Economy of the Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America had an agrarian-based economy that relied heavily on slave-worked plantations for the production of cotton for export to Europe and the northern US states. If ranked as an independent nation, it would have been the fourth richest country of the world in 1860. When the Union blockaded its ports in summer 1861, exports of cotton fell 95 percent and the South had to restructure itself to emphasize food production and munitions production. After losing control of its main rivers and ports, it had to depend on a weak railroad system that, with few repairs being made, no new equipment, and federal raids, crumbled away. The financial infrastructure collapsed during the war as inflation destroyed banks and forced a move toward a barter economy for civilians. The government seized needed supplies and livestock (paying with certificates that were supposed to be paid off after the war, but never were). By 1865 the economy was in ruins.
- 1 Agriculture
- 2 Manufacturing
- 3 Transportation
- 4 Foreign Trade
- 5 Finance
- 6 Long term weaknesses
- 7 See also
- 8 Footnotes
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 External links
|Sources and Ends||Bales
|Used in the South||0.4|
|to U.K. & Europe||0.5|
|to the North||0.9|
The main prewar agricultural products of the Confederate States were cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane, with hogs, cattle grain and vegetable plots. In 1862, there was a severe drought that, despite efforts to switch from cotton planting to grain farming, caused food shortages and even bread riots in 1863-64. The harvests were fairly abundant after 1862, but often went to waste as they could not be harvested or moved to markets. Corn was raised in large quantities, and, in general, the raising of food products instead of tobacco and cotton was a necessity.
The scarcity of food in the armies and cities was due mostly to the shortage of male labor, the disruption of transportation and finance. Compounding the problem was the ever-increasing number of refugees flooding into cities; food distribution became increasingly harder, and at times, impossible.
The progressive destruction of the southern railroad network, along with rapid inflation, affected women in the cities especially hard as they found food prices too high to afford. This could be seen in the infamous Richmond bread riots of April, 1863, when a large mob of starving women in the city looted stores for food, ignoring the pleas of President Jefferson Davis who stood upon a cart to toss coins to the women, who dispersed only after he threatened to order a company of militia to open fire. This and other stories of hardship on the home front greatly demoralized Confederate soldiers when they received letters from their wives, and hence "thousands of husbands discharged themselves" to save their families over the course of the war.
Despite the Confederacy's strength in cotton production, it produced very little cloth or clothing, and by the end of the first year, its most productive textile manufacturing regions were in the hands of the Union. Instead, the South increasingly relied on foreign sources.
The Confederacy's industrial workforce, like its agricultural workforce, was characterized by its wide and extensive use of slaves. In the 1850s, anywhere from 150,000 - 200,000 slaves were used in industrial work. Most, almost 4/5, were owned directly by industrial owners, the other being bonded out by plantation owners. Often, manual labor performed by slaves would be combined with skilled white artisans in order to better compete with northern and foreign industry.
Despite the profitability of slave industry, Southern industry had been undercapitalized for years by the time of the outbreak of the war. Besides a social preference for ownership of real property, agriculture in staple goods was considered the easiest route to profitability; thus agriculture always outbid industry when it came to capital allocation. As early as 1830, Southern industry was a generation behind, and by the Civil War, was vastly inferior to northern and foreign manufacturing.
At the outset of hostilities, only two government-owned naval yards were located in the South. Of private shipyards, anywhere from 36-145 existed, of varying tonnage and skill. While sawmills were readily available to supply the construction of wooden boats, iron processing in the South was limited. The result was that few ships were built. The most famous was the CSS Virginia, a steam-powered ironclad warship built in 1861-62 using the raised and cut down original lower hull and steam engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack. Virginia fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads against the Union's USS Monitor in March, 1862, in what was the world's first battle between ironclads.
In the initial volleys of the war, the Confederate government sought the use of cottage and home-based industry to fulfill manufacture of finished textile goods, such as shirts and shoes. Finding this method of production inadequate, the government moved to consolidate finished-goods production into military-run textile shops concentrated in larger cities. These textile shops, with the exception of those captured or destroyed, continued to run until the end of the war. Private mills generally supplied raw textiles to these shops for refinement.
