Civil War culture in America–both North and South–was greatly distinct from life in the antebellum years. As the war dragged on, the soldier’s life was one of near-constant hardship and deprivation, from substandard clothing and equipment to barely edible and usually insufficient rations. Many of the soldiers tried to distract themselves by singing and playing instruments, and the resulting patriotic marches and sad ballads became a musical legacy of the conflict. Newspapers—many of which featured reports directly from the battlefield—were more widely distributed than ever before, shaping the public’s wartime experience to a greater extent than any previous conflict. Photography, another relatively new development, brought the horrific imagery of the war into the urban centers of the North. Finally, the Civil War had a tremendous economic impact, particularly in the South, where a northern blockade and the lack of a sound currency made it increasingly difficult to keep the Confederate economy afloat.
Civil War Culture: Life in the Armies
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the new Union and Confederate armies were made up largely of amateur soldiers who were poorly trained, equipped and organized. Northern troops generally enjoyed better provisions than their southern counterparts, especially after the Union blockade of the Atlantic coast made it difficult to get goods and supplies in and out of the South. The staples of a soldier’s diet were bread, meat and coffee, supplemented by rice, beans and canned fruits or vegetables, when available. The meat they received was beef or pork, preserved with salt to make it last longer, and the soldiers called this “salt horse.” Both armies increasingly replaced bread with thick crackers known as hard tack, which were notoriously difficult to eat and had to be soaked in water to make them edible.
Music proved to be a much-needed diversion for both Union and Confederate troops. Before 1862, new volunteer regiments usually included a regimental band; when the proliferation of bands became too unwieldy, many regimental bands were dismissed, but some survived, or were replaced by brigade bands to serve a larger contingent of troops. Whether played by these organized bands or simply sung by the soldiers themselves (accompanied by banjo, fiddle or harmonica), popular songs ranged from patriotic melodies meant for marching or to rally the troops to aching ballads that reflected the soldiers’ yearnings for home.
Among the Union favorites were “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “John Brown’s Body” (later changed into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), while the Confederates enjoyed “Dixie,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” In addition to military music, southern slaves sang spirituals dedicated to emancipation, which would slowly work their way into the fabric of America’s musical culture as well.
Civil War Culture: The Role of Newspapers
With the invention of the telegraph (1837) and a better mechanical printing press (1847), the newspaper business had begun to explode in the years leading up to the Civil War. By 1860, the country could boast some 2,500 publications, many of them published weekly or daily. Widespread use of the telegraph meant that war-related news reached Americans across the country, in both rural and urban areas, in an extremely short time. The Civil War would become the most well-reported conflict in history: Reporters traveling with the armies sent dispatches directly from the field, and many soldiers wrote letters for their hometown newspapers.
Newspaper circulation increased exponentially during the war, as Americans across the country avidly followed their armies’ fortunes in the field. In addition, mass-produced newspapers were selling for just a penny, enabling them to reach a much greater audience than ever before. In addition to straight reporting, newspapers (particularly pictorial ones) published a wide variety of political cartoons. By satirizing controversial leaders, celebrating victories and laying blame for defeats, the cartoons became an integral part of how many Americans processed the staggering events of the war.
Civil War Culture: Wartime Photography
The Civil War was also the first major conflict in history to be extensively photographed. Like newspapers reporters, photographers went into army camps and onto the field of battle to capture images of wartime life and death. Mathew Brady, who by 1861 had built a successful career taking daguerreotype photographs of politicians, authors, actors and other famous figures, decided to make a complete record of the war. Hiring a staff of photographers (including Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan), Brady sent them into the field, where he organized and supervised their work. He got behind the camera himself on only a few occasions (notably at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg) but generally refused to give his staff individual credit for their photos.
Photography in the war years was a difficult and cumbersome process. Photographers transported their heavy equipment in wagons, and were often forced to develop the images in makeshift darkrooms inside those same wagons. In 1862, Brady exhibited the first of his war photos, including those taken after the Battle of Antietam, at his New York City studio, giving many urban northerners their first glimpse of the war’s carnage. In the words of The New York Times, the images brought home “the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” Photos by Brady and others were widely reproduced and distributed, bringing that terrible reality home to viewers in America and around the world.
Civil War Culture: Confederate and Union Money
Of all the disadvantages the Confederacy experienced during the Civil War, its lack of a sound currency was particularly damaging. With limited resources, including hardly more than $1 million in hard currency or specie, the Confederacy relied mainly on printed money, which deteriorated rapidly in value as the war went on. By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth just five cents in gold; it was worth close to zero by war’s end. In addition, the South never developed an adequate system of taxation and was unable to produce what it needed or export the goods it did produce, due to the increasingly effective Union blockade of the Atlantic coast.
By comparison, the North had relatively little trouble financing the war effort. Congress passed the Internal Revenue Act of 1861, which included the first personal income tax in American history; the new Internal Revenue Board began collecting taxes the following year. Most northerners accepted taxation as a wartime necessity, enabling the Union to raise $750 million for the war effort. In addition to tax revenue and loans, Congress authorized the issue of more than $450 million in “greenbacks” (as paper money without the backing of gold was known). The value of these greenbacks rose and fell throughout the war, but they did provide enough currency for circulation. The National Bank Act (1863) provided additional stability by establishing a national banking system, which gave the country a federal currency for the first time.