Only the Interesting Parts of American History 1866-1875

Only the Interesting Parts of American History 1866-1875

This is the first in what will be a recurring series of American history examinations, ten years at a time. I am starting right after the civil war because I think American history before then is considerably more boring. Sue me. 




Civil Rights Act of 1866


    The outlawing of slavery through the emancipation proclamation in 1863 was a huge step towards securing equal rights for blacks, but there was still a long way to go as many other issues needed to be addressed. For one, there was no formal definition of citizenship and what it entailed, so the newly emancipated blacks were in a limbo. That is where the Civil Rights Act of 1866 came in. It was the first law to define citizenship, anyone born in the United States regardless of race or previous servitude was a citizen, and all citizens have the same rights (except for some important ones, like voting which was not addressed.) It was passed after president Andrew Johnson ( who was kind of a douchebag) tried to veto it twice.

    Though the act was great in theory, in practice, it did not actually aid blacks very much. Though anyone found in violation of the act was to be fined, punishments were rarely enforced. In addition, racists did everything that they could do to stop blacks from cashing in on their newly guaranteed equal rights and the passing of the law directly led to the founding of the Klu Klux Klan.


Klu Klux Klan founded

Newtons 3rd law states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” As applied to American History though, it could accurately be restated as “For every good and civil action, there is an equal and opposite action by racists and douchebags.”


    After the Confederacy lost the Civil War, many Confederate soldiers were suddenly left without purpose. The future looked glum for disgruntled southern veterans, and groups of them took to forming bands and aimlessly wandering around causing trouble. Lucky for them though, they found a new purpose when blacks began to secure civil rights, and many of them mobilized to form the Klu Klux Klan In 1886. If former confederates could not restore slavery, they were going to make damn sure that free life was no better for former black slaves. Former confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was chosen as the Grand Wizard, the leader of the Klan. The Hierarchical structure of the Klan also included Grand “Dragons,” “Giants” “Titans” and “Cyclopses.” I would have really liked to be in the room when these names were decided on.



Alaskan purchase:

In 1859, Russia put Alaska on the market. They were anticipating a forthcoming war with the United Kingdom, and feared that because Alaska was straight up on a different continent than the rest of the country, it would be pretty hard to defend. America at this point had a need for a miserably cold winter wasteland, so in 1867, they bought the land for the bargain price of 2 cents an acre.

Public reaction to the purchase was very mixed.

Contemporary arguments against the purchase:

  • The territory was no more than a “Polar bear garden”

  • It  was filled with Indians who we were having a lot of trouble governing and there were not enough American citizens to replace them in the land.

  • All the furry animals there were already almost hunted to extinction.

  • it  was very very far away from the rest of the country.

  • according to the principals of Manifest Destiny, we should just go out and     take it without having to pay for it.   

Contemporary arguments in favor of the purchase:

  • It  would help us be friends with Russia.

  • It would be good from an economic perspective.

  • Once Alaska was acquired, America would have an easier time acquiring the rest of British Columbia.

  • It  could serve as a base for trade ships traveling to Asia.

  • It had a lot of seals, and seal skins were very valuable.

Tenure of Office Act:


Right after the civil war, President Andrew Johnson really wanted to readmit the secessionist states like as soon as possible. The Republican-controlled-congress, however, wanted to take it a little slower. Their plan was to split the states up into five military districts that would slowly restructure into eventual states. During this time, their governments were supposed to ensure civil rights to the newly freed slaves and in general prove to the Union that they were indeed past the whole “let’s start our own country and start a war” thing. The congress went ahead and did what they wanted and Johnson had no legal recourse to stop them. He did, however, have a trick up his sleeve. Because the Military was going to essentially be in charge of these districts, he figured that he could simply go ahead and tell his secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to just not do anything. The problem though was that Stanton was actually a republican and was on the congress's side. At this point, Johnson told everyone that to get around this problem, he was going to remove Stanton from this position and replace him with someone more in line with his goals. With the ball back in congress's court, they decided to to pass an act, the “Tenure of Office Act,” which made it so that an official could only be formally removed from their position while the congress was in session, at which point they would vote to reverse the decision. Johnson though, wasn't really one for following laws, so after the congress refused to ratify the removal, he went ahead and appointed a new secretary of war anyway. This blatant disregard for the law lead to Johnson's impeachment.



