Book Review: Starving The South

Starving The South: How The North Won The Civil War, by Andrew F. Smith

Those who know me well are very familiar with the fact that I take food seriously, and logistics have always been a matter of considerable importance in life. There are not many books, though, that deal with the study of logistics as an active component in warfare. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, this book is a detailed account of the many and varied ways that logistics proved to be vital in the course of the American Civil War. Although the author and I would part ways in that he seems to assume that winning a war by logistical means is somehow less honorable or desirable than winning a war by glorious battlefield victories, while I consider logistical warfare among the most brutally effective ways to ensure victory not only in a war, but in the larger battle for hearts and minds and to ensure that a war only has to be fought once, I fully agree that the author has found and written in this book a convincing case for the pivotal nature of logistics in the victory of the North. Neither does it bother me in the least that it was over the starving people of the South that the North won their victory; the rebels had it coming to them and have no reason to complain about the loss of their property and the destruction of their homes and farms. If you make war, you need to be prepared to win.

This book, which is organized into mostly chronological chapters that are episodic and anecdotal in nature, makes it clear that the starvation of the South was an overdetermined matter. There were many reasons why the South starved. For one, before the Civil War, the South outsourced its food production to the Midwest so it could focus on export trade with cotton, and then scorned the development of a robust industrial and railroad transportation infrastructure because of an over-reliance on plantation agriculture. These errors were compounded with the decision to avoid using cotton diplomacy effectively to ensure the ability to import food before the blockade took full effect, the fact that a large part of the key areas for food production and storage and salt production among the slave states were largely in the border states that never rebelled, were captured early in the war by the Union, or were vulnerable to interdiction from river and fleet-based forces. In addition, the South was hampered by corruption and profiteering and hoarding among its often incompetent civil officials and wealthy population, while the North benefited from an honest Quartermaster corps even if it was hurt by corrupt generals and merchants and politicians who were willing to sell to rebels to alleviate the full effects of the food shortage of the South. Decisive, though, was the loss of territory in the later stages of the war and the growing tendency for Northern generals like Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, among others, to conduct hard war given the depredations of Nathan Bedford Forrest on supply lines. The South was paid in coin for its destructive efforts, and I am not very sympathetic about it.

To be sure, in this well researched book there are a lot of intriguing and poignant stories. On the side of the South, there is the melancholy phenomenon of starvation parties, food riots, and letters complaining about the lack of food from soldiers and from the home front, and even from Confederate clerks who nonetheless found it hard to obtain enough food to live comfortably, as well as a pitiful feast planned for soldiers near Richmond that was a bust because the food was siphoned off before it got to the soldiers. On the side of the North, the story is more pleasant, of the growth of the Midwest as a center for diversified agriculture and agribusiness, on the invention of condensed milk and low-cost canning, and on the ability to provide a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast in 1864 to Union soldiers on both the Eastern and Western fronts. The scope of this book is immense, examining everything from the spread of Southern cuisine in the period after the Civil War thanks to migrating blacks to the sad fate of the South left prostrate after the war. As someone who is not very sympathetic to the South, this book makes a compelling case on the pivotal importance of logistics to the conduct of warfare, and to the way in which hard war makes everyone suffer eventually.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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