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Bartering on Insanity: The Economic Aspect of the Civil War

Bartering on Insanity: The Economic Aspect of the Civil War


Now bartering gained popularity as currency was abandoned. Why was this? Because the truth of the matter was that "commodities held their value better than Confederate currency." (Surdam, 95) So when desiring to increase your stock at this time period of currency fluctuation, the prudent and business-like way of attaining a certain want is to have another good that meets some other want of another person, as perfectly as possible. The downside of this, of course, is the imperfect transmission of item for item. As Adam Smith quipped, how much salt do you trade for a cow? However, if the medium of exchange is devoid of reliance and good faith as the South's currency certainly was, then one might be more convinced to step out and accept the imperfection rather than go hungry. The Southern civilians' mentality was to buy "whatever was available, before their currency almost literally shrank in their hands." (Surdam,95) As a diary accounted an exchange in 1864:
    She asked me for 20 dollars for five dozen eggs and then said she would take it in "Confederate." Then I would have given her 100 dollars as easily. But if she had taken my offer of yarn! I haggle in yarn for the million the part of a thread!... When they ask for Confederate money, I never stop to chafer. I give them 20 or 50 dollar cheerfully for anything. (Vann Woodward, 749)
But what happens when the need for a dozen eggs rises without a ready recipient for Confederate currency, then you must get it by other means (e.g. barter). And barter the Southerners did.

Another economic drawback, which drove the laypeople from banks to the fields, was that of shortages: food, housing goods, clothing, medicine and drugs, labor. These pertinent elements of a healthy economy were strikingly lacking in the Southern Economy. Shortages encouraged hoarding of the goods you could get, waiting for the opportune time to barter or sell, meanwhile having "supplies sufficient to stock a small shop." (Massey 20) The former option was often chosen as the easiest way to get something in short supply, was to have something to refurbish the supply of the giver. This is the concept which bartering hinges on, that of using "commodity money," which issues stuff (items, objects) as currency. The survival of many depended on such ingenuity of utilizing resources that a common person needed and that you could attain ownership. Pianos failed to do the job that a peach orchard indubitably accomplished in its extraction of envy amongst neighbors and townsfolk alike as a pragmatic and tradable entity.

To say the least, the South would not have survived without a pragmatic system such as bartering to step in where shortage threatened and currency disappointed. In this, necessity truly became the mother of invention, as many were forced to use what meager earnings, and scant resources to fashion something of trade value; a housewife's role at this time was much more complex as she was looked to as the one to build a meal out of next to nothing, a sort of Southern version of McGyver was born in the from of the matriarch. However, through the use of barter and trade the South survived, no matter how meagerly, and came close to winning its war several times in spite of its poor economic conditions. Think of the possibilities had the Confederate government sustained a higher level of competency in its administration. This goes to show just how strong an effect these economic affairs can have upon events that we categorize as exclusive from its realm. As John K.Galbraith quipped, "[Economics] is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds;" and just look at the danger that lurked therein.

Works Cited

Frasier, Charles Frazier Cold Mountain. ( New York: Random House, 1997)

Massey, Mary Elizabeth, Ersatz in the Confederacy. (South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1952)

Surdam, David G. Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War. (South Carolina: South Carolina Press, 2001).

Van Woodward, C. (Ed) from Mary Chesnut's Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University, 1981).

This was an entry for The 2004 Moffatt Prize in Economic Writing. See the contest rules for more information.

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