Society in The Civil War
The War at Home
The Civil War was more than just a series of battles. It was a nationwide catastrophe that had a profound impact on all aspects of American society. Men were taken from farms, factories and plantations and sent to fight one another leaving women and children to tend to the home front. Huge casualties on both sides meant that everyone was directly affected by the carnage, even those living far from the scene of battle. In the areas where battles did occur, homes, farms, schools, and bridges were leveled. War led to the dislocation of American society on an unprecedented scale.
As millions of men made their way to the front those they left behind faced a difficult situation. Farms were without men to till the soil and factories were left with few workers. However, demands for food and goods increased as the armies ate their way through the war. Women bore the brunt of the home-front hardships. Many were forced to manage small farms themselves. Though women were excluded from the military and from factory work, they found ways to serve the northern cause. For instance, women made bandages from lint, nursed wounded men back to health, and worried about their loved ones on the fighting front. In the Midwest, thousands of women did the best they could to keep their lives together while men were away, and all dreaded the fateful telegrams with the lists of the dead.
Outward manifestations of wealth continued to characterize high society during the war. For those attending lavish parties, grand balls, and elaborate marriage celebrations, the war, at times, seemed far away. But funerals tempered the enjoyment. Despite the common claim that it was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," elites, as well as middle and lower-class citizens, fought in the war. In poorer areas, the hardships were, of course, greatest, and many moved to cities or to the homes of nearby relatives to make ends meet.
Uncertainty, too, plagued the North during the war years. Casualty lists notified communities of the names of soldiers who had died in battle, but families also had to wait for letters from their loved ones with up to date information about their well-being. Many families were frustrated to learn that someone they knew had been classified as "missing" or had been taken by southern forces as a "prisoner of war."
On the other hand, the war brought greater economic opportunities to northern citizens. Factories producing firearms, shells, bullets, blankets, tents, and shells proliferated. Work was easy to come by for most young white men and immigrant men in the North, although inflation during the war made it difficult for workers to earn much money. When the draft pulled white men away from their jobs, immigrants—primarily German and Irish—filled in. With increased immigration, and greater competition for jobs, northern whites, especially men returning from the battlefield, grew to resent the newcomers. In this way the war sparked xenophobia in the North.
Southern society had long been more insular than northern society, but the war changed this. In addition to the difficulties of producing food and industrial goods—with which the South struggled far more than the North—the majority of the fighting took place in the South and the ravages of war took years to heal. In Virginia and Tennessee, not to mention the areas of Georgia and South Carolina destroyed during Sherman's marches, the war caused incredible damage to homes, farms, bridges, and roads. Much of the southern railway system was destroyed during the war making it difficult to bring food from one area to another.
Even more damaging to southern society during the war was the drain on its population. Nearly half of military-aged white males fought during the war. Farms, factories, and plantations were emptied of fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands. Southern society was less able to adapt to these changes due to its chivalric ideals and insistence that slaves not take any meaningful role in the army, other than forced labor. The rich in the South, like those in the North, tried to go on as if nothing was happening, but even that became impossible as the war dragged on. Part of Union General Sherman's plan for his March to the Sea was to bring the difficulties of the war home to many of the elite segments of society that had not borne the brunt of the fighting. Political power also shifted from the landed aristocracy of the Virginia Tidewater and the cotton plantations of the Deep South to small farmers who demanded more political influence in return for their sacrifices in the war. This was to be a short-lived change, however, because after the war their new power was compromised by the enfranchisement of former slaves and, later, by the resurgence of the aristocracy following Radical Reconstruction.
By far the largest changes to southern society were due to the changing role of slaves. As Union armies advanced, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were freed. In places where the Union Army did not reach, blacks were still kept as slaves, but with white male overseers away, slaves were able to exert more power over their everyday lives. Toward the end of the war, the Union government created the Freedman's Bureau to assist freed slaves in the South. New communities of freed slaves blossomed throughout the South, and post-war Radical Reconstruction allowed blacks, for a time, to enjoy some political power in the South. The impact of the emancipation of millions of slaves changed the power dynamics in the South considerably, but the determination of the white South to end Radical Reconstruction undid these. The Civil War upended southern society, ending forever the planter-dominated social hierarchy that was a hallmark of the antebellum South.