The Urban Civil War

Clinton Terry. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

The vast literature on the American Civil War pays scant attention to the lives of the nation’s urban dwellers. With the exception of a small number of important incidents, such as the occupation of New Orleans, the Richmond bread riots, or the New York City draft riots, students of the Civil War can read volumes without encountering any significant mention of the effect of the war on urban life. Civil War historians have tended to focus on the military conflict of American against American and no battle between the Union and the Confederacy took place in any of the nation’s major cities. Even siege activity, such as that experienced by Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Petersburg, Virginia, was the exception rather than the rule. On those occasions when the Union Army occupied a Confederate city, such as New Orleans, occupation came as the result of military activity outside the city, not fighting within the city itself. No Northern city of any size suffered occupation by the Confederacy, although President Abraham Lincoln always kept a substantial part of the Army of the Potomac between Washington, D.C., and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Conflict in Missouri early in the war threatened St. Louis for a time, and the Confederate advance of September 1862 briefly threatened the cities of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, although the actual threat to those cities seemed more real at the time than in retrospect. A small body of work is devoted to individual cities. Historians have studied cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cincinnati, but no single volume addresses the war’s general effect on the nation’s cities. Most of the literature that considers the home front encompasses the effect of the war on both urban and rural Americans.

The Rise of Industry and the War

The nature of urban settlement in America does much to illustrate the fundamental differences between the Union and the Confederacy. Of the 31 million people living in the United States, according to the Census of 1860, approximately 20 percent lived in urban areas of 2,500 persons or more. Only 14 of the 100 most populous cities in the United States were in states that seceded from the Union. Only one of those cities, New Orleans, the sixth-largest city with a population of 168,675, ranked in the top 20. The second-largest city in the Confederacy was Charleston, South Carolina, with a population of 40,500. In addition to the vast disparity in population, Northern urban centers tended to be centers of manufacturing production, while Southern cities tended to be market centers. Cincinnati, Ohio, which ranked just behind New Orleans with 161,000 residents in 1860, produced four times the manufactured goods of its Southern counterpart.

The rise of the industrial city in America reflected the conflict that produced the Civil War and many of the secondary issues surrounding the war depended very much on how the nation would respond to industrialization. The free labor ideology of the new Republican Party reflected the shift away from craft and toward mechanized production. This new concept of labor relations insisted that workers be paid wages in cash for work performed and protected employers from having to provide for the daily well-being of their workers. This new ideology of how laborers should work and be compensated flew directly in the face of bound labor arrangements in which workers received little or no cash for their efforts. Under bound labor arrangements, employers had to provide food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for work performed and restrictions on the independence of the worker. The most egregious of these bound labor arrangements, of course, was the enslavement of Africans, in which individuals were both laborers and property. Whether or not the United States should retain the institution of slavery had become the single most important cause for war.

Industrialization and the change in labor arrangements that accompanied it affected all aspects of urban life. It was not simply a change of employment status or of work performed, but in the social and family life of the workers. As owners and managers accumulated capital and profit, they had begun the process of separating themselves from the working classes and distancing themselves from social interaction with those classes. This process was well under way in the eastern cities by 1860, less so as one traveled west. But the war, and the opportunities it would provide to accumulate capital from the business of making war, accelerated the process and offered new opportunities for urban settlement.

The Civil War then, changed American cities and affected their residents just as much as the war changed every other aspect of American life. As is the case in any period of dramatic change and high conflict, the war caused significant hardship for many of the nation’s urban dwellers and at the same time provided other urbanites with opportunities to advance their economic and social station. Much of the estimated $5.2 billion spent by both the Union and Confederate governments to fight the war found its way into the pockets of urban merchants and manufacturers who provided the subsistence and material to sustain the armies in the field. This great influx of new capital and the new financial mechanisms employed to fund the enormous cost of war allowed for the creation of many new fortunes, to be sure, but also made capital much more available in the urban North. For the Confederacy, defeat brought bankruptcy, which would in many ways define the differences between North and South for the rest of the 19th century and beyond.

