How the Civil War Changed America


Over 600,000 men died as a result of the American Civil War, although estimates by some researchers are higher. Four years of bloody warfare left the South humiliated while the North grappled with sacrifice, eager to close this tragic chapter of history. Overall, the nation developed a new identity, preserving government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people…” President Abraham Lincoln realized this after Gettysburg in 1863 and reiterated these views when speaking of a “just and lasting peace” in his Second Inaugural Address. This was a peace for both the North and the South. Out of this tragedy a new nation emerged, facing new challenges.

Unfettered Industrialization in Post Civil War America

The government during the Civil War years forged strong alliances with business groups such as the railroads. Throughout the war years, the North far surpassed the South in transportation and communications capabilities.

These wartime advantages enabled the rapidly industrializing North to expand business, out-producing Western European nations like France and Germany by the turn of the century.

Industrialization impacted urbanization as greater numbers of rural workers turned to the cities for work in the teeming factories of the Northeast.

Because of government non-interference, the principles of laissez faire allowed businesses to operate without regulation. Americans, used to years of wartime sacrifice, channeled their efforts into the new economy.

Immigration and the Continuation of the Westward Movement

The Republican-dominated Congress supported homestead and land-grant legislation. In 1862, President Lincoln signed into law the first Homestead Act. The Republican Congress saw this expansionism as part of the shaping of the nation. According to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s reflections regarding expansionism, (1895) “…Republicans maintained the Union, abolished slavery…From the Rio Grande to the Arctic Ocean there should be but one flag and one country.”

Just as the Westward Movement was not interrupted by the Civil War, neither was immigration. The new wave of immigrants coming from Europe included Italians, Poles, and other Eastern Europeans, anxious to leave the battlefields and political turmoil of Europe.

Jews in Russia and the Baltic regions were being persecuted while disease and famine in Italy led many to seek a new life in America. Immigrants satisfied the need for unskilled factory workers.

A Unified Nation versus States’ Rights Government

The Civil War shifted political power from the various states to Washington, DC. Although state legislatures wielded some power, the burgeoning federal government decided policy through the Congress working hand-in-hand with business concerns.

At the same time, the Republicans after the Civil War represented the party of victory. Historian Lewis Gould, referring to post-war Southern politics, writes that, “…The still strong passions engendered by the Civil War and the race issue made the Democratic Party…the only choice for white voters in most sections of Dixie.”

As the Civil War continued into the mid-1860’s, war goals also changed. For Lincoln, it became necessary to destroy the Southern social and political systems when it became apparent that military victory alone would not result in unconditional surrender.

Defining the Role of the Federal Government

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln referred to slavery as the cause of the war. The greatest impact of the war involved ending slavery and establishing guaranteed rights for all citizens through the Civil War Amendments. While the South pursued a policy of “separate but equal,” the war began a long term process of Civil Rights.

From the smoldering ruins of the Civil War, a new society arose, free from the institution of slavery and poised to expand democracy through imperialism as the continental frontier closed. Despite the horrific nature of the war, it rejuvenated the nation.


Lewis L. Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (Basic Books, 2005)
Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents (Gramercy Books, 1995)
Henry Cabot Lodge, “Our Blundering Foreign Policy,” March 1895, Great Issues in American History, Volume III, Richard Hofstadter, editor (Vintage Books, 1958)
Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)