A Brief History
This article presents a timeline of American history through the Civil War for History 212 at Ashland University. Please click on any of the dates to learn more about that date’s events.
I. Course Introduction
II. The New Global World, 1450-1620
- On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus, the Italian adventurer sailing into the unknown in the name of the Spanish Crown, landed in the Bahamas, the landing that became known as the “discovery” of America (or, “The New World” if you prefer).
- On March 15, 1493, Christopher Columbus made his triumphant return from his first voyage to the New World, a momentous occasion in human history and especially noteworthy for the Spanish Crown that he sailed for.
- On March 5, 1496, in the wake of the tremendous news about the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World, King Henry VII of England granted “letters patent” to John Cabot, an Italian sailor and adventurer, along with his sons, to explore the world on behalf of the English Crown.
- On December 27, 1512, the King and Queen of Spain issued the Laws of Burgos, a set of rules for how Spaniards were to treat Native Americans in the Caribbean islands colonized by Spain.
III. The Invasion and Settlement of North America: Creating a British Empire in America, 1550-1750
- On July 22, 1587, a detachment of English settlers landed at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina, with the intention of establishing a colony.
- On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born in the Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina.
- On May 24, 1607, 100 English settlers went ashore at a site chosen for the Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in mainland North America.
- On July 25, 1609, the excellently named British ship, Sea Venture, encountered serious storms while crossing the Atlantic Ocean en route to Virginia, and was purposely run ashore to prevent loss of the ship and passengers.
- On June 23, 1611, the ship appropriately named Discovery, captained by explorer Henry Hudson, was in what is now called Hudson Bay and was the scene of a mutiny.
- On April 5, 1614, a milestone in European and Native American relations was reached when John Rolfe, English colonist, married Pocahontas, Native American princess!
- On December 4, 1619, 38 British settlers landed from the ship, Margaret (out of Bristol, England) along the North shore of the James River in Virginia in order to found a new town in the Virginia Colony called Berkeley Hundred.
- On August 5, 1620, the Mayflower set out from England with another ship, the Speedwell, on its first attempt to take Puritans to the New World.
- On August 5, 1620, 2 small English sailing ships left Southampton Water in England on a trip to the New World, carrying a group of Puritans seeking a land where they could practice their brand of religion without interference.
- On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, headed for The New World in America.
- On November 11, 1620, while anchored in Provincetown Harbor (off Cape Cod), the male passengers of the Mayflower wrote and signed a document known as The Mayflower Compact.
- On March 16, 1621, only about 4 months after landing at Plymouth Rock and setting up their new colony in what was then called Plymouth Colony (Now Massachusetts and Maine) the Pilgrims that had traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower had their first friendly contact with a Native person, and that contact came as quite a shock!
- On March 22, 1621, the European (basically British) colonists of Plymouth Colony, a “Pilgrim” venture for displaced religious zealots to find a place to practice their religion in peace, signed a peace treaty with Chief (or “Sachem”) Massasoit of the Wampanoag Native American coalition of tribes that had occupied what is now Massachusetts.
- On May 24, 1626, Peter Minuit, Director of New Netherland, bought the island of Manhattan (in modern day New York City) from Native-Americans for goods valued at 60 guilders, the equivalent of $24.
- On April 20, 1657, the Dutch masters of the colony of New Amsterdam, later to become New York City, made the historic move of granting religious freedom to two dozen Jewish refugees that had fled oppression in Recife, Holland, in 1654 when the Portuguese conquered that city.
- On August 12, 1676, John Alderman, known as a “Praying Indian” because he was a Native American converted to Christianity, shot and killed Chief Metacomet of the Wampanoag people, thus ending the conflict known as King Phillip’s War.
- On August 7, 1679, a small ship named Le Griffon (The Griffon) that had been built under the direction of famous explorer of the New World René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was towed to a point on the Niagara River from which it became the first European sailing vessel worthy of the designation “ship” to ever sail the Great Lakes.
- On June 2, 1692, the trial of Bridget Bishop began, starting a reign of terror in Salem, Massachusetts known as The Salem Witch Trials.
- On August 19, 1692, five accused “witches” were executed in Salem, Massachusetts.
- On September 19, 1692, Giles Corey, age 81, became a footnote in the history of America by becoming the first and only man to be “pressed” to death during legal proceedings.
- On September 22, 1692, eight people convicted of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were executed by hanging.
