The Costs of the Civil War: Human, Economic & Cultural

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  • 0:07 The Costs of War
  • 0:41 Economic Costs
  • 2:23 Cultural Costs
  • 4:48 Human Costs
  • 7:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

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.

Economic 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.

Cultural Costs

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.

Human Costs

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.

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