The role of civilians in the American Civil War is oftentimes overshadowed by stories of battle and military techniques employed by Union and Confederate officers. However, their place within the historical narrative should certainly not be overlooked. From the agricultural to the industrial to the medical worlds, the war affected those not directly engaged in fighting on both a personal and professional level. The economy reflected the drastic changes taking place in factories, farming communities, halls of bureaucracy, and hospitals. In wartime, opportunities were extended to members of the population who had not previously explored those avenues, completely transforming the face of the American workforce.
It is important to note that the Civil War was not the catalyst of these changes. Economic, industrial, and social shifts in the 1860s were precipitated by various movements and revolutions of the first half of the nineteenth century. The Civil War was an accelerating force which catapulted industrial growth and social progress due to wartime demands. Among those most affected were Northern laborers and women in the Union. While there is much overlap between the two groups, they did confront both individual and intersecting obstacles which define them separately. Laborers worked within an environment in which the changing values of labor and capitalism interacted with the needs of a nation at war and the most drastic societal change of the era, the inundation of the workforce by immigrants and former slaves. Women, while a vital component of the workforce since the colonial period, were afforded new professional opportunities by virtue of the fact that the war had created a vacuum in several industries.

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James McPherson writes that Northern laborers, largely comprised of Irish immigrants, did not take part in the enthusiasm of the war effort because their wages stagnated despite the rise in productivity to meet Union military needs. The primary reason for the lag in wages was the fact that, in the wake of transition of a skilled workforce from private industry to the battlefield, companies employed semiskilled and unskilled workers. These workers lowered productivity due to their lack of experience. In response to wages which did not provide an adequate standard of living, workers organized unions, agitated for increased wages, and even approached President Lincoln to intervene in this wartime extortion of the workforce. At the end of the war, several powerful labor unions emerged which aimed to protect the rights of workers in the face of changing ideas about free labor and modernizing capitalism.

As mentioned, women formed a key component to the wartime labor force. During the war, increasing numbers of women and children were employed in industries which had traditionally been friendly to women: textile, garment, and shoe production. These industries experienced a boom because of the material needs of the Union military and increasing industrialization could meet those needs. However, women also filled positions which hadn’t previously allowed them entry such as education, civil service (and the secretarial arts, by extension), and the medical profession. Indeed, women helped bring a level of respectability and professionalism to the role of nursing. Despite these gains, women still faced those with archaic ideas about the place of women and lower wages which simply would not support them or their dependents. However, through their professional competency and participation in labor organizing and agitation, women proved those who thought them unfit for the workforce incorrect and worked towards increased wages which would meet a rising standard of living.

Within the world of the Confederacy, civilians did not experience the same level of economic and social progress enjoyed by those in the Union. That progress is necessitated in part by the fact that the North was not attacked on the same scale as the South, which hosted the lion’s share of Civil War battles. From a Southern civilian perspective, one of the most devastating periods of the war was ushered in by General Sherman with his Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea. In Sherman’s view, the key to ending the conflict lay with destroying the railway hub of Atlanta, which stored and supplied crucial military goods. Further, if Sherman could destroy civilian morale, Southerners would cease their support for the war and call on Confederate leadership to surrender. Hence, Sherman began a campaign of total war in which he utilized brutal scorched earth tactics in order to bring the Confederacy to its knees. Specifically, he targeted military warehouses which stored food and ammunition, railway supply lines, and private farms and plantations, where Union soldiers ransacked and looted crops and livestock. The pinnacle of Sherman’s campaign was the destruction of the Union Depot during the Battle of Atlanta, which irreparably disrupted railway traffic into and out of the city and halted trade.

Sherman’s tactics were certainly brutal and are still not kindly looked upon in the present. However, that brutality is blunted by two factors: Sherman’s prevention of further conflict and his generous terms of surrender. Yes, severe privations were inflicted upon Southerners but they were already suffering from food shortages before Sherman’s campaign. British writer B.H. Liddell Hart makes an excellent point when he compares Sherman’s strategies to those employed in the First World War, stating that General Sherman’s extreme pressure on the Confederacy most likely prevented the stalemate of trench warfare that occurred in the twentieth century and accelerated the conclusion of the Civil War. Sherman’s actions were absolutely necessary. In examining the photos of the destruction of Atlanta, it is imperative to consider the fact that the rampage of one of the industrial centers of the South is far preferable to the continued loss of life if the war had continued. The Union’s goal was to preserve the American nation. After 3 years of fighting, it was made abundantly clear that the Southern way of life needed to be obliterated in order to obtain that goal. General Sherman realized that vision through the downfall of Southern urban centers and the ruination of Southern pride.

  • McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
  • Rubin, Anne Sarah. Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.