“Our once beautiful but now desolated Valley”

Farming in the Breadbasket of the Confederacy

Kenneth E. Koons

During the Civil War the Shenandoah Valley was of great strategic importance to the Southern cause. The Valley formed a natural corridor of invasion so that Confederate armies moving northward into its lower portion gained access to the northern cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the capital city of Washington as well. Also important to Confederate strategy, however, was the degree to which the region could serve as a source of foodstuffs and forage for Southern armies. Thus, in the context of the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley is often referred to as “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.”

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Shenandoah Valley achieved wide renown as an immensely fertile and highly productive agricultural region. Valley farmers practiced mixed agriculture in which they produced a broad array of field crops— including corn, hay, and the various cereal grains—and kept on hand a full complement of the usual types of livestock such as horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and barnyard fowl. Although diversity of economic enterprise characterized Valley farming, wheat served as the crop of paramount importance; during the era of the American Revolution it emerged as a cash crop of particular importance and it came to serve as the chief staple of the region. By the mid-nineteenth century, farmers of the Shenandoah Valley (defined here as comprising the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah, Warren, Rockingham, Page, Augusta, Rockbridge, and Botetourt) worked only nine percent of the improved acres of farmland in Virginia but produced twenty-two percent of the Commonwealth’s wheat crop. By this time, the Valley had emerged as one of the most productive wheat farming regions of the South. One historian’s comparison of wheat productivity in ten multi-county regions of the South encompassing portions of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Georgia, shows that in 1850 farmers in a four-county portion of the Shenandoah Valley—the counties of Rockbridge, Augusta, Rockingham, and Page—produced almost twenty bushels of wheat per capita, while farmers of the other nine regions produced fewer than six bushels per capita.

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Confederate high command would have counted so heavily on the farm production of the Shenandoah Valley to fill its commissary wagons. Of course, these same circumstances led to the emergence of the Valley as a particular target of federal armies seeking to destroy sources of foodstuffs for Southern armies. In the summer and fall of 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered his subordinate commanders Gen. David Hunter and then Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to destroy all provisions and livestock not needed for the subsistence of troops under their command. Consequently, federal armies moved through the Valley destroying agricultural products and resources, burning barns and grist mills, ruining crops, and confiscating livestock. At the height of Sheridan’s raids in the fall of 1864, federal troops made daily forays through the countryside, killing or driving off livestock and taking all the “bread, bacon, butter, lard, and poultry” they could find.

Of course, Valley populations suffered greatly in these actions, which was exactly the point as Federal armies resorted to total war and the purposeful destruction of civilian property in order to reduce the capacity of the South to continue to wage war. As one historian has written, “barns and corncribs and gristmills and herds of cattle [became] military objectives now.” Or, in the words of another historian “[Sheridan’s] 35,000 men moved up the Valley like a swarm of locusts,” with the result that “thousands of Valley residents . . . became penniless, ragged refugees.” In early October 1864, after weeks of these activities, Sheridan reported to his superiors that: “The whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountain has been made untenable for a rebel army. I have destroyed over two thousand barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements, and over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat, have driven in front of this army over four thousand head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops over three thousand sheep.”

Late in the year 1865, a resident of Winchester summarized the calamitous circumstances of farmers in what he referred to as “our once beautiful but now desolated Valley.” He wrote of farmers’ need for “the means to enable them to resume their farming operations, without which their fertile lands [would be] valueless, for their stock [has] been killed or taken away, their farms laid waste, their implements destroyed, their labor disorganized, and the only currency within their reach totally without value.” That the Valley’s agricultural infrastructure was systematically destroyed, with the consequence that its farm population suffered enormously, will surprise no one. These are familiar themes, coverage of which is widely available in standard accounts. Less familiar, however, is the process by which the agricultural sector of the Shenandoah Valley recovered from the systematic destruction carried out by federal armies and the activities of Confederate foragers and impressment bands as well. Graphic, eye-witness descriptions of destruction and depredation in the countryside are legion, but the aftermath of these activities is poorly understood. The remainder of this essay explores the consequences of the Civil War, for the agricultural sector of the Shenandoah Valley economy.

