Military history


The Home Fronts

THE NORTH, unlike the South, was an established and functioning state in April 1861, one on whose structures, resources, and machinery of government the war would exert unprecedented demands but which would continue to function, much as it had done in times of peace. The South, by contrast, did not exist as a state until the coming of the war. Almost everything necessary to wage that war had to be brought into being, if not actually invented, even while the first shots were being fired. The task would have proved impossible had not the existence of the United States and the political and legal habits of eighty years of independence provided a model which the secessionists could use to design their new polity. Thus the Confederacy, at the first meeting of the seceding states’ representatives, held in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4, 1861, adopted as a provisional constitution that of the Founding Fathers of 1787 almost in its entirety. The only changes were those that strengthened states’ rights and reduced the power of central government and those making explicit the rights of slave owners and the legality of slavery. The provisional Confederate Congress remained at Montgomery until May 1861, when it transferred to Richmond. It was not an elected body, its members having been delegated by their states. There would be no elections until the autumn of 1861, though thereafter, despite low voter turnouts, it did assume a democratic character. A practical difficulty in investing the Southern Congress with a properly democratic nature was the absence of formal political parties in the South; there were at best remnants of the old Whig and Democratic parties, and these former party labels served to identify candidates. By 1861 former party affiliation had lost significance in the South, when adherence to secession overrode all other positions. Since the South insisted on the primacy of states’ rights, it is not surprising that Congress and president were to experience a great deal of frustration at the hands of the eleven state legislatures, which remained energetic throughout the war. The states raised troops, produced military supplies, and furnished provender, often as they saw fit, rather than as the Richmond government required.

Jefferson Davis was a man of considerable talents who commanded, at the outset, general respect. Of all those available in the South to hold the office of president, he was probably as good as any other, but he was not of the first class as a politician. His vice president, Alexander Stephens, was a man of great ability, but he was a fanatic champion of states’ rights, and devoted most of his efforts to supporting his state of Georgia against the central government throughout the war. Davis was also hampered by a dearth of good cabinet officers. The War Department frequently changed hands and never found a truly satisfactory head. The Treasury, of such key significance, was held by only two men, neither up to the extraordinary difficulties of making Confederate financial policy work. The best cabinet officer, Stephen Mallory, served as secretary of the navy, with great competence, but despite Confederate successes at sea, that theatre of war offered too little scope for his talents to achieve what they might have done in another department.

Manpower, munitions, and money are the lifeblood of war. Manpower was not a major Confederate problem until the last year of fighting. Volunteers and then conscription filled the ranks adequately until the onset of despair began to fuel desertion and absenteeism during 1864. Munitions supply was a Confederate success. Purchase abroad brought in great quantities of weapons in 1861-62, and thereafter improvised manufacture kept up the necessary flow. The Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond was a major industrial facility even by comparison with equivalents in the North. Tredegar produced 1,100 pieces of artillery during the war, vast quantities of ammunition, and the armour plate to protect the Confederate ironclads. Curiously, it did not produce any railroad track or locomotives, two items of supply of which the Confederacy was in desperate need throughout the war. Important manufacturers were established at Selma, Alabama, and a great powder mill at Augusta, Georgia. There were others at Macon and Fayetteville. Exploration concluded that there were more essential raw materials to be exploited in the South than had been recognised before the war.

Money, as many war-making states have discovered to their ultimate cost, is all too easy to improvise. America before 1861 worked on coin, minted in gold or silver. There was no official paper money. Indeed, Americans had a long and deeply held suspicion of paper money, and of bank investments and indeed of banks in general. At the start of the war there was only something between $25 million and $30 million in gold held in the South, by private citizens, banks, and financial houses, far too little to support the costs of the war. How were government purchases, expeditions, and soldiers’ wages to be paid? Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger was an intelligent man with orthodox financial views. The government, he decided, would have to subsist by levying taxes, selling bonds, and issuing paper money, in that sequence. Taxes never worked in the Confederacy. Prewar citizens had been taxed at a very low rate, and only on clearly definable transactions. Customs duties were the most common and acceptable, since imports were not run-of-the-mill commodities for most people. Memminger decided to enlarge the uptake by levying an export tax on cotton, at a time when cotton exporting had almost collapsed. He then tried levying a tax on property at one-half percent of value. The states, however, declared that their records were inadequate to assess such a tax, and most agreed to pay an estimated sum to the government, to be recouped later by applying the tax in the hope that their paperwork would improve. The eventual return was only 1.7 percent of the Confederacy’s revenues.

