No language can describe, nor can any catalogue furnish, an adequate detail of the widespread destruction of homes and property.—Columbia, South Carolina, Phoenix, 1865
Of course, the desolation of Virginia, even in the regions most exposed to the ravages of the war had been overrated.—Whitelaw Reid, 1866
Speculations on the Ground
The destructiveness of war is a familiar theme in the historical literature of the American Civil War. Because almost all of the significant combat and troop movements occurred within Confederate territory, the rebel states necessarily suffered most of the physical damage done by the war. Numerous contemporary accounts and some photographs of burned factories and houses, only their chimneys left standing, as well as torn-up railroad tracks and destroyed rolling stock, suggest massive, extensive devastation. But, how much physical destruction did the Civil War actually inflict on the South? An obvious enough question, it has had as yet no firm, empirical answer.
Many southerners immediately following the war and for more than a century afterward attributed the South's relative poverty during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the war's destruction of their region's infrastructure. Characterized as the "great alibi" by Robert Penn Warren, and used by others to explain away manifold distortions in southern society, such reasoning merged smoothly with a Lost Cause ideology that sought to ennoble rebellion and make a virtue out of the seemingly enduring sacrifices offered in its service. Incorporated into this version of events were stories of depredations by Union forces, acting either in obedience to a policy of Schrecklichkeit, terror directed against civilians, or on the orders of individual commanders and junior officers.
Irrespective of the impetus for the destruction, southerners reported that the devastation extended across their region and included the burning of an unspecified but presumably large number of southern cities and towns, the despoliation of southern agriculture, and the destruction of the greater part of the South's railroads. Damage on anything approaching that magnitude could conceivably have retarded the region's economic growth and development to the extent described in the Lost Cause/Great Alibi account of the war and its aftermath. Historians, even those who reject that interpretation of post–Civil War southern history, generally agree that the war inflicted severe material damage on the South, damage that had a significant role in setting back the region's economic growth and development. That conclusion has also become the consensus among authors of United States history textbooks.
Cliometricians have also addressed the question of southern economic retardation during the first few postwar decades. The first systematic examination of the evidence indicated that the war might have caused the loss of as much as $1.5 billion in physical capital in the South and a deep, long-lasting reduction in southern incomes. Further work on the question, however, has sharply revised those findings downward. Analysis of data on capital investment, agricultural output, population, and income from the 1860 and 1880 federal census returns has led to the conclusion that, bad as the physical damage may have been, it was not a major reason for the South's economic woes during the decades following the war. Instead, they found other, more important causes: a general deterioration of property due to neglect during the war; a combination of cotton market forces, specifically global conditions of supply and demand; and the economic, social, and political upheaval in southern society following the war, as a consequence of emancipation.
Today most economic historians subscribe to the cliometrical analysis of the causes of southern postwar economic retardation and its conclusion that the degree of physical destruction attributable to the war was not of long-term economic significance. As to the reasons for such damage, many historians agree that, though the Union army destroyed a great deal of southern public and private property, relatively little wanton destruction occurred. Instead, destruction resulted largely from the controlled application of a formal military policy to degrade the Confederacy's material capacity to wage war.
In their analysis of the reasons for the South's post–Civil War economic retardation, cliometricians have relied primarily on data enumerated by the decennial census and have...