Modern history

War Transforms the North and the South

For soldiers caught in the midst of battle, for civilians caught between warring armies, and for ordinary families seeking to survive the upheaval, political pronouncements did little to alleviate the dangers they faced. The extraordinary death tolls in Civil War battles shocked Americans on both sides. On the home front, the war created labor shortages and severe inflation in both the North and the South. It initially disrupted industrial and agricultural production as men were called to service, but the North recovered fairly quickly by building on its prewar industrial base and technological know-how. In the South, manufacturing increased, with some enslaved laborers pressed into service as industrial workers. But pulling slaves away from agricultural work only created more problems on plantations, which were already suffering labor shortages. These changing circumstances required women to take on new responsibilities on the home front and the battlefront. But the dramatic transformations also inspired dissent and protest as rising death tolls and rising prices made the costs of war ever clearer.

Life and Death on the Battlefield

Few soldiers entered the conflict knowing what to expect. A young private wrote home that his idea of combat had been that the soldiers “would all be in line, all standing in a nice level field fighting, a number of ladies taking care of the wounded, etc., etc., but it isn’t so.”

Even where traditional forms of engagement did occur, improved weaponry turned them into scenes of carnage. Although individual soldiers could fire only a few times a minute, their Enfield and Springfield rifles were murderously effective at a quarter- mile distance. New conical bullets that expanded to fit the grooves of rifles proved far more accurate and more deadly than older round bullets. Minie balls that exploded on impact also increased fatalities. By mid-1863, the rival armies relied on heavy fortifications, elaborate trenches, and distant mortar and artillery fire when they could, but the casualties continued to rise, especially since the trenches proved to be a breeding ground for disease.

The hardships and discomforts of war extended beyond combat itself. As General Lee complained before the fighting at Antietam, many soldiers went into battle in ragged uniforms and without shoes. In the First Battle of Bull Run, a Georgia major reported that more than one hundred of his men were barefoot, “many of whom left bloody foot-prints among the thorns and briars through which they rushed.” Rations, too, ran short. Food was dispensed sporadically and was often spoiled. Many Union troops survived primarily on an unleavened biscuit called hardtack as well as small amounts of meat and beans and enormous quantities of coffee. At least their diet improved over the course of the war as the Union supply system grew more efficient. Confederate troops, however, subsisted increasingly on cornmeal and fatty meat. As early as 1862, Confederate soldiers were gathering food from the haversacks of Union dead.

“There is more dies by sickness than gets killed,” a recruit from New York complained in 1861. Indeed, for every soldier who died as a result of combat, three died of disease. Measles, dysentery, typhoid, and malaria killed thousands who drank contaminated water, ate tainted food, and were exposed to the elements. Prisoner-of-war camps were especially deadly locales. Debilitating fevers in a camp near Danville, Virginia, spread to the town, killing civilians as well as soldiers. In the fall of 1862, yellow fever and malaria killed nearly five hundred in Wilmington, Delaware, as infected soldiers built fortifications along the beaches.

African American troops fared worst of all. The death rate from disease for black Union soldiers was nearly three times greater than that for white Union soldiers, reflecting their generally poorer health upon enlistment, the hard labor they performed, and the minimal medical care they received in the field. Those who began their army careers in contraband camps fared even worse, with a camp near Nashville losing a quarter of its residents to death in just three months in 1864.

Even for white soldiers, medical assistance was primitive. Antibiotics did not exist, antiseptics were still unknown, and a perennial shortage of anesthetics meant that amputations were frequently conducted without it. Union soldiers did gain some access to better medical care from the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was established by the federal government in June 1861 to improve and coordinate the medical care of Union soldiers. Nonetheless, a commentator accurately described most field hospitals as “dirty dens of butchery and horror.”

The need to bury the dead after battle was also a gruesome task. Early in the war, officers and enlisted men tried to recover and bury individual remains, but this practice proved unfeasible given the vast numbers killed. Instead, mass graves provided the final resting place for many soldiers on both sides. As the horrors of battle sank in and enlisted men discovered the inadequacies of food, sanitation, and medical care, large numbers of soldiers deserted. As the number of volunteers declined and the number of deserters rose, both the Confederate and the Union governments were eventually forced to institute conscription laws to draft men into service.

The Northern Economy Booms

As the war dragged on, the North’s economic advantages became more apparent. The Union could provide more arms, food, and clothing to its troops and more of the necessities of life for families back home. Indeed, the Civil War quickened the industrial development of the North that had begun in the early nineteenth century. By I860 manufacturing establishments in the region outnumbered those in the South six to one, with 1.3 million industrial workers in the North compared with only 110,000 in the South. Northern factories flourished as they turned out weapons, ammunition, blankets, clothing, and shoes, and shipyards built the fleets that blockaded southern ports.

