The histories of the Civil War and of the emerging West were tangled together from their beginnings. Although the war was fought mostly in the East, the events that set it off were born of the expansion of the 1840s, and in turn the war and its aftermath shaped profoundly western development between 1861 and 1877. Moved by the threat to the Union, then the demands of war, and finally the challenges of victory, the federal government drew the new country ever more tightly into the nation, creating new governments, reaching into the West with rails and telegraph wires, opening its farmlands to millions of families, and assaulting American Indians while trying to turn them into citizens.
The conflicts behind the Civil War, simmering since the nation’s birth, were brought sharply into focus when expansion to the Pacific raised an explosive issue: Would slavery be allowed in the new country, including the rich gold diggings of California? Another crucial western issue, the desperate need for better links of transportation to the East, sharpened still more the division between the North and the South. The soaring population in California quickly brought a call for a transcontinental railroad. Whichever city was on the eastern end of it—the prime candidates were New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago—would profit enormously. US Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, hoping to win the prize for Chicago, cut a deal with southern legislators to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which re-opened the explosive issue supposedly settled by the Missouri Compromise in 1820—whether slaves would be permitted in the former Louisiana Purchase. The debates that followed gave rise to the Republican Party, whose triumph in 1860 would precipitate southern secession.
The law also led to “Bleeding Kansas, ” the fight (1854–1858) over whether Kansas would be a slave state or “free soil.” Two questions faced the nation, one centered in the East and the other in the West. What would be the place of African American slavery in the Republic? And who would be allowed access to the West’s grand possibilities, and on what terms? In Kansas those questions met, and Americans began killing Americans in the effort to resolve them. In a sense the first blood of the Civil War was shed not at Fort Sumter but here, on the western plains.
Many Westerners supported the expansion of slavery into the West, and some would support Southern secession. Much of the Anglo population in Arizona and New Mexico had come from the South, and although California was admitted as a free state in 1850, on the eve of the conflict the state’s highest officials included both Unionists and future Confederates. In a duel in September 1859, a month before John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, David Terry, a secessionist and chief judge of the state’s supreme court, shot and killed US Senator David Broderick, a free-soil advocate. Nonetheless there was never any serious threat of Confederate control of California, and the far West was secured for the Union in the spring of 1862 when federal troops at Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico turned back a Southern bid to seize Colorado’s gold fields and another column from California drove a small Confederate force out of Arizona.
Paradoxically, the war’s greatest impact on the West came after the fighting there was over. With Union forces firmly in control and with Southern opposition gone from the nation’s capital, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed three measures of the greatest significance in the coming decades. On May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act became law. It granted 160 acres of unclaimed public land to any adult, including immigrants intending to become citizens, who worked the land for five years while making certain improvements, including building a dwelling. Roughly six weeks later, on July 1, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act providing land and government loans to construct the first transcontinental rail line. The next day he signed the Morrill Act, which allotted public lands to states to finance colleges dedicated to agricultural education and research, an especially pressing need given the semi-arid West’s great challenges to farmers of that day.
Although the Homestead Act proved ill suited to the more arid parts of the region, tens of millions of western acres (and many millions more in the East) would be settled under its terms before it was phased out in the lower forty-eight states in the 1930s. The Pacific Railway Act began a vigorous expansion of the federal effort, begun in the 1850s, to build an infrastructure of roads, wires, and rails. By 1883 several more transcontinentals had been built, among them the Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, all with federal support. The “aggie” colleges born of the Morrill Act, besides graduating hundreds of thousands of students, continued to promote the development (and, many would come to argue, the overdevelopment) of western agriculture and other rural industries.