By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
Following President Lincoln’s assassination, the North was plunged into mourning. There was a groundswell of hatred against the South that spread across the North. People in the United States and in the Confederacy had not only to contemplate Lincoln’s death, they also very soon had to try to come to terms with the cost of the war.
Casualties during the Civil War
Though one will never know the precise cost of the American Civil War, some figures can provide a sense of what was lost.
Let’s start with casualties. Among the United States forces, number of killed, wounded and dead from disease was about 640,000, of whom 360,000 were dead. Of those 360,000, two-thirds died from diseases such as measles, dysentery, malaria, typhoid and chronic diarrhea.
Casualties in the Confederate forces are less certain, because many of the Confederate records were destroyed when the government abandoned Richmond at the end of the war. About 450,000 casualties for the Confederacy is probably a fair number, though, of whom 260,000 were dead, two-thirds of them from disease.
Total deaths were thus about 620,000; total killed and wounded, 1.1 million. More Americans were killed in the Civil War than all of America’s other wars combined.
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Economically, the war involved spending on a scale far exceeding anything earlier in United States history, and again, it’s hard to put an exact total on this. There are still two women receiving pensions as widows of United States’ veterans from the Civil War, so America hasn’t spent the last pennies on the Civil War yet.
The whole federal budget in 1860 was $63 million. In 1865, the federal budget was $1.3 billion. That’s just the northern part of it. The Confederate budget probably would have added about a billion to that, so we’ve gone from $63 million to more than $2 billion in expenditures in this period of four years.
By 1879, the cost for the United States was about $6.1 billion, and pensions and other costs would continue long after the war.
High on Debts
The former Confederate states also had a pension system, a much smaller one after the war, where many Confederate veterans would receive small checks as well. The best estimates for what the war cost the Confederacy, as the records are not there, put the total cost at about $2 billion through 1863. We have to assume at least as much for the two years after that, so let’s say $4 billion for the Confederacy to wage its war.
Overall, the two sides spent on an undreamed-of scale, and indebtedness grew to unimaginable levels by earlier United States’ standards.
Changes in Wealth Status
The destruction in the South was similar to that suffered by European nations during the World Wars. It’s catastrophic in many ways.
Two-thirds of the entire assessed wealth of the South was destroyed, much of that in the form of slave property. A quarter of all the white males between the ages of 20 and 40 were dead.
About two-fifths of all the livestock in the Confederate states had been killed. More than half of all the farm machinery had been destroyed. Railroads and industries were in a shambles in the South.
Two numbers give a good sense of the economic impact of the war. Between 1860 and 1870, while northern wealth increased by 50 percent, southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.
The southern states paid a very high price indeed for their experiment in rebellion.
A Turning Point in History?
The Civil War was a grand turning point in United States history. The nation would simply never be the same again. The question of the permanence of the Union was settled forever.
The United States was—and would remain—a single nation, within which the states occupied a secondary place. The direct taxes, the national bank, the national drafts, the national currency, all of those things foreshadowed the growth and power of the central government in the republic.
The war also had settled all of the acrimonious questions that had centered on the institution of slavery; questions that had been at issue from the constitutional convention forward. These were swept away by the war, by United States’ armies maneuvering over the southern landscape, and then officially by the Thirteenth Amendment with its ratification in December 1865.
Four million slaves were now free: three and a half million in the former Confederate states; half a million in the states of Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland and Delaware.
However, the war left unresolved how millions of recently freed African Americans would fit into American society. It also left unresolved whether the former States of the Confederacy would be allowed back into the Union as full partners in the United States, or would they be forced to undergo some kind of change, maybe even revert to territories, as some people suggested in the North. We know what happened now; they didn’t know what would happen then.
Debates over these last two questions, of how African Americans would fit into the scheme after the war, and what would happen to the former Confederate states, began during the war, and they continued for more than a decade of reconstruction.
Common Questions about the Cost of the Civil War
The whole federal budget of the Union in 1860 was $63 million. In 1865, the federal budget increased to $1.3 billion.
Due to the Civil War, two-thirds of the entire assessed wealth of the South was destroyed, much of that in the form of slave property. A quarter of all the white males between the ages of 20 and 40 were dead. About two-fifths of all the livestock in the Confederate states had been killed. More than half of all the farm machinery had been destroyed, and railroads and industries were in a shambles.
The Civil War was a grand turning point in United States history. The question of the permanence of the Union was settled forever. The United States was—and would remain—a single nation, within which the states occupied a secondary place. The war also brought to an end all of the acrimonious questions that had centered on the institution of slavery.