Legacies of the Civil War


LincolnAt war's end, one president was murdered and another was imprisoned. Uncertainty gripped both North and South. Families everywhere mourned the deaths and maiming of countless young men. Four million Americans who had been enslaved were free. An entire social system and much of the South's wealth had been destroyed. For the first time, many Americans knew the bitter taste of total defeat. The Confederacy was dead, but so too was the old Union. What would take its place? How could the nation reunite? By what process did the seceded states "rejoin" the Union?

The process of reconstruction really began during the war as President Abraham Lincoln experimented with policies to restore Union-held areas of the Confederacy to their "proper relationship" with the federal government. To most people, however, the term Reconstruction means the period of federal intervention in the South from the end of the war until the withdrawal of troops in 1877. This was a confusing and contradictory era in which all the former Confederate states were readmitted to the United States; African Americans, mostly former slaves, were elected to political office for the first time; and the Ku Klux Klan was born. One thing is certain: Reconstruction did not end wartime conflicts. How do you view Reconstruction—as positive or negative?

ruins of Charleston Long-Term Legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Did the war make the United States "one nation indivisible?" How did the federal government's policies of free enterprise and free labor, combined with the stimulus of wartime production, favor the formation of capital and propel the growth of an industrial economy? Did the nation undergo the "new birth of freedom" promised in the Gettysburg Address and longed for by black Americans? How do the Civil War and its legacies continue to shape our nation today?

Here are some ideas to ponder and discuss with teachers, friends, and family:

Economic Development

The Civil War laid the groundwork for the rapid postwar economic growth and industrialization of America, stimulated by such federal initiatives as the transcontinental railroad, homesteading in the West, land grant colleges (such as Virginia Tech, Michigan State, and Texas A&M), and a national paper currency known as the "greenback." The South, devastated by war, shared little in the economic growth of the nation as a whole until World War II.


The war produced or popularized innovations we take for granted such as metal ships, the marine propeller, the can opener, clothes labeled with sizes, and shoes fitted for the right and left feet.

National Leaders

The Civil War was a formative experience for many Americans who helped build the nation we know today. People such as Andrew Carnegie, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John D. Rockefeller, John B. Gordon, Mark Twain, Maggie Walker, Martin Delaney, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Carl Schurz shaped modern America.

Confederate Solider Former Confederates

In the South, the war left loss, devastation, poverty, and desolation in its wake. Some thirty-seven percent of all Southern white males of military age were wounded or killed, affecting almost every white family. One thing Southerners could hold onto was their heritage of military valor and sacrifice. Another was opposition to the social revolution that Reconstruction had forced on them. What or who were the "The Lost Cause," "Jim Crow", Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson, and Lyndon B. Johnson? How do they relate to the war and Reconstruction?

African Americans

The abandonment of Reconstruction left black Americans to work for a return to the ideals of freedom and equality that had prevailed during the war and Reconstruction. How do the Buffalo Soldiers, W. E. B. DuBois, the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown v. Board of Education, "the Second Reconstruction," Martin Luther King, Jr., and Condoleeza Rice relate to the Civil War and its legacies?

American Culture

The Civil War, its causes and legacies have had an enormous impact on American culture. For example, American literature would be almost unrecognizable without such classics as Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Walt Whitman's O Captain! My Captain!, Allen Tate's Ode to the Confederate Dead, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! The war similarly impacted American popular culture, music, painting, and sculpture.

America As a World Power

Within a few decades of the Civil War, an American nation consolidated by Union victory stepped onto the world stage. What connections can you draw between the Civil War and the following?

  • The Spanish-American War?
  • World War I?
  • World War II?
  • The War in Iraq?

What effects do you think the war continues to have on America? We hope that you will visit the American Civil War Center to learn more about how the Civil War and its aftermath shaped our country today. The Center provides a framework for thinking about the impact of the war on us today. We encourage you to think about these issues, learn about them, and discuss them with others.

In 1860-1861, the United States split apart. Why did the Southern states leave the Union? Was war inevitable? What were the combatants fighting about? You can explore these and other questions at the Center and learn what motivated Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.

More >>
Was it a "war for Southern independence" or a rebellion against legitimate authority? Could a political solution yet be found? Would foreign countries recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation? Would the status of slaves change?

More >>
What effects do you think the war continues to have on America? We hope that you will visit the American Civil War Center to learn more about how the Civil War and its aftermath shaped our country today.

More >>