There were, to be sure, numerous instances of individuals who tried to take advantage of the economic situation. The Richmond Enquirer reported on one man who bought and hoarded 700 barrels of flour, and the paper criticized another planter who had accumulated supplies until "the lawn and paths looked like a wharf covered with a ship's loads." In Augusta County, a community leader named John Marshall McCue criticized "infernal cormorants" such as one shady operator who had become prosperous as a Confederate purchasing agent, "buying horses, cattles & swindling the government." Some Virginians made large profits speculating in tobacco, and powerful planters looked out for their own interests whenever government became involved in regulating prices. Such examples of individual greed contributed to the problem of inflation, but they were not its fundamental cause.
Virginia governor William Smith, in his inaugural address in January 1864, called for a legal ceiling on prices. Even Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who knew that inflation occurs "where the amount to be sold is too small for the number of consumers" and who urged a "radical reform of the currency," joined in the chorus against speculators. He lamented that "love of lucre" had "eaten like a gangrene into the very heart of the land." The Richmond Examiner asserted that "the whole South stinks with the lust of extortion" and charged that "native Southern merchants have outdone Yankees and Jews."
As the Examiner's language shows, anti-Semitism and other prejudices increased the negative impact of discussions about "speculation." As people struggled economically, they turned on each other and nourished hostile suspicions. "No man will stand by and see his children cry for bread while his neighbor's garner is full," observed a Staunton editor. He could have added that such a man would denounce his neighbor.
Accusations of selfishness and lack of patriotism flourished. One of the largest public outcries in Virginia occurred in 1864. The commissioners of impressment, bowing to pressure from large farmers, "arbitrarily multiplied by six" the prices to be paid by the government for several important crops. Public protests quickly occurred throughout the state, with a Lynchburg paper blasting this decision as "The Road to Ruin" and others denouncing its effects on "the non producers, and middle classes." Eventually this increase was rescinded. Going beyond protest and verbal denunciations, arsonists in Lynchburg set fire to several businesses that they believed were profiting from speculation.
The suffering caused by runaway inflation led to widespread demands for action. Many ordinary Virginians, who valued help more than states' rights theories, urged the government to step in and set prices. In February 1862 the Confederate War Department seized corn from distillers in Richmond, and Congressman Fayette McMullen reported to Virginia governor John Letcher that the public reaction was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Confederate general John Winder's attempts to regulate prices in Richmond through martial law proved unsuccessful, but large segments of the public approved and applauded his effort, calling for more actions of the same type.
Neither the Confederate government nor the Virginia state government took vigorous action against inflation, speculation, or extortion. Given the fundamental causes of inflation, any laws almost surely would have had limited effect. But Virginians continued to denounce perceived speculators throughout the war, and their expressed resentments were one of the most visible signs of suffering and struggle in daily economic life.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Escott, P. Speculation during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Speculation_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Escott, Paul. "Speculation during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 14, 2009 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Paul Escott, Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University. His books include After Secession (1978) and Military Necessity (2006).