The Home Front


“O, if this war was over you and all the soldiers could come home. . . .”

—A lonely wife writing to her soldier husband, 1863

Southerners experienced hardships such as food shortages from the outset of the war. The Confederacy also suffered wild inflation and soaring cost of goods.



A Northern washerwoman attached to the Army of the Potomac worked alongside her three children. As civilian employees of the U.S. Army, laundresses received food, fuel, housing, and medical services.

Occasionally, wives and children were allowed to visit troops in camp.

A Confederate officer posed for a family photograph with his wife and daughter.

From 1861 to 1865, it was common news in American families, North and South: A loved one was going to fight. In the war’s opening days, many men eagerly rushed into military service. As the deadly reality of combat emerged in camp and on the battlefield, a sense of duty replaced the early enthusiasm for many; others went to fight because they were drafted. By war’s end, almost 3,000,000 men served in the Northern armies, and approximately 1,000,000 fought for the South. More than 620,000 never returned home, and an estimated 500,000 came back wounded. The war reached into practically every home in America, and its impact often began with a letter such as this one, written by a Northern volunteer to his family.

New York, Sept. 1st, 1862

Dear Mother and Sisters:

I can no longer delay the task of communicating to you news which I fear you may regard as painful—a consideration which has hitherto deterred me from giving it. . . . I have accordingly entered the ranks—not rashly nor with the spirit of adventure, but with a cool head and under a strong sense of duty. No action of my life has been so well considered and deliberately taken.

My decision is, of course, irrevocable. I was sworn into the service of the United States on Saturday last as a private in the 9th Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers, now located at Fredericksburg, Va., in the Corps of General Burnside. The regiment was selected, 1stbecause it will take me at once where I can be useful; 2nd because its reputation for courage, based on actual test, assures me against being disgraced; 3rd because the class of men comprising it is much better than the average. . . .

It is not only desirable that our family should have a representative in the army, but where we are so well able to furnish one, it would be beyond endurance disgraceful . . . for young men living peacefully and selfishly at home, while the land is rent by fraction and threatened with ruin by violence. . . .

My course is marked out, and nothing mortal can alter it. Whatever may be your reflections do not conceive the idea that I am acting in haste to repent in leisure. I am both too old and have too much to sacrifice to take such a step merely from love of change.

In haste,

Ed K.W.

For those who could afford it, visiting the local photographer became a ritual as soldiers left for war. Here, a Northern private stood next to a young girl.

A Confederate officer posed with a Southern belle.

A Northern girl leaned lovingly against her father, a Federal musician and soldier.

The War Sparks a Booming Northern Economy


A New York City street bustled with carriages, streetcars, wagons, and foot traffic.

The North was stricken by a brief economic downturn in the war’s opening days, but soon rebounded with a prolonged financial boom. Never, proclaimed the New York Herald in 1864, had New York City been “so crowded, so prosperous.” The competing New York Times agreed: in the midst of “the most gigantic civil war the world has yet seen,” the Northern people were living and eating well and had plenty to wear.

No longer hampered by its Southern members, who had resigned to join the Confederacy, the U.S. Congress promptly increased import tariffs to help cover the cost of war. Northern legislators also enacted America’s first national income tax, and levied a revenue tax on virtually every item used in manufacturing and retailing—wood, leather, metal, textiles, iron, steel, stone, and more. A license tax was required for every imaginable profession, from attorneys and bankers to horse traders and pawn brokers. Butchers paid a 10 cent tax for every hog sold, 5 cents for every sheep, and 30 cents for every cow. Even street jugglers had to pay the government a license fee to perform on the sidewalk.

The Federal government also printed massive amounts of paper money, borrowed huge sums at high interest, and sold war bonds. Flush with revenues, officials purchased uniforms, boots, rifles, revolvers, livestock, medicine, and countless other items in vast quantities.

The immense demand for products spurred the Industrial Revolution in America, giving rise to the assembly line and regional industries ranging from iron ore to railroad to flour milling. So much Northern corn and wheat were grown during the war that the exported excess amounted to 40 percent of Great Britain’s grain consumption.