- October 9, 1701, the town of Saybrook, Connecticut was the setting for the founding of The Collegiate School of Connecticut, the institution of higher learning that became Yale University, one of if not the most esteemed colleges or universities in the United States and the world.
IV. Growth and Crisis in Colonial Society, 1720-1765
- On November 29, 1729, the Native American Natchez people who had been living peacefully with their French colonist neighbors in the area of what is now Natchez, Mississippi rose up and attacked the French, killing 138 men, 56 children and 35 women at the French Fort Rosalie.
- On May 29, 1733, the colonial government of New France located in Quebec City reaffirmed the right of Canadians (meaning European Canadians, citizens of New France) to own and keep slaves.
- On May 25, 1738, a treaty was finally signed, ending the war between Maryland and Pennsylvania known as The Conojocular War, or Cresap’s War.
- On July 26, 1739, George Clinton was born in a place then called Little Britain, Province of New York, British America.
- On September 9, 1739, the Stono Slave Rebellion, the largest slave revolt in pre-revolutionary British America took place in Charleston, South Carolina.
- On May 7, 1763, the Indian versus Colonist conflict known as Pontiac’s War in a nod to the Native American chief that had put together a confederation of Native people in an attempt to oust British colonists from the Great Lakes region, including Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois.
V. Toward Independence: Years of Decision, 1763-1776
- On June 7, 1769, frontiersman and American legend Daniel Boone first laid eyes on the forests, hills and valleys of Kentucky, and this epic moment in US History is commemorated by the Kentucky Historical Society as National Daniel Boone Day each year on June 7th.
- On March 5, 1770, in an incident then known as “The Incident on King Street” British soldiers gunned down 5 American patriots and wounded another 6.
- On April 14, 1772, the building tension toward open rebellion of Americans against the British erupted in New Hampshire in an incident known as The Pine Tree Riot.
- On December 16, 1773, Americans proved that they were not willing to be pushed around by a government that levied onerous taxes upon them, and this displeasure was expressed in the civil act of defiance known to us today as The Boston Tea Party.
- On April 14, 1775, Benjamin Franklin along with Benjamin Rush founded the first abolitionist society in the US, The Society For the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.
- On April 22, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a speech that may well have led to the successful formation of the United States.
- On June 12, 1775, British General Thomas Gage declared martial law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- On July 8, 1775, the Continental Congress, forerunner of what would become the government of the United States, signed the so called “Olive Branch Petition,” a last ditch effort to prevent a war of independence against Britain by the American Colonies.
- On October 13, 1775, an order of the Continental Congress established the Continental Navy, later better known as the United States Navy, the greatest maritime fighting force the world has ever seen.
- On November 7, 1775, in an announcement known as “Dunmore’s Proclamation,” the first movement to free African-Americans from slavery (also known as “emancipation”) took place when the Royal Governor of Virginia offered freedom to any slave willing to fight for the British against the Colonies in the American Revolution.
- On November 10, 1775, the finest fighting force in the history of the world was born when the United States Marine Corps was established in a Philadelphia tavern by Samuel Nicholas.
- On December 3, 1775, the Alfred, a merchant ship purchased by the Continental Congress was commissioned under Captain Dudley Saltonstall and became the first to fly what would become the American Flag.
- On January 10, 1776, the pamphlet Common Sense by American patriot Thomas Paine was published.
- On March 3, 1776, the Continental Navy and Continental Marines, the forces that would become the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps, conducted the first amphibious operation in US military history when a raid on Nassau in the Bahamas was conducted, known as The Raid on Nassau or sometimes called The Battle of Nassau.
- On July 2, 1776, The Thirteen British Colonies voted to declare themselves independent from the crown.
VI. Making War and Republican Governments, 1776-1789
- On July 4, 1776, The United States Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.
- On September 7, 1776, American patriot Ezra Lee made the first attack by a submarine against a surface warship in history against the HMS Eagle in New York Harbor.
- On September 7, 1776, American revolutionary Ezra Lee attempted to use his invention, a submarine he called the Turtle, in combat.
- On September 27, 1777, the Continental Congress, precursor to the United States Congress, fled the American capital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (our first capital city) as British troops closed in.
- On June 24, 1779, the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War began at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea at the British Fortress of Gibraltar.
