This article is about the year 1856.
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1856 (MDCCCLVI) was a leap year starting on Tuesday (dominical letter FE) of the Gregorian calendar and a leap year starting on Sunday (dominical letter AG) of the Julian calendar, the 1856th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 856th year of the 2nd millennium, the 56th year of the 19th century, and the 7th year of the 1850s decade. Note that the Julian day for 1856 is 12 calendar days difference, which continued to be used from 1582 until the complete conversion of the Gregorian calendar was entirely done in 1929.
- April – Xhosa cattle-killing movement and famine begins in Cape Colony.
- April 7 – Nelson College is founded in Nelson, New Zealand.
- April 16 – Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law abolishes privateering and regulates the relationship between neutral and belligerent and shipping on the high seas.
- April 17 – The Chicago Historical Society Museum is established at 1601 N. Clark Street, Chicago.
- April 21 – Building workers agitate for the eight-hour day in Melbourne, Australia.
- April 29 – The iron-hulled paddle steamer RMS Persia concludes a 9-day 16 hour westbound transatlantic crossing at an average 13.11 knots (24.28 km/h), regaining the Blue Riband for the Cunard Line.
- May 1 – The province of Isabela is created in the Philippines in honor of Queen Isabella II of Spain.
- May 3 – Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom gives Norfolk Island to the population of the colony at Pitcairn Island, most being descendants of the Mutiny on the Bounty. They first settle on Norfolk Island on June 8.
- May 14 – A San Francisco Committee of Vigilance is founded in the United States. It lynches two gangsters, arrests most Democratic Party officials and disbands itself on August 18.
- May 20 – David Livingstone arrives at Quelimane on the Indian Ocean having completed a 2-year transcontinental journey across Africa from Luanda.
- May 21 – Lawrence, Kansas is captured and burned by pro-slavery forces (the "Sacking of Lawrence").
- May 22 – Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beats Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the hall of the United States Senate, for a speech Sumner had made attacking Southerners who sympathized with the pro-slavery violence in Kansas ("Bleeding Kansas"). Sumner is unable to return to duty for 3 years while he recovers; Brooks becomes a hero across the South.
- May 24 – Pottawatomie massacre: A group of followers of radical abolitionist John Brown kill 5 homesteaders in Franklin County, Kansas.
- June 2 – Battle of Black Jack: Antislavery forces, led by John Brown, defeat proslavery forces in Bleeding Kansas.
- June 9 – 500 Mormon handcart pioneers leave Iowa City and head west for Salt Lake City, Utah, carrying all their possessions in two-wheeled handcarts.
- June 13 – Taiping Rebellion: Shi Dakai arrives at Nanjing.
- October 8 – The Second Opium War between several western powers and China begins with the Arrow Incident on the Pearl River.
- November 1 – Anglo-Persian War: War is declared between Great Britain and Persia.
- November 4 – United States presidential election, 1856: Democrat James Buchanan defeats former President Millard Fillmore, representing a coalition of "Know-Nothings" and Whigs, and John C. Frémont of the fledgling Republican Party, to become the 15th President of the United States.
- November 11 – Taiping Rebellion: Shi Dakai arrives at the Heavenly Capital once more with 100,000 men and demands that Wei Changhui and Qin Rigang be executed. Shi subsequently becomes head of the government.
- November 17 – American Old West: On the Sonoita River in present-day southern Arizona, the United States Army establishes Fort Buchanan in order to help control new land acquired in the Gadsden Purchase.
- November 21 – Niagara University is founded in Niagara Falls, New York.
- November 27 – The Coup of 1856 leads to Luxembourg's unilateral adoption of a new, reactionary constitution, as King-Grand Duke William III signs the new constitution without the Chamber of Deputies' consent.
- December 1 – Under the County and Borough Police Act, in any county or area of England and Wales where a police force has not already been established, the Justices of the Peace must from this date take steps to create one according to nationally defined standards.
- December 2 – National Portrait Gallery, London, established.
- December 9 – Bushehr surrenders to the British.