Protected from northern and European imports by the blockade, however, privately owned textile mills found themselves in a very lucrative market. Ever-rising prices due to scarcity and high-levels of demand made sales to the public far more profitable than fixed-price contract sales to the military. So much so, that in the first year private mills often refused or cut back on fulfillments ordered by Confederate quartermasters. The advent of conscription, giving the government de facto control over the labor force, as well as control over railroads and other forms of transport, precluded such avoidance.
While the general political sentiment in the Confederacy was reluctance towards government involvement in private business, the exigencies of the war forced the Confederate government to exert a strong control over industry related to war aims. The bureau of conscription, empowered by the conscription act of 1862 and 1863, dispensed exemptions to those in industry, if necessary, provided a powerful incentive to private industry to fulfill government contracts. If an owner refused, they would find themselves quickly without their labor force, free or slave.
Before the war the South had a good system of transportation by riverboats on a huge network of navigable rivers, plus a dozen ocean ports. In May 1861 the Union naval blockade shut down almost all port activity except for blockade runners. International and coastal traffic fell 90 percent or more. In peacetime, the vast system of navigable rivers allowed for cheap and easy transportation of farm products. The vast geography made for difficult Union logistics, and Union soldiers were used to garrison captured areas and protect rail lines. But the Union Navy seized most of the navigable rivers by 1862, making its own logistics easy and Confederate movements difficult. After the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, it became nearly impossible for all but small military units to cross the Mississippi with Union gunboats constantly on patrol. The Eastern and Western parts of the Confederacy were thereafter never satisfactorily connected.
The outbreak of war had a depressing effect on the economic fortunes of the Confederate railroad industry. With cotton crop being hoarded in an attempt to entice European intervention, railroads were bereft of their main source of income. Many were forced to lay off employees, and in particular, let go skilled technicians and engineers. For the early years of the war, the Confederate government had a hands off approach to the railroads. It wasn't until mid-1863 that the Confederate government initiated an overall policy, and it was confined solely to aiding the war effort. With legislation authorizing "impressment" (commandeering) that same year, railroads and their rolling stock came under de facto control of the military.
In the last year before the end of the war, the Confederate railroad system was always on the verge of collapse. The impressment policy of Quarter-master's ran the rails ragged; feeder lines would be scraped in order to lay down replacement steel for trunk lines, and the continual use of ill-maintained rolling stock wore them down faster than they could be replaced.
The states that entered the Confederate States accounted for 70 percent of total US exports, and the Confederate leaders believed that this would give the new nation a firm financial basis. Cotton was the primary potential export, accounting for 75 percent of Southern goods either shipped to northern US states or exported in 1860. The Confederate States entered the war with the hope that its near monopoly of the world cotton trade would force the European importing countries, especially Great Britain and France, to intervene in the war on her behalf. In 1861, Southerners at the local level imposed an embargo on cotton shipments — it was not the government's policy. Millions of bales of cotton went unshipped, and by summer 1861 the blockade closed down all normal trade.
A small fraction of the cotton was exported through blockade runners. In the total course of the war, 446,000 bales of cotton were exported to England and Europe. Ironically, the largest amount of cotton exports went to the United States. Most cotton however, would never be traded during the Confederacy's brief existence, either being destroyed during the war or hoarded till the end.
Disputes over the proper tariff rate had been a sectional political issue between northern and southern states at one point almost leading to a prior dissolution of the Union. Southerners mostly opposed protectionist tariffs for finished goods, fearing they would lessen the value of their raw material exports, as foreign manufactures would be blocked sale back to the United States. Southern political pressure kept the tariffs at low levels from 1847 through 1860. The founders of the Confederate States codified this opposition in the Confederate States Constitution with a prohibition of protectionist tariffs. One of the first acts of the Confederate Congress was the lowering of import tariffs from the then current US average rate of 20 percent to 10 percent.
