Prince Greer: Slave, Freedman, and Entrepreneur

Prince Greer

One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.

Slaves burying the Union dead at Antietam

What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.[1]

One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer.  He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee.  Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor.  Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted.  Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward.  He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.[2]

William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms.  He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia.  He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:

                        I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and   employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the  Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates.  I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché.  The latter  had his head shot clear off.  I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time.  After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.[3]

Staged Union embalming enterprise

The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington.[4] Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:

Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself  became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it.  It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone.  He was always careful, always . . .  coming to me in a                         difficult case.  He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.[5]

Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.[6]

Horses & Carriages in front of C. W. Franklin Funeral Home

The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.



[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


From ECW’s Archives – Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers?

In 2016, Emerging Civil War author Steward T. Henderson wrote a five part series, sharing his research about Black Confederates. Were they soldiers or laborers?

We thought it was a discussion to revisit during 2018 Black History Month.

Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? Part 1

Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers?  Part 2

Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? Part 3

Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? Part 4

Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? Part 5

Bernard Slave Cabins

A new article by guest author Michael Aubrecht

One of the more overlooked spots on the Fredericksburg National Battlefield is the Bernard Slave Cabins. This area was the homestead of a number of enslaved African-Americans and a focal point of the fighting that took place near Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Pen Farm. Today the site is accessible via the Bernard Cabins Trail. According to the NMPS website:

Bernard Slave Cabin signs [Photo from Official NPS Website: Bernard Slave Cabins Site]

Halfway down Lee Drive, a little more than a half mile beyond its intersection with Lansdowne Road, begins one of the newest and least-known trails on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The trail starts at the road and winds through the woods for half a mile before emerging into a large plowed field overlooking Shannon Airport and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad (now CSX). It terminates at Bernard’s Cabins, the site of a small slave community. Bernard’s Cabins became an important Confederate artillery position on “Stonewall” Jackson’s end of the line. The center of his line was wooded, preventing the Confederate leader from placing any artillery there. Instead, he placed a large number of cannons on either side of the woods and angled the guns toward one another so as to catch any Union troops who might attempt to attack the woods in a deadly crossfire. To the left of the woods, at Bernard’s Cabins, stood nine guns of Capt. Greenlee Davidson’s battalion. The cabins and their occupants belonged to Arthur Bernard, the owner of Mannsfield, a plantation house that stood about one and a half miles to the east.

The NMPS tabletop marker that was erected on the site states: “On this knoll stood Bernard’s Cabins, a small community that in 1860 was home to about three dozen slaves. The complex consisted of three two-room cabins, a stone-lined well, and perhaps two additional buildings. This was only one of several such clusters of slave housing scattered across the 1,800-acre ‘Mannsfield’ estate. The men and women who lived here helped power the most prosperous plantation in the Fredericksburg area. Arthur Bernard’s plantation house, ‘Mannsfield’ (1766), stood about a mile east of here (it burned in 1863). During the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg it served as headquarters for three top Union generals – W.B. Franklin, J.F. Reynolds, and W.F. Smith.”

Slave women cultivating tobacco [Photo from Official NPS Website: Bernard Slave Cabins]

The Historical Marker Database provides detailed GPS data on this spot (38° 15.588? N, 77° 27.261? W), as well as photographs depicting the current site and markers. The Bernard Slave Cabin marker includes a 1798 Benjamin Latrobe illustration depicting two slave women preparing tobacco under the watchful eye of an overseer, as well as a 1770 advertisement seeking the return of a runaway slave from the Mannsfield plantation.

NMPS historian Frank O ‘Reilly describes the significance of the Bernard Slave Cabins grounds in his book “The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.” These small cottage-like buildings presented a potential problem for Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s artillerists who were forward deployed and attempting to prepare a cross-fire in anticipation of the Federal’s advancement towards Prospect Hill. He writes:

Crutchfield offset the problem somewhat by Captain Greenlee Davidson’s small battalion of guns at the Bernard Slave Cabins to cover Brockenbrough’s left rear. Crutchfield believed that an attack against Brockenbrough’s battalion would expose its flank to a raking oblique fire from Davidson’s guns. Davidson used elements of three batteries with a combination of six 3-inch rifles, two Napoleons, and one light 6-pounder. The artillerist posted Captain William H. Caskie’s Hampden (Virginia) Artillery with another section of Ed Marye’s Fredericksburg Artillery and Lieutenant Charles W. Statham’s Lee (Virginia) Artillery. The batteries unlimbered behind a rise capped by Bernard’s Cabins, three hundred yards behind Brockenbrough, and a thousand yards to R. Lindsay Walker’s left. Some of Marye’s Fredericksburg Artillery fought within sight of their homes. The gunners tore down the Bernard Cabins to clear their field of fire.

