The Legacy of the Civil War

The Civil War was the bitterest war in American history by almost any definition. It has been called the “brothers' war,” the war between the states, or the “War of Northern Aggression.” Strong feelings about the background, causes, fighting, and meaning of the Civil War continue to this day. For a long time, the number of deaths on both sides in the Civil War was estimated at slightly over 600,000, with another 400,000 suffering grievous wounds. Recently that estimate has been revised upward to 750,000, a figure upon which many preeminent historians now agree. In addition, millions of dollars worth of property were destroyed, families were disrupted, fortunes were made and lost, and the country that emerged from the war in 1865 was very different from the country that had existed in 1860. Myths about the causes conduct and results of the war also persist into modern times. It is often difficult to separate the mythological from the factual history of the war, about which much is still being written.

In the immediate aftermath of the war its most serious consequence was undoubtedly the rage that swept across the South, manifesting itself in bitterness and hatred of all things associated with the Union—or the North. “Yankee” was a pejorative term, and “damn Yankee” was one of the milder epithets applied to anyone who came from the far side of the Mason-Dixon line. (One of my former students who married a Southerner said that she had lived in the South for twenty years before she knew “damn Yankee” was two words.) Not only had the South seen a huge portion of its young male population destroyed, along with homesteads, farms, factories and railroads, but after all the sacrifice and suffering that Southerners felt they had to endure, they were back in that hated Union. Furthermore the institution—slavery—which had an indisputable role in secession and thus in the causes of the Civil War itself was as a result of the Thirteenth Amendment decreed to be gone forever, though not without a fight. It would take more than a century for the legacy of slavery to be reduced in any significant way

Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be America's greatest president, was viewed in the South past as an enemy at best, and at worst as a “bloodthirsty tyrant.” One Virginia woman expressed feelings very common at the end of the Civil War when she wrote in her diary: “I stood in the street in Richmond and watched the Yankees raise the flag over the capitol with tears running down my face, because I could remember a time when I loved that flag, and now I hate the very sight of it!” As Southerners viewed the history of the prewar years, secession and the war itself, they began the process of writing their own history of those terrible events, and came to adopt what is called the “Lost Cause,” the idea that in the end the South had been right in its desire to govern itself and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The idea—or, as some term it, the “myth”—of the Lost Cause is still present.

Reconstruction, the process of rebuilding the South, would have been difficult under the best of circumstances and with the best of leadership. But Abraham Lincoln, whose attitude toward the South was encapsulated in his Second Inaugural Address—“with charity for all and malice toward none”—was dead. And Andrew Johnson, nominally a Southerner, was far from the best man for the job. The Republican radicals in the United States Congress, who dominated the government, including President Johnson, and whose intentions may have been heartfelt, nevertheless dictated strict terms under which the South could rejoin the union, terms that were virtually impossible for the South to swallow without choking on them. Reconstruction was, in the words of one historian, a “states' righter's nightmare.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of reconstruction is that it had to occur at all in legal sense. For four years a bloody war had been conducted to prove the point that a state could not unilaterally leave the union. For the four years after the war was over, United States Congress dictated terms under which the states would be admitted back into the Union.

Naturally the rage and frustration felt by many Southerners needed a target or outlet, and unsurprisingly, that target was the Freedmen and women, the former slaves who now walked unfettered in the streets of Charleston, Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans. Their very presence as free men and women further aggravated feelings of Southerners like salt in a wound, and their wrath was often bloody and violent.

What is called the Reconstruction period lasted about a dozen years, but its effects went on for decades, and indeed the legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath, Reconstruction, remain with us to this day.

The results of the Civil War included the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that ended slavery, created national citizenship for the first time, amplified the meaning of the Bill of Rights, and attempted to provide access to the democratic process for all adult male Americans. They were, in the short term, only partially successful at best.

Reconstruction Home | Updated April 22, 2017