17. Homefronts and Battlefronts: “Hard War” and the Social Impact of the Civil War

17. Homefronts and Battlefronts: “Hard War” and the Social Impact of the Civil War


Professor David Blight:
Today we’re going to take up a question that has been for
the past, well, nearly 20 years,
probably the most active–to many the most stimulating aspect
of Civil War scholarship. How did the Civil War affect
civilians? What were the social impacts of
such a massive experience? How could you mobilize
societies on this scale without profoundly changing people?
What did it do to gender relations?
What did it do to the meaning of race?
We’ve already begun to deal with that question in some
depth, how this war would transform the Constitution,
transform American political culture, transform the lives of
African-Americans–and more on that in time.
But, of course, social history won the
revolution in American history. Oh, somewhere back in the ’70s
and ’80s everybody wanted to be a social historian.
When I arrived at Amherst College circa 1989 to teach
there was something in the–what was known as–the Pioneer
Valley, the Five College Consortium–a
Social History Working Group. And I remember asking,
can you give a paper if it’s not social history?
And the answer was “sure.” Social history won a sort of
methodological struggle over how to do history,
what is the meaning of the past?
And you all know that by now, whether you think about it that
much or not. Social history brought us the
history of women. It brought us a revolution and
scholarship in the study of African-Americans.
It brought us a revolution in the study of class.
It taught us how to study social groups in historical
time. It’s taught us how to study
ordinary people. But–and then I’ll get off this
historiographical high horse–it’s remarkable how much
Civil War historians, focused as they were so much on
an event, focused so much as they were so often for
generations, as many put it,
on headquarters, the headquarters of generals
and of thousands of dispatches they wrote–because those were
the sources–or the headquarters of the government,
the president, commander of the armies,
focused so much on an event from headquarters.
A social historian came along in 1989.
He wrote a, well, it was a relatively short
little essay in the Journal of American History that
became the title essay of a book of essays that came out a year
later. It was by Maris Vinovskis,
a numbers crunching, hard-boiled social historian
who used to argue “if you can’t count it, it ain’t history.”
He wrote a little essay, he said, “have social
historians lost the Civil War?” His answer, of course,
was yes, and he showed, very carefully,
by looking at few New England towns,
that old tradition of studying in microcosm New England
towns–which Colonial American history had been doing for a
generation or two–he showed that there are all these towns
all over New England, small and relatively large,
that had lost half of their men between the age of 18 and 45,
in four years of war. He went to some local records
and he discovered some of those towns had lost 60% of their male
population. He looked a little closer and
he saw that the whole idea of occupations in those towns got
completely redefined, at least during the war years,
because the men were all gone. He started to count widows and
count orphans. And, by God,
you could count these things. You could measure how many
widows were there in Newburyport, Massachusetts,
how many widows were there in Bangor, Maine.
You could count it. It stimulated a small
revolution in scholarship, and it runs unabated as we
speak. And in some ways,
the most important kind of history done on it is two kinds.
It’s the kind of new Women’s History you’re reading in Drew
Faust’s book, Mothers of Invention–a
wonderful title. I don’t know if any of you
remember the old song by that title but it’s worth thinking
about. There’s an irony in there
somewhere. At any rate,
you get a book like Drew Faust’s, which stands on the
shoulders of other books like it,
but a book that went and read thousands of Southern women’s
letters and diaries to try to understand “how did this war
affect Southern white women?” And she has many answers to
that, including the somewhat bold argument at the end of that
book that it was women, in part–an argument that has
been tested by other scholars and even backed off from a bit
by Drew herself–but she ends the book at least with a
suggestion that the sheer weight of the burden of the war on
Southern white women and the thousands upon thousands of
letters in which they express that to their mates,
their husbands, their brothers,
their sons at the front, that it was,
in part, Southern white women that made
the South give up the war. And the other part of that
Social History revolution has been of course among military
historians themselves who discovered ways–the ways had
always been there, and there were pioneering works
on this as early as the 1950s by a scholar named Bell Wiley who
wrote two thick volumes, one in 1954 or ’55,
one entitled Billy Yank and the other entitled Johnny
Reb. And lo and behold what that
was, was the beginning of a tradition of studying the common
soldier, his experiences,
his terrors, his horrors,
his stomach problems, his dysentery,
his disease, his death. And above all,
influenced greatly by the field of Psychology and influenced
greatly by the rise of gender history,
male military historians went to those common soldiers and
began to study their values, their ideas,
their sense of manhood, their sense of the idea of
courage, what that meant in the 1860s in a mid-Victorian society
like the United States. And when the set of values by
which men, young and old, defined themselves as men
collided with modern total war, what did it do to them?