“You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth,” a Northerner had warned a Southern acquaintance in 1860. “You are bound to fail.” It was a prediction that proved correct.

Northern civilians studied posted casualty lists outside a New York City newspaper office.

The work floor of the Starr Arms Company, a Northern firearms manufacturer in Yonkers, New York. The agricultural South could not begin to match the North’s industrial output.

Mary Anne Todd


Mary Anne Todd, a well-educated Kentucky belle raised in a slave-owning family, married Abraham Lincoln in 1842.

As First Lady, Mary won praise as a charming society hostess who tastefully redecorated the executive mansion.

However, her time in and out of the White House was also marred by controversy and tragedy. Mary was criticized for both her lavish personal spending and her sometimes eccentric behavior. She had four sons with the president, but only one outlived her.

Ten years after Lincoln was assassinated, Mary was found to be insane and was briefly institutionalized, though her actual mental condition is still debated by historians and clinicians.

Heartbreak and Sagging Morale in a Land of Plenty


A new Capitol dome rose over wartime Washington, D.C. circa 1862.

In the North’s large cities, the wartime economic boom left many civilians momentarily flushed with cash. City dwellers packed saloons, playhouses, billiard parlors, minstrel theaters, and burlesque shows. In Washington, D.C., elegant dinners, balls, and soirees became the rage, and the flood of men in uniform expanded the capital’s brothel trade. In New York City, crowds lined up to attend P.T. Barnum’s Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie, and swarmed Central Park for free band concerts.

“We have pushed our way downtown, dropping in at all the places of amusement,” wrote a New York newspaper reporter, “and seeing them all jammed.”

The economy was also boosted by tawdry wartime profiteering. Cotton confiscated from Southern planters could be bought in occupied areas for 20 cents a pound and sold in the North for a 500 percent markup. Unscrupulous manufacturers paid huge commissions to business brokers for wrangling government contracts. Crooked suppliers sold such poor-quality uniforms to the U.S. Army at the beginning of the war that the soldiers dubbed them “shoddies,” and groused that they were fighting a rich-man’s war.

“Every foul bird comes abroad, and every dirty reptile rises up,” Abraham Lincoln aptly observed about wartime profiteering.

The lavish spending may have reflected more than just flush times: For many, it was likely an attempt to escape the heartbreak of war. No amount of profit could insulate Northern families from the loss of more than 300,000 young men, struck down by shot, shell, and disease, a staggering loss of life that befell almost every Northern home.

Likewise, even as Northern forces won victory after victory in the Western Theater, the defeats and disappointments in the Eastern Theater—and the shocking loss of life in general—progressively deflated enthusiasm for the war. Not until late 1864, when Federal forces captured the Deep South rail center of Atlanta, did Northern morale rebound.

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, shown in this artwork, was a wildly popular attraction in wartime New York City. It marked the first time African-American customers were admitted to the museum.

In the urban North, city-dwellers flocked to local parks for band concerts, patriotic rallies, and other forms of wartime recreation, as seen in this image from New York’s Central Park.

In Northern cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston and New York, volunteers from the U.S. Sanitary Commission staged Metropolitan Fairs to raise funds for sick and wounded Northern soldiers.

The Confederate Economy Crashes Quickly


With goods scarce, Southerners learned to improvise, making draperies into dresses and uniforms, resoling shoes with wood instead of leather, and producing candles from beeswax.

Financial conditions in the South, a Confederate official would bluntly recall, “went down steadily, rapidly, fatally” and never rebounded.

Confederate leaders had assumed that cotton sales to Britain would float the Southern economy, but English textile mills had amassed large emergency stores of cotton before the war, and “King Cotton”was dethroned by crops needed to feed Southern soldiers. Hampered by invasion and slowly strangled by the Federal naval blockade, the Southern economy came to a standstill.

