Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War

Posted By on April 21, 2011

Press Release from St. Martin’s Press:

Starving the South:  How the North Won the Civil WarAndrew F. Smith

This coming April marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Historian and Food Studies professor Andrew Smith approaches the topic of the Civil War with a rare and fascinating theory: The real dictating force behind the outcome was who had the most food. Smith shares the evidence for this theory in his new book, Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War, which shows that from the first shot fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, until General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, food played a crucial role in the outcome of the Civil War.

Before the Civil War, the South was the most productive agricultural region in the United States. But because they were more profitable, most Southern farmers chose to grow cotton and tobacco rather than food crops. On the other hand, the Midwest had recently become the largest producer of wheat, and cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis were home to slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities. Railroads were being built to connect the Midwestern cities to the Northeast, delivering food that would later be able to feed the Union army during the war. These same railroads were also used to ship wartime necessities such as uniforms and weapons to base camps, giving the North a distinct advantage.

Throughout the war, food scarcity in the Confederacy hampered military preparedness, adversely affected military decisions, caused malnutrition, exacerbated illnesses, and devastated civilian and military morale. Northern armies took advantage of this weakness and targeted Southern port cities and transportation systems. Once they cut the South off from being able to import food and export tobacco and cotton, they then destroyed agricultural commodities and livestock and torched warehouses, barns, agricultural equipment, and mills. The Army of the Confederacy grew thin while the dinner tables of the Union Army held feasts.

According to Smith, food supplies not only led the North to a victory in the Civil War, but it also affected the way we eat today. During the war the North developed a canning industry as a means to feed the troops, and localized companies such as Borden’s milk became nationalized food suppliers. Also, Thanksgiving became the third national holiday behind Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on November 24, 1864, and Northerners sent care packages filled with turkeys, pies, and puddings to Union soldiers stationed all around the country, leading to the traditional Thanksgiving feasts most Americans enjoy to this day.

While there were many reasons for the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, the underlying theme of Starving the South is that hunger tipped the scales in favor of the South’s surrender. Andrew Smith takes a gastronomical look at the war’s outcome and legacy and asks “Did hunger defeat the Confederacy?”

Out just in time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, Starving the South is a food scholar and historian’s new look at how Union blockades brought about the defeat of a hungry Confederacy.

About the author:

Andrew F. Smith is a faculty member at the New School and editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.” He lives in New York.

“A corrective to blood-and-guts operational histories, Smith’s lucid study gives war production, logistics, and home front morale in the Civil War the prominence they deserve.”

Publishers Weekly


“Smith gives intriguing and readable response to the ever-popular question of why the South lost.”



“’An army travels on its stomach,’ wrote Napoleon Bonaparte…That truth certainly applied to Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War, giving a weighty advantage to the normally well-fed Federals…as Andrew Smith demonstrates in this important and readable study.”

—James M. McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Starving the South:  How the North Won the Civil War, by Andrew F. Smith.  St. Martin’s Press.  Hardcover * History.  $27.99 * 288 pages.  ISBN: 0-312-60181-6.  Publication Date: April 12, 2011.

Purchase from Amazon – click here.

Information about the book also appears on Andrew F. Smith’s web site:

Did hunger defeat the Confederacy? In April 1861, Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports used by the Confederacy for cotton and tobacco exporting as well as for the importation of food staples like flour and salt. Southern cooks became resourceful; but, it wasn’t quite enough and the Army of the Confederacy grew thin. Union dinner tables, conversely, groaned with plenty and Northern canning operations grew allowing Grant to keep his troops strong. In “Starving the South”, historian Andrew Smith takes a fascinating gastronomical look at the war and its legacy. While the Civil War split the country in a way that affects race and politics to this day, it also affected the way we eat and drink: It transformed local markets into large, nationalized and industrialized food suppliers. It forced the development of the northern canning industry, solidified the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday and forged the first truly national cuisine as emancipated slaves migrated northward carrying the recipes and flavors of the South with them. On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, Andrew Smith takes a unique look at a war that’s been analyzed and fought over since Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Also on Smith’s website is an article, “Did Hunger Defeat the Confederacy?”

The article, as it appears on Smith’s website, is from North and South, May 2011, Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 40-46.


Previous posts on this blog related to food and the Civil War:  Pennsylvania Dutch Meals of the Civil War PeriodPennsylvania Dutch Foods of the Civil War Period. Soldier Life and the Secret Service (government oven on wheels, soup tasting).  Future posts will describe army rations and present first-hand accounts of foraging by Lykens Valley area diarist Henry Keiser, a member of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry.


3 Responses to “Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War”

  1. mike says:

    —the first shot fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, until General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1965????

    I didn’t complete high school, but I didn’t know we were still fighting the Civil War during the Vietnam War…

    You may want to fix that, just saying…

    • Norman Gasbarro Norman Gasbarro says:

      Good point! Thank you for the correction… which I just made in the text. Sometimes though it does seem as if the Civil War has not ended… the same issues keep re-appearing, especially state’s rights. At least the armed conflict phase is over.

  2. mike says:

    Nice blog though…

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