A historian's new look at how Union blockades brought about the defeat of a hungry Confederacy
In April 1861, Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports used by the Confederacy for cotton and tobacco exporting as well as for the importation of food. The Army of the Confederacy grew thin while Union dinner tables groaned and Northern canning operations kept Grant's army strong. In Starving the South, Andrew Smith takes a gastronomical look at the war's outcome and legacy. While the war split the country in a way that still affects race and politics today, it also affected the way we eat: It transformed local markets into nationalized food suppliers, forced the development of a Northern canning industry, established Thanksgiving as a national holiday and forged the first true national cuisine from the recipes of emancipated slaves who migrated north. On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, Andrew Smith is the first to ask "Did hunger defeat the Confederacy?".
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About the Author
ANDREW F. SMITH is a faculty member at the New School and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. He lives in New York.
Andrew F. Smith is a faculty member at the New School and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. He lives in New York.
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Starving the South
How the North Won the Civil War
By Andrew F. Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Andrew F. Smith
All rights reserved.
Lincoln's Humbug of a Blockade
Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States on November 6, 1860. He opposed the extension of slavery into new territories, and his election convinced many Southerners that it was time to leave the Union. By the time of Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had seceded, immediately expropriating as much Federal property as they could, including arsenals, forts, military camps, and the United States Mint in New Orleans. Eight other slave-holding states remained in the United States, but any precipitate action by the new administration might tip them into seceding as well.
The Lincoln Administration confronted many crises, but the most volatile was what to do with a few remaining Union-held forts in states that had seceded. Fort Sumter was the flashpoint: It controlled the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina's largest port. The fort was garrisoned by a small army detachment commanded by Major Robert Anderson, a proslavery, former slave owner from Kentucky. Anderson attended West Point, where he met Kentucky-born Jefferson Davis and tutored a Creole from Louisiana named Pierre T. G. Beauregard. In 1861, the commander of the Confederate troops stationed in Charleston was Beauregard, who under orders from Jefferson Davis, then the provisional president of the Confederacy, refused permission for Anderson's garrison to buy food and supplies in Charleston. Instead, Davis and Beauregard demanded that Anderson surrender the fort. Anderson refused. By early March 1861, the fort began to run out of provisions. Anderson told the War Department that "unless we receive supplies I shall be compelled to stay here without food, or to abandon this post."
All Loyal Citizens
Lincoln's cabinet was divided about whether to send provisions to the garrison. William Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State, favored withdrawal, as did Simon P. Cameron, the Secretary of War, and Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. Relieving the fort, they argued, would require an army and a navy that the United States just did not have. Others disagreed. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, and Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, thought that surrendering the fort would be treason, and any such action would dampen the morale of the many Unionists who lived in the slave-holding states. Others feared that withdrawal would be tantamount to official recognition of the Confederacy.
Lincoln concluded that if the Union troops evacuated Fort Sumter, the nation would be irrevocably split in two. At a cabinet meeting on March 28, 1861, he made the decision to send provisions to the Union garrison at the fort. A small flotilla of vessels loaded with supplies left Northern ports on April 5. When the ships arrived off the coast of South Carolina six days later, Beauregard gave Anderson a choice of immediately surrendering or facing bombardment. Anderson declined to surrender, and at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, batteries fired on the fort. The cannonade continued through the following day, until Anderson agreed to a cease-fire. On April 14, Anderson and his men lowered the American flag, boarded the ships that had come to supply the fort, and headed north. Thus ended the first military engagement of the Civil War.
Even before the Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War, various proposals were circulating in Washington on how best to encourage the South to return to the Union. Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army and a Virginian by birth, is credited with the proposal to blockade the Confederacy's Atlantic and Gulf ports and then to take control of the Mississippi River. Such actions would prevent war materiel from coming into the Confederacy from abroad and would split the Confederacy in two. After the South stagnated commercially, it would then peacefully rejoin the Union, or so proponents believed. The plan was leaked to the press, where it was disparagingly referred to as the "boa-constrictor," the "anaconda," or "Scott's Great Snake." The press and the public wanted no part of it. Northern newspapers demanded the immediate conquest of Richmond and a speedy end to secession.
On April 15 — one day after Fort Sumter surrendered — Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the mobilization of 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. In the North, the proclamation generated widespread support and unity. In the South, four states responded to Lincoln's call by seceding from the Union, and strong secession movements pressed the remaining four slave-holding states to follow their example.
Within the Lincoln Administration, debate ensued about whether to declare a blockade of the Confederacy. It was Jefferson Davis's action that tipped the debate in favor of doing so. Two days after Lincoln's call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Davis invited applications for "Letters of Marque" authorizing Confederate agents to seize and destroy American merchant ships. On April 19, Lincoln responded by declaring a blockade of Southern ports with the intent of preventing cotton, tobacco, and sugar from being exported and military equipment and supplies from coming into the South from abroad.
