Work and Economy Overview

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Work and Economy Overview

Even though the war was occupying the labors of the hundreds of thousands of young and middle-aged men who were serving as soldiers, the work of America had to go on. Scarcely more than ten percent of the American population served in the armies at any one time during the course of the war. Most Americans spent the war years at home, working at many familiar tasks and some unfamiliar ones.

Farming was still the occupation of a great many Americans in mid-nineteenth century, and in many ways its labor continued as it had before the outbreak of the conflict. Farmers still sowed and reaped, sheared sheep, milked cows, or slaughtered hogs as they had in peace time. But some things were different. In many parts of the South that anticipated the coming of the Union armies, as well as those parts of Pennsylvania visited by Robert E. Lee's Confederate army in 1863, farmers often saw their livestock confiscated, their fields trampled, and their food supplies depleted by hordes of hungry, hostile soldiers. A more subtle but no less painful loss was the destruction of fences. Most fences in the United States of the Civil War years were made of split rails with their ends crisscrossed to form zigzag fences five feet or more in height. This was necessary because farmers commonly let their livestock, especially hogs, run wild in the woods, and under the laws then prevailing, it was every farmer's responsibility to fence such animals out of the fields where they grew crops. If a farmer had no fence, his own and his neighbors' pigs would soon devour his crop as it stood in the field. Soldiers were always looking for good, dry, seasoned firewood, and the fence rails were perfect. When soldiers made a farmer's fence into "the watch fires of a hundred circling camps," that year's crop was most likely a loss. For other farmers, the Civil War was a time of doing more with less. Many of the soldiers who filled the ranks of the armies were farm laborers, and their absence exacerbated America's chronic labor shortage and enhanced the desirability of labor-saving machines. From this was born the wisdom of Cyrus McCormick's decision to move his mechanical reaper business from his native Rockcastle County, Virginia, to Chicago, Illinois, a burgeoning rail hub smack in the middle of a vast expanse of the world's finest farmland. The war years saw vast increases in the use of McCormick's machine, as the mechanical reaper did the work of thousands of sturdy farm lads now shouldering rifles for the Union cause.

The South had never had much interest in machinery of any sort—save cotton gins—and certainly not mechanical reapers. After all, the South had slaves. Bondmen continued to perform much of the South's agricultural labor during the war, but their eagerness to escape at the first opportunity and their growing awareness that their days of unrequited toil were approaching an end made them an increasingly problematic source of labor for the flagging Confederacy.

By 1860, more Americans than ever before were employed in non-farm labor, and the war brought added stimulus for the growing industrialization that gave them their new types of work. Textile mills such as the pioneering facility in Lowell, Massachusetts, employed many "operatives," or factory workers, as they were then called, and many of those were young, unmarried women. Heavier industries, such as the foundries that made cannon, rails, or locomotives, employed exclusively male workers. The North had much more of both types of industry, with Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works being the only facility south of the Mason-Dixon Line that could make either a locomotive or a heavy cannon. During the course of the war, the Confederacy developed a small military-industrial base of its own, and many of the operatives in establishments making tents, uniforms, or even gunpowder, were women. Some of these were put out of work when Union armies destroyed their factories. Ulysses S. Grant on one occasion allowed each member of the female workforce of a Confederate tent factory to take as much cloth as she could carry as a kind of severance package prior to the destruction of the establishment. William T. Sherman on another occasion had the entire workforce of a Confederate factory, all of them young women, shipped north of the Ohio River.

Wartime labor for many Southern women did not, however, involve factory work but rather many of the farm duties of an absent husband. This meant performing duties and assuming responsibilities a woman would not have ordinarily done in prewar days, but most of the women thus circumstanced seemed to have found it more of a burden than a liberation. Scores plied their fighting husbands with letters begging them to somehow get out of the army, get a furlough, or, in some cases, to desert their duties so as to come home and provide for their suffering families.

The situation in the North was less dire. A smaller percentage of Northern men went into the military, and the U.S. government was far more reliable in paying its soldiers. The Northern economy also remained sound enough that the money paid to the soldiers retained some, though by no means all, of its value, unlike the almost completely depreciated currency of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, many Northern women labored against severe hardship. The widow of one Illinois soldier, confined to her bed by sickness, lay on her back while knitting a pair of badly needed trousers for her teenaged son, on whose labor the family now depended for survival. Elsewhere in Illinois, in a small town a few miles from the Wisconsin line, boys in their young teens organized themselves into a sort of club known as the "sawbuck rangers," dedicated to sawing up a winter's supply of firewood for neighborhood families whose chief breadwinners were away in the army.

The work of Americans during the early 1860s differed according to their location in the country, their station in life, and the fortunes of war. For most, it was a time of increased labor to meet the demands of the wartime economy and the needs of their own families.

Steven E. Woodworth