However the Confederacy proposed to impose its tariffs on all imports from the USA, which would have been a vast increase in taxes for the Southerners. In practice almost no tariffs were collected; the total customs revenue collected was about $3.3 million (Confederate dollars), from 1861 through 1864. [Historical Statistics (2006) series Eh201]
Just as the blockade had made export of Confederate goods prohibitive, so did it frustrate the importation of vital goods to the Confederate war-effort. Importers often had to use transshipment points, such as ports in the Caribbean, transferring and splitting cargo onto smaller ships for the final leg. Thus shipments became sporadic and delayed.
In the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter, agents, headed by Major Caleb Huse, were sent abroad to Europe to procure weapons and other necessary supplies. Despite these efforts, the first shipment did not leave England until August, and didn't arrive in the South till November, a full 8 months after the outbreak of hostilities. The slow rate of importation continued from September 1861 to February 1862, with a grand total of 15,000 small arms procured for the Confederate's war effort.
After February, however, the Confederacy's fortunes in weapons procurement changed dramatically. From April 1862 till August of that year, the Confederacy was able to procure some 48,150 arms, over three times the amount gained in the same period the year before. By February 1863, the total number of guns purchased had raised to a total of 174,129. While some of these weapons were caught by the Union navy in the blockade, a slight majority made it through, with 40.9 percent of all privateers being caught in 1862.
Raw minerals that the South was bereft of were acquired through trade with Mexico, most notably sulphur, copper, powder, and niter. Union officials recognized the extent of trade with Mexico, and aggressively tried to interrupt it. Despite their efforts, and the fall of the Mississippi into Union hands, flow of goods from Mexico to the Confederacy was unabated until the end of the war.
While attempts were made to engage shipbuilders on the Pacific coast, in an attempt to access ports in South America, none of the plans came to fruition. Only the Confederate steamer, the Alabama, after finding the Atlantic too hostile, set sail for Pacific waters in an attempt to wreck America's Far-East trade. Though it succeeded in its mission to harass American trade interests, it did not manage to open new ports or engage in trade for the Confederacy, and it was sunk before it could return home with its captured goods.
Blockade runners who sold to the public dealt almost exclusively in luxury and other high-profit items, despite the ever-present need for staple goods. The practice was so egregious that the Confederate congress came to ban the import of luxury items, though the law was not effectively enforced. Smuggling over land, from either Mexico or Union territory, also provided a profitable trade in luxury items, though it also become a useful means of acquiring much-needed medicine.
Most of the available capital in the confederate states was invested in slaves or cotton land. During the war there was no way to monetize it to support the war effort. The weak banking system was unable to handle the financial demands and largely collapsed. The main international bankers in Europe were reluctant to finance the Confederacy, so it turned to smaller houses and speculators who bought $15,000,000 in Confederate bonds with gold. The gold was used to buy warships and supplies to be brought in by blockade runners. By highlighting Britain's economic links to the Northern states and pointing to the potential dangers of meddling in the conflict, financiers in the City of London provided Parliament with a powerful economic justification for the policy of neutrality.
Bad money drives out good, and supplies of gold and silver were hoarded, driven out of circulation by the rising flood of paper money. The first notes were issued in March 1861, and bore interest. They were soon followed by others, bearing no interest and payable in two years, others payable six months after peace. New issues were continually provided, so that from an initial $1,000,000 in circulation in July 1861, the amount rose to $30 million before December 1861; to $100 million by March 1862; to $200 million by August 1862; to perhaps $450 million by December 1862; to $700 million by the autumn of 1863; and to a much larger figure before the end of the war.
This policy of issuing irredeemable paper money was copied by the individual states and other political bodies. Alabama began by issuing $1,000,000 in notes in February 1861, and added to this amount during each subsequent session of the state legislature. The other states followed suit. Cities also sought to replenish their treasuries in the same way. Corporations and other business concerns tried to meet the rising tide of prices with the issue of their individual promissory notes intended to circulate from hand to hand.