- On August 13, 1779, a combined US Naval and ground expeditionary force was defeated after a 3 week campaign known as The Penobscot Expedition, the worst defeat in US Navy history until the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
- On October 11, 1779, Polish cavalry officer and American Brigadier General, Casimir Pulaski, died of wounds incurred during the Battle of Savannah (Georgia) during the American Revolutionary War.
- On October 19, 1781, British and German forces outnumbered 2 to 1 by American and French forces finally surrendered after a 3 week siege of Yorktown, Virginia.
- On September 3, 1783, the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War was signed in Paris, France, thus becoming known as the Treaty of Paris.
- On August 29, 1786, disgruntled Massachusetts farmers disgusted by high taxes, economic hardships and civil rights violations formed an organized force of protesters and shut down the county court at Northampton, the beginning of an insurrection known as Shays’s Rebellion, 4000 rebels under the leadership of Daniel Shays with the goal of overthrowing the government.
- On June 14, 1789, the Rev. Elijah Craig first distilled whiskey from maize (corn).
- On September 29, 1789, the United States Department of War established a regular US Army for the first time, a modest force of only several hundred men.
- On October 2, 1789, President George Washington sent to the States for ratification a list of Amendments to the Constitution, a list we now refer to as “The Bill of Rights.”
VII. Politics and Society in the New Republic, 1787-1820
- On November 6, 1789, Pope Pius VI appointed Jesuit priest John Carroll as the first Catholic bishop in the United States, although he had earlier been ex-communicated!
- On March 1, 1790, the first census in the history of the United States was authorized, with some interesting results.
- On January 2, 1791, Lenape and Wyandot Native Americans massacred 12 to 14 White settlers near what is now Stockport, Morgan County, Ohio.
- On July 17, 1791, hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (you can see why he is usually just called “Lafayette”) led the French National Guard against a riotous mob of around 10,000 angry French revolutionaries, gunning down about 50 of the rebels in the action.
- On October 13, 1792, the cornerstone for the White House was laid in the capital city of the United States, known as Washington, D.C. (the city of Washington within the District of Columbia).
- On March 27, 1794, the United States Congress authorized the building and purchase of a fleet of 6 frigates, ships that would become the core of what became a standing US Navy, a naval fighting force that would eventually rule the oceans for many decades, ruling the waves from World War II to the present.
- On February 7, 1795, the 12th state need to ratify the 11th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (North Carolina) voted to ratify the Amendment, thus making it part of the law of the land.
- On February 17, 1801, the Presidential election of the United States faced its first major test of the system put in place to elect the President when the Electoral College voted, and the result was that the contest between Thomas Jefferson/Aaron Burr, incumbent President John Adams/Charles Pinckney, and John Jay resulted in a failure of a candidate to earn an electoral majority.
- On February 16, 1804, the U.S. Navy conducted a stunningly audacious raid to deny the enemy the use of an American warship by concocting a ruse that allowed American sailors into the jaws of the enemy harbor to sink a captured American frigate.
- On March 1, 1805, the United States government was reeling from a never to be repeated political power play!
- On April 27, 1805, the United States Marine Corps conducted one of their first famous missions, one immortalized in the Marines’ Hymn, by taking the Tripolitan city of Derna and raising the American flag, the first time the Flag of the United States was raised on foreign soil.
- On February 19, 1807, former Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, the same guy that shot Alexander Hamilton to death in a duel while Burr was serving as Vice President, was arrested for treason.
- On February 11, 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts, was accused of manipulating voting districts in a bizarre, uneven way in order to tailor voting demographics to suit his own political benefit.
- On June 1, 1813, the commander of the USS Chesapeake, James Lawrence, lay dying, and uttered the immortal words, “Don’t give up the ship!”
- On August 30, 1813, a force of about 1,000 warriors of a faction of the Creek Nation Native Americans known as the “Red Sticks” attacked Fort Mims in Alabama, killing almost all its defenders and many civilians as well.
- On December 30, 1813, during the War of 1812, arson-happy British troops set the small city of Buffalo, New York ablaze as a means of punishing the upstart Americans.
- On September 14, 1814, while observing the Battle of Baltimore from a British ship, lawyer Francis Scott Key penned the poem, The Defence of Fort McHenry, the words that would be adapted as our (the USA) National Anthem.
- On July 27, 1816, US gunboat #154 fired a cannon shot regarded as the deadliest single cannonball ever fired by the US Navy.
