This lesson will explore the costs of the Civil War. We will examine the economic costs of the four-year conflict; its cultural costs, especially in the South; and its human costs, particularly casualties and veterans’ post-war experiences.
The Costs of War
War is expensive. It costs millions, even billions, of dollars. It takes a toll on a country’s cultural infrastructure and development.
Most importantly, it demands the exorbitant price of thousands of human lives, which are either forever lost or forever changed. The American Civil War was one of the most expensive conflicts in the history of the United States, and we will spend some time exploring its economic, cultural, and human costs.
Four years of civil war drained the American economy in both the North and the South. In the 1850s, the U.S. government was spending about $1 million every week.
By mid-1861, the first year of the war, the Union alone was spending $1.5 million every day, and the amount continued to climb. By the end of the war in 1865, the Union’s wartime tab was about $3.5 million every day or over $1 billion a year. This was a huge sum of money in those days, especially since the word ‘billion’ didn’t even exist until 1834.
All told, the Union’s official 1879 estimate of wartime expenses amounted to over $6 billion. In today’s money, that total would be equivalent to over $71 billion. Furthermore, bills were still racking up as the United States government continued to pay veterans’ pensions well into the twentieth century.The Confederacy also felt the sting of a wartime economy.
The South spent nearly $3 billion fighting the Civil War, but it also had to deal with inflation that soared to over 9,000% by the end of the war. Confederate currency was nearly worthless, and gold, silver, and U.S. currency were in extremely short supply. The South faced reconstruction with hardly any money to pay for it.
The South definitely needed to rebuild, in more ways than one, for it suffered greatly during the war, culturally as well as economically. First off, the South’s culture had been built on slavery, and the war brought that institution to an abrupt end. In 1860, there were nearly four million slaves in the U.S., most of those in the South. By the end of 1865, there were no slaves in the U.S.
, North or South.Southerners now faced difficult questions. How would former masters rebuild without slave labor? Who would work the land? How would former masters relate to their former slaves? How would former slaves make a living? Would they have land or political power of their own? The answers would not come easily now that the old system had been shattered.Furthermore, much of the South had been physically destroyed by the war. Most of the conflict had been fought on southern soil.
Cities like Atlanta and Richmond were reduced to ashes. Industries and transportation infrastructures were in ruins. Homes and plantations had been burned and/or robbed of anything useful. Crops had been stolen or destroyed.
Large portions of the countryside were scorched and empty.An observer in South Carolina remarked that the state ‘looked for many miles like a broad black streak of ruin and desolation – the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly looking patch of cotton or corn cultivated by negro squatters. In the city of Columbia…
a thin fringe of houses encircled a confused mass of charred ruins of dwellings and business buildings, which had been destroyed by a sweeping conflagration.’While the North had escaped much of the damage, the South was indeed in ruins, and it would be many years before it even came close to restoring its pre-war norms.
Despite its economic and cultural costs, the Civil War took its greatest toll with respect to human lives.
No one will ever know exactly how many people lost their lives in the Civil War. Scholars estimate that about 620,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, died of battle wounds or disease.In other words, one in four Civil War soldiers never came home. Their families suffered greatly in their absence, both from grief and economic hardship, for many soldiers were their families’ primary breadwinners.
For instance, when Edward Taylor of Minnesota was killed at Savage Station in June of 1862, his wife and three-year-old daughter were left behind to manage on their own. The mother of Philip and Jacob Hamlin received an $8 per month pension for the loss of her sons, but she never really recovered from her grief. She read and reread their letters constantly as she tried to keep their memory alive.
Even for soldiers who made it home, post-war life was not easy. Over 400,000 of them had been wounded, and many were missing limbs. They faced civilian life with disabilities, lingering diseases, mental instability, and adjustments and challenges of all sorts.Napoleon Perkins of New Hampshire, for example, lost his leg after being wounded at Chancellorsville. When he finally made it home, he had to work hard to rediscover his place in society. Employers pitied him but couldn’t offer a job to a man with just one leg. He wanted to marry but was insecure about how women would feel about having a disabled husband.
For a while he eked out a meager living on his $8 per month pension. Finally, however, things took a turn for the better, and Perkins married and opened a harness shop.Charley Goddard’s story didn’t have such a happy ending. He was wounded at Gettysburg, and while he survived the war and returned home, his wound left him in constant pain, both physically and mentally.
He grew weaker and weaker until he finally died of tuberculosis in 1868. He was only twenty-three years old.
The Civil War demanded great economic, cultural, and human expenditures. Economic costs skyrocketed to billions of dollars for both the North and the South. The South also faced soaring inflation, nearly worthless currency, and a lack of funds as it began its long process of rebuilding.The South certainly needed to rebuild, culturally and physically, since it had suffered large-scale destruction during the war. Slavery was no more, and Southerners now needed to figure out how to create a new way of life.
Furthermore, a large portion of the region’s cities, infrastructure, and countryside had been destroyed and had to be reconstructed. It would be a long process.Finally, the war extracted high human costs. Over 620,000 soldiers would never return home, and those who did experienced new and difficult challenges as they adapted to post-war life. Indeed, the Civil War was extremely expensive, and the entire country would be paying for it, economically, culturally, and humanly, well into the twentieth century.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to summarize the costs of the Civil War regarding the economy, the culture, and human lives.