Memminger had better hope for bond issues, in effect a government promise to pay a guaranteed rate of interest against a purchase of paper by a private buyer. Bond issues, if efficiently managed, are an ancient and effective way of raising money, if there is goodwill on both sides. Bonds have a long history, however, of renegotiation, on terms less and less profitable to the lender. So it proved with Confederate bonds. The Confederate Treasury began to accept purchase in the form of mortgages of future cotton crops. Not-yet-existent money was being used to secure a return on non-existent money, the face value of the bond. What began as an issue of $15 million was succeeded by an issue of $50 million and then $100 million. The final stage of the transaction was when planters refused to sell their cotton, hoping for better returns by export into the blockade-running traffic.*

Failure to tax efficiently and the decline of the bond market drove the Confederate Treasury to the last recourse of a poverty-stricken government, the printing of paper money. The practice began even before war broke out, in February 1861. At first the issues were small, $1 million to begin with. By August 1861, however, the Confederacy had put $100 million into circulation and the amount grew. Bewilderingly, the notes were not legal tender, meaning that they need not be accepted as settlement of debt. Accepted the notes were nevertheless, and not only the Treasury’s. Private businesses began to issue notes. The truth was that by 1863, if not earlier, paper money, even if without convertible value, had to be used. People spent in the knowledge that currency transactions were a sort of natural confidence trick made necessary by the absence of any other medium of exchange. By the end of 1863 more than $700 million in paper was in circulation, though the paper dollar had fallen in value to four cents in gold.

Depreciation was matched by runaway inflation. Between October 1861 and March 1864 prices rose on average 10 percent each month. By April 1865 average prices were ninety-two times higher than in 1861. In practice such calculations were difficult to make, since there were so many sources of issue, including the states and many towns and cities. Postage stamps were widely used as money. Confederate citizens were all too keenly aware of the level of inflation, since standard items of purchase rose inexorably in price. J. B. Jones, author of the celebrated Rebel War Clerk’s Diary, noted the increasing cost of staples. By March 1864 he was paying $300 a barrel for flour and $50 a bushel for cornmeal; by October 1864 they had risen to $425 and $72. His income had risen to $600 a month but he felt poor and was oppressed by price rises and shortage of money. Jones, moreover, was middle class. Soldiers were paid $11 a month, skilled workers between $2 and $5 a day.

Inflation was deeply depressing to all within the Confederacy, particularly for parents. Its effect was heightened by the shortage of almost everything. While food remained plentiful in the countryside, difficulties of distribution eventually caused hunger in towns and cities. Almost all other necessities, particularly clothing, became difficult to obtain anywhere. Home weaving revived, as wives and mothers relearnt the skills of their pioneering ancestors to replace worn-out factory-made dresses and suits. Shoes fell to pieces. Luxuries disappeared. Shortage became part of the Southern way of life.

The shortages included shortage of labour. The ranks of the Confederate armies were filled to an overwhelming extent by young men from the countryside, which left farms to be run by older men, slaves, should any be owned, and by women. The place of women in Southern society has been heavily mythologised. There was little that was romantic about it at the time. For every brave beauty who assumed leadership on the plantation while the men were away at the war, there were hundreds of ordinary farmers’ wives who simply added ploughing and reaping to the endless list of jobs they had always performed. War may have brought unaccustomed responsibility, but it also brought much extra work which taxed women very hard. Yet Southern women are a distinctive breed even today, admired for their femininity and outward-going personality. Their difference must surely be ascribed to the war, not perhaps so much to the work they were obliged to undertake as to the role they were forced to assume in the lives of their menfolk. To Europeans Southern women seem much more akin to European women than American women generally. The egalitarian qualities of American women are to Europeans one of their most striking characteristics. It is possible to believe that the femininity of Southern women derived from the parts they played as the war turned to failure and eventual defeat, in supporting and eventually comforting their men. Defeat is not part of the American way. American armies have an almost unbroken record of success. American women have traditionally welcomed their men home as victors. The exception is in the South, to which and to whose womenfolk the armies of the Confederacy returned beaten and dejected. Comforting beaten men, restoring their self-esteem, was a major part of the Southern women’s work after April 1865. The experience helped to form the distinctive characteristics of Southern womanhood.

