Note: Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, the Choices curriculum unit, The Civil War and the Meaning of Liberty, provides a comprehensive introduction to the U.S. Civil War.


Students will:

  • Identify the role of food shortages on the people of the South during the Civil War.
  • Recognize that interactions between Native peoples, people of European descent, and people of African descent had important effects on food in the South.
  • Analyze primary sources about food in order to learn about the history of the Civil War.
  • Consider the benefits and limitations of using food as a source for learning about history. 

Recommended Reading

Students should have read Part III and completed “Study Guide—Part III” or “Advanced Study Guide—Part III.”


What can the study of food reveal about history? (Andrés Reséndez)


Overview: Food and the Civil War South

Food in the Civil War South: Source Analysis


The source “Syrup in Place of Bacon for Negroes” from 1864 contains racist ideas. It is important for teachers to be aware of the dynamics of their classroom and to have established ahead of time clear guidelines for discussing sources with racial or racist dimensions.

Colored pencils will be helpful for students as they annotate their sources.

In the Classroom

1. Introduction
Remind students that food riots that took place throughout the South during the Civil War. What would it take to cause a food riot, today? Distribute Overview: Food and the Civil War South. After students have completed the reading, ask students to share the facts they learned and the questions that the reading raised.

2. Source Analysis
Break students into groups of three to four students. Distribute Food in the Civil War South: Source Analysis and direct students to follow the instructions on the worksheet. Emphasize the importance of marking difficult phrases and words, and help students establish a system for discovering and recording their meaning.

3. Share Findings
Reconvene the class. Select students to share their answers to the questions. Compile a list with students of the foods that were in short supply. Which of these foods do students think are particularly significant? Why? What evidence in the sources suggests that the food shortages were severe? Do any of the recipes provide clues about whether food shortages were severe? In what way? What references are there to illness? Ask students which source(s) they found most interesting or important. Is there evidence in these sources of the interactions between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds? What is the significance of these interactions?

4. Concluding Discussion
Did reading these sources change students’ understanding of the Civil War in any way? How do students think food shortages affected the daily lives of people at the time? Is understanding the daily lives of people an important part of understanding history? Is understanding what and how people ate an important part of understanding history? Why or why not? Can students identify other events in history where looking at food could be important or revealing?

Back to top