The Civil War lasted four years, killed and maimed more than 1 million Americans, cost billions of dollars and changed a generation. One historian, Philip Paludan, wrote:
“No war... in American history has had such an abiding impact as the Civil War. It spawned three constitutional amendments, [influenced] the election of at least five presidents, destroyed the major social and economic institution of half the nation, freed over 4,000,000 people from slavery, [and] swept 3,000,000 men into military service…”
The conflict’s consequences are often considered only in the context of the effects on the war-devastated South, but the war touched the entire nation.
The war particularly affected Pennsylvania, a large border state that contributed more than 10 percent of the 3 million soldiers and provided critical raw materials and manufacturing. Pennsylvania’s citizens and communities were not immune to the dramatic and sometimes tragic consequences of war.
Casualties and psychological cost
The Civil War was America’s costliest war, with 623,000 dead, with approximately 33,000 from Pennsylvania. Estimates of the wounded are less precise, ranging from 1 million to several million. Many of the wounded were amputees who struggled to overcome perceptions of the disabled as less than full members of society.
The war also created less visible wounds; thousands of veterans calmed war-shattered psyches or chronic pain with opium, tobacco and alcohol. S. Weir Mitchell, a leading medical researcher in Philadelphia, pioneered investigations into soldier addictions and what he called “neurasthenia,” which we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Physical changes and westward migration
South-central Pennsylvania experienced three notable invasions:
- J.E.B. Stuart’s raid in 1862;
- The famous battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863; and
- The burning of Chambersburg in1864
In each invasion, stores were plundered, buildings and farms damaged, and livestock destroyed. Confederate raiders burned down the town center of Chambersburg in July 1864.
There were other physical changes, more subtle than trenches, craters and charred timbers. With so many men in the military, farm labor was scarce. Some marginal fields—often the soldiers’—were left fallow and became overgrown as the war dragged on.
Returning veterans sometimes had to choose between exerting backbreaking work to restore the land or migrating west and expending similar effort on richer soil. Many chose to bust Midwestern sod rather than start again in the Keystone State; the war gave renewed impetus to westward migration from Pennsylvania.
The war also accelerated agricultural mechanization, but many regions in Pennsylvania, such as Somerset County, were too hilly for reapers—yet another motivation for heading west.
The war also changed Pennsylvania’s labor-management relations. The wartime demand for Pennsylvania’s iron and coal caused individual entrepreneurs to lose out to larger firms who were better able to fill substantial military orders. When striking workers and petty producers attempted to resist these changes, the Union army intervened, taking the side of management and large producers. Many in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party supported the army’s actions. The Civil War began the alliance of big business and the Republican Party.
While the power of the small producers was fading, other groups were hoping to rise. Veterans became a powerful political force as they agitated for pensions and influenced elections and policy toward the South. Many organized themselves into groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic, the North’s leading veteran’s organization.
Civil War veterans are sometimes recognized as one of the first modern political interest groups, and the development of Civil War pensions was an important precursor to the modern Social Security system.
The push for full citizenship
The war brought about several key amendments to the Constitution:
- The 13th Amendment ended slavery;
- The 14th Amendment guaranteed equal rights; and
- The 15th Amendment made it illegal to restrict the right to vote by race or color.
Realizing these promises, however, would be difficult. In particular, African Americans demanded full citizenship. The Gettysburg campaign forced Pennsylvania’s governor to accept African American recruits. Thousands of blacks served for the Union, and prior to being allowed to enlist in the army, hundreds had volunteered for the storied Massachusetts 54th and 55th volunteer infantry regiments. Massachusetts lacked enough African American men to fill a regiment, so recruiters combed through Pennsylvania for free blacks and escaped southern slaves to complete the unit that was to gain fame at Fort Wagner.
Yet African Americans’ aspirations became a dream deferred. A border state, Pennsylvania delayed granting full rights to African Americans and dragged its feet on ratifying the 15th Amendment.
African Americans mobilized, led by those with military service. Octavius Catto, who had served during the war, led the drive to vote in Philadelphia, until he was murdered at a polling place in 1872.
Harriet Tubman agitated against Pennsylvania’s segregated streetcars and railroads after she was significantly injured while being evicted from one. Streetcars were desegregated, but such victories were grudging. Parts of southern Pennsylvania experienced discrimination in education, employment and housing well into the next century.
Women saw their dreams of equality deferred as well. Despite women’s wartime service in providing for the troops and running farms and businesses, they would not gain the right to vote until 1920.
“The moral equivalent of war”
The war defined both the generation who experienced it and their children, much in the way that the Great Depression and World War II did 80 years later.
Veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that his was a “generation touched by fire,” forever altered by the war.
For many veterans, finding an equivalent purpose was difficult. Those who had been too young to fight or were born later tried to live up to the example set by their father’s generation. For some, service in the Spanish-American War or in expanding America’s colonial empire filled the need.
Another manifestation may have been the late 19th century growth in college athletics. The war boosted the growth of new sports like football and baseball as colleges sought to give young men a defining, non-combat experience that stressed struggle, camaraderie and teamwork, or “the moral equivalent of war” as William James called it.
A popular camp game, baseball was introduced to new areas by returning soldiers. To some extent, then, the experience of a Penn State or Pittsburgh football game—or even the Steelers, Eagles, Pirates or Phillies—is a reminder of the Civil War.