Ohio’s Impact on the War: Ohio’s Economy and Industry during the Civil War

By arohmiller, posted on May 5th, 2014.
Filed under: News
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Written by Mark Holbrook

If any state in the country, north or south was prepared to go to war in 1860, it was Ohio. Militarily and politically, Ohio boasted an abundance of experienced, skilled men who would go on to make their mark in history. Ohio also was in a unique position to support the war effort by providing the Union armies and navies the materials they would need to win the war. From uniforms to cannons to rations, the Buckeye state mobilized in virtually every county to support the war effort. That ability was one several decades in the making and its effects would impact the state in to the next century.

In 1850, the combined population of Ohio’s three major cities, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati represented 13% of the state’s total population. In 1860 the rate increased to 14.7% and, in 1870, five years after the war ended, 17%. Manufacturing employees in the state likewise increased significantly leading up to the war. IN 1820, just under 19 thousand Ohioans worked in factories. In 1840, that number grew to more than 66 thousand and in 1860 as the war was approaching, over 75 thousand.

Agricultural advances such as the reaper and threshing machines patented by Ohioan Cyrus McCormick, improved efficiency in farming that enabled more and more Ohioans to look to factories for employment as the war began.

Railroads, especially the Baltimore & Ohio played a vital role in the movement of troops, war supplies and more during the war. Ohio, with more miles of track in 1860 than any other state north or south, became a focal point for the war effort. Troops from the upper Midwest moved south on Ohio rails. Armies made the East-west journey on the B & O several times to meet threats from Confederate armies in Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi. Even government officials benefited from the highly efficient railroad system running through Ohio. On more than one occasion, Lincoln’s cabinet members made visits to commanders in the west. Those visits proved valuable to the Union war effort.

Iron ore mining and refining began in Northeast Ohio early in the 19th century, but by 1860, Southern Ohio dominated the industry with 69 iron furnaces producing more than 100,000 tons of iron annually on the eve of civil war. That iron mainly went to an ever-growing industrial complex in Northeast Ohio in cities like Youngstown, Akron and Cleveland. The existence of these mines and factories meant that Ohio was in a position to switch its production from farming equipment and home utensils quickly after the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1862.

Many of the iron furnaces in the state were fueled by charcoal, an expensive, time consuming energy source that required harvesting of timber throughout the region. Coal began to replace charcoal in the 1850s, providing a more efficient, less costly fuel for the furnaces and factories.

Coal became a viable export with the development of the canal system in the 1820s and 30s, a precursor to increased mining and export when railroads come to Ohio in the 1840s. Much of the development of Ohio’s rail system was a result of the demand by the mining and iron industries for transportation systems to support the growing industries. By the late 1800s, iron production and coal mining helped Ohio emerge as one of the most prosperous states in the country.

It was fortunate that Ohio became a more industrialized state in the 1860s. As the plains states became more populated after the war, agricultural production there increased dramatically and a new source of competition for Ohio’s farm products developed. This competition was offset by an increased demand for Ohio made agricultural products in those western states.

In 1863, a 24 year-old upstart business owner in Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller established an oil refinery in his home town, believing the new demand for kerosene for lighting. Rockefeller joined several other refineries in Cleveland as the city became the center of refining oil being pumped out of wells in nearby Pennsylvania. Rockefeller’s business, to become known as Standard Oil grew to dominate the industry, in large part due to the excellent rail system in Ohio and its proximity to Lake Erie, a major export waterway.

William Procter, a candle maker, and James Gamble, a soap maker, formed the company known as Procter & Gamble in 1837. The two men, immigrants from England and Ireland respectively, had settled earlier in Cincinnati and had married sisters. The two men decided to pool their resources to form their own company, formalizing the relationship on October 31, 1837.

The company prospered during the nineteenth century. In 1859, sales reached one million dollars. By this point, approximately eighty employees worked for Procter & Gamble. During the Civil War, the company won contracts to supply the Union army with soap and candles. In addition to the increased profits experienced during the war, the military contracts introduced soldiers from all over the country to Procter & Gamble’s products. Once the war was over and the men returned home, they continued to purchase the company’s products. Essentially, P & G became one of the United States’ first national brands.

Many Ohioans who served in the war and experienced new places, ideas and ways of thinking would go on to found companies still in existence today. Their status as heroic veterans opening doors and bringing the reputation helpful to succeeding in business. One such veteran was O.M. Scott of the 121st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Shortly after the war in 1868, Scott established a seed company supplying farmers with high quality seeds. As America became more industrialized and its citizens began to move to the cities, a land of green lawns and white picket fences emerged. Scott met the needs of these citizens by expanding his business to produce first grass seed and then lawn care products. Today, Scotts Miracle Gro continues to be a dominate company in its industry, employing thousands in Ohio.

The American Civil War had a deep and lasting impact on Ohio’s economy and industry. While both military and political leadership by Ohioans would make the state a prominent force in the future, its industrialists also played a decisive role in the future of the country, impacting every citizens’ daily life. That impact would have been much less had the state not been in the position to meet the challenges of the war and the new, emerging economy of the country.


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