The Civil War profoundly disrupted rural life and farming in the Valley. In 1870, five years after the end of hostilities, almost without exception the numbers of various types of livestock on hand and production of major field crops remained far below pre-war levels. Production of corn had fallen fifty-two percent, rye thirty-five percent, and hay eleven percent. The number of horses—the main source of draft power on Valley farms—had decreased fifteen percent; the number of milk cows in the region had fallen six percent and beef cattle twenty-four percent; the numbers of sheep were down thirty percent and swine forty-six percent. Further, in many counties, “the waste of war” resulted in sharply reduced land values as a consequence of formerly improved lands reverting to a “‘wild’” state. In 1870, Valley farms contained 34,000 fewer improved acres than they had in 1860.

The overwhelming devastation of agricultural infrastructure occasioned by the Civil War has led some historians to assume uncritically that during the post-bellum era, the Shenandoah Valley’s agricultural economy in general, and wheat farming in particular, entered a period of stagnation and decline from which it never recovered. One historian, for example, has asserted that “the Civil War so damaged farming in the [Shenandoah] Valley that a later generation could scarce believe the area had once been the wheat kingdom of the South.” However, this claim is at odds with most of the evidence that can be brought to bear on the issue. The agricultural economy of the Shenandoah Valley rebounded during the decade of the 1870s. If, for working purposes at least, we understand the word “recovery” to mean simply that pre-war production levels of most agricultural products are achieved or surpassed, then, contrary to popular imaginings as well as scholarly assertion, recovery can be said to have occurred by 1880.

It has been suggested that the enormous losses of livestock in the Civil War played a role in ruining arable farming in the Shenandoah Valley because of the resulting scarcity of manure to restore fertility to croplands. By 1880, however, the number of horses, milk cows, beef cattle, and sheep had risen to levels higher than those of 1860; swine is the only type of livestock for which numbers remained lower in 1880 than in 1860. Further, an abundance of evidence indicates that after the Civil War farmers remained as diligent as they had been during the antebellum period in using livestock manures to revitalize soils. Also, farmers bought and applied commercially prepared fertilizers in prodigious quantities during the 1870s and thereafter. Nearly every farm diary or account book from the period includes details regarding farmers’ hauling of large quantities of manure to their fields and their purchases of commercial fertilizers. These practices appear to have had a salutary effect on the production of field crops. In 1880, production of wheat, corn, and hay—the main field crops produced by Valley farmers—was substantially higher than the production levels of 1860. Among the lesser cereal grains—rye, oats, barley, and buckwheat—the pattern of shifting levels of production is highly ambiguous, suggesting that fluctuations might have resulted from farmers’ decisions about resource allocation and product mix, rather than an inability to produce at customary yields.

For virtually all types of livestock and most major field crops, production fell dramatically from 1860 to 1870 and then rose to above antebellum levels by 1880. A major exception to this trend, however, was wheat, the production of which increased ten percent during the 1860s. In the Shenandoah Valley, wheat was the only major crop for which production rose during the decade of the Civil War, providing further confirmation of its importance as the principal cash crop of the region. A ten percent increase may seem modest, but it contrasts sharply with the forty percent decline in wheat production that occurred elsewhere in Virginia during the same decade. Production of wheat burgeoned during all of the remainder of the nineteenth century (and far into the twentieth century as well), but it increased fourteen percent during the 1870s. By 1880 Valley farmers cultivated only fourteen percent of the improved acres in Virginia but produced thirty-one percent of the state’s total wheat crop. Thus, during the post-bellum era, the Shenandoah Valley remained a center of wheat production within the state, the ravages of the Civil War notwithstanding. After the Civil War, Shenandoah Valley farmers needed cash to restore their farms to productivity. Consequently, as before the war, they relied on wheat as their principal cash crop.

