolina troops led by P. G. T. Beauregard.

April 15

Lincoln declares a state of insurrection and calls for 75,000 volunteers to enlist for three months of service.

April 17–May 20

Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina secede from the Union.

April 19

Lincoln orders a blockade of all Confederate ports.

April 20

Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns his commission in the United States Army.

May 24

Union troops cross the Potomac River from Washington and capture Alexandria, Virginia, and vicinity. Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth is killed by a local innkeeper and is the first officer to die in the war. He becomes a martyr for the North.

May 29

Richmond becomes the capital of the Confederacy.

July 21

Confederate forces win a victory at the First Battle of Manassas. Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson earns the nickname “Stonewall” for his tenacity in the battle.

November 1

George B. McClellan, thirty-four, replaces the aging Winfield Scott as general-in-chief of the Union armies.

November 8

The Union navy seizes Confederate commissioners to Great Britain and France— James A. Mason and John Slidell—from the British steamer Trent, inflaming tensions between the United States and Great Britain.


Julia Ward Howe, inspired after seeing a review of General McClellan's army in the Virginia countryside near Washington, composes the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It is published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862.

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