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Slavery Politics, the Civil War, and Its Aftermath


Iowa entered the Union as the 29th state during the most divisive period in United States history.  When the political system could no longer resolve the issues, it took four years of war and the deaths of 650,000 Americans to preserve the Union and end the practice of slavery.  The war, however, by no means solved issues of race that have plagued the nation from its earliest days.

Local issues growing out of the Iowa frontier required attention.  The first state constitution adopted at the time of statehood had a provision for amendment, but political leaders decided to start with a clean slate.  The legislature called a convention in 1857 to rewrite the state’s constitution. As western parts of the state began attracting settlement, the state capital was moved from Iowa City to Des Moines.  When rivers were a principal means of transportation, it was easier for many to reach Des Moines via the Des Moines River than to travel cross country to Iowa City. To compensate for the loss of the capital, Iowa City was designated as the permanent home of the state university.

The new document also removed prohibitions on banks imposed in the 1846 constitution but kept several restrictions on black citizens.  Iowa voters (all white males at the time) soundly defeated a referendum that would have granted black men the right to vote, 49,387 to 8,489.  Blacks were not allowed to serve in the militia or legislature or on juries. A proposal to allow black children to mix with whites in public schools was defeated.  Blacks, however, could hold property, be tried by juries, and testify in court cases. The finished constitution submitted to Iowa voters won narrow approval, 40,311 to 38,681.  

As the population grew, so did the need for expanded local government.  The state followed the pattern adopted by the Southern states in creating counties that were subdivided into townships.  County officers collected taxes, elected law enforcement officers, and supervised road maintenance and elections. Township officers oversaw local schools.  By the time Iowa entered the Union in 1846, the eastern half of the state was organized into 44 counties. By 1851, 52 new counties were added with three more later bringing the total to the 99 counties Iowa has today.  

Although Iowa was a free state, it could not escape the slavery issue.  Reflecting early settlement by small farmers from the Upper South and the Ohio River Valley, Iowans usually voted as Democrats in the early years of statehood.  The Whigs who favored a more active role for government in promoting business and internal improvements occasionally won an election, but Congressional and statewide offices were usually under control of the Democrats.  While a majority may have opposed the extension of slavery, few Iowans sided with the abolitionists who wanted to do away with slavery where it existed in the South.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ending the 30-year guarantee that the Great Plains west of Iowa would not become slave states.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had outlawed slavery north of a line from the southern border of Missouri to the Pacific, with the exception of Missouri itself.  The new law would permit popular sovereignty in the territories, allowing early settlers themselves to decide whether they would allow or forbid slavery. That meant that either Kansas or Nebraska on Iowa’s western border might become slave territories.

Spontaneous protests broke out all across the North.  In Iowa, opponents of the Act gathered in Crawfordsville in Washington County and planned action against the measure.  Some contend that the meeting was the birth of the Republican Party while others give that honor to Ripon, Wisconsin where delegates coined the term “Republican” for the opposition coalition.  The movement attracted members of the Whig Party, anti-slavery Democrats and others. In elections the fall of 1854, the anti-Nebraska coalition nominated James Grimes for governor who narrowly defeated the Democrats’ Curtis Bates.  The new party also gained a majority in the legislature. At that time, the state legislature elected U.S. senators, and the Republican majority replaced Democratic Senator Augustus Dodge in Washington. The Republican Party had emerged and grew in strength through the rest of the decade as the national Democratic Party became more and more pro-Southern in defense of slavery.

An auxiliary issue that emerged with Republican majorities was the passage of a statewide law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol.  Modeled on an earlier bill enacted in Maine, the 1855 legislation cemented the Republican Party as the champion of prohibition while the Democrats opposed the restriction on personal freedom and won the allegiance of many German and Irish voters.

In the meantime, the slavery issue in Kansas had led to bloodshed as pro- and anti-slavery settlers battled for control.  Missouri men crossed the border to vote in elections and referenda. A Southern militia attacked and pillaged an anti-slavery outpost in Lawrence.  Anti-slavery settlers gathered in Tabor in far southwestern Iowa with rifles and ammunition to respond to the challenge. The arms had come from an Iowa armory conveniently left unguarded by Governor Grimes.  The term “Bleeding Kansas” came to describe the emerging civil war.

National issues continued to inflame state politics.  In 1857, the pro-Southern U.S. Supreme Court declared in the Dred Scott case that slaves had no rights, were completely the property of their owners, and could be taken anywhere in the United States with no power of Congress to restrict it.  The South was jubilant while the North seethed. The Dred Scott ruling reversed the Iowa Supreme Court decision in the Ralph Case that declared a black person living in a state forbidding slavery would be free.

Meanwhile, a violent anti-slavery leader emerged in Kansas convinced that he had a divine call to challenge slavery.  John Brown made several trips through Iowa and gathered a force of 21 men at the Quaker community of Springdale. Six were Iowans, including Barclay and Edwin Coppoc. There he trained them for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, that he hoped would ignite a slave rebellion across the South.  In October, 1859, the attack proved a failure. Several men, including Brown and Edwin Coppoc, were captured and hanged. Barclay Coppoc escaped back to Iowa where the Iowa governor refused Virginia’s request to extradite him back to be executed. The South was terrified that the North was promoting slave rebellions.  Among some Northerners, John Brown became a hero.

