For the last few weeks, I have been serving a detail to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park as a park historian.
After a walking tour of the Sunken Road on the Fredericksburg Battlefield, I received the following question:
“What did the war cost?”
Naturally, my first thought was to explain the casualty figures for the entire conflict, which now surpasses 750,000 men. Furthermore, another 64,000 men died of wounds received during the war and transpired in the immediate years after. I thought I had thoroughly answered the question.
She wanted to know what the overall cost, in addition to the casualty figures, which she agreed was extensive, horrible, and completely mind-blowing. All she had heard about was the casualties, but did anyone ever calculate the cost; economically, government-wise, etc.
Safe to say I had not really thought about that type of cost.
So, not knowing the answers I did some digging into histories and notes, especially from my academic days.
That is when I came across an essay from Historians Rick Beard and Richard Rabinowitz .
The two historians wrote, “the financial and human cost of the transformational conflict was staggering.”
In the first year of the war, 1861, the Federal budget was “$80.2 million [which] devoted $36.4 million to defense.” By 1865, the budget was “$1.33 billion and $1.17 billion” respectively. The conflict ballooned the Federal deficit from $90.6 million to $2.68 billion in 1865.
Defense spending stayed $100 million until 1871.
In 1879, the government released the figure of $6 billion for their wartime expenses. As of 2013. that monetary amount would be in excess of $146 billion!
The defeated Confederacy had spent over $3 billion fighting the war while combating an inflation rate that topped at over 9,000%.
Furthermore, Beard and Rabinowitz spoke on the casualty lists mentioned above and gave this staggering statistic, “one in every four males between the ages of 16 and 45 were either killed or incapacitated” during the American Civil War.
Civilian casualties have never been tabulated, but the number is certainly in the thousands when one considers the emotional, physical, social, and economic strain that the war visited on large swaths of the South. Plus, the bloodletting in places like Missouri where a civil war within the Civil War was waged.
Large swaths of the South, including major cities like Richmond, Virginia, Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, all laid in ruins. Along with these ruins and the loss of the slave workforce contributed to the extreme loss of the planter class in Southern society, which in 1860 contributed to approximately 50% of the nation’s wealth.
Meanwhile, the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act, and the Pacific Railway Act, all of which aided “the way for postwar industrialization, urbanization, and westward expansion” all of which passed in 1862 and thus did not benefit the citizens of the seceded states.
“Large portions of the countryside were scorched and empty” was how the section on the economic impact of the Civil War was summed up. A recent figure released by the Shenandoah Battlefields National Historic District places the total cost in property loss in the Southern states at $10 billion.
And with the casualty figures mentioned initially comes the harrowing fact that one of every four men in the South were casualties in the war and two out of every five livestock animals were killed, confiscated, and/or destroyed.
That was the “cost of the war.”