The Civil War for women was a significant moment in American history. Women in the 1860s were not recognised for their abilities outside the home, even though they had been working on their farms and in their family stores for generations as their husbands went pioneering out west. The Civil War forced recognition upon women who worked the land and kept their families together whilst their husbands were fighting. Some, like Pauline Cushman, an actress from New Orleans, risked their lives by offering their services as spies.

At least 250 and possibly as many as 1,000 women fought in the war on both sides, either dressing in the uniforms of their dead fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons or merely enlisting in order to fight alongside their menfolk, or to get away from the hard physical labour of farming and to earn more money. They evaded detection because, in most cases, the physical examination was so hastily administered that most women had no problem passing and went on to complete their enlistment; soldiers did not usually undress for bed; baths were few and far between; and the ill-fitting uniforms could disguise the female form. A woman who enlisted in either army masqueraded as a man by cutting her hair short, wearing men’s clothing, binding her chest, and taking a man’s name, and she tried to conduct herself in a masculine manner so as not to draw attention to herself. Sarah Emma Edmonds, using the alias Franklin Thomas, enlisted in a Michigan volunteer infantry company, successfully evading detection as a woman for a year. She participated in the battles of Blackburn’s Ford and First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Sarah Edmonds also served as a spy, disguised as an Irish peddlar or as a black man, and provided valuable information on the enemy to the Union army.

Some women organised charity balls and functions in order to raise funds to supply the troops, and others provided meals for the troops coming through the towns and cities. Many women helped in the hospitals and tended to the wounded and sick soldiers. Clara Barton, a teacher from Massachusetts, established an agency to collect and deliver supplies to Northern troops around Washington. She was given permission, by General William Hammond, to ride in army ambulances to tend the wounded soldiers and was even authorised to travel behind the lines, where she served during some of the most horrifying battles and earned the nickname “the Angel of the Battlefield.” In 1864 she agreed to serve as “head nurse” in the Army of the James. In 1865 President Lincoln placed her in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union army and whilst engaged in this work she traced the fate of 30,000 men. When the war ended, she was sent to Andersonville Prison, in Georgia, to set up and mark the graves of Union soldiers. This experience launched her on a nationwide campaign to identify all soldiers missing during the Civil War, and she set up a bureau of records. After the war she continued her humanitarian efforts with the International Red Cross. In 1881 Barton started the American Red Cross and devoted the rest of her life to it.

The other sector of society which was changed by the war was the black community, to which it eventually brought freedom. Many slaves took it for themselves, seizing the chance at the approach of the Union army once the territory of the South began to be penetrated, from 1863 onwards. Many Southerners feared that invasion would lead to black uprisings. In practice it did not. Runaway slaves were anxious above all to attach themselves to the Northern armies with which they sought to earn their keep by labouring or by performing menial tasks. The status of these “contrabands” caused Northern generals a succession of headaches. Some abolitionist generals seized slaves during incursions into the South as a means of impoverishing rebels. This practice was widespread during the fighting for the border states in 1861-62. It was, however, forbidden by the Northern government. The arrival of runaways in Union lines also brought with it the requirement to feed and shelter the incomers. Camps had to be built, and guarded, and army rations diverted to the camp kitchens. After the proclamation of emancipation in January 1863, runaways could be inducted as soldiers. That did not, however, altogether solve the problem, since many of the runaways were too young or too old or too feeble to serve in the ranks and many were women. The unwelcoming reception many received at the hands of Northern soldiers, which often amounted to downright mistreatment, did not deter blacks seeking freedom. They continued to run away at the approach of Northern armies, so that the upper fringe of Southern territory was in places denuded of black inhabitants.

