Chapter 15: Crucible of Freedom: Civil War, 1861-1865 Both North and South were ill prepared for war in 1861. Initially dependent on volunteers, the Confederacy established a draft in 1862, and the Union did so the following year. At first the South relied on imported arms and munitions but soon was able to produce its own. It had more trouble with clothing and food throughout the duration of the war. Financing the war was also a problem.
Americans had been unaccustomed to paying taxes to the national government, but both sides had to end the tradition of hard money and minimal government by raising taxes, issuing war bonds, and printing paper money.
Inflation was serious in the North and devastating in the South by 1865. The Confederacy was unified behind the goal of winning independence, but its apparent unity concealed divergence between extreme states’ righters and advocates of stronger central authority. On the Union side, the two-party system provided traditional channels for airing differences of opinion.
As the war began, President Lincoln took steps to make Washington secure. Federal troops were sent into Maryland, pro-secession Marylanders were arrested, and the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. Three other border states, despite a wish on the part of many to maintain solidarity with the slaveholding regions, stayed within the Union. The Civil War has been called the first modern war. It depended on railroads, mass-produced weapons, joint army-navy tactics, iron-plated warships, rifled guns and artillery, and trench warfare.
The Confederacy had just 9 million people as compared with 22 million in the Union in 1861, and although the Confederacy had only a fraction of the industrial capacity of its opponent, the South was fighting in defense of its own homeland.
The North had longer supply lines and the problem of occupying captured areas. It had to commit a greater proportion of its men away from the front than did the South, which could count on its slaves for labor. Most of the soldiers who did fight were volunteers from farms and small towns. Southern volunteers wrote of their desire to fight to preserve slavery.
Initially Few Union soldiers voiced antislavery sentiments, but as the war progressed, northern soldiers accepted the need to free slaves, sometimes for humanitarian reasons, sometimes to achieve military goals. Most of those who fought shared a vision of military life as a transformative masculine experience. Yet expectations of military glory faded in the face of food shortages, poor sanitation, disease and crowding. Northern strategy in 1861 was to blockade the southern coast, to gain control of the Mississippi, and to take Richmond.
Early setbacks for Union forces in Virginia led to a stalemate there. In the West the Union gained control over most of the Mississippi River by mid-1862. Along the coasts the superiority of the Union navy reduced almost by half the number of successful Confederate blockade runners by the war’s end. The Confederacy hoped to gain recognition as an independent nation from France and Great Britain. But “cotton diplomacy” failed when substantial British stocks of cotton were supplemented by new supplies from Egypt and India.
Moreover, traditional British reliance on naval blockades made the British reluctant to interfere with the Union’s blockade. And British public opinion was antislavery. The war was fought to save the Union. The military value of emancipation became clear even to those northerners who had no moral qualms about slavery. Emancipation of all slaves under rebel control was proclaimed after the Union’s success at Antietam, to take effect on January 1, 1863. The immediate practical impact was negligible, but it was a brilliant political stroke that transformed the war.
It increased the slaves’ incentive to escape as northern troops approached, and soon the large numbers of freed refugees became a problem. Some joined the service, and by the end of the war, 186,000 blacks had served in the Union army, 10 percent of all Union soldiers. On the Confederate side, slaves increasingly shirked their duties or ran away as the Confederacy continued to depend heavily on slave labor. In the Sea Islands, black refugees took advantage of temporary reallocation of former plantation lands to form their own communities.
By 1863 both sides were experiencing labor shortages, inflation, and dissension. With its superior resources, the Union met the challenge more effectively. Although the cotton-textile industry in the North was hurt, industries directly related to the war effort–arms manufacture, ready-made clothing, and railroads–flourished. The Republicans in Congress were able to act on their idea of “free soil, free labor, free men” and passed the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land Grant Act.
Nevertheless, workers suffered during the war as wages lagged 20 percent or more behind price increases. The Southern economy was totally shattered by the war, as railroads were torn up, food-growing regions were occupied by Union troops, and planters continued to try to raise cotton crops. Southern women were forced to revive home production of goods in short supply, but even that was hard to do as Union invasions turned women and children into refugees. As the war went on, dissent became a problem on both sides.
In the North “Peace” Democrats, known as Copperheads, contributed to the volatile brew of political, ethnic, racial, and class antagonism that erupted into antidraft protests in several cities. Nevertheless, freedom of press, speech, and assembly was preserved for the most part and in 1864 the Union became the first warring nation in history to hold a contested national election. Although rising sentiment for the abolition of slavery encouraged feminists, and although women made substantial contributions to the war effort through their labor and through service as nurses, their efforts to secure the vote were not successful.
In 1863 the Confederate thrust north to Gettysburg failed. The Union thrust south to Vicksburg succeeded. In 1864 Union forces devastated Georgia and South Carolina. The fall of Atlanta secured the election for President Lincoln. Union troops renewed their assault on Confederate positions in Virginia, and on April 3, 1865, they entered Richmond. On April 9 General Lee bowed to the inevitable. On April 14 President Lincoln was shot. He died the following day.