During the Antebellum years the US constitution was used to provide justification for both the abolition and expansion of slavery. The South found justification and a means of preservation for their long established “peculiar institution” by interpreting the constitution in favor of slavery. Radical abolitionists made several of their own constitutional interpretations that not only supported but also provided a means for abolition. This powerful document was not just subjected to various interpretations but also was used as a proverbial club for both Northern and Southern politicians to beat each other with.

Yeoman and plantation lords alike were confident that their juries and legislators had their best interests at heart and would do all perceivable to uphold their rights of mastery over slaves and legitimize their interpretations of the constitution.[1] When anti-slavery propaganda began to flood into the South a presidential ban was implemented on such mailings. Out of fear that this would promote a federal police power capable of also putting a ban on slavery Southern legislators called for its repeal as it was unconstitutional. Through this action one can clearly see the importance of, and respect for, constitutional limitations.[2] While sacrificing censorship, even in their favor, legislatures were affirming the authority of the constitution throughout the union, and now would seek to use it to their advantage. In 1850 when an act was passed guarantying the return of lost or stolen property, slaves, the south now believed that they had a precedent for constitutional recognition of their beloved institution.[3] The enactment of any law protecting the individual’s rights of investment was seen as the constitutional responsibilities of the federal government. Now that the south had achieved recognition of their constitutional right to own slaves the roots began to sink in deep. In screaming for the, what was then, broad issue of individual rights guaranteed in the constitution the south was trying to silence the Northern critics and guarantee their mastery over a lesser race.[4]

Many radicals, such as Stephen Douglas, interpreted that the constitution established the Union to preserve and provide freedom for all Americans, and the foundation for this ideology was based in their own interpretation of the constitution.[5] While there was a general consensus that slavery was “a great wrong” there was, without radical interpretation, a sense of hopelessness in finding a way to abolish it.[6] With Slavery being linked with polygamy E.R. Hoar demanded that the federal government abolish slavery throughout the Union.[7] The federal government was bound to the limitations set forth by the founding fathers. Abolitionist interpreters began to discover ways to abolish slavery through constitutional means.

The first step was a form of political “Prima Nocte.” By putting pressure on the South, through favoring political appointments of non slave holders, the north hoped to impregnate the federal government with like minded interpreters of their hallowed document.[8] Another strategy came through Fredrick Douglas’s turning the same sections claimed to support slavery into abolitionist support through his own interpretation, cutting the ties of slavery to the hallowed document. It was article IV section 4 that required the federal government to protect the states against invasion and domestic violence, to include the soon to come civil war. Douglas claimed that the government could achieve this task, quite efficiently so, by proclaiming emancipation.[9] In the unlikely event that a revolt was to arise the government did poses the power to halt the spread of slavery to its new federal territories. The belief was that in order for slavery to survive it must be allowed to spread, like a true cancer.[10]

Approaches to interpretations of the Constitution

Yet there existed another approach provided by northern constitutional interpretation. Due to a political understanding, anti-slavery literature was allowed to sit in southern post offices, never to be delivered. Northerners screamed at the injustices of this as it was an obvious violation of the individual’s rights guaranteed by the founding fathers. With the election of Lincoln the Chicago Democrat declared that the Southern censorship could no longer be tolerated. In a sense the North could then sway the Southerners towards their interpretation of the constitution through the constitution itself. By clinging to the idea of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness the north was attempting to use the constitution as leverage to bring the south in line with their own values and ideology.[11]

As both sides struggled to impose their own views of the constitution upon their masses, many northern politicians found ways to spite the south through their own radical understandings. Sour feelings developed after the Kansas-Nebraska act, which allowed for an extension of slavery. In response to the act, just one week after it was passed, Wisconsin repealed the “disgraceful”, “Slave catching act of 1850.”Following the lead of Wisconsin the six New England states approved an act to protect the life and liberties of America’s people. Through this sudden and rapid interpretation, fueled by spite, the “Slave catching act” was deemed unconstitutional.[12] As the North kept chipping away at the South’s right to slavery the South took on a rather ironic switch. In response to the New England’s states repeal of the fugitive slave act the south claimed that state governments were assuming authority that it didn’t poses, it was a federal matter. In another ironic twist the North claimed support for states right to make its own polices. When considering the events soon to come this is an almost comical scenario.[13]

In the Antebellum years both pro and anti-slavery advocates seemed to, almost, be shopping for answers. Southern property rights were assured by their political interpretations, Northern “fire breathers” were assuring their masses that it was their constitutional interpretations that would prevail. While batting each other about with acts and repeals, all based on different interpretations of the same text, the nation was slowly being steered towards disaster. There is again a great irony to be found in this struggle; it seems that the very same document that created our great nation also nearly destroyed it.


