Civil war society

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More than four-fifths of the soldiers on both sides were volunteers. In the first two years of the war, nearly all of them were. The Confederacy passed a conscription law in April 1862, and the Union followed in March 1863.

In the North, the biggest example of dissent was the New York City Draft Riots. In the South, it was the Richmond Bread Riot. Both were in 1863.

Socially, the greatest effect of the war was to once and for all resolve the greatest paradox in American history: whether the first nation in the world created on an idea – liberty – would continue to condone slavery. Four million enslaved people were made free as a result of the Civil War.

In addition, opportunities for Northern women were accelerated. During the war, northern women pushed the boundaries of their traditional roles, broadening beliefs about what women could accomplish outside the home. (Southern women had always been intimately involved in the administration of farms and plantations in the South, but the coming of the war forced them to shoulder even greater burdens, though the South remained more conservative in its views about women’s “proper place” than did the North.) The most visible impact that Northern women made was in the field of medicine. Their most important function was to help—and sometimes to prod— the medical branches of the Union and Confederate armies to provide more efficient, humane care for sick and wounded soldiers. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a very important adjunct of the Union army’s medical bureau, was created. Most of its local volunteers were women, as were most of the nurses it provided to army hospitals. As thousands of middle- and even upper-class women volunteers flocked to army hospitals, nursing began its transformation from a menial occupation to a respected profession. In addition to accelerating opportunities for women, the war also bolstered the fledgling women's rights movement. It was no coincidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, only four years after the war. Although a half century passed before women won the vote, this movement could not have achieved the momentum that made it a force in American life without the work of women in the Civil War.

Socially, the South was devastated. The institutions and ideology of a plantation society and a caste system that had dominated half the country before 1861 went down with a great crash in 1865—to be replaced by the institutions and ideology of free-labor capitalism in what was the birth of the modern American state. In addition to having its way of life destroyed, the South was socially damaged because it lost many of its young men. 29% of Alabama’s soldiers were killed; 33% of Florida’s died. In 1866 the state of Mississippi spent one fifth of its revenues on wooden arms and legs for its veterans.


Both the Union and the Confederacy exercised unprecedented government authority during the war, though Confederate states’ rights doctrine made for poor war-making, since centralized effort in time of war is so important. Lincoln was especially bold in assuming new executive powers. He ordered military arrests of civilian dissenters and suspended the right of habeas corpus (the right of an arrested person to a speedy trial). At first, Lincoln used these methods only in sensitive areas such as the border states; but in 1862 he proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices were subject to martial law. In all, more than 13,000 people were arrested and imprisoned for various periods, but most were released before too long. For the most part, the Lincoln administration showed restraint and tolerated dissent. Lincoln had the support of most Republicans, and the general support of Democrats. Lincoln’s greatest political problem was the opposition to the war voiced by a faction of the Democratic Party known as the Peace Democrats, or Copperheads.

The old image of Lincoln single-handedly abolishing slavery with the stroke of his pen has long been abandoned, for too many other Americans—politicians, reformers, soldiers, and slaves themselves—contributed to the coming of emancipation. In 1862, with military success elusive, Radical Republicans in Congress and abolitionists clamoring for action against slavery, and slaves by the thousands fleeing the plantations wherever the Union Army appeared, Lincoln concluded that his initial policy of fighting a war solely to preserve the Union had to change. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, profoundly altered the nature of the war and the future course of American history. It was the Proclamation, moreover, more than any other single wartime event, that transformed a war of armies into a total-war conflict of societies (see diplomacy below). Although it freed few slaves on the day it was issued, as it applied almost exclusively to areas under Confederate control, the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that Union victory would produce a social revolution within the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life. There could now be no going back to the prewar Union. A new system of labor, politics, and race relations would have to replace slavery.

One political effect of the Union victory in the Civil War was to remove the doubts that had lingered since the days of Daniel Shays as to whether the fragile experiment in republican federalism was strong enough to hold together. In the process, the North’s victory both established the supremacy of the federal government over the states and redefined how Americans saw themselves. No longer would there be a debate in the United States as to where ultimate sovereignty lay; the likes of the Nullification Crisis would not rear its head again in any truly significant way. Even the language used to describe the United States changed. Before the Civil War, the phrase “the United States are” was common. After 1865, the new usage “the United States is” symbolized a fundamental shift in how Americans saw themselves. As Woodrow Wilson said, the Civil War created what had never existed before – a national consciousness.”

