American Civil War: 150 years later

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April 11, 2011 - 7:00pm

Imagine a Hurricane Katrina-sized event spread throughout a 20-state area lasting four years. It's a modern-day analogy of the effect the American Civil War had on the United States. And like the people of New Orleans following Katrina, millions of Americans - people from Texas to Maryland, Ohio to Florida - had their lives ripped apart by the ravages of battle.

"The kind of ripple effect that Civil War Americans experienced might have been similar to what we saw with Katrina that created migration, refugees, movement of people, transformed economies," said William Thomas, department chair of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Nebraska felt the ripple of those kinds of events."

The Civil War officially began at 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861, with the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Yet there were many events and differences in ideology which brought the South to secede. Many of those variables would have a direct affect on Nebraska.

A history of inter-regional conflicts preceded the war, including the "three-fifths compromise" between Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia Convention of 1781. Fast-forward to 1820 and the controversy over adding Missouri - a slave state - to the Union. That act prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had a two-fold affect on Nebraska. It generated opportunities for a transcontinental railroad but more immediately repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

"The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery but nobody was really clear what that meant," said Thomas. "In fact that's why there was such a bloody confrontation in Kansas over whether slavery would be allowed or not."

In April 1861, when the Civil War began, Nebraska was still a territory. It was a slavery-free region and anti-secession feelings ran strong. There were no battles or skirmishes fought within Nebraska's territorial borders. No Confederate troops attempted to invade. Still, most Nebraskans wanted to keep the Union together. "Their motivation like thousands and thousands of Northern troops who signed up in that first month was to save the Union," said Thomas.

Michael Soven is an event coordinator with the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. He said when word of the fighting at Fort Sumter reached Nebraska, the news hit quickly and changes started happening almost immediately. He said of primary concern was trade and protection of the citizenry. Many felt Indian attack was a real threat. "The overland trade out here in Nebraska was a pretty big deal," he said. "Without there being soldiers in the forts a lot of the merchants, they'd now lost their business. They didn't have protection for shipping their freights." In June 1861 the federal government requested the Nebraska Territory form one volunteer regiment, with some companies to stay behind to protect the territory against feared Indian uprisings. The 1st Regiment Nebraska Volunteer Infantry is formed, but by August the soldiers were called eastward to fight the Confederacy. The regiment served under Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

"The U.S. Army at the time was a very small force," said James Potter, senior research historian for the Nebraska State Historical Society . "The minute the war began (President Abraham Lincoln) immediately started calling back all of these regular troops to the east, withdrawing them from places like Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie which was at that time a part of Nebraska territory."

The impact of the Civil War on Nebraska didn't come on the battlefield as much as it did from decisions made by the South-vacant Congress during the fighting. In 1862, three pieces of legislation were passed: the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act and the Pacific Railways Act. Together they paved the way for settlement of Nebraska during and after the war.

"One of the things that's often overlooked is just how fast the south was growing," said Thomas. "The future of the territories, of Kansas and Nebraska, came at a time when with the technology of railroads, both the North and the South could compete to extend themselves into these western territories in ways that they simply couldn't a generation or two earlier with the Missouri Compromise." The Homestead Act was one of three federal laws giving an applicant freehold title of up to 160 acres. After the war extraordinary bonuses were extended Union veterans. If you were a citizen and had never borne arms against the Union, you were eligible to lay claim to surveyed government land.

It was a Union Army scout from Nebraska - Daniel Freeman from Gage County - who is recognized as the first Homestead Act claimant. Still today there is a monument on Freeman's homestead near Beatrice managed by the National Park Service.

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