- In 1820, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, a short story of speculative fiction by American author Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859), was published in his collection of essays and short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
VIII. Economic Transformation, 1790-1860
- On March 14, 1794, American inventor Eli Whitney patented his greatest invention.
- On May 5, 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman granted a US patent.
- On July 19, 1814, Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and although he lived only to the age of 47 became rich and famous as the man that made the repeating firearm a practical reality.
- In August of 1819, the Nantucket whaling ship, Essex, set sail on a two and a half year whaling voyage that on November 20, 1820 turned into eternity!
- On February 25, 1836, Samuel Colt of Hartford Connecticut made good on the “All men are created equal” theme by making sure they stayed that way.
- On March 5, 1836, Samuel Colt formed Patent Arms Manufacturing, the forerunner of Colt’s Firearms Manufacturing Company which in turn became today’s Colt’s Manufacturing Company.
- On March 30, 1842, Dr. Crawford Long, an American surgeon, made the first known use of ether as a general anesthetic.
- On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code (well, duh!) and of the telegraph, famously sent the message “What Hath God Wrought?” to inaugurate his new telegraph.
- On January 29, 1845, Edgar Allan Poe, the Baltimore writer of such classics as “The Telltale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Goldbug,” published his famous poem, “The Raven,” certainly one of if not the most renowned poem in American literature, and ranks among the most famous of poems.
- On September 9, 1850, in the middle of the California Gold Rush, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state of the United States.
- On October 18, 1851, the Herman Melville classic, Moby Dick, was first published under its original or alternate title, The Whale.
IX. A Democratic Revolution, 1820-1844
- On February 9, 1825, the United States of America had the only incident (so far) of no presidential candidate winning a majority of the Electoral votes in a presidential election, forcing the House of Representatives to elect our next president.
- On this date, September 29, 1825, American soldier, revolutionary, and farmer Daniel Shays (c.1747–1825) died at age 78 in Sparta, New York.
- On December 25, 1826, cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point cracked the annals of history with an Eggnog Riot!
- On May 28, 1830, US President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, a law allowing the President to negotiate with tribes still located in the Southern United States to be moved West of the Mississippi River.
- On December 14, 1836, a war between the States ended, but one you may not be familiar with.
- On February 8, 1837, the United States Senate elected Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky as the incoming Vice President of the United States, the only time in US history that the Senate was required to make such an election due to the failure of any Vice Presidential candidate to garner enough Electoral votes to get elected.
- On April 4, 1841, a stunned nation learned that for the first time in American history a serving president died while in office!
X. Religion and Reform, 1820-1860
- On February 6, 1820, The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America (better known as the American Colonization Society) sent the first 86 African Americans back to Africa to form a new country of freed slaves and free born African Americans, Liberia.
- On September 11, 1826, Captain William Morgan was arrested in Batavia, New York, supposedly on a charge of failing to pay a debt.
- On July 15, 1838 while delivering a speech at Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson described Jesus as a “great man,” but not “God.”
- On September 3, 1838, Frederick Douglas, an African American slave in Maryland, finally made good on an escape attempt, using trains, ferry boats, and steam boats to find his way to Pennsylvania, a “free” state.
- On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), was shot to death by a mob with blackened faces in a Carthage, Illinois jail while awaiting trial for treason.
- On July 19, 1848, somewhat earlier than you may have imagined, the modern Women’s Rights movement began with a 2 day convention held in Seneca Fall, New York.
- On March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story about an African-American family enslaved in the Antebellum South was published.
XI. The South Expands: Slavery and Society, 1800-1860
- On November 24, 1835, the Texas Provincial Government (Permanent Council) authorized the creation of a mounted para-military police force to enforce laws throughout The Republic of Texas and protect its borders.
- On March 6, 1836, the most celebrated defeat in American history ended in a massacre!
- On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston was elected as the first president of the Republic of Texas.
- On April 4, 1859, the familiar Southern anthem, “Dixie,” alternatively known as “Dixie Land,” “Dixie’s Land,” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” made its public debut performed by the blackface troupe Bryant’s Minstrels as the closing number of their show.
XII. Expansion, War, and Sectional Crisis, 1844-1860
- On December 5, 1847, Jefferson Finis Davis of Mississippi was elected to the United States Senate.
- On July 9, 1850, US President Zachary Taylor died after consuming mass quantities of fresh fruit and iced milk at a July 4th fund raising and holiday celebration.
