What's so important about the U.S. Civil War?
April 29, 2008 12:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm constructing an argument in favor of giving the U.S. Civil War a greater emphasis in secondary (High School) education. I'm interested in those events and conditions during and following the Civil War that had profound impacts on U.S. and world history. Obviously, abolition of slavery, the 13-15th Amendments, and restoration of the Union are important. However, I'm sure there are other important and far-reaching effects that many people don't know about...please, enlighten me!
posted by EKStickland to Education (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How they are required to teach this differs from state to state, school to school, teacher to teacher. But in my state of New York US history gets one year. A years time to travel from Indigenous history to contemporary America. In a ten month school year taking Dred Scott, Missouri Compromise, Harper's Ferry to the great awakening to the actual war to reconstruction all the way to the civil rights movements in the 20th century takes two to three months.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:45 PM on April 29, 2008

West Virginia statehood. WV is awesome.
posted by netbros at 12:46 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

From a Southern perspective, an understanding of how dependent the Southern economy was on slave labor is important. It's also essential to grasp that the arguments were initially in favor of states' rights, as the South did not have enough votes to sway Congress against imposing huge tariffs on cotton trade with Europe.

High schoolers are old enough to know more about the Civil War than the resulting abolition of slavery, such as Lincoln's laissez faire stance on the subject before his election to the presidency and the consequent eruption of war.

Economics, as always, played a vital role. Southerners felt economically oppressed and legislatively marginalized by the North, so there is also a question of autonomy and whether the Constitution afforded states more rights than the Southerners felt they had.

It's also interesting that, less than 100 years after this country was founded, it was almost destroyed by a civil war that threatened to break it in two.

The aftermath of the war is also important, though I am less informed about it than I would like to be. I do know that there was a great deal of economic hardship in the South, and that those who fought on the Confederate side were prevented from holding office. There was a short time during which African-Americans were elected to office in the South. There was also a resultant demonization of black Americans, as show in DW Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation."

Obviously there's far too much to write about in detail in a single AskMe post. But suffice it to say, issues of slavery, racism and especially war are far more complicated than sixth graders are taught.

(People will probably slam me for saying some of these things, but don't get me wrong. I'm responding here because this topic is of great interest to me; I majored in American Studies in college, with a specific focus on oppressed groups, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination one of those "The South will rise again!" types.)
posted by brina at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I speculate that the Civil War delayed America's expansion into the Pacific. The US was the first Western power to force trade relations with Japan (literal gunboat diplomacy, leading to the collapse of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration). Japan was never as receptive to foreign overtures as China or India, but if Japan had formed a modernization alliance with the US (as a defense against Great Britain and Russia), the history of the Pacific in the 20th century might have been very different.

Eventually, America did get around to invading and occupying the Philippines, Guam and Samoa, but the American Pacific Empire stopped well short of the mainland.
posted by SPrintF at 1:15 PM on April 29, 2008

In my opinion, probably the most important things about the American Civil War was the introduction of total war, and thus the advent of what is now essentially modern warfare. See Von Clausewitz's "On War."
posted by buka at 1:16 PM on April 29, 2008

that should be "the most important thing." i should really learn to preview.
posted by buka at 1:17 PM on April 29, 2008

Eli Whitney is revered in most HS history classes as the man who invented the cotton gin without further mention that this invention turned cotton from a nice backwater little crop into and incredibly valuable crop. Slavery may well have ended on its own without the rise of the cotton industry.

How this country dealt with slavery from the drafting of the constitution, through the start of the war makes for fascinating study. The back and forth over which states would enter the union as slave states, slave recovery laws that hindered slaves escaping to the north, how the political parties handled the issues, etc. are perhaps more important than the prosecution of the war itself. How badly the Reconstruction was handled and the long term resentment and hardship that it left is also important.
posted by caddis at 1:18 PM on April 29, 2008

I don't think a lot of people truly grasp how important the 14th Amendment has been to the development of modern civil rights in the US. Pretty much every major US Supreme Court case that involved the establishment of some constitutional right or protection (e.g. abortion rights to Miranda warnings) relies on the 14th Amendment's application of the Bill of Rights to the states. (Although, this was not an immediate process, and to this day, some parts of the Bill of Rights do not apply to the states).

