Did the Civil War End in 1865?

It’s a question that has come to frame Civil War era studies more and more over the past few decades. I pose the question to my students to help them think about both continuity and change throughout the decade and beyond. The question certainly has pedagogical value.

Now I pose the question to all of you.

What are the interpretive benefits and/or pitfalls to understanding the war as ending in the spring of 1865 as opposed to a longer war that may have taken a different form?

I have some thoughts about this, which I will share in due time.

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16 comments… add one
  • Larry Cebula Mar 30, 2015

    For years and years now, I have taught in the US survey classes that the Civil War, properly understood, went from the mid-1850s until at least 1877, with a military part in the middle. The war was over the role of blacks in the nation. And the white south ultimately won.

    I don’t think any of the above is particularly original.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Larry. I am certainly not suggesting that the question is original, but I don’t think the answer is obvious either.

      I wonder if we run the risk of losing sight of certain salient facts if we simply place the war within the broader sweep of mid-nineteenth century America. While there were any number of questions still unanswered related to the race and the West, most Northerners acknowledged that the war had been won and the Union preserved.

    • Lyle Smith Mar 31, 2015

      So the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but white supremacy?

  • MCH Mar 30, 2015

    I think the answer to the question ultimately depends on how you answer another one: was the war fought to a) restore the Union; b) the abolition of slavery; c) to determine the face of a nation spanning from Atlantic to Pacific (i.e., to determine the future of western conquest and then to achieve it); or, d) all of the above.

    I vote D, which expands the chronology of the war to some extent, though it’s still very easy to categorize conflicts in the East and the West. So it’s not as if by rethinking the time frame everything written to this point goes out the window; it just becomes part of a bigger puzzle. And if we’re willing to stretch the time frame, even just a decade, the stakes of the overall conflict become much greater (which is really saying something if Union/abolition were the original stakes).

    • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2015

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for chiming in on this post. Given the options that you list it also raises the extent to which we are willing to couch an answer in the way Americans in 1865 viewed things as opposed to some kind of broader historical perspective after the fact. Certainly, many (if not most) Americans in 1865 viewed events in the spring of 1865 as constituting the end of their civil war.

      • MCH Mar 30, 2015

        Point well taken, Kevin. I think you could find some interesting (and conflicting) perspectives, especially among Republican politicians who start looking westward before the South is technically back under control. For the everyday soldier with no specific dreams of a national identity spanning the continent, not so much.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2015

          One of those historical moments that offers any number of interpretive approaches – functions like a gestalt switch.

  • Paul Taylor Mar 30, 2015

    I just picked up a new book by Gregory Downs titled “After Appomattox” (Harvard Univ. Press) which seems to address your question.

    The author argues that “the war did not end with Confederate capitulation in 1865. Instead, a second phase commenced which lasted until 1871—not the project euphemistically called Reconstruction but a state of genuine belligerency whose mission was to shape the terms of peace. Using its war powers, the U.S. Army oversaw an ambitious occupation, stationing tens of thousands of troops in hundreds of outposts across the defeated South. This groundbreaking study of the post-surrender occupation makes clear that its purpose was to crush slavery and to create meaningful civil and political rights for freed people in the face of rebels’ bold resistance.”

    I have never thought of Reconstruction as “a state of genuine belligerency,” (maybe I should have) however if that is the case, it can certainly be argued that though the hot, shooting portion of the war ended in 1865, the conflict certainly continued on for years as something less hot, but not entirely passive either.

    The subjugated South realized that their secessionist ideals may have failed, but the makeup of Southern society was yet to be determined, despite the formal end of slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2015

      Hi Paul,

      My review copy should arrive tomorrow and I am looking forward to reading it. A number of historians have offered interpretations that cast a wider view on the war past 1865. James Hogue’s book, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, (LSU Press) is but one example. There have also been a couple of books about the Colfax Massacre published in recent years that remind us that the violence continued well past Appomattox.

  • Brad Mar 31, 2015

    Are you suggesting that by saying it ended in 1865, it gives the War a finality as in saying “that phase is over so let’s move on, reconcile, etc.” whereas in effect the War ended de jure but not really de facto and that the War to win freedom (not just freedom from physical slavery bur freedom from economic slavery) for Africa Americans may have gone until the 21st Century and may still be going on?

    Sorry for the long run on sentence.

  • Bruce Vail Mar 31, 2015

    I’d vote for the traditional view that the Civil War ended in 1865. That’s not to say that the South lost its power over its black population, or that the stated goals of the North were achieved, but the War ended with the final collapse of the Confederacy.

  • jfepperson Apr 1, 2015

    Two comments:

    1. I’m fine with saying that the war (by which I mean the organized armed struggle) lasted from 1861-1865, but that the longer, deeper struggle over the meaning of Union and what to do about slavery lasted from the beginning of the Republic until, frankly, 1954, and continues to smolder today. The “hot period” was 1854-1876, +/- a few years.

    2. Mark Grimsley, in an old USENET discussion in the 90s, offered the thought that the Civil War was like a poorly officiated basketball game, which the North won in regulation, but the South talked the refs into playing overtime, and they won there.

    • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2015

      What does the white South “winning” Reconstruction have to do with major league baseball being segregated in Detroit until 1947/48 (1958 if we are only talking about the Tigers)?

      Let’s also not equate slavery with segregation. Both were evil and obscene, but they weren’t the same institution. Slavery in the United States ended when the 13th amendment was ratified.

      • James F. Epperson Apr 1, 2015

        Good point, but I might argue that segregation was, indeed, a way of dealing with [the demise of] slavery.

        • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2015

          Except that Reconstruction didn’t ever happen in Michigan, because slavery had always been abolished there under Territorial and State law, if I am not mistaken.

  • Andrew Gaskin May 24, 2015

    At least the Americans of African extraction got their freedom the native Americans are still trying to get justice

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