How the Civil War Changed America Forever

When the North emerged victorious on April 9, 1865, the U.S. entered a new era. However, the war’s legacy of destruction would leave deep scars.

On April 9, 1865, the Rebel yell rang out for the last time over a contested battlefield. Outside Appomattox Court House, the half-starved tatterdemalions of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attacked Union cavalry blocking their retreat to the Virginia mountains, where the Rebels hoped to find sanctuary.

It quickly became apparent that it was not to be. The keening foxhunters’ cry died on the lips of Lee’s men when tens of thousands of Union infantrymen emerged from the woods behind the blue-coated troopers. The Confederates’ desperate retreat from Petersburg was over.

That afternoon, Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant. While Southerners everywhere despaired, celebratory cannon fire boomed throughout the North.

It was the end of one American era, the beginning of another. Gone were slavery, the plantation system and, with them, the Old South. Industrial capitalism, the catalyst behind the Union’s triumph, was poised to lift America into an age of unprecedented prosperity.

A week before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Grant’s 120,000-man army smashed the overextended Confederate lines at Richmond and Petersburg, ending a siege that had lasted nine months. In short order, Lee’s men retreated west, Jefferson Davis’s government fled Richmond, and raging fires set by retreating Rebels gutted the Confederate capital’s central business district. On April 3, the Union Army marched into Richmond and put out the fires.

The next day, President Abraham Lincoln, his son Tad, and a detachment of armed sailors walked through Richmond’s streets. Crowds of freed slaves joyously mobbed the president, while white Southerners looked on in stony silence. Lincoln went to the Confederate White House and rested in Jefferson Davis’s office chair.

Indeed, high drama marked the Civil War’s last months. In January, Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. In February, William Sherman’s army marched through South Carolina and torched Columbia, its capital. In March, the desperately undermanned Confederate Army began accepting slave recruits, and Grant launched the campaign that shattered Petersburg’s defenses on April 2. Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 left the North stricken with grief and rage. In late May, the million-man Union Army began demobilization after parading for two days down Pennsylvania Avenue.

An estimated 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War from battle wounds and disease, and more than a million others carried to their graves wounds from their war service — this out of a population of 34 million.

Besides the staggering human cost, the war profoundly transformed the United States in other ways. If there were two distinct Americas before the war — the slower-paced, chivalric South; the ambitious, forward-looking North — the differences were even starker afterward.

Emancipation had destroyed the South’s slave-based agrarian economy. Its modest industrial capacity lay buried in blackened rubble, while its harbors teemed with Northern warships and commercial vessels. Where the armies had fought, foragers had denuded or burned towns and cities, forcing the destitute to subsist on Yankee handouts. Decades would go by before prosperity returned to the South.

A Union soldier passing through Fredericksburg, Virginia, in May 1865 observed that its bullet-riddled buildings and “air of decay and desolation” were a macabre simulacrum of its former beauty. The same held for Atlanta, Columbia, Petersburg, and Richmond. When Navy Secretary Gideon Welles toured Charleston, South Carolina, in late May, he wrote, “Luxury, refinement, happiness have fled from Charleston; poverty is enthroned here. Having sown error, she has reaped sorrow. She has been, and is, punished. I rejoice that it is so.”

The year’s prospects for planting and harvesting were bleak. Trampled by armies, burned during the Union’s prosecution of “total war,” or gone fallow from simple neglect, Southern farmland would take years to recover. With the South’s “peculiar institution” dead and its enormous investment in slaves — about $3.5 billion in 1860 — now worthless, the plantation system collapsed. The great estates were divided into tenant farms rented to sharecroppers.

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Confederate General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor, returned to New Orleans to discover that his sugar plantation had been confiscated and sold. He was penniless. Emancipation, he wrote, had severed the South from the primordial institution that had shaped its “thoughts, habits, and [the] daily lives of both races, and both suffered by the sudden disruption of the accustomed tie.”

For the new freedmen, postwar life in the blighted South was a nightmare. Made scapegoats by white Southerners’ impotent rage, they were policed by harsh “black codes” by day and terrorized and murdered by hooded vigilantes by night.

How to reintegrate the 11 Confederate states into the Union was the burning question in Washington. Should the South be punished, or should the Union take Lincoln’s advice, to “let ‘em up easy?” There was no consensus. A stormy presidential impeachment trial and 11 years of Reconstruction lay ahead.

The Union had overwhelmed the Confederacy with swarms of blue-coated soldiers, an ever-tightening blockade of Confederate ports, and raw industrial might. Manufacturing rose to record levels of volume and efficiency; for instance, 38 arms plants produced 5,000 infantry rifles daily, while the South made just 100. The North enjoyed surpluses of wheat, pork, corn, and wool, while the South’s cultivated acreage steadily shrank.

During the war, the U.S. government spent an unprecedented $3.4 billion and wielded extraordinary authority: it inaugurated national conscription, a personal income tax, and a national banking system. After the war, a Harvard professor remarked, “It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”

When the fighting ended, manufacturers switched from wartime to peacetime production, beginning a half-century of phenomenal economic growth that established the United States as a global power. The market revolution that swept the North and West, however, left the South untouched.

Besides economic stagnation, bitterness and nostalgia were the South’s other postwar legacies. Thousands of Confederate Army veterans simply left the United States, but others, like the man who lost two sons and his slaves in the war, lived to hate. “They’ve left me one inestimable privilege, to hate ‘em. I git up at half-past four in the morning, and sit up till twelve at night, to hate ‘em!”

The “Lost Cause” movement venerated the disappearing Southern antebellum culture and the Confederate Army. Its apotheosis was the unveiling of a sixty-feet-tall equestrian statue of the late Robert E. Lee in Richmond on May 29, 1890. Thousands of Southerners lined the parade route amid a riot of Confederate flags. When the old generals and their former troops in gray marched past, the crowds erupted in ecstatic Rebel yells.