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National Park Service

Defining America

The issues at the heart of the Civil War remain relevant today: equality for all Americans, the appropriate reach of the federal government, and the effort to reconcile differing cultural values under a single national flag.

Both sides were willing to sustain such punishment and keep fighting because the stakes were so great: nationality and freedom. If the Confederacy lost the war, it would cease to exist. And by 1863 or 1864, when emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery became a Northern war aim, the institution of African-American bondage that was a cornerstone of Southern society would also cease to exist. "This country without slave labor would be completely worthless," wrote a Mississippi soldier to his wife. "We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to fight to the last." A clerk in the Confederate War Department declared in 1863 that "our men must prevail in combat, or lose their property, country, freedom, everything," while "the enemy, in yielding the contest, may retire into their own country, and possess everything they enjoyed before the war began."

But "the enemy"--Northerners--did not believe they could "retire into their own country" if they lost the war and "possess everything they enjoyed before the war began." Most believed they would no longer have a country worthy of the name. The words "United States" would become an oxymoron. The nation would become two nations, and a fatal precedent would have been created for its further division into several nations until there was no "nation" at all. Two Union infantry officers, one from New York and the other from New Jersey, agreed that "if we lose this war, the country is lost and if we win it is saved. There is no middle ground." Defeat would make the country a "sepulcher in which should be buried our institutions, our nationality, our flag."

For African Americans the stakes were freedom if the North won, or continued slavery if the Confederacy prevailed. Two hundred thousand of them, mostly former slaves, fought for the Union and for their own liberty. A growing number of Northern white soldiers also came to see freedom as a vital issue in the contest. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, a soldier from New York State exulted that "the contest is now between Slavery & freedom, & every honest man knows [what] he is fighting for," while an Iowa sergeant was confident that "the God of battle will be with us . . . now that we are fighting for Liberty and Union and not for Union and Slavery."

The National Park Service commemorates a defining event in our nation's history and its legacy in the fight for civil rights. Join us.

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