EDITOR’S NOTE: In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, Ellis County resident Rose Ryder has written a series of columns of historical facts relating to the War Between the States.
• First of two-part series
From the very beginning of the War Between the States, the lack of food influenced Confederate military movement.
At the battle of Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861, the Confederates won despite serious supply deficiencies. However they were unable to follow up with an assault on defenseless Washington because they had less than one day’s rations for the soldiers. Had the army been able to follow the defeated Union army and captured Washington in July 1861, the war might have ended then.
The Confederacy created many of their own problems or failed to adequately address difficulties as they arose. Simultaneously the North devised and implemented a strategy to starve the South into submission.
Prior to the war, the South was the most productive agricultural region in the United States. Planters focused on the cash crops of cotton and tobacco which were exported to England and the northern states.
Much of the food consumed by Southerners was grown in other areas.
As the war began, planters were encouraged to convert to the production of foodstuffs. Believing in the concept of states’ rights, the Confederate government refused to pass a law forbidding cotton production. Ultimately every Confederate state would do so.
Newspaper men wrote editorials encouraging the growth of food. In Georgia one wrote “Plant corn and be free, or plant cotton and be whipped.”
Most plantation owners chose for a while to continue to grow primarily cotton and tobacco, anticipating their ability to export both.
On small farms, without slave labor, food production plummeted as the men went off to war. Now the women, who had never worked the fields, had to learn to plow, sow and harvest, all this while they continued to care for their homes and families.
In addition to the lack of manpower, farmers found themselves without the animals and implements needed.
Soldiers often took their animals when they enlisted. The government needed horses, mules, and wagons to move the armies and their supplies.
A Richmond, Va., newspaper editor reported that, when so many were taken into service, farmers were left “without sufficient force to cultivate even ordinary crops.”
Farm implements wore out and the Confederacy lacked the manufacturing facilities to replace them. Early in the second year of the war, a well-to-do planter in Virginia wrote his soldier son, “there was not a single hoe on his place fit for use in the cornfield.”
Mother Nature also played havoc on food supplies in the Confederacy. Floods hampered production along the Mississippi River in 1861 and 1862. In Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi it was possible to row boats over cultivated fields seven miles back from the river. The Appomattox River overflowed in 1864 destroying crops and the food stored in a government warehouse in Petersburg, Va. Serious droughts occurred in Alabama, Texas and North Carolina.
Railroads in the South were privately owned and lacked standardization of track sizes, making transportation difficult. As the war wore on, Southern armies depended on railroads to transport soldiers, war equipment and food. The trains and tracks soon wore out.
Lacking manufacturing facilities, the South found itself unable to produce new locomotives and cars or obtain parts to maintain and repair the broken transportation system. Often unable to keep the trains running, tons of bacon, rice and perishable foods spoiled in mass on the rails while soldiers and civilians starved.
Early in the war, Southerners gave freely to feed and support their soldiers. But as other food limiting factors developed, the Confederate government found itself unable to feed the armies. They were forced to turn to “impressment” just to keep the soldiers alive. The government took food and other supplies as needed in exchange for currency or a note promising to pay. They attempted to pay market prices.
However, by 1863, inflation was rampant due to dwindling food supplies. The market price of flour doubled. Bacon which had cost $1.25 per pound in 1860 now cost $10. The price of sugar increased more than 15 times and coffee cost 40 times more.
The price schedules prepared by the Confederate government could not keep up. Civilians were outraged as seizures continued at prices which ultimately dropped to below 50 percent of market value. Farmers hid their provisions or refused to grow more than their families needed. Agents would often stand near the entrance to a city and impress food as farmers came to market. So farmers refused to deliver produce to cities.
Thus famine arose particularly in cities and army camps. Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederate government, grew three times its prewar size. The increase resulted from growth of the government, arrival of families hoping to be near soldiers, refugees and widows looking for work.
Food shortages became critical. Edmund Ruffin, a South Carolinian reported to have fired some of the first shots at Fort Sumter and now residing in Richmond, wrote in 1863, “It seems to me that our country and cause are now, for the first time during the war, in great peril of defeat – and not from the enemy’s arms, but from the scarcity and high prices of provisions.”
Soon the effects of the Confederate food failures and the North’s starvation policies would be felt across the South.
Rose Ryder writes for Parsons’ Rose #9, Texas Society Order of Confederate Rose. For more information, visit www.omroberts.com or www.tsocr.org.