Who Won the Civil War?

The first day with my two sections of the Civil War Memory course went quite well.  Both sections are incredibly enthusiastic and, for the most part, seem to be interested in the subject.  After going over the basic outline of the course, including my expectations, we dove in and explored the question of who won the Civil War.  I gave my students 5 minutes to brainstorm some ideas, which we discussed as a class.  As we discussed their responses I showed a number of corresponding images.  Student responses revolved around the following: 

A number of students suggested that while the North won militarily, the Civil War is remembered with more conviction and “enthusiasm” in the South.  Interestingly, one of my students was educated in Chicago and had great difficulty relating to this distinction.  It seems that this student’s school emphasized Union military and political leaders over their Southern rivals.  In fact, this student was quite dismayed by the apparent agreement among many of her classmates who agreed that Southern leaders tend to be remembered more favorably. 

The second prominent theme was that of emancipation and freedom.  It was expressed in a number of ways, from emphasis on the end of slavery and emancipation to a “victory” for the Declaration of Independence and “America’s founding ideals.”  This led to a rebuttal from a few students who suggested that the victory for slaves and emancipation was only temporary.  These students were adamant in their belief that the white South had won the war by 1900, owing to the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.  On a related note, a number of students suggested that the South won since many of our most revered and popular figures and images are related to the Confederacy.  I asked why this is, but only one or two students could articulate a response. 

I was surprised by the number of students who argued that Lincoln won the war since he proved successful in carrying out his agenda and denied Southern independence.  Two students specifically cited his “House Divided” speech in arguing this point. 

By the end of our discussion I was able to point out that the answer to the question depends, in large part, on perspective as well as the time frame assumed.  Some of the students looked at the years of the war itself, while others extended their focus into Reconstruction and beyond.   One of my students suggested that the abolitionists won the war, so I asked if we should extend the dates of the Civil War to include the beginning of the abolitionist movement.  It raises the question of whether the Civil War is to be understood as a series of battles or about something larger.  The debate between students also allowed us to touch on the contested nature of memory, and a little heat betwen students lent itself well to the observation that Civil War memory is often divisive.  I think I am going to enjoy this class.

6 comments… add one
  • Richard Dec 2, 2008 @ 17:46

    In my opinion the civil war did not end until the civil rights movements of the sixties. Even in my own small town of Laurinburg, NC you had paramilitary organizations like the Red Shirts whose sole purpose was to ensure white rule. You can find incidents for 100 years after the official end of the war that include political assassinations and violence against black people. It has only been in the last 40 years that NC has had any black politicians. There were a few after the Civil War but in general whites ruled. That sounds like victory to me. Eva Clayton

    Its a little off topic but I seem to see alot of similarity between the war in Iraq and the American Civil War. In Iraq they disenfrancised the Bathists and in the South they disenfrancised former Confederates. In both cases you had the development of insurgent groups. In the South the Northern armies pulled out and the south went back to its former self and arrested the development of this area for 100 years. In Iraq we will probabily do the same thing.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 1, 2008 @ 15:56

    That’s great to hear Chris. It’s always nice when the most simple of questions leads to a worthwhile class discussion.

  • Chris Dec 1, 2008 @ 15:49

    Kevin I have to tell you that I stole your idea (you mentioned it some time ago) where at the end of my Civil War and Reconstruction unit I write on the board “Mission Accomplished.” I think that’s what you did once. Anyway, this really started a nice reaction from the students and was a great stimulator for some excellent discussion!


  • Kevin Levin Dec 1, 2008 @ 12:01

    Larry, — I tend to agree, but than again I am just a little biased.

  • Larry Cebula Dec 1, 2008 @ 11:16

    “These students were adamant in their belief that the white South had won the war by 1900, owing to the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. ”

    Smart students. That is my own understanding of the war as well and I have long wondered why it is not more prevalent.

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