Timeline of American History through the Civil War

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A Brief History

This article presents a timeline of American history through the Civil War.  Please click on any of the dates to learn more about that date’s events and please post a comment using the Disqus commenting system on any article you click on to let us know your thoughts about that historic event.

Digging Deeper

I. Background and Colonial Development – 1500-1763

  1. On June 9, 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first European (White) man to discover the mighty St. Lawrence River, the gateway into North America for European explorers.
  2. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born in the Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. On April 5, 1614, a milestone in European and Native American relations was reached when John Rolfe, English colonist, married Pocahontas, Native American princess!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, headed for The New World in America.  Many Americans are under the false impression that these were the first white settlers of North America, and of course, they got history wrong! 
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. On June 2, 1692, the trial of Bridget Bishop began, starting a reign of terror in Salem, Massachusetts known as The Salem Witch Trials.
  16. On August 19, 1692, five accused “witches” were executed in Salem, Massachusetts.
  17. 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.
  18. On September 22, 1692, eight people convicted of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were executed by hanging.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. On September 9, 1739, the Stono Slave Rebellion, the largest slave revolt in pre-revolutionary British America took place in Charleston, South Carolina.

II. Revolutionary Era: Emergence of Democracy – 1763-1800

  1. On June 2, 1763, as part of a general Indian (Native American) uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, Chippewa warriors captured Fort Michilmackinac (present day Mackinaw City) by storming the fort.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. On March 5, 1770, British soldiers opened fire on a group of unarmed American protesters, killing 5 (either 3 or 4 immediately, one dying later), an event referred to as The Boston Massacre, sometimes called the first shots fired in the American Revolutionary War.
  5. 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.
  6. On October 12, 1773, Eastern State Hospital was established, the first insane asylum in what is now the United States.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. On April 22, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a speech that may well have led to the successful formation of the United States.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. On January 10, 1776, the pamphlet Common Sense by American patriot Thomas Paine was published.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. On September 7, 1776, American revolutionary Ezra Lee attempted to use his invention, a submarine he called the Turtle, in combat.
  17. On July 2, 1777, Vermont became the first territory in what had just (kind of) become the United States to abolish slavery.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. On June 14, 1789, the Rev. Elijah Craig first distilled whiskey from maize (corn).
  26. On July 14, 1789, Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie finally reached the mouth of the river named after him, a failed attempt to find a route to the Pacific Ocean.
  27. 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.”
  28. 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).
  29. 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.
  30. 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!
  31. On March 1, 1790, the first census in the history of the United States was authorized, with some interesting results.
  32. 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.
  33. On March 14, 1794, American inventor Eli Whitney patented his greatest invention.
  34. 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.

III. Expansion of American Democracy – 1800-1850

  1. 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.
  2. On March 1, 1805, the United States government was reeling from a never to be repeated political power play!
  3. 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.
  4. On May 5, 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman granted a US patent.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. On July 27, 1816, US gunboat #154 fired a cannon shot regarded as the deadliest single cannonball ever fired by the US Navy.
  12. 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!
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. On August 25, 1823, mountain man and fur trapper Hugh Glass was attacked by a Grizzly Bear while on a fur taking and exploring expedition in what is now South Dakota.
  16. On December 1, 1824, it was determined that the vote for the presidential election of 1824 did not have a winner!
  17. 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.
  18. On this date, September 29, 1825, American soldier, revolutionary, and farmer Daniel Shays (c.1747–1825) died at age 78 in Sparta, New York.
  19. On December 25, 1826, cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point cracked the annals of history with an Eggnog Riot!
  20. On June 2, 1835, American showman and huckster Phineas T. Barnum began his first tour of the US with his circus, later called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and then “Barnum and Bailey’s Circus,” “Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth,” and finally “Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.”
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. On March 6, 1836, the most celebrated defeat in American history ended in a massacre!
  25. On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston was elected as the first president of the Republic of Texas.
  26. On December 14, 1836, a war between the States ended, but one you may not be familiar with.
  27. On July 15, 1838 while delivering a speech at Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson described Jesus as a “great man,” but not “God.”
  28. 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.
  29. On October 27, 1838, Missouri’s governor issued an order for all Mormons to leave the state or face extermination!
  30. On April 4, 1841, a stunned nation learned that for the first time in American history a serving president died while in office!
  31. On March 30, 1842, Dr. Crawford Long, an American surgeon, made the first known use of ether as a general anesthetic.
  32. 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.
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. On September 13, 1848, a Vermont railroad worker suffered a bizarre injury when a 3-foot metal rod went right through his head and proceeded to land 80 feet away.
  37. On September 13, 1848, a railroad worker was skewered with an iron rod over an inch in diameter.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.

