Civil War

Understanding Civil War Legacy

The Civil War was a pivotal event in American history. Many agree that it helped unify the nation and led to the institution of slavery being abolished, but there is a great deal more to be said about its legacy. In 1961, during the War's centennial (and at the height of the Cold War and Civil Rights movement), Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and scholar Robert Penn Warren explored the War's impact, and considered how it shaped modern America in The Legacy of the Civil War. He talked about popular myths, criticized both the North and the South, and questioned whether we had learned anything from the struggle.

The Civil War was a pivotal event in American history. Many agree that it helped unify the nation and led to the institution of slavery being abolished, but there is a great deal more to be said about its legacy. In 1961, during the War's centennial (and at the height of the Cold War and Civil Rights movement), Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and scholar Robert Penn Warren explored the War's impact, and considered how it shaped modern America in The Legacy of the Civil War. He talked about popular myths, criticized both the North and the South, and questioned whether we had learned anything from the struggle.

Even now, during the sesqui-centennial, the War continues to cast a long shadow, which affects our lives in diverse and occasionally surprising ways. The War transformed the political, constitutional, social and economic landscape, and led to advances in technology and health-care that remain in evidence today. There is still heated debate about the underlying causes of this epic conflict, as well as its outcomes. It can be said that a lot depends on your background – birthplace, race, political beliefs – in how you view this legacy.

Civil War historian and alumnus, Mark Snell '77, York College Professor of History, Corey Brooks, and Darrien Davenport, York College's Director of Inter-cultural Student Life and Global Programming, offered their opinions about some of the most conse-quential – and sometimes controversial – Civil War legacies.

Brooks summed up the five most important ways that he considered the Civil War has affected our lives: 1) Illegalized slavery in the U.S. 2) Led to the 14th Amendment's federal constitutional guarantee of equal citizenship (even though it often went unenforced in the ensuing decades). 3) Strengthened the national government's power in the realms of economic development and rights protection. 4) Impoverished the South by freeing the enslaved human beings who counted as the region's major source of investment wealth and a sixth of all American wealth before the Civil War (slaves were worth more than railroad investment, banks and factories nationwide combined in 1860). 5) Established a pattern of regionally divided two-party politics (what we might now call "red states" and "blue states," though for nearly a century it was the South that was solidly Democratic, while Republicans typically controlled New England and the Midwest).  

Snell listed five areas where, in his view, the War had a noteworthy impact: "First, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, it ended the curse of slavery. Second, it propelled the U.S. into the industrial era, and allowed the ascendency of free-labor capitalism. Third, it paved the way for the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, setting the stage for the eventual equality of the races. Fourth, it settled the dispute over the primacy of the federal government over the states." And finally he stated the War "preserved the new republic, which by 1865 was only 89 years old."

Davenport said, "As the director of an intercultural center, I am charged with the task of helping students examine their own sense of diversity while learning to appreciate the diversity that others possess either in a social or professional context. With regard to the Civil War, it is important that students who attend York College not only learn about the historical significance that the Civil War has in this area but also understand the impact the Civil War had on diversity and human rights. The Civil War made America acknowledge the importance of equality in diversity, hence the formation and execution of the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves."

In what ways does the Civil War continue to influence us?

Snell said, "Not only did it free a race of people, the Civil War also influenced generations of Americans by the popular culture it spawned. It led to the opening of the West when in 1862 the Homestead Act was passed, and it had a huge impact on higher education with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which gave public lands to state governments to build state colleges and universities."

Brooks looked at the question from a different perspective. "I think more common and interesting to explore" he said, "is the question of how Americans, and especially public political figures, today let present concerns shape how they understand the Civil War. Small-government conservatives like to describe the War as a noble southern stand against the dangers of a growing federal government. African-Americans and racial liberals prefer to see the War as a glorious fight for freedom and equality. Those with an interest or personal history in the U.S. military celebrate the martial valor of those who fought and died for both sides."

In his view, "All of these interpretations represent (at least partially) flawed history, and reflect as much what we each as individuals want to believe today as they do what the documents tell us were the real motives of the leaders on each side of the War (protecting slavery and white supremacy for Confederate policymakers and preserving the Union and Constitution, with or without slavery, for most Union policymakers, including Lincoln).

Any discussion about the Confederate battle flag stirs strong passions. Snell said, "Unfortunately, the Confederate battle flag has been used by hate groups to intimidate minorities by reminding them that the Confederate States of America was founded to preserve the institution of slavery. Although it is protected by the First Amendment, its proper place is in a museum or displayed and interpreted at relevant historic sites, such as Gettysburg." He said, "It is a sad commentary that such a symbol, which was carried valiantly by Confederate soldiers, has become such a divisive issue today."

Brooks added, "Controversy continues to swirl around the Confederate battle flag, with emotions running high among both its advocates and detractors. Many today who fly the flag (mainly white males); or display it on truck bumpers, T-shirts, baseball caps, etc., view it as symbolic of southern heritage or a rough-and-tumble antiestablishment masculine individualism. Its detractors see the flag as a searing reminder of the nation’s, and especially the southern states’ painful history of promoting slavery and white supremacy, and its continued use by many extremist hate groups serves to reinforce these misgivings."

