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America's History in the Making

A Nation Divided

Unit Overview

Storming Fort Wagner

In 1776, in the midst of a bloody war, the United States was founded, and unprecedented carnage marked one of the most critical events in its subsequent political history: the Civil War.

But, every war is more than just a series of battles. This unit will explore the broad political and social contexts, and consequences of this conflict. The Civil War did not simply determine that the United States would remain united—would be one nation rather than two (or many more). The North’s victory expanded the role of the federal government, and wrought extraordinarily important social strains and opportunities.

The war confounded expectations in other ways: both sides expected it to end quickly. Southerners, especially, expected it to be decided by the exercise of valor. The North finally won by using its greater human and industrial capital. The cost in suffering to soldiers and civilians was very high, however, and the war’s outcome was very much in doubt until its closing months. The Confederate States of America might well have won the Civil War.

In the meantime, over four long years, many Northerners and Southerners alike counted the war’s costs as too high. Indeed, both governments felt it necessary to restrict their citizens’ rights to protest and resist the war.

The Civil War left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, wounded, or disillusioned—even as it kept the Union intact, ended slavery, and expanded opportunities for African Americans and white women. It brought an expanded and lasting role for government in both economic and private life, while stimulating industrialization in the South, as well as the North. Nearly a century and a half later, it remains the most important turning point in the nation’s history.

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