[1] Clinton & Silber, Divided, 36.
[2] Fehrenbacher, Republican, 302.
[3] Fehrenbacher, Fugitive, 231.
[4] Fehrenbacher, Republican, 322.
[5] Fonner, Free, 139.
[6] Ibid., 115.
[7] Ibid., 130.
[8] Ibid., 117.
[9] Fehrenbacher, Republican, 299.
[10] Fonner, Free, 116-118.
[11] Ibid., 122-123.
[12] Fehrenbacher, Fugitive, 235-238.
[13] Ibid., 241.



Clinton, Catherine. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Viewing the war in its broadest context, a historian could fairly conclude that a determined general of the North had bested a legendary general of the South, probably the most brilliant tactician on either side, because the Union could bring to bear a decisive superiority in economic resources and manpower.

Robert E. Lee’s mastery of the art of warfare staved off defeat for four long years, but the outcome was never really in doubt. Ulysses S. Grant—and Abraham Lincoln—held too many high cards. And during the last year of the war, the relations between the Union’s Commander in Chief and his General in Chief set an unexcelled example of civil-military co-ordination.

In this costly war, the Union Army lost 138,154 men killed in battle. This figure seems large, but it is scarcely half the number – 221,374 – who died of other causes, principally disease, bringing the total Union dead to 359,528. Men wounded in action numbered 280,040. Figures for the Confederacy are incomplete, but at least 94,000 were killed in battle, 70,000 died of other causes, and some 30,000 died in northern prisons.

With the advent of conscription, mass armies, and long casualty lists, the individual soldier seemed destined to lose his identity and dignity. These were the days before regulation serial numbers and dog tags (although some soldiers made individual tags from coins or scraps of paper). But by the third year of the war various innovations had been introduced to enhance the soldier’s lot. Union forces were wearing corps badges which heightened unit identification, esprit de corps, and pride in organization. The year 1863 saw the first award of the highest United States decoration, the Medal of Honor. Congress had authorized it on July I2, 1862, and the first medals were given by Secretary Stanton in 1863 to Pvt. Jacob Parrott and five other soldiers. They had demonstrated extraordinary valor in a daring raid behind the Confederate lines near Chattanooga. The Medal of Honor remains the highest honor the United States can bestow upon any individual in the armed services.

Throughout the western world, the nineteenth century, with its many humanitarian movements, evidenced a general improvement in the treatment of the individual soldier, and the U.S. soldier was no exception. The more severe forms of corporal punishment were abolished in the U.S. Army in 1861. Although Civil War medical science was primitive in comparison with that of the mid-twentieth century, an effort was made to extend medical services in the Army beyond the mere treatment of battle wounds. As an auxiliary to the regular medical service, the volunteer U.S. Sanitary Commission fitted out hospital ships and hospital units, provided male and, for the first time in the U.S. Army, female nurses, and furnished clothing and fancier foods than the regular rations. Similarly, the U.S. Christian Commission augmented the efforts of the regimental chaplains and even provided, besides songbooks and Bibles, some coffee bars and reading rooms.

The Civil War forced changes in the traditional policies governing the burial of soldiers. On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized the President to establish national cemeteries “for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” While little was done during the war to implement this Congressional action, several battlefield cemeteries – Antietam, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Stones River, and Knoxville – were set up, “. . . as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives . . .” in lieu of some nameless corner of a forgotten field.

As the largest and longest conflict of the nineteenth century in the western world, save for the Napoleonic struggle, the American Civil War has been argued and analyzed for the more than a hundred years since the fighting stopped. It continues to excite the imagination because it was full of paradox. Old-fashioned, in that infantry attacked in the open in dense formations, it also foreshadowed modern total war. Though not all the ingredients were new, railroads, telegraph communications, steamships, balloons, armor plate, rifled weapons, wire entanglements, the submarine, large-scale photography, and torpedoes – all products of the burgeoning industrial revolution – gave new and awesome dimensions to armed conflict.

The Civil War ended in April of 1865, and during the next year or so the United States War Department demobilized the “Union” forces and materials of war throughout the country. Reducing the manpower, or number of soldiers, was relatively easy in that they were discharged and sent home. The mammoth amount of the materials of war was another matter, especially in the Quartermaster Department. There, there were thousands of wagons, wheels, tools, horses, mules, boxes, barrels, railroad boxcars, engines ships and vessels of all shapes and sizes, buildings and blockhouses, etc. to be disposed of.

In Fort Scott, Assistant Quartermaster Theodore C. Bowles sold off all the excess U.S. government and captured Confederate property in a series of public auctions which also included the four blockhouses and their surrounding palisades. Lunette or Fort Blair is the only one of these “local blockhouses” that has survived to the present day and it is the only existing military structure of many that were constructed during the Civil War. Therefore, it is the “Lone Survivor” which was in fact saved by many people and organizations from its original sale until today. However, before addressing the preservation odyssey of Fort Blair, the following is a brief summary of what happened to the other three Fort Scott Blockhouses.

* Fort Lincoln: Was sold at public auction, disassembled and removed from its location on the west side of Fort Scott overlooking “Happy Hollow.”

