The sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War provides a propitious moment to review the events of the war, its immediate impact, and its long-term legacy for America. Unquestionably, the conclusion of the War Between the States brought predictable and unforeseen consequences.
One doesn’t have to be a military historian to appreciate the bravery and courage of soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, as evidenced by the Confederate army’s Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The battles of the conflict remain as part of the lore of their environ, just as the generals who led the Union and Confederate armies continue to fascinate new generations of citizens.
The Civil War left as many soldiers dead on both sides as Americans killed in subsequent wars. It is right and decent to commemorate the sacrifice of soldiers and to remember the details of the conflict, which is done by patriotic ceremonies, gravesite visits, military re-enactors, and preservation of sites.
Clearly, the successful prosecution of the Civil War by the Union fulfilled the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation. Within five years of the end of the war, three constitutional amendments would be added. But whereas momentum for civil rights seemed unstoppable on April 9, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination days later led to a period of sustained partisan warfare between Andrew Johnson — a lifelong Democrat who served as Lincoln’s vice president — and a Congress dominated by the Republicans.
What gains did occur through Reconstruction and Civil Rights acts were reversed by laws and court rulings which hardened segregation.
For better and worse, war is a condition which has enhanced the authority of the government to fight it, particularly the power of the president.
Though many of his actions were later approved by Congress or authorized by courts, President Lincoln has been perpetually criticized for a number of moves related to restricting speech and denying civil liberties.
A year after his death, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling castigated the Lincoln’s administration for illegally suspending habeas corpus rights of citizens not directly involved in fighting. Lincoln’s impatience with his generals contrasted with the resolve of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, yet
Lincoln’s leaders eventually won the war. Still, what is remembered is the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
Militarily, the effective employment of a “scorched earth” policy would be repeated over the next quarter-century in battling Native American tribes.
The end of the War Between the States did not solve the tug-of-war between the national government and state governments that defines American federalism. But an unmistakable trend toward greater nationalization occurred in the areas of communication and transportation.
The large and quick growth of the United States following the Civil War — in which population doubled and eight states were added up to the end of the 19th century — fostered a more cosmopolitan populace.
Further, nationalization of political parties produced a broader outlook for candidates and issues. While state sovereignty still existed, there was no longer any defense for nullification or justification for secession. The concept of the Union’s indivisibility proved stronger than the opt-out approach.
While states still relied on the 10th Amendment for rationalizing policy, the deference to the Article VI Supremacy Clause confirmed the indissoluble element of the Constitution.
Given the present political climate in the United States, it is easy to forget the enmity felt between elected officials and political parties in the late antebellum era. The hostility and antagonism which characterized Congress in the 1850s created an environment of constant friction in which compromise became a dirty word, legislative productivity declined, and members lost sight of the national interest.
While it is certainly hoped that the current circumstances do not beget a repeat of history, it is valuable to remind ourselves how destructive partisan politics can be when taken to an extreme. Conversely, the commemoration of the Civil War’s conclusion allows us to trumpet the principle of equality, vividly demonstrating that some things are worth fighting for.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. A previous recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dr. Hoff served as DSU’s ROTC director for six years.