Tensions were running high as the Presidential election of 1860 approached.  The Democratic Party split between its Northern wing, nominating Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and Southern wing running John C. Breckinridge.  The Republicans picked Abraham Lincoln as a compromise candidate between the Abolitionist and the more conservative wing of the party. Lincoln and the whole Republican slate carried the state.  The election starkly revealed the sectional divide in the country with Lincoln being elected without the support of any Southern state where his name was often not even listed on the ballot. In December, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by several other Southern states. Efforts to reunite the country failed.  With the bombardment of Ft. Sumter in the Charleston, SC, harbor in April, the Civil War was on.

President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion, and Iowa responded swiftly and enthusiastically.  Governor Samuel Kirkwood quickly signed up Iowa’s quota for their 90-day enlistments. The President, like almost everyone else, assumed the conflict would be short.  It wasn’t. Instead, it would drag on for four long and bloody years and chalk up 650,000 American deaths, the greatest carnage ever on the North American continent. By the end of the war in 1865, 76,534 Iowa men had served in the Union army. In relation to its population, Iowa paid a huge price. Of those who served, 13,169 died, more from disease than from combat.  An additional 8,500 were wounded.

While the nation’s attention was on the battlefields, there were several important Congressional actions not related to the fighting.  When Southern senators and representatives pulled out of Congress as their states seceded, the remaining officials form Northern states had the majorities to pass legislation that their Southern colleagues had long blocked.  

Four measures passed in 1862 deserve special mention for their impact on Iowa.  Congress finally approved a bill to construct a transcontinental railroad to link California with the eastern half of the nation.  Council Bluffs was designated as the eastern terminal, a tremendous boon to that Missouri River city. A second measure was the creation of a Department of Agriculture to conduct research and promote better farming methods.  A third bill, the Morrill Act, granted Federal lands to support one college in every state that would teach courses in agriculture and the mechanic arts and disseminate the information to the general public. Iowa designated Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Ames to be its land grant college.  Congress also passed the Homestead Act granting 160 acres free to any adult who would live on and develop it for five years. However, most of the good homesteading land in Iowa was already claimed by the time the act went into effect, and few Iowa acres passed into private hands as a result.

Iowa’s role in the military history of the war is too complex to cover here.  However, it is important to note that few Iowa soldiers or others in the North enlisted out of a desire to free the slaves.  Most believed that America was “a white mans’ country” and that whites were intellectually superior to blacks. Among whites there was little support for the social or political equality between the races.  Overwhelmingly, the goal of Iowa soldiers was to preserve the Union, a near-sacred belief in America’s role as a beacon of freedom for opposed people’s everywhere. However, as Iowa soldiers fighting in the South saw the reality of human slavery and as antipathy toward the rebels hardened, support for ending that “peculiar institution” gathered more and more support.   

Most Iowa regiments saw fighting in the Western theater under General Ulysses Grant and not in East Coast states where Gen. Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia and faced a string of Union generals.  Iowa soldiers were a large part of the Union force at Shiloh in southern Tennessee and later helped with the successful siege of Vicksburg, the last Confederate fort on the Mississippi River. They marched across the South with General Sherman taking Atlanta and then laying waste to Georgia and South Carolina to capture Charleston, where the war had started. General Grenville Dodge emerged as Iowa’s most celebrated war hero.  He won distinction for his ability to supervise the rapid construction of critical railroad lines and the development of an effective system of spies.   

Iowa women also played an important role in wartime.  With men gone, many women found themselves managing farms and other tasks.  Annie Wittenmyer organized the Iowa State Sanitary Commission that collected and distributed food to Union hospitals to improve the diets of wounded soldiers.  She successfully confronted both Union officers in the field who objected to having a woman giving orders on their bases and local politicians at home who wanted to take over the organization. She successfully countered these challengers and won high praise from General Grant himself.

After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, Iowa and other Northern states confronted the issue of free blacks.  Most stayed in the South, but those who began migrating North forced Iowans to reconsider the racial issue. The United States passed three amendments to the Constitution—Amendments 13, 14, and 15—that forbade slavery, required states to deal with all citizens (black and white) fairly, and granted blacks the right to vote. The 15th Amendment on black suffrage faced substantial opposition, but Republican leaders who wanted to give Southern blacks the vote to protect themselves (and support the Republican Party) saw the necessity to extend the right to Northern blacks as well.  

In Iowa, the word “white” was removed from the state constitution that originally limited the vote to “white, male citizens.”  A push by women’s suffrage groups to eliminate the word “male” at the same time was tabled by those who claimed that “this is the Negro’s hour.”  Nevertheless, it gave rise to renewed interest and efforts on behalf of women’s rights to the ballot. The Republican Party was clearly the dominant force in Iowa politics following the war.  For the rest of the century, Republican candidates “waved the bloody shirt” to link Democrats to the rebellion and the Southern cause.  

The war promoted improvements in agriculture and industry and generated financial capital to launch expanded economic growth.  For the next thirty years an expanding population blanketed the state with farms and small towns connected tightly by a web of rail lines.  Iowa was on the threshold of its emergence as an economic and political power.