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How the Civil War Changed Your Life

8 things to think about as we mark the conflict's 150th anniversary

View of tracks at the Southern Pacific Railroad after the Civil War era

A view of the tracks at the Southern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Calloway Canal in Kern County, Calif. — Carleton Watkins/Library of Congress

2. We prize America as a land of opportunity.

The Civil War paved the way for Americans to live, learn and move about in ways that had seemed all but inconceivable just a few years earlier. With these doors of opportunity open, the United States experienced rapid economic growth. Immigrants also began seeing the fast-growing nation as a land of opportunity and began coming here in record numbers.

For many years Southern lawmakers had blocked the passage of land-grant legislation. But they weren't around after secession, and in 1862 Congress passed a series of land-grant measures that would forever change America's political, economic and physical landscape:

  • The First Transcontinental Railroad. Also known as the "Pacific Railroad," the world's first transcontinental line, built between 1863 and 1869, was at least partly intended to bind California to the Union during the Civil War. To build the line, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were granted 400-foot rights-of-way plus 10 square miles of government-owned land for every mile of track built.
  • Homesteading in the West. The Homestead Act, enacted in 1862, provided that any adult citizen (or intended citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government) could be granted 160 acres of surveyed government land after living on it — and making improvements to it — for five years. After the Civil War, Union soldiers could deduct the time they had served from the residency requirement.
  • The land-grant college system. The Morrill Land Grant Act authorized the sale of public lands in every state to underwrite the establishment of colleges dedicated to the "agricultural and mechanical arts." It also required the teaching of military tactics. In time, the new law would give rise to such institutions of higher learning as Michigan State, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.


The same year brought another innovation — a national paper currency — that would literally bankroll the rapidly expanding government and at the same time grease the wheels of commerce from coast to coast. In 1862, with the Union's expenses mounting, the government had no way to continue paying for the war. "Immediate action is of great importance," Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase told Congress. "The treasury is nearly empty." The solution: treasury notes bearing no interest and printed on the best banking paper, as proposed to President Abraham Lincoln by Col. Edmund D. Taylor, who would later became known as "the father of the greenback."

Next: A tribute to fallen soldiers >>

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