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Civil War Series

Life in Civil War America

   

VICTORIES AND LOSSES

Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865, ended the Confederate dream. The preservation of the Union gave Lincoln hope, a hope cut short by his assassination on April 14. The country, following Lincoln's wishes, rapidly tried to reunite, to heal the bitter wounds of four years of fratricide. Struggling back to peacetime was an enormous effort in the North but an even more devastating prospect for white southerners.

The war not only wiped out a generation (over one-fifth of the adult male white population in the South) but deprived descendants of misplaced dreams of returning to prewar prosperity. Ten billion dollars worth of property was destroyed in the region, but this "destruction" also reflected the emancipation of millions of slaves, many by their own liberation, and a new dawn for black hope. African Americans rejoiced in Confederate defeat. Slavery was abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, and citizenship rights were extended to individuals of the former slave class with the Fourteenth Amendment in July 1868. (Voting rights were reinforced by the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870.) These legislative strides on the federal level did little to better race relations during the social and political ferment that followed war's end. Indeed, many southern politicians defied the spirit of these constitutional amendments and enacted "Black Codes," as they came to be known—laws meant to prevent African American freedom.

The Freedmen's Bureau, established during wartime under the leadership of General O. O. Howard (after whom Howard University is named), and various war relief agencies tried to move into the shambles of the postwar South to set up schools, to protect voting rights, and to initiate economic self-sufficiency among African Americans. During the summer of 1865 the Freedmen's Bureau distributed 150,000 daily rations (nearly 50,000 to whites), a necessity that seemed to grow rather than diminish as the agency passed out nearly twenty-two million rations between 1865 and 1870.

CITIZENS SEARCHING THE RUINS OF A BATON ROUGE MANSION. (LSU LIBRARY)

A FREEDMAN'S SCHOOL IN THE OCCUPIED SOUTH. (LC)

A RETURN TO FARMING NEAR "BLOODY HILL" AT THE SITE OF THE BATTLE OF WILSON'S CREEK. (AMERICAN HERITAGE COLLECTION)

Defeated Confederates reeled from the consequences of their failed rebellion. Once rich Delta lands were filled with weeds and burned out shells of former estates.

Defeated Confederates reeled from the consequences of their failed rebellion. Once rich Delta lands were filled with weeds and burned out shells of former estates. This was in direct contrast to the stellar record of agricultural production enjoyed in the North, where wheat production beat prewar output, and corn, pork, and beef exports doubled, while the Union supplied its armies and its people.

Transportation and industrialization boomed. Only the textile industry suffered in the North (because of the shortage of raw material). Coal production, copper processing, and other resources accelerated from wartime demand. So much commercial growth contributed to the Civil War being called "the Second American Revolution." Although economic output may have slowed in some areas, the overall picture in the 1860s is one of acute acceleration. Economists debate the question of growth during the war years, but all agree that the sectional redistribution of wealth was enormous. In 1860 the per capita wealth of white southerners was 95 percent higher than that of northern whites. That situation was reversed dramatically in 1870 when the northern per capita wealth was 44 percent greater than that of southern whites. The South's share of the national wealth had been 30 percent in 1860 but shrank to 12 percent in 1870.

YOUNG WOMEN IN WARTIME NORTH CAROLINA. (MC)

The back of the plantation economy had been broken, and there seemed no way to restore prewar patterns, despite planters' dreams. The black work force was reluctant to return to former plantations. Although most wanted to escape field work, without education and resources, the majority were forced into daily wage labor. Indeed, the sharecropping system was seen as a means to property owning by land-hungry freedpeople. By war's end, blacks discovered that "forty acres and a mule" was a dream rather than any federal agenda. President Andrew Johnson's amnesty programs and congressional caution prevented the federal government from allowing distribution of public lands, which were plentiful. The land for black ownership need not have come from any property held by whites. But the principle of white supremacy reigned. Northern intervention may have allowed occasional interlopers such as the first generation of black elected officials during Reconstruction, including Hiram Revels and Francis L. Cardozo. The specter of black judges, black legislators, and African Americans as local federal officeholders alarmed former Confederates.

White men felt undermined and overwhelmed in the wake of surrender. The 1870 census revealed 36,000 more women than men in Georgia and 25,000 more in North Carolina. In Atlanta more than 8,000 families, many headed by women, were utterly destitute in the wake of the war. Federal troops were a constant and visible reminder of Confederate defeat. Georgian Fanny Andrews commented on women pulling their drapes, feigning mourning. White women boycotted social functions where soldiers might appear, including church, where they felt sermons were influenced by the federal presence.

