The Civil War was fought in two critical arenas, the battlefield and the home front. Military battles generated the most drama, and usually receive the most attention. But ultimately the civilian struggle proved just as significant.

The South was hit early, and hit hard. As the war dragged on, “keeping the home fires burning” became an increasingly arduous task. Though the level of deprivation varied by class, race, status, wealth and geographic area, eventually nearly every Southerner was touched.

For women and children, black and white, young and old, sick and elderly, daily life became an unrelenting struggle for basic necessities — clothing, shelter and, most important, food. By today’s standards, the suffering was almost unimaginable.

With nothing to back the currency except a promise of Confederate victory, the value of CSA currency plummeted and prices soared as the war progressed.

With nothing to back the currency except a promise of Confederate victory, the value of CSA currency plummeted and prices soared as the war progressed.

By spring 1863, the situation was extreme. As civilians became desperate, food raids began to occur, and would continue until war’s end. “Bread riots” erupted across the South, from Petersburg to Galveston, from Raleigh to Mobile. Crowds of women armed with knives, pistols and clubs broke into stores, seizing food and clothing. In Georgia alone riots broke out in Savannah, Milledgeville, Macon, Valdosta, Augusta, Atlanta, Marietta, Cartersville and Columbus.

The largest and most widely publicized of these riots occurred April 2, 1863, in Richmond, the Confederate capital, which had become a haven for war refugees. Desperate women wielding axes and hatchets raided shops and took salt, flour and molasses. It took Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the local Public Guard armed with bayonets to disperse the crowd. Nearly 75 were arrested.

The Richmond Examiner (and other Southern newspapers) denied any truth to a “hunger riot,” attributing the disturbance to “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows-birds from all lands but our own.” But most of the so-called “rioters” were actually mothers, wives or widows with children to feed. They did not want charity, but resented unreasonably high prices charged by speculators. Many felt justified in their actions, one woman declaring, “We are starving. As soon as enough of us get together we are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken our men.”

Many necessities of life were desperately needed, including shoes, paper, yarn and candles. But food was the most urgent. Bacon, meal, vegetables, bread, flour, sugar, wheat, rice, meat, corn and salt (for meat preservation) were either in short supply or nonexistent. Southerners found novel substitutes: scraping salt off of smokehouse floors, using ground acorns for wheat flour, making vinegar from persimmons and creating a leavening alternative from corncobs. Such innovations bridged the gap, but did not fill the need.

Region left destitute

The Confederate government essentially left the food problem to the states. Georgia tried to control prices, ease suffering and provide necessities to the poor. The Legislature passed corn appropriation acts, distributed free salt to indigents and provided free or reduced-price corn to soldiers’ families. Unfortunately, the efforts could not meet escalating demands.

In a world without refrigeration the need for salt was particularly critical. Letters pleading for the commodity poured into Georgia Gov. Joseph Brown’s office. Efforts to provide it, though well-intentioned, were plagued with inadequate management and bureaucratic red tape. Elizabeth Wade of Whitfield County wrote the governor in August 1863, “Last winter our salt was detained in Atlanta … It was then sent to us (but) the delay proved disastrous for the meat.”  Murray County received no salt rations, and other north Georgia counties, including Catoosa, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon and Walker, received none after 1863.

By late 1863 almost every county in north Georgia had been declared destitute and began receiving corn rations. Severe drought had caused Georgia’s wheat crop to fail, and an early frost blighted the corn. In early 1864 Col. M.H. Cofer, post commandant in Dalton, wrote Gov. Brown, “Many wives and mothers with their helpless children are suffering both for food and for clothing.” In response, Brown sent 10,000 bushels of corn to Dalton and Whitfield County.

War-time food shortages were caused by many factors, each alone serious, but in combination, a formula for crisis. Earliest, and most apparent, were the lack of manpower left to harvest crops or process livestock and the Confederate impressment of large quantities of food for the military at below-market prices.

But others soon developed: the insistence by many well-to-do Southern planters on growing cotton for extravagant profits rather than raising food, the sale of corn to liquor distilleries, the sale of food to hoarders and speculators, and (as in Georgia) early frosts and ruinous droughts.

As the war progressed these factors were compounded by the effectiveness of the Union war plan — the naval blockade, the occupation and devastation of rich agricultural land, and the demolition or capture of rail lines, bridges and waterways.

In addition, both Union and Confederate armies foraged huge quantities of food, wood and livestock — sometimes benevolently, sometimes vengefully, but either way disastrous to civilians. In September 1863 Whitfield County farmer John Cain wrote Gov. Brown complaining that the Confederate cavalry was taking horses, stealing chickens, killing sheep and hogs, even digging potatoes out of the ground. “All manner of depredation,” he declared, “is (being) committed.”

Thieves and inflation

To make matters worse, north Georgia’s mountains provided a haven for thieves. As early as December 1862 citizens of Whitfield and Gilmer counties were pleading for protection against roving gangs who stole horses and corn. A Whitfield County minister complained that renegades were “robbing little children who will have to suffer after bread.” He begged Gov.  Brown for assistance, declaring, “We must have help or our county is ruined.” By late 1863 outlaw bands preyed upon civilians throughout Whitfield, Murray, Walker, Dade, Chattooga, Floyd and Catoosa counties.

At the same time, civilians faced rampant inflation. The Confederate dollar was not backed by hard assets, but was simply a promissory note based on expectation of Southern victory. As the war began to turn against the Confederacy, confidence in the currency diminished and the value of the dollar dropped. Furthermore, Georgia, like other Confederate states, tried to fund the war by issuing bonds and treasury notes and by printing money, instead of through taxes. Paper money poured into the economy, and prices soared.

Food prices varied across the South, but inflation was drastic everywhere. In Raleigh a pound of bacon cost 33 cents in 1862, $1 in 1863, $5.50 in 1864, $7.50 in 1865. In Richmond the monthly food cost for a family of four rose from $6.65 in 1860 to $68 in 1863. By early 1864 in Atlanta, when a Confederate private received $11 a month, corn sold for $10 a bushel and flour for $120 a barrel.

Ultimately, the suffering on the home front contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy. Deprivation finally drained the will of the people to continue the war. While some women were able to find employment in arsenals or factories, or by sewing uniforms or tents, others were forced to accept public or private relief. Many women wrote letters begging their soldier-husbands to abandon the cause and come home, resulting in a significant increase in military desertions.

As conditions worsened, class tensions led to internal opposition to the war. The poor were hurt the most, and for the longest, by food shortages and skyrocketing prices. This class disparity on the home front, combined with a similar perception of inequity in the military, led many to oppose the “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

By 1864 the two great arenas of the war, the battlefield and the home front, had merged. Destruction of the South’s food crops and agricultural facilities were part of the Union military strategy. The battle line was drawn on the dinner table.

From May to December, Union Gen. William Sherman slashed and slaughtered his way through Georgia, making “a hostile people … feel the hard hand of war.”

When a weeping, desperate mother begged a Union soldier not to take all her chickens, he replied, “Madam, we’re going to suppress this rebellion if it takes every last chicken in the Confederacy.” By then, the South’s fate was sealed.

–By Elizabeth Hoole McArthur Dalton 150th Civil War Commission