Declaring a blockade was easy; enforcing it was another matter. The South had nine major ports and more than 3,500 miles of coastline, and it would be impossible for the North to prevent small ships from landing goods along thousands of bays, inlets, rivers, and islands. The Federal navy had only ninety ships at the beginning of the war, and more than half of these were outmoded sailing ships, many of them unseaworthy. As soon as Lincoln declared the blockade, the Navy Department recalled naval ships from foreign waters, purchased merchant ships, which were quickly converted into gunboats, and launched a major shipbuilding program. Within weeks, the United States had 150 ships ready for duty, and construction had begun on another 50 ships.
As ships returned from abroad and new ships came on line, the blockade became more effective. By December 1861, the navy had 264 ships on line, and the effects of the blockade were "severely felt" in the Confederacy.
The Provision Blockade Is Nothing
Most Southerners did not see the blockade as a serious threat. Some, in fact, welcomed it. Jefferson Davis called it "a blessing in disguise," believing that the blockade would force England and France "to a speedy recognition of the Confederacy, and to an interference with the blockade." Even if the blockade became effective and England and France were not drawn into the conflict, Southerners concluded that "Lincoln's humbug of a blockade" would still not succeed because of the South's abundant food supply. As one Confederate officer in Nashville proclaimed, "The provision blockade is nothing; we shall have wheat, corn, and beef beyond measure, besides tobacco, sugar, and rice." No one imagined that the blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports would have much of an impact on the availability, distribution, or cost of food in the Confederacy.
Although the Anaconda plan was never officially approved, a modified version of it shaped Union strategy after the Northern defeat at Bull Run in July 1861. Southerners were well aware of the supposed "anaconda" strategy of the North, and many called it a "starvation policy." This Anaconda strategy was well understood in both the North and South, and regular mention of the serpent — "contracting coils of the anaconda," the "embraces of the Northern anaconda," "the great anaconda has begun to enfold," or "strangulation by the great anaconda," — appeared in both Northern and Southern newspapers and magazines as the war progressed.
An assistant to Jefferson Davis accurately foretold Union strategy, which was "to take our chief sea-coast cities, so as to cut off all supplies from foreign countries, get possession of the border States of Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee, which are the great grain-growing States, properly belonging to the Confederacy; cut the railway connections between Virginia and the cotton States, and cut the cotton region in two divisions by getting full possession of the Mississippi River by getting possession of the sea-coast cities on the one side and the principal grain-growing region on the other; by separating the cotton region of the Confederacy from Virginia and cutting it into two separate divisions; by commanding completely the Mississippi River, they expected to starve the people into subjection."
The U.S. Navy needed coaling and supply depots in the South to resupply blockading ships. On August 28, 1861, Federal forces captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark on Cape Hatteras Inlet on North Carolina's Outer Banks, and later captured Roanoke, New Bern, Elizabeth City, and Plymouth. In South Carolina, U.S. Army and Navy units seized Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard, guarding the entrance to Port Royal Sound. On November 24, 1861, the North seized Tybee Island in Georgia near the Savannah River estuary and immediately began constructing long-range batteries to fire on Confederate-occupied Fort Pulaski, which surrendered months later. From forts and fortified positions on offshore islands, Federal gunboats prevented coastwise trading. These conquests also gave the United States access to the South's food production areas, among them the fertile strip of land along the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia; raiding parties ventured far into the hinterland confiscating commodities, dismantling the dikes, and flooding the rice fields. As a result, rice and other food production in these areas nosedived.
From the beginning, the blockade reduced food imports into the South. Coffee, tea, spices, and wine quickly became difficult to acquire. More important losses from a nutritional standpoint were apples and dairy products, such as butter and cheese, which had been imported from New England; citrus fruits, dates, pineapples, and vegetables, which had been imported from Bermuda and the Caribbean islands became scarce, as did salt (used as a preservative), which had been mainly imported from abroad before the war. The nutritional effects of these losses increased as the war progressed.
The Confederacy did permit ships, mainly operated by private enterprises looking to make sizable profits, to run the blockade. Blockade-runners brought in much needed military equipment and supplies, but the most profitable part of their cargoes consisted of luxury goods, such as silks, laces, spices, molasses, liquor, sugar, coffee, and tea. What the South needed was machinery, salt, zinc, iron, steel, and copper, but these were heavy and bulky, and these items produced much smaller returns. The Confederate government tried to regulate blockade-runners, but this usually lessened the willingness of private entrepreneurs to risk having their ships and cargoes captured. Although the Confederacy finally outlawed the importation of alcoholic beverages and some other luxury goods, bans proved ineffective and these items were available in the Confederacy up to its final days — for those able to pay for them.