Impeachment of Andrew Johnson



    Facing impeachment, and sensing his public approval waning, Andrew Johnson embarked on a speaking tour, known as the “Swing Around the Circle.” The goal of this tour was to gain back the public approval he had lost by telling everyone how his policies towards the former Confederate States were fine and dandy, and that though it appeared otherwise, congress was actually the bad guy and he was the good guy.

 Everything started alright, but it all went south when he hit Cleveland. The Republicans had planted hecklers in the audience and Johnson eventually lost his cool and went after them mid-speech. After the speech was over, supporters were telling him to try and maintain his dignity going forward, as he had looked pretty stupid and petty in squabbling with the hecklers. To that he remarked “ I don't care about my dignity.” At this point, the press began unfavorable coverage of the tour and everything began to go downhill.

    A few days later in St. Louis, he again quarreled with the audience. He also compared himself to Jesus, the Republicans to Jesus's betrayers, and defended himself against accusations of tyranny that no one had actually made. The next day in Indianapolis, the crowd was so hostile that he was unable to speak and a riot erupted in the streets. Things got even worse a few days later in Pennsylvania. A platform built next to the railroad tracks for the audience collapsed, and sent hundreds of people into a drained canal. When the train came and it was time for him to leave, he got on it and continued to to Harrisburg instead of having it be used to ferry the injured to the hospital. Jackson's PR department had a hard time putting a positive spin on him leaving hundreds of mangled people to die in a ditch and he continued to lose public support.

    In the end, he was acquitted, falling just one vote short of conviction. Still though, public opinion was so against him, his abuse of power considered so egregious, that he actually almost ruined the position forever. A petition was sent to congress urging them to abolish the presidency because Johnson had proved that the office had grown too powerful.



Transcontinental Railroad Completed.


In just the 20 years after the steam engine made its debut in America in 1830, 9000 miles of train tracks had been built. Because America had yet to purchase any land in the West, however, the train tracks only stretched to around the Missouri river, in the middle of the country. Without a railroad, traveling all the way west was incredibly arduous. By land mountains, deserts, and rivers needed to be traversed; this took a longass time and cost almost 1000$ for food, supplies, etc. Traveling by sea either required taking a boat all the way around Cape Horn in Central America which took six months or traveling through the Isthmus of Panama and then boarding another ship to San Francisco.

When gold was struck in California in 1848, the desire to expand westward greatly increased. To do this though, the railroad system would need to be greatly expanded. To fund this endeavor, the government paid three railroad companies, the Western Pacific Railroad Company, the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company up to $48,000 per mile to construct a railroad stretching 1,912 miles connecting the existing railroads in Iowa all the way to the pacific coast.

An entire article could be written about what a pain in the ass it was to build the railroad but I’ll give you the highlights.

  • Because the Central Pacific started building in Sacramento, they had no access to anything they could not make from chopping down a tree. This meant that acquiring the most important parts of trains and the tracks, things made of metal, was a very painstaking process All material had to be shipped from ports in the east coast. They would travel all the way around Cape Horn or through the Isthmus of Panama until it reached San Francisco Bay. Once it arrived there, everything would get packed onto a steam paddler and sail another 130 miles up the Sacramento river. Finally, since most of the equipment was shipped in pieces, everything needed to be reassembled before building could begin.
  • Most able-bodied men were currently fighting in the civil war making it very hard to find good manual laborers.    

  • When a train full of supplies coming from West of the Mississippi needed to make it to the beginning of the Union Pacific route, beginning in Omaha, the train would need to be taken off the tracks and loaded onto a giant sleigh because the river was often frozen.     

  • The  Native Americans were not to happy about construction in their land     and they were constantly raiding construction sites and killing workers. On more than one occasion they even sabotaged the tracks so when a train rolled past a particular spot, it would dislodge,  killing the crew on the train. One particular time, a survivor, William Thompson, was scalped and sent back to Omaha with his scalp in a water bucket.     

