North Carolina Civil War Documentary

By W. Buck Yearns; John G. Barret | Go to book overview

XIII
THE ECONOMY OF SCARCITIES

Not very long after the Civil War a writer questioned whether "there was ever before a great people so far from self-sustaining as was the South in 1861."1 Most Confederates originally believed that the war would not last long enough for this to be of much import, but their optimism was short-Lived and by the fall of 1861 the seriousness of shortages was becoming grim. As the war progressed, the declining imports, the loss of labor, the needs of the army, the deterioration of machines and tools, and the lack of capital planning by manufacturers made the Confederacy a land of scarcity, needing everything "from a hair-pin to a tooth-pick, and from a cradle to a coffin."2 Each family's welfare depended largely on the ingenuity of its women, and living with scarcity and devising substitutes became harsh realities of life.

The most serious shortage was of food. Early in the war the Confederacy was self-sustaining only in corn and bacon, and supplies of the latter became inadequate after the loss of Kentucky and Tennessee. But other shortages were less serious only in kind. The little local tanneries that sprang up required about eighteen months for a tanning process, and sole leather was particularly difficult to make. Despite the state's salt making activities, people often had to dig up the dirt floors of their smokehouses to get the salt from years of meat drippings. Iron was scarce, and women half believed that northern manufacturers had deliberately sold them poor quality pins before the war with an eye to the future. Of all the manufactured articles, the scarcity of cotton cards created the most anxiety, for they were fragile, difficult to replace, and absolutely necessary for making lint useable.

But not even frugality and economy could compensate for some shortages, and substitutes had to be found. Confederate ingenuity was remarkable here, and eventually women were able to devise substitutes for almost every item in short supply. One writer estimated that southern

____________________
1
David Dodge, "Domestic Economy in the Confederacy," p. 229.
2
Mary Elizabeth Massey, Ersatz in the Confederacy, p. 4.

-213-

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