What Did the War Cost?

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?”

Dead on the Gaines Mill Battlefield  (LOC)
Dead on the Gaines Mill Battlefield

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.”


Richmond, Virginia (LoC)
Richmond, Virginia

13 Responses to What Did the War Cost?

  1. I too had thought only of the human casualties of the war and never of its total cost. Excellent work, Phil.

  2. Thanks for this article–very interesting and thought provoking. The cost of pensions and “recovery costs” to veterans should also be added. My ancestor who fought with the 82nd Ohio never fully regained his health after spending 17 months as a POW at Belle Island and Andersonville. As with all wars, the costs go on and on–very difficult to calculate to say the least.

    1. Hey Max-, good point about pensions and “recovery costs.” There are, as you mention, plenty of costs attributed to war that does not immediately get recognized. The tragic story of your ancestor is a prime example of that. Thanks for reading and sharing his experience.

  3. One of the costs of War, any war, is that the dollars continue to be spent long after the shooting stops.
    She may have died in the past year, but last May Irene Triplett, disabled daughter of a Union veteran, was still drawing a United States’ pension a century and a half after the civil War ended.
    One of the numerous articles published in May 2014 may be found at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2297522/Pictured-Americas-living-link-Civil-War-83-year-old-woman-autism-father-fought-Unionists-Confederates.html

  4. Great post. Phil. We tend to think of the cost of a war in only the human toll but the financial burden is beyond comprehension. Safe to say, it was many years before the total cost (financial and human toll, the latter recently revised as you know) of the Civil War could be figured up though it’s probably miniscule compared to the price we pay today on an hourly basis. It does boggle the mind.

  5. Excellent! My questions is what are the totals for civilian casualties? Historians never discuss this.
    Are we to believe that only one civilian died at Gettysburg, for example. What about Fredericksburg or Vicksburg or Atlanta. I would love to see some info on this

    1. Joe–First, thanks for reading the post! Secondly, your question is a great one. Thousands of civilians were caught in the maelstrom of the war. From the guerrilla-type warfare of Missouri and Kansas, to the “March to the Sea” and “The Burning” in Georgia and Virginia, respectively. In addition, whole communities were destroyed along with major metropolitan areas in the South. Thus, hundreds perished, thousands were displaced, so total civilian casualties would be hard to calculate completely. I will leave you with the estimate by James McPherson who has placed his estimate of civilian casualties at 50,000.

      1. Thanks much for the info. Will look into this issue . It has always fascinated me.

  6. The “cost” of the Civil War continues. The persistent ramifications of the war, in my opinion, are only in the last few decades beginning to emerge from the depths of despair as the poverty of economics and the poverty of spirit have improved, particularly in the south. Racism has been an ongoing struggle. It takes energy to hate. Sectional feelings of superiority continue to be a problem for the country particularly as a consequence of the ACW. In my opinion post traumatic stress syndrome has existed since the War. This most certainly is amplified by poverty and racism. A lot of work by a lot of people continues to bring the South and the country from the effects of the ACW. Lots to do yet but with respect, concern, and thoughtfulness from all, the long lasting effects of the war may eventually be escaped. Our elected representatives have a major role to play in the process.

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