Food tops the list of things that we take for granted. As a result, our attitude toward food serves as a great handicap as we try to understand history.
U.S. Grant’s express purpose in the spring of 1864 was to starve the Confederate army into submission. He understood that it might take a year or more to accomplish this task, but he began almost immediately to send troops against agricultural and logistical targets. Grant’s strategy to deplete the food supply in Virginia culminated in the spectacular campaigns of devastation in the autumn of 1864, the most famous of which was “The Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley. The fight at Tom’s Brook grew directly out of the desperation felt by Southern soldiers as they saw their dwindling stores of food go up in smoke.
Some Confederates, however, had presciently foreseen the food crisis more than a year before Grant’s arrival on the scene. On February 16, 1863 — before the war was even half over — the Virginia House of Delegates considered a resolution urging “every citizen of the State . . . to increase greatly beyond his usual amount, all his agricultural products of every kind. . . .”
Leading Virginians knew early on that the pinch was coming, and understood the critical importance of every harvest. Food, scarce and perishable, perhaps more than any other factor, increasingly drove events in the last year of the war in Virginia.