And of course ‘they’, being the male military
historians of the 1980s and ’90s, were themselves greatly
affected by the experience of the Vietnam War.
Now, with that little bit in mind, let me suggest something
that is timeless about this question of the social impact of
war, and then I’ll get on to the
substance of how the war affected southern society,
northern society, and the like. These are excerpts from letters
from a soldier in Iraq. His name is Juan Compos.
They’re actually emails. Juan was twenty-seven years old.
He wrote this to his wife on December 12,2006.
“Hey beautiful, well we were on blackout again.
We lost yet some more soldiers. I can’t wait to get out of this
place and return to you where I belong.
I don’t know how much more of this place I can take.
I try to be hard and brave for my guys but I don’t know how
long I can keep up. You know?
It’s like every time we go out, any time, a bump or sounds
freak me out. Maybe I’m just stressing.
Oh hopefully it’ll get over. You know, you never think that
anything is or can happen to you.
At first you feel invincible and then little by little things
start to wear on you.” That letter goes on and on,
ends of course with tell his eight year old son “hello.”
Tuesday, October 3,2006: “Mood, gloomy.
The life of an infantryman is never safe.
How do I know? I live it every day.
I lost a good friend of mine just two days ago to an enemy
sniper. The worst feeling in the world
is having lost one of your own and not being able to fight
back. The more I go on patrol the
more alert I tend to be, but regardless,
the situation here in Iraq is that we are never safe.
No matter the counter-measures we take to prevent any attacks,
they seem to seep through the cracks.
Every day a soldier is lost or wounded by enemy attacks.
I, for one, would like to make it home to my family one day.
Pray for us, keep us in your thoughts,
for an infantryman’s life is never safe.”
December 15,2006: “My only goals are to make it
out of this place alive, to return to you guys and make
you as happy as I can.” Sergeant Compos was killed in
the spring of 2007 by an IUD. This is a letter from the front
by Charles Brewster, dated May 15,1864.
There’s a timelessness to what soldiers write from war and
there’s a timelessness to its social impact.
Brewster, as you may remember me telling you,
was that soldier from Massachusetts,
lonely and confused, feeling worthless,
joined the Union Army, the 10^(th) Massachusetts,
in April of 1861 and served out the entire war,
and managed to survive, and wrote 260 quite incredible
letters. This is the middle of the
Spotsylvania campaign, arguably the worst constant
daily trench warfare of the Civil War.
He’s the adjutant of his regiment and therefore he has to
record all of the casualties, just like Sergeant Compos
describing, in his war, sort of one a day. But this was war that was
killing people by the dozens. He sends his latest report. “Our regiment suffered terribly
in the fight the other day losing six officers wounded and
eight men killed, plus thirty-four wounded that
we know of, besides probably a good many that we do not know
of, and from twelve to twenty taken
prisoners. This makes a grand total of
thirteen officers killed and wounded and twenty-four men
killed, 135 wounded and forty-six
missing, making 218 officers and men in twelve days.
The regiment is reduced to 150 muskets and at this rate there
will be none of us left to ever see Richmond.”
That regiment would, by the way, within about a week
and a half of that, be mustered out because they
had insufficient men to serve. But he ends this letter with
what he describes as the most terrible sight he ever saw.
“We’re encamped on a splendid plantation and the corn and the
wheat is growing finely, or rather it was before we
came. But I am afraid the crops will
be very small this year down here.
We have not seen our wagons since we started and I’m getting
sadly dilapidated. My rear is entirely unprotected.
I have worn the seat of my pants and drawers entirely off.
The most terrible sight I ever saw was the Rebel side of the
breastwork we fought over the other day.
There was one point on the ridge where the storm of bullets
never ceased for twenty-four hours and the dead were piled in
heaps upon heaps and the wounded men were intermixed with the
dead, held fast by their dead
companions who fell upon them, continually adding to the
ghastly pile of men. The breastworks were on the
edge of a heavy oak woods and large trees, eighteen inches or
more in diameter, were worn and cut completely
off by the storm of bullets and fell upon the dead and wounded
Rebels. Those that lay upon our side in
the night when the trees fell said that their howlings were
awful when these trees came down upon them.
