- Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South by R. Douglas Hurt
R. Douglas Hurt is the author or editor of twenty-one books and far too many book chapters, articles, and reviews to list. His work has covered virtually every conceivable topic that touches directly or indirectly on anything related to American agriculture. His scholarship ranks him as one of the greatest living historians of American agriculture. His latest book, Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South, focuses on southern agriculture during the Civil War, noting that countless students and scholars of the Civil War have neglected, ignored, and downplayed the importance of agricultural production to the war effort. Simply put, Hurt explores how the South entered the war as a powerful agricultural region that imagined its major source of strength—agriculture—would propel it, if not sustain it, during the ensuing conflict.
Hurt meticulously examines the pattern of southern agriculture and its impact on southern society. He has scoured the archives and read widely to gather evidence that details the role southern agriculture played during the war years. His analysis of the year-to-year changes in the South’s agricultural sector is a tour de force. Despite tens of millions of words written about almost every aspect of the Civil War, no other historian has analyzed the impact that politics, economics, and power relations had on the South’s greatest weapon: its agricultural sector. Before the Civil War, the South had achieved enormous economic success; but, as Hurt demonstrates, slowly and surely whatever advantages the South had prior to 1861 were eviscerated during the war years.
The story Hurt tells is not based on statistics alone. He includes southerners and their voices, showing how they lived and highlighting their fears and concerns. He analyzes the new problems confronting southerners, including hunger, plundered estates, and the significant devastation that pushed many farmers to the edge. In particular, his discussion of the worst harvest season of the war, 1864, sheds new light on how difficult it was for the Confederacy to sustain itself in the waning days of the Civil War. [End Page 681]
After reading Hurt’s brilliant analysis, it is hard to imagine how the South could have created conditions sufficient to support the war effort and gain a competitive advantage. While others ignore southern agriculture, Hurt’s evidence suggests that by doing so they miss the critical factors that doomed the Confederacy to eventual defeat. Hurt’s book is a powerful reminder about the importance of agricultural production in the nineteenth century. Far too many works, both on the Civil War and other periods, ignore the role agriculture played in sustaining economic development. After reading this masterful volume, Civil War scholars will need to reconsider and rewrite the history of the Confederacy. To overlook the role that the agricultural sector played during the war is to sadly repeat the tendency to think that agricultural issues are unimportant and inconsequential. As Hurt shows, the success or failure of southern agriculture was as important as the Confederacy’s success or failure on the battlefield.