- January 11 – Christian Sinding, Norwegian composer (d. 1941)
- January 12 – John Singer Sargent, American-born artist (d. 1925)
- February 2 – Frederick William Vanderbilt, American railway magnate (d. 1938)
- February 5 – Frank Podmore, British psychical researcher (d. 1910)
- February 12 – Eduard von Böhm-Ermolli, Austrian general and German field marshal (d. 1941)
- February 14 – Frank Harris, Irish author and editor (d. 1931)
- February 15 – Emil Kraepelin, German psychiatrist (d. 1926)
- February 21 or February 28 – Maurycy Gottlieb, Ukrainian painter (d. 1879)
- March 4
- March 8
- March 16 – Napoléon Eugène Louis John Joseph, Prince Imperial, son of French Emperor Napoleon III (d. 1879)
- March 20
- April 5 – Booker T. Washington, American educator (d. 1915)
- April 12 – William Martin Conway, British art critic and mountaineer (d. 1937)
- April 18 – Hammerton Killick, Haitian admiral (d. 1902)
- April 23 – Granville T. Woods, African-American inventor (d. 1910)
- April 24 – Henri Philippe Pétain, French soldier and statesman (d. 1951)
- April 26 – Sir Joseph Ward, 17th Prime Minister of New Zealand (d. 1930)
- April 27 – Tongzhi Emperor of China (d. 1875)
- July 10 – Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American inventor (d. 1943)
- July 11 – Georgiana Drew, American stage actress, married Maurice Barrymore in 1876, (d. 1893)
- July 23 – Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Indian political activist (d. 1920)
- July 24 – Franklin Ware Mann, American inventor (d. 1916)
- July 26 – George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1950)
- August 10 – William Willett, promoter of Daylight Saving Time (d. 1915)
- August 13 – Alfred Deakin, second Prime Minister of Australia (d. 1919)
- August 15
- September 1 – Sergei Winogradsky, Russian scientist (d. 1953)
- September 3 – Louis Sullivan, American architect (d. 1924)
- September 18 – Wilhelm von Gloeden, German photographer (d. 1931)
- October 30 – Charles Leroux, American balloonist and parachutist (d. 1889)
- November 13 – Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice (d. 1941)
- November 14 – Madeleine Lemoyne Ellicott, American suffragette, (d. 1945)
- November 16 – Jürgen Kröger, German architect (d. 1928)
- November 17 – Demetrio Castillo Duany, Cuban revolutionary, soldier, and politician (d. 1922)
- November 21 – William Emerson Ritter, American biologist (d. 1944)
- November 22 – Heber J. Grant, seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (d. 1945)
- November 24 – Bat Masterson, American lawman (d. 1921)
- November 29 – Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of Germany (d. 1921)
- December 2 – Robert Kajanus, Finnish conductor and composer (d. 1933)
- December 6– Hans Molisch, Czech-Austrian botanist (d. 1937)
- December 10 – Dewa Shigetō, Japanese admiral (d. 1930)
- December 11
- December 13 – Svetozar Boroević, Austrian field marshal (d. 1920)
- December 18 – J. J. Thomson, English physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1940)
- December 22 – Frank B. Kellogg, United States Secretary of State, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (d. 1937)
- December 25 – Hans von Bartels, German painter (d. 1913)
- December 28 – Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (d. 1924)
- Anna Sterky – Swedish politician, feminist and trade unionist
- July 9 – Amedeo Avogadro, Italian chemist (b. 1776)
- July 11 – Norberto Ramírez, Central American politician
- July 14 – Edward Vernon Utterson, English lawyer, literary antiquary, collector and editor (b. 1775/1776)
- July 29
- August 29 – Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, British Christian writer (b. 1778)
- August 30 – Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, English writer (b. 1811)
- September 3 – Honório Hermeto Carneiro Leão, Marquis of Paraná, Brazilian politician (b. 1801)
- October 19
- December 20 – Francesco Bentivegna, Italian revolutionary (b. 1820)