A Fight in the Fields:
The Impact of the Civil War on
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
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
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
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