Five things you didn’t know about the Civil War

Harper's Weekly "The Louisiana Outrages," 1974.

It would take you longer than the Civil War lasted to read even a fraction of the 60,000-plus books written on it. Nevertheless, the average American’s understanding of the war remains unimpressive. To celebrate our pending blog-aversary, here’s five facts that surprised us as we read up:


It was way longer than you think. If you can say when the official war was fought, you’re doing well. But Lee’s surrender in 1865  Appomattox only looked like a final victory. It took a while to secure the entire Confederacy, and shortly after that, an insurgency began, similar to our recent experience in Iraq. Historians tend to think of the Civil War period as lasting until 1877 – a full 12 years longer than the formal war – when the North gave up on Reconstruction and left the South to its own devices.


White Southerners were more scared of being killed in a race war than they were of being beaten in a civil war. Ever wonder why the South would rather leave the United States than give up slavery? A couple big reasons: A) planters were getting rich using slave labor to grow cotton, and B) no matter what they said in public about the slaves being docile, planters had a perpetual dread of the slaves revolting and killing every white person they found.  In many areas most in favor of secession, the slave population was greater than the white population. The curiously sanitary term for the possibility of genocide was “servile insurrection.”


The South said it was about slavery – not the North. The cause of the Civil War is a flash point in popular culture now, and it was at the time. While some Confederate States were explicit that they seceded to preserve slavery, the Union states of the North didn’t say they were fighting to end slavery at the start of the war. This was at least in part in hope of keeping pro-slavery states like Virginia and Maryland out of the Confederacy. But it also reflected the conflicted politics of the North, where slavery was widely disdained, and so were equal rights for African Americans.


Abolitionists were not heroes in their own time. Like participants in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, anti-slavery abolitionists were only embraced by the mainstream with the fullness of retrospect. Abolitionists could not send their newspapers to southern states via the US Mail. In parts of the North they were physically harassed. Many abolitionists were passionately anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, and thus disliked by both those groups. They were also a thorn in the side of moderates, and helped inspire a small war in Kansas before the Civil War.


The Civil War was an economic win for the North, not just a military one. The war-time effort super charged the economy, driving up demand for both guns and butter. In the years between Lee’s surrender and the end of Reconstruction, the U.S. laid as much railroad track as it had up to the start of the war, non-farm labor became more common than farm work, and American industrial production increased by 75 percent. The collapse of this economic bubble weakened Northern interest in Reconstruction, as federal troops were pulled from enforcing civil rights laws in the South to put down unionized workers in the North and to push Native Americans out of the West.

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