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Confederates burned Richmond, Virginia, their capital, before it fell to Union forces in April 1865.

Confederates burned Richmond, Virginia, their capital, before it fell to Union forces in April 1865.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Confederates burned Richmond, Virginia

Images of the Era: 1851-1877

Unprecedented growth in the 1850s strained the fragile agreements that had kept the nation united, but had also kept it part slave, part free. The addition of each new state to the Union rattled the delicate political balance carved out by compromises in Congress. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of each of these new territories, rather than Congress, to decide whether to permit slavery. While intending to keep the nation together, this act inflamed sectional tensions, producing open warfare between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, and led directly to the Civil War.