Legacy of the War

Many contemporary Americans particularly in the northeast and western regions of the country perceive the Civil War as terminating with a grand finale of battle and campaign. This is in stark contrast to the typical southerner who would have to live with the effects of the war for decades and life would never be the same. Many southerners were unable to cope with the newly imposed social norms and turned to terrorism and radicalism in the form of Ku Klux Klan membership in hopes of assuaging their hatreds while many others continued to relive the past under the fantastical romanticized notion of the “lost cause,” the idea that a virtuous and chivalrous CSA had only lost the conflict due to the overwhelming force of a decadent, brutal Union rather than by failures in leadership and tactics. All throughout the south black codes were imposed which sought to uphold the antebellum status quo while further estranging blacks from social integration.

While the north remained intact and found new prosperity on the back of the war’s newly built infrastructure and technological innovations (most noticeably figured by the example of the transcontinental railroad) the south remained devastated, desolate and socially strife-ridden. While northerners were content to get on with their lives and experienced an ever-increasing quality of life the typical southerner was left with slim pickings and found himself much worse off than he had been before the war had began: not only did his sacrifice of blood fail to achieve the CSA’s goals but it also failed to ensure a better life at home. The collective discontent and embarrassment of the southern people was complicated by an economy which would come to be dominated by profiteering northern “carpetbaggers” who sought to make big profits off of the dismal southern situation by offering jobless war vets pathetic wages. The Civil War did not end in 1867, it simply transformed to a non-shooting war for social survival which left in its wake many issues yet unresolved.

Perhaps the greatest (or perhaps even central) issue to be resolved in the wake of the cessation of military hostilities was the problem of integrating millions of blacks into US society. While blacks in the north and west of the country were by 1867 no longer subject to slavery in most states by generations they were now challenged to become part of the social fabric amongst their former owners in the south. The immediate reaction from whites who still held legislative and judicial hegemony was to impose laws upon the black population which ensured the antebellum status quo. While the legislators and judges of the former CSA were not bold enough to ignore the constitutional amendments which granted freedom to the blacks they did pass laws which effectively restrained, curtailed or made it difficult for them to exercise their freedoms. This collective body of laws would come to be known as the black codes and they were highly effective at marginalizing the black population by making voting and social mobility unfeasible by all but the most industrious of blacks. How the black codes effectively brought about such hindrances was covered in a previous essay. When northern outrage inspired the abolishment of the black codes and the election of freedmen into legislative positions by the late 1860s the still dominant white majority reinvented them under the guise of the Jim Crow laws and instituted systematic segregation.

Under the Jim Crow laws the whites instituted a new social fabric which was superficially “separate but equal” but in practice offered inferior privileges to blacks in contrast to whites while simultaneously reinstituting black code-era legislation which had previously been repealed; while the black southerner which numerically made up a majority of the population in the former borders of the CSA had been privileged to a temporary reprieve following the abolishment of the black codes they soon returned in all but name by the 1870s. The attitudes and rationales which had led to the Civil War would again come to permeate southern society. One reason for the continuing anachronistic hatreds and prejudices may have been made possible by the tolerance of the Union governors following the collapse of the CSA. The White House and Union high command opted for hasty reintegration of the seceded states and in doing so took few measures to restructure the social fabric of the south, adopting a “hands off” approach, pardoning former CSA officers and politicians and generally behaving as if the war had never happened. By virtue of the White Houses shortsighted magnanimity the old hatreds were allowed to perpetuate in the south, as Union governors involved in Reconstruction rarely took it upon themselves to correct social and civil rights obstructions. Instead of assuming absolute domain over a defeated enemy and rebuilding society from the foundation up the White House instead opted simply to physically reconstruct the damage and undertook no intellectual crusade to fundamentally change (even force) southern dispositions to a cosmopolitan tendency.

It would be as if the Allied Forces in post-World War II Germany allowed the swastika to still be displayed, tolerated the operation of the werwolf, looked the other way as Nazi propaganda was discussed and disseminated and apathetically idled while Jews were persecuted and murdered. History shows us that this did not happen, that the Allies wisely took a stern position of absolute zero tolerance for Nazi sentiment and in doing so mostly diffused a volatile situation while subordinating the once seductive Nazis to the fringes of criminal society. Today in Germany it is still a major offense to display the swastika or in anyway endorse Nazi ideology, warranting major fines and/or jail time. The result of this uncompromising stance on prosecuting those who perpetuate Nazi symbolism, rhetoric and politics is a society without a notable population of people who sympathize with Nazi ideology – while it cannot be said that there is not a sizable population of people who not only sympathize with but also embody the bigoted Confederate ideology in the American south today.

If the Union had taken up a similar modus operandi, if it had shown no tolerance for the old CSA rhetoric, if it had punished those who were responsible for the rebellion and if it had ensured the election of a new generation of forward-thinking officials then the economic, social and spiritual torpor of the postbellum south would have been assuaged and the discontent of a defeated people would have been channeled into a fresh spirit of industry. Instead of ensuring that the southern states would not again harbor the same ignorant dispositions that lead to the war the Union governors charged with Reconstruction looked away as CSA vets paraded in old uniforms waving old flags, chanting death to the Negro scapegoat, chants they would act on come nightfall. In the end the old Confederate dispositions would not come to be seriously challenged until the days of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the explosion of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The legacy of the Civil War (and the inaction and apathy of the Union Reconstruction effort) was a hundred year stretch of indecision, civil rights violations, social strife and degeneration which was broken apart not by leadership of the state but by the courage and determination of the underdog who had come to be too frustrated with the disenfranchisement and marginalization of his constitutional rights and so moved to restore them through activism and civil disobedience.