Civil War was tough on farmers

Published 9:35 am Friday, November 25, 2011

by Anthony ‘Amp’ Cobb

Years prior to and during the Civil War, farmers in Southampton County and surrounding areas spent the winter clearing up old and new ground.

Fields were allowed to go fallow for several years (a form of crop rotation) before being put back into cultivation. To get these fields ready for planting, the young trees and shrubs had to be grubbed up and the brush burnt.

Wood was cut and gathered up for heat and cook fires. Fences were built or repaired, as at that time livestock was fenced out of fields. Corn was shucked and shelled for milling, and peas were beaten and winded out of their shells. Cotton was ginned.

Spring was for planting. Corn was planted, as it still is, around the first of April. Fields were laid out in a lattice fashion, and two seeds per hill were planted where the 48-inch rows intersected. Cotton was planted in late April in rows 42 inches to 48 inches apart, followed by peanuts that were planted in early May.

Summers were spent cultivating, hoeing and weeding the crops. After the last cultivation, cotton was topped (the terminal bud was cut off) when approximately 36 inches tall. Late summer and early fall, fodder (corn plant leaf) was pulled to be used later as forage for livestock.

Fall was harvest season. Cotton picking ran from September into early December. Corn was pulled, peas were picked and peanuts were dug. These crops then had to be ginned, shucked and shelled during the winter in preparation for a new year.

These jobs became more of a challenge when the war began. One of the first things to be affected was labor.

Male family members joined the military; some slaves (for those who had them) ran away, or were hired out to the Confederate government to build fortifications. The labor shortage became more acute as the war progressed.

In early 1864, the Conscription Act pressed boys ages 17 to 18 and men ages 45 to 50 into military service. Mules and horses were likewise pressed into service by the Confederate authorities.

Another effect the war had on local agriculture was the scarcity of food grains and garden crops. Corn was a source of food for families and fodder for livestock. As the war progressed, corn began to replace cotton as a major crop.

In 1863, corn was selling for $20 a barrel; by 1864 that same barrel was bringing $300, if it could be had.

Grains became even more scarce with the arrival of Longstreet’s 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia into the area in early 1863. It was sent here to collect food supplies and forage for Lee’s army in preparation for the invasion of Pennsylvania.

Along with these requisitions by the Confederate authorities, the presence of a large number of Southern soldiers also drained the already depleted food supply. Soldiers visited nearby homes and farms when camped close by, searching for food for themselves and, in the case of the cavalry or gun battery, their horses.

Sara Virginia Camp mentions in her memoir that pigs, chickens, turkeys, calves and lambs disappeared one by one until there were none left. Daniel Cobb, a Southampton County farmer, mentioned in his diary that he had so many soldiers eat with him that he considered charging them.

Family lore has it that a group of soldiers came to the house, put a pole through the handle of the hot cooking pot, laid some money down and went off with the pot swinging on the pole between them.

Salt and sugar were also hard to come by. Some boiled the dirt from the floor of the smokehouse to get salt. Sugar was almost nonexistent. Daniel Cobb planted sorghum, installed a press and mill, and made molasses from the cooked sorghum juice. This was used as a substitute for sugar.

Leather was another item that became scarce. It was used for shoes and harnesses. Now hides were tanned and dressed at home. Any hide was used from the cow to the dog.

Despite the diminished labor source and scarce food staples, most farm families seemed to survive.

One final note: Coffee was not grown here, and blockades of the Southern ports made it unavailable. Peanuts, corn and acorns among others were roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. Their conclusion: There is no substitute for coffee.

Anthony “Amp” Cobb is a member of Urquhart-Gillette Camp 1471 Sons of Confederate Veterans. His email address is