With the strongest and most productive demographic of society away fighting in the Civil War, the task of running homes, communities, and the nation fell to those who stayed behind.
The war on the home front changed their lives forever.
The War at Home
As the Battle of Bentonville raged less than a mile away, a U.S. Army surgeon knocked on Amy Harper’s door, informing her that the house was now a hospital.
According to a Union officer, she and six of her children retreated upstairs while ‘a dozen surgeons and their attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches, cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the windows, where they lay scattered on the grass.’ Imagine the sights, sounds and smells the Harpers experienced. The Union army cleared out within days, leaving 45 Confederates in their care – without any medical supplies or financial compensation. One of her sons later said the family worked as ‘nurses, surgeons, commissaries, chaplains and undertakers.
My mother fed them, washed their wounds, pointed them to the Saviour, closed their eyes when all was over and helped to bury their uncoffined bodies as tenderly as she could.’
Unfortunately, their ordeal was a familiar one to people in most towns near a battle. Thousands of injured soldiers were moved into every available space, including churches, businesses, homes, barns, tents and porches. Fields and livestock and homes were looted and destroyed. Without animals, without money, seed, slaves or men, millions of acres of Southern farmland went unplanted.
Cities, like Charleston, Atlanta and Richmond, were reduced to rubble.
The Economics of War
While the South was hardest hit, civilians everywhere in the nation felt the hardships of the Civil War. The interdependence of the regions became painfully apparent. While sugarcane rotted in Southern fields due to lack of manpower, some Northerners couldn’t buy sugar regardless of how much they were willing to pay. Meat was scarce everywhere, while cattle multiplied and wandered the ranges of the Southwest without brands; there was simply no one to tend, transport or slaughter them.
Before the war, most Southern wealth was in land and slaves – things that couldn’t really be used to finance a war, and the blockade hindered their ability to raise cash. Coinage disappeared throughout the country, and Southern attempts to spur commerce by issuing paper money created hyperinflation. In 1861, a dollar’s worth of gold would cost a Virginian $1.10 in Confederate notes. In 1864, that dollar of gold cost $20 in Confederate notes and at the end of the war, $70. Additionally, the Union blockade caused scarcity, and the army was provisioned first, driving prices even higher. The weekly cost to feed a family ballooned from $6.
55 in 1860 to $68.25 in 1863, putting many items out of reach for most people. Resourceful Southern women boiled salt out of smokehouse floors, substituted ground acorns for wheat flour and made gloves from rabbit pelts. Coffee, tea, candles and paper became luxury items; shoes couldn’t be purchased at any price. In an attempt to help, the Confederate Congress directed citizens to pay their taxes in produce and livestock, hoping to feed the army and relieve cash-strapped citizens. But lack of transportation resulted in warehouses full of rotting food while civilians went without.
|labor force and less capital available for investment. Farm income in the West rose, as did conflicts with Native Americans, while border towns became ghost towns.
The War Changes Communities
Many states had men fighting in both armies during the Civil War, and this was especially true of the border towns. Such divided loyalties led to distrust and violence within some communities; in the Appalachian Mountains, an intense armed conflict was practically a civil war in itself.
So-called ‘bushwhackers’ swore allegiance to no one and preyed on isolated homesteads on either side. They caused considerable fear throughout the region, since the armies swore them off and law enforcement was rarely able to keep up with their movements.The war enjoyed widespread support in the South, but opposition persisted throughout the North, especially from antiwar Democrats, called Copperheads for their tendency to strike without warning.
Many of them accused Republicans of intentionally provoking the South for their own benefit. But even people who supported the war sometimes opposed conscription.The Confederacy instituted a draft in 1862, which was eventually extended to include all able-bodied men ages 17-50. A year later, the Union passed a similar law. Citizens in the North and South objected to loopholes allowing wealthy men to hire substitutes.
Southerners protested that federal conscription was a violation of states’ rights. After New York published the first draft notices, recent immigrants, who were disproportionately conscripted, led a mob of more than 50,000 rioters, who looted stores, killed as many as 100 black citizens (whom they blamed for the war), burned homes and even a church and orphanage. Lincoln had to pull troops from combat to quell the New York City draft riots. A quarter of a million men were drafted, but in the end, only about 6% of them actually joined the army.
Women in the War
During the war, women in the Union and Confederacy performed jobs that white men had left behind and helped directly with the war effort.
On the front lines, they cooked food, sewed uniforms, wrote and read letters for the wounded, sang to wounded soldiers and prayed with them. There was also no shortage of prostitutes on both sides of the conflict. For the first time, women became nurses, under the strict tutelage of Dorothea Dix in the North. Acting on her own, Clara Barton actually crawled onto battlefields, starting at Antietam, to attend the dying. She continued her one-woman relief agency for the war’s duration, conceiving the idea for the Red Cross.
And as with any war, there were women in combat and acting as spies. Mrs. Francis Clayton enlisted in the Union army with her husband; they fought together in 18 battles.
Though official records are scarce (for obvious reasons), women, like Mrs. Clayton, exist in the lore of both North and South. The women of Harrisonburg, Va. even offered to raise a ladies’ regiment.
Let’s review. The war came to the front door of many Southern families.
Many were affected by battles or pillaged by passing armies. A lack of manpower created shortages throughout the nation; the blockade specifically affected the supply of goods in the South. Inflation soared everywhere, but it was worst in the South, leading to a riot in Richmond.
Industry in the North flat lined as war industries picked up where other manufacturing dropped. Farm productivity rose in the West, while many border towns were emptied due to violence. Copperheads led the opposition in the North, and violence erupted with the New York City draft riots. Meanwhile, women filled positions at home and on the front lines as camp helpers, nurses, soldiers and spies. Clara Barton‘s help on the battlefield evolved into the Red Cross.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to: