This is the period of American History starting from the creation of the United States Constitution.
In this time, the United States has plenty of growing pains operating as a new country. And it was growing fast, most dramatically with the Louisiana Purchase brokered between U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, which literally doubled the land width of the US overnight. Of course, this land had to be explored, and that's where the famous expedition led by Lewis and Clark came in.
Furthermore, the United States had two major wars. The first was the The War of 1812 with Britain, which was fought primarily in the British colonies that would become Canada. This was a much tougher fight than the Americans imagined, with the British troops, colonists and their Native American allies throwing back multiple invasions. Although the war eventually ended in a standoff, the United States felt they garnered some respect, the British colonists (the ancestors of today's Canadians) got some pride in successfully defending their lands, and the Native Americans lost their last chance to defend their sovereignty and stop America's westward expansion.
In the 1840s, there was the Mexican-American War, which enabled the United States to seize most of Mexico's northern territories, including what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona as well as parts of Colorado and New Mexico. California proved a hard sell to settle, but discovering gold there in 1849 seemed a pretty good incentive to make the trek...
However, simmering over all of this was the question of slavery. For the early part of the 19th century, the institution seemed on the way out, until Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin spurred on a renaissance for the controversial institution in the Deep South. On the other hand, the Northern states eventually abandoned slavery thanks to industrialization, and they started to ask a troubling question: why did America allow so many millions to be held in chattel slavery when it was founded on the ideal that "all men are created equal"? (The writer of that phrase, slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, was deeply conflicted about it himself.)
This question fueled a growing rift between North and South that soon degenerated into violence. In the South, people were killed for even questioning the institution of slavery, and people like Nat Turner led slave rebellions that served to both scare and anger the Southern populace. When the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, declaring that runaway slaves found anywhere in the country (even in states where slavery was illegal) be captured and returned to their masters, the Northern states did everything they could to block the law's enforcement (Wisconsin's Supreme Court even declared it unconstitutional). In Kansas, the question over whether or not to allow slavery in the new state led to a period known as "Bleeding Kansas", in which open combat was fought between pro- and anti-slavery militias. There were even bloody physical assaults in the US Congress itself. Even without the violence, the malignancy of slavery chained the nation in more subtle and yet profound ways such as it was made illegal to simply mail anti-slavery literature, making a mockery of the concept of freedom of speech.
Meanwhile, several caring people stepped forward to fight for freedom for all, with Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth with the pen and on the lecture circuit. Meanwhile, others took action to help the fight, most famously with the Underground Railroad of abolitionist volunteers determined to help runaway slaves get to freedom. To them, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law simply meant that the journey had to be extended to the British colony of Upper Canada (now the Canadian province of Ontario). Of those, no one was more famous than Harriet Tubman, an illiterate, narcoleptic escaped slave who would guide over 300 slaves to freedom in 18 friendly extraction missions in the South while having a combined bounty of $30,000 on her head -- and was never caught or lost a slave! Meanwhile, the African slaves on the bad ship Amistad broke their chains, seized control of the ship, were captured by American forces, and won their freedom in the US courts with the help of former U.S. President John Quincy Adams.
The simmering conflict took a new height when the abolitionist fanatic John Brown tried to capture the Harpers Ferry arsenal to start a slave insurrection. In the aftermath of "John Brown's Raid," many Northerners hailed the man as a hero and a martyr. For many Southerners, this was the final straw that proved that North and South couldn't coexist as one nation. The final straw for the rest of the South was when the outspoken anti-slavery politician Abraham Lincoln managed to win the Republican nomination and then the 1860 election to become President -- without winning a single Southern electoral vote.
Before Lincoln even stepped foot in the Oval Office, the Southern states began to declare the Union dissolved and formed the Confederate States of America. Eventually, despite Lincoln's attempts to defuse the situation while maintaining the authority of the federal government, the Southern cannons fired on Fort Sumter and The American Civil War began.
If there is a time travel story here, you can expect the heroes to give Harriet Tubman a hand. Also, if you want an American character who has a family heritage of heroism, having ancestors who were participants in the Underground Railroad is just the thing to live up to. In The DCU for instance, the Wayne and Kent families were proudly members of the network
Antebellum means pre-war, specifically the American Civil War. From the Latin ante, before (as in ante meridiem, "before noon", A.M. on a clock.); and bellum, war (as in casus belli, cause (or act) of war).
- The Pioneers and The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- The Tecumseh novels by Fritz Steuben
- The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West
- The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
- Burr by Gore Vidal.
- Gone with the Wind begins shortly before the Civil War, and a major plot point is how well or poorly characters adapt from their pre-war lives to the majorly changed world they live in post-war.