As a result of this redundancy of the currency, its value collapsed. Gold was quoted at a premium in Confederate notes in April 1861. By the end of that year, a paper dollar was quoted at 90 cents in gold; during 1862 that figure fell to 40 cents; during 1863, to 6 cents; and still lower during the last two years of the war. The downward course of this figure, with occasional recoveries, reflects the popular estimate of the Confederacy's chance of winning independence.
The oversupply of currency drove the price of commodities to exorbitant heights, and disarranged all business. Savings in nominal dollars lost 90 percent or more of their value. It affected different classes of commodities differently. Imports like coffee became very expensive, and ersatz substitutes were found. (Massey 1952) Confederate asset price stabilization policies appear to have increased the velocity of circulation, and counterproductively channeled inflationary pressures into other areas of the economy. Three successive monetary reforms encouraged holders of treasury notes to exchange these notes for bonds by imposing deadlines on their convertibility. Confederate legislative efforts aimed at precipitating the conversion of currency into bonds did temporarily suppress currency depreciation. These acts also triggered upsurges in commodity prices, however, because note holders rushed to spend the currency before their exchange rights were reduced.
Speculation, prices and shortages
Speculators were continually abused for importing high-priced luxuries instead of confining themselves to supplying the government with foreign war supplies. Tobacco and cotton, which found few foreign buyers owing to the blockade, actually fell in value as quoted in gold. The great divergence of the price of these two commodities in the CSA and abroad — the New York price of cotton increased more than tenfold during the war — offered the strongest inducement to evade the blockade and export them. A small amount of cotton reached the world market by way of the Atlantic ports or Mexico, and netted those concerned in the venture handsome profits. By 1862, Treasury agents from Washington were buying cotton, offering very large sums for planters willing to do business with the enemy. Tobacco and cotton were smuggled through the military lines in exchange for hospital stores, coffee and similar articles. The military authorities tried to suppress this illicit trade, but at times even they were carried away by the desire to secure the much-desired foreign supplies.
The disturbances of prices, their local differences and fluctuations, produced wild speculation in the Confederate States. Normal business was almost impossible, and a gambling element was forced into every transaction. Speculation in gold was especially pronounced. Legislation and popular feeling were aimed at it, but without avail. Even the government itself was compelled to speculate in gold. Speculation in food and other articles was equally inevitable and was much decried. Laws were formed to curb the speculators, but had no effect.
The policy of the Confederate banks during the war encouraged speculation. The New Orleans banks had been well managed, and remained solvent until September 1861. The banks of the other states suspended specie payments at the end of 1860, and thereafter enlarged their note issue and their loans, thereby adding to the general redundancy of the currency and stimulating the prevalent speculative craze. They did a large business by speculating in cotton, making advances to the planters on the basis of their crops. The state governments also used their note issues for this purpose, the planters urgently demanding relief as their cotton could not reach a market. The Confederate government also made advances on cotton and secured large quantities by purchase, to serve as the basis of cotton bonds. The rise in prices which reflected the redundancy of the currency was no advantage to the producer. Frequent efforts were made by legislation and otherwise to reduce the prices demanded, especially by the agriculturists. As a result, the production of food products fell off, or at least the agriculturists did not bring their products to market for fear of being forced to sell them at a loss. Supplies for the army were obtained by impressment, the price to be paid for them being arbitrarily fixed at a low figure. As a result, the army administration found it almost impossible to induce producers of food willingly to turn over their products, and the army suffered from want. Under these confused industrial circumstances, the sufferings of the debtor class were loudly asserted, and laws were passed to relieve them of their burdens, making the collection of debts difficult or impossible. The debts of Southerners to Northerners contracted before the war were confiscated by the Confederate government, but did not amount to a large figure.
