Megan Kate Nelson
During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort.
Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy.
Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.
While colonial New Englanders gathered around town commons, settlers in the Southern colonials sprawled out on farms and plantations. The distinctions had more to do with the varying objectives of these colonial settlements and the geography of deep-flowing rivers in the South than with any philosophical predilections. The Southern colonies did indeed sprout towns, but these were places of planters’ residences, planters’ enslaved Africans, and the plantation economy, an axis that would persist through the antebellum period. Still, the aspirations of urban Southerners differed little from their Northern counterparts in the decades before the Civil War. The institution of slavery and an economy emphasizing commercial agriculture hewed the countryside close to the urban South, not only in economics, but also in politics. The devastation of the Civil War rendered the ties between city and country in the South even tighter. The South participated in the industrial revolution primarily to the extent of processing crops. Factories were often located in small towns and did not typically contribute to urbanization. City boosters aggressively sought and subsidized industrial development, but a poorly educated labor force and the scarcity of capital restricted economic development. Southern cities were more successful in legalizing the South’s culture of white supremacy through legal segregation and the memorialization of the Confederacy. But the dislocations triggered by World War II and the billions of federal dollars poured into Southern urban infrastructure and industries generated hope among civic leaders for a postwar boom. The civil rights movement after 1950, with many of its most dramatic moments focused on the South’s cities, loosened the connection between Southern city and region as cities chose development rather than the stagnation that was certain to occur without a moderation of race relations. The predicted economic bonanza occurred. Young people left the rural areas and small towns of the South for the larger cities to find work in the postindustrial economy and, for the first time in over a century, the urban South received migrants in appreciable numbers from other parts of the country and the world. The lingering impact of spatial distinctions and historical differences (particularly those related to the Civil War) linger in Southern cities, but exceptionalism is a fading characteristic.