The Effect of War on Civilians in the United States: The Impact on Daily Life & the Economy

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  • 0:07 The Home Front & the Family
  • 2:27 In the Community
  • 4:18 In the Economy
  • 6:39 In Politics
  • 8:44 Battlefield Comes Home
  • 10:04 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.

In this lesson, we will study the effects of the Civil War on the Union home front. We will see how civilians faced war-related challenges in their families and communities as well as in the economic and political realms.

The Home Front

Civil War battles were not reserved to battlefields and soldiers. Civilians waged their own battles at home, in their families and communities, in the economy and in politics. These fights were usually less violent and bloody, but they were difficult struggles nonetheless. Sometimes, the battlefield even touched the home front when armies clashed in Northern territory and Confederate raids struck the heart of the Union. Indeed, the Civil War had a marked effect on Northern civilians. For many of them, life would never be the same.

In the Family

The first challenge for Northern civilians was sending their men off to war. With a mix of patriotism, pride, anxiety and apprehension, families cheered and cried as husbands, fathers, sons and brothers left home for army camps and battlefields.

Approximately 2.1 million men served in the U.S. military during the four years of war, so nearly every family was touched by the absence of a loved one. Women and children especially felt the holes left in their families, for they now had to manage their homes and lives on their own. Family members on the home front worked hard to maintain their farms, earn enough money to support their families, keep their households running smoothly and raise their children.

At the same time, civilians at home rode the emotional roller coaster that came with having a loved one in the military. Fear and helplessness crouched at the edges of daily life. Wives wondered if their husbands would make it home alive. Children were frightened that they would never see their fathers again. Mothers grieved that they could do so little for the sons they had cared for so tenderly.

Families treasured letters from their loved ones and snatched up every piece of war news they could find. Newspapers assumed a central place in the homes of families longing for any information they could get about battles, army movements, camp life and especially casualties. Hundreds of thousands of families received letters with the worst possible news. The hole left in their homes by the absence of their loved one had become permanent. Survivors now had to cope with their loss and grief while continuing to perform their necessary daily routines and struggle to keep on living.

In the Community

Soldiers' communities also felt their absence and loss. Communities found themselves deprived of a significant part of their workforce as well as many community leaders and professionals. Other community members had to step in to fill the gaps. Just like families, communities experienced fear and grief, and they often banded together to support families who had lost loved ones, even as they struggled to come to terms with their own losses.

Communities also joined together to support their own soldiers and even the military in general. Local women organized sewing circles to make clothing and blankets for the soldiers. Others knitted socks, collected lint for bandages or raised money and supplies for the wounded. Community members often formed organizations to streamline the process of collecting, storing, transporting and distributing supplies.

In July 1861, these local organizations received a helpful boost through the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission, a national organization that worked closely with local communities to transfer supplies from the home front to the army camps, battlefields and hospitals. The commission also raised money and supplies for the soldiers through locally planned and executed Sanitary Fairs, the success of which depended on the cooperation of large numbers of civilians.

The folks on the home front vigorously embraced these opportunities to aid their soldiers. The Chicago Sanitary Fair on October 27, 1863, for instance, brought together dozens of local organizations whose members prepared elaborate displays, cooked and served a series of dinners and sponsored grand entertainments. The fair raised nearly $100,000.

In the Economy

Indeed, $100,000 was a tremendous amount of money in the wartime economy, and many civilians were already feeling a pinch in their pocketbooks and experiencing a change in their economic attitudes and habits. In some sectors, the Union economy was flourishing. The army provided a constant high demand for agricultural and manufactured goods, and production exploded in an already industrialized economy. Factories, railroads and mines prospered as they struggled to keep up with demands for food, clothing, shoes, munitions and other necessities.

Not every part of the economic landscape was sunny, however. The labor force decreased significantly as more and more men joined the military. Industries turned to new labor sources: women, children, immigrants and free blacks. They also increased mechanization, purchasing new machinery designed to increase output. Workers, often with little experience or training, worked long hours for low wages and in increasingly dangerous environments.

As the war progressed, civilians on the home front faced shortages and rising prices as more and more goods were channeled into the military. Inflation in the North rose by almost 100%, and prices on staples like beef, rice and sugar doubled. Civilians had to get creative with their meal planning, but unlike their Southern counterparts, very few people in the North faced starvation.

The U.S. government attempted to regulate the wartime economy and fund the war through a series of legislative acts. The Legal Tender Act of 1862 created a stable national currency called the 'greenback' that had to be accepted as legal tender for all debts, public and private. These greenbacks, eventually $450 million worth of them, provided ready funds for the military and civilians alike and helped keep inflation from spiraling out of control. The government also passed the National Banking Act and National Currency Act of 1863 to strengthen banks and further stabilize the economic situation.

In Politics

With these acts and others, civilians distinctly felt an increased influence of the federal government in their everyday lives. Wartime military decisions directly affected the health and safety of their loved ones in the army, and home front morale and support for the administration often rose and fell with Union victories and defeats.

Political decisions sometimes caused friction on the home front. Conscription was a particular source of irritation to civilians. In response to declining numbers in the army's ranks, Congress passed the Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863. All men ages 20-45 had to register for the draft. If called for service, they were inducted into the military unless they could prove a reason for exemption, pay a commutation fee of $300 or hire a substitute.

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