The Civil War Shaped the World We Live In
BY BOB BROWN
The First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War, also known as the First Battle of Manassas (the name used by Confederate forces), was fought on July 21, 1861, 150 years ago, near Manassas, Virginia. The sesquicen-tennial of America’s bloodiest conflict has now begun. Until Vietnam more Americans were killed or maimed in the Civil War than all our other wars combined.
Contrary to the “lost cause” interpretation, which justifies the rebellion and makes out the Confederates as victims, the Civil War was primarily about slavery. There would not have been a Civil War if not for slavery.
Bull Run is significant in the Civil War because it robbed the Union of a quick victory and prolonged an increasingly brutal conflict. That conflict impacted our country with the force of a wrecking ball, and the shocks are still detectable today.
Economically, the Civil War devastated the South for a century. The ten poorest states in the nation in terms of per capita income were all in the South until the 1970s. Had the southerners not attempted, for decades, to perpetuate slave-based agriculture through a system of sharecropping, their reconstruc-tion might have been a more successful one.
Before the Civil War southerners and their allies in Congress opposed the concept of free land in the undeveloped western territories. They correctly feared that the settlement of what would become new states by free laborers was incompatible with slavery. Once the Civil War had begun, one of the first acts of Congress, newly without southerners, was the Homestead Act that made possible the settlement of places like Montana.
Likewise, southerners had opposed subsidies for the western expansion of railroads. The Civil War era Congress reversed that policy, too, making possible such east-west ties across our country as the Northern Pacific Railroad which, when it was completed in Montana in 1883, opened outside markets, virtually created towns like Livingston and others, and facilitated our becoming a state six years later.
While the impact of westward expansion triggered by the Civil War had the effect of overwhelming indigenous western tribal people, it unquestionably put Montana on the map.
The on-going political consequences of the Civil War are mixed but profound. Though it seems hard to believe now, in 1920 the most consistently Republican state in the nation was Massachusetts. The most Democratic was South Carolina. That couldn’t be much more the opposite of today, and, then, most Americans still voted as their regions fought in the Civil War.
In the folklore of my own family is the story of my father and his brother visiting with their grandmother in rural Iowa. It was the election year of 1928, Al Smith versus Herbert Hoover, and my Dad’s grandmother was carrying on about the evils of the Democrats. My Dad said his little brother asked her why she felt so strongly against the Democrats. Her reply was, “The Democrats killed two of my brothers.” Partisans on both sides “waved the bloody shirt” to rally their base of support long after the guns of the Civil War fell silent. Until the political realignment brought on by the Great Depression, though, New England and the upper Midwest were as Yankee Republican in their senti-ments as the “solid South” was Democratic.
While the sections have switched parties, the parties have transformed to reflect the historical philosophies of the sections. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, with progressive views for his era and a belief in the role of government to partner in economic development, was a true Republican at the time of Bull Run. Would he still be a Republican today? Would Confederate President Jefferson Davis, advocate of state’s rights, nullification and secession 150 years ago, still be a Democrat?
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.