Elizabeth R. Varon
Perhaps no other American leader has experienced so precipitous a fall from grace as Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States (1865–1869). During the Civil War, Johnson was the preeminent symbol of Southern Unionism—and thus, the ideal running mate for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election, on the Union Party ticket. Four years later, as president, he was widely viewed as a traitor to his political allies and even to the Union, and barely escaped impeachment. In modern scholarship, the image persists of Johnson as politically inept, and willfully self-destructive—driven by visceral emotions, particularly by implacable racism, and lacking in Lincoln’s skill for reading and molding public opinion. But such an image fails to capture fully the scope of his political influence. As President, Johnson staked claims that shaped the course of Reconstruction—that emancipation signified nothing but freedom; that the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was a golden moment of reconciliation, which Radicals squandered by pushing for black suffrage; that the Congressional program of Reconstruction inaugurated a period of so-called “black rule,” during which former Confederates were victimized and disfranchised. Such propaganda was designed to deem the Republican experiment in black citizenship a failure before it even began. Johnson’s term offers an example as striking as any in U.S. history of the power of presidents to set the terms of political debates—and of the power of their words to do lasting harm.
Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.
Alison L. LaCroix
Federalism refers to the constitutional and political structure of the United States of America, according to which political power is divided among multiple levels of government: the national level of government (also referred to as the “federal” or “general” government) and that of the states. It is a multilayered system of government that reserves some powers to component entities while also establishing an overarching level of government with a specified domain of authority. The structures of federalism are set forth in the Constitution of the United States, although some related ideas and practices predated the founding period and others have developed since. The balance between federal and state power has shifted throughout U.S. history, with assertions of broad national power meeting challenges from supporters of states’ rights and state sovereignty. Federalism is a fundamental value of the American political system, and it has been a controversial political and legal question since the founding period.
Nicole Etcheson and Cortney Cantrell
During the Civil War, the entire North constituted the homefront, an area largely removed from the din and horror of combat. With a few exceptions of raids and battles such as Gettysburg, civilians in the North experienced the war indirectly. The people on the homefront mobilized for war, sent their menfolk off to fight, supplied the soldiers and the army, coped without their breadwinners, and suffered the loss or maiming of men they loved. All the while, however, the homefront was crucially important to the course of the war. The mobilization of northern resources—not just men, but the manufacture of the arms and supplies needed to fight a war—enabled the North to conduct what some have called a total war, one on which the Union expended money and manpower at unprecedented levels. Confederate strategists hoped to break the will of the northern homefront to secure southern independence. Despite the hardships endured in the North, this strategy failed.
On the homefront, women struggled to provide for their families as well as to serve soldiers and the army by sending care packages and doing war work. Family letters reveal the impact of the war on children who lost their fathers either temporarily or permanently. Communities rallied to aid soldiers’ families but were riven by dissension over issues such as conscription and emancipation. Immigrants and African Americans sought a new place in U.S. society by exploiting the opportunities the war offered to prove their worth. Service in the Union army certainly advanced the status of some groups, but was not the only means to that end. Nuns who nursed the wounded improved the reputation of the Catholic Church and northern African Americans used the increasingly emancipationist war goals to improve their legal status in the North. The Civil War altered race relations most radically, but change came to everyone on the northern homefront.
William Thomas III and Kaci Nash
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Recent studies of the Civil War have assessed the environmental impact of the war in broad terms and uncovered ways in which the war unfolded outside and apart from the intended directions of generals and politicians. In particular, historians have explored the role of nature as an active force in the Civil War, focusing on how the landscape was transformed as part of the military strategy and how Americans perceived, interacted with, and controlled nature. These historians suggest that the Union army targeted the South’s agricultural and cultural landscape, reduced it to a “wasteland,” and, in so doing, altered or interrupted its relationship with nature. They have depicted the war as a conflict characterized by massive displacement and movement. Scholars have also revised our understanding of the war’s destructiveness and total number of deaths. They have turned our attention away from the bifurcated approach of “home front and battlefield” to a more holistic approach, one that emphasizes the uniform continuum of movement and exchange along the axes between the home front and the battlefield.
Because the environmental and biological disruption of the war occurred at different scales in different places, the flow of human, animal, biological, and material exchanges varied widely. In many zones of the Union army’s occupation, however, the mobility and scale of the war combined with the environmental conditions to produce especially significant effects, indeed, ones that persisted well beyond the end of the war. The spatial arrangement of the Union army’s occupation depended in part on the available transportation network and, as a result, several central places acted as funnels into and through the war. In these places, such as Alexandria, Virginia, a series of large-scale processes unfolded separate from but connected to the battlefields and the home front. The confluence of the movements of soldiers, civilians, refugees, and animals and the unleashing of microbes around them meant that the war took place in and with human bodies, in and with the natural features of the environment.
Megan Kate Nelson
During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort.
Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy.
Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.