In the Absence of Scarcity: The Civil War
Prosperity of Houston, Texas
PAUL A. LEVENGOOD*
[T] he bustle of thrifty enterprises and busy industry still stirs in your streets; and
the sound of the hammer and the saw is still heard in every quarter. Your stores
are occupied and new ones are being erected . . . splendid mansions rise, on
every side. We are told that there is not a house in your city unoccupied, nor
even a hovel in the suburbs without a tenant.'
THE PRECEDING PASSAGE DESCRIBED THE CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS,
in December 1862, which was not only miles away geographically
but also psychologically from the war that devastated the South. Such a
scene of prosperity and optimism is at odds with the impression that
many have of life in a southern city during the Civil War. More com-
mon images are the famous Brady Studio photographs taken of
Richmond after its surrender in April 1865, which show a scorched
wasteland punctuated only by stark and ghostly brick chimneys.
Familiar also are the tales of the besieged inhabitants of Vicksburg,
who were reduced to living in caves and eating rats to survive. The idea
that a city in the South could have maintained a comfortable exis-
tence, much less experienced an economic boom, between 1861 and
1865, somehow seems farfetched. However, that was exactly what hap-
pened in Houston.
Studying Houston's wartime experiences helps to create a more
nuanced and complete understanding of the southern home front than
is apparent in even the most scholarly works. In After Secession: Jefferson
Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism, Paul D. Escott describes
conditions in the South thusly: "shortages of basic commodities, rampant
inflation, increased taxation, impressment, and a breakdown of the trans-
portation system-all contributed to widespread economic disruption
* Paul A. Levengood is a Ph.D. candidate in southern history at Rice University.
Houston Tn-Weekly Telegraph, Dec. 1, 1862 (the passage was penned by a resident of Galveston).
The Telegraph published a number of editions at different points in the war: the Dazly, Tn-Weekly,
and Weekly. In the text of this article, the generic term "the Telegraph" will be used for convenience.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 101, July 1997 - April, 1998. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117155/. Accessed March 31, 2015.