Review: R. Douglas Hurt’s Agriculture and the Confederacy

 

Hurt, R. Douglas. Agriculture and the Confederacy: policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South.  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) 364 pp. $45.00.

     At the onset of the Civil War, the Confederate Leadership and citizenry remained confident in their ability to feed their newly independent nation and win a fast war. However, as Scott’s Great Snake tightened its grip on Dixie, the agricultural policies, and practices of the South proved to be ultimately harmful and left Southerners starving. In Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South R. Douglas Hurt walks readers through the fall of the Cotton Empire, masterfully validating his assertions not only through personal diaries and ledgers but also with the bureaucratic policies and published prices of goods in regional newspapers. His comprehensive research on this subject is an important addition to the scholarship on the topic during this Sesquicentennial season, for Hurt has created a new lens with which to view the history and memory of the post-war South by leading readers to a new study of life on the homefront.

     Hurt organizes the book by year and region; taking the reader through the war one step at a time and continuously reevaluating policy and the economy to provide a comprehensive picture of how and why Southern Agriculture eventually failed even though farmers and planters remained  optimistic at the war’s beginning. The greed of southern cotton growers and the extraordinarily large demand for able-bodied soldiers are two themes that Hurt carries throughout the work. Hurt argues that southern farmers were a fiercely independent bloc who, “only wanted an agricultural policy that benefitted them individually rather than collectively for the good of the nation,” and acknowledges that this cultural desire for libertarian independence would ultimately, “Supercede the desire for an agricultural policy designed to benefit the Confederacy (24).” In other words, Southern Pride and resting on the false hopes of foreign intervention (because of the presumed dependence of western Europe and Britain on Southern cotton) ultimately contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy.

     The Confederacy wasn’t hampered by policy and culture alone. Hurt, like many Civil War scholars,  demonstrates it was a war of resources not only for the competing armies, but those left on the homefront. The Anaconda Plan was an apt response to the new Southern need to import beef cattle from Texas now that it was cut off from its more typical markets by fighting and impressments in the Upper South. Hurt is careful to illustrate just how important interstate commerce was by this part of the nineteenth century. Often it is easy, especially for the lay reader, to imagine that all of the goods and resources used by Americans in this period was from within a fifty or one-hundred mile radius. Hurt makes certain to dispel this idea and emphasize that before the success of the Anaconda Plan the Confederacy could have been, according to many southerners, “‘The most self-sustaining country in the world,’” but their early optimism lead to bad decision making and ultimately a shortage of beef and other goods.

     Agriculture and the Confederacy is hugely successful in its telling of the low points of the Civil War in the South, and demonstrating just how strong an effect the tax-in-kind programs and the expansion of the Confederate draft was to folks on the homefront. Hurt takes the time to examine the plight of Southern women, many of whom had no agricultural experience and were left to tend to large plantations and farms with little assistance from experienced men. Their farms managed to produce but little, and they often attempted to sell their goods like butter and eggs to Union soldiers for other goods to help feed themselves and their hungry children.  The lives of women, too, were rapidly changing with the markets and the successes or failures of crops over the course of the Civil War, and the author weaves their stories and perspectives into each chapter as he chronicles the collapse of Southern Agriculture and the eventual defeat of the Confederate States.

     Hurt’s material is interesting and relevant, but one of the only shortfalls of Agriculture and the Confederacy is the listing of the prices of goods and its effect on the book’s overall readability. Tables of prices are all included in the appendix, however not within the text except as the author rattles them off in lists. It would, in this reader’s opinion, be easier to read in stride if these numbers didn’t tend to make Hurt’s prose choppy, and in many cases, insufferably boring to those who do not frequently study economics. However, this book is an essential read for those interested in material culture and the impact of the war on the Southern worldview, and may provide interesting perspectives to those who are interested in the historical memory of the post-war South.

     While Agriculture and the Confederacy is on the most basic level about the fall of Southern Agriculture during the Civil War, the research that Hurt has contributed to the field can be of tremendous importance to Civil War scholars moving forward. In the Sesquicentennial season many researchers have made an effort to ‘re-map’ the Civil War, or to view it through multiple lenses to better understand the true impact of the great national schism. Hurts work creates a platform for other’s research to begin. As a comprehensive and well researched study of Confederate agricultural policies and practices Hurt’s Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South will benefit all researchers of the Civil War and those who want to more deeply understand many of the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the war in the Southern states.

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