Though not a part of this assessment, it should also be recognized that the Union and Confederate armies themselves represented vast mobile cities. These armed urban centers generally encamped, maneuvered, fought, disengaged, and returned to camp to prepare for the next encounter. At any given time in central Virginia between 1861 and 1865, anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Americans collectively resided in the temporary cities known as the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. While in camp and on the march, these American armies consumed all the goods and required all the services any other city might require: food, clothing, shelter, water, sanitation, transportation, medical care, social interaction, and religious services. The list could be extended indefinitely. Yet these vast mobile cities produced almost none of the needed goods and services. It would be for the rest of the nation to produce and funnel those resources through its permanent cities to its mobile cities in the field, cities that consumed rather than produced.

The War and Urban Americans

As the news of the attack on Fort Sumter spread throughout the country, urban Americans quickly accepted war as the answer to the latest expression of sectional crisis. Like their rural counterparts, urban Americans expected a quick resolution and rallied quickly and en masse to the cause. An army of around 15,000 in 1860 swelled to more than 1 million at its peak as suppressing the rebellion became the business of the nation. Rather than enroll volunteers directly in the United States Army, President Lincoln called on the governors of the respective state to raise volunteer regiments. The nation fought the Civil War with regiments raised at the state level, for the most part, validating to some small degree the importance the Confederacy placed on the state in the federal union.

In every city, young men volunteered for service. In New York, rallies that turned Union Square into “a red white and blue wonder” produced six regiments in a matter of days, including the Seventh New York, a collection of merchants, bankers, clerks, and other professionals. Philadelphians answered the call to the tune of eight full regiments. Cincinnati’s German Turner Society, an exercise and gymnastics club of German immigrants, organized what would become the Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, an all-German regiment. “Die Neuner,” as the regiment came to be called, received its orders from an officer of long-standing American heritage in German translation. Although the spirit of volunteerism ran high, not all new soldiers enlisted because of a sense of duty and honor. Many urban workers also sought employment in the volunteer regiments hastily being prepared for war. Unable to find work as intersectional commercial links disintegrated, military service became the option of last resort.

Such a vast increase in the size of the army required an equally large increase in the number of officers. At the beginning of the conflict, volunteer regiments elected their own officers. Those with previous military or political experience were likely candidates for these positions. A full 85 percent of the volunteers for service in the well-connected Seventh New York Volunteers, which never saw service in the field after the first month, filled the ranks of other regiments as officers. Some served with distinction, though many proved unable to command effectively. The extraordinary success of Ulysses S. Grant is well-known, but others followed similar paths to fame and glory. George McClellan, a West Point graduate who served as a railroad president in Cincinnati, went from captain of a company of volunteers to major general of Ohio volunteers in one day, thanks to his combined experience. Also from Cincinnati, Rutherford B. Hayes left his law practice and duties as city solicitor to lead a regiment with the rank of colonel. Even before the war ended, many of these officers began political careers that would extend through the end of the century.

African American residents had to wait two years before the nation was ready for them to advance the cause of emancipation. It was not until Congress authorized the president to recruit black soldiers in the Militia Act of 1862 that they could hope to serve. Even then, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the first African American regiment to serve, was not fully organized until months after the Emancipation Proclamation had made it clear to the Confederacy that a Union victory would end slavery in the United States. Emancipated slaves and African Americans from all across the North made their way to Massachusetts to fill the ranks. Frederick Douglass himself helped recruit volunteers from as far away as Philadelphia. The reluctance of white officers to accept black recruits diminished only slowly, but by the time the Union had eventually prevailed, some 175,000 black Americans had served the cause.

