Book Review: Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War


by Andrew F. Smith

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011. Pp. vi, 298. Illus., notes, index. $27.99. ISBN: 0312601816


Starving the South, by food historian Smith, author of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink and many other books about food, is not a cheery work, for it portrays the hard choices people, South and North, had to make. 

At the beginning of the Civil War, most thought hostilities would end in about six weeks.  However, the Confederacy died a slow death by geographic partitioning.  Over time, the Confederate armies’ food supplies were systematically shut off which, in good part, caused the surrender at Appomattox, as Smith shows in this important economic, social, and military study. This reviewer, for one, have been waiting for years for someone to cover this story.

Starving the South puts to bed the notion of a happy Confederate citizenry.  The war fell hardest on the common Confederate soldiers, who were subject to the draft and were mostly food producers.  So while they starved in the army, so too did their families at home.

As for the North, Smith poses the question: is it more moral to reduce a people to hunger rather than death to subdue them?   Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan both answered “Yes” to this question.  Smith, however, fails to consider that in this Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee also bore responsibility.  By the fall of 1864, at the latest, it was clear the Confederacy was going to lose, in part because of Union advances in the field, and in part due to hunger and mass desertion in the ranks.  Yet Davis and Lee were undeterred in a delusional quest for victory.

Although Smith covers many absorbing issues, four are of most importance: that food shortages often drove decision-making; Confederate impressment of supplies caused major disaffection among civilians; the North’s decision to trade cotton for food both increased federal revenue through sales but also prolonged the war, because it helped feed Confederate armies; Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas represented the final stage of his thinking about “hard war.”  At the end, Lee surrendered because he had virtually no army left and no way to obtain food for those who did remain, as every route had been closed off around him in western Virginia.
From the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861, Virginia became tramped-over ground, with both armies foraging in the same territory.  This affected military decisions, for  Lee was forced to delay his spring campaign in April 1863 until the crops could be harvested, while in September 1864, Gen. Wade Hampton targeted US cattle in a surprise raid that brought in 3,500 head, and so forth.

An interesting fact revealed is that before hostilities, the South imported most of its salt from Wales.  Salt was necessary to sustain nutrition, preserve and cure meats and other foodstuffs, and tan leather.  Thus Southerners scrambled to produce their own supplies: searching for new deposits, plumbing salt lakes and saline artesian wells, and desalinating sea water.  Salt facilities also became Union military targets, especially those in the Kanawha Valley in Virginia and Goose Creek, Kentucky.

The geographic food crisis began after Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Kentucky/Tennessee border in February 1862.   A variety of Northern exports -- notably hogs -- had been cut off from shipment south in early 1861.  But after Donelson, the Confederates abandoned Kentucky and central Tennessee.  These two states were the western breadbasket of the South, for which Nashville was a major food depot.  These losses caused the Confederate War Department to order a reduction in the meat ration for the armies.
From the start of the war, the Confederate government impressed food supplies, a practice that increased beginning in 1863.  This meant farmers were forced to sell their produce at below market prices, and were paid with inflated Confederate dollars or promissory notes, sometimes at as little as ten cents on the dollar.  The demoralized population reacted by engaging in speculation, hiding, and hoarding; allowing land to go fallow; and reducing themselves to subsistence farming; while the soldiers from farm families began deserting.  Thus the policy reduced the flow of food to both civilians and the military.  As Lee wrote, wholesale food impressment will “deter many farmers from exerting all their efforts in producing full and proper crops.”

When Union forces moved into New Orleans and Memphis, they were faced with a quandary: if they traded local cotton for food, Northern textile production could be kept up and raw cotton could be sold in Europe, which would help finance the war; however, although the food would help keep civilians from starving, clearly a good deal would end up with the Confederate armies.  During the war, an estimated 900,000 bales of Southern cotton were traded for supplies.   In the end, Union Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby believed that Southern forces “east and west of the Mississippi had been almost completely provisioned by this trade, and that it added strength to the confederates equal to almost 50,000 men.”

During the first two years of the war, Sherman tried to follow rules regarding provisioning.  As late as January 1863, he wrote of his disgust with Union practices: “Farms disappear, houses are burned and plundered, every living animal is killed and eaten.”  Yet after his experience at Vicksburg and in Tennessee, he called for the destruction of whatever “wealth and property [the Confederate army] has founded its boasted strength upon.”

