Civil War Hangover

Even though it’s a new week with no Civil War-related baking projects on the docket, I wanted to address an interesting email I received over the weekend. The question it put, and I’m paraphrasing, was this: with all the pillaging of the countryside that went on during the Civil War, why were food supply lines so important?

I’m not a military historian, but I have a fairly good idea as to the answer. For armies to forage effectively, they need to be on the move. An army of, say, 50,000 men consumes a lot of food, and in the countryside all those hungry mouths would use up the locally available resources in two shakes of the proverbial lamb’s tail (especially if it’s winter or spring when there isn’t much food around to begin with). An army sitting still will starve in just a few days. And since sitting still is what armies do the vast majority of the time, they need a steady supply of food.

While just about every movie ever made on the Civil War portrays wanton pillaging as a common thing (I myself just saw Friendly Persuasion recently, and is it ever a great movie), not as much pillaging went on as you might think. The practice was generally discouraged by both sides, since as I mentioned, it wasn’t always practical, but it was always bad PR.

The one great exception to this was of course Sherman’s March to the Sea, where wanton pillaging was actively encouraged. The practical dimension to that great orgy of destruction was that Sherman’s troops were marching without supply lines, so if they didn’t forage off the land, they didn’t eat. But of course the level of devastation the troops casued went far beyond simply filling their bellies. But then if it wasn’t for Sherman’s march we wouldn’t have Gone with the Wind. Ultimately, everything works out for the best.

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