For many Americans, the onset of war caused severe economic hardship as the North and the South severed long-standing trading relationships. Since the earliest days of settlement, an internal triangle trade had grown to be one of the country’s important trading cycles. Cotton grown in the South traveled to the Northeast to be spun and woven into thread and cloth. Manufactured goods from the Northeast moved to the West by way of wagon, river, canal, and increasingly, rail. Demand for Western agricultural products and manufactured goods in the South completed this cycle. Interruption of this important commercial cycle meant many urban Americans would have to scramble to find other sources of income. In Cincinnati and New York, newspaper editors grumbled that grass actually “grew in the streets.” Business failures for 1861, as reported by R. G. Dun & Co., a New York company that provided information on the credit worthiness of distant customers, became epidemic. Only when the nation successfully organized itself for war did the panic of 1861 recede, to be replaced by wartime prosperity.

The Effects of War on the Economy

How the Union and Confederacy paid, or did not pay, for this war played an important role in the nation’s economic recovery after secession as well as how urban Americans experienced the war. The federal government that had to that point intruded little on the lives of its individual citizens suddenly became the largest and most dominating economic entity. For the Union, dealing successfully with an economic enterprise never imagined even a year before meant reshaping how the government raised revenue. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, with the help of Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, developed a play by which the United States would finance the war through the sale of bonds, issuing paper currency known as greenbacks, increasing tariffs and excise taxes, and instituting the nation’s first income tax. The Thirty-seventh Congress approved Chase’s financial plan and extended the basic framework for the Republican economic program, which was in large part an updated version of Alexander Hamilton’s original vision for the new nation and Henry Clay’s American system. Economic expansionists in the Republican Party pushed through a legislative agenda that included new national banking legislation, a homestead act, government support for a transcontinental railroad, and a new system of land grant colleges.

Along with the general economic reorganization provided by Congress, the food, clothing, shelter, and arms consumed by the Union and Confederate armies in the field proved to be a tremendous economic boom for American cities. The federal government, following the traditional organization of the army, divided the military procurement process into the Ordnance Department, which provided the weapons to fight the war; the Commissary of Subsistence Department, which provided the daily ration for the troops; and the Quartermaster’s Department, which provided everything else and arranged for transportation. The Commissary and Quartermaster’s departments entered into contracts with private individuals and companies to supply the armies in the field. Both departments established a system of supply depots that awarded contracts, received the goods, examined the quality, arranged for payment to be made, and distributed the goods to armies. Prior to 1860, a single supply depot in Philadelphia and the two national armories in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, provided most of the equipment used by the army. But as the war quickly escalated, in less than one year, the military supply process went from being a small adjunct of the economy of several cities to being the most important business enterprise in the nation. Supply officers at the various depots struggled to acquire the vast quantities of goods needed to keep the armies fed, clothed, and ready to fight. Early on there was a considerable amount of fraud as some contractors sought quick profit by providing “shoddy” or substandard goods. But in a short period of time, local supply officers came to rely on contractors they knew would provide acceptable quality at a reasonable, but not necessarily the lowest, price. For the contractors, the contracting system provided a tremendous opportunity to earn great wealth. On occasion, the army tried its hand at trying to manufacture uniforms at several of the supply depots with mixed results. Employing local residents and dependents of soldiers who had been injured or killed, the government saved some of the profit while providing some relief for soldiers’ families.

For the Union then, adding billions of dollars to the urban economy accelerated the process of industrialization, directly and indirectly. The net effect of the war on the American city and its residents was to stimulate an economic environment that fostered industrial development. For the Confederacy however, the economic expansion required to fight the war produced no such stimulating effect. The military supply process was even more critical for the South than it was for the Union, but it had almost no long-term effect. The Confederate government, which organized its procurement process in much the same way as the Union, made contracts with Southern urban businesses to supply the Confederate armies, while the government also tried to encourage smuggling of military items through the Union blockade. Without an extensive base of existing industries to rely on, the Confederacy had to develop its own sources. By 1863, government-owned and -operated factories supplied much of the arms and equipment consumed by the army. Women used the government-owned facilities to sell homespun cotton and receive cloth to be sewn into uniforms. Small towns and cities such as Richmond, Virginia; Selma, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia, saw their wartime population rise dramatically as people flocked from the countryside to work in the factories. For this brief period then, the cities of the Confederacy mimicked the cities of the Union. But as the Union troops advanced deeper into the Confederacy, troops destroyed much of the infrastructure built to support the Confederate war effort. During the Atlanta campaign, troops under William T. Sherman destroyed clothing mills at Roswell and Sweetwater Creek, Georgia, sending the female operatives to Louisville, Kentucky, by train, as he would have sent prisoners of war. But the long-term effect on the prosperity of Southern cities was quite different. Instead of enjoying strong postwar economic expansion, bankrupt Southern cities struggled to advance without the influx of capital enjoyed by their Northern counterparts. This was offset somewhat by Northern investment in Southern cities, but no Southern city could match the postwar growth of the great urban centers of the North.

