Freedman’s Bureau

This woodcut from 1868 depicts a Freedman’s Bureau officer standing between armed groups of white and black Americans immediately after the Civil War. (Alfred R. Waud)

Contributed photo

Some legacies in American politics and society from the Civil War are often overlooked. There are certainly "Echoes of the Civil War." As much as the people of the United States would like to sweep many of the reasons for the Civil War under a proverbial rug along with the legacies with which we live, it is impossible to see many of the areas of economic and racial inequality in the United States without asking where they may be rooted. The truth is many of them have deep roots in the events surrounding the Civil War.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center released its newest report on the racial wealth gap in the United States. Whereas the racial wealth gap (assets minus debts equals wealth) between the average white family and the average black family had been hovering in the range of 10 to 12 times more wealth for white households in recent years, the economic crisis pushed the divide to over 20 times more wealth for White households. 

As much as many Americans want to forget the tragic legacy of slavery, many want to forget that the real reason behind the Civil War was slavery. Southern states began to secede from the Union prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln because of fears over the future of their most cherished institution, their financial system which was based entirely around slavery. Today, we see how the American auto industry was brought to its knees due in great part to issues related to pay and benefits negotiated by unions in years past. Just think about a major industry without a pay structure, benefits, safety requirements, sick days, child care or anything else we have come to expect. Think of an industry with a labor source that was not paid, it was owned.

The mindset and system in place during the time of slavery persisted well beyond the Civil War. Black people in the United States went from being property to second-class citizens. At points in history when the government assisted many white families in the accumulation of wealth; that second-class citizenship left over from slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath left blacks without such assistance. blacks were, in great part, excluded from Civil War pensions even when they or their family members had fought for the Union.

After the dismantling of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency designed to help former slaves and poor whites create lives for themselves after the Civil War, many blacks found themselves back in situations similar to or worse economically than slavery. Sharecropping was a system in which White landowners were able to accumulate wealth on the very same plantations where slaves had toiled. Blacks were left to accumulate overwhelming debt that was passed down through generations. Even as blacks fought for and won victories in areas of citizenship, civil rights and recognition the inequalities persisted. Today, there still are divides with their roots to be found in the Civil War. It is an injustice to Americans of all colors to overlook those divides and their roots.

I will continue this discussion and answer questions in my lecture 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Rock Island Public Library on the Civil War's legacy on American politics. One of the loudest echoes is the persistence of racial and economic inequalities in American politics and society. If we are able to recognize that reality and talk about it, we can all move forward together.

Dr. Christopher Whitt is an assistant professor of political science at Augustana College. He holds a B.A. from Salisbury State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Maryland. Contact him at