The time surrounding the Civil War and reconstruction effort could be described with plenty of adjectives. Of those, revolutionary might be one that some choose to use. In the time leading up to the Civil War, the United States was a country in flux. Questions of state rights, slavery, and how the nation would eventually form were on the docket. As such, there were different groups of people that all had very different perspectives and motivations working in their favor. Those in charge of the country, including President Abraham Lincoln, could not sit idly and watch the nation head down a road where such indecision was the order of the day.
In a way, there are many things that happened during that time that could be correctly described as revolutionary. This distinction includes both things that ended up being good for the Union and those things that were thrown out. From the effort to protect a state’s rights to the constant battle faced in reconstruction to incorporate freed blacks, the time was characterized by those things that a historian might consider to be revolutionary.
Starting with the Civil War in 1861, the revolutionary events were many. During that war, both idealistic and tangible revolutions were going on all over the country. On one hand, the time was revolutionary in a military sense. The development of both weapons and military strategy was evident for both sides. Those fighting for the North had to come up with ways to counteract the Confederacy’s knowledge of the fighting areas, while those fighting for the Confederacy had to get creative to overcome the sheer size advantage held by the union. The measured responses to these problems were revolutionary in a military sense. On top of that, there were certain small revolutions in medical technology. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars to ever be fought. With that in mind, doctors, nurses, and others had to constantly figure out ways to fix the various problems presented by gunshot wounds and other consequences of war.
In a more idealistic sense, the Civil War was a revolutionary time because it served as the impetus for a change in thinking in America. Until the fighting commenced, there was an entire segment of American citizens that felt it was alright to enslave other human beings. On a basic level, this is a type of thinking that had to be overcome if America was to move forward. Whereas the Revolutionary War helped Americans establish a nation free of British tyranny, the Civil War helped create a revolutionary new society free of such prevailing thought. Russian revolutionary thinker and politician Vladimir Lenin shared the thinking that American was home to a couple of different revolutions. In one of his memoirs on the American Revolutions, Lenin wrote of the long standing American revolutionary tradition when he said, “That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth century. In some respects, if we only take into consideration the ‘destruction’ of some branches of industry and of the national economy, America in 1870 was behind 1860. But what a pedant, what an idiot would anyone be to deny on these grounds the immense, world-historic, progressive and revolutionary significance of the American Civil War of 1863-65” (Lenin). Though it is absolutely true that Americans were not the first to end slavery or the first to think of bringing Africans into their society, that does not stand in the way of the fact that, for Americans, the thinking brought about by the Civil War was of a revolutionary nature.
Lenin’s quote not only addresses the revolutionary American tradition, but it also speaks to certain ways in which the Civil War was somewhat counter-revolutionary. Clearly, the Russian thinker understood the overall impact of the removal of slavery from American society, but he also recognized the fact that following the Civil War, America was not nearly the same economic power as it was prior to the Civil War. In fact, the economic side of things is where America truly took a step back. This is something that was understood by Lincoln, Grant, and the others that helped the country through the conflict. They were under the belief that sacrificing a little bit of economic prowess was a good way to go forward with the country, as the advancement of revolutionary thinking would eventually benefit the nation in a number of ways. Slavery, for its many different perils, was something that was good for the American economy. The reasons for this were obvious. Since the society, especially in the South, depended so heavily on farming and the activity of large plantations, being able to get labor for free was a huge benefit. It helped keep costs down low, so that Americans could export their products and make a great profit. Since the Civil War wiped out slavery, Southern planters had to come up with different ways to make up for this difference. They had to cut costs in other areas and for the most part, the profits were down and the American economy struggled for a long time.
One might also argue that the Civil War and reconstruction effort were counter-revolutionary because they did a lot to divide the nation, effectively eliminating much of the progress that was made in the Revolutionary War. During reconstruction, those in the South that had been on the other side of the conflict had to make apologies and pay for their wrong doings. In a way, they were being punished for leading secession and dividing the country. Though the people in control of the country felt this was a necessary step to protecting the nation from future incidents, it did a lot to drive a wedge between those in the South and those in the North. The Southerners, who felt that they were protecting their rights and their way of life, were forced to bow down to those in control of the new government. This was counter productive and historians could certainly take a stance that this was counter-revolutionary in many ways.
Historians have the right to look upon the Civil War and surrounding time as being whatever they wish it to be. In a way, the question of whether or not it was revolutionary is something that has to be answered on an opinion basis. Still, it is not productive for those historians to view any of the effort as being truly counter-revolutionary. Even though there is plenty of statistical evidence to indicate that the country struggled economically as a result of the Civil War, that is not what is important. The economics fixed themselves after plantation owners adjusted to their new way of life. The important thing for historians to do in this case is to keep things in proper perspective. Looking at only one aspect of the Civil War can lead a person to taking any number of different conclusions. The appropriate way to view the entire ordeal is to look at its overall historical significance. Instead of simply focusing on one or two different things, take a step back and view the big picture. The big picture clearly shows a country that benefited a ton from the new revolution in thinking. Getting rid of slavery eventually helped to bring the country together, promote the true American way of life, and bring the country into international prominence. Had the Civil War and resulting reconstruction not occurred, America would have struggled to stay relevant on an international level.
The reasons why the Civil War was a revolutionary effort are crystal clear. Vladimir Lenin summed up the American spirit perfectly in his quote, as he enthusiastically recounted the way that Americans were able to change their way of thinking. On the whole, American prior to the Civil War was a place that was stuck in reverse. Priorities were reversed so that economic considerations were being put in front of pure human values. The really scary thing about the entire ordeal is that there was a huge portion of the nation that actually considered slavery to be a positive thing. Removing that sort of thinking from the American code required a war, and in the end, it was one of the most important wars that the nation ever fought.
Lenin, Vladimir. 1918. Lenin on American Revolutions. http://sfr-21.org/american-revolutions.html
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