Changes to the urban landscape in the Confederacy brought about by the business of war had a much smaller effect than in the Union. The South tried to pay for the war through a combination of bonds and paper money, which lost all value when the war ended. Consequently, Southern efforts to build an independent economy had little long-lasting effect on Southern cities except to guarantee their poverty. Investors in the Confederacy lost everything. Cash investments were worthless. Many of the South’s manufacturing facilities lay in ruin. Railroads, the connecting link between Southern cities, had been destroyed by the advancing Union armies. The forthcoming Fourteenth Amendment would prohibit the payment of any Confederate debt. The Thirteenth Amendment emancipated all labor capital. The war left Southern cities in a state of tremendous disadvantage compared to their Northern counterparts. No systematic program of economic reconstruction reversed the devastation. Some Northern capitalists saw great opportunity in rebuilding Southern economic institutions. Carpetbaggers, as those who traveled South for profit were often labeled, invested in banks, stores, land, and every other opportunity they could identify. Urban Southerners resented the profit these Northern investors took from their Southern investments, but without the influx of Northern capital, rebuilding urban economic institutions would have taken longer than it did. Still, Southerners suffered from a lack of available capital to expand the region’s economy well into the 20th century.

From the secession crisis through the First Battle of Manassas, most Americans believed the war would be short, with one or at most several pitched battles that would decide the issue of secession. President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers envisioned 90 days of service and a quick return to civilian life. Most urban Americans concurred with this assessment. But when the first battle at Manassas settled nothing, both Union and Confederate officials began to prepare for a longer conflict.

The Media Reports on the War

The nation’s urban residents learned of Shiloh and what they knew about the war from the nation’s newspapers. As the mass media of the day, newspapers brought a daily stream of news from the front via telegraph, filtered through the lens of the local editor who served his loyal constituents. During the Civil War, editors published approximately 2,000 newspapers each week in the United States, almost 400 of them daily. New York had as many as 17 daily newspapers during the war. Richmond, Virginia, had four. Cincinnati had no fewer than six, two published in German, one Republican, and the other Democrat. Generally four pages of copy and advertisements, each newspaper reflected the political voice of the Republican or Democratic parties or the editorial voice of the publisher. Anxious to sell copies, editors sought to one-up each other in a competitive environment. Accuracy often gave way to an approaching press deadline and a good story, but by reading the newspaper, and listening to the newspaper being read in the neighborhood taverns, Americans kept up with the progress of the war on the battlefield and the political situations in the nation’s capital. With rare exceptions, opposition newspapers such as the New York World and the Cincinnati Enquirer continued to publish throughout the war. As long as Democratic editors took a pro-Union stance, they were generally free to criticize the administration, almost at will.

Reporting on the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 brought the horrors of war to the home front, particularly for Western cities. In the bloodiest battle on record in the Western Hemisphere to that date, more than 3,400 soldiers died on the field and another 2,000 succumbed to their wounds. Correspondents reported the carnage. Many families experienced the pain of losing a loved one for the first time as the three-year regiments recruited in 1861 fought their first major battle. Because many of these regiments had been formed from young volunteers from the same locale, reports of multiple casualties from the same regiment devastated many small towns and urban neighborhoods.

