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.

Causes of Suffering

Virginia Civilians After the Battle of Cedar Mountain

Multiple factors caused the widespread hunger and privation in Virginia. A fundamental problem for non-slaveholding families was the loss of agricultural laborers when husbands and sons went off to join the Confederate army. Single women or elderly parents could not cope on their own, as one Virginian testified when he wrote to the governor, John L. Letcher, and said of his son, “If you dount [sic] send him home I am bound to louse my crop and cum to suffer.” The fact that Virginia was a major battleground exacerbated the problem. In addition to the destruction caused by battles, soldiers on both sides slaughtered animals, seized property and provisions, ruined crops, and tore down fences or outbuildings to obtain firewood. A Virginian named William R. Ashton complained to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that his “whole place [was] perfectly desolated” by Confederate troops, and the Richmond Enquirer noted in August 1862, that “We often hear persons say, ‘The Yankees cannot do us any more harm than our own soldiers have done.'”

In 1862 Union policy became harsher, as Union general John Pope ordered his men to subsist from Confederate households and punish guerrilla activity. Constant fighting in the state caused British observer Arthur Fremantle to remark that in the area of Sperryville, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, lands were “almost uncultivated, and no animals are grazing … All fences have been destroyed, and numberless farms burnt.” Fremantle also noted that northeastern Virginia had “supported two large armies for two years.” As a result, the land was “now completely cleaned out. It is almost uncultivated, and no animals are grazing where there used to be hundreds.”

Other problems added to the difficulties, as did some Confederate policies. Rampant, uncontrolled inflation brought frustration and despair to many Virginians. By the autumn of 1863 flour in Lynchburg was selling for $30 or $40 per barrel, but by December the price had more than doubled, and by the following spring it had soared to $275 per barrel. Rents in Richmond and other suddenly overcrowded cities rose meteorically. A resident of Charlottesville found that his cobbler had increased the price of repairing his shoes by 50 percent in just one day.

Impressment, on which the Confederacy relied heavily to feed its armies, took many goods from farms and markets, and the likelihood that the government would seize farmers’ products discouraged them from offering food for sale. Soaring prices convinced many that greedy merchants were abusing the poor and profiting from speculation. For all these reasons, the deteriorating situation convinced R. G. H. Kean, chief of the Confederate Bureau of War, that “the most alarming feature of our condition is the failure of the means of subsistence.” A group of widows from Clarksville told Letcher that “the stuff of life is being fast taken from us … famine in all its horrors must soon be upon us if the Government comes not to our rescue.”


The most dramatic sign of suffering and discontent was the famous bread riot in Richmond on April 2, 1863. Among the 1,000 protesting women were many wives of men who worked at the Tredegar ironworks and other women who worked in Confederate factories. As their protest turned violent, with stores being ransacked for food and other goods, some complained, “We are starving.” Mayor Joseph Mayo, Governor John Letcher, and President Jefferson Davis all appealed to the rioters, but in vain. Only Davis’s threat that soldiers would shoot into the mob dispersed the crowd.

Punishment for Desertion

Yet other effects of hunger and privation were more important, if less visible. The most important was desertion from the armies. As men left their posts, their officers and colleagues recognized that many deserted in order to aid their loved ones: “Their wives and families in the majority of cases are helpless & destitute of the absolute necessities of life.” As one Virginian put it, “What man is there that would stay in the armey and no that his family is sufring at home?” The privations of civilian life had a direct, undeniable, and negative impact on military strength.

Such suffering also undermined morale and encouraged criticism of government policies. Workers went on strike in Lynchburg and elsewhere to demand better remuneration for their services. Public meetings were held to cry out for solutions or to press the government for change. An assemblage in Albemarle County called on the Confederate government to negotiate with Union states in the northwest to try to bring about peace. These events were evidence that the painful difficulties of life on the home front threatened the internal cohesion of the Confederacy.

Relief Efforts

Governments responded to poverty in unprecedented ways. As early as 1861 local governments encouraged donations for the poor and appropriated modest stipends to help those in need. Augusta County, for example, gave widows and children of soldiers $1 or 50 cents per week, respectively. Some localities issued small notes to increase the amount of money in circulation, a practice that the state legislature banned in 1863. These efforts expanded as the problem grew. By 1863 the state legislature supported local governments’ efforts to help the poor by authorizing them to borrow up to $10,000 per one thousand white residents for poor relief.

Urban areas tried to alleviate hunger by expanding the supply of provisions. After the food riot, Richmond’s leaders established a free store where poorer residents could exchange special tickets for needed goods. Other cities or towns included salt and fuel among the goods that they made available to the poor. In 1863 Lynchburg set up a public store that sold necessities to the poor at cost; customers could purchase one month’s supply at a time. Lynchburg also offered a four-month’s supply of salt to its taxpayers at below-market prices. The town of Staunton doubled its taxes in order to purchase meat, flour, and wood for the families of soldiers. In Charlottesville and Lynchburg, officials appropriated money that poor residents, faced with becoming homeless, could use to help pay their rent. Charity drives in these cities raised substantial sums to aid the poor.

