The shortage of food during the Civil War affected many Southerners on the homefront. Although some parts of the South enjoyed an abundance of foodstuffs, other parts of the Confederacy experienced severe deprivation. As the war continued and conditions grew worse, Southerners' winter of discontent turned into years of unhappiness and sacrifice. Southerners consumed milk, corn, butter, meal, and an occasional piece of meat. Tea, sugar, and coffee were rare commodities for them.
Agriculture suffered as farms and plantations were neglected when men left home to fulfill their military obligations to the Confederacy. The inability of families to cultivate and harvest crops was a constant reminder of how their world had been turned upside down by the war. The long and brutal conflict tested the endurance of men, women, and children, not least in terms of how they coped with and reacted to the scarcity of food.
As poverty spread across the region, white Southerners turned to their neighbors, friends, and families for help. In response to the lack of food, desperate citizens rioted in several towns and cities. The most memorable of the food uprisings occurred in Richmond, Virginia, in April 1863, when dozens of angry women took to the streets in search of provisions. The exigencies of the conflict forced record numbers of women to seek employment in an effort to stave off starvation. The food crisis behind the lines caused numerous families to accept handouts in the form of public or private assistance and to barter for the basic necessities of life.
The Union blockade of Southern ports added to the shortages in the South. Those affected by the blockade were convinced that it was a deliberate scheme by the federal government to compel the Confederate nation to surrender. Making a bad situation worse was the common practice of food hoarding by speculators, who hoped to reap huge profits by selling items at exorbitant prices. Those who hoarded food and other supplies earned the scorn of their fellow Southerners. With the plantation economy in shambles and inflation out of control, the price of many food items was beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. An example of the runaway inflation was the increase in the price of flour in Richmond, from $20 a barrel in January 1863 to $250, fourteen months later.
Civilians' criticism of the Jefferson Davis government coincided with the difficulty of procuring food. The mismanagement of the South's nearly 9,000 miles of railroad track was symptomatic of the Confederate government's inability to meet the expectations of the people. The rail transportation system was bedeviled by short lines and the South's limited ability to do repair work on trains and tracks, which were often ruined by Union soldiers. As Union soldiers invaded the South, its inhabitants were helpless to prevent them from taking chickens, sheep, turkeys, pigs, hogs, calves and other property. Foraging, however, was not limited to Northern troops. As the war dragged on, the basic need to survive forced Confederate soldiers to engage in the practice as well.
Provisions for slaves on plantations were also in short supply. The common staples of a slave's diet were mush, peanuts, potatoes, and cornbread. Although malnutrition had become a common phenomenon in this agricultural land, the elderly among the slave population were the most vulnerable to death by starvation. Hardship on the homefront was a reality shared and endured by both white and black Southerners. Wartime food shortages, however, took a greater toll on whites than on blacks, for blacks had been accustomed to subsisting on less. Though facing a mountain of obstacles, Southerners proved to the rest of the country that the human spirit had the power to persevere in the face of extreme adversity.
Confederate soldiers also experienced major food shortages, especially in the latter two years of the war. Much of this was due to food spoilage, inadequate or disrupted supply lines, bad weather, the destruction of crops, and Union occupation of food-producing areas of the South. The Confederate Subsistence Department contracted with Southern farmers to supply food to Southern soldiers, but that department of the government was poorly organized. By 1864, soldiers' rations had been drastically reduced. Military fare often consisted of dried meat, hardtack, corn, and potatoes. Hungry soldiers suffered from night blindness, dysentery, depression, and lethargy. Many became experts at foraging for food and learning to deal with hunger. Confederate soldiers defending Vicksburg faced near-starvation in July 1863; the Army of Northern Virginia was starving as it retreated from Gettysburg. Lee's famished army marching toward Appomattox, with some soldiers not eating for days and others scrounging for corn kernels intended for horses, has become a well-known emblem of the Confederate Army's devastation.
Food shortages had an enormous impact on the Civil War, reducing the ability of the South to wage war. Desperate families on the homefront begged their men to abandon the cause and come home. The wars of the twentieth century have applied the lessons learned from the South in the Civil War. In what is known as "total war," which treats civilians as combatants, warring nations have used military means to undermine civilian morale through starvation and deprivation.
Davis, William C. A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.
Gates, Paul W. Agriculture and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Marten, James. Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
Taylor, Robert A. Rebel Storehouse: Florida in the Confederate Economy. Tuscaloosa: University Press of Alabama, 1995.
Leonne M. Hudson
See also:Blockade, Civil War.