Economic deprivation also sparked disaffection. As the blockade tightened, areas of the Confederacy came under Union occupation, and production by slaves declined, shortages arose of essential commodities such as salt, com, and meat. The war left countless farms, plantations, businesses, and railroads in ruins. The economic crisis, which stood in glaring contrast to the North’s boom, was an unavoidable result of the war. But Confederate policies exaggerated its effects. War requires sacrifice, and civilian support for war depends, in part, on the belief that sacrifice is being fairly shared. Many non-slaveholders, however, became convinced that they were bearing an unfair share of the war’s burdens.

An engraving in the New York Illustrated News depicts the bread riot that took place in Mobile, Alabama, in the fall of 1863.

Like the Union, the Confederacy borrowed heavily to finance the war. Unlike federal lawmakers, however, the planter-dominated Confederate Congress proved unwilling to levy heavy taxes that planters would have to pay. It relied on paper money, of which it issued $1.5 billion, far more than the North’s greenbacks. Congress also authorized military officers to seize farm goods to supply the army, paying with increasingly worthless Confederate money. Small farmers deeply resented this practice, known as “impressment.” “The Rebel army treated us a heap worse than [Union general William T] Sherman did,” a Georgia farmer later recalled. “I had hogs, and a mule, and a horse, and they took them all.” Numerous yeoman families, many of whom had gone to war to preserve their economic independence, sank into poverty and debt. Food riots broke out in many places, including Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama, where in 1863 large crowds of women plundered army food supplies.

In 1862, Joshua B. Moore, a slaveholder in northern Alabama, commented on how slavery threatened the Confederate war effort: “Men who have no interest in it,” he wrote, “are not going to fight through a long war to save it—never. They will tire of it and quit.” As the war progressed, desertion became what one officer called a “crying evil” for the southern armies. By the war’s end, more than 100,000 men had deserted, almost entirely from among “the poorest class of nonslaveholders whose labor is indispensable to the daily support of their families.” Men, another official noted, “cannot be expected to fight for the government that permits their wives and children to starve.”

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