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America's History in the Making

A Nation Divided

Theme 3

The prolonged conflict transformed civilian life, causing immense personal and financial losses to many Americans, expanding the role of government, and allowing white women and African Americans to take on new roles in both the North and the South.

While warfare dramatically increased the power of the Union and Confederate governments, they also worked more closely with the businessmen who provided the materials needed to fight the war—food, uniforms, weaponry, and other equipment. At the same time, they sought to unify public sentiment and participation behind the war. The result left a few people rich and many embittered, though employment and wages rose substantially in the North.

The war also provided unanticipated opportunities for people who had been politically and socially marginalized: slaves who escaped bondage, of course, but also free African Americans and white women. Union leaders resisted letting African American soldiers enlist for much of the war. Once they were allowed in, those enlistees faced substantial prejudice. But, the war offered many a chance to prove their courage and patriotism. In addition, white women experienced both more vulnerability and more autonomy, as the absence of men opened up and thrust them into new roles.

Although old prejudices remained strong, the nature of the war changed attitudes and, particularly, circumstances.

Primary Sources