Region left destitute
The Confederate government essentially left the food problem to the states. Georgia tried to control prices, ease suffering and provide necessities to the poor. The Legislature passed corn appropriation acts, distributed free salt to indigents and provided free or reduced-price corn to soldiers’ families. Unfortunately, the efforts could not meet escalating demands.
In a world without refrigeration the need for salt was particularly critical. Letters pleading for the commodity poured into Georgia Gov. Joseph Brown’s office. Efforts to provide it, though well-intentioned, were plagued with inadequate management and bureaucratic red tape. Elizabeth Wade of Whitfield County wrote the governor in August 1863, “Last winter our salt was detained in Atlanta ... It was then sent to us (but) the delay proved disastrous for the meat.” Murray County received no salt rations, and other north Georgia counties, including Catoosa, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon and Walker, received none after 1863.
By late 1863 almost every county in north Georgia had been declared destitute and began receiving corn rations. Severe drought had caused Georgia’s wheat crop to fail, and an early frost blighted the corn. In early 1864 Col. M.H. Cofer, post commandant in Dalton, wrote Gov. Brown, “Many wives and mothers with their helpless children are suffering both for food and for clothing.” In response, Brown sent 10,000 bushels of corn to Dalton and Whitfield County.
War-time food shortages were caused by many factors, each alone serious, but in combination, a formula for crisis. Earliest, and most apparent, were the lack of manpower left to harvest crops or process livestock and the Confederate impressment of large quantities of food for the military at below-market prices.
But others soon developed: the insistence by many well-to-do Southern planters on growing cotton for extravagant profits rather than raising food, the sale of corn to liquor distilleries, the sale of food to hoarders and speculators, and (as in Georgia) early frosts and ruinous droughts.
As the war progressed these factors were compounded by the effectiveness of the Union war plan — the naval blockade, the occupation and devastation of rich agricultural land, and the demolition or capture of rail lines, bridges and waterways.
In addition, both Union and Confederate armies foraged huge quantities of food, wood and livestock — sometimes benevolently, sometimes vengefully, but either way disastrous to civilians. In September 1863 Whitfield County farmer John Cain wrote Gov. Brown complaining that the Confederate cavalry was taking horses, stealing chickens, killing sheep and hogs, even digging potatoes out of the ground. “All manner of depredation,” he declared, “is (being) committed.”