  • Tracks  needed to be laid through mountains in the middle of the winter. In  the 1867-1868 winter season, there were 44 storms which led to 18 feet of snow. Workers had to camp in tunnels they built underneath the snow to survive. One time an avalanche annihilated an entire camp of workers.        

  • In  order to build tunnels through mountains, nitroglycerine needed to     be used. Nitroglycerine is extremely volatile and accidents involving it were very common. One time a 300 pound box filed with  nitroglycerine stopped for inspection on its way to Sacramento. It  blew up an entire wells Fargo building. Despite it being incredibly dangerous, Nitroglycerine did not do its job very well. Each blast  in the side of a mountain would only produce a foot of space at a  time.    

  • Many  workers were constantly distracted by the saloons and gambling houses being built along the train route.     

National Woman Suffrage Association” founded.



   Up until 1869, the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movement were very closely aligned and prominent members of both groups were a part of the same organization, the “American Equal Rights Association.” After all, they were both advocating for the same core idea; People other than white males should also be guaranteed rights, so it made a lot of sense for them to work together. The two groups began to drift apart though, when the passing of the 15th amendment was on the horizon. This was because many notable women’s suffrage leaders, like Susan B Anthony, were actually opposed to the amendment passing in its current state. Why? Here are the three things by which, according to the amendment, a person could not be denied the right to vote.

  1. Race"

  2. Color" 

  3. Previous condition of servitude”     

See anything missing?

Yup, no mention of voting rights for women.

Susan B Anthony and her supporters felt like this was the perfect opportunity to grant women suffrage. Literally only one word, gender, would have to be added for their goals to be realized. They felt that if this amendment passed without granting consideration to women, it would probably take forever for another one to be ratified (they were right). People on the other side of the argument, including many women and supporters of women's suffrage themselves, felt that the issue should be shelved temporarily. The suffrage movement was just starting to get cushy with the abolitionists, who were gaining lots of power, and they did not want to do anything to mess that relationship up. Besides, it was currently the “Negro's hour,” (real quote) and it would be rude to drive any attention away from them, lest too much equality be achieved at the same time.

   So because of that, Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton broke off and started their own group, the “National Woman Suffrage Association,” which would focus solely on securing voting rights for women.



Enforcement Act of 1870 passed

The 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for African Americans, officially at least. Racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan wasted no time in making sure that claiming this right would be nearly impossible for Blacks. In order to combat this, the first of three Enforcement Acts, the Enforcement Act of 1870, was passed. The act instituted several ways to fight back against those seeking to stop blacks from voting, and it actually did a decent job.

  • If  any person or government official tried to stop a black person from     voting they would face a possible fine and jail time. If more than     one person was working in a group to do so, the punishment was more  severe and they would be barred from holding any government office.     

  • It authorized the use of the military to halt any uprisings against the act or freedmen, even allowing for the suspension of Habeas Corpus to do so.        

  • Potential jurors needed to swear that they were not involved in denying the  right to vote to any American citizen.

  • The enforcement acts resulted in several hundred Klans members being put in jail and completely disband the first Klan (though the second Klan was formed in 1915)



Great Chicago Fire


   On October 8th, 1871 a huge fire erupted in Chicago. It lasted for two days and destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city. It resulted in 300 deaths and left over 100,000 people homeless.

   The origin of the fire is still unknown, but like many terrible events throughout history, a minority group was made the scapegoat; in this case, the pesky Irish. In the second half of the 19th century, the increase in Irish population and political power led to a rise in anti-Irish sentiment. Because of this, stories began to circulate, blaming one particular Irish woman, or her Irish cow more specifically, as the cause of the fire, even before the flames were put out. The rumor maintained that while a poor Irish woman, Catherine O'leary was milking her cow, it kicked over a lantern which set fire to a barn and continued to burn down the city. The O'leary's insisted that they had actually been asleep at the time but people continued to blame them, even after the initial accusatory story had been retracted years later.

   Under ordinary circumstances, the fire may have been easily fought and contained. However, the city was very ill prepared to deal with a fire of large proportions and pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

  • The entire city was primarily made out of wood, including 2/3 of  buildings, and most roads and sidewalks.         