When I looked over in the morning there was one Rebel,
sat up, praying at the top of his lungs, and others were
gibbering in insanity. Others were groaning and
whining at the greatest rate, while during the whole of it I
did not hear one of our wounded men make any fuss,
other than once in awhile one would sing out ‘oh’ when he was
hit. But it is a terrible,
terrible, terrible”–three terribles–“business to make the
best of this.” Oh, it doesn’t really matter
what war you’re talking about. Charlie Brewster’s descriptions
could have been along the Somme in World War One,
they could’ve been somewhere in the Battle of the Bulge of the
Second World War, they could’ve have come from Da
Nang, and they could’ve come from the north of Baghdad,
as it always says, or near Basra or outside Mosul.
So what is tragedy? What is tragedy in relation to
war? How do we understand tragedy
through this prism of the social impact of war?
I think you only ultimately really do understand it by
leaving headquarters, by leaving the generals’
dispatches, by leaving even Abraham Lincoln’s magnificent
prose and trying to see it through ordinary eyes,
ordinary women, ordinary men. Tragedy is one of those words
that we, especially Americans, tend to use haphazardly.
It’s a pet peeve of mine, but it’s probably just my
problem. Every plane crash is a tragedy,
a car accident is a tragedy, we stub our toes and we call it
tragic. A tragedy is something we ought
to see through the Book of Job, we ought to see it through
Shakespeare’s characters. We ought to see it–we ought to
go back at least as far as Euripides and the Trojan women.
What does Hekuba do in the Trojan women but sit in a
ghastly scene of an utterly destroyed city?
All of her men are dead and she sits wailing to the sky,
on a stone, crying, “How can this be?”
That’s tragedy. We should see tragedy through
Hekuba, or all those women in Drew Faust’s book.
Tragedy can be raw, it can be pointless,
it can be utterly unbearable, it can be a dead-end with no
exit. Sometimes it is just seemingly
faded horror. But sometimes tragedy,
throughout its literary history, and then therefore how
we tend to use it, tragedy can also be
affirmative. It can even be cathartic,
and we sometimes can find ways to make it redemptive.
It should never be treated with triumphalism.
It requires a certain mood. Rebecca Harding Davis,
a wonderful American writer who experienced the war,
left us this quite amazing little description of what I
would call a simple picture of tragedy.
She was in a tiny Pennsylvania town, doesn’t even name it,
and it’s 1864, and she describes a scene she
witnessed at a train station. I quote her.
“Nobody was in sight but a poor, thin country girl in a
faded calico gown and sunbonnet. She stood alone on the platform
waiting. A child was playing beside her.
When we stopped the men took out from a freight car”–Davis
was on the train, forgive me–“the men took out
from a freight car a rough, unplanned pine box and laid it
down, baring their heads for a moment.
Then the train steamed away. She sat down on the ground,
put her arms around the box, and leaned her head on it.
The child went on playing.” We don’t know her name.
We don’t even know what town. Between 1862 and 1863 life
insurance policies in America doubled, or the purchase of life
insurance policies doubled. Between 1861 and 1865 only two
books were published in the United States on anything
resembling the idea of the afterlife.
During the war, as utterly consumed as
Americans became with death, they weren’t writing yet about
heaven. But between 1865 and 1876 no
less than eighty books were published on the idea of
afterlife, of a heaven. Americans, as never before,
were trying to invent a heaven. And the best selling book in
the United States in 1868–and it was for a few years
after–was a book by Elizabeth Phelps called The Gates
Ajar. It’s a bizarre but fascinating
book about what heaven actually is and what it looks like and
what you do when you get there and the compartments it has and
the rooms it has and who you’ll see,
especially all those dead soldiers.
The Gates Ajar was a massive bestseller,
rivaled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at least for the
first year. All right, I’m going to leave
you there for the moment. And one should never use The
New York Times, a first draft of history,
as a historical source, but I just did it.
So anyway. Gosh. Now, the Civil War as social
history. Well, the people who really,
really started this, of course, were Charles and
Mary Beard, writing back in the 1920s.
