Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South by R. Douglas Hurt (review)
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Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South. By R. Douglas Hurt. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 349. $40.00 cloth; $29.99 ebook)

At its creation the Confederacy possessed one very important asset—a highly productive agricultural sector. Few southerners doubted the power of agriculture to both achieve foreign policy objectives [End Page 81] and simultaneously feed Rebel armies. However, as R. Douglas Hurt points out, the leverage of agricultural power was predicated on the capability of the Confederate government to develop effective agricultural policies. The author describes the numerous ways in which the Confederate government repeatedly failed to exploit its most valuable asset.

The first major failure came with the mismanagement of cotton. The author describes domestic policies, like the Produce Loan Act of May 1861, that attempted government intervention into international cotton markets. Planters would turn over their cotton to the Confederacy in return for 8 percent bonds, and in theory both parties would reap handsome profits. However, the Confederate government refused to fully take control of the cotton purchasing and export business for a variety of reasons, and instead resorted to largely unenforceable half-measures. By the end of 1861, two crucial policy mistakes had occurred that haunted the Confederacy—the year’s cotton crop had been mismanaged and the southern states missed an opportunity to stockpile edible commodities like corn, rice, and livestock.

In 1862 some planters and farmers voluntarily switched from cotton to edible crops with impressive results. Individual states, not the Confederate government, mandated the destruction of cotton at the approach of Union armies, but this policy was not uniformly obeyed. If the cotton could be preserved and sold in Union-occupied markets like Nashville and Memphis, then the planter could reap huge profits thanks to inflated wartime prices. Observance of the cotton destruction laws depended entirely on the individual planter’s choice between patriotism and self-interest. Despite the fact that the southern states actually increased food production in 1861 and 1862, by 1863 the systemic damage to Confederate agricultural power was largely beyond repair.

Other Confederate policies also hampered agricultural power. The lack of an efficient railroad network caused an uneven distribution of food. Conscription reduced the available manpower for agricultural production. By 1863 the Confederacy’s agricultural power had [End Page 82] been diminished by botched or nonexistent policies, which ironically caused even more destructive policies, like impressment, to be implemented. It was no coincidence that the spring 1863 food riots occurred when they did.

Throughout the book the author successfully conveys the deterioration of southern agricultural power in both the eastern and western Confederacy. By 1864 the combination of ineffective policy, invading Union armies, and declining amounts of agricultural land and labor was plunging the Confederacy into a barter economy. Despite currency reform in February 1864, inflation continued to skyrocket, caused both by the scarcity of goods and overabundance of paper money. The inability to control inflation further eroded southern farmers’ trust in the government’s ability to stabilize markets, and this mistrust was exacerbated by policies like tax-in-kind and impressment. By April 1865, the general price index for commodities in the Confederacy had increased ninety-two times over 1861 levels. So why did the Confederacy fail to develop effective policies to utilize agricultural power? Hurt suggests that the argument between laissez-faire ideology and full-blown government intervention ended up creating an environment of stop-gap policies and southerners “eventually accepted half measures out of necessity” (p. 288). The author refuses to speculate on how Confederate agricultural policy could have been conducted in a more successful manner, but he does provide a richly detailed foundation for this discussion.

The amount of statistical information provided on prices for wheat, corn, cotton, beef, and slaves is massive. Several useful charts, such as an 1860 baseline commodity price list, allows the reader to witness inflationary pressures and other charts provide a glimpse of local commodity markets at a particular moment in time. The author has compiled a vast amount of both anecdotal and statistical information, and the latter could be analyzed using quantitative methods...