Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Civil War is the most written-about subject in American history–for good reason. As Mark Twain expressed it in 1873, eight years after the end of the war, the conflict “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”

More than five generations have passed since the war, and we are still trying to measure its impact. One measure is the tremendous cost in lives and resources. An estimated 750,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war. If the same percentage of Americans were killed in a war fought today, the number of American dead would be more than seven million. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all the other wars this country has fought combined. The war also caused enormous havoc and destruction in the South. It wiped out two-thirds of the assessed value of Southern wealth (including slaves), destroyed more than half of the region’s farm machinery, consumed two-fifths of Southern livestock, and killed more than one quarter of Southern white males between the ages of eighteen and forty. In 1865 the South presented a bleak landscape of desolation. Burned-out plantations, fields growing up in weeds, and railroads without tracks, bridges, or rolling stock marked the trail of conquering and defeated armies. For the next three-quarters of a century, Southerners both white and black sought to come to grips with the consequences of the war.

Not all of those consequences were negative. Northern victory resolved two fundamental, festering issues that had been left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 that had given birth to the nation: First, whether this fragile republican experiment called the United States would survive as one nation, indivisible; and Second, whether the house divided would continue to endure half slave and half free. Both of these issues had remained open questions until 1865. Many Americans in the early decades of the country’s history feared that the nation might break apart; many European conservatives predicted its demise; some Americans had advocated the right of secession and periodically threatened to invoke it; eleven states did invoke it in 1861. But since 1865 no state or region has seriously threatened secession. To be sure, some fringe groups assert the theoretical right of secession, but none has really tried to carry it out. That question seems settled.

By the 1850s the United States, which had been founded on a charter that declared all men created equal with an equal title to liberty, had become the largest slaveholding country in the world, making a mockery of this country’s professions of freedom and equal rights. As Abraham Lincoln put it in a speech in 1854, “the monstrous injustice of slavery… deprives our republican example of it just influence in the world–enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.” But with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, that particular “monstrous injustice” and “hypocrisy” has existed no more. Yet the legacy of slavery in the form of racial discrimination and prejudice long plagued the United States, and has not entirely disappeared a century and a half later.

In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 the words “United States” were a plural noun: The United States have a republican form of government. Since 1865 the United States is a singular noun: The U.S. is a world power. The North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by creating a nation. This transformation can be traced in President Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses. His first inaugural address, in 1861, contained the word “Union” twenty times and the word “nation” not once. In Lincoln’s first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, he used the word Union thirty-two times and nation only three times. In his famous public letter to Horace Greeley of August 22, 1862, concerning slavery and the war, Lincoln spoke of the Union eight times and the nation not at all. But in the brief Gettysburg Address fifteen months later, he did not refer to the Union at all but used the word nation five times. And in the second inaugural address, looking back over the trauma of the past four years, Lincoln spoke of one approach to war. The four years from 1861 to 1865 witnessed a conflict that evolved from an effort by the North to restore the Union into a determination to wipe out slavery and the social system it had created and to rebuild the nation on the basis of freedom. The documents and essays in this, the largest part of these volumes, illuminate the military, political, constitutional, and human elements of the experiences of Americans in both North and South in this all-consuming conflict. “These are fearfully critical, anxious days, in which the destinies of the continent for centuries will be decided,” wrote one contemporary in 1864. Another reflected on “whether any of us will ever be contented to live in times of peace and laziness. Our generation has been stirred up from its lowest layers and there is that in its history which will stamp every member of it until we are all in our graves…. One does every day and without a second thought, what at another time would be the event of a year, perhaps of a life.” Many of the documents in these volumes give the reader a flavor of the intensity of these experiences.

The outcome of the war did not fully resolve all of the issues over which it had been fought. The Confederacy was destroyed, but how were these states to be brought back into the Union? The slaves had been freed, but what did that freedom mean? Would they become citizens with all of the civil and political rights of white citizens? What would be the balance of powers and rights of state governments and the federal government in the reconstructed Union? Americans grappled with these issues during the decade after the Civil War, but did not come up with final answers. We are still grappling with them today. The documents and essays in the final section of these volumes – Postwar: Politics of Race and Reconstruction -- provide insights into the nature of these problems during the postwar era as well as their continuing relevance to America today.

The American philosopher George Santayana once declared that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The era of the Civil War and Reconstruction was unquestionably the most turbulent and traumatic part of our past. The following pages will help the reader avoid the fate warned of by Santayana.

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