The Legacy of the American Civil War

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  • 0:01 A War About Slavery
  • 0:36 Confederate…
  • 2:12 The Lost Cause
  • 4:19 Staying Power of the…
  • 5:16 Confederate Flag
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

This lesson covers the battle of interpretation surrounding the Civil War. Was it a war for states' rights, or a war for slavery? How should we remember the Confederate flag?

A War About Slavery

The Civil War might have ended in 1865, but the legacy of the war has been a long struggle for meaning and interpretation. Was it a war over the right of individual states to leave the Union, or was it a war over slavery? Was it both? Is the Confederate flag today a symbol of rugged manliness and resistance to big government, or is it a symbol of violent and dehumanizing racism? These are questions that still have real-world consequences. This lesson will explore the struggle over the legacy and commemoration of the Civil War.

Confederate Declarations of Cause

At the time of the Civil War, Confederate states made it very clear: the war was about slavery, and the Confederacy was founded to protect slavery as an institution. When the Confederate states seceded, five of them published official Declarations of Cause, detailing exactly why they left the Union. All five make it very clear that this was a war about slavery. Georgia justified secession by citing Northern states' attempts to limit slavery and prohibit it in new states. Mississippi claimed that 'our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery' and concluded that secession was the only option for preserving its slave-based economy.

South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas did primarily discuss the right to secede, but all three gave Northern anti-slavery politics as the reason for their secession. Texas' declaration in particular quickly moved from the right to secede into an extended discussion of white supremacy. These states weren't fighting a war about the right to secede in the abstract. The only reason why they suddenly cared about their right to secede was the threat to slavery.

In 1861, the vice president of the Confederacy wrote that 'The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause for the late rupture and present revolution.'

The Lost Cause

Contemporary accounts from the Civil War era make it very clear that this was a war about slavery. But during the era of Reconstruction, other explanations of states' rights and economic oppression developed, and a battle over the meaning of the war began.

Almost immediately after the Civil War, women's and veterans' associations started promoting a highly romanticized and nostalgic view of the Civil War, known as the 'lost cause' interpretation. They insisted that:

  • The war was primarily about states' rights to secede, not slavery.
  • The war was, at least in part, a protest of high taxes and tariffs that the North unfairly imposed on the South, not a defense of slavery.
  • The South lost the war only because of its impossible disadvantages in manpower and industry. Confederate soldiers were gallant heroes who lost only to overwhelming force, and Confederate generals, especially Robert E. Lee, were brilliant.
  • Black slaves were loyal to their masters and unprepared for freedom.

It's not hard to understand why people would want to believe this explanation. The heroic interpretation of the Confederate army was comforting to the families of the dead soldiers, and the romantic view of prewar society was a logical reaction to the upheaval and uncertainty of the postwar period.

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