The American Civil War of 1861-1865 remained as a defining moment in American history and was fought between neighboring states with incidences of brothers on opposite sides of the battle waging war against each other. It threatened to erode the fabric holding together the American civil society and patriotism with claims on dismantling the Union. The impact of the war is felt to date and will continue and has played a vital role in shaping modern politics, culture and the wider American society (Parish, 2020). The war served as an outlet of tensions brewing over the decades between the North and the South, touching on sensitive cultural issues such as slavery and economic progress.
The impact of the war was not limited to the actual battlefields but instead extended to shape the nation’s identity, culture, and progress. The issue of slavery was a divisive factor, and social, political and economic factors combined to form a recipe that would serve as a potent test to the idea of a united nation and the sheer power of the Union. In this paper, we will undertake a detailed exploration of the American Civil War to determine the multifaceted causes of the war, the course of the war, immediate and long-term consequences of the war while outlining the enduring legacy it has put on the face of America (Silkenat, 2019). The American Civil War is not just a matter of dates or battles fought but serves as a mirror to decipher the complicated nature of humankind, the fragility of shared beliefs, and the inevitable turn of infinite progress overall. This paper will serve better to understand the struggles and triumphs of the great nation we know today.
It is utterly impossible to pinpoint one factor as the cause of the war as tensions had been brewing for years and this would ultimately culminate in the outburst of the war. Slavery was the major issue of debate but the causes can be classified as economic, social, and political factors (Draper, 1870). Notably, although there were longstanding factors that caused the war, there were immediate factors that served as the spark that ignited the war. Economic differences were on display with the North and the South having clearly different economic models. The north majorly relied on industrialization and urbanization, while the economy of the South depended heavily on agriculture with enslaved people being the chief source of labor on farms. The north had a diversified economy that was fluid and able to adapt with changing circumstances, but the South was a rigid one, with any slight changes having far-reaching consequences.
The vast differences in the two economic models created misaligned interests on issues such as trade tariffs, eradicating slavery, and policies. The northern states had made massive progress towards eliminating slave labor towards attaining an industrialized labor force in line with market forces, while eradicating slavery in the south was vehemently opposed as it meant increasing the cost of agricultural production. This was a key point of divergence, and tensions hit the roof. The scope of federal authority was a point of conflict with northern states seeking more power vested upon the union’s leaders. At the same time, the South preferred the autonomy of federal states to make decisions based on their unique circumstances (Goldin & Lewis, 1975). In essence, southern states felt that the Union was infringing on their rights on such issues like federal rights.
Additionally, as differences widened, citizens began identifying more with their regions instead of the central authority and sectionalism kicked in. The mentality of us versus them took center stage and animosity brewed to levels never experienced before. Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, a Republican and the southern states now felt that they were secluded from the federal government.
Moreover, the immediate cause of the war was the secession of the southern states from the central Union and this coincided with the period after the election of President Lincoln. Lincoln took office in March 1861, and by then seven states had seceded and proceeded to form the Confederate of States of America. Secession was a significant threat to the integrity of the Union, and the President had to marshal the Union troops to prepare for war to preserve the Union. The first shots of the Civil war would then be recorded at Fort Sumter in Charlestown Harbor in South Carolina in April 1861, an attack by the Confederate forces that sparked a military conflict. The attack meant that the war was now in full spring. Jefferson Davis was the official President of the Confederate States and the attack at Fort Sumter caused the Union forces stationed there to surrender. The move caused more states to join the Confederate through secession, and the union was forced to mobilize in readiness for full-scale war. The Union lost some of the early battles notably the First Battle of Bull Run, and this dispelled the notion that the war would be short-lived. Battles took place in Virginia, and in the West Union Forces sought to block the Mississippi River to cause divisions in the confederacy.
