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Over the years, scholars have offered a vast array of explanations for why the Confederate States of America fell short in its bid for independence. In their effort to decipher the essence of Confederate defeat, historians have pointed to the slaveholding republic's lack of military and industrial resources, a stubborn devotion to state rights principles, inept political leadership, and the inability to foster a real sense of nationalism among the nation's populace, along with a host of other explanations. In Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South, R. Douglas Hurt situates the downfall of the Confederacy in its inability to feed and sustain the new republic's citizenry. Pro-secession politicians, farmers, and planters in 1861 wagered that the eleven states comprising the Confederacy wielded enough agricultural power to win their war of independence, but poor policy decisions by the central government, a waning devotion to the cause among agriculturalists, and the hardship and privation produced by marching armies together led to a "progressive disintegration" of that power and shattered all chances for success (pp. 2–3). Through his meticulous investigation of agricultural practices across the Confederacy and throughout the course of the war, Hurt provides an in-depth look at the slow, torturous, and ironic death of a nation founded upon a commitment to agrarian principles.
The book progresses chronologically, with each chapter surveying the agricultural problems that confounded the Confederate state as the war unfolded. Hurt also devotes attention to the agricultural diversity within the Confederacy, concentrating some chapters on the eastern Confederacy and others on the western Confederacy. Even within those chapters focused on one half of the slaveholding republic, Hurt manages to tease out larger issues and problems that affected the Confederacy as a whole. For instance, Virginia tobacco [End Page 85] farmers, Louisiana sugar barons, and Alabama cotton planters all had to confront state-implemented policies that called for a transition from the cultivation of lucrative staple commodities to the production of food crops. Hurt successfully tracks the difficulty of this type of shift for farmers from all corners of the sprawling Confederacy, culling manuscript evidence, census data, and price indices—which the author carefully derived by sifting through numerous local newspapers—to ground his conclusions. The mounting weight of failed agricultural policy and practices, coupled with the twin demands of feeding the Confederate Army and protecting southern fields and produce from the swelling presence of federal troops, left many people on the brink of starvation by 1865. Hurt contends that readers should not be surprised that "southern agriculture failed to lead the Confederate States of America to victory; rather, the surprise is that its farmers fed the population as well as they did for as long as they did under rapidly deteriorating conditions" (p. 5).
Hurt identifies several factors that diminished Confederate agricultural power over the course of the war. By the end of the first year of the war, it became evident that many farmers and planters in the Confederacy were willing to put profit before patriotism. To meet the food demands of a nation at war, the central government implemented a produce loan system whereby farmers could consign crops to the state in exchange for twenty-year bonds. Hurt points out that many farmers "needed money, not bonds, to pay their debts," which led them to search for other means of marketing their crops (p. 21). As Confederate currency lost value in the midst of the conflict, increasing numbers of cash-starved farmers opted to trade across enemy lines in order to get their hands on the stable and much more valuable legal tender of the United States. To offset this problem, the Confederate government resorted to the impressment of food and forage, which raised the ire of southern agriculturalists who resented the growth of an activist national state. Confederate citizens perceived these policies as gross usurpations of federal power, but Hurt...