No single event in the history of America has had such a profound effect on the nation as the Civil War or been more costly to its people either. More soldiers lost their lives in this catastrophic episode than in all its other conflicts combined.
Today it is difficult to imagine how men in their hundreds of thousands could take arms against their friends and relatives, their neighbors and their countrymen, and wage brutal, furious war. And yet, this is what happened just two lifetimes ago, for four bloody years between 1861 and 1865 - a savage convulsion that drew a deep line between the America after.
During the Civil War both sides fighting were fighting for their own ideas of liberty. In the south it was for the freedom of individual states to choose their own political course. In the north it was for the indivisible Union, in which they believed lay the best chance for preserving the Republic, and the ideals of liberty and democracy that it embodied. And mixed into this argument was another explosive contradiction. How could a nation that declared all men are created equally entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" also exploit four million slaves - and be the largest slave-owning country in the world? Such tangled questions had haunted the United States since its inception. In 1861, they could be left unanswered no longer.
By the time the Civil War drew to a close, after the heroes had been lauded and the leaders immortalized, after the battlefields had been cleared and the dead buried, the nation had stumbled upon an answer. It was an answer that defined today's United States, that created a "a new birth of freedom" for its people, and that helped secure America's place as the most powerful and influential nation on earth.
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