Trail to the Bernard Slave Cabins Site [Photo from Official NPS Website: Bernard Slave Cabins]

This tactic would prove disastrous for those positioned at Bernard’s Cabins and tasked with covering the RF&P railroad. In an article written for The Free Lance-Star’s Town and County titled “Slave cabins were center of 1862 battle maneuverings” NMPS historian Donald Pfanz recalled the futility of the positioning and the resulting devastation that ensued. He wrote:

On the morning of Dec. 13, 1862, Union skirmishers crept forward through the mist-shrouded fields and began shooting at Brockenbrough’s exposed gunners. When Lane’s men were unable to drive them away, Brockenbrough opened on the pesky Union riflemen with canister large cylinders filled with dozens of marble-sized iron balls that had the effect of a giant shotgun blast. Brockenbrough’s guns drew the fire of Union artillery batteries on the plain ahead, and soon the Confederate guns were under intense fire from enemy sharpshooters and cannon alike.

The slave cabins and a small pine grove had stood between Davidson and his Yankee assailants, but no more. By the time he stopped shooting, the cabins were in ruins and the grove had been reduced to kindling. At Bernard’s Cabins, Union shot ignited one of Davidson’s ammunition chests, causing a terrific explosion. Fifteen of 20 shells caught fire and exploded, blackening the ground and stampeding the battery horses. One shell cut a Confederate gunner in two and threw his blackened clothing into a nearby tree; another took off the leg of an officer just above the knee. At one gun alone, five artillerists were injured. Jackson witnessed the vigor of the Union response and wisely cancelled the attack. South of town, at least, the killing was over.

Today, the Bernard Cabins Trail provides one of the most peaceful and enjoyable nature walks on the whole Fredericksburg Battlefield proper. Unfortunately, the cabins themselves are no longer standing and one has to depend entirely on their imagination to envision what this small slave community looked like. Perhaps in the future, either through traditional building reconstruction or virtual 3D-modeling technology, the Bernard Slave Cabins will be resurrected again. Until then, I highly recommend that visitor’s take a moment during their tour to leave the “main drag” of Lee Drive and hike the half a mile down to this unique and important site.


O ‘Reilly, Frank, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (LSU Press; 1st edition, April 1, 2006)

Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park website:

Historical Marker Database:

Not the Same African Americans We Always See

Civil War Medal of Honor

I was watching a television show a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of Black History Month was mentioned. One of the characters complained that America always trots out the same four African Americans every year to stand in for all the other African Americans about which no one knows anything. I immediately realized that this also applies to the African Americans we celebrate from the 1800s. This year, I think we
should give Mr. Frederick Douglas, the 54th Massachusetts, Ms. Harriet Tubman, and Ms. Sojourner Truth a break, and learn about some other men and women who made significant contributions to the American Civil War. For instance, Andrew Jackson Smith.

On September 3, 1843, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, a baby boy was born to a slave mother, Susan, and her master, Elijah Smith. Susan named him Andrew Jackson Smith. When young Andy was ten years old, his father put him to work on a ferry that transported people and supplies across the Cumberland River. Andy worked at this job for eight years.[1] When the Civil War broke out, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military and planned to take Andy, who was now 19, with him as a personal body servant to make the rigors of campaigning less odious–less odious for Mr. Smith, anyway.

Smithland, KY

Andy was having none of it. He convinced another slave to run away with him, through pouring rain, to a Union regiment camped at Smithland, Kentucky, twenty-five miles away. At that time the Union First Confiscation Act of 1861 was in place. This act directed that slaves not be returned to their masters if those masters were in Confederate service. Major John Warner, of the 41st Illinois Regiment, hired Andy as a servant and took him along when the 41st returned to the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah, Kentucky.[2]

Major John Warner

On March 19, 1862, the 41st moved from Paducah to Pittsburgh Landing, in Tennessee. A month later the regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh. During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Major Warner had two horses shot out from under him. Although it placed him under fire, young Smith brought one and then another mount to Warner. As he helped Warner into the saddle, Andy was struck in the head by a “spent Minié ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.”[3] The regimental surgeon removed the ball, and after the battle was over, Warner obtained a personal furlough to bring Andrew Smith home with him to Clinton, Illinois. There Smith recovered from his wound and continued to work as Warner’s personal servant until he heard the news that President Lincoln was allowing black troops to join the Union Army.

