The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson

Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

The Meaning of the American Civil War

As a complementary to my essay on “The Meaning of the American Revolution” I have decided to express my opinion on the meaning and consequences of the American Civil War. The best summation of its meaning was given by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the Gettysburg, PA battlefield site to dedicate a portion of the site as a National Cemetery. In one of the finest speeches ever given he said:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As to the consequences of the American Civil War it did more than just establish that the American ideal was for all. The Civil War established that we were a society of all the people. Prior to the Civil War many citizens thought that they were citizens of their State first, and citizens of their Nation second. After the Civil War Americans began to think of themselves as a citizen of the Nation first, and a citizen of a State second. As they comingled on the battlefield, so they comingled in their national identity. This was also facilitated by the vast movements of people who settled the western territories and comingled with people from other States. As such they lost their State identity and gained a national identity. Their desire to become States and join the union cemented their national identity. From sea to shining sea was a national vision and not State oriented.

The Civil War also pitted the commercial interests of the North against the agricultural interests of the South and established the predominance of the commercial interests in our nation. It also changed the dynamics of the political landscape. Politics became less State oriented and more interests oriented.

And finally, the Civil War established that we were “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.