We welcome a guest post today from R. Douglas Hurt, author of Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South. In this comprehensive history, Hurt traces the decline and fall of agriculture in the Confederate States of America. The backbone of the southern economy, agriculture was a source of power that southerners believed would ensure their independence. But, season by season and year by year, Hurt convincingly shows how the disintegration of southern agriculture led to the decline of the Confederacy’s military, economic, and political power.
In today’s post, Hurt examines the effect that southern agriculture had on Confederate power during the Civil War and decades afterward.
The Civil War ended 150 years ago with Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. Purists might well argue April 26, when Joseph E. Johnston laid down his arms, or even Andrew Johnson’s official proclamation on August 20, 1866, that for legal purposes the war was over. No matter. By 1865 the military power of the Confederacy no longer offered the chance for independence, and the histories of the Civil war primarily involve the analysis of military affairs leading to that end.
A lesser known failure of the Confederacy, however, involved agriculture. In 1861, Southerners considered agriculture an element of power similar to military power, which, combined, would guarantee secession and independence. They were confident that not only would Union armies not prevail but also that their own agricultural capability would prevent the Union from starving the Confederacy into submission. Southerners could fight, feed themselves, and use cotton as a diplomatic tool—assumptions that in the minds of many already made the Confederacy independent.
By 1865, Southerners’ certainty that agriculture would help them win the war had evaporated. Slavery as an agricultural labor system had collapsed. Where Confederate and Union armies had fought and marched, farmers had lost livestock, grain, and forage. The swath of war was marked by burned fence rails, barns, and buildings and smashed agricultural equipment. Confederate agricultural policy—if it had existed at all—contributed little to the war effort. The Produce Loan program, tax-in-kind procurement, and price fixing for provisions, along with a worthless currency and army foraging had ruined the agricultural power of the Confederacy. It would not come again.
Spring planting season looked bleak. Many farmers did not intend to plant the corn that would provide human and livestock food because soldiers from both armies so wantonly took it. keep reading →