In preserving the Valley’s long tradition of reliance on wheat culture as the principal source of cash revenues, farmers of the valley were assisted during the immediate post-war period by the efforts of an organization called the Baltimore Agricultural Aid Society. Formed at the close of the Civil War, the stated mission of the society was to supply at cost to farmers “of the neighboring State of Virginia . . . stock, agricultural implements and seed to enable them to resume their farming operations and provide bread to their families.” Although the corresponding secretary of the society portrayed the mission of the organization as essentially humanitarian, he noted that its activities “cannot but have its reflective influence on the future trade of the City [of Baltimore].” Formed ostensibly to aid farmers of Virginia, generally, the society seems to have devoted a disproportionate share of its activity to the Shenandoah Valley, and to have concerned itself especially, though not exclusively, with the distribution of seed wheat and implements necessary to produce wheat.

It seems likely that many farmers continued to raise wheat at increasingly high levels during the post-bellum period because they had invested heavily in expensive mechanical implements for producing it—drills for sowing, reapers for harvesting, and threshers and fans for cleaning the grain. Some farmers had purchased such equipment before the Civil War. After the conflict, perhaps in consequence of reduced availability of labor, farmers seem to have accelerated their purchases of such equipment. Farmers who purchased equipment for the more efficient production of wheat thereby tied themselves to wheat cultivation in order to make a return on their sizeable capital investments. Of course, once tied to wheat farming under these circumstances, farmers found it sensible to maximize production by devoting more acres to the cultivation of the crop. In the Shenandoah Valley, the number of improved acres of farmland increased by nearly twenty percent between 1870 and 1880. Also, in some areas of the Valley, farmers put bells on their cattle and drove them to mountain grazing areas in the spring, and retrieved them in the fall. Perhaps this was done in order to conserve their farmlands on the floor of the valley for the sowing of wheat.

In the immediate postwar period, as they had for generations, Shenandoah Valley farmers continued to rely on wheat as the mainstay of the regional economy. The main sources of recovery among farmers of the region included the mechanical revolution that the adoption of horse-powered equipment for wheat production entailed and the more extensive cultivation of wheat made possible by it, as well as the chemical revolution of commercially prepared fertilizers. Also, farmers began to deepen their commitment to the diversity of agrarian enterprise that had traditionally characterized Valley agriculture. The exploitation of alternate market opportunities in grass farming (hay), dairying (butter), and orcharding (apples) enabled farmers to sustain a wheat-based economy during a period of declining prices for the staple. But if the Civil War only temporarily disrupted long term patterns of continuity in the production of wheat, its consequences caused or were coterminous with the development of new circumstances within which Valley farmers produced the grain as a cash crop. Although county-level statistics show dramatic increases in wheat production during the latter third of the nineteenth century, these data obscure the fact that a significant proportion of farmers stopped producing wheat altogether. During the ante-bellum era wheat cultivation was nearly universal among valley farmers, but by 1880 the proportion of them who raised wheat had fallen to nearly seventy-five percent. Thus, in the post-bellum Shenandoah Valley, fewer farmers produced vastly more wheat than the farmers of the ante-bellum valley had produced. Apparently, some farmers lacked the resources to invest in horsedrawn mechanical implements for producing wheat, or they chose not to do so because of declining prices for the crop.

Although the Civil War profoundly disrupted rural life and farming in the Shenandoah Valley, it did not destroy the region’s wheat-based agricultural economy. The consequences of the Civil War for Valley agriculture, although severe, were acute and temporary rather than sustained and ruinous in the long term. For the agricultural sector of the regional economy and particularly wheat farming, the Civil War was not the watershed it is often proclaimed to have been. During an episode of severe economic dislocation, continuity prevailed as farmers turned to the tried and familiar. Even in a period of declining prices for wheat, most farmers of the region that had served as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy continued to follow the seasonal rhythms of sowing, reaping, and threshing to earn cash necessary for recovery from the devastation of the Civil War.

About the Author:

Kenneth E. Koons is the Edwin Cox ’20 Institute Professor of History at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and serves as associate head of the history department. His research and writing focus on the history of society and economy in the Pennsylvania and Virginia subsections of the Great Valley of Appalachia. His publications include articles on the history of wheat farming in the Shenandoah Valley and on slavery and its aftermath in the region. He is editor (with Warren R. Hofstra) of After the Backcountry: Rural Life in the Great Valley of Virginia, 1800-1900 and serves as a consultant to museums on issues relating to the history of agriculture and rural life.

This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley.  Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com