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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Then & Now


Pennsylvania’s war industry meant great prosperity for a relative few but a lower standard of living for many. Prices rose twice as fast as wages during the war with the government requiring huge amounts of food and supplies for the army. Farm work was increasingly done by women, children and the elderly. The number of wage workers in the state rose from 98,000 in 1860 to 160,000 by the war’s end. As men went off to battle, women and children joined the industrial army. Children under the age of 16 constituted 22 percent of Philadelphia textile workers.

Yet federal policy that allowed unlimited immigration from Europe, and therefore the hiring of unskilled workers, kept wages down for workers in Philadelphia and other seaport cities. These Pennsylvania laborers protested in vain and looked to unions for support in the wages war.

William Sylvis, head of the Philadelphia local of the National Iron Molders, traveled more than 10,000 miles during the war rallying workers to join unions in an effort to reform industrial order in the U.S. Sylvis increased the size of his union from 2,000 to 6,000 members and 15 to 54 locals. And in 1866, he helped form the National Labor Union, predecessor of the Knights of Labor, taking over as president of the union two years later.

However, in the anthracite coal region, considerable violence halted attempts for union organization until 1868. Numerous murders of mine bosses, Republicans and draft board officials during the war years by a secret organization known as the Molly Maguires led the Pennsylvania state legislature to establish the Coal and Iron Police in 1865. Pennsylvania was the only state in the union that allowed these private industries to hire public law enforcement officials. The nascent union movement in the coal regions was crushed as it was identified with resistance to the Civil War.

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Primary Sources

  • Charles Winston Smith and Charles Judah, eds. Life in the North During the Civil War: A Source History (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1966).

Secondary Sources

  • Brian Butko and Nicholas Ciotola, eds., Industry and Infantry: The Civil War in Western Pennsylvania (Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 2003).
  • Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia During the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Walter Licht, “Civil Wars: 1850-1900,” in Randall Miller and William Pencak, eds., Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth (Penn State Press, 2002), pp. 202-56.
  • Grace Palladino, Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868 (University of Illinois Press, 1990).
  • Phillip Shaw Paludan, “A People’s Contest”: The Union and the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Harper and Row, 1988).

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