- Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South by R. Douglas Hurt
Noted agricultural historian and former editor of Agricultural History R. Douglas Hurt has written an important study of southern agriculture [End Page 714] that decisively establishes its subject's critical importance for both the course and ultimate outcome of the Confederacy's war efforts. As is often the case with environmental and geographic factors, their very omnipresence seems to mute their importance; the historiography of the Civil War contains multitudes of political and military accounts describing events that often seem removed from their physical context. Several recent works, such as Megan Kate Nelson's Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012) and Kathryn Shively Meier's Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (2013), have reminded us, however, of the importance of the physical environment in which the more familiar narratives of the war unfolded. Hurt's masterful account of the Confederacy's agricultural history underscores the vital role agriculture played in shaping virtually every aspect of the Confederate experience.
In the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte's maxim that an army marches on its stomach, Hurt connects the vicissitudes of agricultural production and supply to the military history of the Confederate war effort. Nodding to both well-known instances of this relationship—Robert E. Lee made his fall 1862 decision to march north with an eye toward feeding his men from the unscathed fields of western Maryland—as well as the subtler ways in which Confederate agriculture shaped the military narrative, Hurt is able to bridge the historiographical divide between traditional military narrative histories and environmental/agricultural history. For example, he clearly establishes the agricultural foundation for Confederate military confidence in the heady months of 1861: "When the war began," Hurt argues, "the agricultural power of the Confederate states seemed obvious, even overwhelming. … Given the South's intent to fight a defensive war, the region's agricultural power seemed invincible" (49). This is a simple but often overlooked point. Explanations of southern defeat often focus on the superiority of Union resources, production, and manpower; they also implicitly question how Confederates could ever imagine prevailing. But when southerners grew all of the rice and sugar produced by the United States, as well as a majority of the tubers, legumes, and corn (and certain wheat varieties), this Confederate optimism becomes understandable. "If our people have enough to eat, they can defy the world in arms," one Confederate farmer boasted in 1861, and in the early days of their national project there was no reason for most Confederates to doubt they could accomplish both (274). That the opposite of this sanguine forecast would be the case by the end of 1864 does not negate its allure for the Confederacy at the war's outset.
The Confederacy's other agricultural pillar was "King Cotton," and one of this book's strengths is Hurt's ability to trace the fortunes of cotton [End Page 715] agriculture, policy, and production as they unfolded throughout the war. It is a complex and controversial story; initial boasts of King Cotton's ability to not only sustain the Confederacy financially, but also attract European support, were dashed as cotton instead became a focus of disappointment and dissent. From the ill-fated cotton embargo designed to pressure Britain into diplomatic recognition, to the ineffective and controversial cotton loan program of 1861–62, to the attempted retooling of southern agriculture from staple crop to food production, the Confederacy's national and state governments struggled with how to effectively manage what all of them had counted as a source of strength in 1861. Planters who subscribed their crops to the government's loan program quickly tired of being paid below-market prices in depreciating Confederate bonds, and many looked to trade their crop across enemy lines instead—Yankee dollars were more reliable than Confederate patriotism, it seemed. Indeed, by 1863, the Confederate Congress...