Like their Northern counterparts, Southern leaders tried to finance the war with government bonds, taxation, short-term loans, and massive amounts of paper money, but nothing worked. The inherent Southern suspicion of central government had placed restrictions on taxation in the Confederate States Constitution.

Borrowing money from state governments did little, government bonds lost their value, and excessive printing of Confederate currency only fueled debilitating inflation. In March of 1861, the Confederate States Congress authorized the printing of one million dollars in Confederate currency; five months later it ordered one hundred million more.

Desperate, the Richmond government churned out more and more currency until—in the words of a Confederate official—it was “spinning out the notes like a whirlwind in autumn.”

Confederate currency of various denominations.

A $500 Confederate Treasury bond. Interest-bearing coupons attached to the bond were designed to be clipped and redeemed after the Confederacy won the war.

Queen of the Confederacy

Lucy Holcombe Pickens


Lucy Holcombe Pickens, one of the Confederacy’s most celebrated women, was born in Tennessee and raised on a cotton plantation in eastern Texas. She completed her education at a finishing school in the North, and at age 25, married U.S. congressman Francis W. Pickens, who was a widower 27 years her senior. When Pickens was appointed U.S. ambassador to Russia, his new wife accompanied him to Saint Petersburg, becoming a favorite in the court of Czar Alexander II. In 1860, Ambassador Pickens returned to South Carolina, and was elected governor in time to preside over the Fort Sumter crisis.

As South Carolina’s First Lady, Lucy Pickens was widely admired. She reportedly financed a regiment of troops—the Lucy Holcombe Legion—by selling jewelry given to her by the Russian Czar. In 1862, Confederate States Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger honored her by adorning Confederate one-hundred and one-dollar treasury notes with her likeness, which led to her becoming known as the Queen of the Confederacy. A more lasting achievement, would be less well-known: She would be credited for introducing iced tea to Southern society.

“I Just Like to be Free”

Slaves were affected by the same shortages that befell many Southerners

“We bring in some 500 prisoners, a good many refugees and about ten miles of Negroes,” reported Federal general William T. Sherman in 1863.

Everywhere that Federal forces conducted operations, escaped slaves, officially called contrabands, fell in behind the blue-uniformed troops. Where possible, sprawling contraband camps were established, and some former slaves were put to work performing chores for the troops. Others were recruited into the Northern military.

Most Southern slaves, however, remained at home for a variety of reasons: their owners refused to free them, repelled by the destruction of private property by Federal armies, felt they were ill-treated by Northern troops, or simply had no place to go.

The severe hardship and shortages that befell other Southerners during the war also affected slaves. “We didn’t have nothing to eat except hardtack and middin’ meat,” recalled former slave Sarah Debro. “I thought it ’twuz mule meat.”

Even slaves who were loyal to their owners celebrated when freedom came: “I saw the Yankee soldiers [come],” former slave Melvin Smith would recall. “I heard some folks say that they stole their vittles, but they never bothered ours ’cause they had plenty of their own. Master called us together and said, ‘You is free and can go if you want to.’ Ol’ Master was good and kind . . . but I just like to be free.”

The ornate interior of St. Andrew’s Hall in Charleston, S.C., where the South Carolina Secession Convention met in 1860. The hall was destroyed in a fire on December 11, 1861, along with five churches and 600 private homes. A New York newspaper suggested that the fire was divine retribution.

Skyrocketing Prices in the South

Meanwhile, runaway inflation caused the cost of common commodities to skyrocket. By 1865, a yard of cloth cost $60 in Confederate currency. A pound of butter was $35. A pair of shoes cost $800. The price of a barrel of flour was $1,400. In Richmond, hotel guests doing business in the capital complained that innkeepers would not accept payment at night because prices might need to be higher in the morning. Some Southerners turned to profiteering or hoarding.

“We fell into the habit of paying whatever was asked,” a Southerner would recall, “knowing that tomorrow we should have to pay more.” Such conditions undermined the Southern war effort and placed a debilitating burden on the Southern people that was unknown in the North.

