Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States

Module code: HS2346 

Module co-ordinator: Dr James Campbell

Module Outline

The American Civil War (1861-65) is the defining event of U.S. history that brought about the abolition of slavery and entirely reconfigured how Americans understood themselves and their nation. The war was a product of wide-ranging forces and ideas, though slavery was at the heart of all aspects of the conflict. At the time of U.S. independence in 1776, many Americans believed that slavery’s future was bleak, and in the northern states it was mostly abolished by the early decades of the nineteenth century. In the newly settled lands of the Deep South, however, the expansion of cotton plantations led to huge demand for slaves and by 1860 more than 4 million African Americans were held in bondage. At the same time, free African Americans in the North were at the forefront of an emerging anti-slavery movement that from the 1830s became increasingly popular, radical and threatening to the interests of southern slaveholders. As the United States expanded westward, northerners and southerners clashed over whether slavery should be permitted in new territories, from Missouri across to California. Most northern whites were ambivalent about the complete abolition of slavery, but by the 1850s they were stridently opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond its traditional southern borders. For their part, southern slaveholders were equally convinced that slavery must be allowed to expand and they perceived the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as such a dangerous threat to their interests that they severed their political ties to the Union and established the Confederate States of Americas as a new and independent nation.

At first, the United States fought the civil war to maintain the Union, but over four years of brutal fighting, in which more than 600,000 Americans were killed and many millions more injured, the complete abolition of slavery emerged as an equally significant war aim. Secured by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln in 1863, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the states in 1865, abolition was the culmination of decades of slave resistance and anti-slavery activism, but in the war’s aftermath the limits of that struggle were laid bare in often brutal fashion. Determined to maintain a social order based on white supremacy, southern whites resisted and restricted black freedom at every turn. While Republicans in the US Congress struggled to agree and implement a programme of wide-ranging reforms to reconstruct the nation and advance black civil rights in the South, violence raged across the former slave states, new laws constrained African American citizenship, and pervasive electoral fraud saw former slaveholders returned to political office. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court proved hostile to the Republicans’ 'Reconstruction' legislation and both the northern public and politicians were increasingly disinterested in the fate of the former slaves. African Americans made important gains during this period, but by the late-1870s white dominance of the South had nonetheless been firmly re-established and patterns of racial oppression put in place that would shape the region for generations.

Topics covered

This module explores US history from the final years of slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction in the mid-nineteenth century.  It covers four main topics.  First, students will be introduced to the turbulent and still controversial national politics of the period, including debates over abolition, the secession of the southern slave states from the Union, and the constitutional changes of the 1860s and 1870s. Second, the module focuses on African American history, including topics such as slave resistance, the involvement of black troops in the Civil War, and the experiences of black citizens, families and communities in the aftermath of emancipation.  Third, it looks at the southern white response to the abolition of slavery, examining the violent reign of terror of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the return to power of white supremacists in the South during the 1870s. Finally, the module looks at the changing ways in which this controversial period in US history has been interpreted, remembered, and memorialised since the late-nineteenth century.


The module is taught through a combination of 30 hours of lectures and seminars. The lectures introduce key themes, topics and historiographical debates and the seminars provide an opportunity to explore the issues in greater depth. We also have several discussion classes which focus on diverse and engaging primary source materials, as well as occasional film screenings.


100% coursework: two essays (each of 2,500 words and each is worth 50% of the total module mark).


  • J Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, 2 volumes (New York, 1995 and 2008).
  • DW Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).
  • DB Davis, Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, 2006).
  • J Wells, A House Divided: the Civil War and Nineteenth Century America (Routledge, 2012).