The America that existed after the end of the Civil War is nothing like we know it as today. Major urbanization and industrialization, equal rights for all citizens, and two major world wars have shaped how we understand it. While there are countless numbers of events that have shaped the country since the end of slavery in the United States, there are a few that stand as markers of great change, including the period of Reconstruction, massive industrialization, Worlds Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights movement. While these descriptions only graze the surface of the larger changes, they can be defined as events that constructed the America of 2008.
One of the first major events in America after the Civil War was the period of Reconstruction, which lasted from about 1865 until 1876. This was a period of great upheaval and the nation attempted to reorganize itself and integrate the Southern states that now had to become part of the Union. In addition, freed slaves from all over the South now found themselves without a system that had once controlled nearly every aspect of their lives and they had to find a way to integrate into a society that was still, for the most part, heavily biased against them. There was little political or social agreement during the Reconstruction period, particularly over issues such as who should be permitted vote (ex-slaves, Confederates, those slaves who served in the war) as well as how the South was going to rebuild itself after the vast destruction of many of its centers and its loss of slave labor. With the death of Abraham Lincoln and takeover by Andrew Johnson, the process of Reconstruction was made more complex for blacks in the south. Legislative acts known as the black codes came into effect which greatly hindered the attempts of freed slaves to start a new life.
Eventually, the 14th Amendment, which came directly out of the Reconstruction era, was passed and ensured the civil rights of blacks, at least to some degree. By the end of Reconstruction, the South knew it had no other choice and could hold on no longer to its vision of recreating itself outside of the North. Even with the progress made by Reconstruction, there were still longstanding tensions between the North and newly-integrated South. In addition, the process in no way granted equal rights to freed slaves and while they may have enjoyed some greater freedoms, voting was still a long way off. It would not be until the Civil Rights Movement nearly one hundred years later that the full fruits of what Reconstruction was trying to achieve were seen.
In the years following Reconstruction, a period of rapid industrialization ensued in major cities across the United States. The railroads encouraged this growth and cities such as Chicago saw huge increases in population. Many of the African Americans found their way to such urban centers in search of work in the many factories and processing plants. It was a time of economic prosperity and while there was certainly a large gap between the rich and working poor, Americans were increasingly becoming urbanized as many left homesteads and farms in search for a new life in the big cities. In many ways, this was an era that was uninterrupted by massive internal struggles but the coming of World War I would change America. This is also something of a “breaking point” between two entirely different Americas. By the end of Reconstruction, industrialization was only beginning to take hold outside of the Eastern states such as New York and much of the country was still rooted in times gone by. The coming of the Great War would not only change forever the way Americans thought about themselves, but how they viewed themselves in the World. They were quickly becoming a world power and in addition, they were developing a distinct culture. The time after the First World War is marked by a growing sense of modernity and for the first time in its history, wars being fought in distant lands would become a marker for the century.