* Fort Henning: Was sold at public auction and for a short time was used as the first “County Jail” because of its proximity to the first “County Courthouse” that was located on the southeast corner of Second Street and National Avenue where the public library is today. After its use as a jail, the blockhouse was sold privately, disassembled and removed from its original location.

*Fort Insley: Was sold at public auction and because of its rectangular shape, was probably used as a private residence on the point of “Red Hill” overlooking the KATY Railroad and the Marmaton River immediately north of what is now Fort Scott National Historic Site. The Fort Insley “Blockhouse” existed for another 11 years until it was razed as described on Page 4 in the Nov. 25, 1875, edition of the Fort Scott Daily Monitor newspaper:

“The old blockhouse on the ‘point’ is being torn down. Some of our citizens call it ‘the old fort’ and think it is the old landmark of the town and that it ought, therefore, to be preserved sacred to the memory of the early days.

Such is not the fact. It is simply one of three blockhouses built during the war. The other two stood one on Jones Street (Fort Henning) south of Dr. Baldwin’s house and one on Scott Avenue, (Fort Blair). It is, therefore, not so much a destruction as was supposed.”

* The Odyssey of Fort Blair: The blockhouse was sold at public auction described as follows;

“Office of Depot Quartermaster, Fort Scott, Jan. 10, 1866. This is to certify that the bearer William Smith has this day purchased of me at an authorized sale of government property the following described article to wit: Fort Blair for $50.00.

Theodore C. Bowles

Capt. and Assistant Quartermaster

Per. A. Griffire, Clerk.”

* 1st Move: William Smith moved Fort Blair to the back of his property on Scott Avenue and used the blockhouse as his carpenter shop. It remained on this location for 40 years.

* 2nd Move: In 1906 the Ohio Block was constructed on Second Street and Scott Avenue and the blockhouse was purchased by Dr. W.S. McDonald and moved to his property at 102 S. National Ave., immediately north of the current Post office.

* 3rd Move: In 1924, the Molly Foster Berry Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution purchased the Blockhouse and had it moved to the south side of Carroll Plaza because Dr. McDonald had sold his property to the Western Automobile Insurance Co. for the location of its new building and at this time the insurance company adopted the blockhouse as its logo.

* 4th Move: Sometime before the 1950 the blockhouse was moved to the northeast corner of Carroll Plaza.

* 5th Move: In early 1958, the city of Fort Scott passed a municipal bond to fund the construction of “Blair Park” where the blockhouse was moved to in May of 1958. “Blair Park” was located immediately behind Officers’ Row on what is now Fort Scott National Historic Site.

At this time the blockhouse was in very poor condition and it was reconstructed by the Western Insurance Co. in August of 1959 under the direction of Clifton C. Otto and E.C. Gordon Sr.

* 6th Move: In the late 1970s, Fort Blair was moved to its present location on old Fort Boulevard under the direction of T.M. Mayhew and H.E. Duvall of the Western Insurance Co. This was done because the blockhouse was part of an 1863 Civil War fortification that was constructed after the existence of the original 1842-1853 fort to which Fort Scott National Historic Site was being reconstructed.

In 1999, once again, the blockhouse needed repairs and the Historic Preservation Association of Bourbon County requested assistance from some former Western Insurance Co. employees. A Blockhouse Committee was organized and with contributions were received from former employees, agents, business firms and friends of The Western a new roof and siding were installed and a new permanent cannon carriage was acquired.

So ends the “odyssey” of Fort Blair, which has been preserved through the efforts of William Smith, Dr. W.S. McDonald, the Molly Foster Berry Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, the citizens and the city of Fort Scott, the Western Insurance Com. and its former employees and the Historic Preservation Association of Bourbon County. Without the efforts of all these citizens and organizations, Fort Scott would not have the “Lone Structural Survivor” of the Civil War.

March 10, 1861
The Confederate Congress unanimously adopted the Constitution of the Confederacy. CSA Brig. General Braxton Bragg took command of Confederate forces. General Winfield Scott was briefing President Lincoln on the events at Ft. Sumter and options that were available.

March 10, 1862
Confederate President Jefferson Davis attempted reassure Gen. Joseph E. Johnston that reinforcements were on the way by telling him, “you shall be promptly and adequately reinforced.” Johnston was on the retreat in Virginia.

March 10, 1863
President Lincoln issued a proclamation giving amnesty to Union soldiers who were absent without leave (AWOL) if they reported by April 1st. If not, they would be regarded as deserters and arrested.

March 10, 1864
General Ulysses S. Grant took control of the entire Federal army Grant was not in Washington to receive the order but in Virginia with current commander George Gordon Meade discussing current and future plans of the Army of the Potomac. Beleaguered Maj. General Franz Sigel took command of the Department of West Virginia replacing Brig. General Benjamin F. Kelley

March 10, 1865
Maj. General William T. Sherman‘s army was nearing Fayetteville, NC. after skirmishing with Confederate cavalry. Meanwhile, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was in a scramble to consolidate what forces he had left available to him. General Robert E. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis proposing a law to enlist negro troops as soon as possible, however, the Confederate Congress debated on.