Of all changes brought by war, and defeat, to the South, the end of slavery was the most profound. The South could never return to antebellum days now that the blacks were no longer tied to the soil but free to move as they chose, to pick their employers, and to work as hard or as little as they chose. In practice, of course, most blacks continued to reside in familiar surroundings with familiar white people and remained simple cultivators. Still, all was different. A million blacks had left their homes, to follow the Union armies and eventually to go north. The supervising class of the South had been decimated by the war; a quarter of the white able-bodied men had been killed or died of disease between 1861 and 1865. The South could never be the same again.

Defeat posed what many Southerners conceived of as an insoluble problem. Surrender was too bitter to be accepted at once, or even at all quickly. Southerners railed against the idea that the struggle for secession had all been in vain. A new idea took hold of the Southern imagination, that of the Lost Cause. Southernness was to be preserved by creating a New South, still distinctly different from the industrial, moneymaking North but enabled to survive and even to compete by adopting economically many of the North’s strengths, including industrialism and financial independence. The conscious struggle for the New South was to persist for much of what remained of the nineteenth century. It was a hopeless undertaking. Even before the war the Southern economy was too small and too undercapitalised to sustain successful competition with the North; after 1865 the South was too impoverished by the costs of secession and military defeat to challenge its victorious neighbour. Growth was pitifully slow and revival would come only through the migration of Northern capital, a migration based on Northern need to seek opportunity for investments. It would take a century for a truly prosperous New South to arise on the ruins of defeat.

The interior life of the North was far less affected by the war than that of the South. The war brought increased prosperity to the North and much less intrusion into everyday life. Paradoxically, while the South championed the cause of small government, exigency obliged the government in Richmond to interfere at many levels in the social and particularly the economic life of the Southern people. The South really got the worst of two worlds: an attempt to run a command economy of price-fixing, requisition, and direction of labour which was at the same time inefficient. In the North, by contrast, the economy, left to itself by the Federal government, flourished, producing full employment and high wages, while delivering in abundance both the necessities of everyday life and the requirements of a war-fighting state. It did so, moreover, without succumbing to many of the normal faults of war finance, such as inflation, exorbitant taxation, or disabling public debt. The outbreak of war succeeded several years of economic downturn which the crisis threatened to exacerbate. Of particular concern was the cotton famine, which closed many New England textile mills or thrust them into working short time. The crisis was averted in an unexpected way. Poor harvests in Europe created a surge in demand for American grain, which thanks to contemporary improvements in agricultural practice the North was readily able to meet. The European trade also brought large payments in gold into American banks. At the same time, the demand for woollen uniforms to clothe Federal armies created a boom in sheep farming and also took up a lot of slack in the spinning, weaving, and garment-making industries. What had looked in 1861 to be a difficult period in Northern economic life turned by 1862 into a highly prosperous passage.

Building a wartime economy required, of course, the making of financial arrangements to pay for military expenditures. Before the war the government had spent very little. Civil servants were few and there were no large spending programmes. The army was tiny, most of the navy’s ships antiquated to the point of obsolescence. Coastal fortification was costly but by 1861 most of the systems were complete. As a result the federal government of antebellum years found itself in the happy and unusual position of having a larger income than it needed. Most of its money came from customs duties. There were very few federal taxes and the government scarcely borrowed. Precisely because it had needed so little money before 1861, the government lacked the machinery and procedures necessary to rapidly enlarge its income when war came. How to do so caused much puzzlement and debate. Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, was a man of energy and ability, but not an experienced financier. He adhered, moreover, to shibboleths of American public finance, disliking debt and holding the banks in suspicion. He set out, therefore, to finance the war at first by taxation, but even when modest increases and new forms of tax were imposed, it was sufficient only to pay for normal expenditure, not for the exceptional costs of paying the soldiers and purchasing war supplies.

