Abraham Lincoln: The American Franchise

Abraham Lincoln: The American Franchise

An astounding 81 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls in 1860; four years later, the number had dropped to just under 74 percent. Census figures revealed that the nation's population in 1860 numbered 31,443 321 people, an increase of nearly 36 percent since 1850. (In no decade since has America's population growth been above 27 percent.) Two new states came into the Union during the war years: West Virginia, in 1863, as the nation's thirty-fifth state, and Nevada, in 1864. West Virginia broke off from Virginia when the latter seceded from the Union. Lincoln helped the new state along by sending troops, supplies, weapons, and gold from the Treasury (without a congressional appropriation). Nevada had grown up almost overnight with the discovery of silver at the Comstock lode in 1859.

Human Cost of War

Nearly every family in the Confederacy and the Union felt the impact of war with the death and wounding of loved ones and neighbors. The total number of casualties on both sides exceeded well over 1 million. More than 364,000 Union soldiers had died, with 140,000 from battle wounds. Another 275,175 returned home wounded, often crippled for life. The defeated rebels lost 258,000 men, and almost as many suffered wounds. Nearly 800,000 males served in the Confederate armies—nearly 90 percent of the free men aged eighteen to sixty years of age. Many more Union soldiers served, approximately 2.3 million men, but this represented only 44 percent of those eligible as able bodied males. In almost every major battle but one, Chickamauga, the North outnumbered the South in troops in the field, sometimes two to one. And in every major battle, except in the 1864 Wilderness engagement, Southern casualties equaled or exceeded Union casualties.

Socioeconomic Changes

The total cost of the war is estimated to have reached $20 billion, or five times the total expenditures of the federal government since its inception in 1791. Because most of the fighting occurred on Southern soil, the war impacted Southern society to a far greater extent than it did the North. A huge agricultural industry based upon plantation slavery was totally destroyed, and nearly every part of Southern society was altered in revolutionary ways. Small towns and villages became cities as the rural populations flocked to them to work in war-related industries or to find security from the Yankee invaders. Places such as Mobile doubled in population, and the Confederate capital of Richmond grew by 250 percent. Southern white women on the plantations and farms found themselves doing work previously done by slaves and men. Numerous women also shifted from their previous roles in life to work in the Confederate bureaucracy and as schoolteachers. Inflation caused untold human suffering as prices increased almost 7,000 percent, causing bread riots in many Southern towns and high levels of desertion by Southern soldiers running home to care for their families. And the extent of human suffering and actual starvation among the Southern people loomed large as the war slowly constricted the South. Events such as Sherman's march to sea, the conquest of the Mississippi River Valley, the nonstop fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, and Union attacks on the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia took their toll on the Southern people. Once the war ended, economic reconstruction would be dominated by financiers from the North, who would lend money to Southern business and industry leaders at high rates of interest.

In the North, although urban workers experienced a decline in their living standards in the face of a 77 percent inflation rate, most Union citizens on the home front enjoyed substantial prosperity. War contracts pumped giant sums of federal dollars into the economy, probably in excess of $1 billion. Railroad builders and industrialists took advantage of the demand to centralize their operations and to amass huge profits without having to pass much on to workers in wage increases. Agriculture also prospered, and by the end of the war large-scale commercial farming had become a reality. A new generation of mechanical mowers, efficient horse-drawn reapers, and improved plows enabled boys and women to increase production per acre even as their husbands and fathers were away at war. The average white Southerner suffered greatly from the war, losing slaves and farm animals and members of their families in far greater proportion than was the case in the North. At war's end, a devastated and uncertain Southern white citizenry faced a powerful and enriched North, which had transformed itself from a primarily agrarian and craft economy into an industrial powerhouse.

Liberation of African Americans

The war, moreover, in ending slavery liberated 4 million African Americans who stood ready to participate fully in the postwar economy and society as free citizens. The vast majority of the formerly enslaved had little but the shirts on their backs when they emerged from slavery. Few could read or write. Most of them were in disarray either because slavery had broken up their families or else because of the chaos of war. Almost all of them were determined, however, to have their own farms, to live free of any white supervision, to have their marriages legally recognized, and to obtain an education for their children. Armed with the conviction that freedom required independence from white control, the Southern "freedmen" stood ready in 1865 to demand conditions of social, political, and even economic equality with any and every white person in the nation. More than a few abolitionists and Radical Republicans agreed with them and were prepared to fight the new battle of racial equality in the postwar South.

The movement to pass the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, guaranteeing blacks suffrage and other citizenship rights, however, posed an issue for the women's movement. Some women agreed with abolitionists that it was necessary to gain black suffrage first; others argued that women should not give precedence, and that white women deserved the vote before black men. The differences split the suffrage movement, and two organizations that emerged to fight for women's suffrage did not heal their wounds until the turn of the century.