One of the oddest things about the American Civil War was the fact that the two countries that were trying their best to destroy each other – the Southern Confederacy and the Federal Union- discovered very soon that they could not possibly get along without each other. They were bound together by economic ties that were too strong to be broken even by the stress of war. This showed itself most visibly in the matter of trading with the enemy, as we would now call it and the war probably would have ended a year or two sooner if there had been no mutual trade with the enemy on either side.
Even while trying to suppress the Confederacy, the people of the North still needed some of the products the Confederacy supplied: cotton chiefly, but also sugar, rice and tobacco. The Confederacy, trying to pull away and prove its own independence, found itself entirely unable to do that without the help of things it could get from the North: all kinds of manufactured goods, clothing, medicines, surgical instruments, port and corn. Although the Confederacy was an agricultural nation, it concentrated so heavily on such staples as cotton and sugar that it needed to import corn and pork in order to feed itself and its slaves. Then, of course the Confederacy also had to have salt, which came from the North. In those days, there was very little refrigeration, practically nothing in the way of artificial refrigeration or refrigerated warehouses. So to preserve meat, it had to be salted. Without it, the government couldn’t feed its working people, whether they were slave people or free laborers.
Due to this mutual dependency, the two sides began to trade with each other. This went on throughout the war. In 1864 a Congressional committee looking into these matters remarked that occupied New Orleans – that is, New Orleans with Federal troops in it – had helped the Confederacy more than any of the Confederacy’s own seaports except Wilmington, North Carolina.
The navy, of course, did its best to keep an airtight blockade. It was not always successful. Indeed, even when the blockade was most effective, a fairly substantial number of ships got through. It was the very nature of the business. The North simply couldn’t make the blockade airtight.
Economically the Civil war wore heavily on the people who stayed at home, the way all wars do. It rested on them much more heavily in the South than in the North. In the South there were genuine shortages, shortages of manufactured goods of all kinds, of medicine and shortage of foodstuffs. The Southern people who stayed at home missed the work that would ordinarily have been done by the men who were in the army. Slaves, of course, remained on the plantations, but the average Southerner whether he lived in a town or on a farm was under a great handicap and suffered real hardships.
In the North the situation was not nearly as bad. The North had access to outside supplies. Its own manufacturing system was very robust. It might be hard for a railroad to get rails in adequate quantity, for a farmer to get all of the tools he needed, for builders to get the supplies they wanted, but it was never impossible and there were never shortages of foodstuffs. As a matter of fact, the North exported a great deal of wheat to England all through the war and probably one of the big reasons why the British Government decided not to get into the war was the fact that Britain badly needed the imports of food coming from the North.
The North had all kinds of strength to spare, not only in manufactured goods and foodstuffs but also in people. Immigration continued at a high rate and it was during the height of the war that a very large number of Northerners crossed the Mississippi River and moved west to settle in places like Nebraska, Minnesota and elsewhere. Some of the people who moved west were just as happy to go out where the army could not reach them. But in the main, they were just part of the great Westward movement that even the war could not break up.