By the end of 1861 the Union’s financial situation was becoming unsustainable. Chase believed sternly in the circulation of gold to pay for everything. There was, however, only $250 million in bullion in the Northern states, and as Chase postponed settlement of government debts to tide over the developing crisis, gold started to disappear, as it was hoarded by citizens and institutions alike. The immediate solution was to float a public loan, by issuing interest-bearing bonds, sold at below face value so as to offer an attractive rate of interest. The bond issue was an eventual success, but at the outset it did not solve the pressing problem of liquidity. With gold drying up there simply was not sufficient currency in circulation for either private citizens or institutions to meet their obligations. In February 1862, therefore, though only after heated debate, Congress authorised the issue of paper money, which came to be called greenbacks because of its colour. Paper money was regarded with deep suspicion in nineteenth-century America but necessity dictated terms and the first issue was for $150 million in notes, which were to be legal tender. Greenbacks caught on and there were two more issues in 1862-63. By the end of the war the total value in circulation was $431 million.

Against all prediction, paper money had not corrupted the financial system. It had, of course, caused inflation, but on nothing like the scale in the South. Taking the index in 1861 as 100, price increases at the height of inflation in the North in 1864 reached 182. Most working Northerners felt better off. There was a lot of money in circulation, a lot to spend and a reasonably ample supply of goods to purchase. It was, as always in inflationary times, those on fixed incomes who felt the pinch. The average spender managed and prospered. Evidence for the reality of the paper currency boom is supplied by expansion of settlement on new farming land released onto the market from government holdings, and by the continuing tide of immigration from Europe. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave title to farmers who worked a claim of 160 acres for five years. By 1865, 20,000 new farms had come into being. Few of the homesteaders were immigrants, since these lacked the capital to take and cultivate even free land. Immigration rose all the same, despite the danger of being conscripted into the army that immigrants faced on arrival. After a slump at the beginning of the war immigration rose during the conflict, exceeding 100,000 in both 1863 and 1864 and reaching a quarter of a million in 1865.

It was a Confederate allegation that the Federal government succeeded in filling the ranks of the Union army by impressing immigrants. That was certainly not the case. Almost half of the Union’s soldiers were farm boys from New England and the Middle West. Moreover, the big cities in which immigrants congregated were hotbeds of hostility to the draft. Hostility did not take the form of rebellion, as it did in the South, where by 1864 large numbers of deserters had taken to the backwoods and organised themselves into armed bands which fought state militias sent to disperse and recapture them. Many Northerners did, however, forcibly oppose the imposition of the draft. In mid-July 1863 there was a four-day riot in New York City, which caused 105 deaths, largely at the hands of Union soldiers sent to suppress the disorders, and there was widespread looting and burning.

Yet, remarkably, and despite resistance to or evasion of the draft, the most striking aspect of life on the home front in both North and South was how steadfast the populations remained in their support for the war. The anti-war movement in the North, though it grew in strength during the bad times of 1862 and after the onset of war weariness in 1864, never threatened to undermine Lincoln’s authority. The normal processes of politics were maintained throughout the war years, with congressional and local elections held in 1862 and a presidential election in 1864. Though anti-war candidates and parties stood in all of them, and in 1862 made important gains, a serious anti-war movement never gained commanding influence in the North. That was due in large measure to Lincoln’s extraordinary political talents, which allowed him to maintain personal control over individuals and factions in Congress, and to appeal directly and persuasively to popular opinion in the country. He took risks, particularly in insisting on the Emancipation Proclamation, but always avoided creating an effective internal opposition to his presidency and war policy.

In the South, though war weariness and loss of hope became almost tangible from 1864 onwards, it never coalesced into a defeatist movement. Jefferson Davis’s worst difficulties were with uncooperative state governors, many of whom championed states’ rights even as the experience of war demonstrated the growing necessity for centralisation of power. The belief in the fragility of Southern support for secession, which was so widely held in the North in 1861-62, was never substantiated.

* Confederate bonds were issued and sold successfully in Europe, particularly England, but were backed by cotton. When the Union blaockade stopped cotton deliveries, the market in bonds collapsed, totally after 1864.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!