  •  The city was going through a severe drought so all the wood was nice and dry and ready to burst into flames.    

  • The roofs of many houses consisted of tar which is apparently extremely flammable.     

  • The  city did not have the man-power to deal with a large fire, only     having 185 firefighters and 17 fire engines (which in 1871 were  essentially horse drawn carriages lugging around tins of water.)     

  • The guy in charge of alerting firemen and sending them to the proper place screwed up his one job and sent all of them to the wrong  location.     

  • The  alarm at the fire station did not go off.     

  • The firemen had spent the last week attending to lots of other fires so     they were exhausted.     

  • The  very populated business district was initially separated from the fire by the Chicago River and it was hoped that it would be spared by this barrier. Unfortunately, the area along the river was loaded with a shit ton of wood. There were barges, (made of wood) warehouses (also made of wood) lumber yards ( piles of wood), and coal yards (very flammable) and these all predictably erupted into flames. At this point, the wind greatly intensified and blew flaming debris across the river because nature hates Chicago I guess, and the very populated business district (also made of wood) erupted into flames.    

  • The fire jumped across the river to the business district a second time     when a giant flaming tornado called a “fire whirl” formed and made its way over. Once there, it made contact with a railroad car full of kerosene which exploded, further annihilating the district.     

  •     The city's water tower, which was the source of all the water to fight the fire, burned down because some jackass left a piece of wood lodged in its ceiling.     

     By the time the fire burned out after two days, the damage was staggering. Over 2000 acres of the city were burned to a crisp including more than 73 miles of roads, 2,000 lampposts, and 17,500 buildings. In total, 222 million in property was destroyed, almost a third of the entire city's value. Over 1/3 of the city was left homeless and up to 300 people were killed.


   “Alabama Claims” settled.

   Though Britain chose to not directly involve itself during the United States civil war, this did not stop them from doing business with both the Union and the Confederacy. In particular, British businesses built several Warships for the confederacy, the CSS Alabama being the most notable. In just two years of the Civil war, the CSS Alabama captured a total of 58 northern merchant ships before it was sunk.

    The US viewed the sales of the warships as a violation of neutrality and, when the war ended, they demanded reasonable reparations from the British in the form of either $2 billion or all of Canada. Through negotiations however, the British were able to finagle all the way down to 15.5 million.


Virginius Affair

     In 1873, the US came uncomfortably close to going to war with Spain.

    Beginning in 1868, Cubans began a revolt against Spain who had control over the Land. Cuba was one of the last countries in the west where slavery was still legal, so when the enslaved native Cubans rebelled against the Spanish, though the government had no official interaction; US. sympathy largely lied with the rebels. In August 1870, John F. Patterson, an American citizen acting as a secret agent for the Cubans, purchased a ship, the Virginius, to aid in the war effort. For several years the ship secretly transported weapons and goods to the Cubans with the Spanish constantly on its tail, but it was protected by US warships because, though they were suspicious of its motives, it was officially operating as a civilian vessel. The Spanish finally managed to capture it red-handed, carrying 300 Remington rifles, 300,000 cartridges, 800 daggers, 800 machetes, shoes and gunpowder. Though some of the crew were cuban sympathizers and rebels, a lot of them actually had no idea what was going on and were unpleasantly surprised when they were captured and put in trial as pirates and began to be executed by the Spanish.

    Word soon reached the US that the Spanish were executing US citizens and the public did not take the news lightly, much of the press encouraged a declaration of war and pro-war rallies took place. The Grant administration maintained a level head, and was able to negotiate the return of the remaining crew and the ship. Though the incident ended peacefully, it made the US realize that their Navy was vastly inferior to that of the Spanish and if war had indeed broken out, it would not have gone well. Because of this, the US began to emphasize expansion of its navy, which came in handy less than 30 years later when the US actually did end up going to war with Spain.


Red River War

   As the United states continued to expand its territories further and further west, conflicts with the Indians in the area grew. A hope to put a stop to the ever growing conflict seemed to be reached with the “Medicine Lodge Treaty” in 1867. The government agreed to set up several reservations in the southern plains for Indians, provide them with food and goods, and most importantly, not hunt buffalo in the reserve territory that was granted to the Indians. This was important because the Indians subsisted on hunting Buffalo and there was only so much to go around.

