in Wisconsin History
The Civil War Home Front
The Civil War had a profound effect on nearly all aspects of life in Wisconsin. All residents, regardless of whether they became a part of the Union effort, felt the repercussions of war. After the financial shock of early 1861 resulting from the secession of the Southern states, the Civil War brought economic prosperity to Wisconsin. The war helped to consolidate transportation and industrial activity by increasing the volume of eastward-moving trade, especially when the closing of the lower Mississippi River restricted access to New Orleans. Railroads were overwhelmed with business, sending transportation costs through the roof. With the departure of men in uniform, farmers faced labor shortages that increased wages for hired hands. Fortunately for farmers, though, crop prices also multiplied as the demand for wheat, Wisconsin's principal crop at the time, skyrocketed. Consequently, the increased demand for agricultural products led to a boom in the mechanization of farming, an industry centered in southeastern Wisconsin.
Everyone in Wisconsin did not support the war. Some were Democrats who honestly thought state's rights should prevail, or that the nation had been taken over by Republican extremists. Others, especially German Catholics, did not support the Lincoln administration which, to them, represented abolitionism, Yankee nativism, and Protestant godlessness. The draft that Lincoln institued in 1862 was especially intolerable to them, since many Germans had left their homeland to escape compulsory military service. On November 10, 1862, roughly 300 rioters attacked the draft office in Port Washington and vandalized the homes of Union supporters, until troops arrived to quell the disturbance. In Milwaukee that week, a mob of protesters shut down the draft proceedings, and in West Bend, the draft commissioner was beaten bloody and chased from the scene by opponents of the Civil War draft. But as the war continued and thousands of Wisconsin families lost fathers or sons, public opinion overwhelmingly backed Lincoln's efforts to preserve the union.
As in other parts of the country, Wisconsin's women played a vital role in the success of the war effort. Women were expected to support the soldiers medically, spiritually, and economically. Middle- and upper-class women, especially those in villages and cities, gave their time to the provision of soldiers. Setting aside their many religious, ethnic, and political differences, Wisconsin women organized to form various aid societies throughout the state. The Woman's Soldiers Aid Society sent medical inspectors to improve sanitary conditions among the soldiers and sent thousands of dollars worth of supplies to the frontlines and to hospitals. They hired nurses for army hospitals and distributed food to soldiers. The United States Sanitary Commission was the largest volunteer organization in national history at that time.
Many of these women's organizations sought to lift soldiers' spirits by sending them care packages along with news from home. The women themselves, though, faced tremendous hardships. With family members at war, women searched the latest postings of the killed and wounded for the names of their loved ones. With the traditional income-earners gone, women struggled to make ends meet. While the Wisconsin government promised money to wives whose husbands had volunteered, the money was slow to arrive, as the priority was on funding the war effort.
Wisconsin women did far more than wait for a monthly check or worry about the soldiers, though. While some women busied themselves with aid to distant regiments, others worked closer to home. Filling traditionally male roles, women helped to keep the Wisconsin economy, and their families, afloat by working tirelessly in the fields. Agricultural production in Wisconsin would have severely diminished without the labor of women. Except among some of the immigrants, primarily the Germans, women had rarely labored in the fields before the war. Those from New York and New England had largely tended to household duties and to outdoor work such as gathering eggs and planting a kitchen garden. Between 1860 and 1870, the number of women involved in industrial and commercial industries grew by over 500 percent.
Cordelia Harvey, widow of Governor Louis P. Harvey, organized charitable activities and arranged for the transfer of many wounded soldiers to Northern hospitals. After visiting hospitals throughout the South, Harvey determined that only the cooler northern climate would restore Wisconsin soldiers to health. After repeated visits to Washington to meet with War Secretary Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, Harvey got her way, and the Harvey United States Army General Hospital opened in Madison in 1863. She also established an orphanage in Madison for the children of soldiers killed in service toward the end of the war.
[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Barker, Brett. Exploring Civil War Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2003); McBride, Genevieve. On Wisconsin Women (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)]