Famine in the Post-War South

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Brigadier General
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May 3, 2013
While reading a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted I found a couple of pages outlining his work as the recording secretary of the Southern Famine Relief Commission in 1867. With a little further digging I was able to find that famine conditions existed in significant portions of the South during the years 1866 – 1867 as a result weather (flooding followed by drought) and disruption of pre-war southern economy and social conditions. On line material is scarce and I don’t remember seeing anything in Reconstruction histories about it. A number of accounts follow:

April 29, 1866, New York Times
We have already had accounts of lamentable destitution in Marshall and Blount Counties (Alabama). From this statement it will be seen that the suffering is yet more widely extended. It probably affects all the north-eastern and mountainous section of the state. ….
The suffering of the destitute white classes of Cherokee County is becoming frightfully alarming. The disasters of war and adverse seasons of 1865 were the controlling causes of the present scarcity.
The cry for bread is heard in all sections, and actual starvation is imminent. ….

February 26, 1867, New York Times.
“No southern state is probably suffering so generally and so severely as South Carolina. Fully one-fourth of her population are in distress from want of food. ….
A letter received yesterday from the Southern Relief Commission, dated Lancasterville, Lancaster District, Feb. 18 says:
“This district owing to the disasters consequent upon the war, and the almost total failure of the crops is in a most deplorable state of destitution of the necessaries to support its people and live stock. The district contains about ten thousand population, and not more, perhaps, than twenty families of the whole number have a supply of food for the season. There are about 500 individuals in a very alarming state of want, and unless immediate relief is afforded, many of them must perish by starvation.” ….

April 17, 1867, Daily Alta California.
“But in Northern Alabama, Georgia, the flooded district of East Tennessee, and Central North and South Carolina, where little cotton is raised, where there are few wealthy men, and where the drought of last summer, coming sharp upon the complete desolation left in the track of large contending armies, the distress and suffering are appalling. Their wheat was almost a total failure, and their corn amounted to just nothing at all. They were lacking in implements of husbandry and in horses and mules to propel the plough. Hence bad cultivation, concurring with a very bad season, caused the famine.”

April 30, 1867, Western Democrat (Charlotte, NC).
“The corn crop in Union having completely failed last year, the most of the people are suffering for grain for man and beast. We know men who always had corn to sell heretofore, who are now dependent on charity or their personal credit for supplies for their families. Many cannot obtain corn on credit, and as the donations so far have not proved sufficient, we fear that there will be much suffering among the women and children. ….
To make matters worse, the corn crop was almost a failure in those counties or the portion surrounding Union – such as Mecklenburg, Stanly and Anson; and in the adjoining Districts of South Carolina the distress is as great as anywhere. Therefore help must come from abroad.”

Relief from the disaster was provided first by the U.S. Army. Shortly thereafter the Freedman’s Bureau was authorized to distribute food to all in need regardless of race within the constraints of their existing budget. Commissioner Oliver O. Howard was able to free about $500,000 for the effort. Private agencies began to spring up in the north, among the more prominent of which was the Southern Famine Relief Commission. By the end of 1867 the famine largely abated.

I cannot say that I am surprised by the fact that the famine occurred. What is surprising is that so little information has been printed in the reconstruction histories. How much of Scarlett O’Hara’s plaintive cry “As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!” derived from memories of the famine known by Margaret Mitchell? Is anyone aware of additional news or personal stories of this famine?

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