    The US. Government did a very poor job of providing adequate food to the reservations, so the Indians were forced to subsist on the buffalo as they always had. At this time though, a new way for tanning buffalo hides was discovered and American hunters began to move into the territory, eyes gleaming with dollar signs, and kill and tan every buffalo they could get their hands on. In just a few years, the buffalo population plummeted and the Indians were left with little to eat.

   With their backs against the wall, the Indians decided to go to war against the whites to reclaim the land that they had given up. The United States army set out to send the Indians back to the reservation. This was known as the Red River War, which ended in a lopsided American Victory.




Mason County War

  During the 1870's in Texas, cattle were becoming a very important and profitable resource. Cows were left in large fields to roam and graze, however, and this led to an opportunity for thieves to steal cattle. The line between stealing others and herding one’s own cattle was very blurry though. Because cattle belonging to numerous parties often wandered in the same large area, a herder gathering his cows often inadvertently took another cattle as his own. When this happened, It was expected for the owner of the mistakenly herded cattle to contact the herder and reclaim the cows that belonged to him. Between outright theft and mistaken herding, the German population of one particular area, Mason County in Texas, ended up losing a lot of livestock and became very frustrated; as this continued, it led to a conflict between the Americans and Germans who had settled the area.

   In August 1874, a few ranchers herded up some German cows. Though these particular ranchers had good reputations and it was likely an accident, a group of Germans, led by a newly elected Sheriff John Clark, went after them and the ranchers were jailed. They were kept for two weeks but were set free after they payed bail. The ranchers later brought charges against Clark for wrongful imprisonment and robbery. In February of 1875, Clark again jailed more suspected cattle thieves, this time from a different county. Four of these men paid bond, but five were unable to and remained in jail. A group of vigilantes, unsatisfied with the perpetrators merely being sent to jail, then broke into the deputy sheriff's home and demanded the keys to the jail cell that the prisoners were being held in. He handed them over and the vigilantes broke into the jail and kidnapped the prisoners, seeking to hang them. Clark was able to stop the hangings, but not before three of the prisoners had died. These were the first deaths in what became known as the “Mason County Wars.” It was reported that Clark did not do as much as he could have to stop the lynchings, which makes sense; he had publicly stated support for lynching of suspected cattle rustlers.

    The abrasive arrests of suspected cattle thieves continued. Two prisoners were able to dig themselves out of jail and come back with 30 armed men, ready to fight the sheriff and the Germans. The sheriff responded by meeting them with 60 of his own armed supporters and a bloodbath was narrowly avoided when a tentative truce was made. Just two months later though, another suspected cattle thief out on bail, Tim Williamson, was shot and killed and no one was charged. The Americans, now fed up with the German's shit, began a crusade, led by William Scott Cooley, to bring the killers to justice.

  As soon as Williamson was killed, Cooley began to hunt for the perpetrators. He found one man implicated in the murder, the deputy sheriff, and killed and scalped him. Nine days later, when looking for another of the killers, he chanced upon the killer’s brother instead and decided to kill him. The Sheriff put a $300 bounty on Cooley's head and gathered men to hunt him and his gang down. They were able to shoot and kill two members of the gang, but Cooley and co. retaliated and killed people with the sheriff. This back and forth happened several times, with several men being killed. The Texas Rangers were called in and were able to capture Cooley and send him to jail, from where he shortly escaped. Cooley did not have very much time to enjoy his newfound freedom, however; soon after, he was poisoned by angry Germans.  




Image credits:

By Murray Foubister -

By Mathew Brady -

By Unknown - The Cooper Collections of U.S. Railroad history, Public Domain,

By Unknown - Public Domain,

By Currier & Ives - Chicago Historical Society (ICHi-23436), Public Domain,

By Frederic Remington(Life time: 1861-1909) - Original publication:Immediate source:, Public Domain,

By Unknown - Werner Company, Akron, Ohio, Public Domain,



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