Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 27-47.
Rapid change, passionate convictions, acute regional differences, ethnic conflict, and an army looking for a mission characterized the United States from 1865 to 1890. The Civil War was over and most of the soldiers had mustered out and gone home. The others were assigned either to the South to oversee reconstruction or, the larger number of them, to the area between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains-the Great Plains. The U.S. Army's new mission was to "pacify" the Great Plains, to protect the thousands of migrants enticed there by Congress's offer through the Homestead Act of 160 acres-free, contingent upon living on it and making improvements and by the marketing campaigns of railroads that promised prosperity to those who followed the rails.
These twenty-five years were a watershed time for two regions-the South and the Great Plains. In the South the federal government would struggle with what to do with four million freed people and shift policy frequently from 1865 to 1877, Washington, DC, would award citizenship rather than land to black men through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution in 1868 and 1870, but ultimately trade away federal government protection of citizenship rights for black Americans for Republican control of the White House in February 1877, three months after the nation's most contentious election. This infamous election gave home rule to southern states, allowing them to determine who voted and who didn't and to set their own regulations for their largest minority group even when those regulations violated the U.S. Constitution.