Back To CourseHistory 106: The Civil War and Reconstruction
9 chapters | 92 lessons | 9 flashcard sets
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Civilians chafed under this perceived violation of their freedom, and they were especially disgusted that the wealthier men could afford to buy their way out of military service while poorer men were forced to fight. Protests broke out in several cities, reaching a climax in the mob violence of the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863 that left approximately 105 civilians dead.
Less violent political opposition to the Republican Lincoln administration came from the so-called Peace Democrats, who were labeled 'Copperheads' by their opponents. Peace Democrats believed that the federal government was overstepping the boundaries of its power and violating civilians' rights, especially by the draft. They preferred to end the war as soon as possible and let the Confederacy go its own way.
Republicans accused the Peace Democrats of being unpatriotic and of damaging Union morale. Conflicts between the two parties extended all the way down to the local level, where Union soldiers and supporters sometimes gave in to their urges to give their Copperhead neighbors a piece of their minds and even a few hard punches.
Most parts of the Union were spared the destruction of battle because most of the war was fought on Southern territory. There were some exceptions, however. In the summer of 1863, Confederate forces made their way north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Along the way, they destroyed railroads, bridges, telegraph lines and warehouses and raided local farms for food and supplies.
When the Confederates clashed with the Union army at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863, Northern civilians got a strong taste of what battle was really like. Fighting broke out in the streets and fields in and around the town. Wounded and dead soldiers lay everywhere. Townspeople hunkered down in their cellars and hoped to survive. For a long time after the battle, the town of Gettysburg was one big hospital, with civilians trying their best to care for the wounded from both sides. For once, the battlefield came home to the North.
While only a few other major and minor battles were fought on Northern soil, various parts of the Union experienced raids from Confederate cavalry troops and guerrilla warriors. Missouri and Kansas were hotspots for such raids throughout the war, and civilians there lived in constant fear for their property and their lives.
Indeed, Civil War battles were not restricted to the battlefields. Civilians on the home front experienced their own set of struggles in their families and communities and in the realms of the economy and politics. Families struggled through the absence of loved ones and the hardships that went along with the holes in their family circles. They also battled feelings of fear, helplessness, grief and loss.
Communities, too, experienced physical and emotional difficulties as they struggled to carry on with so many community members missing. Communities also banded together to support and supply their soldiers through local organizations and the national United States Sanitary Commission. Both families and communities experienced the ups and downs of the U.S. wartime economy.
Production boomed to meet the demands of the armies, but labor shortages, mechanization, inflation and material shortages provided major challenges. The government tried to regulate the economy through the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which created a national currency called the 'greenback.'
In fact, civilians often felt that the government had increased its influence over their daily lives too much. Conscription was a particular point of contention after the Enrollment Act of 1863 required all men ages 20-45 to register for the draft. Anti-draft protests exploded into violence in July during the New York City Draft Riots. Other Northerners, like the Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, chose to voice their opposition to the administration less violently.
Although the North avoided most of the war's major battles, a few, like Gettysburg, were fought on Northern soil. Some Union areas also experienced Confederate cavalry raids and guerrilla warfare. Indeed, life would never be the same for many Union civilians. War had touched them, and it left its mark on their families, communities, minds and hearts.
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Back To CourseHistory 106: The Civil War and Reconstruction
9 chapters | 92 lessons | 9 flashcard sets