Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Civil War In Dollars and Cents


It lasted from 1861 to 1865. And without a doubt, the Civil War was a bloody conflict. That war is said to have resulted in between 650,000 to 750,000 casualties. As incredible as it may be, a recent study more accurately puts that number as high as 850,000. The number of dead on both sides speak to the courage and tenacity, the staunch convictions, of the Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors who fought that war.

According to some estimates, there were over 10,000 clashes both big and small between Union and Confederate forces. Those engagements resulted in staggering losses of men on both sides. Large battles such as what took place at Gettysburg, Shiloh, the Wilderness, and Chickamauga rank among the great military battles of world history. In the end, the Civil War was one of the most devastating events in our history as a nation. 

The war itself has been estimated to have had direct cost of about $6.7 billion valued in 1860 dollars.

$6,700,000,000 in 1860 → $203,539,542,168.67 in 2018


While the war impacted the output of the entire country, the $6.7 billion figure spent on the war does not take into account that the war disrupted the economy and had an impact of lower production into the future. In fact, some economic historians have estimated the additional indirect cost resulted in another $7.3 billion in economic losses. This is according to experts. And frankly, that is a tremendous amount of money.

As for the 1.6% of Southerners who actually owned slaves in the 1860s, they controlled an empire of wealth. It should be noted that while historically the status of slave has become primarily associated with Africans, slavery in America's, North and South has had a contentious history for all sorts of people -- Native American, whites, blacks, and even Asians.

We know that in South America, the Aztecs and the Inca had slaves taken during battle as spoils of war. We know that in North America, the Crow, the Blackfoot, the Creek, the Comanche, and many other tribes even up into Canada owned slaves -- again mostly as a result of their wars with other tribes. In fact, many slaves were captured during wars between rival Native American Indian nations. Some tribes walked the trail of tears and took their black and Indian slaves with them. 

Chattel slavery, also called "traditional slavery," is named because people are treated as the "chattel" (personal property) of an owner and are bought and sold as if they were commodities. For those who might not realize it, the legal institution of chattel slavery that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries was left to us after we gained independence and before the end of the American Civil War. So when people say there were slaves in America for 400 years, they are wrong.

Slavery had been practiced by the British, the French, and the Spanish in North America from early colonial days, as it was later in the Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But, after we Americans became a sovereign nation, slavery lasted for about 85 years before being abolished. As for bringing black slaves into the United States, President Thomas Jefferson put a stop to that in 1808. Yes, just 25 years after we won our independence in 1783.

Muslims have been buying and selling black slaves from Africa for more than a thousand years. In fact, black slaves are still bought and sold today in the Middle East. For us, African slaves were not the first slaves to be introduced to North America. In America, before blacks slaves were brought here as slaves from Africa, Irish and other white convicts from Europe were hauled to the America's in slave ships.

Sure whites owned slaves, but it has to be remembered that some free black people in this country bought and sold other black people. In fact, they did so since 1654 and continued to do so right through the Civil War.  Whether it was whites or blacks, slavery in the United States was an institution that had a large impact on the economic and political fabric of the country.

While white slaves went for far less, in many cases seen as a bargain for under $100 in some cases, the average price of a black slave from Africa in 1860 sold for about $800. One historian placed the cost of purchasing an African slave at $360 in 1850 and at around $500 in 1860. Another historian states the sale price of African slaves sold in the South peaked in 1860 just prior to the Civil War with a male adult in "prime" condition for field work being sold for $1,000 in Virginia and as high as $1,500 in New Orleans. 

If we go with the average $800 figure of one report, ever wonder how much would that $800 be in today's money? In today’s dollars, that would be the equivalent of about $19,000 which is the equivalent of a mid-sized car today. Friends, for the year 1860, depending on the index used, there were an estimated three million slaves living in the South and it is estimated that their aggregate market value was over $3 Billion then. That, my friends, equates to trillions of dollars today.

The value of slaves, and the lose of the revenue brought in trough the slave market, is part of the cost of the Civil War. That cost, as a share of the output of the entire economy, would equate to trillions as measured in current dollars. Knowing this, we can understand what was at stake prior to going to war.

It's no wonder the 1.6% of Americans who owned slaves in the 1860s are said to have controlled an empire of wealth. They certainly did. It was an empire that they were willing to split the nation over. An empire that they tried to hold on to, even if it meant hundreds of thousands of men in uniform being killed.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


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