Congress and The Civil War

The 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 . . .”

Congressman 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 nation’s first Federal income tax. Later, Congress ended slavery in the District of Columbia and created a Freedmen’s 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.

During the 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 Capitol’s 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.