Another important effect of the Civil War was the development of "modern" styles of warfare - machine guns, trench warfare, battles of attrition - that most people think started with WWI.
posted by thewittyname at 1:21 PM on April 29, 2008

I hate to trot out every Confederate apologist's favorite argument, but the examination of state's rights vs. federal power is still relevant.

Republicans tend to prefer (or claim they prefer) power at the state and local level (no Big Government), while Democrats are more comfortable enacting change from the federal level (see: New Deal or Civil Rights Act of 1964). Nevertheless, there are exceptions, like No Child Left Behind. I like to think of it more in terms of responsibility than rights. Should states be responsible for public education standards, or is that the mandate of the federal government? Same for healthcare, and state-mandated insurance programs that are popping up in places like Massachussetts. Or the recent dispute between states and the federal government over Real ID, and the refusal of states like Maine to comply with the federal government's new identification standards.

It may seem like I'm overly politicizing this by mentioning the two parties, but it's illuminating to compare the electoral map from 1860 to the map from 2004 and see how, although the parties may have changed, the north-south divide is now eerily the same. Underneath all the ugly rhetoric that passes for politics these days, there's still a fundamental disagreement in our country about state power vs. federal power which affects the voting decisions of Joe Sixpack and Mary Merlot alike, and which is a direct legacy of the issues that led to the Civil War.
posted by junkbox at 1:24 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the 14th Amendment & selective incorporation is huge.

I think you could make an argument about the Civil War's impact on the American West. From what I understand a fair amount of Confederate soldiers moved out west after the war and helped create a lot of the culture of the Wild West in terms of social banditry, vigilantism, etc. Also, I remember reading from somewhere (it was either Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Education for Extinction, the books I had to read for my US history 1876-1914 class) that the US turned at least partially towards the Indian Wars as a way to ignore the depth of the problems involved in Reconstruction. Kind of like a "We're done with that now, let's move on!" sort of way. If you're in a Western state this kind of connection might be appreciated.

There's also the whole matter of the Spanish-American War. The youngest Confederate soldiers were still around for that war and some of them wanted the chance to prove themselves & their patriotism. The conflict over Cuba was often touted as the way to heal the nation's Civil War wounds (there's this great photograph I always remember from my high school history book that had an an old Union & Confederate soldier working together to break the shackles of a guy representing Cuba while this young girl in an angel costume labeled "America" watched approvingly from above. I wish I could find it again because it was pretty funny in its cheesiness.)
posted by lilac girl at 1:53 PM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ohh, it's complicated but two big things that are not often mentioned:
1: Technological developments forced big changes in military tactics that foreshadowed WWI. The tactics of the American Revolution and the war of 1812 centered on closing to bayonet distance against relatively low-powered muskets. The rifled musket and shaped bullets used in the American Civil War greatly expanded the range of effective kills. The rifled cannon made most of Napoleonic military construction obsolete. The ironclads foreshadowed the future navy, and the Union made a huge advantage of rail and telegraph systems. A strategy that was used by the Germans in WWI to defend against a superior force on the Eastern Front.

2: Prior to the War, there were huge disparities in economics, industry, transportation and communication between the North and the South. The political and economic aftermath of the War profoundly shaped the economic development and demographics of the United States.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:56 PM on April 29, 2008

Massive expansion of federal government power.
Carryover of wartime brutality into relations with the Indians.
Domination of politics by Civil War generals, leading to the disastrous Grant administration and the stolen election of 1876 and ultimately the "Gilded Age" domination of the economy by robber barons and the suppression of the working class and the demonization of "radicals."

I urge you to read The Dominion of War, by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, for an analysis of the impact of America's wars (including this one) on its history.
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on April 29, 2008

I forgot to add: a lot of the robber barons made their initial fortunes during the Civil War. Gould sold moth-infested blankets to the union & used the money to gain a near-monopoly on gold. When Grant froze the rising price of gold he dumped it all, leading to Black Friday in 1869. J. P. Morgan Sr. bought used carbine rifles for some insanely low price (like $3 a rifle), refurbished them, and then sold them back to the US army for something like $22 a rifle. Like languagehat said, you can connect that fairly easily to the Gilded Age.
posted by lilac girl at 2:29 PM on April 29, 2008

A good friend who is history teacher and amateur historian had this to add:

1. It was the first photographed war thus bringing images home in newspapers which made it more personal
2. The election of 1860 was critical; It brought about the rise of the Republican party, changed the electoral map, and created new coalitions of voters.
3. It saw the rise of nursing and understanding of sanitation in medicine. This includes the important role of women, namely Clara Barton and the origins of the founding of the Red Cross.

