It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battlefields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it some nobler lesson than to destroy. Men write of this, as of other wars, as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death. It seems to me that is the last thing we need to teach; for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it. From Louisburg to Petersburg-a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations-they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth. In the war of secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the great lakes and the gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done and valor exhibited at its highest pitch…There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth. But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow country-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country…These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some who we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.
Rossiter Johnson, Campfire and Battlefield, 1884
With the signing of the articles of surrender in Galveston by Kirby Smith on June 2, 1865, the terms having been agreed to on May 26, 1865, the Civil War was at an end. This is a good time to give a few thoughts as to what this immense event in American history meant to the nation.
1. Secession-A temptation for Americans whenever national fortunes grew rough or when it seemed that different sections could not compromise and agree, secession as a mainstream political option was as dead as the Confederacy.
2. Slavery-The stain of chattel slavery was ended. As the years have rolled by, it has become fashionable to pooh pooh emancipation and to focus on the terrible disabilities that the freed slaves and their descendants would labor under. All true and all irrelevant. Those who lived at the time, both white and black, realized what a vast change the end of slavery made in America. An institution that had grown up over 250 years, it seemed almost divinely inspired that it ended so swiftly over four years, and at a terrible cost.
3. National Pride-It is odd that such a blood letting would be a source of pride North and South, but such was the case after the War. Celebrating the courage of the men who fought, and the genius of the great generals of the conflict, was a common impulse North and South. Union and Confederate veterans began holding joint reunions in the 1880s. Fond remembrance of what seemed at the time a national nightmare, and honoring the veterans who fought in the conflict, helped reunify the nation.
4. The Solid South-A legacy of the Civil War was enmity against the Republican party in most of the South and domination by the Democrat Party. It was a heavily factionalized Democrat Party, where people who would have been Republicans elsewhere in the country, shoehorned themselves into a party with natural political adversaries. The Democrat primaries, restricted to whites, were where the real contested elections were conducted. This feature of American political life was so taken for granted for generations, that insufficient study has been given as to how this warping of the usual course of politics impacted the South and the nation as a whole.
5. Civil Rights-The ultimate failure of Reconstruction to safeguard the rights of blacks, coupled with Supreme Court decisions that reflected a country concerned with national unity rather than the rights of minorities, set up a situation which held back the economic development of the South, leading to massive black exoduses in the early and mid twentieth centuries to the urban centers of the North. One of the more dramatic results of the Civil War era, although it is not often thought of as a legacy of the Civil War.
6. Lincoln-Elevated by his assassination at the moment of victory to the status enjoyed by Washington, Lincoln became an honorary Founding Father, if not a second Father of His Country. A dark horse candidate who in normal times would never have received a major party nomination for the Presidency, let alone win it twice, Lincoln became the dominant figure of his Age, a true turning point in American history. What he would have accomplished but for John Wilkes Booth is the great might have been of American history.
7. The Declaration of Independence-The Civil War forced Americans to fight over the very nature of their country. In doing so many of them, and especially Lincoln, drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence. This rescued that document from becoming a mere relic of the Eighteenth Century, on a par with a tri-corn hat or a powdered wig. The Declaration once again occupied the center of American political thought.
8. Never Again-America has always been a rambunctious place, where civil disturbances are not that unusual. However, we have never repeated the Civil War. It was a very painful lesson in what happens when elections, speeches and political compromise give way to a resort to arms and the nation has not forgotten it.
9. Union-As the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote noted, prior to the Civil War it was common to say “The United States are” when referring to the nation. After the War this changed to “The United States is”. The Civil War established beyond question that the United States is one nation.
10. God-We Americans are an optimistic people and the Civil War came as a vast shock. Why was God allowing this terrible conflict to afflict a people He had so often blessed? The wisest among us, including Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln, assumed that the War was a punishment sent by God for national sins. Lincoln reflected this thought in his Second Inaugural that sums up the Civil War:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.