President Lincoln hoped that relations between the Union and the seceded states could be restored on the basis of reconciliation, not retribution. He greeted news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender by asking a band on the White House lawn to play “Dixie.” Lincoln hoped that the nation could be reunited without rancor, but he found himself at odds with Republicans in Congress. They wanted to punish the South for seceding and wanted Southern states to guarantee the freedom and rights of African Americans.
Then Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. The audience at Ford’s Theatre was startled to hear a gunshot from the president’s box, and baffled when actor John Wilkes Booth leaped onto the stage, yelling of vengeance. But Mary Lincoln’s screams revealed the tragedy. The president, shot once in the head, died early the next morning. Northerners were shocked and saddened, then enraged. Even as preparations for his funeral began, a Washington insider noted that Lincoln’s “humane policy” for reuniting North and South now would be “tempered with a great deal of severity.”
Lincoln’s assassination, and the ineffectual leadership of his successor, Andrew Johnson, enabled the Congress to control Reconstruction. They divided the South into military districts, withholding statehood from some former Confederate states until 1870.
Among the most important legacies of the Civil War was addition of three amendments to the U.S. Constitution, promising freedom and full rights of citizenship to African Americans. But racism delayed full implementation of the amendments and ultimately brought a new struggle for civil rights.
Amendment XIII to the Constitution, 1865:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude
. . . shall exist within the United States.
Amendment XIV to the Constitution, 1868:
No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Amendment XV to the Constitution, 1870:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Memorializing the Civil War
America’s bloodiest conflict is also its most memorialized war. Shaping remembrance of the war would be the last act of the conflict. Although veterans’ groups formed immediately after the war, interest initially lagged. By the 1880s, however, old soldiers on both sides were looking back at their service with nostalgia and pride. Encampments, ceremonies, and veterans in parades became commonplace. Battlefields became parks. Thousands of memorials and cemeteries were dedicated. Beyond recognition and nostalgia, politicians in both North and South molded memories of the war in ways that would bolster their own agendas.
The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery given to members of the United States military. Congress established the medal in 1861. President Abraham Lincoln approved it for naval service in December and for army service in July 1862. At the time, no award existed to honor servicemen. The Certificate of Merit awarded during the Mexican War had been discontinued.
For service in the Civil War, 1,522 medals were awarded: 1,198 for the army, 307 for the navy, and 17 for the marines. Initially criteria for the medal were lax. Not until the early 20th century did new legislation establish rules that restricted the medal to well-documented acts of extreme bravery and self-sacrifice.