- On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina had had it!
XIII. Two Societies at War, 1861-1865
- On April 13, 1861, the US Army installation known as Fort Sumter located at Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, surrendered to the rebellious forces of the fledgling Confederate States of America after a bombardment.
- On June 3, 1861, in the first organized land battle (barely a battle in reality) of the American Civil War, the Union Army with 3000 men routed an untrained force of 800 Confederate volunteers in what it now West Virginia at Philippi, a small town that today has only about 3000 residents.
- On July 26, 1861, Major General George McClellan was appointed the commander of the Army of the Potomac, a move President Lincoln hoped would instill professionalism and competence to that Army.
- On November 20, 1861, certain representatives of some Kentucky counties calling themselves the Confederate Government of Kentucky seceded from the Union of the United States of America.
- On May 13, 1862, a black African-American slave, Robert Smalls, serving as a ship’s pilot on the CSS Planter, a Confederate armed steamship, managed to steal the ship and turn it over to US Navy forces outside Charleston, South Carolina.
- On July 23, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln finally found a replacement for General George B. McClellan as General-in-Chief of the Union Army when he appointed General Henry W. Halleck.
- On September 13, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia and their commander, Robert E. Lee, suffered a catastrophic blunder when Lee’s battle plans for the upcoming Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg to the Rebels) were found near Fredricksburg, Maryland by Union soldiers.
- On September 17, 1862, the same day that the bloodiest 1 day battle in American military history was fought (Antietam, or Sharpsburg) the civilian population of suburban Pittsburgh was touched by the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War when the Allegheny Arsenal blew up, killing 78 workers, mainly women (down to 15 years old).
- On December 12, 1862, the United States ship, USS Cairo, an iron-clad gunboat of the City Class, was sunk in the Yazoo River by a remotely detonated Confederate “torpedo,” what naval mines were called back then.
- On April 2, 1863, Southern women in Richmond, Virginia were at their wits end and had had enough, or more accurately had NOT had enough, because they and their families were starving for lack of food (aka, bread).
- On May 2, 1863, the Confederate States of America lost their best or second best general, because they shot him!
- On July 1, 1863, the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began, perhaps the most important battle of the US Civil War.
- On July 3, 1863, the Army of the Potomac fought a defensive battle against the Army of Northern Virginia at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
- On October 15, 1863, The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate (the South!) submarine, sank during a test, killing its inventor and namesake, Horace L. Hunley.
- On November 24, 1863, Union forces under the command of future President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant captured Lookout Mountain as part of the campaign to relieve the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee by Confederate General Braxton Bragg.
- On February 17, 1864, the CSS H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, although it had itself sunk twice before!
- On February 20, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies fought the Battle of Olustee, the largest land battle of the American Civil War (1861-1865) in Florida.
- On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred a large part of the Federal troops defending Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
- On May 12, 1864, as part of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (Virginia) Union and Confederate forces fought in the “Bloody Angle” resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides, just part of what was by far the bloodiest and most horrific war in American history.
- On October 19, 1864, military forces of the Confederate States of America invaded Vermont from a staging area in Quebec, Canada.
- On November 25, 1864, a group of Confederate special forces operatives attempted to burn down New York City by starting fires in a plot orchestrated by Jacob Thompson, Inspector General of the Confederate States Army.
- On November 30, 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General John Bell Hood set what has to be a record for an American general for getting his subordinate generals killed after ordering an epic fail charge against Union forces led by Major General John M. Schofield at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee during the American Civil War.
- On March 25, 1865, the long drawn out series of battles known to us as The Siege of Petersburg ended in Union victory by the forces under the command of Lt. General US Grant. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could no longer withstand the pressure of almost 10 months of trench and raid warfare by superior Union forces, and the under-supplied Confederates had to abandon Richmond, the Capital City of the Confederate States of America, and Petersburg, a nearby city vital to the supply lines into Richmond.
- On April 26, 1865, Union Army troopers of the US Cavalry shot the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, dead on the spot in spite of orders to take the murderer alive.
- On May 9, 1865, the American Civil War ended, or did it?
Questions for students: What was the most interesting event in American history through the Civil War and why? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles). Modern Library, 2003.
Johnson, Michael P. Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writing and Speeches (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a print showing Columbia’s noblest sons, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division
under the digital ID cph.3b37728. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.