The South’s Achilles Heel

I came across a very interesting article in Volume 55, No. 5 (October, 2016) of Civil War Times in an interview with historian R. Douglas Hurt of Purdue University regarding his book, Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South.

Hurt makes several fascinating points during the interview, such as, “By 1861, you have the Confederate Congress and states telling people to plant less and less cotton and dedicate their acreage to food crops. But planters and farmers really didn’t want to plow under their crop. They saw that as a bad risk. Most of the cotton had been planted on credit anyway. It was a tough issue that planters, farmers and politicians really wrestled with, and they never got control of it.” [p. 20] In response to a statement about the amount of cotton and tools the confederacy had, Hurt says, “”Southerners really depended upon the Northern agricultural implement industry. And when the war begins they are at the mercy of what they have. Those industries that were producing agricultural implements converted fairly rapidly to wartime production from contracts from the Confederate government. It had been easier and cheaper to buy from the North, and then you get the matter of keeping people busy all year. You have a large investment in slave labor, so maybe it’s best to let people do things by hand with simple instruments rather than invest in a reaping machine that would complete a task very quickly.” [pp. 20-21]

The Border States were a key loss to the confederacy. Professor Hurt says, “Confederate farmers and planters relied for their mule supply on Kentucky and Missouri, which had a national reputation for producing mules of great strength and reliability. Once that was gone, Southern planters began to feel the pinch fairly quickly, but even more so the Confederate military, because there was really no replacement of horses and mules once the Northern supply was cut off. By the time the war ended, the average life of a horse pulling artillery or wagons was about seven months. Sometimes cavalry horses lasted less than that. There’s also the problem of very serious disease among horses, particularly with glanders [a contagious bacterial disease], and that took its toll as well.” [p. 21]

The horse situation hit especially hard. “Union horses received, on the books at least, 14 pounds of grain and 10 pounds of hay a day for forage. Toward the end, Lee’s horses for wagons, caissons and cavalry had five pounds of grain a day. By Appomattox, Lee’s horses were just starving.” [p. 21] Glanders complicated things. Hurt tells us Lee sent some worn-out horses to farmers for rest, but those diseased horses spread glanders to the farmers’ herds wherever they went. The disease affected both Union and confederate horses, but it hurt the confederates far more due to their limited supply of the animals. Also, “Much is made, for example, of Grant allowing Lee and Confederate soldiers to go home and take their horses with them because they needed them to plow. In point of fact, many of these Southern horses had been infected by glanders, and their lifespan was pretty limited anyway. When Confederate soldiers went home and took their horses with them, it spread disease across the South, creating a problem that would linger and leave a footprint of the war that really didn’t go away.” [p. 21]

Professor Hurt says, “The Confederate Congress didn’t make an effort until early 1865 to try to get a handle on the mobilization of agriculture to support the war, and by that time it was too late. The Confederate Congress never created a department of agriculture. There was too much volunteerism and too much consideration for states’ rights. The other thing that surprised me was how resistant so many cotton farmers were to cutting production. A lot of planters thought if they could produce cotton and store it and keep it in good shape, and keep Confederate or Union forces from burning it, sooner or later they were going to have a market. That could be when the war ended, or when the Union forces got close enough they could sell to Union speculators and make a lot of money.” [p. 21]

This fascinating discussion gives us a perspective rarely seen.

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One comment

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    The Confederate States had plenty of farmland to feed its’ own people, blacks included. Unfortunately for them human nature got in the way and it exhibited itself in selfish greed of the planter class. These oligarchs expected everyone else to do the heavy lifting. My two cents anyway.

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