CONFEDERATE SPY ROSE GREENHOW AND HER DAUGHTER, UNDER HOUSE ARREST IN WASHINGTON, BEFORE BEING CONFINED IN THE OLD CAPITOL PRISON. (LC)

During the summer and fall of 1865 many Confederates fled their former homes. Brazil and Mexico hosted colonies of disenchanted former slave owners, and Europe welcomed these aristocrats in exile as well. Hundreds also crossed the Canadian border as refugees. But the majority of white southerners remained in their defeated homeland.

One Georgia woman reported, "The pinch of want is making itself felt more severely every day and we haven't the thought that we are suffering for our country that buoyed us up during the war. Widows in the South were deprived of the generous pensions provided families of Yankee veterans. Despite poverty, white southerners stubbornly held on to their pride. Many refused to take the dreaded oath (renouncing the Confederacy and pledging loyalty to the Union) and sought federal pardons from Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who proved an all too lenient dispenser of mercy. Surprisingly, only Confederate president Jefferson Davis served any time in jail and only one Confederate officer, the infamous Commander Henry Wirz, in charge of the Andersonville Prison, was executed for war crimes. So despite Confederate complaints to the contrary, the federal government proved amazingly tolerant following Union victory.

As Lincoln had predicted, once the Union was preserved, the difficulty would be to restore the nation to order. Most ex-Confederates wished to embalm their status by exalting the nobility of the Lost Cause. Women were especially active in these campaigns to rewrite history, praise southern military heroes, and paint a picture of glory and honor in the wake of such a serious setback as presidential and congressional Reconstruction. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and other memorial organizations kept the Confederate cause alive well into the next century. Indeed, it wasn't until the corrupt bargain in the wake of the election of 1876 that the South wholly rejoined national politics, and at the cost of black political progress, as many critics have pointed out.

RUINS OF COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA. (NA)

But despite these setbacks, Reconstruction gave African Americans as a group their first taste of freedom, and many seized the moment with vigor and admirable restraint. The way southern blacks struggled for their rights and stepped lively into political arenas is one of the great political transformations of the millennium. Whatever happened in the backlash that followed, former slaves shed their shackles, bidding for their full and rightful place in the public sphere.

Following the war, many former Confederate states were forced to contend with the discomforts of modernization. Folkways could be supplanted by federal directives. State governments grappled with education and reform in ways that had never been seen before south of the Mason-Dixon line. The forced march toward fuller political participation, literacy, and agricultural and labor reforms pulled an unruly region more into line with its northern neighbor.

The wartime Congress could be proud of many accomplishments. Certainly, the Homestead Act had far-reaching effects as over 500,000 settled 80 million acres by the end of the century. Additionally, the Morrill Act paved the way for the state university system. After 1862 states were granted public lands (amounts based on a per legislator basis) for sale, and money raised established land-grant colleges. This was the most important and initial grant of federal aid to education. Land grants to the railroads totaled over 120 million acres. The steady march of progress created a parade of modern legislative victories ushering in national banking, homesteading, colleges and universities, railroads, and, finally, the Internal Revenue Act.

THE EXTENSION OF THE RAILROAD CREATED A STAMPEDE WESTWARD WHERE LAND WAS PLENTIFUL. (ADVERTISEMENT FROM HARPER'S WEEKLY)

REFUGEES ON THE RICHMOND CANAL IN 1865. (LC)

Nevertheless, the costs of war were enormous. The Civil War resulted in more soldiers dying than were killed in almost all subsequent wars in American history. Almost 630,000 died, with over half a million wounded. At Antietam on a single day nearly 4,800 were killed, whereas less than 4,000 Americans died during the Revolutionary War. But the impact on the national scale paled in comparison to the effect on local communities: in Worcester, Massachusetts over 4,000 of its eligible male population of 24,000 went to war and nearly 500 never came back. Most homecoming reunions among Yankee soldiers were touching rather than melodramatic affairs, as Leander Stillwell recalled. When he returned to Otterville, Indiana, Stillwell was happily restored to his parental home: "We all had a feeling of profound contentment and satisfaction . . . too deep to be expressed by mere words." The next day he took off his uniform (shedding his status as a Union lieutenant), put on his father's old clothes, and "proceeded to wage war on the standing corn."


CLARA BARTON'S POSTWAR CRUSADE TRACING MISSING SOLDIERS

Once the war was over in April 1865, many families faced the harsh reality that their husbands and brothers, fathers and sons might not be coming home. Tens of thousands had not heard from families for months or even years and found their inquiries to the government failed to elicit response because the War Department was flooded with requests following Confederate surrender. Certainly the work of identifying the thousands buried in anonymous graves would never be completed, but Union women dedicated themselves to trying.

