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  • "Literally Destroyed as a Housekeeper":Hunger and Hardship in Civil War Kentucky
  • Anne Sarah Rubin (bio)

The Civil War resulted in deep disturbances in the Confederate food system. Plantations were supposed to grow food to feed both soldiers and families, but often continued to grown inedible staple crops like cotton. Families on the homefront had their smokehouses and root cellars emptied by Union troops, particularly in the devastating 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign and Sherman's March through Georgia and the Carolinas in the final six months of the war. Once the Union controlled the Mississippi, the Confederacy lost access to cattle from Texas and suffered shortages of beef that struck the armies particularly hard. Standard narratives of the war make many food-related stops along the way: from the Richmond Bread Riots in 1863 to the siege of Vicksburg, through the horrors of Andersonville, to the sharing of Union rations after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.1

Southern hospitality was already well known before the war, and [End Page 215] groaning buffets were a symbol of elite largesse. Food and feeding was also intimately bound up with ideas about comfort and nurturing; being able to feed ones family was both a physical and an emotional manifestation of status, care, and community. Being able to feed local soldiers or guerrillas was a tangible form of support for a cause—whether pro-Union or pro-Confederate. As the war upended the food supply, so too did it disrupt social relations: within households, between neighbors, and ultimately between citizens and their governments. If the so-called Southern way of life that Confederates were fighting to preserve included luxurious fare served in a sophisticated fashion, perhaps the loss of that style of eating meant the loss of civilization itself.2

Yet these analyses of shortages and food substitutions are often limited scope. The majority focus on elite white perspectives and complaints, which makes sense, because they were the most likely to leave behind written records of their changed diets. Such accounts do not always tell us what people were actually eating as their customary menu dwindled. Most importantly, these accounts of elite struggle can obscure the more profound hardships of the lower classes. A slaveholding woman complaining that she had to eat corn bread (rather than wheat) was experiencing food shortages very differently from an African American woman who was living in a contraband camp watching her children die from malnutrition.

Kentucky occupies an unusual place in this story of food and famine. Although a Union state with Union governors, it was riven by guerrilla violence.3 In many ways, the experience of Kentucky civilians [End Page 216] was similar to that of Confederates, as they saw their storehouses raided, and feared starvation. At the same time, other Kentuckians profited—or at least tried to—off of contracts to supply the Union army with all manner of foodstuffs.4

This paper draws on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK) to explore Kentuckians and their experience with food and hunger during the war. It shows how food could serve as a symbol of social status and one of political allegiance. White Kentuckians, especially women, used the language of hunger to appeal for government intervention in a wide variety of situations, not always directly related to the war itself. While there are numerous petitions from and references to African Americans in the governors' papers, they did not rely on the language of hunger to the same degree as those written by and about whites. This absence of hunger-related language should not be taken to mean that African Americans in Kentucky were not hungry; rather, their petitions focused more on relief from charges of running tippling shops or prostitution—occupations to which they may have turned in order to afford food. However, this paper focuses on white Kentuckians.5 Culinary history gives us a new lens into the tangled questions of loyalty and wartime support in a divided state.

Reading the 1861–1862 diary of Josie Underwood, a young Bowling Green woman, can make someone hungry. Scattered throughout her entries are descriptions of ham and turkey, biscuits and cakes, soups, jellies, syrups, coffee, pickles, peach...


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pp. 215-228
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