THE GREAT FOOD FIGHT
Spring 1865 brought misery and death to the beleaguered Confederacy. All that remained of the formerly invincible Army of Northern Virginia was 55,000 desperate and starving troops, men battered by four years of war, their pride melting before thoughts of desertion. The indignities of war mounted. In April, the men trudged toward Amelia Courthouse, Virginia, driven on by the prospect of a rendezvous with rations arriving by train. But a snafu caused ammunition to be delivered mistakenly. As the men dragged themselves forward, they were reduced to eating horse feed—the corn on the cob commonly fed the animals. “Two ears were issued to each man,” one soldier wrote. “It was parched in the coals, mixed with salt, stored in the pockets, and eaten on the road. Chewing the corn was hard work. It made the jaws ache and the gums and teeth so sore as to cause unendurable pain.” Thus it was that one of the first things Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did after the South surrendered was send three days of rations to the former Confederate rebels, taking the edge off their hunger and welcoming them back into the United States. 1
The Civil War interrupted many of the normal routines of daily existence. But one basic fact of life remained the same: The nation's citizens, like all human beings, still had to figure out how to feed themselves and the animals on which they had come to depend. The eternal quest to survive biologically, to derive the requisite number of calories from food, was as relevant for soldiers on the battlefield as it was for plantation slaves and factory workers. Biological existence, in turn, depended on agriculture, on the land, soil, weather, and countless other natural factors that went into getting the earth to yield fruit. Even the fate of military actions sometimes hinged on forces beyond human control. Campaigns bogged down along mud roads made impassable by winter precipitation. In one case, rain led a Union commander to call off an assault altogether. Nature did not take a vacation when the nation—wrenched apart by two vastly different political frameworks, one based on free labor, the other on slavery—went to war.
“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” 2 Those were the words of Gen. Robert E. Lee, summing up the reasons behind the South's defeat. With 22 million people to the Confederacy's nine million, with 70 percent of the nation's railroad mileage, plus