The Civil War was more than just a series of battles. It was a nationwide catastrophe that had a serious impact on all aspects of American society, and we're not just being our usual, melodramatic selves here. It really did affect everything.
Men were taken from farms, factories and plantations and sent to fight one another, which left women and children to tend the home front and deal with obnoxious telemarketers and vacuum cleaner salesmen. 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. The war led to the dislocation of American society on an unprecedented scale. The country looked like Best Buy after a Black Friday sale.
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 without workers. Suddenly, company Christmas parties were major bummers.
However, demands for food and goods increased as the armies ate their way through the war. There's nothing like piles of rotting carcasses to whet the appetite. Women bore the brunt of the home front hardships. Many were forced to manage small farms themselves, while others just left the farms in the hands of the pigs.
Though women were excluded from the military and factory work, they still 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. We admit that maybe the "worrying" didn't exactly help the cause, but it's not like they were given a ton of other options.
In the Midwest, thousands of women did the best they could to keep their lives together while men were away, and all dreaded the telegrams bearing bad news—especially the singing ones. They proved to be particularly morose.
For high society during the war, on the other hand, conspicuous consumption remained the name of the game. For those lucky ducks still attending lavish parties, grand balls, and elaborate marriage celebrations instead of fighting and dying in the fields, the war seemed far away. People were still dying, though, and there were plenty of funerals to snap even the wealthy folks back to reality from time to time.
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. They just had shinier shoes, generally speaking. In poorer areas, the hardships were the greatest. Many moved to cities or to the homes of nearby relatives to make ends meet. Soon after some people had finally moved out of their parents' basements, Mom and Pop were suddenly moving into theirs. It wasn't ideal for anyone.
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 ages for letters from their loved ones. Remember, this was before UPS. It was around, actually, but then it stood for Unorganized Pony Service. It wasn't the fastest, most efficient system ever.
Many families were also plunked down in waiting game purgatory when they discovered that brother Tom was simply classified as "missing" or had been taken by southern forces as a "prisoner of war." They kept hoping to see their loved ones classified as "vacationing in Hawaii" or "at space camp," but that never seemed to happen.
On the other hand, the war brought greater economic opportunity to northern citizens. Factories ramped up production of firearms, shells, bullets, blankets, and tents. They were killing the manufacturing game up there. 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 real money. As always, freelance shepherding gigs were scarce.
When the draft eventually pulled white men away from their jobs, German and Irish immigrants filled in. With increased immigration and greater competition for jobs, northern men returning from the battlefield quickly grew to resent the newcomers. In this way, the war sparked xenophobia in the North. FYI, xenophobia is not the fear of warrior princesses. We wouldn't necessarily want to run into one of them on a bad day either, though.
Southern society had always been more self-contained than northern society, but not so after the war. In addition to their increased difficulties of producing food and industrial goods, the majority of the fighting took place in the South. The war eventually went away, but the damage didn't. You couldn't just slap a giant Band-Aid on that sucker.
In Virginia and Tennessee, not to mention the areas of Georgia and South Carolina destroyed during Sherman's marches (he was a heavy marcher, so he left some really deep footprints), the war caused incredible damage to homes, farms, bridges, and roads. Much of the southern railway system was destroyed, making it difficult to bring food from one area to another. Additionally, teleporting technology was not yet available. In fact, we still don't have teleporting technology. What's the hold up, science?
Even more damaging to southern society during the war was the drain on its population. Here is the church, here is the steeple, but open it up and…not too many people. Nearly half of all military-aged white males fought during the war, and few managed to return home in one piece. Farms, factories, and plantations were suddenly emptied of fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, and even a smattering of second cousins twice removed. Southern society was less able to adapt to these population changes owing to its chivalric ideals and insistence that slaves not take any meaningful role in the army other than forced labor. This was just fine by most slaves, who weren't too eager to be thrown out on the front lines for a cause they didn't exactly support.
The rich in the South, like those in the North, tried to go on as if nothing was happening. Even that became impossible, though, as the war dragged on—especially with that Scarlett O'Hara constantly yammering on about what a tragedy it all was. Then again, she was probably just referring to the deaths of a few of her suitors.
Part of 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. Why shouldn't those guys get their hands a little dirty? Who cares if they were or were not wearing dainty white gloves?
Political power also shifted from the 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. To be clear, it was the farms that were small, not the farmers. Otherwise, it would have been tough for some of them to climb up onto those tractors.
It was a short-lived change, however, because the farmers' new power was compromised after the war by the enfranchisement of former slaves and, later, by the resurgence of the aristocracy during Reconstruction. Ah, well. They had their day in the sun. Actually, they had plenty of days in the sun, seeing as how they were farmers and all.
By far the biggest changes to southern society were due to the changing role of slaves. As Union armies advanced, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were freed. There weren't as many revenge fantasies being played out as Quentin Tarantino would have you believe, though. Mainly, there was just a whole lot of joy and relief.
In places where the Union Army did not reach, blacks were still kept as slaves. With white male overseers away, though, slaves were able to exert more power over their everyday lives. Who knows, maybe they even helped themselves to some of their masters' goodies while they were gone, walking around in their robes, ordering stuff on their credit cards, and all that. All's fair in love and war, and there was definitely some war going on.
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 down in good old Dixie.
The impact of the emancipation of millions of slaves changed the power dynamics in the South in a big way, but the determination of the white South to end Radical Reconstruction undid most of them. The Civil War upended southern society, ending the planter-dominated social system that was a hallmark of the antebellum South. (Note: Please do not send any hate mail to the members of Lady Antebellum. They had nothing to do with any of this.)