It was Charles and Mary Beard in their economic interpretation
of–or in their famous book, their big book,
The Rise of American Civilization,
who said this; and this is the challenge in
some ways to all those who would refocus from the event itself
onto the social process or onto ordinary people experiencing the
event. The Civil War,
the Beards wrote, I quote, “was a social war,
ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in
the government, making vast changes in the
arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and
distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial
development. The war was a social cataclysm
in which the capitalist laborers and farmers of the North and
West drove from power in the national government the planting
aristocracy of the South.” Now that’s a fairly clear
interpretation, or judgment.
The Beards went on then, in the next paragraph,
actually, to call it the Second American Revolution;
and I quote Beard, “in a strict sense,” he/they
said, “the First American Revolution.”
The Beard’s revolution in the Civil War was a social economic
revolution. And they made an elaborate
argument for how this war transformed the economy,
transformed the nature of the government and transformed
forever the relationship of labor and capital.
But was the Civil War ultimately a victory for big
business over the agrarian South?
It’s been a question we’ve debated over and over and over
and over. We stopped debating it for
quite awhile, frankly;
that debate seemed like an old fossil.
When I was in graduate school, nobody wanted to be a Beardian
anymore. We were all going to be
cultural social historians. But it’s very interesting how
the debate has come back. Was the Civil War largely a
clash of economic forces, destined to over–was one
force, either free labor or slave labor, going to overwhelm
the other? The Beards in The Rise of
American Civilization, in its 500-odd pages,
almost never mention the word slavery.
To the Beards, economic forces were these
inanimate forces in the world, they kind of operated on their
own; there wasn’t that much human
agency. Did the Civil War explode
industrial growth or did it actually slow it?
You can get arguments on both sides.
The best research now shows us that the war itself was not
necessarily the single most important engine of America’s
great industrial expansion or the birth of the American
Industrial Revolution. There’s plenty of scholarship
now that shows us that that revolution is much older than
the Civil War, that the real launching pad of
American industrialization, or the launching period if you
want, to find it you got to go back
at least to the 1830s and probably the 1820s.
You can begin to measure this. GNP in the United States–which
I guess we call GDP now, don’t we, is that right?
It used to be GN; is it GDP now?
Gross domestic product–was about 1.62 billion in 1840,
it was about 2.4 billion in 1850,
and on the eve of the Civil War in 1860 it was about 4.1
billion. So GDP had more than tripled
from 1840 to 1860. That shows us that there’s an
industrial revolution already happening.
There were 9000 railroad miles in 1850 in the United States.
There were 21,000 in 1860. The 1850s is a great launching
decade of industrialization. Now I’m going to give you a
counter-argument to that in just a minute.
There are two economists named Claudia Golden and Frank Lewis
who have estimated, estimated the actual price of
the American Civil War; they put a price tag on it.
The cost of lives lost, and of wounds,
that reduced productivity–these are their
variables and their factors–the cost of lives lost and wounds
that reduced productivity, as well as property destroyed,
and factoring in government expenditures to fight the war,
which were humongous–and I’ll state some of them in a
moment–Golden and Lewis concluded that the overall cost
of war was about six and a half billion dollars to fight it.
In today’s dollars that would be about 145 to 150 billion
dollars, today, to fight the four years of the
Civil War. This amount would’ve allowed
the–this is Golden and Lewis’s argument by the way;
this is what economists can do with history if they so
wish–this amount would’ve allowed the Federal
Government–that 145 to 150 billion–it would’ve allowed the
Federal Government to purchase and free all four million slaves
in 1860 at market prices, give each family 40 acres and a
mule, and still they’d have had three and a half billion dollars
left over for reparations for former slaves.
That’s Golden and Lewis’s argument.
I notice it didn’t get much of a rise out of you.
But it’s an interesting set of numbers.
History, of course, intruded. During the war years,
the war retarded economic growth in some sectors but in
the long run, especially in northern cities
and towns, and especially with the mass mobilization now
stimulated by the Federal Government,
the war expanded the economy like nothing ever had before,
so fast. It just depended on where you
lived. But stop for just a moment now
with all these measures or numbers in your head,
if you can, and just ask for a moment what can social history
measure and what can it not measure?
It can measure very important things, and I’m going to give
you some more numbers in a minute.
Social history can measure demographic change.