Clara Barton, whose legendary war work had saved hundreds of soldiers' lives, established a clearinghouse for the purpose of tracing lost soldiers. This task propelled her into a controversial tangle of issues. She began her operation even before government funds were set aside for the task. Her search for the missing naturally led to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison where so many Union soldiers has lost their lives. She traveled to Georgia in the summer of 1865 to help identify remains and rebury the dead. But Barton found her plans thwarted by military resistance. Caught in a bureaucratic crossfire, she was not appointed head of a Bureau of Missing Persons but found herself at odds with the War Department.

CLARA BARTON (NA)

Having fought military red tape throughout the war, Barton simply sidestepped the chain of command and launched a private crusade—advertising in newspapers, printing circulars with lists of missing men, reaching out directly to those anxious families seeking assistance.

Barton's crusade stirred up enormous passion. She was able to locate information on dying men soliciting soldiers who may have witnessed a comrade's passing, so that details of death were conveyed to anxious mothers who begged to know how their sons had died. She also was able to sift through enemy records and discover burial information on thousands, especially those who perished in prisons, letting wives know that their husbands would not he coming home but also letting the government know a veteran had died.

On occasion, Barton would track down a soldier who had disappeared for his own reasons. In one case, a veteran raged at Barton for having his name "Blazoned all over the Country" and said his family could just wait until he was ready to contact them. Barton sent a stinging reply, notifying him, "Your mother died waiting." Much more often, Barton was an instrument of welcome reunion.

Congress finally recognized the significance of Barton's campaign and appropriated $15,000. But by the time she closed down her operation in 1869, Barton had spent all the government money and nearly $2,000 of her own funds. She went without salary as she and her staff processed over 63,000 letters, providing more than 22,000 families with information on missing soldiers. Through her efforts many families were able to bury their dead and move on with their lives.

But not all soldiers had a homecoming. Over twelve thousand of the Iowa men who enlisted (half of all eligible) died: 3,500 on the battlefield, 500 in prison, 8,500 from disease. Over 8,500 of those who went home returned seriously disabled. In the four years of war, almost 30,000 amputations were performed. In the state of Mississippi, 20 percent of the state revenue was spent on artificial limbs in 1866. Private Cutler Rist of the Thirty-Sixth Wisconsin had his tibia shattered by a bullet at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864. Two days later surgeons removed his leg from the knee down. He was operated on again in December 1864, when leaking fluid indicated the possibility of gangrene. Discharged in May 1865, he hobbled home to Madison, Wisconsin. Rist, like thousands of other soldiers, would have a permanent reminder of his war service.

ONE SOLDIER WHO WOULD RETURN HOME ONLY FOR BURIAL. (LC)

THIS SHEET MUSIC ILLUSTRATION SHOWS A VACANT CHAIR, A POIGNANT SYMBOL OF LOSS IN MANY POSTWAR HOMES. (LC)

Nervous diseases rapidly multiplied in the postwar years, causing physician S. Weir Mitchell to complain about "epileptics . . . every kind of nerve wound, palsies, horeas, stump disorders, I sometimes wonder how we stood it." Causes and treatment of mental illnesses were little understood during the late to mid-nineteenth century. A surprisingly small number, a little over 800 men, were discharged from the Union army because of mental disabilities. Despite this low number, one medical authority at the time complained that "the number of cases of insanity in our army is astonishing." Less than 2,500 cases of mental illness were reported in the North during the entire war, and some doctors suggested that they thought the war actually reduced mental diseases. The director of a District of Columbia asylum offered conjecture: "The mind of the country was raised by the war to a healthier tension and more earnest devotion to healthier objects than was largely the case amid the apathies and self-indulgences of the long-continued peace and prosperity that preceded the great struggle." The war, an Ohio doctor suggested, channeled energies into "new and important spheres."

We do have evidence that opium addiction increased: not only veterans but their wives became dependent on the drug. Horace Day argued in his 1868 medical text that opiates offered temporary relief to those "maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battlefields, diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons, anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them."

THE ERECTION OF WAR MONUMENTS AND DEDICATION CEREMONIES HELPED TO HEAL A WOUNDED NATION. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

The war took an enormous emotional toll, as children lost their childhoods, families lost loved ones, and the nation mourned the passing of a generation of youth who could have given talents and energies and not just their bodies to their beloved country. Like many other wars, the scars were deep and not all visible. Burying the dead did not always bury the memories, and the words of soldiers and loved ones continue to haunt. The impact of this terrible contest remains very much with us today, as statues of Civil War soldiers dot town squares from rural New England to bustling Manhattan. As Americans moving into the twenty-first century, our reflections on the terrible ordeal that almost tore the country apart seem nostalgic. Yet our constant reexamination of those issues for which so many died and so many more fought, to appreciate the bravery of those on the home front as well as the battlefront, signals the strengths of our American heritage, as we are condemned not to relive our history but to fulfill the promise of our victories and recall the memories of losses.

Back cover: Heart of the Southern Girl by Henry E. Kidd, Colonial Heights, Virginia.
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