Initially, the effects of the war on northern industry were little short of disastrous. Raw cotton for textiles was no longer available, southern planters stopped ordering shoes, and trade fell off precipitously in seaport cities. By 1863, however, the economic picture had improved dramatically. Coal mining and iron production boomed in Pennsylvania. In New England, woolen manufacturing replaced cotton, and the shoe industry thrived on orders from the army. Merchants dealing in war materiel made particularly handsome profits.

The economic boom was linked to a vast expansion in the federal government’s activities. Direct orders from the War Office for blankets, firearms, boots, and other goods fueled the industrial surge. The government also granted large contracts to northern railroads to carry troops and supplies. With southern Democrats out of federal office, Congress increased the protection of northern industries by passing a steep tariff on imported manufactured goods. The government also hired thousands of “sewing women,” who worked under contract in their homes (often in crowded tenements) to make uniforms for Union soldiers. Other women joined the federal labor force as clerical workers, who sustained the expanding bureaucracy by handling the increasing amounts of government-generated paperwork.

That paperwork multiplied exponentially when the federal government created a national currency and a national banking system. Before the Civil War, private banks (chartered by the states) issued their own banknotes, which were used in most economic transactions. During the war, Congress revolutionized this system, giving the federal government the power to create currency, issue federal charters to banks, and take on national debt (which totaled $2 billion by the war’s end). The government used its new powers to flood the nation with treasury bills, commonly called greenbacks. The federal budget mushroomed as well—from $63 million in 1860 to nearly $1.3 billion in 1865. By the end of the war, the federal bureaucracy had grown to be the nation’s largest single employer.

These federal initiatives provided a tremendous stimulus to industry, and northern manufacturers greeted them, on the whole, with enthusiasm. But they faced one daunting problem: a shortage of labor. Over half a million workers left their jobs to serve in the Union army, and others were hired by the expanding federal bureaucracy. Manufacturers dealt with the labor shortage primarily by mechanizing more tasks and by increasing the employment of native-born women and children and recently arrived immigrants. Mechanization advanced quickly in the clothing and shoe industries, allowing more jobs to be filled by unskilled or semiskilled workers. Industrialists also formed organizations such as the Boston Foreign Emigrant Aid Society to encourage European migration, which had fallen off sharply in the first two years of the war. By 1863 the number of immigrants—mostly Irish, German, and British— had reached pre-1860 levels and continued to increase. Combining the lower wages paid to women and immigrants with production speedups, manufacturers improved their profits while advancing the Union cause.

Urbanization and industrialization in the South

Although Southerners had gone to war to protect an essentially rural lifestyle, several factors encouraged the growth of industry and cities during the war. The creation of a large governmental and military bureaucracy brought thousands of Southerners to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Refugees merely trickled into cities during the early years of the war, but by 1863 they were flooding Atlanta, Savannah, and Mobile.

Industrialization also contributed to urban growth. Military necessity spurred southern industrialization. At the beginning of the war, the South contained only 15 percent of the factories in the United States. But unable to buy industrial goods from the North and limited in its trade with Europe, the South was forced to industrialize. By January 1863, the huge Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond employed more than 2,500 men, black and white. A factory to produce cannons opened in Selma, Alabama, where more than 10,000 people worked in war industries. According to a local newspaper, clothing and shoe factories had “sprung up almost like magic” in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi. War widows and orphans, enslaved blacks, and white men too old or injured to fight were recruited for industrial labor in many cities.

The vast expansion of the South’s cities and industry enhanced class consciousness during the war. When Virginia legislators introduced a bill in the fall of1863 to control food prices, Richmond workers hailed it by voicing their resentment toward the rich. “From the fact that he consumes all and produces nothing,” they proclaimed, “we know that without [our] labor and production the man with money could not exist.” Workers also criticized lavish balls hosted by the wives of wealthy industrialists, planters, and politicians during the war. Women like Mary Boykin Chesnut, a planter’s wife, insisted that such events were necessary to maintain morale and demonstrate that the South was far from defeated. But the Richmond Enquirer captured the views of the laboring class, arguing that these events were “shameful displays of indifference to national calamity . . . a mockery of the misery and desolation that covers the land.”

