- Virginia Johnson
It’s been said an army travels on its stomach, and though many of the starving Confederate troops at the war’s end were still willing to fight, ultimately it was a physically broken army returning to their devastated, burned out farms that sounded the death knell of the nascent nation, so contends gastronomical historian Andrew F. Smith in his recent book, Starving the South.
Smith chronicles how differences in farming practices between North and South—steady food crops vs. reliance on cash crops—meant that when pressed, the South found it difficult to change its methods to accommodate an army while the North found the situation advantageous--a kick-start to the Industrial Revolution. The Yankees were well fed, partially because manufacturers got the knack of canning food. Meanwhile, the South was counting on a “cotton famine” (85 percent of all cotton fabric manufactured in the U.S., Britain, and France came from Southern plantations) to win it allies.
Shortages of one of their major preservatives, salt, also played a factor in the South’s lack of provisions. And that lack of provisions affected troop movements. Lee was forced to send out two divisions (one fourth of his army) to an area with ample food which lessened his ability to mount an effective offense. But history is proverbially complicated. The South, though in a bad position regarding supply, did what it could to improve the situation. They started using corn more and also beef---though much of that spoiled, again to due to lack of salt. Bread riots hit Richmond and other Southern cities as there was simply no food to be had in areas of high population.
Meanwhile in the North, Borden’s condensed milk, Underwood’s canned meats, and Van Camp’s canned fruits gave their soldiers’ everyday bill of fare variety and made the company’s owners very wealthy. Some of their Southern counterparts in Vicksburg, on the other hand, were eating cow-pea hardtack and mule meat and even less savory viands. If there is still residual bitterness between North and South today, this doctrine of total war likely plays a part. Closer to home, Sheridan’s march through the Shenandoah Valley according to a soldier, “burned nearly every dwelling house from Staunton to Strasburg.” Poor and rich alike suffered.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1864 led to a grand show of gustatory extravagance as thousands of lavish dinners were shipped out to the troops. It may have been heartfelt support, but it also proved to be excellent propaganda. The Southerners tried to outdo “Grant’s Ghouls” with their own dinner for their soldiers on January 2, 1865, but it turned out to be little more than a few bites of bread and meat. Both armies had issued cease-fires for those days, which were laudable, but the paucity of any sort of food on Southern side even for a celebration played a very negative role and desertions increased.
Smith’s work is extremely understandable and well-researched, giving a human dimension to the War without dwelling entirely on personal anecdotes.