A regiment of Zouave troops, the Louisiana Tigers, assembled on the street in New Orleans in 1861. Zouave originally referred to an infantry of the French army, made up of North African recruits. During the Civil War the term was applied to certain volunteer regiments who assumed a similar dress and drill as the original Zouave.

Among the first cities to be conquered by Union troops was Beaufort, South Carolina; when the coastal town was captured in late 1861, Northern commanders seized local homes to be used as officers’ quarters.

Women at War: Spies, Scouts, Soldiers, and Heroic Homemakers


Abigail “Abby” Hopper, seated center, was a leader in providing medical care for Northern soldiers. Because of her abolitionist sentiments, her home was burned during the 1863 Draft Riots.

With so many men away, women across the land found themselves with increased responsibilities and new challenges. They took charge of their families, ran farms, operated stores, and oversaw plantations. Thousands worked as nurses; thousands more volunteered in groups like the U.S. Sanitary Commission or in sewing societies where they made soldiers’ uniforms. Women went to work in factories, in treasury department offices, and even to war disguised as men: Northerner Sarah Emma Edmonds served in the 2nd Michigan Infantry, and Malinda Blalock masqueraded as a man to serve alongside her husband in the 26th North Carolina Infantry.

Untold numbers of women had wartime careers as spies and scouts. Former slave Harriet Tubman, famed for leading hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad, also served as a Northern spy in South Carolina and Georgia. Likewise, Union supporter Pauline Cushman served as spy and scout in the war’s Western Theater—sometimes in the uniform of a Confederate soldier—and relived her experience on the stage after the war for audiences in the North.

Few women espionage agents could surpass the successes of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a well-connected Washington, D.C. socialite. Greenhow not only organized a spy network that significantly contributed to the Confederate victory at First Bull Run, she served five months in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison for her role, along with her young daughter. After Greenhow was released, she returned to the South, but drowned returning from a mission to Great Britain in 1864, when the blockade runner carrying her ran aground on the North Carolina coast.

Southern-born stage actress Pauline Cushman was a Northern spy who narrowly escaped being hanged by Confederate authorities.

Posing as a man, Malinda Blalock went to war with her husband, serving in the 26th North Carolina Infantry. Later, both deserted.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow used her position as a Washington, D.C. socialite to gather military information for the Confederacy—until she was imprisoned with her daughter.

Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd was a successful Southern spy and courier in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

With most of the male population off at war, the women of the North and South were left to face the demands of the homefront. After the Civil War, many women were happy to return to their prewar roles. However, the women’s suffrage movement gained significant momentum and women’s participation in the workforce increased in the decades that followed.

With short furloughs, soldiers often couldn’t travel home to see their families. When they could afford the travel, women and children would visit the men. The Northern officers’ wives and children, like those pictured here, would sometimes stay for extended periods.

Spurning Soft Living

In many ways, the war was harder on women in the South than in the North. Serious food shortages were common. Basic necessities became unattainable. Business was suspended or destroyed. Education was interrupted. Daily life became a grueling ordeal. In Mobile, Atlanta, Richmond, and elsewhere, food riots occurred. Invading Northern armies destroyed the civilian infrastructure in many regions.

When Southern men departed to fight, their wives were left to guarantee their family’s survival. To do so, they learned to improvise. They made draperies into dresses and uniforms and dyed them with boiled acorns or homegrown indigo. They resoled shoes with wood instead of leather, and produced candles from beeswax and rosin. They scraped the earth under old houses for salt, and used lye, lime, and wood ashes to make soap. Rose Frye, a South Carolina homemaker, would later recall how she and other women in the South “spurned soft living”:

The great difficulty lay in the fact that we had always looked to the North for everything, from a hair-pin to a shoestring, and from a candle to a cradle. The South was agricultural and not inventive . . . but with the war came a stoppage of all commercial intercourse between the two sections. The merchants’ counters were quickly depleted.