By 1863 the Virginia legislature felt compelled to do more for poor relief. First it required railroad lines to give high priority to shipments of food and took action to limit the distilling of grain into alcohol. To aid families of soldiers, it also empowered local governments to use the tax-in-kind and local impressment to obtain food, with farmers being paid at price levels established by the Confederate government. Counties compiled lists of the indigent, and by the autumn of 1864 Campbell County was distributing each month twenty-five pounds of meat and twenty pounds of flour to its poor. In 1864 a new law appropriated $1 million to help families of soldiers in occupied areas, where local governments were not able to help. Another bill suspended state taxes.

But the greatest capacity for dealing with the crisis lay with the Confederate government. From time to time Virginians petitioned the Confederate administration to exempt hard-hit regions from conscription or to support transportation of food on the rails. Many individual requests were granted. Another possible step, which attracted great interest among the public, was price control. Confederate general John Winder attempted to control prices in Richmond under martial law in 1862. Although his efforts failed and were rescinded, the idea of price control was very popular, and a considerable public clamor for state action arose in 1863. Ultimately, the proposed step failed.

Potentially more important was the use of the tax-in-kind. After the national legislature passed this measure in the spring of 1863, the Confederacy began to take possession of large quantities of food. Local officials soon began to request that they be allowed to buy back some of the tax-in-kind at the below-market prices established under the impressment law. Because the Confederate government controlled the most food, it had the greatest ability to relieve suffering, and, although records are fragmentary, it is clear that the Confederacy provided some aid, at least for a time. But feeding the armies was always a higher priority. The commissary general of subsistence reported that “we have to elect between the army and the people doing without.” As the crisis deepened, the War Department cut back on aid to civilians.

That meant that other measures by the Confederacy were palliatives, rather than solutions. When Congress revised the exemption for overseers, it required that the exempted planters supply specified amounts of meat or grain, at attractive prices, to selected civilians in their neighborhood. Other farmers were exempted on an individual basis, often with the condition that they supply food to those in need.

An Unsolved Problem

Sheridans Wagon Trains in the Valley. Early morning mist and smoke

Nevertheless, all the efforts of local, state, and national governments were inadequate. Some counties ran out of money intended for relief. Continued fighting spread destruction, culminating in Union general Philip Sheridan‘s raids in the Shenandoah Valley in the autumn of 1864. Hard-pressed purchasing agents for county or local governments found themselves in competition with other localities or with the Confederate government in their efforts to buy scarce food. Increasingly, there simply was not adequate food to be found, and the Confederacy exercised its claim of first priority in order to feed the army. “This county has been exhausted of supplies,” reported a resident of Albemarle County, “and money cannot purchase them.” By the end of 1864 there was insufficient meat in Virginia to feed both soldiers and civilians, and the efforts of the Confederate authorities focused on importing meat from other states to help the army.

Thus, hunger and suffering characterized the lives of many in Virginia, long a productive agricultural state. This growing crisis on the home front damaged morale, caused many soldiers to desert, and led many civilians to despair of their government, despite substantial efforts to alleviate suffering. In struggling with this problem, Virginia officials faced more than the challenge of finding food or paying the expenses of relief. They also learned that even their best efforts remained less than satisfactory, for the dependence involved in accepting relief violated the self-respect of yeoman farmers and urban workers. “As freemen,” declared a meeting of Richmond workmen, “we abhor and detest the idea that the rich must take care of the poor.” Poor relief was no substitute for self-respect, even during wartime.

  • Blair, William. Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Harlots or Heroines? A New Look at the Richmond Bread Riot.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92 (April 1984), 131–75.
  • Escott, Paul D. “‘The Cry of the Sufferers’: The Problem of Welfare in the Confederacy.” Civil War History XXIII (Spring, 1977), 228–40.
  • Green, Elna C. This Business of Relief: Confronting Poverty in a Southern City, 1740– 1940. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2003.
  • Thomas, Emory M. The Confederate State of Richmond: Biography of the Capital. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.
  • Thomas, Emory M. “To Feed the Citizens: Welfare in Wartime Richmond, 1861–1865.” Virginia Cavalcade 22 (1972), 22–29.
  • Zornow, William Frank. “Aid for Indigent Families of Soldiers in Virginia, 1861–1865.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 66 (1958), 454–58.
APA Citation:
Escott, Paul. Poverty and Poor Relief during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/poverty-and-poor-relief-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Escott, Paul. "Poverty and Poor Relief during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 05
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