National Archives and Records Administration

American Originals Exhibit

Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

Dred Scott Decision
"Will nobody speak for me at Washington, even without hope of other reward than the blessings of a poor black man and his family?"
Attributed to Dred Scott
July 4, 1854

In 1846 a slave named Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in a St. Louis city court. The odds were in their favor. They had lived with their owner, an army surgeon, at Fort Snelling, then in the free Territory of Wisconsin. The Scotts' freedom could be established on the grounds that they were held in bondage for extended periods in a free territory and were then returned to a slave state. Courts had ruled this way in the past. However, what appeared to be a straightforward lawsuit between two private parties became an 11-year legal struggle that culminated in one of the most notorious decisions ever issued by the United States Supreme Court.

This record is from the Supreme Court Case file Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford. The National Archives holds more than 200,000 Supreme Court case files dating from 1792.

Judgment in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, March 6, 1857

Judgment Case Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, March 6, 1857

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John Brown and Harpers Ferry

"The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood."
John Brown
December 2, 1859

The destruction of slavery in the United States was the driving ambition of abolitionist John Brown. He came to believe that it would take bloodshed to root out the evil of slavery, and by the mid-1850s he dedicated himself to an all-out war for slave liberation. On October 16, 1859, he and his "army" of some 20 men seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). By the morning of October 18, marines under the command of Bvt. Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the building and captured Brown and the survivors of his party. The operation that Brown envisioned as the first blow in a war against slavery was over in 36 hours.

The fears inspired by the raid on Harpers Ferry exceeded and outlasted its actual threat. For thousands of southerners, it was evidence of a vast conspiracy of northern abolitionists whose object was to incite violence and destroy the southern way of life. John Brown's raid exacerbated a deepening sectional crisis between north and south and brought the nation one step closer to civil war. John Brown was hanged for treason on December 2, 1859.

The records shown here relating to John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry are from the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, the office charged with communicating the Secretary of War's orders, instructions, and regulations throughout the Army.

Robert E. Lee's demand for the surrender of John Brown and his party, October 18, 1859

Robert E. Lee's demand for the surrender of John Brown and his party, October 18, 1859

Telegram from the Superintendent of the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry to Secretary of War, October 19, 1859

Telegram from the Superintendent of Arsenal at Harper's Ferry to Secretary War, October 19, 1859

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Siege of Petersburg
"Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible."
President Abraham Lincoln to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
during the siege at Petersburg, Virginia
August 17, 1864

Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant earned the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant after his 1862 victory at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. For his proven military skills and for his bulldog determination to destroy the Confederate armies, President Lincoln picked Grant in March 1864 to be Lieutenant General of the U.S. ArmyŚcommander of all Union forces. In June of that year, Grant set out to capture Petersburg, Virginia, the hub of a railroad system that carried food and supplies to the Confederate capital city of Richmond and to Gen. Robert E. Lee's army. Although the Union's initial assaults failed to capture the city, they did sever some of these railroad lines. By July both Confederate and Union forces were dug in for a long, slow battle of attrition.

The Confederates' condition steadily deteriorated as Grant attempted to cut off their lifeline of supplies, while the Union forces enjoyed a constant stream of food, men, and armaments. The grim siege, which took place in a snakelike system of trenches, lasted nearly 10 months, ending just days before Lee surrendered his army to Grant. Among the official Civil War records preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration is a series of telegrams sent by President Lincoln to various parties during his Presidency.

Telegram from President Lincoln to Lieutenant General Grant, August 17, 1864

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Appomattox Court House

"There is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Gen. Robert E. Lee
April 9, 1865, shortly before he surrendered his army to
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

The Civil War was the greatest test of the American experiment. Profound, long-simmering differences between the northern and southern states erupted in 1861 into a bloody conflict that lasted 4 years and cost some 623,000 lives. At the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery, and at stake in the conflict was the survival of the United States as a single nation.

After 4 years of unimaginable bloodletting, the Confederate Armies surrendered to the national forces. In the end, the South could not secedeŚthe United States would not be fragmented but would remain a single nation bound by blood, more firmly than ever before.

The National Archives and Records Administration holds the largest collection of official Civil War records.

Parole of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and six of his staff officers, April 9, 1865

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The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
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Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
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American Originals 2

National Archives and Records Administration
Last updated: September 30, 1998