I went through the war on four calico dresses. We borrowed of each other. We braided straw for hats, and twisted a gay ribbon around the crown. We stitched incessantly. What a precious thing a needle was in those days. We picked cotton, carded and twisted it, and spun the yarn and wove the fabric. . . .

My mother knit on average three pairs of socks per week for the boys in the field, whenever the material could be obtained. We spurned soft living [and] bore bravely every reverse of fortune. . . . We proved the truth of the old adage . . . that woman’s ingenuity will surmount all obstacles.

Varina Howell Davis


Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis, the daughter of a slave-owning Mississippi merchant, was educated in the North and married the widower Jefferson Davis in 1843, before he became president of the Confederacy.

As First Lady, Davis provoked controversy by questioning the South’s ability to win the war. Even so, Southerners admired her intelligence, wit, and spirited personality.

Music to Soothe the Savage Beast of War


Regimental bands were a fixture of military life in both Northern and Southern armies. Their music accompanied troops on drill and parade, broke the boredom of long marches, and cheered weary warriors following the horrors of battle.

In the mid-19th century, music was a mainstay in both Northern and Southern culture. Piano makers sold more than 20,000 pianos a year to a population of some 30,000,000, and the sheet-music business thrived. Music was commonplace in theaters, concert halls, and saloons.

The most popular setting by far, however, was the family parlor, where Americans experienced their grief and joy to the strum of a banjo and piano chords. Favorite composers such as the North’s prolific George F. Root and Southerner Harry Macarthy accommodated the public mood with songs that reflected the events of the day.

Popular patriotic songs included “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Dixie.” Soldier life was tenderly treated in tunes such as “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Lorena,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” A few works were political, such as “John Brown’s Body,” and “Maryland, My Maryland.” The suffering and sacrifices of the home front were expressed in popular tunes such as “When This Cruel War is Over” and “Can I Go, Dearest Mother.” Emancipation was celebrated in “Kingdom Coming” and “Sixty-Three is the Jubilee.”

Nothing of course could fully ease the absence of a loved one. The most popular song on both sides was “Home, Sweet Home.”

In the Confederacy, music lovers celebrated the quest for Southern nationhood with sheet music to this rousing tune by composer Harry Macarthy. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” refers to the unofficial Confederate banner in 1861.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was not made the national anthem until 1889. This 1862 edition of the sheet music features a Union soldier on the cover.

On the eve of the Civil War, Americans bought more than 20,000 pianos a year. In homes throughout the North and the South, the war was celebrated, mourned, and endured with music.

Julia Ward Howe


In 1861, when New Yorker Julia Ward Howe visited Northern troops in Washington, D.C., she was already a published author. Howe was so inspired by the soldiers’ service she retired to her room at Washington’s Willard Hotel and wrote the poem that became the immensely popular “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Indian Raids Terrorize Unprotected Civilians on the Frontier


Refugees from the 1862 Dakota War in Minnesota rested under the protection of Northern troops. More than 500 Minnesota settlers and uncounted numbers of the Dakota tribe were killed in the uprising.

Women and children living on America’s frontier during the Civil War faced a unique threat when the men of the family left for service: deadly Indian raids.

Near-starvation conditions on Minnesota’s Dakota reservation sparked an uprising in the summer of 1862, and Sioux raiders slaughtered numerous white farming families along the Minnesota River Valley. Thousands of civilians fled their homes and several hundred Dakota and Sioux were also killed.

In Confederate Texas, the absence of men and frontier troops encouraged the Comanche to increase their assaults on isolated farms and ranches. A survivor of a typical attack recalled:

“We children had heard screams and war whoops and were running as fast as we could to the nearest hiding place. . . . Ma heard the commotion, saw the Indians and came running back toward the house, screaming, ‘My babies! My babies!’ But she never reached the house. Three Indian arrows brought her down dead a few feet from the front door.”

In an attempt to reduce Indian attacks on the frontier during the Civil War, the Lincoln administration entertained a delegation of Cheyenne and Kiowa leaders at the White House. This image, taken in the Executive Mansion conservatory, shows President Lincoln’s private secretary, John George Nicolay, in the center rear.

