Friday, May 25, 2012

SC6 Civil War Rewind, Part Sixteen: 160 Acres, But No Mule

Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act, But It Doesn't Work Until Decades Later, When Tom Cruise Stars in 'Far and Away'....

     Welcome back to our Civil War Rewind Series, where we note significant events from The War Between the States in chronological order - exactly 150 years after they occurred.. Today, we talk about Land.  Land, lotsa Land under sunny skies above!  Particularly the Homestead Act.  Like most you, we had heard of the Homestead Act, but weren't really sure what it was - and especially what it had to do with the Civil War. Well, we did a little reading, and we'll pass that learning onto you guys...

     By the Summer of 1862, things for the North weren't exactly going according to plan.  The war wasn't over in six weeks, and what battles had ensued, particularly in the East, were going badly.  To defeat an enemy, you have two choices: either pound them into submission, or you give them an incentive to quit.  Since the first wasn't happening yet, Abraham Lincoln tried to spice it up a bit with the second.

    Keep in mind, in 1862, very little west of Texas and Kansas had been settled.  In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains lie millions of acres of open territory not settled.  Yeah, it was mostly inhabited by Indians, but we never really counted them, did we?  Anyway, homesteading had been a part of the Republican platform in 1860, but it obviously took a back seat to the War.  Now, Lincoln decided that it might be a pretty good way to turn the tide in the War..

    The Homestead Act basically gave 160 acres of free land to anyone (and here is the important part) who had never taken up arms against the United States.  Quite a carrot there, right?  Not only was the plan to settle the West, but to settle them all as Free States, even if they were with former residents of the South.  All they had to do was build a home on it, farm it, and keep it for five years, and it was theirs for a small registration fee.  Call it organized bribery, but it was a pretty good deal for anyone who took advantage of it..

    The bad news was, like most things that come out of Washington DC, it wasn't executed as planned.. You see, the land was cheap, but to build a home and equip it with tools, cattle and everything else cost a lot of money - much more than your Average Joe in 1862 had - especially if they'd been choked off economically by the North for over a year.  Few if any in the South took advantage, and the North didn't use it much more initially. Those who did usually moved only slightly more West, like Iowa to Nebraska, or Minnesota to  North Dakota. The bill was so ambiguous, the wealthy mostly took advantage of it. Of the 500 million acres given out in the 19th Century, only 80 million went to true homesteaders.  Most of the land went to speculators, mining companies, railroads and cattlemen.

     On the surface, the Homestead Act was a total bust during the Civil War, because it didn't do it's intended purpose.  Southerners didn't leave their homes for free land, and the war dragged on.  However, it was a staple program for well into the 20th Century.  In fact, more land was granted in the 20th Century through the Homestead Act than in the 19th Century.  Like in the Tom Cruise movie, Far and Away, that takes place in 1893 in Oklahoma.  No, it wasn't as good as Mission Impossible, but at least we learned something..So, even though off the bat, it didn't achieve it's intended purpose, eventually it opened the West to millions of citizens.

     That's our latest installment, but don't worry... We'll be back in about a week with our next chapter!  Thanks for reading our posts on this. We hope you enjoy them as much as we like writing them for you!


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