The Civil War
(1861-65) was perhaps the most momentous event in American history.
The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk, and
on the outcome of the war depended the nation's ability to bring
to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, human dignity, and justice.
Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 brought to
a climax the long festering debate about the relative powers of
the federal and the state governments. By the time of his inauguration,
six Southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate
States of America, soon to be followed by five more. The war that
followed between North and South put constitutional government to
its severest test. After four bloody years of war, the Union was
preserved, four million African American slaves were freed, and
an entire nation was released from the oppressive weight of slavery.
The war can be viewed in several different ways: as the final, violent
phase in a conflict of two regional subcultures; as the breakdown
of a democratic political system; as the climax of several decades
of social reform; or as a pivotal chapter in American racial history.
However interpreted, the Civil War stands as a story of great heroism,
sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.
As important as the war itself was the tangled problem of how to
reconstruct the defeated South. Encouraged by the 13th, 14th, and
15th amendments to the Constitution, African Americans at last nourished
hopes for full equality. Their hopes were to be dashed. By 1877
Southern white resistance and the withdrawal of federal supervision
brought about the "redemption" of the South and African Americans
were disenfranchised. The redemption measures enforced greater racial
separation and increased white intimidation and violence.