Starving the People of New Orleans
The most important port on the Gulf Coast was New Orleans — the largest city in the Confederacy. Southern officials believed that the city's formidable forts and some hastily converted and constructed naval vessels were powerful enough to repulse any possible Union invasion coming from the Gulf, so the regular military units stationed in New Orleans were sent northward to block the expected Federal campaign down the Mississippi River from Illinois. This left only an inexperienced home guard in the city proper, with limited supplies. When the Mississippi was closed to traffic in August 1861, the flow of grain and other foodstuffs from the Midwest to New Orleans was halted. During the following eight months, the city's storehouses were depleted. The food situation became desperate enough for city officials to make the outlandish request that Virginia send a trainload of grain every day to prevent famine in New Orleans.
On April 24, 1862, the Union Flag Officer David G. Farragut, a Tennessean by birth, achieved strategic surprise when he led a flotilla past the forts protecting New Orleans and sank the ships sent to stop him. After an intense bombardment, the two forts surrendered, and the flotilla turned upriver toward New Orleans. The Confederate home guard evacuated the city, fearing that the meager supplies of flour and meat would not hold out during a siege. Northern troops occupied New Orleans, and the South lost its largest city, with its strategic location on the Mississippi River, its ship-building facilities, and its large industrial base.
When the Union military arrived in New Orleans, they had to offer provisions to "the starving people of New Orleans," as Harper's Weekly reported it. The city's former Confederate authorities were blamed for the famine situation in New Orleans. The article continued, condemning Confederate officials: "If the leaders of this accursed rebellion could have looked upon the sight and reflected upon their responsibility for all this misery, it would have been strange if they had not experienced some dark forebodings of the terrible punishment that surely awaits them in another world, however easily they may escape a just retribution in this."
Farragut wasn't satisfied with just taking New Orleans. In a lightning move, he sent a small flotilla under the command of Commander S. Phillips Lee up the Mississippi River. The flotilla occupied Baton Rouge on May 5, and Natchez five days later. On May 18, the ships arrived before Vicksburg and fired a few shots into Confederate positions. But the Confederates in Vicksburg refused to surrender, and Commander Lee's few troops were unable to take the city, so the flotilla turned back to New Orleans. Thus ended the first feeble Union attempt to take Vicksburg, a key port on the middle section of the Mississippi River.
With the occupation of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, the Union solidified its control of the lower Mississippi; this gave Federal troops access to rich agricultural areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. Beginning in the fall of 1862, Union troops under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler began to confiscate or destroy agricultural commodities and production facilities in lower Louisiana. Some plantations were deliberately reduced to ashes by Union troops in order to prevent food from falling into Confederate hands. Other plantations succumbed to the foraging activities of both armies. Still other plantations were simply abandoned by their owners, who took their slaves to more protected places further inland. Levees in Louisiana wore down or were torn down and agricultural machinery fell into disrepair or was destroyed. Louisiana produced 270,000 tons of sugar in 1861, but three years later production had dropped to a total of only 5,400 tons. Similar declines in the production of other agricultural commodities turned much of eastern Louisiana into an agricultural wasteland.
The Federal presence in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast was enough to encourage slaves to flee plantations. Eight months after the occupation of New Orleans, more than 150,000 slaves were behind Union lines. In the State of Mississippi alone, an estimated one third of the slaves left their plantations in 1862 and more would leave later. Since slaves grew much of the surplus food in the South, their absence meant a decrease in agricultural production.
The Cotton Famine
For decades, American newspapers, magazines, and political leaders had extolled the power of Southern cotton, and for good reason: it accounted for 85 percent of all the cotton fabric manufactured in the United States, Great Britain, and France. Many Southerners had come to believe that without its cotton, the North's textile industry — America's largest and most lucrative business — would collapse, leading to economic ruin. Long before this happened, proclaimed Southerners, the North would call a halt to the war and recognize the South's independence. For the same reason, many Southerners predicted that Great Britain and France would recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation just as soon as their existing supplies of cotton were exhausted. Southern newspapers hailed the coming of the "cotton famine" believing it would force England and France to break the blockade. Jefferson Davis, a major cotton grower and a strong believer in cotton power, boasted that Southern "cotton would pay all debts of war and force New England into penury and starvation." As it turned out, Davis was wrong on both counts: cotton did not pay for the Confederacy's war, and cotton did not force New England into penury or starvation.
Excerpted from Starving the South by Andrew F. Smith. Copyright © 2011 Andrew F. Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Lincoln's Humbug of a Blockade,
2 Scarcity and Hunger,
3 Bread Riots,
4 Abundance and Organization,
5 Gibraltar of the Mississippi,
6 Traders or Traitors?,
7 The Confederacy's Breadbasket,
8 Giving Thanks and No Thanks,
9 Hard War,
10 Capital Hunger,
Also by Andrew F. Smith,