America on the Eve of Destruction
The United States saw remarkable growth and prosperity during the three decades prior to the onset of the Civil War. Occasional economic corrections like the Panic of 1857 did not permanently disrupt the larger pattern of American well-being. The nation's population, encouraged by seemingly endless expansion, multiplied by leaps and bounds. By 1860, the nation was home to nearly 32 million people, including 4 million slaves. Since 1810, the American population had grown four times faster than Europe's, a growth rate that was almost six times the world average.
Rapid Economic Change
Most Americans continued to live in rural areas — that is, towns with fewer than 2,500 people — but the urban population was growing by leaps and bounds as people headed to burgeoning cities to seek their fortunes. The rate of urbanization during this period was the highest in American history; the urban population grew three times faster than the rural population in the five decades between 1810 and 1860.
Civil War memorabilia has become incredibly collectible today, especially handwritten letters from soldiers in the field. A family letter with interesting war-related content can sell for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars at auction.
Americans witnessed a huge evolution in lifestyle in the decades prior to the Civil War. The telegraph made communication almost instantaneous, and a network of canals, highways, and railroads made transportation faster and easier, dramatically reducing the cost of shipping goods.
Of equal importance was the rise of the middle class, which took advantage of dramatic advances in manufacturing. In the past, specialized craftsmen had been responsible for producing most common goods. Everything from shoes to guns to farm equipment was made by hand, but the American Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on interchangeable parts and factory assembly, quickly changed the way Americans shopped. Increasing numbers of Americans bought factory-made or premade goods simply because they were so affordable.
Better, More Affordable Housing
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were three basic types of housing: rough-hewn log cabins; homes made from brick or stone; and homes made from fastened, heavy timbers cut to shape by carpenters. Log homes were the least expensive and easiest homes to make, but most middle-and upper-income families wanted something nicer. However, the craftsmen needed to build stone or timber homes were in short supply, so the wait could be long.
The education of slaves was considered a very low priority by the majority of slave owners. As a result, only one-tenth of slaves could read and write with any fluency. Education for southern whites lagged behind northern standards. In 1860, roughly one southern white man in five was illiterate, but the illiteracy rate for southern white women was higher.
The answer came in the form of balloon-frame houses. The construction of a balloon-frame home didn't take as long or cost as much as one made from stone or hand-hewn timber, and the resulting structure was both attractive and sturdy. The first balloon-frame homes were built in Chicago and Rochester, New York, in the 1830s and quickly revolutionized the housing industry.
Improved Education Opportunities
In addition to the rapid expansion of industrialization, the growing use of mass production, and the rise of the middle class, the decades preceding the Civil War saw yet another positive social mark — the education of the American public. In years past, children often skipped a formal education in lieu of some sort of apprenticeship, but by the mid-1800s, a formal education was almost mandatory as increasingly affluent parents sought a better life for their children. More than 95 percent of adults in the New England states could read and write, and three-fourths of the children between the ages of five and nineteen were enrolled in school.
Education in the South was not quite as commonplace as it was in the North. But at midcentury, approximately 80 percent of the white population could read, write, and perform basic math, and one-third of white children attended school for an average of three months per year. These rates were higher than those for Britain and northern Europe at the time.
At the onset of the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans — North or South — were enjoying a fairly comfortable lifestyle. There was still much poverty in the nation, but work was readily available, the majority of families enjoyed financial prosperity, and an increasingly wide variety of consumer goods was available at affordable prices. It would be difficult to find a nation with more potential than the United States at midcentury, and its citizens were reaping the rewards.