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

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

Synopsis

In this comprehensive history, R. Douglas 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. He examines regional variations in the Eastern and Western Confederacy, linking the fates of individual crops and different modes of farming and planting to the wider story. After a dismal harvest in late 1864, southerners--faced with hunger and privation throughout the region--ransacked farms in the Shenandoah Valley and pillaged plantations in the Carolinas and the Mississippi Delta, they finally realized that their agricultural power, and their government itself, had failed. Hurt shows how this ultimate lost harvest had repercussions that lasted well beyond the end of the Civil War.

Assessing agriculture in its economic, political, social, and environmental contexts, Hurt sheds new light on the fate of the Confederacy from the optimism of secession to the reality of collapse.

Excerpt

On the eve of the Civil War southerners considered cotton to be king, but below the Mason-Dixon Line “agriculture,” primarily based on slavery— and collectively constituted from the major commercial crops of cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar—more correctly deserved that sobriquet. Indeed, agriculture created the basis for southern prosperity. Small, diversified farms throughout the region raised a variety of crops to feed their owners’ families and provide enough surplus for market to enable them to purchase things both needed and desired for daily life. Across the antebellum South, these farmers practiced an increasingly commercial agriculture while meeting most of the region’s food needs. The Upper South produced a surplus of wheat, tobacco, cattle, horses, mules, and hogs. Farmers in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida raised cattle for southern markets. Plantations in South Carolina and Georgia provided rice for the world, a commodity that supported a rich planter class and an extensive slave population. Cotton farmers and planters from South Carolina to Texas and north to Arkansas and western Tennessee produced most of the world’s cotton, and the staple was the leading export of the United States. Louisiana planters supplied the nation with sugar and molasses, the former a commodity that few people believed they could live without and the latter a product that served as an important food ration for slaves. Across the region southerners raised large corn crops each year, which they ground into meal for bread and fed to their hogs for fattening.

In the South most farmers and planters, the latter of whom I define as holding at least 500 acres and twenty slaves, not only believed their way of life and the institution of slavery was superior to northern farming and agricultural labor; they also contended that northerners did not appreciate and value southern contributions to the national economy. Moreover, southerners assumed that northerners would soon pay a high price for their false assumptions about the driving force of the American . . .

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