Most Americans can identify the social, political, and economic consequences of the Civil War. Yet, few people approach the subject from an environmental perspective. In “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” Jack Temple Kirby argues that it is necessary for Americans to study the effects the environment had on the war and the effects the war had on the environment. He writes, “Nature sometimes presents change without human agency, but human action- making civilizations, technology, warfare- has enormous consequences.”
Although there are many examples of both environmental factors that influenced the war and environmental consequences of the war, this post will focus on the effects of the war on the Confederate Army’s food supply, and the long term effects of the war on the South’s food supply.
In order for armies to win wars, they have to be able to feed themselves. The Confederate Army had a difficult time doing this. There are many reasons for this struggle, and some of them happen to be environmental reasons. During this time period, the farmers in the South chose to plant mostly cotton. Although cotton was a profitable crop, it was not edible. The fact that farmers were neglecting to grow other crops meant there was already a lack of food in the South. To make matters worse, the South experienced quite a bit of unfavorable weather during the Civil War. In 1862, the South experienced a drought, followed by extreme flooding. These conditions created the perfect environment for rust parasite, which ruined the wheat crop. The flooding also destroyed valuable farmland in Mississippi. Since the South had a limited amount of food in the first place, all of these weather conditions were devastating. Conditions only continued to grow worse when the Union Army managed to blockade the southern states. One paper in Mississippi even wrote, “There is more to fear from a dearth of food than from all the Federal armies in existence.”
The Union Army did not have as much trouble feeding its soldiers. In Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in America History, Ted Steinberg writes, “Although hardly immune from hunger, northern soldiers received more food per person than any other army in the history of warfare.” The Union Army had this advantage because the North had more technology which made it easier to produce food.
The severe food shortage forced the Confederate Army to search for food in new places. They began to hunt wild hogs at an unsustainable rate, which caused the hog population in the south to decline quickly. In 1860, there were approximately 360,000 hogs in the South. The population had decreased to 60,000 by 1880, which is about one sixth of the original population. Since wild hogs were an essential food source for many southerners, there was a need to find another source of pork after the war. The South was able to import pork from the Midwest, but this came at a nutritional cost. The wild hogs from the south were lean, while the pork imported from the Midwest contained quite a bit of fat. Due to this change, people in this region were more likely to have heart attacks or strokes.
The South also lost valuable farmland during the war. Many of the battles took place on farmland. These areas were greatly altered by trenches and tunnels. When the battles were over, the fields were filled with the remnants war. Some of the farmland was even turned in parks and cemeteries. For example, Arlington National Cemetery used to be farmland.
If historians forget to examine the environmental aspects of the Civil War, then they miss out on a plethora of information. All information is vital to understanding the war, which some argue is one of the most important events in American history.
For more information on the environmental effects on the Civil War and the damage the war had on the environment, refer to the following sources-
Jack Temple Kirby, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe. National Humanities Center. Accessed on 11/13/13.
Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, Second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).