‘The Specter of Starvation’: The N.C. Homefront

By Chris Graham

During the Civil War, North Carolina faced a series of massive changes that challenged its strictly ordered society. While North Carolina’s soldiers waged a bloody battle against their enemies, citizens on the home front coped with inflation and shortages of food and materials.

The loss of the men who departed for the war in early 1861 caused little disruption to agriculture and the domestic routine. The earliest youthful cohort of enlistees consisted primarily of unmarried men without dependents. Those who oversaw and controlled the social hierarchy — fathers, husbands and other established patriarchs — remained in place.

Yet with the unexpected Confederate setbacks during the winter of 1861-62, the army demanded more men. The second wave of volunteerism, in the autumn of 1861, and the third wave, in the spring of 1862 (under the threat of conscription), netted older men. The older men had wives, young children, businesses and property to superintend. The fresh soldiers and the one-year veterans alike marched into the bloody summer campaigns of 1862 in Virginia.

Families on the home front experienced a variety of deprivations. Agricultural production plummeted, and traditional commercial sources of food failed, so that many families could not obtain enough to eat. Impressments, tax-in-kind policies, and hoarding by speculators also contributed to food shortages. The blockade, the breakdown of transportation routes, and the demands of the military starved the countryside of material for clothing, as well as for other finished and raw goods (needles, for instance) that were necessary for maintaining the daily routine.

North Carolina’s small population of white paupers continued to survive in the same way it had survived before the war — by carrying on an illicit trade in legitimate and ill-gotten goods with other poor whites and with blacks.

Not all families were cast into deprivation, however. Most North Carolina families did indeed contend with hunger and high prices, but most of them survived without serious displacement by relying on their traditional community ties. Strong pre-war bonds with kin, church congregations and social circles provided families a source for the necessities of life through purchase, barter or charity.

Still, some families felt the pinch more than others. The resources of the less well off and those with tenuous community relationships quickly evaporated by mid-1862, and even at that early date, observers noted the looming specter of widespread starvation. Local governments recognized the growing threat. In December 1862, following the lead of several of the state’s counties, the state legislature appropriated $400,000 for purchasing corn, rice, bacon and other provisions. The legislature followed up with four larger appropriations during the course of the war. Although the sums were great, the efforts proved to be too little and too late to forestall widespread want.

North Carolina’s predominantly agricultural economy provided few opportunities for wage-earning. Textile mills and other manufactories that had employed women prior to the war continued to do so, but that employment opportunity was available only to the poor and the young. The state government itself offered one of the few new opportunities for earning cash on a wage basis. The state quartermaster department employed poor soldiers’ wives and widows in the production of uniforms. County agents of the quartermaster department distributed cloth pattern pieces to women who sewed them together in their homes while they watched over their children. The quartermaster paid the women cash once the garments passed inspection in Raleigh.

For more information check out:

Money Troubles on North Carolina's Homefront by Neil Fulghum

Civil War Letters from Western North Carolina


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