She also adds that some teachers/historians have the Civil War as the final step of the United States' Independence as part of their curriculum.
posted by mmascolino at 2:36 PM on April 29, 2008

The First most important lesson I learned was the failure to help with the rehabilitation of the south and the resulting concentration of poverty still evident today. It applies to every war and is a theme that my history teacher carried through each lesson of the major wars we studied.

The Second most important lesson I learned was the devastation a war causes to the people living in "the battle zone," the civil war was so long ago that American children don't really learn the devastation, loss, and grief war brings to a nation. Most of our wars are fought elsewhere and we can remain disconnected. My teacher had us read books written about the struggle of children of war torn families and brought whole new faces to the war not just the soldiers suffering but the suffering and sacrifice of the country as a whole. A lesson we definitely need to do a better job of carrying forward.

Both lessons we didn't carry over into WWI that we finally learned after WWII, refused to remember during Korea and Vietnam and apparently forgot soon after.
posted by thewalrusispaul at 2:39 PM on April 29, 2008

Amplifying mmascolino's third point...

I live in the same town as the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where I learned that the state of battlefield surgery, trauma care, and emergency medical services were advanced by many levels of magnitude as a result of the conflict.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:11 PM on April 29, 2008

When the north won the US Civil War there was a fear that the victorious North which was already mobilized would turn its troops and resources on British North America; BNA largely supported the South in the war.

Once of the reasons why Canadian Confederation took place (essentially the founding of Canada) was it was believed that uniting the colonies would assist British North American defense against an American attack (it was a consideration, not necessarily the biggest one).
posted by Deep Dish at 3:45 PM on April 29, 2008

Another important effect of the Civil War was the development of "modern" styles of warfare - machine guns, trench warfare, battles of attrition - that most people think started with WWI.

This isn't necessarily wrong, but its US-centric.

The countries which comprised the British Empire and entered the first World War in 1914 largely consider the Boer War its "practice" for WW1.
posted by Deep Dish at 3:51 PM on April 29, 2008

It's when embalming became popular in the U.S.
posted by hulahulagirl at 6:04 PM on April 29, 2008

This isn't necessarily wrong, but its US-centric.

The countries which comprised the British Empire and entered the first World War in 1914 largely consider the Boer War its "practice" for WW1.

And the British were completely ignorant of the American experience?
posted by codswallop at 10:55 PM on April 29, 2008

codswallop, if I recall from a long-ago military history course, the Europeans in general thought that the American Civil War was fought by a bunch of rowdy colonials who didn't know what they were doing.

Consider the French, who developed an offensive doctrine based around elan, where troop morale and spirit could overcome industrial firepower by marching through the machine gun fire.

The European Great Powers had bought into particular offensive doctrines, and had confirmation bias to support those doctrines. Examples where elan tended to win out: evidence. Examples where elan got beaten to a bloody pulp: an uninstructive bunch of non-European amateurs playing at war and failing.

But this is off topic.
posted by chengjih at 4:39 AM on April 30, 2008

As another way to make your point on the Civil War's importance, I would suggest making a mention of its impact on North American relations. Canada's formation in 1867 was in large part a response to the growing fear of being absorbed into an America which was seen as a militant and bloody republic, a reputation the Civil War fostered. In addition, the war left millions of Americans with military experience, experience which the Irish-Americans used to organize several attempted invasions of Canada beginning in 1866. These Fenian raids, largely forgotten by US historians, created quite a scare in Canada and led to the strengthening of Canadian national identity.

I'm sure some of our other historian friends could give a blurb on the war's impact on our Mexican neighbor.

I'd like to reiterate that you ought not to fall into the American-centric pit and see the Civil War as being contained within our states. It had serious implications on the continent. So, make the case that the CW was important within a multinational context.
posted by boubelium at 7:16 AM on April 30, 2008

Arthur Fremantle, an officer in the Coldstream Guards, was an observer of the Civil War and later became one of the most senior officers in the British Army.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:31 AM on April 30, 2008

I suppose there was the Alamo, but apart from that it was several generations' first experience with warfare.
posted by herbaliser at 1:43 PM on May 1, 2008

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