In the first paragraph of each of his annual messages to Congress (today known as the State of the Union address), Abraham Lincoln noted with thanks that the nation had been blessed with health and “abundant harvests.” During the Civil War years, as today, Illinois played a major role in American agriculture.
Before the war
The years before the 1861 firing on Fort Sumter saw unusually bountiful crops in Illinois. Agricultural statistics were not gathered as they are today, but we know that the years 1859 to 1861 saw huge harvests of the state’s main crops—corn, wheat, and oats. Large amounts were shipped to Europe, portions of which suffered poor harvests. Even with the foreign demand, successful harvests resulted in low prices. It was reported in 1861 that in some places farmers used their corn as fuel rather than trying to sell it in the flooded market.
Low grain prices, made worse by high shipping costs, led many farmers to purchase livestock and use their low-value crop as feed. Livestock raising grew quickly. It was estimated that in 1860 Chicago packing houses handled 80% more animals than they had the previous year.
Change brought by war
The closing of the Mississippi River by Confederate forces forced southern Illinoisans to shift their market. Grains and animals that for years had flowed downriver to feed the lower Mississippi Valley or be shipped from New Orleans now joined the estimated 75% of Illinois farm products that moved east via the Great Lakes through Chicago or, more frequently, by railroad.
The beginning of the war also began a shift in crop growing across the state, due in part to the political events and to the already problematic low crop prices. Southern Illinois began to grow less corn and more cotton, tobacco, and fruit. Cotton, which had been raised in small amounts, grew in profitability as supplies from the South were cut off. In 1862 the Illinois Central Railroad moved 1,200 pounds of cotton from southern Illinois. By 1865 the amount had reached 1.65 million pounds. As the southern counties grew less corn and more wheat, many central and northern Illinois farmers did the opposite, raising more corn to be used in fattening livestock for shipment to the packinghouses of Chicago.
At the same time the raising of sheep was said to have expanded “more than any other major agricultural activity.” Demand for wool had grown in part to replace the loss of southern cotton used in manufacturing cloth. The uniforms, blankets, stockings, and many other clothing items worn by Union soldiers and sailors were largely made with wool, another reason for increased demand. Illinois responded to rising wool prices by raising more sheep, the number growing from 731,000 in 1861 to 2,100,000 in 1865. That production of wool resulted in some acreage being returned to pasture from cultivation.
The nature of farm labor also changed between 1861 and 1865. The relatively small number of men called to the military in the early days of the war seems to have had little effect on Illinois farming. But the seemingly unending calls for new troops that began in 1862, bringing tens of thousands of men into the armed forces, began to seriously disrupt farm activity. Some of the slack was taken up by hiring newly-arrived immigrants or African Americans who had come to Illinois seeking escape from war and slavery.
The labor shortage also brought large numbers of women into farm management and field work, filling the places of husbands, fathers, and brothers in the service. In many cultural groups women traditionally had not worked in the fields. The enlistment of tens of thousands of farm men into the armed services led more and more women into new kinds of work. The Galena Weekly Northwestern reported that in 1862 “where the men volunteering for the war left a scarcity of outdoor assistance on the farms, women who are women, turned out and assisted in gathering the crops.” Women in a neighborhood sometimes came together to harvest the whole crop of friends whose husbands were in the service. In 1863 some women left their “in-door employments” to work in fields for pay of one dollar per day.
A growing number of farm machines helped to dull the impact of men leaving for the battlefield. Sales were reported to have tripled between 1861 and 1864. In 1864 U.S. manufacturers produced about 70,000 machines—about 20% of them by Illinois firms. Planters and tilling equipment also saw greater and greater use. Leaders of Illinois state and county agricultural societies urged their fellows to greater use of machines in order to maintain production using less human labor. The state agricultural society held field trials of all kinds of machines at Dixon and Decatur. A trial scheduled for Peoria in 1862 had to be cancelled when the military took over the local fairgrounds to establish a training camp.
Even the growing use of machinery had its limits. It was recalled that in Whiteside County in 1864 “it was with difficulty that the crops were gathered.” The amount of cultivated land in Illinois actually fell from 7.863 million acres in 1861 to 7.483 million in 1864. A correspondent from Christian County wrote that the reduction by 9,000 acres in his county “exhibits the drain of the great war upon the labor of the county… many acres, formerly in cultivation, must have been turned to meadow and pasture.”
Inflation was a fact of life in wartime Illinois. Prices rose in real terms, even as the value of paper money rose and fell with the fortunes of the nation’s military effort. Inflation seriously devalued the earning power of many citizens, especially the families of soldiers earning $16 per month. Rising prices, however, did work to the benefit of at least some farmers, who used devalued paper dollars to pay back old debts due on land or machinery. One unhappy creditor in Illinois reported that farmers in his neighborhood were using the opportunity to pay debts “without mercy.”
Change brought by peace
By all appearances Illinois farms on the whole did well during the war years, in spite of bumps along the way. The coming of peace would see some troubles as well. Crop prices—especially those for wheat—fell due to expanded planting in newly opened land west of the Mississippi and the reintegration of the South into markets. Feeding of livestock remained strong, but sheep growing declined quickly when wool prices fell due to a decrease in demand and an increase in worldwide wool supplies. Inflation fell, trapping some producers who had purchased land or machinery when the value of the paper dollar was low.
Interested in learning more?
Illinois newspapers often reported on local agricultural conditions. Important (and interesting) information about Illinois, including county-by-county reports, can be found in John P. Reynolds, ed., Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society vol. 5 (1861-64) and vol. 6 (1865-66), online at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015073297049 andhttp://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015073297031 .
An important look at U.S. agriculture—North and South—during the period is Paul W. Gates, Agriculture and the Civil War (1965). A large—though not complete—war-years file of the Chicago-based Prairie Farmer can be found at the Google Books website.