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Lincoln’s Imagined West

In Lincoln’s view the West represented a space for opportunity, especially for the citizen-soldiers returning to their prewar pursuits.

The American West offered solutions to several problems that confronted the victorious Union government in 1865. The two most pressing were the rising national debt and the question of military demobilization. Lincoln turned to the debt question first: “Now that the rebellion is overthrown, and we know pretty nearly the amount of our national debt, the more gold and silver we mine, we make the payment of that debt so much the easier.” Like many other Republicans of his time, Lincoln believed that the first order of business in the wake of the war was to reduce the vast bureaucracy developed during the conflict. The federal budget in 1860 had been $63 million. By the last year of the war that figure had increased to $1.3 billion. The debt from the Civil War exceeded $5 billion—and converting the West’s vast mineral wealth into currency represented a potential path to repayment.

In Lincoln’s view the West also represented a space for healing and opportunity, especially for the 1.2 million citizen-soldiers poised to shed their blue federal uniforms and return to their prewar pursuits. In territories such as Colorado, Lincoln believed, veterans could find useful and lucrative work. Lincoln feared that the rapid demobilization of the war’s volunteers might paralyze eastern industry, with not enough jobs available for every veteran who wanted work. But in the West, he believed, there was “room enough for all.”

Generations of historians and artists have depicted scenes like the one Lincoln imagined for his former soldiers—and the trope of the veteran heading west has been irresistible to filmmakers. In a twist that Lincoln would probably not have foreseen, nearly all the films in this genre focus on Confederate veterans, among them The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Searchers (1956), and The Long Riders (1980), which features a particularly memorable rendition of “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” arranged and performed by Ry Cooder. Dances With Wolves (1990) and Seraphim Falls (2006) feature Union veterans, though the latter emphasizes reconciliation between a Confederate colonel (played by Liam Neeson) and a Union soldier (Pierce Brosnan) after an extended cat-and-mouse chase across western Nevada.

In his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln had urged Americans to work together to bind up the nation’s wounds. In the speech he handed to Colfax one month later, he suggested that the West might be a place where that healing could happen. And the prosperity that resulted in those remote territories, Lincoln concluded, would be “the prosperity of the nation.” Colorado’s miners and territorial officials gave Colfax an “enthusiastic and flattering” welcome, one member of the traveling party noted, and they listened to Lincoln’s words with “mournful interest and deep pleasure.”