Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians in the War | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians in the War

Most of Pennsylvania's nearly three million citizens did not fight or even see a Confederate soldier. Yet nearly all of them experienced the Civil War in dramatic, and often traumatic, ways. Families all too often received word that their husband, brother or son had been killed. Pennsylvanians faced the constant threat of Confederate raids. For others, rising prices, material scarcity and the lack of able-bodied labor endangered their livelihood. However, some civilians prospered as war offered new employment opportunities and rejuvenated flagging industries.

With the news of the coming war, civilians across the Keystone State reacted with excitement at the prospect of a brief conflict. But when the Union defeat near Manassas, Virginia, signaled the onset of a lengthier engagement, Pennsylvanians began preparing. Local communities established funds to help soldiers' dependants. Organizations emerged in bigger cities to provide armed forces with supplies and messages from home. Patriotic bunting and flags hung from thousands of homes.

Yet, as the war progressed into its second year and casualty lists grew, citizens increasingly criticized the war and its handling under the Lincoln administration. Material and monetary support for local soldiers and their families ran dry in Centre and Clarion counties as people voiced their displeasure by withholding donations. Parts of Pennsylvania, like the coal region, became notorious for encouraging and harboring army deserters and draft evaders, and there were bouts of violence when civilians resisted.

During the winter of 1862, Republicans across the state organized Union Leagues to support Abraham Lincoln's administration and combat what they saw as dangerous Democratic opposition to the war. Additionally, some communities witnessed galvanized support as local leaders planned parades, speeches and festivities to reinforce dedication to the war effort. The Great Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia in June 1864 emerged as the single greatest testament to Pennsylvanians' support for the war, as hundreds of thousands from across the state helped the fair raise more than $1 million to help the soldiers.

Information for this section was contributed by J. Adam Rogers, The Pennsylvania State University.

Secondary Sources
  • Grace Palladino, Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868 (Fordham University Press, 2006).
  • Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, Union Soldiers and the Northern Home Front: Wartime Experiences, Postwar Adjustments (Fordham University Press, 2002).
  • Arthur B. Fox, Pittsburgh during the Civil War, 1860-1865 (Mechling Bookbindery, 2002).
  • William Blair and William Pencak, eds., Making and Remaking Pennsylvania's Civil War (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
  • J. Matthew Gallman, Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

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