In 1877, soon after retiring as president, Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a two-year tour of the world. At almost every location he was greeted with adulation. In London, the Duke of Wellington, whose father had vanquished Napoleon, praised Grant as a military genius, the architect of victory in one of the greatest wars known to human history. In Newcastle, tens of thousands of parading English workers, arrayed with the banners of their various crafts, hailed him as the man who had saved the world’s leading experiment in democratic self-government and as a Hero of Freedom for his role in the emancipation of America’s slaves. In Berlin, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany, welcomed Grant as a nation-builder who had accomplished something on the battlefield—national unity—that Bismarck was attempting to create for his own people. “You had to save the Union,” Bismarck commented, “just as we had to save Germany.”
Grant’s contemporaries recognized the Civil War as an event of international significance. One hundred and fifty years after the conflict began, the meanings they ascribed to it offer a useful way of outlining why it was so pivotal in our own history. The Civil War changed the nature of warfare, gave rise to an empowered nation-state, vindicated the idea of free labor and destroyed the modern world’s greatest slave society. Each of these outcomes laid the foundation for the country we live in today. But as with all great historical events, each outcome carried with it ambiguous, even contradictory, consequences.
Because of the war, the nation survived. Yet in its physical destruction and massive loss of life (620,000 Americans, the equivalent of 6 million in today’s population), and encouragement of a patriotism that equated criticism of the government with treason, the Civil War can be seen as an ominous harbinger of twentieth-century total war, with its erasure of the distinction between civilian and military targets and serious infringements on civil liberties at home.
The nation-state created by the war, Abraham Lincoln insisted, embodied the principle of self-government. But it could also be used for undemocratic purposes. Shortly after the guns fell silent, Treasurer Frances Spinner (whose signature adorned every greenback issued by the federal government—the first national currency and itself a symbol of expanded national power) observed: “The thing to be feared now is that we will be running around the world with a chip on our shoulder. If we can avoid this, a glorious future is ours.” Just as Spinner feared, the reunited nation soon embarked on a career of imperial expansion, beginning with the acquisition of Alaska two years after the war ended and culminating at the turn of the century in the conquest and annexation of Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Indeed, the abolition of slavery, an indisputably moral exercise of national power, gave new meaning to Jefferson’s description of the United States as an “empire of liberty.” No matter how violent or oppressive, American expansion now meant, by definition, the expansion of freedom—a rhetoric alive and well today.
The principle of free labor may have triumphed with the Union’s victory, but the national banking system, high tariffs and other economic policies instituted by the Lincoln administration in an effort to mobilize the North’s resources for war underpinned a long-lasting alliance between the Republican Party, the national state and an emerging class of industrial capitalists and financiers. Partly because of the war, Lincoln’s America—the world of small shops and farms—gave way to an industrial leviathan. It was left to the Gilded Age labor movement to warn that a new industrial aristocracy had taken the place of the Slave Power as the enemy of ordinary working people.
Even abolition had mixed results. Long after the war ended, Lincoln and the emancipated slave would remain global symbols of universal liberty. But the new system of racial inequality that followed the overthrow of postwar Reconstruction seriously tarnished the idea that the Civil War had produced a new birth of freedom, as Lincoln claimed at Gettysburg.