Because it has meant so many things to so many people, Brooks argued the flag will likely long remain a source of misunderstanding and conflict. "To examine the history of the flag’s use, requires a reckoning with its complicated relationship to the country’s, and especially the South’s, sordid racial history. Though celebrated by Confederate memorial groups in the postbellum era, the battle flag did not achieve its current popular cultural purchase until the mid-20th century." He explained, "This revival was deeply intertwined with the rise of a hardline segregationist political mobilization aimed at rebuffing anticipated federal civil rights incursions in the southern states. The 1948 'Dixiecrat' movement — in which Deep South Democrats bolted their party and ran South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond for president to challenge President Truman’s pro-civil rights position — proudly displayed the Confederate battle flag as an emblem for the short-lived segregationist political party and breathed new life into the symbol."

Brooks said, "Similarly, Georgia adopted an official state flag incorporating the Confederate battle flag not in the aftermath of the Civil War but instead in 1956 (Georgia flew it until 2001), in the heat of the southern furor over the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision mandating school integration."

"The flag, as many of its supporters avow," Brooks said, "represents a distinctive symbol of states’ rights politics and resistance to federal encroachment. But the specific states’ rights that the flag was historically mobilized to protect were first and foremost African-American slavery and racial segregation." Brooks stated that "Consequently the flag will always remain a racially charged, and for many, very hurtful, historical symbol, even if it carries a wide array of other meanings for those white southerners whose ancestors fought and died under it." Davenport agreed and said, "While freedom of speech should be respected, the Confederate flag is perceived as an intentional symbol of malice showing one's lack of support for racial equality in America." He understood that for some, the Confederate flag is "a sign of Southern pride," but says for many, especially African-Americans, "the flag is a symbol of social injustice, racial oppression and separatist ideologies." He recognized why hate groups have embraced the flag for their own purposes: "Historically, it was a sign in support of American slavery during the Civil War. It also represents the purported belief that one race is superior to another, and is used by many groups who believe in white supremacy and Aryan purity."

When asked what would surprise many of us about how the Civil War has impacted our lives, Brooks said, "I think most people would be surprised to delve more deeply into the post-Civil War Reconstruction. This is a story of many southern states trying to reduce recently emancipated African-Americans to a state of near-slavery, congressional Republicans rejecting this result and promoting a profoundly democratizing era of interracial equality maintained at federal gunpoint, followed by a long evisceration of black rights and opportunity for generations after the victory of emancipation and promises of the Reconstruction decade. The complicated cultural, economic and political legacies of race-based slavery thus plagued this country, and especially the former slaveholding states from Maryland and Kentucky southward, for many decades after Lincoln pronounced the Emancipation Proclamation."

Did You Know?

  • The first use of absentee ballots in American politics happened during the Civil War. Knowing that soldiers in the field were more likely to vote Republican, nearly every Republican-controlled state passed laws allowing for absentee voting, and in 1864 absentee soldier votes were cast resoundingly for President Lincoln's re-election. (Courtesy Corey Brooks).
  • The first national income tax and the first paper money printed by the federal government were both created to help finance the cost of the War (before that time paper money was printed mainly by individual banks with state charters, and federal taxation was largely limited to duties or tariffs on imported goods). (Courtesy Corey Brooks).
  • By the end of the war, a sixth of Union servicemen in uniform were African-Americans, the vast majority of them former slaves. (Courtesy Corey Brooks).
  • Following the War, it was estimated that one third of currency in circulation was counterfeit. The Secret Service Division was created on July 5, 1865, in Washington, D.C., to suppress counterfeit currency (www.secretservice.gov)
  • Jonathon Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, implemented a system to evacuate and care for the wounded, becoming the model for the ambulance-to-ER system we know today. At the Battle of Antietam, he established caravans of 50 ambulances, each with a driver and two stretcher-bearers, to ferry the injured to field hospitals. (www.neatorama.com)
  • Some of the battlefield lessons learned by Civil War surgeons have had a lasting impact. Amputation techniques, including cutting as far from the heart as possible, and never slicing through joints, became the standard. (www.neatorama.com)
  • Dr. Julian John Chisholm solved the dilemma of anesthesia shortages by inventing an inhaler, which replaced soaking a handkerchief with chloroform and saved liquid. (www.neatoroma.com)

The War Brought Military Advances and Care for Veterans

  • The first machine guns
  • Submarines
  • ID tags
  • Land mines
  • Ironclad ships
  • Trench warfare
  • Soldiers' Homes that later became the Veterans Administration (www.aarp.org)

The War Brought Technological and Everyday Advances

  • 15,000 miles of new telegraph lines, which reached the West Coast
  • Mass production of canned food
  • Battlefield photography
  • Transcontinental Railroad
  • Can openers
  • Home-delivered mail
  • Premade clothing in sizes small, medium and large
  • Differently shaped left and right shoes