Women Aid the War Effort

Women of all classes contributed to the Union and Confederate war effort in numerous ways. Thousands filled jobs in agriculture, industry, and the government that were traditionally held by men. Others sought to assist the war effort more directly, by serving as nurses, spies, couriers, or soldiers; gathering supplies; and lobbying to influence government policies. Although Rose Greenhow and a few other women were recruited as spies early in the conflict, most military and political officials initially opposed women’s direct engagement in the war. Yet so many women organized relief efforts early on that the federal government organized the U.S. Sanitary Commission to coordinate their efforts. By1862 tens of thousands of women had volunteered funds and assistance through hundreds of local chapters across the North and Midwest. They hosted fund-raising fairs, coordinated sewing and knitting circles, rolled bandages, and sent supplies to the front lines. With critical shortages of medical staff, some female nurses and doctors eventually gained acceptance in northern hospitals and field camps. Led by such memorable figures as Clara Barton, Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke, and Dr. Mary Walker, northern women almost entirely replaced men as military nurses by the end of the war.

In the South, too, much of the medical care was performed by women. But without a government-sanctioned body to coordinate efforts and lobby for resources, women were left largely to their own devices, and nursing was never recognized as a legitimate profession for them. As a result, a Confederate soldier’s chances of dying from wounds or disease were even greater than those of his Union counterpart. Nonetheless, southern women worked tirelessly to supply soldiers with clothes, blankets, munitions, and food. But this work, too, was often performed locally and by individuals rather than as part of a coordinated Confederate effort. For example, Ann Cobb, the wife of a Georgia officer, went door-to-door among neighbors to gather provisions for her husband’s eighty-man unit.

Some Union and Confederate women played even more unusual roles in the war. A few dozen women joined Greenhow in gathering information for military and political authorities. One of the most effective on the Union side was the former fugitive Harriet Tubman. She worked as a spy in South Carolina from 1862 to 1864 and regularly secured military intelligence from slaves living behind Confederate lines. Even more women served as couriers, carrying messages across battle lines to alert officers of critical changes in military orders or in the opponent’s position. In addition, at least four hundred women disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers; the identities of many were discovered only after they were wounded in battle.

Finally, abolitionist women sought to influence federal wartime policies. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone founded the Women's National Loyal League and launched a massive petition drive to broaden Lincoln’s policy. Collecting 260,000 signatures, two-thirds of them from women, the League demanded a congressional act “emancipating all persons of African descent” everywhere in the nation.

Dr. Mary E. Walker Dr. Mary E. Walker received her medical degree from Syracuse Medical College and became the first female army surgeon. Wearing bloomers (pants under a skirt), she assisted soldiers and civilians in numerous battlefield areas. Captured by Confederate troops in 1864, Walker soon returned to Union ranks. She was the first woman awarded the Medal of Honor for military service. Library of Congress

Dissent and Protest in the Midst of War

While the Women’s National Loyal League lobbied Congress for universal emancipation, other Northerners wondered whether defeating the Confederacy was worth the cost. Families were hard hit as wages fell and prices rose, and many Northerners cared more about the safe return of their husbands and sons than the fate of slavery. As the war dragged on, these concerns led to a rising tide of dissent and protest.

Despite the expanding economy, northern farmers and workers suffered tremendously during the war. Women, children, and old men took over much of the field labor in the Midwest, trying to feed their families and produce sufficient surplus to supply the army and pay their mortgages and other expenses. In the East, too, inflation eroded the earnings of factory workers, servants, and day laborers. As federal greenbacks flooded the market and military production took priority over consumer goods, prices climbed about 20 percent faster than wages. While industrialists garnered huge profits, railroad stocks leaped to unheard-of prices, and government contractors made huge gains, ordinary workers suffered. A group of Cincinnati seamstresses complained to President Lincoln in 1864 about employers “who fatten on their contracts by grinding immense profits out of the labor of their operatives.” Although Republicans pledged to protect the rights of workers, employers successfully lobbied a number of state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting strikes. The federal government, too, proved a better friend to business than to labor. When workers at the Parrott arms factory in Cold Spring, New York, struck for higher wages in 1864, the government sent in troops, declared martial law, and arrested the strike leaders.

Discontent intensified when the Republican Congress passed a draft law in March 1863. The Enrollment Act provided for draftees to be selected by an impartial lottery, but a loophole allowed a person with $300 to pay the government in place of serving or to hire another man as a substitute. Many workers deeply resented the draft law’s profound inequality. Some also opposed the emancipation of slaves who, they assumed, would compete for scarce jobs once the war ended.

