The vast majority of the nation's largest cities were located in the Northern states; the South lagged far behind. One of the reasons for this was the huge influx of foreign immigrants — primarily from Ireland and Germany — who poured into the nation in the decades before the war.
While many new arrivals spread out to settle in regions that reminded them of home, the majority stayed in the cities — New York, Chicago, Boston, and other metropolitan areas — in the hope of finding well-paying jobs in the factories and businesses. This influx of immigrants would continue as the war raged, making many American cities some of the most populous in the world.
In many respects, life in the cities during the Civil War wasn't that much different from city life today. There were the very rich, the very poor, and the many in between. The poor tended to live in tenements; the rich lived in fine homes that often resembled palaces.
The population of many Northern cities exploded in the years prior to the war. The population of New York, for example, rose from 515,000 to more than 800,000 in the 1850s alone, and the population of Chicago, which was just over 4,000 when the city was incorporated in 1837, rose to 112,000 by 1860.
Bustle in the North
The streets of midcentury American cities were as busy and bustling as they are today. There was lots of coming and going, which meant lots of traffic — horse-drawn, of course.
Entertainment was rich and diverse in both the North and the South. Stage plays drew huge audiences. Operas, musical concerts, and lectures were also quite popular, as were ethnic stage shows that catered to a region's particular immigrant populations. If you had the money, there was seldom a lack of something to do.
One of the most popular amusements in New York during the Civil War era was P. T. Barnum's curiosity museum in lower Manhattan. The veteran showman sold a huge number of tickets as New Yorkers flocked to see amazing animals and exhibits from around the world.
Southern Worries and Deprivations
Things were a bit more relaxed in the largest cities of the South, which included New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah, and Atlanta. The pace of the Southern states in general was much slower, a phenomenon that often baffled visiting Northerners before the war. One reason, of course, was that much of the region's hard labor was performed by slaves, giving its wealthier citizens plenty of free time in which to relax and indulge their personal passions.
Immigration brought a strong, cheap labor force to the United States during the mid-1800s. However, many immigrant women were unable to find decent paying work and were forced into a life of prostitution. An estimated one in twenty women who had come to the United States from abroad was forced by circumstance to sell her body in order to survive.
Southern cities were bustling but not overly crowded. Just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah each had fewer than 40,000 citizens. Only New Orleans was comparable to the largest Northern cities, with a population of around 150,000. People traveled by carriage, cart, or horseback and very often lived on the outskirts of the city itself.
The Civil War had a far greater impact on Southern cities than those in the North. As the war encroached farther and farther into the Confederacy, many Southern cities found themselves under assault and eventually under Union control. But even if Northern troops never actually invaded a particular city or town, the good life eventually stopped as supplies, both luxury and essential, became increasingly difficult to get and prices skyrocketed. Southern city dwellers did all they could to keep their spirits high, but every Confederate defeat made it more difficult.
Citizens of the Confederacy were also asked to give what they could to the military, which eventually ran desperately short on essential supplies. The situation was particularly dire during the winter months of 1863. In October of that year, Captain W. M. Gillaspie, who was responsible for outfitting the army in Alabama, made an eloquent plea for supplies via the newspaper:
I want all the blankets and carpets that can possibly be spared. I want them, ladies of Alabama, to shield your noble defenders against an enemy more to be dreaded than the Northern foe with musket in hand — the snows of coming winter. Do you know that thousands of our heroic soldiers of the West sleep on the cold, damp ground without tents? Perhaps not. You enjoy warm houses and comfortable beds… . If the immortal matrons and maidens of heathen Rome could shear off and twist into bowstrings the hair of their heads to arm their husbands in repelling the invader, will not the Christian women of the Confederacy give the carpets off their floors to protect against the chilly blasts of winter those who are fighting with more than Roman heroism, for their lives, liberty, and more, their honor? Sufficient blankets cannot be had in time. Food and clothing failing the army, you and your children will belong to Lincoln.
By contrast, most Northern cities were overflowing with material goods and people with the money to buy them. The New York Herald reported in October 1863:
All our theaters are open … and they are all crowded nightly. The kind of entertainment given seems to be of little account. Provided the prices are high and the place fashionable, nothing more is required. All the hotels are as crowded as the theaters; and it is noticeable that the most costly accommodations, in both hotels and theaters, are the first and most eagerly taken. Our merchants report the same phenomenon in their stores: the richest silks, laces, and jewelry are the soonest sold. At least five hundred new turnouts may be seen any fine afternoon in the park; and neither Rotten Row, London, nor the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, can show a more splendid sight. Before the golden days of Indian summer are over these five hundred new equipages will be increased to a thousand. Not to keep a carriage, not to wear diamonds, not to be attired in a robe which cost a small fortune, is now equivalent of being a nobody.