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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
A Fight in the Fields:
The Impact of the Civil War on Midwestern Agriculture

When South Carolina troops fired upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861, America's long struggle over slavery and sectionalism finally erupted into open conflict. Over the ensuing four years, as war tore the nation apart, people of all walks of life attempted to adjust to a nation changed by war. Farmers in the Midwest, or the Northwest as it was known then, also faced major adjustments to their ways of life. While the seat of the war never drifted into Iowa, Illinois, or other Midwestern states, these areas faced such factors as larger percentages of their populations serving in the military and a corresponding lack of manpower to do field work, the increased use of horse-drawn implements to increase the efficiency of farm production, and the emergence of a more commercial manner of farming. In facing these issues and others, people far away from the battlefield dealt with a nation at war.

The largest issue that faced farmers during the war was the lack of manpower available to work the land due to military enlistments. While not every male eligible to serve enlisted, many states saw a sizeable portion of that population go to war. For example, forty-nine percent of Iowa's male population of military age served in the Union Army, the highest percentage of any Northern state. Of all the men that served in the Union Army, forty-eight percent were farmers. With this large body of farmers and farm laborers unavailable to work, those left sought ways to maintain their farm operations in a profitable manner. The wages that laborers demanded rose as the number of men remaining in an area dropped. To deal with this, families struggled to continue the work that fathers, husbands, and sons left them. Boys took greater responsibility on the farm, lacking the knowledge of farming that fathers and older brothers had earned after years of agrarian employment. These sons learned by trial and error, or by advice and instruction found in letters written from the front. In some cases, women took to the fields to make sure that work was done and that the farm survived.

In response to the demands for labor and labor-saving devices, farmers quickened the pace of the adaptation of new technologies for use on the farm. Chief among these were machines designed for harvesting crops such as hay, wheat, and other cereal grains. Rather than trying to harvest crops by hand, a process that might take days, farmers made the financial investment in devices that allowed them to work faster. These devices in turn allowed for farmers to increase the size of the crop in question because of the efficiency they added meant faster harvests of larger fields. During this time of technological expansion, manufacturers changed the way that they marketed their goods. Rather than telling potential customers how many machines had been sold or other information, images within the ads showed women operating machines, demonstrating their ease of use for those women in charge of field work while men were off to war. Other ads showed crippled veterans, most noticeably missing one arm, operating mowers or reapers. Those who returned maimed would still be able to farm due to modern technology.

The Civil War also helped to push Midwestern farmers closer to a more commercial model of agriculture. As with any war, troops need to be fed, clothed, and their supplies moved from place to place; farmers supplied the army with horses, pork, beef, and wool for uniforms. The price of wool skyrocketed when the demand for new uniforms drove the market. The army needed to eat, and farmers rushed to fill contracts for pork and beef with meat packers. The investment in a few extra animals in the short run provided farmers a hedge against hard times and a cash income through the commercial marketing of animals for the war effort.
Major conflict never arose in the Midwest itself during the Civil War, but those who did not serve in the military still dealt with its effects. The war years acted as a catalyst for change in agriculture. As a result of the shifting demands of the markets, as well as the short supply of labor available, farmers changed how they operated their farms, and opened the way for major changes in farming during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Robert C. Welch


Bogue, Allan G. From Prairie to Cornbelt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: Quadrangle Paperback, 1968.

Guither, Harold D.
Heritage of Plenty: A Guide to the Economic History and Development of U.S. Agriculture. Danville: The International Printers and Publishers, Inc, 1971.

Hurt, R. Douglas.
American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Ross, Earle D.
Iowa Agriculture: An Historical Survey. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1951.

Wendel, C. H.
Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques. Second Edition. Iola: Krause Publications, 2004.

Further Reading

Atack, Jeremy, and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil: Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Bateman, Fred, and Jeremy Atack. "The Profitability of Northern Agriculture in 1860."
Research in Economic History. Volume 4 (1979): 87-125.

Danhoff, Clarence H.
Change in Agriculture: The Northern United States, 1820-1870. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Ferleger, Lou, editor.
Agriculture and National Development: Views on the Nineteenth Century. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.

Gallman, J. Matthew.
The North Fights the Civil War: The Home Front. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1994.

Gates, Paul W.
Agriculture and the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Gilford, Edwin J. "The Agricultural Labor Shortage in the Northwest During the Civil War and How it was Met." Unpublished dissertation. Miami (OH) University, 1956.

Kulikoff, Allan. "The Transition to Capitalism in Rural America."
The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series. Volume 46, No. 1 (January, 1989): 120-144.

Rasmussen, Wayne D., editor.
Readings in the History of American Agriculture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960.

Rogin, Leo.
The Introduction of Farm Machinery in its Relation to the Productivity of Labor in the Agriculture of the United States During the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931.

Rolfe, Edward.
A Civil War Soldier Describes His Army Life as Three Years of "Hard Marches, Hard Crackers, and Hard Beds, Pickett Guard in a Desolate Country": The Edward Rolfe Civil War Letters and Diaries: The Three Year Adventure of an Iowa Farmer. . ./ Transcribed and Compiled with Additional Text by Edward Rolfe's Great Grandson, Laurence F. Lillibridge. Prescott Valley: Lillibridge Publishing Co., 1993.

Schlebecker, John T.
Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975.

Tucker, Glen. "Year of American Decision: 1863."
Civil War Times Illustrated. Volume 1, Number 9 (1963): 6-9, 28-30.