Six Historical Figures of Nineteenth-Century America


The 19th century was a formative time for the United States. During this era, technology rapidly evolved, the political landscape fluctuated and a number of profound and significant leaders rose up and shaped the fledgling nation into a vital cultural and political powerhouse. The foundation of the United States of America after the end of the Revolutionary War paved the way for the following six individuals to step forward to influence the country, claiming for themselves a lasting place in today’s history books.

Dr. Mary Edward Walker

Mary Edward Walker was born in November of 1832, in Oswego, New York and is most notably recognized for her work as a physician during the 19th century. After graduating with her doctor of medicine degree in 1855 from Syracuse Medical College, Walker started her own private practice in Columbus, Ohio. During the Civil War, Walker began her service working as a physician in tent hospitals in Virginia and later became the first female military surgeon after being appointed as assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland by General George H. Thomas. After leaving this role, Walker took a position supervising a hospital for female prisoners and later an orphanage. Following her retirement from government service in 1865, Walker was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, making her the first and only woman to ever receive such an honor. Walker’s significant achievements stood as a testament to the genuine value of her character, allowing her to later stand out as a leading proponent for women’s rights and gender equality in the late 19th century.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most memorable presidents. He presided over the Union during the United States Civil War and signed the legislation that resulted in the emancipation of slaves in America. Born in 1809, Lincoln was a self-educated man who spent much of his childhood and early adulthood working to support his family. In the 1830s, Lincoln moved to Illinois where he began practicing law before being selected as captain of the local volunteers for the Black Hawk War in 1832. Soon after the war, Lincoln used the connections he made to begin his political career, eventually becoming elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1834. Ten years later, Lincoln would make another career transition by serving a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here, Lincoln found much interest in the politics, so much so that after the Scott v Sanford decision determined African Americans were not citizens and had no inherent rights, Lincoln decided to challenge U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas for his chair in the Senate.

While Lincoln did not win the Senate chair, the exposure from the election led to Illinois backing him for the presidency in 1860, which he won with 180 of 303 electoral votes. Lincoln’s election would prove to be so controversial that several states seceded from the Union, a move that eventually led to the start of the American Civil War. It was during this war that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery in the United States in 1863, accomplishing what stands as the most significant civil rights achievement of the century.

Clara Barton

As founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton grew to be an educator and nurse. Her influence began during the Civil War when she was desperate to help wounded soldiers; she went on to distribute supplies for the Union in the early days of the war. Her work in battle as an independent nurse in Virginia earned her the nickname, “the angel of the battlefield”, and after the war ended, Barton went on to help the War Department aid missing soldiers with being reunited with their families. Following her military service, Barton continued serving the world passionately as a humanitarian worker in various organizations.

It was during a trip to Europe where she worked with the International Red Cross that Barton saw the positive impact of the organization and lobbied to have an American branch of the Red Cross founded. In 1881, the American Red Cross Society was founded with Barton as its president. As leader of the organization, Barton was essential to the effort of providing humanitarian relief to the victims of many 19th-century disasters, like the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania and the Galveston flood of 1900 in Texas. After an impressive career, Clara Barton later resigned from the Red Cross in 1904, but remained active as an advocate for humanitarianism and women’s rights, through her many speeches, lectures and the book she published before her death in 1912.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

There were many civil rights activists coming out of the 19th century, and Harriet Beecher Stowe stands out among them for publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel that sparked controversy in the years leading up the Civil War. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, Stowe expressed her opinions on slavery by publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which portrayed the impact that slavery had on families, arousing hostility from pro-slavery states in the South. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped change the way that many people perceived African-Americans, a contribution to civil rights that is still being observed and taught in American schools today.

Thomas Edison

Born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Edison became one of the most acclaimed inventors in American history. Backed by his strong self-starting skills and entrepreneurial spirit, Edison began publishing a small newspaper called The Grand Trunk Herald, which is where he learned to operate the telegraph. Through this experience, Edison became fascinated with electrical science and began studying it deeply. Edison’s first invention would come upon moving to New York City, where he developed a stock printer after combining several different stock tickers. This invention was purchased for $40,000, and Edison used his newly freed up time and wealth to commit to being an inventor. By 1870, Edison had opened a lab and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey, where he continued to produce successful inventions. Edison made a goal of perfecting the incandescent light bulb and accomplished this in 1879 when his light bulb was manufactured for widespread use. Later that year, he founded the Edison Illuminating Company (now known as General Electric Corporation). Edison continued to spread his influence in the development of lighting technology and power systems for years, notably inventing a starter battery for Henry Ford’s Model T, fighting for the use of direct current over alternating current, and securing a total of 1,093 patents. Edison died in October of 1931 and is remembered for setting the foundation for the modern electric world.

Robert E. Lee

The American Civil War is known as one of the darkest periods in American history, and General Robert E. Lee stood at the forefront of the conflict. Lee graduated from West Point Military Academy at the age of 18 with perfect scores in artillery, infantry, and cavalry techniques and strategies. When the United States went to war with Mexico, Lee entered the fray and distinguished himself as a war hero during the conflict. His high level of military achievements made him highly sought after by both the Union and the Confederacy during the early days of the Civil War.

Though Lee was offered the opportunity to command the Union’s military forces leading up to the Civil War, he declined the offer, noting that he could not wage a war against his fellow southerners. Lee then assumed command of the Confederate Army in 1861. Lee secured several critical victories for the Confederacy, but in some battles he was barely able to escape and his forces suffered great casualties. In 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in the near destruction of Lee’s army, and he was forced to end his invasion of the North, surrendering in April of 1865. Due to his pivotal role as the commander of the vast majority of the Confederate’s armed forces, Lee directly influenced not only the overall progression of the Civil War, but he also helped to shape its outcome. Following the war, the Confederate states rejoined the Union, initiating the Reconstruction Period, from 1865 to 1877, when the federal government and various Southern state governments worked together to rebuild the war-torn South.

The 19th century was a critical time period for the United States, and a handful of remarkable men and women during that century helped to shape the overall development of the nation – from American domestic and foreign policy to advancing human rights. By taking into account the contributions of these individuals, students in pursuit of their master’s degree in American history can develop a firmer understanding of the courageous actions and innovations that led to the formation of the modern U.S.

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Norwich University is an important part of American history. Established in 1819, Norwich is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States.

With Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History, you can enhance your awareness of differing historical viewpoints while developing the skills needed to refine your research, writing, analysis and presentation skills. The program offers two tracks – American History and World History, allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.

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Robert E. Lee,

Thomas Edison,

Harriet Beecher Stowe Biography,

Clara Barton Biography,

Abraham Lincoln, The White House

Mary Walker Biography,