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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Home Front

The term “home front” originated in the 20th century, signifying that wars in the industrial age were won by people working behind the lines as well as by soldiers on the frontlines of the war. The war placed great strains on those on the home front in Pennsylvania and brought about a number of transformations in business and society.

Rising Prices and Demands

Around Philadelphia, more than 6,000 manufacturing enterprises and half a million people made the city hum. Broad agricultural valleys in the central and southern counties were the state’s figurative breadbasket. Stony uplands of the northern and western Appalachian plateau were thinly populated by hardy locals. Flinty Pittsburghers made a city in the hills that seemed to survive on determination alone, looking west not east.

One impact of the war was the harnessing of the state’s farms, mines and workshops. An estimated one-fifth of workers entered the military and those left behind perceived great changes. To offset lost workers, women and children helped fill voids in farms and factories.

Wartime contracts infused cash into Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and smaller cities like Harrisburg, providing work for thousands. But not everyone got ahead. The failure of wages to keep up with rising prices led to a growing number of strikes such as among Irish miners in the hard-coal region.

Owners of larger farms may have fared best, where higher food prices allowed many to invest in machinery and increase production. The biggest wartime loser was the state’s natural resources with continued demand for coal, petroleum, iron and lumber.

An Increased Presence by the Federal Government

A new level of intrusion by federal government into daily life, including new national taxes on incomes and consumer goods, national “greenback” currency and the detested draft, was a controversial matter.

The North’s conscription policy, requiring drafts in areas falling short of military service quotas, became law in March 1863 in an effort to encourage voluntary enlistment. Conscription held contentious provisions that allowed the hiring of substitutes or payment of a $300 “commutation” fee. To avoid the draft, communities raised money for bounties to attract volunteers. Wealthier communities could pay more to the detriment of poorer rural areas. Slightly more than 17,000 Pennsylvanians were drafted or sent as substitutes.

Additionally, Pennsylvanians faced economic troubles embodied in rising inflation and an increase in taxation at various levels. Beyond federal measures, many local governments raised property taxes to pay for relief or recruitment.

Opposition to the War Surmounts

The war’s requirements of men and materials stressed northern commitment and nurtured a growing antiwar movement. No single reason explains the depth of opposition among some Pennsylvanians. Specific government policies caused anger and misery. Early 1863 saw low northern morale owing to conscription, battlefield defeats and emancipation. The draft defied traditions of voluntary service. While emancipation was noble, widespread racism enraged many who denounced the “war to free Negroes.” Others despaired over perceived failures of military leadership or rising economic woes. The highly partisan nature of elections and newspapers also kept criticism of Lincoln at fever pitch.

While a majority supported the war, untold multitudes sought peace. Opposition did not equal southern sympathies, as Republicans charged, but revealed the complex reactions of Pennsylvanians to war. As elsewhere, federal authorities faced opposition to the war and the draft. Military officials reported that draft resistance—ranging from lying to violence—in the state was widespread. Flashpoints included areas of rural poverty or pockets of ethnic minorities, including Irish miners in anthracite coal country, German-speaking farmers in the central valleys and hardscrabble, Appalachian, lumbering farmers. The northern mountains were a thorny “deserter country.” In late 1864, military expeditions arrested dozens evading the draft there but failed to uncover imagined armies of treason.

Devastation and Destruction

The war also ravaged Pennsylvania. Unlike most northern places, the Keystone State twice became home to the war front. When General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded in the summer of 1863, it resulted in the deadliest battle of the war—the Battle of Gettysburg. In their wake, the armies left more than 50,000 casualties, turning the town into a hospital and mortuary. Along the paths of the armies, Pennsylvanians submitted damage claims for millions of dollars to recover the costs of lost foodstuffs and livestock.

A year later, Pennsylvanians suffered again when a Confederate foray destroyed much of Chambersburg. Southern cavalryman Jubal Early ordered the raid in response to Union destruction of homes in Virginia. Townspeople refused to pay the compensation demanded by the Confederates, and Early’s troops set fires that quickly engulfed the town center. More than 550 buildings were destroyed, leaving at least 3,000 people homeless.

Information for this section was contributed by Robert M. Sandow, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

CWPA 150 welcomes your feedback. To share your comments or Civil War stories, please e-mail editor@pacivilwar150.com.


  • Iver Bernstein, New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • William Blair and William Pencak, eds., Pennsylvania's Civil War: Making and Remaking (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
  • Paul A. Cimbala and Randell M. Miller, Uncommon Time: The Civil War and the Northern Homefront (Fordham University Press, 2002).
  • Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (Fordham University Press, 2009).
  • Nina Silber, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2005).

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