Confederate soldiers Private Thomas F. Bates, top, of the 6th Texas Infantry and Private Simeon J. Crews, bottom, of the 7th Texas Cavalry posed with weapons.

Louisa May Alcott


Northern author Louisa May Alcott, who would earn fame for her Civil War novel Little Women, temporarily served as a nurse for the sick and wounded at a Washington, D.C. soldiers’ hospital. While there, Alcott contracted typhoid fever, which would cause her health problems throughout the remainder of her life.

War Invades Civilian Life


Chambersburg, Pennsylvania lay in ruins in 1864. It was the only Northern town destroyed during the war.

Confederate forces put the torch to the Pennsylvania town of Chambersburg after the town’s residents failed to raise the sum of $100,000 in gold demanded by the invading Southerners.

At times the war led soldiers and commanders to commit acts they would normally have denounced.

In May of 1864, under orders from General Grant, an 18,000-man Northern army swept through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, setting fire to military targets while plundering and burning private homes.

The raid sparked a vicious cycle of retaliation. A week later, Confederate troops burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, destroying more than four hundred structures. Grant then sent an army of more than 40,000 troops to the Shenandoah with orders to “leave the Valley a barren waste.” The troops did so, destroying virtually everything along a 90-mile-long line of march, including some 2,000 barns, private homes, and an estimated 3,000 sheep.

Removing the Citizens of Atlanta

One of the war’s most controversial acts toward noncombatants followed the capture of Atlanta by General William T. Sherman’s army in 1864. Sherman ordered a forced evacuation of the city’s entire civilian population. City officials pled for mercy, but Sherman refused, stating: “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”

People fled the city. “The scene around the depot for days previous to its final abandonment was heartrending in the extreme,” reported a Northern newspaper correspondent. “Old age and tottering infancy huddled together, awaiting their chance of escape. They cast many a long and lingering look at their once-happy home, which they were now about to abandon, perhaps forever.”

After General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, he ordered the forced evacuation of the city’s entire civilian population. Northern troops destroyed Atlanta’s rail station and tore up the city’s railroad tracks.

Atlanta burning

The 1939 film Gone With the Wind captures the burning of the city of Atlanta at the hands of Sherman’s troops. The first scene of the movie to be filmed, David O. Selznick simulated the terror of a city ablaze by setting fire to an RKO Pictures back lot, upon which the film’s sets would later be built.

The Faces of War: The Children of the Battlefield


In 1863, following the Battle of Gettysburg, this photo was found clutched in the hand of a dead Northern soldier. Stories of the image sparked a search for the identities of the man and his children throughout the North.

Midway through the war, the grief that flooded wartime America was personalized in the North by a single incident. As Federal burial details went about their grim chores after the Battle of Gettysburg, the body of a Northern soldier was found clutching an ambrotype of three small children. The soldier was unidentified, but he had been mortally wounded and seemed to have spent his dying moments gazing at a photograph of his children—two boys and a girl.

The image made its way to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which reported the sad story under the headline “Whose Father Was He?” The limited technology of the day prevented the newspaper from publishing the photograph, but the writer carefully described its details. Other newspapers picked up the story, and it became a sensation in the North, igniting a nationwide inquiry for the identity of the fallen father of the “Children of the Battlefield.”

Finally, in November of 1863, the search ended: The soldier was Sergeant Amos Humiston of Portville, New York, who had fought at Gettysburg in the 154th New York Infantry. The three “Children of the Battlefied” were his eight-year-old Frank, four-year-old Frederick, and six-year-old Alice. Sergeant Humiston’s widow, Philinda, had not heard from him since before the Battle of Gettysburg, and learned of his death only when a neighbor read about the photograph.

The event inspired popular sheet music entitled “The Children of the Battlefield,” and proceeds from its sale were sent to the children and their widowed mother, who was given a job at an orphanage until she remarried.

Northern civilians lined up outside a newspaper office to read the latest war news in this illustration.

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