Andrew Jackson Smith

Major Warner gave Smith the money necessary for the trip to Boston, Massachusetts to enlist with the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. On May 16, 1863, Private Andrew Smith was mustered into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Company B. Along with sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, they fought in five military engagements. Smith was in the army when the black soldiers found out that they would be paid less than white soldiers, and would have to pay a “clothing allowance” as well. Colonel Alfred Hartwell of the 55th protested all the way up to Secretary of War Stanton himself. Hartwell threatened to resign unless the pay issue was resolved. It was settled in August 1864 and by October everyone was paid fairly.[4]

By November 30, 1864, Smith had been promoted to corporal in the color-bearing unit of the 55th Massachusetts. On that day both the 55th and the 54th Massachusetts participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Andrew Smith Bowden, Smith’s grandson, spoke of this at his grandfather’s Medal of Honor service in 2001:

                        When the battle began, you kept your eye on those flags.  And when the  flag went forward, you went    forward. And when the flag went back, you went back. Those men who carried those flags were extremely important, and as you might expect, were prime targets.[5]

The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. Rebel fire killed or wounded over half of the officers of the 55th and at least a third of the enlisted men in the full regiment of a thousand men. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Andrew Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. Smith’s regimental commander, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, recommended him for the Medal of Honor almost immediately after the battle. However, it was not until Smith’s family made a concerted effort that the medal was awarded to him posthumously, 137 years later.

Andy Smith, veteran

Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to color sergeant and left the army after the war. He returned to Kentucky where he invested in property. He died on March 4, 1932, at the age of eighty-eight. Several people tried to get Smith’s medal awarded to him during his lifetime; he was nominated again in 1916, but the politics of racial unrest denied him once again.

Smith’s daughter receives her father’s medal

Smith’s grandson, Andrew Bowman of Indianapolis, Indiana, became determined that his grandfather would receive his Medal of Honor. Bowman spent several years collecting records, conducting research and working with government officials and a history professor at Illinois State University in order to make his grandfather’s public recognition a reality.  Smith’s records were found in the National Archives, where they had been since the end of the Civil War.  On January 16, 2001, 137 years after the Battle of Honey Hill, Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was recognized for his actions. President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to his 93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, along with several Smith descendants during a ceremony at the White House. I shall let Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who spoke at the ceremony, have the last word:

                        A wrong righted 137 years too late is a wrong righted nonetheless. This day has been a long time coming. But, with the dedication of his family and the Illinois State University History Department, Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith’s contribution has finally taken its rightful place in history.[6]


[2] Ibid. and

[3] Quote is from medical records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., words spoken by Smith’s grandson at Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony on January 6, 2001.


The Emancipation Proclamation: An International Turning Point

In  his post, “Thenceforward and Forever Free”: The Emancipation Proclamation as a Turning Point, Dan Vermilya makes a good case that the president’s executive action was a turning point of the war because it clarified Union war aims on the issue of slavery.

The proclamation was equally crucial in another—frequently neglected—international arena: it inspired Great Britain to stay out of the conflict. In 1862, the British administration was under intense political pressure to intervene. A significant portion of the public opinion that mattered was sympathetic to the South. Why such affection for the Confederacy?

emancipation proclamationOne factor was lingering resentment over the Revolution, only eighty years past, and over the petty fuss ignited in 1812 while Great Britain was embroiled in a death struggle with Napoleon. British elites also disdained what they perceived as arrogance, condescension, and bad manners of former colonists, their incessant boasting about strength, freedom, democracy, and destiny.

And despite the 1846 repeal of the British Corn Laws (which erased the last vestiges of mercantilism, ensured the triumph of free trade, and inaugurated a surge of prosperity), the unenlightened United States clung to protective tariffs. This also was a long-standing complaint of the agricultural South.

But enthusiasm for the South also was genuine and positive. From across the pond, aristocrats and wealthy upper middle classes saw little of the South beyond the Virginia and Carolinas of Revolutionary familiarity, and were largely ignorant of the explosion in northern industry and transportation. Through summer 1862, British newspapers reported almost exclusively Southern victories.

