Domestic Economy in the Confederacy
Economic Hardships  

From an 1886 Atlantic Monthly article by David Dodge

            While the abnormal economic condition of which I have endeavored to give the most prominent features imposed more or less hardship on all, it bore very unequally on people of different occupations. The professional class and those who worked for salaries and wages naturally fared worst at a time when the struggle for bare existence taxed the energies of the majority to the utmost, and when the value of money was the most uncertain thing in a situation where nothing was certain. Besides, although the price of the necessities of life increased fifty and a hundred fold, professional emoluments, salaries, and wages advanced not more than ten, rarely more than five, fold. The monthly pay of a Confederate foot-soldier — $15 a month, and that oftener than not in arrears — would, for many months preceding Lee’s surrender, have barely sufficed, in Richmond, to buy a pound of bacon to eke out his pitiful rations, or a swallow of poor whiskey to induce momentary forgetfulness of hunger, although, perchance, in Raleigh, at times, that amount might have put him in possession of both. The sum of $50, which the privates received annually in commutation for clothing, was, when the method was abolished, hardly less inadequate than his pay. As the currency depreciated, even civilians, who could command some increase of pay, found that prices so outgrew their salaries that, if obliged to depend on them alone, they remained hopelessly impecunious. However, any one with the opportunity and inclination to speculate — which, in view of the fact that there was nothing but the bare necessities of life in which to speculate, was held a shameful thing — found little trouble in making more money than he could use. At the same time that the speculators were cudgeling their brains to devise new ways of spending the flood of Confederate money that poured in on them, the families of soldiers, and even of officers, unless they had independent means of support, were reduced to penury, and but for the charity of neighbors, and the aid extended by the State in furnishing them food at cost, or, in extreme cases, without charge, must have starved. The concentration of refugees within the Confederate limits, as the Federal lines advanced, increased still faster the constantly widening disproportion between demand and supply in all the essentials of life.

            As has been aptly said, necessities became luxuries; and there were no comforts. It is such tests as these that reveal the wide differences between our real and imaginary needs. Many families who before the war had held it impossible to live on less than one thousand dollars a year found now that a sum with the purchasing power of one twentieth of that amount not only sufficed to keep soul and body together, but that enough was left to enable them to give a meal to every Confederate soldier who came within their reach. Meanwhile, the women of the household, the men being at the front or perhaps dead, after performing such domestic duties as were indispensable, devoted every moment to gratuitous work for the soldiers, usually giving the material — sheets, valances, curtains, carpets, shawls, and woolen dresses, the accumulations of better days — from which the articles were made. Many families lived mainly on sorghum and sweet-potatoes. Cases were known in which a sick person, the recipient of some chance delicacy, transmitted it to another, regarded in still greater need of it, who did likewise; and after passing in turn through various hands, till all knowledge of the first donor was lost, it came back to the house from which it started. In keeping with the severe economy of the times was the action of the boarding- schools, which, in order that the students might be deterred from taking more food than they could eat, imposed a penalty on all who left anything on their plates.

            It would be a strong arraignment of the wastefulness of a normal period to compare the quantity of even the most indispensable staple used per head with that used, say, in 1864, could either be exactly known. The straggling Confederate who, when detected in a persimmon-tree by his commanding officer, the fruit being yet unripe and powerfully astringent, declared in extenuation that he was compelled to draw up his stomach to fit his rations, described in homely phrase a process of which there was very wide need.

            Fortunate were those who were producers and as little dependent as possible on the caprice and uncertainties of markets. Not only did the difficulty of transportation and the consequent inequality of distribution cause the greatest diversity of prices to prevail in the State, or even in a much more restricted area, — it was not uncommon to find a difference of fifty or seventy-five per cent. in prices at places not fifty miles apart, both being on the railroad, — but one could form no idea one day what he would have to pay the next, nor was there any certainty that he would be able to buy at all. Guided by rumor, a veritable Ariel in those days and on such errands, he might set out with one hundred dollars in pocket to buy a sack of salt, a pair of cotton cards, or even two barrels of corn or ten pounds of bacon, and learn on reaching the distant store, even if the coveted articles turned not out to be myths, that the whole stock had been exhausted the first half day, or that the merchant, falling suddenly into doubt as to finding opportunity to reinvest his money, had doubled prices, or closed his doors and refused to sell at all.

            Feuds strangely characteristic of the times sometimes arose between neighboring places. The speculators from one town, making a sudden foray into another, would strip it of everything that money could buy, carrying off their spoil for a profit. As a consequence, prices in the raided town leaped up a hundred per cent. at a bound, even if a downright famine did not ensue. A storm of indignation arose. The newspapers inveighed against it, the people resented it, and the feelings thus engendered in some instances outlived the war.

            Even in the larger towns it was a rare thing for the stores to stand open regularly. When a merchant could find anything to sell he opened his doors, disposed of it quickly, and closed while in quest of another stock. Especially was this the case if he sold only blockade goods. Some managed to do a less spasmodic business by dealing in rude articles of country manufacture, including always the ubiquitous sorghum.


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

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