One of the main effects of the Civil War on contemporary American society is the ongoing association between the South and the Confederacy. Even the terminology used for the war is often different in the former Confederate states, with reference to the War of Northern Aggression.
School textbooks frequently perpetuate ideas about the war’s causes that seem sympathetic to the states’ decision to secede. The debate over representation in textbooks continues into the 2010s, but key aspects were prominent in the late 19th century.
The public face of representation that is debated today also became prominent from the 1890s–1910s: the creation of memorials to figures, including military officers, considered Confederate heroes. While some monuments were put up during or immediately after the war, in the 1860s, most of them are much more recent. The 50th anniversary of the war, 1911–1915, was part of the impetus for promoting commemoration. The arguments for keeping the monuments, however, are not always made in support of the sentiments behind them. Freedom of speech constitutional issues as well as the importance of not forgetting a dark time in American history are arguments sometimes made by those who oppose the Southern position. This debate continues to be significant in part because of the violence that sometimes characterize protests against the monuments’ removal.
The Civil War had several long-term effects. One of these was that it ended slavery in the United States. Slavery and the spread of it had been a growing concern in our country for many years. The Civil War permanently ended slavery with the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.
Another long-term impact is that it reinforced the idea that the power of the federal government was supreme. The southern states wanted states to be able to nullify laws that they didn’t like or that hurt them. This concept was put to rest with the South’s defeat in the Civil War.
The concept of racial equality also was a long-term effect of the Civil War. It is a debate that still exists today. The Civil War was fought to help free the slaves and give them their rights. For a period of time, especially during Reconstruction, this occurred. However, by 1900, many of the rights African-Americans had attained as a result of the Civil War were restricted or eliminated. With the passage of the Jim Crow laws and with the development of the poll taxes and the literacy tests, African-Americans had their rights restricted or taken away well into the 1960s. While there have been improvements since the 1960s, there still are economic and education gaps between the races. Full equality has been difficult to achieve.
The growth of industry in the South was another long-term effect of the Civil War. Before the Civil War, the South was primarily an agricultural region. After the Civil War, the South began to diversify its economy as more industries were eventually developed in the South. This, in turn, has helped our economy grow.
One other long-term effect of the Civil War is the tension between the states' rights and the Federal government. I have never done a statistical analysis, but I am willing to bet money that a substantial majority of the cases that come before the Supreme Court involving states' rights as against Federal authority are brought by Southern states. The failure of the Southern states to secede is a failure that is being litigated over and over again, over abortion, over education, over marriage, and so on. The Civil War was about slavery, to be sure, but it was more largely about the autonomy of the Southern states to act as they pleased, no matter what the federal government deemed. Certainly, the Constitution is meant to balance these rights, but it is clear that when it takes hundreds of thousands of lives to defend it or to try to break free of it, that tension is not broken by a declaration of peace. It survives to this day, manifested in Confederate flags, the culture wars, and the speeches of politicians.
Two of the most important long-term effects of the Civil War were a boom in industrialization and the eventual creation of a more democratic and just America.
The Civil War, of course, ended slavery in the United States. It did not immediately bring equality to African Americans. However, by ending slavery, it made eventual racial equality (to the extent that we now have it) possible. It also broke up the old aristocratic system in the South and made that region more democratic in the long term.
The Civil War helped the country experience an economic boom. With the Southern states out of Congress, laws were passed during the Civil War that allowed for the building of the transcontinental railroad, for the homesteading of the Great Plains, and for the creation of land grant colleges. All of these things helped to boost the economy of the United States, helping to make it into the world-class industrial power that it was within 50 years of the beginning of the war.