Domestic Economy in the Confederacy

From an 1886 Atlantic Monthly article by David Dodge

            The newspaper was of course the great institution of those feverish days. The war, in that it gave a powerful impetus to reading and writing, and led the minds of the country people farther afield, was undoubtedly a great educator. Newspapers now found their way to the occupants of numberless cabins, whose literary needs and curiosity as to the outside world had hitherto been fully satisfied by two books: one written a couple of thousand years ago in Palestine, the other a couple of hundred years ago in England. Few indeed were the households which had not a member at the perilous front, and the war news was matter of personal interest to all. One of the many pathetic sights of home life was the eager expectation with which an illiterate wife, or mother, or father hurried off, on securing the long-coveted newspaper, in quest of a reader, and doubtless as column after column was gone over in vain, to wonder, simple souls, how so much could be written without a word of mention touching the one in their eyes all-important. The condition of each copy when it came from the country post-office proved it to have been already thoroughly fumbled by the eager crowd which always collected around such places for the perusal of all papers not called for immediately on the opening of the mails. To such an extent was this practice sanctioned by custom, or by mutual forbearance, that if one called and found his paper missing, the tone in which he was informed“ that some of the boys must have got hold of it and carried it off somewhere” showed that an explanation rather than an apology was intended. Once in the hands of the people, the papers passed swiftly from door to door as long as they held together. Between this ceaseless thumbing and the manifold household needs for paper, which had to be supplied wholly from this source, it is not to be wondered that extremely few copies are now extant. Strange and peculiar to the times in matter and material were the weekly papers that reached us. Pregnant as the days were, space could be found only for the most salient events. Here half a column described a pitched battle; there a paragraph told all that we ever knew of a sharp skirmish, costing a hundred lives; again, a single sentence chronicled the daring and death of a dauntless handful. No one could form an idea as to what a day might bring forth.

            As the press was naturally reticent respecting such matters as might dishearten friends, or encourage foes, — not even then escaping frequent threats of bridling measures at the hands of the Richmond government, — the newspaper advertisements have a peculiar value, as giving within certain limits a true, because unconscious, presentation of the condition and attitude of the people. Most of these notices, which were no less characteristic of the times than the news matter, fell under three heads: the orders of the Confederate conscription and commissary officers; notices that certain worthies,”urgently and unavoidably detained at home,” wished to hire substitutes; and rewards offered for deserters and runaway negroes. It is remarkable that in giving the approximate or probable whereabouts of the latter they were almost invariably represented as having returned to the old neighborhood from which they had once been removed, instead, as might be supposed, of making their way towards the Federal lines. The disproportion between the large quantity of land and the small number of slaves advertised for sale strikes one, under the circumstances, as very singular and unaccountable. Neither the fact that the method followed in selling the two species of property was different, nor that much land was thrown on the market owing to the proximity of the advancing Federal lines, the slaves being removed to a place of safety, will, I think, entirely account for it. The true explanation, doubtless, lay largely in the spirit of combativeness which prompted men to cling with all the more tenacity to a species of property which they regarded as unjustly and maliciously attacked, coupled, too, with the scarcely formulated belief that if emancipation ever came, confiscation and all that was dreadful must, as a natural consequence, come hand in hand with it. To the very last the newspapers referred to the high price of slaves as a proof of the determination and confidence of the Southern people in the struggle.

            The fewness of trade advertisements indicate a situation in which solicitation was incumbent on the buyer instead of the seller. An occasional cheap john, as a proof of his enterprise and philanthropy, announced that he had been able to reduce the price of coffee to $40 a pound, sugar to $15, nails to $10, calico to $10 a yard, salt to $100 a sack, and other things to prices proportionally low. Grotesque and ironical to the last degree, and in more than one way, was an advertisement of the last winter of the war, in which an undertaker, in as lively fanfare of type as the font was then capable of, gave notice that he had just received through the blockade an assortment of mahogany coffins, with which he would be pleased to supply his friends and the public generally. However, in view of the fact that the columns were profoundly silent as to the whereabouts of food and raiment, there was unquestionably much timeliness in the tender of such wares.

            After the rapid depreciation of the currency set in, no newspaper received subscriptions for more than six months in advance. With everything else at a hundred prices, $40 per half year for the dailies, and $20 for the weeklies, seemed strangely low. And although, between rough paper, worn type, and bad ink, they were sometimes only partially decipherable, and almost without exception were reduced to half a sheet before the war was two years old, they nevertheless maintained a standard of excellence striking in those days of bungling attempts and lame efforts. The fact that the number of papers in North Carolina was reduced only from fifty-seven in 1861 to twenty-six in 1865, while at least nine tenths of all other business enterprises were ruined, proves journalism to have been the least unsuccessful occupation of the war period.


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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