Domestic Economy in the Confederacy.

An 1886 Atlantic Monthly article by David Dodge

            AMONG the many remarkable features of the war between the States the blockade system was perhaps the most extraordinary. For extent and effectiveness it stands without a parallel in history. Isolation on the part of one of the belligerents doubtless shaped the result in larger measure than in any preceding war of anything like the same magnitude. For it is to be questioned if there was ever before a great people so far from self-sustaining as was the South in 1861. Indeed, only by means of the modern facilities of transportation could it have been possible for a territory so large and populous to have fallen into a state of such absolute dependence on the outside world. Not only was steam an indispensable auxiliary of the Federals, rendering the invasion and retention of the revolting territory practicable, but it had fostered at the South a fatal economic condition which made the failure of the Confederacy a foregone conclusion from the first. How this abnormal state told when isolation came, and how desperately the people strove to remedy it, forms a curious and pathetic chapter of the war history.

            While war in the abstract had been vaguely apprehended for a generation, war in the concrete took the South, as all unpleasant things are apt to take optimistic human nature, by surprise. And optimism was as peculiarly characteristic of the Southern mind up to Appomattox as the opposite quality has been ever since. Moreover, the political axiom of the day, that even should war arise the imperative need of cotton would at least force the European powers to keep their ports open, lulled the South into such security that hostilities overtook her with little more than the scant stock of crude and manufactured articles necessary for current use.

            The few unvaried manufacturing establishments that existed were of course utterly inadequate to supply the needs of the people, and neither machinery nor artisans were to be had to found new ones. Many of the most skilled workmen were Northern men, who either returned home on the outbreak of war, or slipped through the lines later on, as our fortunes grew darker and our need sorer. All such as remained at the South were insufficient to meet the military requirements of the hour. For the people in their domestic needs there was nothing left but a recourse to the rude contrivances of primitive days, which fortunately were not yet entirely obsolete in the rural districts. To these, as the slender stock of manufactured articles in the country gave out and the European powers persisted in holding aloof, the people turned with such skill and material as they were possessed of, to provide the necessaries of life. Spinning-wheels were set agoing; the scattered members of shapeless, half-forgotten old looms were dragged to light; while the neighborhood blacksmith, cobbler, and other petty craftsmen found themselves suddenly spring into important personages. On the ingenuity of each family, often of each individual, depended sooner or later their comfort, almost their existence. There was a suggestion of primeval life in the manner in which even in the veriest trifles one was thrown wholly on his own resources. Not only had a way to be invented to make everything, but in most cases a substitute had to be discovered for the crude material of which they were made, till between makings, renovatings, and remodelings, we became a nation of Crusoes. Indeed, if that era of home life had to be characterized by one word, there could be no choice as to the term “substitute.” It may be added, in passing, that to this day the word is commonly used by the illiterate people of North Carolina as a synonym for all that is sorry and worthless. There was hardly a tree or plant that did not in the long run furnish at least one substitute; being laid under tribute to feed or clothe the people, or to cure their ailments. Of these substitutes, some were in the beginning a rage, but each in the end a necessity. The absorption of the Southern mind in the war issue, coupled with its inherent non-inventiveness, or, more accurately, its non-completiveness, can alone account for the paucity of permanently useful inventions that have arisen from that period of ceaseless experiment.

            The most serious matter of all was the great dearth of the prime staples of life themselves that overtook the South almost on the very threshold of war. The Confederacy was self-sustaining in breadstuff alone,—and by breadstuff is meant Indian corn only, wheaten bread being regarded as a luxury by thousands in average circumstances,—and the inadequacy of transportation prevented a proper distribution of even that. There was only one considerable saline, and the probability of a total failure of the salt supply, from its exhaustion or capture, was a matter of ever-deepening anxiety. The meat product of the country was largely insufficient at first, and after the loss of so much valuable territory in Tennessee and Kentucky the government, by dint of buying, tithing, and impressing, was barely able to scrape together, week by week, the stinted rations of bacon indispensable to keep life in the soldiers. Urgent as the need of recruits soon became, the authorities perforce adhered to the arrangement whereby the overseers of plantations were exempt from military duty, mainly in consideration of the proprietors giving bond to furnish the army with a few hundred pounds of bacon or beef annually. Private individuals, having the advantage of only one of the resources of the government, and that the least reliable, that of purchase, often found it impossible to procure meat at all. It took time to render available the limited product of iron and leather of which the country was capable. Iron was known to exist in various localities, but few of the mines had been developed, and both appliances and skilled labor were lacking to work them to any extent. The petty rural tanneries, tanning hides “one half for the other” and consuming eighteen months in the process, were the only dependence for leather.


Dodge, David; “Domestic Economy in the Confederacy,” The Atlantic Monthly,  Volume 58, Issue 346; pp. 229-243; August 1886; Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co.

Hit Counter visits since 04/03/2004.
Page updated 05/25/2006