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The legacy of the Civil War

Ending the Civil War and bringing peace to the nation presented a hugely challenging task.  On what terms would the Confederate states be readmitted into the Union? And how would slavery be abolished in practice?

Stonewall Jackson Statue (Joseph Pollia) at Manassas, VA

Stonewall Jackson Statue (Joseph Pollia) at Manassas, VA
Photograph: Matthew Shaw

Reconstruction

The period following the end of the Civil War in April 1865 became known as 'Reconstruction', characterised by a series of political battles over the extent of leniency the North should show to the defeated South.  Supported by the federal army, Republican biracial state governments formed in former Democrat heartlands. Composed of freed slaves, Northern arrivals ('Carpetbaggers') and pro–Reconstruction Southerners ('Scalawags'), these groups attempted to rebuild and reconstitute the South. The federal government also established the ‘Freedmen’s Bureau’ to help ex–slaves, or ‘freedmen’, in the developing post–war society, although its overall effectiveness lasted little more than a decade after the conflicted ended.

Economic depression, accusations of corruption and continued racism created violent opposition and a rising white backlash against freedmen’s rights. The post–war years also witnessed the creation of white vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to restore a white supremacist status quo through violence and intimidation, though many of these (including the Klan for a few decades) were suppressed by the President Ulysses S. Grant’s government in the 1870s. In 1877, military intervention in the South ceased, and Republicans lost control of the last three states under their power.

During the period that then followed, labelled 'Redemption' by Southerners, legislation disenfranchised African Americans, and imposed white supremacy by what were known as the Jim Crow Laws. As such, while the Civil War helped to forge a national Union identity, based on the ideals of freedom and equality, it also sowed the seeds of a myth of Southern victimisation and the romanticisation of the Antebellum South. The collective memory of the War remains contested.

In contrast, British collective memory might be better described as collective amnesia, with British involvement and contemporary debate about the war largely forgotten.  Why is this?  Perhaps the answer may lie with the extent of support for the Confederate states and subsequent desire to forget this preference towards the slave–holding states. However, the growing field of local history research has done much to explore the tensions surrounding Confederate support in Britain, especially in relation to the economic considerations of the cotton trade and the conflict’s impact on the nation.

Over the last decade especially, more attention has been drawn to Britain’s own engagements with both the Union and Confederacy, ensuring that the American Civil War is increasingly put into a broader, trans–national context, which can only benefit fields of study either side of the Atlantic.

Memorials and Public Memory

Commemorations and memorials date from the beginning of the conflict itself:. Battlefields, such as the site of the First and Second Bull Runs at Manassas are dotted with physical reminders of the men who died there, while Emancipation Day quickly became occasions of public ritual, as well as potential racial conflict in the South.  In the years that followed the War, and again at the fifty and hundred-year anniversaries, public memorials flourished, as did combined 'Blue and Gray' banquets for Confederate and Union veterans. One noteworthy commemoration occurred at Gettysburg in 1913 when over 53,000 surviving veterans from both sides reunited for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle.

The war’s centennial, from 1960–1965, coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.,  made reference to America’s failure to fulfill the promises made one hundred years earlier in the Emancipation Proclamation during his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Additionally, popular films and novels, notably Gone with the Wind, remind us that romanticised images of the South retain a strong hold in the collective memory and maintain the notion of a Confederate ‘Lost Cause’. However, much work has been done by cultural historians over the last few decades to highlight the Hollywood fiction within these examples, providing a more balanced view of the representations presented.

Beyond America, the North's victory could be taken as a sign of the triumph of democracy and freedom, and could even be used to encourage reform in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many in France contrasted the repressive measures of Napoleon III with republican, democratic ideals, and led to the proposal for a gift of a statue pointedly celebrating the sharing of these values between the two nations - 'Liberty Enlightening the World' (better known as the Statue of Liberty) was the end result of this desire.

In Britain, the 1867 expansion of the franchise drew some its support from the Union victory. Lincoln himself was commemorated, with subscriptions raising funds for a statue in London, which still stands in Parliament Square facing the Houses of Parliament, while another statue of the President can be found in Manchester. Yet the process of memorialisation did not just commemorate the struggles of the North.  In 1863, the death of Confederate General 'Stonewall' Jackson was met with widespread sorrow in Britain.  Confederate sympathisers founded a British Jackson Memorial Fund and in 1875, the statue was finally unveiled in Richmond.  

Debates about appropriate commemoration and memorialisation remain prevalent to this day, especially as 2010–2015 marks the sesquicentennial, or one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the conflict. Much commemoration is undertaken at the grassroots by local history groups, battlefield re-enactors and organisations of veterans’ descendents. Some memorialisation still provokes debate, such as the re-enactment of South Carolina’s session ball in December 2010. Yet it is notable that the scale of debate and education around the issues of the war remains undiminished as each anniversary is marked, thus ensuring that the conflict’s legacy is still discussed, questioned and remembered by future generations.

One hundred and fifty years ago, during his brief speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln commented that 'the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here'. Thankfully he was wrong, and his address has become one of the best known speeches in American history.

Lincoln’s belief 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth' has inspired generations across the world. Appropriation of the war’s history may still be contested but the legacy of democracy and liberty that the Union cause came to embody lives on.

Find out more

  • Bennet, John, 'General Jackson's Statue', Crossfire 74 (2004)
  • Beye, Charles Rowan, 'Gone With the Wind, and Good Riddance', Southwest Review 78 (1993), 366-80
  • Blair, William A., Cities of the Dead: contesting the memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (Chapel Hill, 2004)
  • Blight, David W., Beyond the Battlefield: race, memory, and the American Civil War (Amherst & Boston, 2002)
  • Gopnik, Adam, 'Memorials', New Yorker, 9 May 2011
  • Haskell, Molly, Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited (New Haven & London, 2009) 
  • Jacob Allamong, Kathryn, Testament to Union: Civil War monuments in Washington D.C. (Baltimore & London, 1998).

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