Increase of Gainful Workers in Postbellum Pennsylvania and Virginia

Pickett’s Charge was one of the many moments during the Civil War which saw citizens from Virginia and Pennsylvania meet each other on the battlefield.

A comparative examination of the economies of several states in postbellum America can reveal and elucidate key realities about the recovery and reconstruction of the nation after the bloody Civil War. For example, the subsequent economic activity of Pennsylvania and Virginia, as indicated by the various datasets provided in the Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, provides a ready window from which to view these changes. These two states in particular are especially helpful as a case study in this respect due to their relative importance to the war effort for the North and the South.

On the one hand, aside from New York, Pennsylvania provided more troops to the Grand Army of the Republic than any other state and also was a major center for producing goods for the war effort. This included items such as ammunition, guns, ships, food, and a host of other essentials.[1] Virginia, of course, was practically the leader of the Southern confederacy and was the homeland for a large portion of the Confederate military not to mention the government.[2] The respective leadership positions of both Pennsylvania and Virginia allow for interesting observations to be made concerning the post-war economy.

While there is a plethora of ways to examine and estimate the overall economic condition of any given place, particular data sets given in the Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 will be examined as bell-weather indicators of the general overall economic direction in both Pennsylvania and Virginia. Specifically, by examining the rate of increase for each state’s body of gainful workers in the four decades after the end of the Civil War a general indication will be grasped of the relative strength of the post-war economic conditions. When compared to the baseline average the entire United States, a clear picture will allow for an introductory comparison to be made concerning these two regional leaders.

In the censuses prior to the mid-1900s data was collected on what was termed “gainful workers.” This group of the population was defined as “all persons who usually followed a gainful occupation” and census workers were ordered to count, “each person 10 years of age and over who followed an occupation in which he earned money or its equivalent, or in which he assisted in the production of marketable goods.”[3] Although there certainly were a number of inaccuracies with the collection of these statistics based on the variety of answers given by the respondents, the scholars who compiled the Historical Statistics praise the data as, “a generally reliable measure of long-term trends during the period covered.”[4]

Firstly, Chart A provides the total numbers of gainful workers in the United States as a whole, then Pennsylvania, and lastly Virginia.[5] From this alone it is evident that by 1900, only 35 years after the conclusion of the war, America’s workforce had doubled and was well on its way to being triple was it was in 1870. Pennsylvania specifically had nearly doubled its population of gainful workers by 1890, while Virginia still had not achieved such in 1900.

Secondly, by examining the percentage of increase from decade to decade in this category, these suggested trends become clearly defined. Chart B shows that the percentage increase nationally exploded some 15 years after hostilities ceased and then began slowing down, going from 39.1% to 30.7% and finally 27.9%.[6] Meanwhile, Pennsylvania immediately appears as solidly above the national rate in both 1880 and 1890. However, by 1900 the rate had fallen below the national trend by several points. Virginia, however, is shockingly below the national rate and is over 20-percentage points behind Pennsylvania in both 1880 and 1890. That said, by 1900 the Old Dominion had climbed to be nearly within 5-points of Pennsylvania.

Naturally, with any comparisons between two disparate places there will be an unlimited number of qualifying factors, differences, and nuances which contribute to their differing levels of economic growth or stagnation as the case may be. For example, the South’s dependency on a slave economy carried major economic repercussions when the institution was abolished. Suddenly, the nature of their economic structure was radically, and thankfully, altered forever. Pennsylvania, however, obviously was not anywhere near as burdened by the ill-effects of continual institutionalized slavery like that in Virginia. Additionally, Pennsylvania had already developed a comparatively industrialized manufacturing industry which not only assisted in the Union’s war effort but also in their continued economic growth after the war.

Any single interpretation would have to take into consideration an untold number of factors in order to explain exactly why Pennsylvania grew so much in comparison to Virginia in the postbellum years. That being said the survey of the aforementioned economic bell-weather data certainly begins to paint a picture of two radically different economies reacting to the conclusion of the most catastrophic war on American soil. Virginia, once the dominate state in the nation, fell drastically behind the national standard in growth of gainful workers suggesting a slow and hard recovery. Not only were substantial portions of her labor force either killed during the war, but indeed many who had been slaves were now liberated and possibly chose to take their hard-won liberty somewhere else.

In fact, one possible explanation for Pennsylvania’s rapid growth in the immediate post-war period could be that many of the freed slaves might have moved to Pennsylvania given its proximity to the border and its longstanding reputation for being a seat of the abolitionist movement. The expanded manufacturing industry could have provided a reasonable incentive and tantalizing employment opportunities for people looking for a fresh start. Certainly, much research would be needed to substantiate such a thesis but having a big-picture view of the wider economic trends will undoubtedly help in such future inquires.

[1] Philip Klein, A History of Pennsylvania (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1980), 28.

[2] See, Edward Ayers, Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 3.

[3] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 129–130, see Series D 26–28.

[6] Ibid.