Battle on this scale demonstrated just how unprepared the nation was to care for wounded and disabled soldiers. The cities of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys responded in the fashion of the 19th century, through the voluntary association, to treat the wounds of those injured at Shiloh. The citizens of Cincinnati quickly outfitted a hospital ship, sending it down the Ohio to the Tennessee to aid the shelter tent hospital hastily set up to tend to the wounded. The most severely wounded had died before significant help arrived, but voluntary service became a way of life for the nation’s urban residents.

In American cities of this time, the voluntary association was the most important agent of social action. Citizens bound themselves together to form schools, literary societies, fire companies, orphanages, chambers of commerce, and the like to improve their respective cities. From this spirit of volunteerism among women arose the U.S. Sanitary Commission and a number of affiliated organizations. Although men held the positions of authority, the impetus for the Sanitary Commission was women’s response to war. Abhorring the violence, death, and injury of battle, but equally the disease, sin, and iniquity that accompanied life in a mobile city, women reformers, many of whom had been active in the various reform movements of urban America before the war, used the Sanitary Commission to establish a formal connection between the military and the home front and to effectively distribute supplies to the armies. It is from this voluntary service that the civilian nurses such as Dorothea Dix and Katherine Wormeley earned their reputation as the saviors of the wounded soldier. These women offered their most dramatic service at the front in the immediate aftermath of a battle, but their work in the hospitals established in the nation’s cities far from the front proved equally important to the recovery of severely wounded and ill soldiers. Local branches of the Sanitary Commission engaged in a variety of fund-raising activities, the most successful of which was the sanitary fair. A combination of circus, exhibition, and auction roughly based on the Great Exhibition in London of 1851, these Sanitary Fairs quickly became the preferred method of fund-raising in American urban areas. In all, Northern cities organized more than 30 fairs and raised more than $4 million in the process, although New York’s Metropolitan Fair and Philadelphia’s Central Fair contributed more than 75 percent of the total. In addition, the work of the U.S. Christian Commission supplemented the work of the Sanitary Commission. Together they contributed more than $12 million of relief aid.

The War and the American Worker

For urban workers the war proved to be a curse, then a modest blessing that turned increasingly toward hardship. The economic downturn of 1861 left many workers without any source of income. Male workers could and did enlist in the volunteer regiments, although female workers and families often suffered. More than one newspaper complained of the economic disruption that accompanied the outbreak of war. Once the nation settled in for the long war, and it became clear that the war on the battlefield would not be won by an overwhelming display of force, urban workers, especially in the major cities of the Union, enjoyed a period of prosperity, thanks to full employment rather than an increase in wages. Many workers enjoyed a rise in wages as employers competed for their services as the labor supply diminished, predominantly because of the drain of men taken by the military but also to a lesser extent to a reduction in new immigrant labor. As the war progressed however, inflation eroded much of the economic prosperity gained by full employment for many workers. Military demand for the necessities of life meant workers competed with the government for goods, food, and clothing in particular, and prices rose to the point at which working men and women had trouble sustaining themselves on wages that did not keep pace.

Few American workers enjoyed the protection of organized labor and most of that organization had been at the local level. Only highly specialized trades, such as the iron molders, printers, and machinists, had any form of national organization. The economic downturn at the beginning of the war forced many workers to seek employment as volunteer soldiers, and those who remained home were most grateful to be employed. As the nation attended to the business of providing for its armies on the battlefields, laborers found their services in demand on the Northern home front. For a brief period, full employment meant a reasonable wage and an opportunity to accumulate some cash reserves. No sooner had many of the workers recovered from the downturn of 1861 than wartime inflation took over as the government competed with its citizens for the necessities of life. For example, when Jane Hasler complained to President Lincoln in 1864 that seamstresses at the government clothing manufactory in Cincinnati had gone without an increase in the price of their piece-work since the beginning of the war, the president ordered an investigation. In response, the local quartermaster in charge referred to the problems associated with getting funds from the federal government to run the local depot rather than address the fundamental unfairness of stagnant wages in an inflationary economy. The seamstresses did receive modest increases in some piece-work compensation in the fall of 1864, but the problem remained unresolved by the war’s end.

