The North had to thoroughly defeat the South to claim victory in the Civil War. As the conflict wore on, the Southern army suffered depravations, but refused to surrender. President Lincoln knew he had to leave no doubt that the South had been defeated. The Union armies marched through the region destroying everything useful for the war effort. In the aftermath, the region lay in ruins. It took a century for the South to recover from the destruction wrought by the Union armies.
The Union armies destroyed four major southern cities. Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond lay smoldering at war’s end. Seven other major urban centers burned. Overall, over 50% of urban areas were destroyed. This destruction hampered southern industrial strength, but only represented about 1% of the total population.
Most southerners lived in the country, but were not spared the Union’s wrath. The war decimated the rural south. Most of the able-bodied men fought in the war. Around 200,000 died and thousands others wounded and maimed. On top of this, emancipation further reduced the workforce. Moreover, thousands of farm animals died or were confiscated further restricting the food supply and labor.
Union armies confiscated whatever they needed, including animals, as they marched through the South. They destroyed what was not needed and torched farmland. Even if a farm survived unscathed, the destruction of the southern transportation infrastructure made travel to market impossible. In the end, the destruction totaled over $3 billion as the Confederate dollar became worthless.
In 1865, few southerners held American money. A system of barter and sharecropping developed. Income declined by over 30%. Meanwhile, many African Americans migrated to the cities to look for work. They mostly took low paying menial labor jobs, which further depressed wages. Others returned to their old masters to work as sharecroppers. By the early 20th century, the South was locked into a cycle of poverty. Despite attempts at Reconstruction, the region did not fully recover until the latter half of the century.
The Civil War decimated the South. The region lost its manpower, animal power, infrastructure, and labor force. As a result, income and wealth plummeted drastically. The North moved to reconstruct the region, but failed. In the end, it took a century for the Old South to recover from the war and emerge as the “New South.”