What are the Enduring Legacies of the American Civil War?

What did the violence in the bloodiest conflict in US history yield in the postwar era?

Battle of Wilson's Creek, 10th August, 1861 (c.1893)

The Civil War left far too much the same

Susan-Mary Grant, Professor of American History at Newcastle University

In The Gilded Age, the novel that named the postwar era, Mark Twain observed that the Civil War had ‘uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations’. This quotation frequently pops up in discussions of the war’s legacy. Yet whatever America’s civil conflict did, it did not uproot centuries-old institutions. At the time of writing, the United States’ centenary as a separate, political state was still three years away.

Twain initiated a tendency to accord the Civil War a more profound legacy than it merits. Largely this tendency revolves around slavery and emancipation in respect of the betrayal of the opportunity that the war provided to secure social, economic and political equality for all. Although the Civil War did expand the power of the American state, increasing the number of federal employees almost tenfold, the power of this state was limited in significant ways. Then, as now, there was often a disconnect between what the law allowed and what the government and the people actually did.

Despite the downsizing of the military after 1865, the war confirmed and reinforced the martial strain in the American national character. America had long placed its faith in the power of the people in arms and in their relinquishing of said arms once the danger was over. But historians are increasingly uncovering the destructive long-term costs, physical and psychological, to those involved in the Civil War, combatants and non-combatants alike.

Ultimately, the power of the state to secure its own existence was confirmed between 1861 and 1865, but the uses to which that power was put after 1865 often had a stronger resonance internationally, certainly in the 20th century, than domestically. And military strength, rather than underpinning a strong, positive, outward-looking central state, gradually evolved into an overly defensive, negative, inward-focussed one. In this respect, as in others, the Civil War’s legacy was one of suffering and stagnation. So, far from uprooting and changing anything, the Civil War left far too much the same.

Confederate iconography continues to haunt America

Keisha N. Blain, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.

Racial divisions in the United States are the Civil War’s most enduring legacy. Although the nation was already divided along racial lines long before 1861, the conflict exacerbated this discord. Despite Reconstruction, racial divisions persist and the legacy of the war remains at the centre of debates about Confederate statues and flags.

Serious students of US history understand how fundamental slavery was to the existence of the Confederacy. The threat of abolition was the reason that seven states seceded from the Union following Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 (although Lincoln made no promise to end slavery). By June 1861, the number of states seceding from the Union rose to 11. The quick unravelling that followed Lincoln’s election underscored the deep racial divisions in the nation. Indeed, the Confederacy’s struggleto protect ‘states’ rights’ was nothing more than an effort to preserve states’ rights to uphold slavery in a region that relied heavily on it.

Despite protestations that they were motivated by economic reasons, the reality is that southern slaveholders’ desire to maintain slavery – at any cost – was fuelled by racism and white supremacy. It is no surprise, therefore, that the majority of African Americans resist the symbols and icons of the Confederate States of America. Relying on logic that mirrors the thinking of Southern slaveholders, today’s advocates and defenders of confederate iconography point to Southern ‘pride’, ‘heritage’, or ‘culture’ in an attempt to justify their attachment to this racist imagery.

White supremacists such as Dylann Roof – who killed nine black men and women in a church in Charleston in June 2015 – fully grasp and embrace the racist history of the Confederacy. Roof’s decision to pose with the Confederate battle flag (alongside the Apartheid-era South African and Rhodesian flags) is the most compelling and disturbing reminder of the deep racial divisions in the US. The Civil War provided this iconography; it remains visible to this day.

The creation of a powerful federal government has proved divisive

Tim Stanley, Historian, columnist and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph

It has been observed that before the Civil War, America was referred to as ‘these United States’ and after it as ‘the United States’. That’s simplistic but, yes, the conflict turned a loose arrangement of states into a strong union with a powerful federal government in Washington DC. This triggered a new debate: to what extent should the machinery of that government be used to tackle racial and social injustice?

In the immediate aftermath of the war, radical reformers tried to destroy racism in the South with education, democracy, even the force of arms. White southerners resisted with violence – and won. They accepted the abolition of slavery but put in its place a new racist order called segregation, shielding it from federal interference on the pretext of ‘states’ rights’. Segregation was legally abolished in the 1960s thanks to an alliance of Civil Rights activists and liberal politicians, but it left deep scars.

Today, African-Americans and other minorities tend to see the federal government as a good thing because they have a historical experience of it stepping in to help them and to protect their constitutional rights. Many whites, by contrast, regard the expansion of the state since the Civil War as un-American – a direction that needn’t have been taken, a threat to individual liberty. The War, they argue, did correct a fundamental flaw in the American Revolution – that it had tolerated the evil of slavery – but now that people were free, they should largely be left to their own devices. Wasn’t that what the Founding Fathers originally intended? The republic of independent farmers and self-governing communities that Jefferson believed in was very different from the industrialising, centralised America that the War left behind.

Many other Americans interpret the War not as an end but a beginning. To them, the American Revolution is an ongoing attempt to create, as Barack Obama framed it, ‘a more perfect union’ in which the country is peacefully diverse, equal and more united. This struggle – between the Revolution as a settled matter or a crusade for reform – is what so much of US politics is still about today.

The natural landscape of a continent has been reshaped

Erin Stewart Mauldin, Author of Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the South 

Historians have been slow to acknowledge that the Civil War transformed how Americans conceived of and manipulated natural resources across the continent. Artillery fire, defence works and camps wiped out timber resources and ruined cultivated fields as troops crisscrossed the nation. Foraging armies devastated rural households and spread animal diseases which returned to devastate herds in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Industrial development on a ‘northern’ model followed the US military’s occupation of the former Confederacy. Legislation created during and immediately after the war facilitated the great giveaway of the Midwestern plains and southern forests to railroad and timber companies. Opening new lands for cultivation and logging enabled the skinning of the environment for its cash value and little else, leaving farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and hunters with fewer options for subsistence. The subsequent displacement of poorer Americans from rural spaces accelerated urbanisation and provided a cheap labour pool for booming industrial enterprises.

Of course, the Civil War’s ecological legacies were more nuanced than simple despoliation. The ‘ruination’ of natural resources contributed to the nascent national parks movement and land abandoned because of war or occupation allowed parts of the country to reforest. Animal and food shortages in theatres of war were one factor in the increasing proliferation of corn-fed Midwestern beef and pork on America’s dinner tables (and arguably the beginning of the South’s long struggle with heart disease).

Perhaps most importantly, ecological instability and resource shortages hardened insider-outsider lines and escalated social tensions in the postwar South. Amid widespread hunger, hardship and a refugee crisis, the need for guaranteed money contributed to the degradation of the very land meant to support ex-slaves’ freedom and a campaign of violence and terror to make sure what survived the war stayed in white hands – events that portend what could happen in our own era of climate change.