A strong national government sustained by a large army - once feared as the gravest threat to liberty – had accomplished this. Thus, a second political effect of the Union victory was a national government that was far more powerful than anything the nation had known previously. The federal budget for 1865 was twenty times the 1860 budget. With its new army of clerks, tax collectors, and other officials, the federal government became the nation’s largest employer.

A third political effect of the Civil War was a regional transfer of power from South to North. From 1800 to 1860, the slave states had used their leverage in the Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democratic parties to control national politics most of the time. A Southern slaveholder was president of the United States during two-thirds of the years from 1789 to 1861. Most congressional leaders and Supreme Court justices during that period were Southerners. In the 50 years after 1861, no native of a Southern state was elected president, only one served as Speaker of the House and none as president pro tern of the Senate, and only 5 of the 26 Supreme Court justices appointed during that half-century were from the South.


The North’s economy was strong at the core, and by 1863 its factories and farms were producing more than enough to provision the troops without significantly lowering the living standards of the civilian populations. The South’s economy was much less adaptable. The South experienced runaway inflation (9,000 percent, compared to about 80 percent for the North) and disruption of its cotton exports to England due to a Union blockade. As the war wore on, Confederate soldiers and civilians were increasingly undernourished.

An economic effect of the Civil War was that it gave rise to today’s modern American nation-state. It is easy to forget how decentralized the United States was in 1861, and how limited were the powers of the federal government. There was no national banking system, no national railroad gauge, no national tax system, not even reliable maps of the areas where the war would take place. The army in 1861 numbered 14,000 men, the federal budget was minuscule, and nearly all functions of government were handled at the state and local level. The Civil War created the modern national state in America. It also profoundly altered the federal government’s relationship to the American economy. To mobilize the North’s economic resources, the Lincoln administration instituted the first national banking system and national currency, the first national taxes on income, and the first highly protective tariffs, and laid the foundation for the first transcontinental railroad. Whether the war retarded or encouraged economic growth in the short run remains a point of debate among historians. But the economic policies of the Union forged a long-lasting alliance between the Republican Party, the national state, and the emerging class of industrial capitalists. The transfer of political power in Washington from southern planters to allies of northern industrialists and merchants created the political conditions under which the United States emerged by century’s end as the greatest economic power on earth. It is easy to forget how decentralized the United States was in 1861, and how limited were the powers of the federal government. There was no national banking system, no national railroad gauge, no national tax system, not even reliable maps of the areas where the war would take place. The army in 1861 had only 14,000 men, the federal budget was tiny, and nearly all functions of government were handled at the state and local level. The war established the blueprint for the modern state, because with Southern Democrats absent from Congress, the North was able to pass a number of Republican measures that were quite Whiggish in nature, furthering a national economic system. Moreover, these economic policies of the Union forged a long-lasting alliance between the Republican Party, the national state, and the emerging class of industrial capitalists which, when combined with the transfer of political power in Washington from southern planters to allies of northern industrialists and merchants (above), created the political conditions under which the United States emerged by 1900 as the greatest economic power on earth. 1861 - The Revenue Act. Lincoln and Congress agreed to impose a 3 percent tax on annual incomes over $800. Congress repealed Lincoln's tax law in 1871, but in 1909 passed the 16th Amendment, which set in place the federal income-tax system used today. Congress ratified the 16th Amendment in 1913. 1862 - The Legal Tender Act. Despite the new income tax and the sale of war bonds, not enough revenue had been raised to pay for the North’s rapid military buildup. To avert a crisis, Congress created the famous "greenbacks," the origin of modern paper money in the United States. 1863 - The National Banking Act. Before the war, the principal form of money had been notes issued by state-chartered banks. After Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, the number and variety of bank notes had skyrocketed until 7,000 different kinds of state bank notes were circulating in 1860. This act established the federal dollar as the sole currency of the United States. The National Banking Act of 1863 resulted from the desire of Whiggish Republicans to resurrect the centralized banking system and create a more stable banknote currency, as well as to finance the war. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 made the Federal Reserve the central bank of the United States. The Homestead Act of 1862 - Granted a farmer 160 acres of land virtually free after he had lived on it for five years and made improvements on it, helping farmers settle some of the most fertile land in the world. 80 million acres of land was given away. The Morrill Land - Grant College Act gave each state thousands of acres - 25 million in total - to establish state colleges. The Pacific Railroad Act - granted 120 million acres of land and loans to railroad companies to spur building of a transcontinental railroad.

