situation was startling and serious, and for the first time people
began to realize that we were to have a war with bloody fighting
and much suffering . . .
James G. Blaine recalling the
early months of the Civil War, 1884
When the 37th
Congress convened on July 4, 1861, the nation was in crisis. Since
the November 1860 elections, 11 Southern states seceded from the
Union to form the Confederate States of America. In April 1861,
Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, came under Confederate
fire and fell. All efforts at finding a way to reconcile the differences
between North and South were abandoned. For the next 4 years the
nation would experience a terrible civil war.
Now under Republican
control, Congress played an important role in deciding the outcome
of this struggle. It passed legislation increasing the Union Army
and Navy, and it enacted the nations first Federal income
tax. Later, Congress ended slavery in the District of Columbia and
created a Freedmens Bureau which assisted former slaves. It
also established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,
which influenced the course of Northern strategy and investigated
inefficiency and corruption.
war, Washington, DC, became a vast encampment. Troops were trained
on the Capitol grounds and were briefly quartered in the House and
Senate chambers. The Capitols basement became an Army bakery.
Most impressively, work on the unfinished Capitol dome continued
despite the cost. Its completion became a symbol of union, visible
even in the darkest days of war.