The Civilian Experience in the Civil War

By Jean Baker, Goucher College
Besides personal losses and the loneliness endured by women, children, and the old, the war brought political uncertainties.

For many years the effect of the Civil War on civilian life was neglected in the history books. Telling the tales of generals and soldiers on the battleground during a brutal conflict naturally took precedence. But recently, with understandings shaped by their own times, historians have begun telling the story of the home front--Confederate and Union. This new approach focuses on the interaction between military and domestic events, and is grounded in the understanding that what happens on the battleground is never isolated from considerations of politics, government policies, economics, and morale, especially during a civil war. Nor are the lives of civilians--ordinary people in unusual times--removed from the events taking place on the battlefield, no matter how distant they may be.

Of course generalizations about the lives of the approximately 29 million Americans--North and South--who did not fight in the military come with difficulty and vary according to region, gender, class, and time. Like the rotation of a kaleidoscope with its shifting mirrors pointed at civilians, endless ways of seeing the civilian experience emerge.

From its beginnings the Civil War was, as President Lincoln explained in his address to Congress on July 4th, 1861, "a people's contest." As a Pennsylvania newspaper put it, "We are all in this war; those who fight and those who stay at home." The first civilian casualties of 16 killed and several dozen wounded occurred in Maryland when a Baltimore mob attacked a Massachusetts regiment on its way to protect Washington in April 1861. At first no one on either side believed the conflict would last longer than a few months. Remembering the brief U.S.-Mexican War 15 years earlier, in a period when the military, not the citizenry, fought wars, few considered that the contest would touch their lives. Confederates expected to capture the Union capital of Washington by summer, while Northerners anticipated the destruction of the Southern army by fall.

The first soldiers who joined these armies had moved overnight from their status as civilians to volunteer soldiers with the encouragement of their communities. They had departed from the home front as citizen-soldiers before cheering crowds, the names of their regiments testifying to local attachments and the future interplay between home front and battleground: the Tallapoosa Thrashers, the South Florida Bull Dogs, the Adams County (Pa.) Rifles and so forth.

In July 1861 when these first volunteers clashed at Bull Run in northern Virginia, civilians--congressmen, businessmen and socialites with picnic baskets--drove out in carriages from Washington to watch the battle. But within hours they had joined McDowell's Union army in hasty retreat from the battleground to Washington. Contemplating the death of nearly 900 soldiers, both sides realized that the war would be no summer's amusement--nor "fun and frolic," as one spectator anticipated. Thereafter, civilians found little sport in watching battles, though children whose lives were also shaken by the war sometimes snuck out to watch. Instead like the residents of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, Americans found the war an inescapable, uninvited presence in their lives.

As the military conflict escalated into a total war in which the traditional separation of civilian and military disappeared, some civilians hid in cellars when their communities became battlegrounds. Others, especially women and children in the Confederacy, fled, creating a large refugee population. Among the informal refugee camps was one outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where thousands of homeless civilians lived desperate, disease-ravaged lives. Some older residents of communities overtaken by the conflict like one Gettysburg civilian--60-year-old John Burns--grabbed their shotguns and joined the battle. While the names of the civilians who died are mostly forgotten, 20-year- old Jennie Wade serves as a symbol of thousands of anonymous civilians killed during the war. She was killed instantly while baking bread in her Gettysburg kitchen when a musket shot by a Confederate sharpshooter pierced a window. Often it was the noise of battle that first terrified civilians. Afterwards it was the sight and smell of dead bodies. Sue Chancellor discovered several in her back yard after the carnage in Chancellorsville. Soon her piano was being used as an operating table.

Certainly the Civil War touched Southerners (and residents of the border states of Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) more profoundly than most Northerners. Vast armies trampled over closely tended farms; fences were destroyed and animals confiscated. In the deadly improvised war waged by marauders in the borderlands of Kentucky, Kansas, and Missouri, there was never any division between civilians and formal warriors. Private homes became officers' headquarters. In 1861, after Wilmer McLean's home near Bull Run became Confederate headquarters, a Yankee shell crashed into his home. To avoid the war McLean moved to a remote village in southern Virginia near Appomattox. But in 1865 the war's inescapable presence caught up with him again when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant in his parlor.

When General Sherman approached Atlanta in 1864, he informed the mayor that civilians must vacate the city. The mayor protested that this "helpless" people had done nothing to be driven from their homes. Responding with his well-known "war is cruelty" phrase, Sherman went on to connect the hardships of war to the civilian population who "brought war into our country."

However different their personal experiences, all civilians were touched by universal anxiety about the welfare of relatives and friends on the battlefield. With the most newspapers in the world, Americans on both sides rushed to the post office after battles to read the casualty lists. Widely shared illustrated magazines as well as photographs of the battlefield brought the war into every home. An increasing number of these soldiers, eventually 620,000, never came home, as coffin makers North and South found themselves in a booming wartime business. Other veterans limped back, permanently damaged, many with the amputated limbs that represented the difference between life and death. Others required nursing care for the rest of their lives.

Besides these personal losses and the loneliness endured by women, children, and the old, the war brought political uncertainties. What kind of government would the future bring? Would the Union be restored as Lincoln promised and as most Northerners hoped? And in the South would the vision of an independent slaveholding nation be achieved among communities that honored states rights' and not nationalism? And for the nearly four million slaves living in the Confederacy and four Union states, would the war bring freedom?

