The American Civil War Museum presents our latest exhibition The Impending Crisis at ACWM-Tredegar . Exploring the events, individuals, and topics that led to the division of the United States on the verge of civil war.
The Impending Crisis takes visitors on a journey through differing national viewpoints on faith, politics, and patriotism in the years leading up to the Civil War. While touring the exhibit, visitors meet both well-known and lesser-known people, hearing their words, seeing the families and communities they built, and the extreme hardships they suffered. Visitors gain a better understanding of what was truly at stake during this pivotal time in the nation’s history, and how the actions to engage in a civil war remade America.

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The Civil War was caused by slavery. However, it is essential to understand how slavery was viewed by Americans in the context of faith, politics, and patriotism. In pre-Civil War America differing beliefs eventually pushed the nation to war.  What would cause a neighbor to take up arms against a neighbor, or a brother against a brother? 

In 1860, Americans grappled with what they should fight for in our country: what it was or what it should be.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1858
“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.”
– New York Senator William Seward, 1858

1860 was a turbulent time. What would you do…

To SURVIVE in a culture that didn’t value your life?
To FIGHT for what you believed in?
To ADAPT when everything you knew was about to change?
To PROTECT the people you love?

White southerners viewed slavery as essential not only to national “greatness” but also to domestic peace and safety. They saw attacks on slavery as attacks on their own status as equals in the Union. Anti-slavery momentum and the Republican victory was the first real challenge to “The Slave Power.”

Southerners became convinced that if slavery ended, war between the races, instigated by Republicans, lay ahead…


Was American Slavery Unique?

How did Slavery Spread?

How powerful was slaveholder politics?

What did White Southerners mean by “State’s Rights”?

Fear of insurrection

From the beginning, Black Americans challenged slavery. Enslaved men and women defied enslavers by building families, communities, and faiths. Refugees from the south carried their determination northward where they joined free Black people who argued that the American ideal of political equality should be theirs as well.

At first, few listened. Eventually, their cause pushed the nation toward war…


Resistance & Resilience

Seizing freedom

Action to activism

A Political vision

black abolitionists

American political culture changed in the 1850s. The suppression of revolutions in Europe reinforced the idea that democracy was fragile. Abolitionist activism and slaveholder overreach made anti-slavery sentiment acceptable. A political movement emerged that celebrated ordinary citizens’ ability to improve themselves and to create communities free from the influence of “The Slave Power.” It coalesced under the slogan of “Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men” and became the Republican party. Northerners did not passively observe events.

A critical mass became enthusiastic—even militant—partisans of a political vision for the nation’s future, a future worth fighting for—a future without slavery.


A fragile democracy

“Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men”


ACWM-Tredegar New Exhibit Now Open…The Impending Crisis

Purchase your site pass for ACWM-Tredegar to experience our newest exhibit The Impending Crisis!
ACWM Members receive free admission at all ACWM sites, all year long.

The Impending Crisis exhibit allows visitors to step back in time to the years leading up to the Civil War, where they can meet both well-known and everyday individuals, hear their words, see the evidence of the families they built and the violence they experienced, and explore the assumptions they held about how the country functioned. By doing so, visitors can gain a better understanding of what was truly at stake during this pivotal moment in American history and the impact it had on the nation as a whole.