The war was ravaging on all sides, and in 1863 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a momentous decree to signify a change in Union war objectives and decreed abolishing slavery a primary goal in the war. The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 was a turning point in the course of the fight to end the advance of the Confederacy forces to the North and the Siege of Vicksburg to mark control of Union forces on the Mississippi River (Foote & Hess, 2021). The next phase of war was very severe, and massive casualties were reported on either side. Still, the size of the Union meant that were better positioned in dealing with losses and continuing with war unabated.
General Ulysses Grant took control of Union forces, and his strategies aimed at putting surrender on the confederacy to coerce them into surrender. Total war set in, and the Southern states found themselves isolated and unable to press on with the war as the country entered 1865. The submission of General Robert E. Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively terminated the war’s major combat operations. Other Confederate soldiers surrendered in the following months, culminating in Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith’s capitulation in June 1865.
The immediate consequences of the war were earmarked by loss of lives on either side. It is estimated that over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives and the number of casualties was massive and impossible to determine (Sainlaude, 2019). The civil war remains one of the deadliest wars in American history and cities, homes, and property worth millions was destroyed during the war. The emancipation of enslaved people occurred and slavery was abolished, declaring slaves free human beings. The freedom sparked a continuous civil rights movement to end all forms of discrimination that remained such as racial discrimination. The end of the war gave room to the reconstruction era despite resistance from southern states, with amendments passed to reflect the changes made in the course of the war to abolish slavery and accord voting rights to African Americans.
The long-term consequences touch on the reunification of the United States under a strong Federal authority and the question of secession was settled once and for all. The end of the war reiterated the unity of Union into one nation under shared beliefs, and the power of the Union extended beyond state authority. Industrialization did not stop entirely in the course of the war and continued to support the cause of the northern war effort and this expanded across the nation once the war ended (Draper, 1870). The south embraced industrialization and a paradigm shift took place away from an agrarian society and this is credited for the improved living standards across the nation.
The war is credited for the mid-nineteenth century rise of the Civil rights movement to champion for the rights of minority groups with leading figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. The campaign sought to eradicate all forms of discrimination and ensure that all American citizens, irrespective of their innate differences such as skin color received equal and fair treatment. The war set a precedence for the Federal government to play a leading role in solving national crises and calamities, as observed during the COVID-19 Pandemic, to alter the impact of the virus through national vaccination efforts. Additionally, it caused a perpetual cultural shift with nationalism and taking pride in the Union flag growing immensely. Exceptionalism was embraced across all facets of society and the war has shaped art, cultural practices and literature (Varon, 2008). Evidence supporting the impact of the civil war includes the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Reconstruction amendments, civil rights activists and the spreading of industrialization.
In conclusion, the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 is an inextricable part of modern American history. The war cements President Lincoln among the great American presidents and he ranks among the founding fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Maddison. The war has been the most grueling threat to the Federal government in history and the Union forces standing their ground to preserve the Union is a great beacon of hope on the strength of the United States. The war also serves as a point of origin to remember the soldiers who gave their lives that the nation might live and this sheer sacrifice should be remembered as they created the freedoms we hold today. The war ended to mark the abolishment of freedom and underscore the proposition that all men were created equal and all forms of discrimination are intolerable as they infringe on the rights of individual citizens. Future research on the American Civil war should conduct comparative studies with similar wars that have occurred in other parts of the wide and seek to establish the lived experiences of different American ethnic groups during the war. The focus on how the memory of the war has evolved over the years and the cultural modifications caused by the war should be determined.
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Draper, J. W. (1870). History of the American Civil War (Vol. 3). Harper.
Foote, L., & Hess, E. J. (Eds.). (2021). The Oxford Handbook of the American Civil War. Oxford University Press.
Goldin, C. D., & Lewis, F. D. (1975). The economic cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and implications. The Journal of Economic History, 35(2), 299-326.
Parish, P. J. (2020). The American Civil War. Routledge.
Sainlaude, S. (2019). France and the American Civil War: A Diplomatic History. UNC Press Books.
Silkenat, D. (2019). Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War. UNC Press Books.
Varon, E. R. (2008). Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Univ of North Carolina Press.