How did wartime devastation in the South affect the lives of the white yeoman farmers during the American Civil War?

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lhc | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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In Bruce Catton's Civil War narrative This Hallowed Ground, the author described William Tecumseh Sherman's campaign to end the war by carrying on total war against the civilian populace as "the wild, cruel, rollicking march from Atlanta to the sea".  This, of course, was when Sherman and 60,000 soldiers under his command endeavored to break the will of the Confederacy once and for all by destroying everything in their path; sadly, the rest of the Confederacy would not look that different from the casualties of the Sherman parade.  When the war ended, the South lay in ruins; their factories, railroad mileage, ships, ability to produce/export/import had all been completely decimated, and while popular culture has always focused on the plantation classes who lost their classic Southern mansions and enslaved work force, a greater part of the Southern economy was the largely ignored middle-class, or "yeoman" farmers.  These were people who owned moderate or small parcels of land, and perhaps a slave, or maybe a few slaves, and generally worked alongside the slaves to make their property profitable. 

So the South, then, as a whole faced economic ruin and poverty was rampant.  Plantation owners had some advantage because many of them had been involved in governing the Confederacy, not fighting for it, and thus escaped with their lives; additionally, even though their land may have been damaged or destroyed, they generally owned plenty of it, and although slaves were free to go, owners were still able to recruit newly freed blacks to work.  The yeoman farmers, however, now found themselves in competition with the newly freed black population in the work force (as well as a step down the social ladder, more or less, because yeoman, while socially inferior to planters, were always comfortably superior to blacks/slaves.  And to say "competition in the work force" is arguably overly optimistic, because a nation (or in this case, half a nation) in ruins means an economy in ruins; the extensive loss of life left many yeoman families without fathers, grandfathers, brothers.  Some yeoman families, out of desperation, turned to sharecropping and tenant farming to eke out a small living. Some headed to the cities, which were also in ruins, and tried to find work in the recovery effort, or in the relatively few factories and textile mills that had survived the war.  Yeoman moving to the cities saw an even greater erosion of their social status over time as the term "redneck" came into vogue among Southern elites. 


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