As we might expect, our Civil War ancestors struggled through a tough economy during the war. On the Mississippi homefront in 1863, the Poore family and their slaves worked to feed and clothe themselves.
Confederate inflation ate away the value of any money they may have saved as prices soared for the few items the Poore family usually bought. The price for five pounds of sugar rose from 40 cents in 1860 to $5.75 in 1863, and the cost of 4 pounds of coffee increased from 50 cents to $20.
In place of expensive coffee, the Poore family may have used, as many Southern people did, parched sweet potatoes, parched corn, corn meal, beans, rye or acorns.
The price of calico cloth, the one material almost all farm families bought to make their clothing, rose to $10 a yard in Newton County where the Poore family farm was located.
To support the Southern war effort, the Poore family also carried the burden of paying a tax in kind levied to supply the army and hospital stores. From the Poore family and all other farm families, the Confederate government took 1 pound out of 10 pounds of all their produce—corn, cotton, potatoes, peas, beans and other crops, as well as bacon and other meats.
Large planters may have grumbled about the tax, yet it put little hardship on their families. But Piney Woods yeoman farmers such as the Poores faced serious shortages.
The rebel government paid the Poore family in Confederate paper dollars for the goods it took. Inflation made the notes so worthless as to hardly call it payment for the value of the produce taken. Prices rose at the rate of about 10 percent a month, which made paper money worth less by the day. Many people took to trading what they had for what they needed. Farmers traded chickens, bacon and sweet potatoes for shoes, cloth and tools.
To track local prices, I was lucky to find A. J. Brown’s History of Newton County, Mississippi, From 1834 to 1894.( Jackson, Mississippi: Clarion-Ledger Co, 1894; republished by Melvin Tingle, Decatur, Mississippi, 1964). Local histories are often a great help in writing your family’s history, especially if there are no newspapers available as in this case. Brown also had first-hand knowledge of many events because he had lived in the area since he was a young child.
Have you tried to find out how your Civil War ancestors fared on the homefront? What types of sources have been helpful to you?