It can measure death, disease and casualty rates.
It can measure industrial production.
It can measure loss of civilian pursuits.
It can measure the number of women who enter the workforce.
It can measure government expenditures.
It can measure budgets. It can even measure the basic
social impact on a town, a locality, a community.
And we now have a number of these wonderful micro histories
of southern towns, northern towns,
Midwest and so on, during the war.
But how do you measure other social factors?
And this is one of those questions that makes history
endlessly necessary, useful, interesting,
and attracts some of us fools to live with it forever.
How do you measure despair? How do you measure loneliness?
How do you measure the dislocation and fear of widows?
How do you measure the suffering of soldiers from
wounds and disease? How do you measure the loss of
a sense of home, of dislocated worlds?
How do you measure nationalism, patriotism?
Sometimes we can find some measures of that,
in morale studies. How do you measure the
psychological damage of combat on the human psyche?
How do you measure the fracturing of marriages and
relationships by war? How do you measure home front
worry? How do you measure the ways war
tests and changes values, sentiments and morality itself?
How do you measure the social and moral consequences of
killing people? How do you measure femininity,
manhood, patriarchy? How do you measure what it
meant to become free? You don’t, but you do study it.
Now, let me give you one other example, or maybe two. Social impact.
Let’s go to one of those Southern women.
She gets some mention in Faust’s book because she wrote
one of the great diaries and later memoirs that she then
revised. This is not Mary Chesnut now,
the one so often quoted in the Burns’ film series.
This woman’s name was Kate Stone.
She wrote a great–well she kept a diary that eventually was
published as a book entitled Brokenburn,
which was the name of her Louisiana cotton and sugar
plantation. It’s an amazing book because
you can sort of follow the impact of this war on her psyche
by following her through the years and then after the war as
well. I’ll pick her up right at the
end. The war’s all but over and she
records this in April, 1865.
She has now moved over to Tyler, Texas.
She has refugeed her slaves, as the phrase went.
She’s abandoned her plantation because the Union armies took it
in the Red River Campaign. She’s lost half of her slaves.
She’s lost two brothers in the war and a third one has come
home stone silent, he never speaks;
battle fatigue, shellshock, post-traumatic
stress, who knows? They didn’t have a name for it
then. But he never spoke.
Her silent brother was around. Two of them are dead.
“All are fearfully depressed,” she writes.
This is April ’65. “I cannot bear to hear them
talk of defeat. It seems a reproach to our
gallant dead.” And then there’s some sort of
last gasp bravado, and she hoped that,
she said, “the thousands of grass grown
mounds heaped on mountainside and in every valley of our
country would still rally the South to be free or die.”
What bravado in a diary. And then a month later,
mid-May 1865, she opened a journal entry with
a definition, and it doesn’t get any better
than this, of the South’s immediate fate,
and especially the fate of women,
living in this kind of now physical hardship and personal
isolation. She opened the entry with three
underlined words. “Conquered, submission,
subjugation are the words that burn into my heart,
and yet I feel that we are doomed to know them in all their
bitterness.” She looked ahead,
she began to reflect about her class and her race,
and then she said they, the white plantar class of the
South, would now become what she called slaves.
Quote, “Yes, slaves of the Yankee
government.” She feared the quite specific
what she called unendurable fate of blacks ruling over her.
“Submission to the Union,” she went on, “how we hate that word.
Confiscation, Negro equality,
or a bloody unequal struggle, lest we know not how long.”
And then in July of ’65, rocking a baby in a chair in
her arms, and singing all the songs she could remember,
she found she said, quote, “The war songs sicken
me. The sound is like touching a
new wound. I cannot bear to think of it
all. I forget whenever I can.”
Well it’s fascinating to follow Kate Stone through time,
though. She did all right.
There weren’t many men around but she finally met one.
There’s an incredible entry where she says she started going
to social events and at one of them people were dancing and she
couldn’t bear to dance, it just didn’t seem right.
But she finally did. She met a surviving Confederate
officer, married him in 1869, lived out a life,
had four kids, and became the local head of
the United Daughters of the Confederacy in her town in
Texas, and lived until 1907. Kate Stone did better than most.
But Southern society went to war and paid an enormous price,
of course. Civilians.
