Author: Paul Escott

Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University. His books include After Secession (1978) and Military Necessity (2006)
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Speculation during the Civil War

Speculation, which involved driving up prices on desperately needed consumer goods, was both rampant and roundly condemned in the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Along with conscription, the so-called Twenty Slave Law, and impressment, speculation helped to undermine support for the war among the less wealthy, in particular. Appalled at soaring prices, Virginians looked for explanations. The Union blockade of the Atlantic coast was partly to blame, and so was the Confederate Congress. Beholden to a states’ rights philosophy and suspicious of a strong federal government, lawmakers refused to levy the taxes necessary to finance the war, thus guaranteeing high inflation. The victims of that inflation, however, preferred to point fingers at greedy speculators, or “extortioners.” Such individuals certainly existed, but government attempts to regulate or punish them were either not forthcoming or proved to be ineffective. Accusations of speculation, meanwhile, were sometimes accompanied by anti-Semitism, challenges of patriotism, and, in one instance, arson.

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Poverty and Poor Relief during the Civil War

Poverty and poor relief, especially in times of acute food shortages, were major challenges facing Virginia and Confederate authorities during the American Civil War (1861–1865). At first, most Confederates were confident that hunger would not be a problem for their nation. Southern farms and black slaves were expected to produce ample quantities of food while white men fought to secure independence. The reality, however, was quite different. The suffering of soldiers’ families and the lower classes in cities resulted in a bread riot in the Confederate capital at Richmond, stimulated desertion from the army, and threatened the entire war effort. Governments at the local, state, and federal level responded with unprecedented efforts to control prices, supply provisions, and ease suffering, and yet neither the Confederate government nor the Virginia state government found a way to take effective action against inflation, speculation, or extortion. Direct relief, free markets, city-sponsored stores, and other innovative measures came into being. Nevertheless, these efforts proved inadequate, and the very idea of being dependent on charity was unsatisfactory to the yeoman class. Consequently, the problems of poverty seriously undermined the war effort in Virginia and throughout the Confederacy.

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