The effectiveness of the Union blockade and the peculiar industrial development of the Confederate States removed the possibility of an ample government revenue. Though import duties were levied, the proceeds amounted to almost nothing. A small export duty on cotton was expected to produce a large revenue sufficient to base a loan upon, but the small amount of cotton exports reduced this source of revenue to an insignificant figure. There being, moreover, no manufactures to tax under an internal revenue system such as the US government adopted, the Confederacy was cut off from deriving any considerable revenue from indirect taxation. The first Confederate tax law levied a direct tax of twenty million dollars, which was apportioned among the states. These, with the exception of Texas, contributed their apportioned share to the central government by issuing bonds or notes, so that the tax was in reality but a disguised form of loan. Real taxation was postponed until the spring of 1863, when a stringent measure was adopted taxing property and earnings. It was slowly and with difficulty put into effect, and was re-enacted in February 1864. In the states and cities there was a strong tendency to relax or postpone taxation in view of the other demands upon the people.
With no revenue from taxation, and with the disastrous effects of the wholesale issue of paper money before it, the Confederate government made every effort to borrow money by issuing bonds. The initial $15 million loan was soon followed by an issue of one hundred million in bonds, which it was, however, difficult to place. This was followed by even larger loans. The bonds rapidly fell in value, and were quoted during the war at approximately the value of the paper money, in which medium they were paid for by subscribers. To avoid this circumstance, a system of produce loans was devised by which the bonds were subscribed for in cotton, tobacco and food products. This policy was subsequently enlarged, and enabled the government to secure at least a part of the armies' food supplies. But the bulk of the subscriptions for these bonds was made in cotton, for which the planters were thus enabled to find a market.
It was hoped to keep the currency within bounds by holders of paper money exchanging it for bonds, which the law allowed and encouraged, but as notes and bonds fell in value simultaneously, there was no inducement for holders to make that exchange. On the contrary, a note-holder had an advantage over a bond-holder, in that he could use his currency for speculation or for purchases in general. In the autumn of 1862, the Confederate law attempted to compel note-holders to fund their notes in bonds, in order to reduce the redundancy of the currency and lower prices. Disappointed in the result of this legislation, the Congress, in February 1864, went much farther in the same direction by passing a law requiring note-holders to fund their notes before a certain date, after which notes would be taxed a third or more of their face value. This drastic measure was accepted as meaning a partial repudiation of the Confederate debt, and though it for a time reduced the currency outstanding and lowered prices, it wrecked the government's credit, and made it impossible for the Treasury to float any more loans. During the last months of the war, the Treasury led a most precarious existence, and its actual operations can only be surmised.
During the entire war the notion that the CSA possessed a most efficient engine of war in its monopoly of cotton (the "King Cotton" idea) buoyed up the hopes of the Confederates. The government strained every effort to secure recognition of the Confederacy as a nation by the great powers of Europe (see Cotton diplomacy). It also more successfully secured individual foreigners' financial recognition of the Confederate States by effecting a foreign loan based on cotton. This favorite notion was put into practice in the spring of 1863. The French banking house of Erlanger & Company undertook to float a loan of $3,000,000, redeemable after the war in cotton at the rate of sixpence a pound. According to one source, Baron Rothschild informed W. W. Murphy, American consul-general in Frankfort, that "all Germany condemned this act of lending money to establish a slaveholding government, and so great was public opinion against it that Erlanger and Company dare not offer it on the Frankfort bourse." As cotton at the time was selling at nearly four times that figure, and would presumably be quoted far above sixpence long after the establishment of peace, the bonds offered strong attractions to those speculatively inclined and in sympathy with the Confederate cause. The placing of the bonds in Europe was mismanaged by the Confederate agents, but notwithstanding, a considerable sum was secured from the public and used for the purchase of naval and military stores. This was aided in part by the (incorrect) assumption of some investors that, even should the Confederacy lose the war, the United States government would honor and redeem the bonds. However, at the close of the war these foreign bonds were ignored by the re-established Federal authorities like all the other bonds of the Confederate government, or of state governments under the Confederacy.
Long term weaknesses
By 1863, after two years of warfare, the North finally was mobilizing its economy full steam, while the South had crested and was falling back. General William T. Sherman, an acute observer of the war, had predicted this development even before Sumter, telling a rebel acquaintance in late 1860:
- The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth--right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared. . . . At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, and shut out from the markets of Europe by blockade as you will be, your cause will begin to wane.
- Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy Univ. of North Carolina Press. 1981. Page 42
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- William Diamond Imports of the Confederate Government from Europe and Mexico The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov., 1940), p. 501
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- Wakelyn, Jon L. Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy Greenwood Press ISBN 0-8371-6124-X
- Wallenstein, Peter and Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, eds. Virginia's Civil War. U. Press of Virginia, 2005. 303 pp.
- Wallenstein, Peter. "Rich Man's War, Rich Man's Fight: Civil War and the Transformation of Public Finance in Georgia." Journal of Southern History 50 (1984):15-43. in JSTOR
- Wiley, Bell Irwin. The Plain People of the Confederacy, 1944.
- Wilson, Harold S. Confederate Industry: Manufacturers and Quartermasters in the Civil War U. Press Of Mississippi, 2002.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Luxuries, or of Articles not Necessary or of Common Use, 1864, a Confederate Congress document
Economic data sets
All data sets are in Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition Online (2006) available in academic libraries. See also Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 available on-line from the U.S. Census Bureau.
- Chapter Eh - Confederate States of America.
- Population of the slave states, by state, race, and slave status: 1860-1870 [PDF 52Kb] Series Eh1-7
- Farms, farm implements, livestock, and home manufactures in the slave states, by state: 1860-1870 [PDF 53Kb] Series Eh8-23
- Selected crop outputs of the slave states, by state: 1860-1870 [PDF 52Kb] Series Eh24-39
- Manufacturing in the slave states-establishments, capital invested, product value, and employment, by state: 1860-1870 [PDF 51Kb] Series Eh40-49
- Taxable property in the Confederacy, by state: 1861 [PDF 49Kb] Series Eh50-58
- Confederate blockade running-ships engaged, ships lost, and successful runs, by vessel type and port: 1861-1865 [PDF 56Kb] Series Eh59-94
- Quantity and price of cotton imported into the United Kingdom: 1855-1875 [PDF 53Kb] Series Eh95-102
- European cotton imports, by country of origin: 1860-1875 [PDF 47Kb] Series Eh103-110
- Money and Prices, Series Eh111-193 doi:10.1017/ISBN-9780511132971.Eh111-193
- Confederate money stock: 1860-1862 [Godfrey, nine states] [PDF 53Kb] Series Eh111-117
- Confederate money stock: 1860-1865 [Godfrey, seven states] [PDF 62Kb] Series Eh118-124
- Confederate money stock: 1861-1864 [Lerner] [PDF 50Kb] Series Eh125-127
- Prices and wage indexes for the eastern Confederacy: 1861-1865 [PDF 71Kb] Series Eh128-130
- Monthly index of Richmond wholesale commodity prices: 1861-1865 [PDF 56Kb] Series Eh131
- Wholesale commodity price indexes in Richmond, the eastern Confederacy, New York, and San Francisco: 1861-1865 [PDF 50Kb] Series Eh132-135
- Monthly wholesale price quotations for selected commodities in Richmond: 1856-1865 [PDF 54Kb] Series Eh136-165
- Monthly commodity price indexes for the Confederate states: 1861-1865 [PDF 66Kb] Series Eh166-193
- Government Finances, Series Eh194-228 doi:10.1017/ISBN-9780511132971.Eh194-228
- Confederate government revenues and expenditures: 1861-1864 [PDF 61Kb] Series Eh194-215
- Bond yields on domestic loans in the Confederacy: 1862-1864 [PDF 51Kb] Series Eh216-220
- Weekly prices of Confederate cotton bonds and sterling bonds in Amsterdam: 1863-1865 [PDF 58Kb] Series Eh221-222
- Gold prices in the Confederacy: 1861-1865 [PDF 69Kb] Series Eh223-228
- Money and Finance in the Confederate States of America (EH.Net Encyclopedia of Economic History)