What do Americans think about the Civil War?

Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
July 17, 2023, 7:38 PM GMT+0

A recent YouGov survey asked Americans about their knowledge, beliefs, and opinions of the American Civil War. Majorities of Americans claim to have some knowledge about the American Civil War, believe that slavery was the primary issue that led to the war, and identify the North as the winner. While there are variations in opinion based on age, race, and political affiliation, there's a general consensus about the need for young people to learn a great deal about the Civil War in school.

On the issue of responsibility for starting the war, opinions vary, with more Americans blaming the South than the North. About half of Americans believe that the North was more morally justified in fighting the war, and views are divided on whether supporters of the Confederacy were traitors or patriots. Regarding the legacy of slavery and the Civil War, few Americans believe that the Reconstruction period was successful, and many believe slavery remains influential in American society today. Opinion is polarized by party and race — and, to a lesser degree, by region.

Civil War knowledge

An overwhelming majority of Americans (91%) claim to have at least some knowledge about the Civil War, with 21% saying they know a lot about it and 70% saying they know a little. Only 9% say they know nothing at all. Men (29%) are twice as likely as women (15%) to say they have a lot of knowledge about the Civil War.

Americans' experiences learning about the Civil War growing up were more varied: A majority of Americans (64%) say they learned at least a fair amount about the war in school, while 31% say they learned not much or nothing about it. Only 12% say they learned a great deal.

There is more consensus about how much students today should learn about the Civil War in school: 79% say they should learn at least a fair amount, including 40% who say they should learn a great deal. Black Americans (51%) are more likely than white Americans (40%) to say this.

What do Americans believe prompted the Civil War? Most people (56%) identify slavery as the primary issue in the Civil War; 28% say it was states' rights and 8% say it was something else. More Democrats (62%) than Republicans (53%) cite slavery as the main issue; slightly more Black Americans (61%) than white Americans (56%) cite slavery.

In regard to which side won the Civil War, 70% of Americans correctly identify the North as the winner. The rest incorrectly identify the South (7%), say neither side won (10%), or are not sure (14%). White Americans are 20 percentage points more likely than Black Americans to say that the North won the war; 40% of Black Americans say that neither side won or are not sure who won. Age also divides answers to this question: 84% of people who are 45 or older identify the North as the winner, compared to 53% of younger adults.

Opinions in the South on learning about the war, its primary issue, and who won don't differ much from opinions nationally.

Opinions on the Civil War

The issue of responsibility for instigating the war splits opinion, though more place blame on the South than on the North. Four in 10 say the South started the war, 11% say the North did, and 35% deem both sides equally responsible. Just 34% in the South say the South was more responsible for causing the war, compared to at least 41% in the other three major regions of the country: the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) say the North was more morally justified in fighting the war; 10% say the South was, and 23% say both sides were equally justified. In the South, 41% say the North was more morally justified, compared to at least 48% in the other three regions. Only slightly more Americans describe people who supported the Confederacy during the war as "traitors" (23%) than as "patriots" (18%); 39% say they were neither and 21% are unsure. The South is the only region where people are more likely to call Confederacy supporters patriots than traitors, by a narrow margin of 21% to 16%.

More Americans currently hold favorable than unfavorable views of 10 prominent figures from the Civil War era. Abraham Lincoln receives the highest net favorability (+71) — the share of people who have a very or somewhat favorable opinion minus the share with a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion. Harriet Tubman (+67), Ulysses S. Grant (+50), and Frederick Douglass (+49) also are viewed positively by majorities of Americans. Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis (+2), Robert E. Lee (+12), and Stonewall Jackson (+18%) are received less favorably, though are still liked by more Americans than the share who dislike them. In the South the three Confederate leaders get the higher scores of +12, +27, and +27, respectively.

Personal histories

Most Americans say their ancestors were either not involved in the Civil War (33%) or aren't sure of their involvement (35%). Roughly equal shares say their ancestors were supporters of the North (15%) or South (14%). Fewer than one in 10 say they had family members who were slaves (8%) or slave owners (7%) during the Civil War. Black Americans (28%) are far more likely than White Americans (8%) to say they had ancestors who were in slavery during the war.

About half of Americans (51%) say that, hypothetically, they would have supported the North; 12% say they would've supported the South, 14% say they wouldn't have taken a side, and 23% are not sure. People who currently live in the South (20%) are far more likely than people who live in the Northeast (5%) to say they would have supported the South.

The aftermath of the Civil War

Just 10% of Americans believe the Reconstruction period following the Civil War was very successful; 39% deem it somewhat successful and 33% believe it was not very successful or not successful at all. Republicans (62%) are significantly more likely than Democrats (44%) or Independents (46%) to say Reconstruction, which was led by Republican politicians, was at least somewhat successful.

Do Americans believe that the legacy of slavery continues to impact American society? One in five (22%) say slavery has a great deal of influence on American society today and 34% say it has a fair amount; 35% think it has not much influence or none at all. Black Americans (46%) are more than twice as likely as white Americans (19%) to say slavery continues to have a great deal of influence.

While most Americans support of teaching about the Civil War and slavery in schools, there is more division on other actions that involve the war's history. By 50% to 39%, Americans strongly or somewhat support removing the Confederate flag from state flags, license plates, and other official symbols. Fewer support than oppose two other proposals: removing Confederate monuments (39% support, 50% oppose) and changing the names of streets, schools, and other public buildings that are named after Confederate leaders (38%, 52%). Support for these is lower in the South than in the other major regions.

There are large partisan divisions on actions that involve altering Civil War-related memorabilia or references. Democrats are at least four times as likely as Republicans to support removing Confederate monuments (61% vs. 15%) and changing the names of streets, schools, and other public buildings named after Confederate leaders (67% vs. 12%). They are also far more likely to support removing the Confederate flag from state flags, license plates, and other official symbols (72% vs. 26%). Black Americans are significantly more likely than White Americans to support each of the three aforementioned changes.

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on June 15 - 23, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty Images (Tetra Images)

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