Sherman realized that only large scale destruction of the South’s ability to supply Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would affect Confederate operations there.  Thus, when he began the march from Atlanta to Savannah, a 60-mile wide swath of countryside provided sustenance, without compensation; and was cleared of supplies, equipment, and facilities that had military value.  Sherman ordered that distinctions be made between rich and poor and neutral or friendly and hostile parties.  Foragers were ordered to leave with each family “a reasonable portion for their sustenance.”  However, controlling even limited free lance foraging was a fanciful idea.  In at least one reported case, a woman begged a soldier not to take all her chickens, that she had children to feed, and received the reply, “Madam we’re going to suppress this rebellion if it takes every last chicken in the Confederacy.” 

In his memoirs, Sherman described the foraging operation in detail, which included large scale controlled operations.   He justified it by saying that no army so large could have carried provisions for 300 miles.  Afterward he did hear reports of thefts of personal items and provisions, but “these acts were exceptional and incidental” and no civil authority existed that could take requisitions.  Indeed Confederate congressmen in Richmond exhorted Georgia citizens to: “Remove your negroes, horses, cattle, and provisions from Sherman’s army, and burn what you cannot carry.”

On February 1, 1864, Sherman left Savannah, heading for Confederate supply depots in Raleigh and Goldsboro, North Carolina.   Loss of these might cause Lee to surrender.  Smith documents the destruction wreaked on the march, warehouses emptied, railroad machine shops destroyed, mills and government buildings burned.  Yet these were legitimate military targets.  Under the doctrine of military necessity, an army may prevent aid going to the enemy.   Moreover a good deal of the destruction of property, especially bridges, was done by the Confederates themselves.
On March 31, 1865, Sheridan’s cavalry cut the South Side Railroad, one of the few remaining lines into Richmond.  This effected Lee’s evacuation of the capital.   The Army of Northern Virginia streamed west along the Danville Rail Road, hoping to reach stockpiles at Amelia Court House.  Finding none there, Lee finally connected with other stores, but sought more at Lynchburg.  Sheridan then sent George A. Custer to intercept these; and Custer got to Appomattox Court House first, and Lee he surrendered to Grant on April 9.

At the end, Confederates soldiers had been deserting at the reported rate of 200 a day.   On April 1, Lee’s army supposedly had 150,000 men on its rolls, although thousands were sick or furloughed, or had been captured or died, or had deserted.  On April 9, only 27,500 surrendered.   A Confederate officer, J. H. Duncan thought the “controlling influence” over the deserters was simply “the insufficiency of rations.”  In the previous eighteen months, thousands had also deserted, as their wives had written, pleading for them to come home because they were starving, or needed them for spring planting.

Beyond the above, Smith covers a myriad other topics, some unexpected: cotton production vs. food production; the effects of the naval blockade; blockade runners; inflation; bread riots; “starvation parties”; the 1864 first  national Thanksgiving; labor shortages, including loss of slaves; malnutrition among horses.

Although Smith thoroughly covers the topic of railroads, he overlooks the argument that Lee’s army went hungry, not because the Confederacy lacked food, but because the Southern railroad system could not transport enough of it, both because it was in a feeble condition to begin with and was destroyed by enemy forces.  Advanced by Charles W. Ramsdell, Smith should have addressed this matter.

This reviewer also wished that Smith had covered more the relative participation of women as agricultural laborers.  Anecdotal and documentary evidence indicate that Southern women were mostly reduced to subsistence, while Northern women manned McCormick reapers en masse. Smith's discussion of Sherman’s marches is also a bit shaky. On one hand he quotes Sherman’s Savannah orders and says they were legal, but when he describes the actual activities, he gives the impression of wanton destruction.

Despite these omissions, one cannot fault Smith for overall his research is comprehensive and accurate.  What can finally be said is that Smith has made a very important contribution to Civil War literature.  As he shows, the issue of food and the Confederacy was not just one of how hungry Southern soldiers were, but so too was much of the populace.   One can argue that the Civil War was one great siege operation of the whole South. 

Our Reviewer: C . Kay Larson, is an independent scholar based in New York. She is the author of Great Necessities: The Life, Times and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894 and the novel South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, US Army Nurse & Scout.  A member of the board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, she has contributed to MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, and is a reviewer for the H-CivWar List.  She has contributed essays on "Monitor's Brave Fellow," "Women at War," "The Count and the Gymnasts," and "A Woman with Flare" to The New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a revised and expanded edition of her 1995 book 'Til I Come Marching Home: A Brief History of American Women in World War II. 

Reviewer: C. Kay Larson   

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