In the border states--especially Maryland and Missouri--civilians immediately felt wartime restrictions to their civil liberties. In Missouri during the guerilla war that raged until 1862, Union authorities ordered approximately 20,000 Confederate-supporting residents in three counties to leave their homes in two weeks. Although the order was later rescinded, Missouri was repeatedly placed under martial law. In Maryland in the spring of 1861, John Merryman, a Baltimore County farmer and secessionist intent on blowing up bridges to prevent the movement south of the Union Army, was briefly arrested, denied the writ of habeas corpus, jailed, and later released without a trial. In another well-known case in 1863 in Ohio, the Democratic politician Clement Vallandigham was arrested for opposing the draft and later banished from the United States, though he soon returned and ran for governor.

Members of secret societies in the North like the Knights of the Golden Circle and Order of American Knights were occasionally arrested for opposing the draft and circulating disloyal literature. Responding to these challenges, Congress passed new legislation defining treason, and Lincoln issued a proclamation extending martial law to those who opposed conscription. The number of arrests under this order during the war was several thousand, although many were not political prisoners at all--as Democrats in the North charged--but common criminals.

As peace societies sprang up in the Confederacy, much the same reaction to internal opposition occurred with the suspension of habeas corpus and military arrests. In North Carolina the secret Order of the Heroes of America advocated that North Carolina make a separate peace treaty with the Union. Overall, compared to similar wars, the violations of civil rights in both Union and Confederacy were not severe, but they were an integral part of the civilians' experience in the war.

For many, North and South, the greatest transformation involved the growing power of the central government. In a society where the federal government was previously invisible except for the post office, the Civil War brought increased interaction. Most notable were the conscription laws, and on both sides there was opposition to their enforcement. The first draft legislation in American history was passed by the Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862, requiring white men between 18 and 35 (later extended to 45) to serve. The Union followed in March 1863 with its own version of forced service, a significant change in the relationship of citizens to the state.

Both Northern and Southern civilians also felt the pressure of government in changing economic policies, as both governments tried to pay for the spiraling costs of war. The Union instituted a 3 percent income tax on incomes over $800 in August 1861, increasing its progressive rates to a 10 percent levy on incomes over $10,000 by 1865. Along with various excise taxes, the Treasury Department printed large amounts of paper money in the form of greenbacks and created a national banking system.

The Confederates had less success funding the war, as Jefferson Davis's administration believed that taxes would strain loyalty. The editor of the Wilmington (N.C.) Journal acknowledged that the burden of taxation "should be laid as lightly as possible on our suffering people...who are paying the price of our righteous war of defense in blood and wounds and death." By 1863 a desperate Confederate Congress passed excise taxes on many products, but not on slaves or land, and instead instituted an unpopular tax in kind. Every farmer and planter, after reserving a certain amount of food for his own use, was required to pay one-tenth of his crops to the government. Like the Union, the Confederate government printed paper money, three times that of the Union, and thereby ignited inflation rates that reached 10 percent a month.

All civilians, though southerners more than northerners, suffered from rampant inflation. Poor families, those on fixed incomes, and women subsisting on soldiers' wages often found it impossible to find, much less to pay, for food on a private's pay of $11 a month when a barrel of flour cost $100 in the Confederacy. In April 1863 several hundred women in Richmond marched on the governor's mansion shouting "Bread! Bread! Our children are starving while the rich roll in wealth."

In another extension of government authority, state governments, especially in Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina, tried to alleviate the deprivation of soldiers' families by instituting welfare programs with direct relief given to civilians. So too did the Confederate government in Richmond, although such payments failed to stop the deterioration of economic circumstances and morale. In the resulting personal interactions between civilians and the military, gloomy letters from wives and mothers affected the motivation of soldiers who, after all, were fighting for their homes and families. Morale fluctuated with the success of the armies. The ethic of patriotism in 1861 and the later ideal of sacrifice that inflamed Confederate women shriveled, and by 1865 rampant desertion from the army was one of the results.

Real wages for workers increased in both the Union and the Confederacy, but cost-of living increases made survival precarious. In the North some workers who now included more children in a labor-short economy went out on strike. A group of women sewers in Cincinnati protested to Lincoln in 1865 that it was impossible to live on the prices they received from contractors. Throughout the war the Union was more successful in its efforts to help the needy, often through voluntary giving to charities that aided the urban poor.

Perhaps the greatest transformation in civilian lives occurred among women, North and South. In both sections women found themselves doing agricultural work previously the domain of men and in the South accomplished by slaves, the latter having left farms and plantations. With as much as half the labor force gone, women picked cotton, suckered tobacco, and brought in wheat. Especially in the North women's lives were transformed as they exchanged domesticity for voluntarism. As part of the national relief societies--the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission-- women sewed and filled baskets with food and books, paid for by the sales of homemade food and clothes (and even relics from the battlefield) at sanitary fairs. The boldest women travelled to the front to serve as nurses.

Finally in April 1865 the war ended and, just as in the beginning, soldiers became civilians overnight. But all civilians knew that they too, in different ways and with varying results, had been "in this war."

This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at

Parks with Relevant Major Resources Related to the Civilian Experience

Painting of civilians in Savannah, Georgia watching Union troops enter the city
Civilian residents of Savannah, Georgia watch as Union troops enter the city on December 22, 1864.
National Park Service

All battlefields, Arkansas Post National Memorial, Arlington House, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Fort Scott National Historic Site, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site, George Washington Carver National Monument, Hampton National Historic Site, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Independence National Historical Park, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Springfield Armory National Historic Site , Women's Rights National Historical Park