Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South by R. Douglas Hurt (review)
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Reviewed by
R. Douglas Hurt. Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. xi + 349 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-2000-8, $45.00 (paper); 978-1-4696-2001-5, $17.50 (e-book).

R. Douglas Hurt’s Agriculture and the Confederacy represents part of an emerging field of environmental histories of the American Civil War. In keeping with the various calls for scholarship from Brian Drake’s edited volume, The Blue, the Gray, and the Green, (2015), Hurt joins the chorus of historians who have opted to tackle the [End Page 223] environmental history of this crucial period. What sets the author of this work apart, however, is his focus on an environmental history of the war with a decided fusion with the history of capitalism. Despite the rise of the “new” history of capitalism in the wake of 2008 recession, few scholars have waded into the American Civil War. Hurt’s attempt here, then, is a concerted attempt to bring these two worlds closer together—and one that he does quite masterfully.

Agriculture and the Confederacy traces the evolution of Confederate agriculture over the course of the war as a symbol of Confederate power. Taking a chronological approach to the target, Hurt describes how the Confederacy evolved from one that held a supreme confidence in its abilities to subsist on its own foodstuffs, to a realization that the war would cause a strain on these goods, to a final collapse of the Confederate agricultural system by war’s end. According to Hurt, the fall of the Confederacy centered on a myriad of factors, including poor transportation, bureaucracy, the fall of slavery, and what he describes as “notions of states’ rights and personal independence that hindered agricultural organization” (5). Over the eight chapters of the book, Hurt effectively details how each of these various factors led to the decline of the Confederacy from within. The Confederacy was a very different world depending on which side of the Mississippi River you resided on by the middle of 1863, and this too drastically impacted Confederate policy and the experiences of its citizenry. When coupled with the northern military progress during the second half of the war, one can see the closing window of Confederate success worked in tandem with the ever-closing access to key foodstuffs.

Where Hurt’s work truly shines is when he couples his analysis of the collapsing world of Confederate agriculture with its financial implications in the Confederacy. While Hurt’s meticulous research reveals the devastating inflation that took place to varying degrees in parts of the Confederacy, it’s his efforts at relaying how the Confederacy attempted to effect a change in its financial status that he is at his best. By coupling the financial importance of such acts as the produce loan—a bond issue backed by Confederate goods (including cotton), with the actual goods such loans were predicated on and the larger financial ramifications of such acts, Hurt illuminates the larger repercussion of Confederate agriculture.

Additionally, Hurt should be applauded for his detailed examination of how the Confederate government and its own people failed the national experiment. In keeping with recent work by historians such as Stephanie McCurry and her work, Confederate Reckoning (2010), Hurt details how Confederate policymakers failed to adequately support those at home. Foodstuffs provided to the veritable [End Page 224] killing machine of the Army of Northern Virginia meant that civilians in the surrounding Confederate states did without. While such frustrations culminated (at least in common lore) in events such as the Richmond Bread Riots in April 1863, Hurt details how many of these acts were larger frustrations directed at the Confederate government that centered on inadequate support of the home front. Furthermore, Hurt complicates this narrative by demonstrating the significant segment of Confederates who hurt the Confederacy from within by trading with the enemy. Moving beyond simple soldier exchanges of coffee for tobacco, Hurt details the increasing scope of Confederate smugglers who sold cotton to the federal government, or grew extensive cotton because of its perceived valuation despite the glaring need for food...