The Union Army’s hard war visited massive destruction on the Southern states. Much of the war had been fought on its territory. Many of its cities had been burned or destroyed. Many of its railroads had been torn up. Many of the fields only had weeds growing in them.
There was no American money anywhere in the South. The people only had worthless Confederate money. The Southern banks could not loan out any money because they didn’t have any. To make matters worse, the price of cotton fell drastically on the world market. Before the war, most of the world cotton supply was grown in the South. During the last year of the war, the slaves stopped growing cotton, so England began looking for places in its colonies where it could grow cotton.
The British planted very much cotton in their colonies, especially in Egypt and India. As a result, there was too much cotton on the world market. The price of cotton fell. Everybody in the South became poor. The economy of the South was in ruins. During the next eighty years, the world market price for cotton remained low. The South had nothing but cotton, so the South remained poor until World War II.
By the end of the American Civil War the Southern railroad system was all but destroyed. Where there was once 9,500 miles of track very little of it remained undamaged. Locomotives and rail cars were either captured or destroyed by the Union Army.
The Southern rail system began to deteriorate from the very beginning of the war. Most Southerners were more interested in agrarian pursuits and many of the skilled workers that were needed to maintain and run the railroads were from the North.
The skilled railroad men began to return to the North once the war began. Those who remained were overwhelmed by the maintenance and construction that was necessary during wartime.
The Southern railroads were not a system per se but a series of unconnected lines that ran from ports to inland destinations. They were seen as transportation of primarily cotton to ports for export to the North and Europe. This lack of inter-railway connections caused many railroads to become useless once the Union blockade was in place. A look at the map shows how the various rail lines were disconnected.
Another deficiency of the Southern railroads was a a break of gauge. Much of the Confederate rail network was in the broad gauge format. However, much of North Carolina and Virginia had standard gauge lines. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi were isolated, disconnected, and differed widely in gauge.
Most of the Southern locomotives had been imported from England. When the Union blockade began the steady strangling of Southern trade spare parts became hard to come by. Tracks and locomotives began to wear out. By 1863 a quarter of the South’s locomotives needed repairs and the speed of train travel in the South had dropped to only 10 miles an hour (from 25 miles an hour in 1861).
Replacement track and crossties became a problem. The South had very few steel miles that made track. The railroads resorted to tearing up track and crossties on less important lines as replacements on their key lines. The line from Nashville to Chattanooga had 1,200 broken rails in 1862 alone.
Most Southern locomotives used wood as fuel. As the Confederate army took more and more men into its service the rail lines were hard pressed to provide wood for their trains. Crews sometimes found it necessary to stop their trains and chop their own wood.
Accidents also wrecked a lot of equipment. Because telegraph communication was sporadic at best, railroad crews were often unaware of broken rails and collapsed bridges. Cattle on the tracks caused accidents, sparks from the locomotives’ woodfires burned cars, and boilers exploded.
In the last year before the end of the war, the Confederate railroad system was always on the verge of collapse. The impressment policy of quartermasters ran the rails ragged. Feeder lines would be scrapped for replacement steel for trunk lines, and the continual use of rolling stock wore them down faster than they could be replaced.
Finally, the Union armies became quite proficient at destroying the Southern railroads. A Union Army division could destroy miles of track in a single day. Even though the Confederates repaired the track when they could the constant destruction gradually destroyed the effectiveness of the lines. In areas where the Union Army advanced the Confederates applied a scorched-earth policy by destroying their own lines and equipment.
The Union Army targeted the main rail junctions of the South in order to destroy the effectiveness of the railroads. Rail junctions in cities like Nashville, Chattanooga, Corinth and Atlanta were either captured or destroyed.
Union troops would often have to rebuild an entire line from scratch for it to be usable. Due to the vagaries of the war, some lines would be rebuilt 6 or 7 times by differing sides, especially in states like Virginia, where fighting was most intense.
In certain areas like the Shenandoah Valley there was organized destruction of farms, government buildings and warehouses, in addition to the railroads. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan reported that he destroyed 1,400 barns. He also reported the destruction of countless other farm structures, seventy mills, several factories, three iron furnaces, warehouses and railroad buildings, and hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and corn, and crops standing in the fields. In Rockingham County alone over 10,000 head of livestock were driven off. And that was in the Valley alone.
On his way to Appomattox his Cavalry Corps destroyed everything of value to the Confederate government its paths. They destroyed the Virginia Central Railroad, mills, farms, the Kanawha Canal on the James River (although they weren’t that successful because it was built with concrete) and tobacco warehouses.
Many of the South’s largest cities, and much of its human and material resources, were destroyed during the Civil War by the Union armies. Much of the livestock and farming supplies of the South were also destroyed. The South transformed from a prosperous minority of landholders to a tenant agriculture system or sharecropping. Many of the recently freed slaves could only find jobs in unskilled and service industries.
The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a combined population of 835,000; of these, 162 locations with 681,000 total residents were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia. These eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy’s combined urban and rural populations. In addition, 45 courthouses were burned (out of 830), destroying the documentation for the legal relationships in the affected communities.
The South’s farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by 40% by 1870. The South’s farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by 40% by 1870.
The most devastating statistic was that one in four white Southern men of military age was killed during the war. Over a fourth of Southern white men of military age—meaning the backbone of the South’s white workforce—died during the war, leaving countless families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the South was locked into a system of poverty. How much of this failure was caused by the war and by previous reliance on agriculture remains the subject of debate among economists and historians.