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Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War
Andrew F. Smith
St. Martin's Press, 2011
295 pp., $27.99
The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food
Penguin Press, 2012
656 pp., $36.00
Donald A. Yerxa
The history of food is trendy these days. Not only are many monographs coming off the presses, but we also see new academic journals devoted to food scholarship, major food encyclopedias, and publishers rolling out new food series. During a stroll down the aisles of the book exhibit at the latest American Historical Association meeting, I observed that every major publisher seems to have at least one new book on some aspect of food history.
And now food scholarship is making its way into military historiography. It must be noted at the outset that the topic of food is certainly not new to the field. Logistics and supply, especially in the last few decades, have become integral to understanding war. But we are seeing a different approach to food in military history: food identified as a major instrument of war. Two recent books, neither written by a military historian, illustrate this new emphasis and add to our understanding of two modern wars that one might assume have already been exhaustively covered.
Andrew Smith's Starving the South is a lively "gastronomical look" at the Civil War that highlights the crucial role food played in the conflict from start to finish. It is not an entirely new story, but Smith's narrative demonstrates how access to abundant agricultural resources benefited the Union, whereas the Confederacy was dogged almost from the outset by scarcity, hunger, and malnutrition. Initially the Confederacy dismissed the Union strategy of blockade and economic strangulation. Dependency on southern cotton would ruin New England's economy, force a break in any blockade, and eventually lead the British and French to recognize the South's independence. None of this happened. Cotton from Egypt and India largely replaced that from the American South. But in the first years of the war, plantation owners continued to grow large amounts of cotton. Only a small portion of the crop ever made it through the Union blockade or was traded to the North. Most of it rotted ...