Civilians were ultimately, in some ways,
the strength behind the armies. This war was,
to some extent, lost on the home front,
for the South in particular. Having said that,
you can say on the other side in some ways it was won on the
home front in the North, because of industrial
production, because of sheer numbers and resources.
But it’s worth remembering here that the Civil War happened to
Southerners more than it happened to Northerners.
Only a small portion of this war was actually fought on
northern soil. The Confederacy failed
ultimately to solve the problems of the home front.
Just think of a list. And this is not to condemn
them, this was their challenge, this is the risk they took,
this is what they risked was secession in 1861.
The problems of the home front they could not ultimately solve
in the midst of this massive, enveloping thousand mile front
war, surrounded by a naval blockade: money supply;
transportation; agriculture,
agricultural production; developing small industry;
creating a national bureaucracy that could be efficient;
maddening shortages of foodstuffs, clothing and about
everything else it takes to keep armies in the field;
class frictions; social disintegration;
and last but not least slavery, what to do about slavery,
particularly once it comes under pressure in 1862 and then
after the Emancipation Proclamation which announces the
purpose of the war now is to destroy slavery.
What does the Confederacy do? We will come back to that,
directly, in terms of the Confederate Government’s policy
on a kind of emancipation late in the war, in ’64 and ’65.
The South did undergo some rapid economic expansion,
remarkable economic expansion. In fact, if you read the
sections on this in Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of
Freedom as background, he has some glowing things to
say about just how effective the South was in producing cannon,
for example, at the Tredegar Iron Works in
Richmond. They had 3000 slaves working in
the largest industrial plant anywhere in the southern states
by 1863, producing, by and large,
their own weapons. The naval blockade of the Union
Navy was not very effective at first, but it was ultimately
crippling, by the latter part of the war.
The estimate is that about five out of six blockade runners,
these ships running the blockade,
got through between 1861 and ’62, but by 1864 and ’65 only
about one of every two attempted blockade runners ever got
through. There was widespread
devastation of staple crop agriculture in those parts of
the South where the Union armies moved in.
Charlie Brewster just described those cornfields of Central
Virginia. A Union Army near Southern
crops meant the crops were gone in twenty-four hours.
In one of the world’s greatest agricultural economies,
people began to go hungry by late ’63 and into ’64,
bringing about major bread riots in cities like Richmond,
Charleston, South Carolina, and other places.
With more than a half a million white men leaving agriculture
across the South, it seriously reduced
productivity, and then as slavery began to
dissolve, slowly but surely, this of course disrupted
production, at least in about a third of the South’s
agricultural land. The occupation of Louisiana,
for example, early in the war,
as early as ’62, brought the sugar industry to
the edge of extinction, and by the war’s end only about
fifteen percent of Louisiana’s 1,300 sugar estates were
operating at all. The great sugar plantations of
Louisiana were in almost utter ruin by the end of the war,
especially after the Red River Campaign of 1864.
Tobacco was in shambles as the Union armies moved through
Kentucky and Tennessee, quite early in the war,
and rice along the coast of South Carolina was devastated by
Union occupation as early as ’62 and ’63.
And then there was the South’s decision, Jefferson Davis’s
decision, to engage in a cotton embargo;
that is, they took cotton off the world market–and we’ll say
more about this when we deal with questions of Confederate
defeat in terms of their foreign policy.
But the policy by 1863 of the Confederate Government was to
take cotton off the world market–trying to pull an OPEC,
trying to do with cotton what the OPEC countries in our
lifetime have tried to do with oil–pull it back,
make the world demand it, and maybe make the Brits come
in on your side. It totally backfired and it was
a total economic disaster for the South.
The production of cotton in the Confederate states went from
about five million bales in 1860 to about one-quarter million in
1865. Now, Confederate fiscal policy
was also a disaster. Not until 1863 did the Richmond
government enact any kind of comprehensive tax law.
Taxing was not very consistent, from the federal level,
with the way the Confederacy was itself born.
Even then when they tried to pass a comprehensive tax law,
the Confederacy derived in the end only about seven percent of
its revenues from actual taxation.
The rest came from borrowing money from abroad,
sale of bonds, which was about twenty-five
percent of their budget, impressment of provisions from
Southerners themselves, about seventeen percent,
and in the end about fifty percent of all money in the
Confederacy and its foyers of existence was printed paper
money which became inflated at ridiculous rates,
rapidly. Now, so much more could be said
here, especially about this dissolving institution of
slavery and how it affected the South.
