Civil War Timeline

The Colonial Period

  • A Dutch ship arrives in the Virginia Colony carry about 20 black Africans as indentured servants. From this beginning, African slavery becomes a fixture in the future United States.


  • About 2,000 of the 40,000 inhabitants of the Virginia Colony are imported slaves from Africa.


  • Quakers, led by James Pemberton and others including Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin, organize the first abolitionist society in the colonies, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia.


  • The Virginia legislature passes a law, with Thomas Jefferson’s support, that bans importing slaves into Virginia. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other existing states eventually follow Virginia’s lead.


  • The Continental Congress rejects by one vote Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to prohibit slavery in all territories, including areas that become the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.


  • Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance to govern the frontier territory north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania, which includes the future states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In the ordinance, Congress prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory and requires the return of fugitive slaves (runaway slaves) captured in the territory to be returned to their owners (masters).   In the following years, anti-slavery Northerners cite the Northwest Ordinance many times as precedent for the limitation, if not the complete abolition, of slavery in the entire United States. Despite the ordinance being law, Southern-born settlers try and fail to pass laws to allow slavery in Indiana and Illinois.


  • The total U.S. slave population is 697,681. The number will grow to nearly 4 million by 1860, 3.5 million of whom live in the seceding Southern states.


  • Kentucky drafts a state constitution permitting slavery and is admitted at the 15th U.S. state.


  • Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, based on Article 4 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and guaranteed a slaveowner’s right to recover an escape or runaway slave. Also this year, Eli Whitney, Jr. invents the cotton gin, making possible large-scale production of short-staple cotton in the South. The demand for slave labor increases with the resulting increase in cotton production.


  • The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory from France. Slavery already exists in the territory and efforts to stop or restrict it fail; the new lands thereby permit a great expansion of slave plantations.


  • At President Thomas Jefferson’s urging, the U.S. Congress outlaws the international slave trade, where importing or exporting slaves becomes a federal crime, effective January 1, 1808. Previously about 14,000 new foreign-born slaves had arrived in the U.S. each year. The new law stopped much of the international slave trade to the U.S., but illegal smuggling of slaves continued to bring in about 1,000 foreign-born slaves a year. Read the actual act prohibiting importation of slaves by clicking here


  • Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay of Kentucky proposes the Missouri Compromise to break the Congressional deadlock over Missouri’s admission to the U.S. The compromise proposes that Missouri be admitted as a slave state and that the northern counties of Massachusetts, later the state of Maine, be admitted as a free state, thereby preserving the balance between slave-holding states and free-states. The Missouri Compromise also included a provision that prohibited slavery in all territories west of the Mississippi River and north of a line that formed the southern border of Missouri-though the state of Missouri did not have to follow this rule. Many Southerners argue against the exclusion of slavery from such a large area of the country, but the compromise passes anyway.