The Civil War as a Settler-Colonial Revolution

By Kevin M. Gannon

Since Charles and Mary Beard dubbed it “the Second American Revolution,” the Civil War has occupied pride of place as the pivot point in the traditional narrative of U.S. history. [1] If nothing else, scholars have had to at least confront the idea of “revolution” when reckoning with the era, whether they see it as–for example–a revolution in state formation (Richard Bensel), a revolution in favor of freedom (James Oakes), or even a “a preemptive counter-revolution” (James McPherson). [2] Certainly, the violent disruption of the American state, the carnage wrought by the war on both the human and physical landscapes, and the fierce urgency of the issues involved (especially slavery) underscore the revolutionary nature of the war and its aftermath. We also need to recognize the decisive ways in which that era shaped our present, particularly with its attempts to untie the knots of race and slavery. Those attempts, were, of course, incomplete. They were violently interrupted by recalcitrant white southerners using terror tactics to stem the tide of radical reconstruction, aided and abetted by an increasingly compliant North that had, in the words of the New York Herald, “gotten tired of the Negro.” So the era remains, to resort once again to the metaphor, “America’s unfinished revolution.” [3]

But can you really have a revolution if you never finish it? Was emancipation a revolutionary transformation, or merely an abortive effort at one? And were the transformations in state formation and governance revolutions unto themselves, or evidence of a larger revolutionary process that unfolded from the Civil War? I argue that a compelling answer to these questions, and a suggestive and useful way of seeing the era’s revolutionary implications, comes from seeing the Civil War as a revolution for settler colonialism.

Drawn from postcolonial theory, the concept of settler colonialism “refers to a history in which settlers drove indigenous populations from the land in order to construct their own ethnic and religious national communities.” Rather than the typical model of extractive colonialism (like that of European powers in late-1800s Africa, for example), “settlers came not to exploit the indigenous population for economic gain, but rather to remove them from colonial space.” Characterizing the land in question as virgin territory, or an empty vacuum, the “colonizers come to stay–invasion is a structure not an event.” [4] As an extension of nationalism, settler colonialism seeks to remake space both physically and culturally. A unitary national project, settler colonialism imprints a dominant set of racial, ethnic, and gender constructions upon conquered lands. It does so primarily by defining indigenous peoples as dangerous “others,” dangerous to and subversive of the noble ideas that have created the new imperial space, and thus fit only for removal and/or extermination. The settler project thus creates what Étienne Balibar calls a “fictive ethnicity” for the colonizers; a sense of mission, of chosen-ness, derived from this fictive ethnicity creates the idea of “nation” that animates the colonial project. “It is fictive ethnicity which makes it possible for the expression of pre-existing unity to be seen within the state,” and thus legitimize the nationalist vision. [5]

The “national mythology” that allowed erstwhile reformers to get “tired of the Negro,” and for whites’ notions of reconciliation to trump their commitment to civil rights, was chiefly the result of a settler-colonial project that swept over the trans-Mississippi West, into the Pacific Rim, and eventually foreign shores. National reunion could only be proclaimed by removing (figuratively and/or literally) the subaltern peoples of the nascent American empire–and that reunion was the desideratum of US elites on both sides of the sectional fence by the mid-1870s. [6] But the swiftness and effectiveness of the postbellum settler-colonial project should not obscure that the way it was framed and unfolded was the product of the Civil War’s revolutionary transformation.

While slavery lay at the root of southern secession and the war, it was particularly the debate over slavery in the trans-Mississippi West that accelerated the disintegration of national politics in the 1850s. For most white Americans, it was a given that these lands would become part of the national domain; it was the republic’s “manifest destiny.” But what national future the accession of these lands would create, what type of republic would emerge from this expansionism, was an explosive question. Would the United States become the world’s largest slave society? Or would it become, to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, an “empire for liberty,” predicated on the potent Free Labor ideology that dominated northern discourse in these years? [7] For white Americans, the moral imperative for expansionism was agreed upon, but this consensus collapsed when its various advocates attempted to define precisely what this expansionist project would look like. It was only after four years of battle and the death of three-quarters of a million Americans that a new consensus would emerge.

The Republican Party’s blueprint for the West was one of the Civil War’s biggest winners. In a series of sweeping legislative programs, Republicans clearly and powerfully defined precisely what type of national vision would infuse the settler colonial project of the postwar years. In 1862 alone, the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the Lincoln administration’s brutal suppression of the Minnesota Sioux Rebellion set the tone not only for the pace of whites’ westward expansion, but the nature of the society that expansion would birth. The trans-Mississippi West would become the white man’s land; government fiat and settlers’ actions effaced the footprints of the region’s indigenous, Mexican, and buffalo populations. The “fictive ethnicity” that resulted from this process of ethnic cleansing infused the mythology of western lands as the laboratory for America’s future. The “frontier” could become the very embodiment of “freedom” and “liberty” for white Americans only by the completion of a settler-colonial project that violently transformed the cultural and environmental landscapes of the West.

It was only from the Union victory in the Civil War that the settler colonial project could take place in this fashion. The expanded federal state and industrial-capitalist structures which emerged from this victory created the requisite political will and financial support. The defeat of the Confederacy, and most essentially of the slave society that it represented, meant that there were no longer competing visions of what the settler colonial project would look like. The implications of this victory–the triumph of a radically transformative national project that fundamentally remade a continent–were nothing short of revolutionary. And they were made possible by what might be the most significant settler-colonial revolution of modern times–the American Civil War.

Kevin M. Gannon is Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University. His current book project is A Continental History of the Civil War Era. He blogs at

Title Image: John Gast, American Progress, 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1930), chapter 18.

[2] Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014); James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[3] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper-Collins, 1988).

[4] Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 4-5. See also Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[5] Étienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” in idem. and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 87-106, quoted at 96.

[6] The best analysis of this process is Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[7] See Robert May, Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Eric Foner’s classic Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Additional Readings:

Chaturvedi, Vinayak, ed. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. reprint.  London: Verso, 2012.

Goldstein, Alyosha, ed. Formations of United States Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Veracini, Lorenzo. The Settler Colonial Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Wolfe, Patrick. Settler Colonialism: Writing Past Imperialism. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.

2 thoughts on “The Civil War as a Settler-Colonial Revolution

  1. Great post. As a colonial Canadianist, I was struck by the effective fit between Veracini’s theoetical model and both the US and Canadian examples. At the same time, the histories are quite different, which raise interesting questions about how we conceptualise the two national stories, as well, of course, as the broader continental narrative.


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