Besides writing letters to the president, workers organized and held strikes in attempts to win higher wages, with varying degrees of success. Unions petitioned employers and organized strikes against those who refused to negotiate higher wages. Employers often ignored union requests and bound themselves together to resist the organized workers. In Philadelphia, when iron molders struck in late fall 1862, employers agreed secretly to hold out as one until the strike had been broken. In the end, neither side won. The union struggled on without any real power and the manufacturers lost their dominance of the stove-making industry.

Tensions Caused by the War

The greatest urban violence of the war occurred in New York in July 1863, when New Yorkers rioted against the inequality of the draft and the increasing effect of inflation on the lives of workers. Racial issues also came into play during the draft riots—many laborers worried that freed Southern slaves would ultimately glut the workplace. Draft resistance was not limited to New York, as many urban workers, from towns as small as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to cities as large as Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, participated in similar riots. Originally a protest by unionized workers, the New York City protest soon gave way to rioting by unskilled and unemployed workers, who redirected their anger away from the draft offices, $300 men who could pay the required bounty to avoid the draft, and a variety of Republican-run businesses, and toward the city’s African American residents. Attacked on the streets, in their homes, on the docks, and wherever they had sought shelter, New York’s black population absorbed the brunt of the attack. Only when Mayor George Opdyke requested and received state and federal aid to control the situation was order effectively restored. In all, officials confirmed 199 dead and at least 300 injured in the fighting, making the New York City draft riots the most deadly single incident of urban violence in American history.

Although the issue of slavery did not represent the only cause of the Civil War it was certainly the most important. Urban blacks responded to war in much the same way whites did, except that they were not permitted to volunteer for military service until Congress passed the Militia Act in July 1862. But it was not until the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, that Northern blacks could rally to the flag in the same way whites did after Fort Sumter. At home, life for free blacks changed in the same way it did for white urbanites, although the stakes were almost always higher. Black workers were almost always the first to let go during troubled times and the last to be rehired as prosperity returned. Generally locked out of many of the skilled trades, their fortunes rested on the need for unskilled and semiskilled labor. A strong undercurrent of racism accompanied the black experience and on more than one occasion put the lives of black urbanites at considerable risk.

To some extent, many whites blamed blacks and the issue of slavery for the war. This misplaced anger often contributed to a higher state of tension between black and white laborers. One event in Cincinnati in the summer of 1862 illustrates how racism, blame for the war, and economic competition contributed to an uncertain present and future for urban free blacks. Steamboat traffic on the public landing in Cincinnati had yet to fully recover to prewar levels by July 1862. Labor gangs, Irish, German, white, and black competed for a chance to load and unload the many boats that did business on the landing. Blacks were often accused of being willing to underbid their white counterparts, which increased tension among the various labor gangs. On the morning of July 10, this competition erupted into violence. As the local newspapers described it, white workers attacked black workers. Some black workers sought shelter on several of the boats at the landing while others returned the violence in kind. All sources agree that what followed might best be described as a knock-down, drag-out brawl. After several hours, an uneasy truce had been restored and several of the most active participants, white and black, were arrested.

With tensions remaining at a heightened state, Mayor George Hatch sent three-fourths of the police force to Kentucky to try to capture Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan. Hatch believed that Morgan, who had already earned a reputation for his raiding behind Union lines, might threaten Cincinnati if left unchecked. With the police out of the city, local toughs took the opportunity to attack African American residents in their homes and neighborhoods over several evenings of violence. Ultimately, the mayor activated several companies of home-guard militia to restore order.

Weeks later, when a more serious military threat from 10,000 Confederates under Henry Heth approached the city from the south, Cincinnati’s African American citizens volunteered their services in defending the city. City and military officials initially refused to accept African American volunteers because they still contended the conflict remained a white man’s war. But when it became clear that much of the defensive work would involve digging trenches and erecting breastworks, the same African Americans, whose volunteer service had been refused just a day or two before, were impressed at gunpoint and transported across the river to Kentucky to labor on the fortifications. Finally organized by a local judge into what came to be known as the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, these workers served until the danger had passed. Many of these workers went on to volunteer for the black regiments that would be organized the next year. Ironically, for perhaps the only time in American history, several hundred free blacks were enslaved in a free state and transported to a slave state to work as bound labor, labor they had willingly volunteered to do days earlier, all in an effort to help win a war that would end slavery in the United States.

