Reforging a Nation, 1876-1917: How National Identity Was Repaired Following the Fratricidal Traumas of the Civil War
The Civil War tested the viability of the United States enduring as one nation-state. The strategy of ‘complete conquest’ in which Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan engaged in a ‘people’s war’ - directed not just at fighting ‘hostile armies, hut a hostile people’ - spoke to the depth of the challenge. The generals believed that the will of- a ‘whole people’ needed to be destroyed or else formal war would be followed by untold years of guerrilla warfare. Thus Sherman decided to march into the heartland of the enemy’s country. At the war’s end, the struggle to establish the primacy of the nation- state moved from the battlefield into the arenas of political, economic, and cultural life.
The Civil War determined the survival of the Union, but what it meant to be an American remained undefined. Ravaged by the War, large numbers of Americans were prepared to affirm a common nationalism. Nonetheless, the meaning of national identity and loyalty continued to be as diverse and conflicting as the persisting regional differences. Other issues that complicated national identity included the intensification of class conflict; the growing number of workers who were Americans by immigration rather than by birth; the struggle of black Americans for full citizenship rights; the emergence of an independent women’s movement; and the burgeoning influence of entrepreneurial businessmen seeking national markets. One of the most dramatic regional challenges to a unified nationalism emerged in the white South. Organisations of Confederate veterans refused to accept cultural defeat. Instead, they mobilised mass support for the construction of a southern tradition that rallied behind the Confederate battle flag celebrated the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, and the idea of a Confederate Memorial Day.