The government of Jefferson Davis, noted one Briton, “spoke little and hit hard, came forth calm in adversity and modest in success, kept its eye fixed on its purpose, and strode towards it with resolute step.” Unlike Washington, Richmond behaved with dignity, “a countenance stern and haughty, a quiet air, absence of ostentation and brag.” The English were more inclined to advocate a bad cause defended in proper form than a good cause badly defended.[1]

Prime Minister Palmerston once remarked to a Confederate representative: “The common idea of England is that the Southern people are more like us in character than the Yankees, who have too much of the old Puritan leaven in them to suit us. You Southerners we consider only as transplanted Englishmen of the old stock.”[2]

Many accepted the South’s mythology. Rebels were fighting with fortitude and resolution for freedom under men cut from the same cloth as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, paragons of military genius, courage, patriotic valor, and sacrifice—men like the urbane Jefferson Davis (and in stark contrast to a bumbling frontiersman like Abraham Lincoln).

Robert E. Lee ranked with Wellington among the great generals of English blood; the death of Stonewall Jackson caused an extraordinary outpouring of grief; victories of the Confederate commerce raider, CSS Alabama, were cheered in the House of Commons.

There were of course those abroad who—for politics and/or profit—took satisfaction in the war and potential breakup of the Union. However, most British desired an end to this insane American conflict for national interests as well as for humanity and compassion; a prolonged war would devastate both sections along with Atlantic commerce.

International law permitted intervention by neutral nations to prevent irreparable harm in their own interests. The British people were not required to stand by as witnesses to economic chaos and political unrest in their homeland caused by other peoples’ quarrels. That summer, British ministers and Parliament seriously debated all options from mediation to mandated arbitration, with force if necessary, which almost certainly would have led to Confederate independence. No one doubted they had the navy to do it.

Perhaps the core misapprehension of the British (and foreigners generally) existed over causes. In the first place, the mystical concept of union advanced so eloquently by Abraham Lincoln had little resonance for a people with no experience of a written constitution or a federal system. Their constitution consisted of venerated institutions inherited from the mists of time, not a single document or an overarching principle. They were unified by history and by ethnicity, religion, and geography.

Elites seriously doubted that the strange structure cobbled together in 1787 would work and were not altogether disappointed to see it in trouble. Unlike a constitutional monarchy, large, democratic republics could not endure. They would either disintegrate or descend into tyranny as had Athens, Rome, and most recently, France.

British elite opinion also exhibited a nascent ambivalence toward their empire flourishing in Africa and Asia. While intensely proud of these accomplishments, many concluded that the Declaration of Independence may have been correct in some sense.

The United States was a child of England and had been an immense success, in which, despite differences, they could take great satisfaction. Perhaps the natural course of civilizing influence in overseas enterprise motivated colonies toward independence in a modern commercial and industrial world. It behooved them to accept and support this pattern of self-determination, not fight it.

The British sympathized with Greek and Italian freedom and supported independence for Spanish American colonies and Belgium. Their experiences in North America and the West Indies demonstrated the burdens as well as the benefits of colonial rule. But in stark contrast, the United States continued to grasp at empire by acquiring Louisiana, annexing Texas, grabbing the Southwest, brutally suppressing Indians, and, not coincidentally, threatening British Canada.

And finally, there was slavery. The British hated the institution. They had been the first society in human history to engender a broad moral consensus against involuntary servitude as antithetical to foundational principles. They were the first to officially outlaw it (1833) after a long, desperate struggle, despite severe political and economic consequences.

British abolition was a primary inspiration for American abolition, and an excellent reason not to favor the Confederacy. However, not perceiving President Lincoln’s domestic constraints, the British were confounded when for a year and a half he maintained that the war was not about slavery.

So, if union did not make sense, if independence was a natural consequence of colonial maturity, and if slavery apparently was not the issue, this war must be about conquering a people who wished to left alone.

Lord Acton wrote to Lee complementing him for fighting the battles of English freedom and civilization, concluding: “I morn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” A cause fought for so valiantly by such men must be a just one. The Confederacy was the true champion of freedom (as opposed to equality, which these men did not favor).[3]

Eighty years ago in America, rightful rulers had been despised and rebels honored; now rebels were traitors. As insistently argued by Southerners, why shouldn’t the Confederacy do to the United States what the colonies had done to Great Britain? These were natural rights of revolution, freedom, and consent of the governed.

Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were intensely concerned with countering this insidious line of thought. So, one of Lincoln’s primary motivations for the Emancipation Proclamation was to convince the British that the issue of slavery was indeed central to the war effort, and to discourage talk of intervention aimed at ending the conflict with anything less than total Union victory.

However, in a prime example of international misunderstanding, many Britons initially concluded that the proclamation was not a moral position, but a self-serving act of military desperation that could—perhaps intentionally—start a race war. Confederates, of course, adamantly agreed. Yankee hypocrisy on the subject was reinforced by pre-war complicity in the illegal slave trade, continued existence of slavery in border states, and now the narrow and selective application of emancipation.

The British did not, as Lincoln did instinctively, see a connection between preserving the Union and the end of the institution. In fact, many believed that Confederate independence would more rapidly extinguish slavery by isolating it in the south. Emancipation in the West Indian sugar plantations had been necessary and proper, but also an economic disaster and a bitter experience.

From a distance, Confederate rationalizations had made sense: slavery would be ended in their own good time, not as forced upon them by northern tyrants, and child-like Africans would benefit with enlightened, gradual freedom from kindly and paternal care.

But after Antietam and promulgation of the draft proclamation, the British paused their frantic debates and tabled decisions on intervention. The Emancipation Proclamation was a major and crucial first step, resetting the terms of discussion from then on. Confederate reverses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the next summer accelerated the process, effectively ending serious discussion of the subject. The British would stay out. The Confederacy would sink or swim on its own.


Vanauken, Sheldon. The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989.

Jones, Howard. Blue & Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Mahin, Dean B. One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999.

Merli, Frank J. Great Britain and The Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

[1] Vanauken, The Glittering Illusion, 62.

[2] Jones, Blue & Gray Diplomacy, 158.

[3] Vanauken, The Glittering Illusion, 103.

The Homestead Act, Early Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War

Nearly everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863.  This document formally established abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s goals in fighting and winning the Civil War and enabled the North to recruit African American men to fight as Union soldiers and sailors.  Before signing it, President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “If my name shall have a place in history, it will be for this act.”

However, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the only significant act or law to become effective 155 years ago today.  The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, also took effect on January 1, 1863.  While certainly not as well-known as the Emancipation Proclamation, the homestead law still had great impact on the United States and remained in effect for an incredible 123 years.

The Homestead Act’s provisions offered qualified settlers the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size (though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres).  Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months.  At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years.  Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred the property’s permanent title to the homesteader.  This law eventually led to the transfer of more than 270 million acres of land to settlers in 30 different states.  The Homestead Act remained active in some parts of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.


President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homestead Act.  Both went into effect 155 years today-January 1, 1863.  (Photo by Alexander Gardner; public domain image.)

Questions about whether and how the federal government should distribute land to settlers had persisted since the end of the Revolutionary War.  Like so many other questions of national importance, land distribution eventually got wrapped up in the debate over slavery, and Congress was never able to agree on a bill that satisfied both northerners and southerners.  As the nation started down the road that eventually led to the Civil War, the Homestead Act became a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s.  As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more and more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—basically due to guilt by association with Republicans.  Early Republicans included abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former “Know-Nothings,” and the castoffs of other regional parties.  Homesteading, even more than abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for creating cohesion among the first Republicans.

As Americans clamored for some kind of homestead bill into the 1850s, the idea became more and more politicized.  Southerners that cared little about western settlement under a homestead act came to vehemently oppose it, viewing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery.  Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any real thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.

The Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills that Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object.  This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole.  Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure.  In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal some 70 years later.


The Jerry Shores family homesteaded in Custer County, Nebraska after the Civil War.  Shores was a former slave that took advantage of the opportunity to claim and own land under the Homestead Act’s provisions.  (Nebraska State Historical Society.)

The Homestead Act initiated significant changes to American society.  Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it.  Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads.  Significantly for a law that went into effect the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution African Americans were also able to claim and own land as homesteaders.  Thousands traveled west for the opportunity to do so.  Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims.  Homesteading contributed to the United States becoming one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.

The law was not perfect by any means.  Reflecting American society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading.  The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures.  Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations.  Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on America’s road to the Civil War.  The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war.  Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.