Middle-class Northern urbanites and capitalists generally did well during the war. After the economic downturn of 1861, the influx of government-supplied capital allowed business owners, even those not directly involved in the business of war, to profit. A general increase in prices over the course of the war allowed those with a low tolerance for risk to see a strong increase in the value of their investments. War contractors who established stable relations with the Commissary and Quartermaster’s Depots earned steady if not spectacular profits. Those who found a way to solve problems for the overworked local supply officers found a steady stream of income.

For those who had a higher tolerance for risk and the fortitude to stand uncertainty, the Civil War provided ample opportunity to speculate on the ebb and flow of wartime fortune. Speculators traded in bonds, gold, currency, cotton, corn, and every other commodity, betting on the fortunes of the armies in the field, often on very low margins. Speculators often reaped huge profits simply by anticipating a rise or drop in commodity prices. Early access to news, generally brought to the cities via the relatively new medium of the telegraph, allowed speculators to reduce their risk significantly. The same opportunities to speculate existed for Southern citizens as well, but unless the speculator could somehow turn paper profits into gold or real property, those profits disappeared on the demise of the Confederacy. In the North, however, speculators managed to hold on to their speculative gains postwar. Henry Morford detailed the depravity of the speculator class in The Days of Shoddy, a popular 1863 novel of the sins of a wartime speculator in New York. Morford’s villain got his just reward in the end, although no such day of reckoning came for most speculators. Much of the newfound wealth was ultimately a result of government-created capital, which increasingly bound urban capitalists to the success of the Union war effort.


Lee’s surrender at Appomattox brought a great sense of joy and relief to Northern cities and the people in them celebrated the Union victory. However, the postsurrender celebration was short-lived. No sooner had the news of the ultimate victory been received than people heard the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated. Grief and anger commingled. In New York, known Copperheads were well advised to display appropriate signs of mourning in their windows and on their persons. In Philadelphia, a Democratic newspaper editor was forced to leave the city. Lincoln’s body traveled from Washington through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Chicago on the way to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. At each stop along the way local committees arranged appropriate services in honor of the nation’s slain leader. The celebration and mourning culminated with a Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, D.C., on May 23 and May 24, 1865. The two-day affair saw more that 125,000 men parade from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. President Andrew Johnson and General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant and a number of congressional dignitaries reviewed the troops. It was the last great demonstration of the war. In a matter of weeks, the process of disbanding the Union Army was well under way.

In part because historians have paid so little attention to the nation’s cities at war they have reached no consensus about the war and its effect on the cities. What consensus there has been is largely tied to the larger question of the economic impact of the war. In fighting the war and then paying for it, the federal government expanded the capital available for a variety of investments. The nation’s capitalists seized the opportunities the war provided and a significant number grew rich as a result. The vast bond sale program devised to pay for war expenditures provided new investment instruments and a model for financing new capital-intensive ventures. For Southern cities, certainly, the end of the war produced no such boom. The total war waged by Generals Grant and Sherman in 1864 and 1865 devastated Southern industry, leaving Southern cities even further behind their Northern counterparts than they had been in 1860. Consequently, the war for the Union had also been a war of separation for the nation’s cities. Wealth accumulated in the hands of the capitalists while urban workers struggled to hold ground against inflation. Northern cities gained investment capital, new residents, and a rapidly expanding industrial base. Southern cities bet and lost all. By 1870 a full 26 percent of the 38 million Americans now lived in urban places, a trend that would continue over the succeeding decades. Ultimately, the war produced little that was brand new for Northern cities, rather it accelerated existing trends. For the South, losing the war meant its cities could not compete. It would be well into the 20th century before things changed significantly.