Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hurt: "AGRICULTURE AND THE CONFEDERACY: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South"

[Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South by R. Douglas Hurt (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Softcover, 2 maps, tables, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:301/360. ISBN:978-1-4696-2000-8 $45]

When it became clear that secession meant war, farmers, plantation owners, and city dwellers across the new Confederacy were equally confident in the power wielded by southern agriculture to defy northern predictions of starvation and ruin. Little worry was felt over feeding and clothing citizens and soldiers alike and they believed northern efforts to disrupt southern exports would frighten foreign markets enough to intervene in the conflict. The Civil War ultimately proved all these grand assumptions false and how this unexpected outcome came to be is the subject of R. Douglas Hurt's fine new study Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South.

The decision to structure the book on a chronological rather than thematic basis has inherent strengths. While moving the narrative forward year by year results in a great deal of cause and effect repetition it impresses upon readers the clearest means of appreciating the gradual breakdown of the southern economy's driving force. Presenting data and analysis by theater also serves as an effective reminder of the increasingly localized nature of wartime agricultural markets in the South. There never was a managed Confederate agricultural economy but rather an aggregation of isolated economies. The foreign blockade, the cessation of northern trade, the encroachment of Union armies, and the deterioration of the South's internal transportation networks compartmentalized prices, supply, and other market forces, with abundance available in some areas and severe shortages of the same commodity in others.

As Hurt demonstrates, collapse in confidence in the war winning power of Confederate agriculture was both gradual and multifactorial. Southern farmers initially benefited from high demand and prices after the blockade shut off northern imports but, similar to Germany's WW1 experience, serious shortages were already becoming widespread as early as the first six months of the conflict. An inefficient transportation network often meant that even where there was temporary abundance it could not get to where it was needed most. Production capacity also took hits from all sides.  Early in the war, the Union army and navy (especially in the West) quickly invaded and occupied large swaths of the most productive agricultural regions of the South. National conscription of able bodied white males and losses in slave labor through both opportunistic flight and Union military confiscation decreased farm and plantation output. Even basic farming implements, most of which were manufactured in the North during the antebellum period, became scarce.

Producers also voluntarily influenced supply. Farmers and planters came to avoid markets for fear of impressment by Confederate officials and confiscation by Union occupation forces. Many growers did heed patriotic requests to forgo cultivating cotton for wheat and corn, but many others did not, leaving food production below optimum levels. Hurt makes a good point when he notes that no one knew that an end to the blockade and war wasn't just over the horizon during 1861-63 and no one wanted to be left without a prime cash crop like cotton when full trade suddenly resumed. Confederate societal solidarity also suffered when scarcities and allegations of war profiteering set food producers and consumers (whose purchasing power plummeted with devalued currency and skyrocketing prices) at increasing odds with each other.

In the midst of all this, the national government in Richmond was not entirely idle but their initiatives were often either late, ineffective or both. Confederate national policy was reactive rather than centrally proactive when it came to railroad management, which crops to grow, impressment prices, etc. The early war partial cotton embargo failed to have the desired effect. Farmers and planters needed cash to pay expenses year to year, and Confederate bond and loan program failures along with unstable paper currency and price fixing together meant that revenues and expenses could not be reliably reconciled. Failed monetary policies and incredible supply-demand disparities resulted in rampant inflation that far outpaced consumer wages and incomes. Impressment at far below market prices led to hoarding of agricultural products and productivity dipped when essential items like horses and wagons were appropriated by the army. The 10% tax-in-kind was designed to supply the army and help pay for the war but it was subject to rampant abuse and inequity.  Farmers and planters objected to paying their taxes with high value foodstuffs, cotton, tobacco, beef, and hogs instead of devalued currency. With assessment agents on their property and directly probing into their affairs, producers felt increasingly oppressed by their own government and enthusiasm for the Confederacy waned. Additionally, by decreasing market supplies by 10%, tax-in-kind measures drove up food prices for the general population even more.

Though serious cracks in the foundations of Confederate agricultural power only enlarged in 1863, confidence in victory still existed at the war's midpoint and slave prices remained high in many places. In early 1864, the Confederate government created a new currency and reformed (at least on paper) the impressment and tax-in-kind laws. However, these attempts to supply the armies, relieve civilian want and suffering, and restore relations with farmers and planters all failed, and the war's penultimate year witnessed the irredeemable collapse of Confederate agricultural power.

In addition to synthesizing the existing literature, Hurt conducted archival research of his own for Agriculture and the Confederacy, peppering the narrative with a variety of perspectives from the front lines of the agricultural home front. Taking readers to far flung Confederate outposts like Fort Smith, Arkansas, Hurt didn't limit his efforts to major cities like Richmond and New Orleans. While the constant parade of local pricing information can become a bit numbing it serves an important purpose by highlighting in stark terms the consequences of wartime economic dislocation and the failures of policies meant to address the problems the war created for both producers and consumers.  Hurt documents food riots and other lawless episodes of desperation that materialized in places throughout the South in response to shortages and high prices but he also mentions the extensive state and local relief efforts directed toward helping the most vulnerable elements of society, like soldier families and the poor.

Finally, the author discusses the end of slavery and the development of the contract work arrangement and early sharecropping systems that resulted in partial southern agricultural recovery but relegated freedmen and their families to a social status somewhere in between slavery and true freedom. In the epilogue, Hurt also goes over some of the lasting, and even permanent, agricultural changes wrought by the war. For example, it took decades for the labor, land, and capital intensive sugar industry to recover and almost the entire South Atlantic rice growing economy disappeared during and after the war, rising from the ashes instead in Louisiana.

An appendix lists monthly 1860 commodity prices in southern and northeastern U.S. cities, presumably to give readers a solid baseline for comparison to subsequent inflation levels.  This is useful, but it would also have been helpful if Hurt had found a way to collect in tabular format the wartime pricing data that he used throughout the text to such good effect. Having that information available in one place would serve as a valuable reference tool for researchers.

At its most fundamental level, Hurt's study demonstrates that commodity prices high enough to undermine the Confederate war effort by making basic subsistence unaffordable to vast numbers of citizens stemmed from three main factors: inflated currency, breakdown in transportation, and falling production. Through external wartime forces and mismanagement, all of these problems proved insoluble. Amply researched and persuasively argued, Agriculture and the Confederacy offers the best account yet of how a war winning assumption (southern agriculture abundance and power) was instead transformed into a powerful force driving Confederate defeat.

More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter
* Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia
* A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People
* Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign
* With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North
* The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina
* West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

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