The Northern Homefront

Most Northern civilians experienced an explosion of wartime production after the initial setbacks of the Civil War. Coal and iron production reached their highest levels. Traffic on railroad and the Erie Canal increased by 50%.

Union manufacturers grew so profitable and doubled or tripled dividends to stockholders. The newly rich built lavish houses and spent extravagantly. There was a great deal of public outrage that such conduct was unbecoming in time of war. Even more offensive was that workers’ salaries shrank due to inflation; the price of food doubled pre-war levels yet salaries rose only half as fast as prices.

Women’s roles changed dramatically during the war. Before the war, women of the North were already prominent in many industries, including textiles, clothing and shoe-making. With the conflict, there were great increases in employment of women in occupations ranging from government civil service to agricultural field work. Women’s proportion of manufacturing work force grew from 1/4 to 1/3. Women at home organized aid to soldiers by rolling bandages for hospitals and raising millions of dollars for the injured.

The impact of women was felt in field hospitals close to the front. Dorothea Dix, who led the effort to provide state hospitals for the mentally ill, was named the first superintendent of women nurses. Clara Barton became one of the most admired nurses during the war and, as a result of her experiences, formed the American Red Cross.

Resentment of the draft was another divisive issue. In the middle of 1862, Lincoln called for 300,000 volunteer soldiers. Each state was given a quota, and if it could not meet the quota, it had no recourse but to draft men into the state militia. Tempers flared further over the provision that allowed exemptions for those who couldn’t afford to hire a substitute.

In 1863, facing a serious loss of manpower through casualties and expiration of enlistments, Congress authorized the government to enforce Conscription, resulting in riots in several states. When draft offices were established in New York to bring new Irish workers into the military, mobs formed to resist. At least 74 people were killed over three days.

Source: The Northern Homefront
Copyright ©2008-2016 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.

Back to top