How the Civil War Affected the Economy and Everyday Life in the North and South

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  • 0:05 The War at Home
  • 1:31 The Economics of War
  • 4:59 The War Changes Communities
  • 6:45 Women in the War
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

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.'

Photo revealing the destruction caused by the Civil War
Civil War Destruction

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.

Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy
Jefferson Davis Photo

On April 2, 1863, a mob of a thousand hungry Virginia women stormed the governor's office. When he didn't help, they started looting stores. It took Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself and a line of infantry to finally disperse the Richmond Bread Riot. Davis threw money in frustration. 'You say you are hungry and have no money - here is all I have.' While they snatched up the cash, Davis held up his gold watch. Would he throw it, too? No. 'Five minutes,' he said. If they were not gone in five minutes, the infantry would fire into the crowd. The bread riot ended quietly.

The war's effects on other regions were mixed. Decreases in civilian industries, like cotton textiles, were offset by war production, like woolen textiles. All combat-related industries spiked, including transportation. The war also accelerated the commercial viability of inventions, like sewing machines, condensed milk and rotary plows - anything that helped sustain the army. However, the price of food items doubled, while salaries rose only half as fast. Many businesses also saw difficulties due to inflation, a reduced 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.

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