The war ruined the South economically but helped the north. The region’s best agricultural lands were destroyed. It would take more than a decade for the staples of the Southern economy – cotton, tobacco, and sugar – to recover from the wartime devastation. Union forces had also destroyed most factories and railroad tracks. In 1860, the South’s hare of the national wealth was 30 percent; in 1870, it was 12 percent. All Confederate money had become worthless. But the most unsettling of all the changes to the southern economy resulted from the end of slavery. Slave property, which was estimated at $2 billion in 1860 and was the primary form of wealth in the South, was completely gone. In contrast, the North and West thrived economically. Railroads thrived by carrying troops and supplies; the meatpacking and textile industries soared in response to demands from troops for food and uniforms. The per capita wealth of the North doubled between 1860 and 1870; the number of manufacturers increased by 80 percent, and property values increased from $10 billion to more than $25 billion. In 1870 the per capita (per person)wealth of New York State was more than twice that of all eleven ex-Confederate states combined.


Later assertions of states’ rights notwithstanding, the South went to war to preserve slavery. Areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee that had few slaves or plantations had strong pro-Union sentiment. The North went to war to save the Union, not to free the slaves. Lincoln had to be careful not to alienate the strategically critical border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was issued in part as a military strategy against the Confederacy. As it became clear how hard it was going to be to subdue the South, sentiment developed for striking a blow at the South’s economic and social system by freeing its slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation also strengthened the moral cause of the Union as it re-cast the purpose of the war.

At the outset of the war, the North’s advantages included population, industry, railroad trackage, naval supremacy, and dominance in foreign trade. The North’s advantages did not include greater agreement over war aims, since some advocated abolition.

Each side had anticipated a short and victorious war lasting only weeks or months; neither side foresaw the protracted, brutal conflict that would follow. The Civil War was the first “total war.” The Civil War began as a conventional contest of army versus army but by the end had become a war of society against society, with slavery, the foundation of the southern social order, becoming a target. (More than any other wartime event, the Emancipation Proclamation caused this to happen). Civilian morale and the population’s will to fight proved as crucial to sustaining and winning the war as events on the battlefield. To be sure, Union soldiers fought for powerful symbols: nation, flag, and constitution. But Confederates, too, fought for nation, flag, constitution, and liberty - of whites. In addition, they fought to defend their land, homes, and families against the invading Yankees. An army fighting in defense of its homeland generally has the edge in morale.

European observers expected the South to prevail. The Union had a far greater military task than did the Confederacy. It had to conquer an area as large as Western Europe and twice as large as the thirteen colonies in 1776. To win the war, Union forces would have to invade, conquer, and occupy much of that territory, cripple its people’s ability to sustain a war of independence, and destroy its armies. Britain had been unable to accomplish a similar task in the Revolutionary War, even though it enjoyed a far greater superiority of resources over the United States in 1776 than the Union enjoyed over the Confederacy in 1861. The Confederacy, like the American patriots during the War of Independence, could lose battle after battle and still win the war, if their opponents tired of the conflict. Thus, political leadership was crucial to victory, and Lincoln proved far more successful than his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. One historian has suggested that if the North and South had exchanged presidents, the South would have won the war.

The Civil War was more deadly than all other American wars combined. We have recently learned that the conventional, carved-in-stone death toll of 618,000 is far too low; 750,000 is a much better estimate. The war took place soon after a revolution in arms manufacture had replaced the traditional musket, accurate at only about 100 yards, with the more modern, and deadly, rifle and bullet, which had greater accuracy and had at least four times the effective range (400 yards or more) of the smoothbore. This development changed the nature of combat, but Civil War infantry tactics adjusted only gradually to the greater lethal range and accuracy of the new rifle. The mass formations that were used had emerged from experience with the smoothbore musket. Close-order assaults against defenders equipped with rifles resulted in enormous casualties. The defensive power of the rifle became even greater when troops began digging into trenches. Massed frontal assaults became almost suicidal. Soldiers and their officers learned the hard way to adopt skirmishing tactics, taking advantage of cover and working around the enemy flank (side).

While the North could not have won the war without superiority in men and materiel, in the end that was not the total explanation. It had more to do with the gradual development in the North of a coherent strategy for victory and the rise of military commanders under Lincoln’s leadership such as Grant and Sherman who were willing to put in place a strategy of all-out military conflict to destroy not only Confederate armies, but also the economic and social infrastructure that supported the war effort.

The critical period of Civil War diplomacy was 1861 to 1862, when the South was making every effort to induce major foreign powers to recognize its independence and break the Union blockade. The hope that England and France could be persuaded to intervene on the side of the Confederacy stemmed from the fact that these nations depended on the South for three-quarters of their cotton supply. Great Britain and France saw advantages in a divided Union, but pursued cautious policies toward both sides. By early 1863, it was clear that “King Cotton” diplomacy had failed.
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