After the Civil War

The physical destruction after the Civil War devastating, prompting former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens to write, “The country between Alexandria and Charlottesville was horrible to behold.” Battles had severely damaged local transportation infrastructure and farmland, compounded by the near- constant presence of troops in Madison. Because neither the Union nor the Confederacy had reliable supply lines in the area, soldiers would often take food from locals’ homes, in some cases violently.

Combined with the destruction of farmland and the loss of manpower, agricultural production was extremely low in Madison. Exportation was not a vital part of Madison’s economy and there were fewer mouths to feed due to the large number of men who had left for the army, but agriculture was still the number one industry and source of employment in the county. However, this loss of production was not nearly as harmful for Madison as the ruinous collapse of the Confederate currency and the end of slavery. All of the money minted during the war by the Confederacy, Virginia, and even Madison itself became useless, as did bonds, which some people had invested their life savings in. Though Virginia had been one of the most prosperous states in the Union before the war, the Civil War resulted in it becoming one of the poorest. There was very little money in circulation in Madison, and no means by which to get more, forcing Madison to become even further separated from the luxuries of manufactured goods.

At the same time, Madison’s significant slave population was freed. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued after the Battle of Gettysburg, there was little to no compliance until the end of the war. In many places in the South, slaves stayed on with their former masters as sharecroppers, but in Madison there was very little money with which to pay workers and little work for them to do with so much farmland ruined. There was a mass exodus of the newly-freed slaves, resulting in a reduction of the black population from 51% of Madison’s population several years before the Civil War to 10% a decade later (Woodward, 1990) , and tensions between freedmen and whites were at a new high.

Slaves provided nearly all of Madison’s labor, making it even harder for farmers to recover from the wounds inflicted by the war. Though the men of Madison had returned home, the war had diminished their numbers by as much as 90% (Woodward, 1990), far more than the entire Confederacy’s 25%, and were thus unable to make up for the loss of Madison’s former labor force. As a consequence, land values fell dramatically, from an average of $150 an acre in 1860 to $2 an acre in 1865 (Woodward, 1990). Many farmers could not afford to keep their property and were left with no choice but to sell much of their massively-devalued land.

Madison, and indeed, the entire South, had a long, difficult road to recovery. This post-war time period was later termed Reconstruction. In 1867 the Federal government, trying to prevent anti- U.S. sentiment from resurging and to protect former slaves from discrimination, split the former Confederate states into military districts. Virginia was administered as the First Military District until 1870, at which point it rejoined the Union, but military rule in Madison saw little conflict and was fairly mild.

Reconstruction in general was less harsh on Madison than it was in other parts of the South. For example, while in places with large black populations, racial violence was commonplace, Madison saw little violence between the races. That is not to say, of course, that there was no racial tension. In fact, Madison after the Civil War was more segregated than it was before, with many blacks leaving the integrated churches they had previously attended and forming their own, not to mention the massive black emigration to urban areas.

Madison did not have issues with “carpet-baggers,” the Southern term for Northerners who would move south in order to take advantage of the low land prices and general disorder following the Civil War. Nor were there conflicts with “scalawags,” Southerners who were seen as sympathetic toward the Union and Republican policies. After the war, the people of Madison generally focused more on recovering from their losses than continuing to fight a lost war. In order to cope with the large number of people who had lost their savings and livelihoods in the war, the County operated a “poor house” where those that could not support themselves could stay. The service remained open until the land was sold in 1925.

In Georgia and South Carolina, the states subjected to total war, an enormous toll was exacted on transportation infrastructure such as railroads, damaging large plantations reliant on exports. In contrast, Madison’s roads were damaged, but those were much easily repaired and rebuilt than railroads, and agriculture in Madison was not export-reliant anyway. Similarly, in those other states the Union’s lack of adequate supply lines caused soldiers to have to secure their own food from local farms, a practice that particularly hurt livestock-owners. Though the same occurred in Virginia, it was far less frequent than it was further south, leaving Madison’s livestock largely untouched. Large plantations suffered from a successful campaign to cut down the morale and production of the Confederacy by destroying modern farming machinery, but Madison would not import these innovations until after the Civil War and was thus not reliant on them. By the time Reconstruction ended in Madison, the people were well on their way to recovery.

Ultimately, while the Civil War was extremely harsh on Madison’s economy and demographics, it did not suffer the continuing conflicts of Reconstruction and re-integrated into the Union peacefully. The loss of labor was alleviated by the introduction of farm machinery later in the 1800s, and the spread of railroads allowed farmers to market their produce to the rest of the country. Madison has largely retained its rural, agricultural character since the end of the Civil War and into the 21st century.

Content in this article was taken from a senior project produced by high school student Peter Rice at the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor's School in Madison County. To see the full paper with references, please visit his project website.

Search Our Site

Follow Us On...