- Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War by Andrew F. Smith
In Starving the South, Andrew Smith takes readers on a food-related jaunt through Civil War history and in the process renarrates several pivotal wartime episodes and touches on a variety of historiographical themes familiar to scholars of the era. After a brief description of the antebellum South's overreliance on staple crops and semidependency on outside foodstuffs, Smith dives into the historically contentious issue of the Union blockade's effectiveness. Smith asserts the blockade was "severely felt" and correctly points out that the Confederacy suffered from its inability to freely export cotton or to continue the unimpeded import of crucial commodities like salt, which often arrived as ballast on incoming ships, and railroad equipment, which eventually contributed to the demise of the South's transportation infrastructure (13). Smith briefly discusses some of the statistical data but bases his effectiveness argument on the number of prewar ships entering southern ports versus the number that entered the Confederacy after the blockade's implementation. In this respect, Smith's effectiveness argument is consistent with that of many other historians who view the blockade as a self-fulfilling enterprise: it was effective because it existed. Smith, however, takes the effectiveness argument one step further [End Page 146] when he states that "no one can seriously believe that the North could have won the war without the blockade" (26). The scholarly debate about the blockade's effectiveness has evolved into a more nuanced discussion of whether the blockade was an efficient use of the Union's naval resources. Smith's interpretation is certainly valid but could be more developed.
The author does an excellent job of describing the bread riots that swept across the South in early 1863 and the continued friction between citizens and the Confederate government over access to sufficient food. Smith sums up the significance of the riots as "wake-up calls for Confederate leaders to address crucial problems confronting the Southern food system" and the ultimate failure of "proclamations and Band-Aid solutions" (70). As Smith correctly points out, overall the South did a very poor job of converting from staple crops to consumptive products and failed to maintain a reliable distribution network for available provisions.
While many historians focus on the dearth of rebel foodstuffs, Smith offers readers several revealing comparisons. Adequate nutrition gave Union soldiers an advantage, especially late in the war, in terms of increased vitality. Reminding readers that while "well-fed armies do not always win wars," Smith suggests that "the superior physical stamina of the well-nourished soldiers and sufficient food on the homefront helped the North win the Civil War" (87). The second convincing comparison comes when the author contrasts Union soldiers' November 1864 Thanksgiving experiences with the Confederate government's hopeful, but ultimately pathetic, attempt to provide its soldiers a New Year's Day feast in 1865. The two sides' capacities to conduct a banquet for frontline troops had not only physical but psychological consequences.
Smith's work on victuals is a welcome addition to a genre overflowing with monographs on military campaigns and biographies, and general readers will find it an excellent introduction to food-related events in the war. However, there are several misleading assertions and factual errors that will frustrate scholars and other readers. For example, when discussing the pending Union blockade, Smith suggests that Lincoln might not have declared a blockade without Davis's call for privateers, which is dubious, and even if the author only intended to highlight the escalation in naval warfare in April 1861, the assertion is somewhat misleading. Smith erroneously dates the Battle of Bull Run as having occurred on July 16, 1861, rather than July 21, a careless error in an otherwise well-edited work.
More problematic is the author's claim that the Union won because of the Confederacy's inability to feed its armies. While Civil War historians agree that a lack of food, including for...