IV. Challenge to Democracy – 1850-1865

  1. 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.
  2. On June 9, 1856, 500 Mormons left Iowa and headed for Salt Lake City, Utah.
  3. On September 12, 1857, the SS Central America sank in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, taking with her most of her passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold from California.
  4. On February 19, 1859, New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles made history as the first person acquitted by reason of “temporary insanity.”
  5. On April 25, 1859, Daniel Sickles, Congressman, Army general and diplomat, became the first person to successfully use the “temporary insanity” defense to beat a murder rap.
  6. On April 19, 1861, an angry mob with pro-secessionist intentions attacked US Army troops on the streets of Baltimore, an event known as The Baltimore Riot of 1861, or alternately as The Pratt Street Riot or even the more dramatic Pratt Street Massacre
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. On August 5, 1861, the Federal Government of the United States instituted its first income tax to help pay for the Civil War
  10. On October 23, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln, defender of the Union of the United States, illegally suspended the rule of Habeas Corpus, the Constitutional protection of Americans against being held in confinement without charges and due process.
  11. 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.
  12. On March 8, 1862, during the American Civil War, perhaps the most important naval battle of the war began, a battle that would see the first clash of ironclad/armored warships. 
  13. 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.
  14. On July 12, 1862, a congressional resolution was signed into law authorizing the Army to issue the Medal of Honor to enlisted soldiers (only) for “personal valor.”
  15. On July 16, 1862 and July 16, 1882 we commemorate the birthdays of 2 significant African-American women, Ida Wells (who first developed statistics on lynching in the US) and VA Johnson (the first African-American woman to argue before the Supreme Court).
  16. On July 16, 1862, David Farragut was appointed a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, the first officer to hold that rank.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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).
  20. 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.
  21. On December 17, 1862, the stormy history of civil rights in United States was once again shamefully marred when Major General Ulysses S. Grant, future President of the United States, issued his infamous General Order No. 11 which expelled all Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, the states in the military district he commanded.
  22. On May 2, 1863, the Confederate States of America lost their best or second best general, because they shot him!
  23. On July 1, 1863, the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began, perhaps the most important battle of the US Civil War.
  24. 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.
  25. On July 13, 1863, New Yorkers angry about military conscription (draft) started 3 days of rioting that would go down in history as the worst US riot ever.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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!
  29. On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred a large part of the Federal troops defending Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
  30. 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.
  31. On October 19, 1864, military forces of the Confederate States of America invaded Vermont from a staging area in Quebec, Canada.
  32. On October 31, 1864, the people of the United States got a big treat in their Halloween basket, the newly minted State of Nevada, the 36th state of the Union, appropriately known as “The Silver State.”
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. On April 27, 1865, the paddle-wheel steamboat, SS Sultana was carrying 2427 people when she blew up, killing 1800!
  37. On May 10, 1865, Union troops ambushed, shot and captured infamous Confederate raider William Quantrill.
  38. On July 21, 1865, a real life showdown resulting in face to face gunplay happened for the first time, the first of the classic duels we have come to know as a Wild West gunfight.
  39. On November 10, 1865, the long sad saga of the Camp Sumter prisoner of war camp located in Andersonville, Georgia finally came to a conclusion of sorts when the Camp Commandant, Confederate Major Henry Wirz was hanged for the crimes of conspiracy and murder for his terrible treatment of Union soldiers held captive at the camp popularly known as “Andersonville.”
  40. On December 24, 1865, 6 former Confederate veterans of the recently concluded US Civil War formed the first known chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization largely founded on the principles of White Supremacy and violence against African Americans and those not in agreement with Klan beliefs.

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Historical Evidence

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.


About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.