Dissent turned to violence in July 1863 when the new draft law went into effect. Riots broke out in cities across the North. In New York City, where inflation caused tremendous suffering and a large immigrant population solidly supported the Democratic machine, implementation of the draft triggered four days of the worst rioting Americans had ever seen. Women and men—many of them Irish and German immigrants—attacked Protestant missionaries, Republican draft officials, and wealthy businessmen. Homes in wealthy neighborhoods were looted, but the free black community became the rioters’ main target. Rioters lynched at least a dozen African Americans and looted and burned the city’s Colored Orphan Asylum. The violence ended only when Union troops put down the riot by force. By then, more than one hundred New Yorkers lay dead.

A more prolonged battle raged in Missouri, where Confederate sympathizers never reconciled themselves to living in a Union state. From the beginning of this “inner civil war,” prosouthern residents formed militias and staged guerrilla attacks on Union supporters. The militias, with the tacit support of Confederate officials, claimed thousands of lives and forced the Union army to station troops in the area. The militia members hoped that Midwesterners, weary of the conflicts, would elect peace Democrats and end the war.

Northern Democrats saw the widening unrest as a political opportunity. Although some Democratic leaders supported the war effort, many others—whom opponents called Copperheads, after the poisonous snake—rallied behind Ohio politician Clement L. Vallandigham in opposing the war. Presenting themselves as the “peace party,” these Democrats enjoyed considerable success in eastern cities where inflation was rampant and immigrant workers were caught between low wages and military service. The party was also strong in parts of the Midwest where sympathy for the southern cause and antipathy to African Americans ran deep.

In the South, too, some whites expressed growing dissatisfaction with the war. In April 1862, Jefferson Davis had signed the first conscription act in U.S. history, inciting widespread opposition. The concept of a national draft undermined the southern tradition of states’ rights. As in the North, men could hire a substitute if they had enough money, and an October 1862 law exempted men owning twenty or more slaves from military service. Although the exemption was supposedly a response to growing unruliness among slaves in the absence of masters, in practice it meant that large planters, many of whom served in the Confederate legislature, had exempted themselves from fighting. As one Alabama farmer fumed, “All they want is to get you pumpt up and go to fight for their infernal negroes, and after you do their fighting you may kiss their hine parts for all they care.”

Small farmers were also hard hit by policies that allowed the Confederate army to take whatever supplies it needed. The army’s forced acquisition of farm produce intensified food shortages that had been building since early in the war. The southern economy was rooted in cash crops rather than foodstuffs. Quantities of grain and livestock were produced in South Carolina, central Virginia, and central Tennessee, but by 1863 the latter two areas had fallen under Union control. The Union blockade of port cities and the lack of an extensive railroad or canal system in the South limited the distribution of what food was available. Hungry residents of the Shenandoah Valley discovered that despite military victories there, food shortages worsened as Confederate troops ravaged the countryside.

Food shortages drove up prices on basic items like bread and corn, while the Union blockade and the focus on military needs dramatically increased the price of other consumer goods. As the Confederate government issued more and more treasury notes to finance the war, inflation soared 2,600 percent in less than three years. Food riots, often led by women, broke out in cities across the South, including the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Conscription, food shortages, and inflation took their toll on support for the Confederacy. The devastation of the war itself added to these grievances. Most battles were fought in the Upper South or along the Confederacy’s western frontier, where small farmers saw their crops, animals, and fields destroyed. A phrase that had seemed cynical in 1862—“A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”—became the rallying cry of the southern peace movement in 1864. The Washington Constitutional Union, a secret peace society with a large following among farmers, elected several members to the Confederate Congress. Another secret organization centered in North Carolina took more drastic measures, providing Union forces with information on southern troop movements and encouraging desertion by Confederates. In mountainous regions of the South, draft evaders and deserters formed guerrilla groups that attacked draft officials and actively impeded the war effort. In western North Carolina, some women hid deserters, raided grain depots, and burned the property of Confederate officials.

When slaveholders led the South out of the Union in 1861, they had assumed the loyalty of yeomen farmers, the deference of southern ladies, and the privileges of the southern way of life. Far from preserving social harmony and social order, however, the war undermined ties between elite and poor Southerners, between planters and small farmers, and between women and men. Although most white Southerners still supported the Confederacy in 1864 and internal dissent alone did not lead to defeat, it did weaken the ties that bound soldiers to their posts in the final two years of the war.


• What were the short- and long-term economic effects of the war on the North?

• How did the war change the southern economy? What social tensions did the war create in the South?

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