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US Civil War

How did the Civil War change the United States?


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The chief and immediate cause of the war was slavery.

Southern states, including the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, depended on slavery to support their economy. Southerners used slave labor to produce crops, especially cotton. Although slavery was illegal in the Northern states, only a small proportion of Northerners actively opposed it. The main debate between the North and the South on the eve of the war was whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories recently acquired during the Mexican War (1846-1848), including New Mexico, part of California, and Utah. Opponents of slavery were concerned about its expansion, in part because they did not want to compete against slave labor.

The war also caused wide-scale economic destruction to the South. The Confederate states lost two-thirds of their wealth during the war. The loss of slave property through emancipation accounted for much of this, but the economic infrastructure in the South was also severely damaged in other ways. Railroads and industries in the South were in shambles, more than one-half of all farm machinery was destroyed, and 40 percent of all livestock had been killed. In contrast, the Northern economy thrived during the war. Two numbers convey a sense of the economic cost to the respective sections: between 1860 and 1870, Northern wealth increased by 50 percent; during that same decade, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.

Effects of the War

The Civil War was the central event in the lives of most of the men who served in the armed forces. Many of them had never traveled more than a few miles beyond their homes, and the war took them to places they otherwise would not have seen, made them participants in great events, and often left them with scars that constantly reminded them of how much they had sacrificed. During the postwar years, thousands of men joined veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic in the North and the United Confederate Veterans in the South. They revisited the sites of their battles, raised monuments to commemorate their service, and, in large numbers, wrote reminiscences about their part in the war. For black men who fought for the Union, the war provided the strongest possible claim for full citizenship. They had risked their lives, along with their white comrades in the military, and they argued that they should have the right to vote and otherwise live as full members of American society.

The war touched the lives of almost every person in the United States. Women assumed larger responsibilities in the workplace because so many men were absent in the armies. In the North, they labored as nurses (previously a male occupation), government clerks, and factory workers and contributed to the war effort in other ways. Southern white women also worked as clerks and nurses and in factories, and thousands took responsibility for running family farms. Several hundred women disguised themselves as men and served in the military, a few of whom were wounded in battle. Although the war opened opportunities for work outside the household, its end brought a general return to old patterns of employment. Still, the war remained a major event in the lives of women as it did for the men in uniform.

Slave men and women in the South shouldered a major part of the labor burden, as they always had, and made it possible for the Confederacy to put nearly 80 percent of its military-age white men in uniform, a level of mobilization unequaled in American history. No group was more directly affected by the outcome of the war than the almost 4 million black people who were slaves in 1861. They emerged from the conflict with their freedom, which was confirmed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. However, blacks did not have equal rights until long after the war.

The war also touched children in profound ways. Fathers and brothers left home to fight, and thousands of boys 17 years old or younger entered military service as drummers, musicians, or soldiers in the ranks. Children behind the lines followed the progress of the war, pretending to be soldiers or nurses. All too often, they were affected by the loss of parents or siblings. Many grew to adulthood with a sense that whatever they might face in life, it would be less important than the great national crisis in which their fathers fought.

Long-Term Effects of the War

The war was followed by twelve years of Reconstruction, during which the North and South debated the future of black Americans and waged bitter political battles. In 1877, the white South tacitly conceded national power to the Republican Party in return for the right to rule their own states with minimal interference from the North. Republican domination of presidential politics and a solidly Democratic white South were two legacies of the war and Reconstruction. Despite ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, black Americans failed to win equal rights during the acrimonious postwar political debates. As the 19th century closed, they faced a rigidly segregated life in the South and hostility across most of the North.

Despite the destruction, the war did settle the question of secession. Since 1861 no state has seriously considered withdrawing from the Union. In addition, the war brought slavery to an end. After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was widespread acceptance of the fact that Union victory would mean general emancipation. Since the proclamation was a war measure that might be held unconstitutional after the war, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, was passed by both houses of Congress early in 1865. It was ratified by three-fourths of the states and was formally proclaimed in effect on December 18, 1865.

The war also set the South back at least a generation in industry and agriculture. Factories and farms were devastated by the invading armies. The labor system fell into chaos. Not until the 20th century did the South recover fully from the economic effects of the war. In contrast, the North forged ahead with the building of a modern industrial state.

In conclusion, it must be remarked that the Civil War did not raise blacks to a position of equality with whites. Nor did the war bring about that emotional reunion that Lincoln hoped for when he spoke in his first inaugural address of "the bonds of affection" that had formerly held the two sections together.