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How To > Impact of the War on the Citizenry > A Primer on Shortages

A Primer on Shortages in the South

By Joyce DeMatteis

If your Civil War impression is of a Southern civilian, you knew about and, at some point, you were affected by shortages. These shortages were caused by many factors. You might have experienced more or less severe shortages depending on where here you lived and how rich you were. Some of these shortages were merely annoying; others were life-threatening.

What Caused the Shortages?

The shortages were caused by the Northern blockade, a reduced ability to produce goods, and a greater need to supply the soldiers rather than the civilians. In the 1800's almost every family depended on purchasing rather than producing personal household, and farm goods, Many of these goods were imported from Europe and from Northern factories. The blockade effectively shut down the importation of many items including coffee, shoes, thread, needles, hairpins, toothbrushes, buttons soap cologne, pencils, pens, candles, stationary, and farm tools.

Southern manufacture was either non-existent of reduced. The drain of manpower to serve as soldiers impacted many businesses and farms. Factories were also affected because they could not purchase or repair equipment because of the blockade. Goods that were produced were difficult to transport because the railroad system was overloaded or damaged.

A further strain on supplies was caused the army's need for food and materiel. In the crisis the government manipulated the economy and diverted goods to the army

Who Was Affected? 

Ultimately everyone was affected by shortages.

The severity of food and fuel shortages was uneven. People living on plantations or farms did okay at first. Plantations were largely self-sufficient and had enough resources to turn over 10% of their production to the government for the army. Farmers were hurt more by the 10% impressment. They tended to hold on to their produce and livestock. They did not want to sell it for devalued currency and they did not want to run the risk of transporting the goods to town. To do so exposed them to the risk of theft or seizure by the government of the produce or of the home and wagon. 

Later even plantations and farms suffered from shortages, Manpower dwindled as did tools. The land could be adversely affected by the presence or movement of the armies; so much so that it lost its ability to produce for years.

City residents fared much worse and sooner from food about. ages They were affected by the farmers' reluctance to bring their produce and livestock to town. In addition, city populations were growing due to an influx of refugees and government workers. Riots over food occurred, such as the Richmond food riot of 1863. Most people were able to get enough nourishment to live. However, many diaries bemoan the monotony of their diets one subsisted largely on peas, another on bean soup, and another on "meat mid bread, bread and meat."

But the far the greatest sufferers were those residents of a city under siege. Vicksburg and Petersburg endured great hardships from a lack of load. There was a very real chance of starvation under these conditions.

Clothing was also in short supply. Although home manufacture of cloth was certainly possible, it was a forgotten skill for many. While home manufacture of cloth did increase, it was not to a significant extent. Once available sources of cloth were exhausted, such as hand-me-downs and even extra linens. Most families just did without. A lack of shoes was particularly distressing.

Money was also in short supply. In addition to be being devalued it was unavailable. Some business gave change in stamps or tokens. Bartering for goods became commonplace.

By the end of the war, the Southern economy was crippled and shortages had affected every household even to the point of exhausting any wealth they had.


  • Ersatz in the Confederacy by M.E. Massey, ISBN 0-87249-877-8.
  • Trials & Triumphs: The Women of the American Civil War by M. Culpepper, ISBN O-87013- 296-2
  • Mothers of Invention by Drew Gilpin Faust, ISBN 0-8078-2255-8

Note: This article originally appeared in the AGSAS Messenger newsletter