From 1861-1865, the United States was engaged in a brutal civil war, as northern and southern armies fought over issues such as slavery, states’ rights and western expansion. What resulted was the deadliest war ever fought on American soil.
Throughout this time there were many changes to daily life, including ways that the war impacted agriculture and industry. One such effect of the American Civil War was the rise of the beef industry, which peaked in the United States from about 1867 to the early 1880s.
The war saw the construction of railway lines across America and the proliferation of cattle as trade embargoes led to them breeding in vast numbers. As such, when the war ended, America had the means to rear, trade and consume cattle in greater numbers than ever before.
The Union Army successfully blocked Texas trade in 1862
Before the war, Texas was the centre of the American cattle industry due to its open plains and longhorn cattle. However, many ranchers left to fight for the south in 1861.
By 1862, the Union Army had successfully blockaded the Texas cattle trade through a naval embargo on the Mississippi River. While livestock could not be traded throughout the war, the cattle continued to breed, and so when the war ended, ranchers returned to Texas and other states to find a surplus of some 5 million cattle. As a result, they needed to find a way to rebuild their economy in the face of difficulty finding trade opportunities in the north.
The cost of beef varied between the north and south
Before the war, Texas cattle was mostly used for skins and tallow, as beef was not yet a popular meat. However, demand for beef was growing in the north after the war, meaning the cost of beef was higher: it is estimated that a cut of beef could be sold for $40 in the north compared to just $5 in the south.
Southerners wanted to take advantage of differing beef prices to turn a profit, but there were laws in states like Kansas and Missouri that prohibited them from doing so. There was a fear that bringing Texas longhorns over state lines could bring Texas fever, a disease spread by ticks, to other animals, so there were quarantine laws in place to prevent travel.
As a result, Joseph McCoy created one of the first ‘cow towns’
Joseph McCoy was a rancher in Chicago who wanted to bring cattle from Texas to Chicago to distribute it to the northeast and increase profits. To do this, he teamed up with railroad companies that were looking to increase freight travel post-war, and invested money into building a town with a hotel, stockyard and bank near a railway called Abilene.
This became one of the first ‘cow towns’ that was dedicated to sending cows east. Between 1867 and 1881, McCoy sent over 2 million cattle from Abilene to Chicago in what is now known as the ‘beef bonanza’. Since McCoy’s Abilene was west of Kansas, he avoided hostility from Kansas ranchers, and the cattle could be shipped eastward from there.
Increased railway lines mean cattle could be taken further into new markets
The cattle trade was increased post-war due to a greater development of railway tracks across the United States. This meant that cattle could be shipped farther and faster. This development allowed for an increase in exports of cattle to meet the demand of the northern cities.
In addition, meat dealer Gustavus Swift determined that meatpacking would be more profitable than meat selling if fresh meat could be shipped from Chicago eastward, so in 1877 the refrigerated railway car was invented. This meant that livestock arriving from Texas to Chicago could now be slaughtered before traveling east.
Swift, along with P. D. Armour and Nelson Morris, purchased large buildings in Chicago to become meat processing plants. Here, numerous butchers could disassemble livestock quickly and in large numbers. The new system of industrial meatpacking meant that a cow would enter the plant, be slaughtered, processed and packaged before being shipped in a refrigerated car east.
The US government bought beef to distribute to reservations
Another way that ranchers profited off the surplus of cattle was to sell them directly to the US government. Charles Goodnight returned from the war to almost 5,000 cattle on his land. He knew that both the army and Native Americans on reservations needed food, so was able to sell his stock to the US government for four times as much as it was going for in Texas.
Along with his partner Oliver Loving, he was able to sell 50-60,000 cattle a year to the government to distribute as rations to soldiers and to people on reservations.
The decline of the cattle industry was caused by many factors
In the early 1880s, there were several factors that contributed to the decline of the cattle industry. For starters, the market was saturated. There was not enough grass for all the cattle being bred, and there were too many ranchers moving to the Great Plains to take advantage of the booming industry.
Furthermore, there was a drought in 1883 that ruined what little grass was available, and in a particularly brutal winter of 1886-1887, thousands of cattle and many cowboys died in the freezing weather. This last incident devastated farmers and essentially marked the end of the post-war cattle boom.