But let me spend the last five minutes on the North,
which is a very different story.
It’s a more successful story, it’s a more progressive story
in the literal sense, and it is rooted in a
particular kind of political vision that that Republican
Party brought to the Federal Government.
Before the Civil War, the Federal Government did
little more than deliver the mail, by and large–that’s about
all it did. It collected modest tariffs and
it conducted foreign policy; but by the surrender at
Appomattox, a great deal had changed in four years.
Thousands were poised to spread across the continent with the
Transcontinental Railroad. Businesses had begun to operate
on a national scale with massive new marketing plans and
full-time marketing people. Higher tariffs would bolster
domestic manufacturing. Individuals experienced the
nation state and gave it their allegiance as never before.
An array of new national taxes were passed.
The currency was nationalized. The Federal Government
distributed public lands, chartered corporations,
and would enforce black freedom with state or national
authority; and States’ Rights,
at least for the time being, was dealt nearly a death blow,
temporarily. War enabled the Republicans to
pass sweeping visionary legislation borne of a certain
worldview, and that worldview basically is
captured in what the economists of the time,
political economists of the time, like Matthew Carey and
others, called “harmony of interest.”
This is the idea that in a capitalist economy you could
bring labor and capital into harmony if you kept labor free
and the economy free all at the same time.
It was the belief that labor and capital could be friends. It also depended on an activist
interventionist federal government, and that is exactly
what the Republicans created, in part out of necessity of the
war and in part out of the fact that they actually believed in
it. And it’s going to bring about a
great deal of constitutional innovation and economic
experimentation. Here’s what they did.
In finance, in agriculture, in taxes, in building
railroads, and in emancipation–at least those
five major categories–the Republican Party transformed the
United States Federal Government.
They began by first selling war bonds.
The Treasury needed money to fight the war.
The cost of the American Civil War to fight it,
just for the Union Government, by 1863 was approximately
two-and-a-half million dollars per day.
That’s more than the Federal Government had spent in some
decades before the Civil War. Now that’s a financial
revolution. How are you going to do it?
How are you going to produce all this money?
They began selling bonds to banks and financiers.
In 1862, about 500 million dollars in bonds were sold at
six percent, payable in five years.
Buy a bond, support the war. The government then chose,
hired, invited, from the private sector,
the Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke,
enlisted him to lead this federal bonds financing program,
and he did lead it, aggressively.
The whole idea here was economic nationalism,
to invest the citizen in the fate of the Union by making them
pay for it. And it was in 1862 that the
Federal Government for the first time created the Greenback
Dollar, the paper dollar,
which actually revolutionalized American currency.
Financial markets went up and down during the war,
depending on battlefield success or failure.
But by 1863, they were financing a war,
companies were making profits and the Federal Government could
pay its bills. It worked.
The total national debt of an annual two-and-a-half billion
was absorbed by the general population,
and it was celebrated as what the Republican Party called a
people’s triumph. Now, I’m running into that wall
of time, God help me. Let me leave you here,
with this. Now, the North has enormous
advantages, of course, in resources and population and
industry and transportation, and on and on and on.
And it had those New York bankers, once they could
convince them to stop being anti-union and pro-union.
But what came out of this was a revolutionary set of legislation
that only wartime could probably have produced;
the Homestead Act in the West, the Transcontinental Railroad,
the Morrill Act of 1862, which was the Land Grant
College Act, which created agricultural colleges across the
country, by federal money.
In fact last week I gave a lecture at my alma mater–at
Michigan State–and just outside the lecture hall where I
lectured was a copy of the original handwritten Morrill
Act. I know you don’t care but I did
[laughter] because Michigan Agricultural
College was the first land grant college,
and they always reminded us of that every time–every year at
Freshman orientation. And really, frankly to
understand–and I’ll leave you here–to understand how
Northerners, the Republican Party,
Lincoln himself and at least the majority of those Union
troops came to support emancipation,
the freeing of black people, by federal authority,
you need to see it in the context of all else that this
Republican Party was doing through the Federal Government.
They were using government now as the engine of great social
experimentation and change; granted, so much of it out of
necessity, some of it out of will.
I’m going to return to this story a little bit on Thursday
as we move toward the question of why the North wins this war.

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