In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the southern states experienced extraordinary change that would define the region and its role in American history for decades, even centuries, to come. Between the s and the beginning of the Civil War in , the American South expanded its wealth and population and became an integral part of an increasingly global economy. It did not, as previous generations of histories have told, sit back on its cultural and social traditions and insulate itself from an expanding system of communication, trade, and production that connected Europe and Asia to the Americas.
Beginning in the s, merchants from the Northeast, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flocked to southern cities, setting up trading firms, warehouses, ports, and markets. As a result, these cities—Richmond, Charleston, St. Louis, Mobile, Savannah, and New Orleans, to name a few—doubled and even tripled in size and global importance.
Populations became more cosmopolitan, more educated, and wealthier. Systems of class—lower-, middle-, and upper-class communities—developed where they had never clearly existed. Ports that had once focused entirely on the importation of slaves and shipped only regionally became home to daily and weekly shipping lines to New York City, Liverpool, Manchester, Le Havre, and Lisbon. The world was slowly but surely coming closer together, and the South was right in the middle.
Prior to this unscheduled, and frankly unwanted, delivery, European merchants saw cotton as a product of the colonial Caribbean islands of Barbados, Saint-Domingue now Haiti , Martinique, Cuba, and Jamaica.
The American South, though relatively wide and expansive, was the go-to source for rice and, most importantly, tobacco. Few knew that the seven bales sitting in Liverpool that winter of would change the world. But they did. Before long, botanists, merchants, and planters alike set out to develop strains of cotton seed that would grow farther west on the southern mainland, especially in the new lands opened up by the Louisiana Purchase of —an area that stretched from New Orleans in the South to what is today Minnesota, parts of the Dakotas, and Montana.
The discovery of Gossypium barbadense —often called Petit Gulf cotton—near Rodney, Mississippi, in changed the American and global cotton markets forever. It also grew tightly, producing more usable cotton than anyone had imagined to that point. Perhaps most importantly, though, it came up at a time when Native peoples were removed from the Southwest—southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana. After Indian removal, land became readily available for white men with a few dollars and big dreams.
Throughout the s and s, the federal government implemented several forced migrations of Native Americans, establishing a system of reservations west of the Mississippi River on which all eastern peoples were required to relocate and settle.
In many cases, too, law did not protect women the same way it protected men. When will my book be dispatched from your warehouse? About men, including two artillery batteries, were split into two groups, one for each side of the river. As southern cities grew, they became more cosmopolitan, attracting types of people either unsuited for or uninterested in rural life. In fact, Britain reacted to the rebellion by taking even firmer control of the "crown jewel" of its empire. Solomon Northup was a free black man in New York who was captured and sold into slavery.
This system, enacted through the Indian Removal Act of , allowed the federal government to survey, divide, and auction off millions of acres of land for however much bidders were willing to pay. Suddenly, farmers with dreams of owning a large plantation could purchase dozens, even hundreds, of acres in the fertile Mississippi River Delta for cents on the dollar.
A 19th-century cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum.
Thousands rushed into the Cotton Belt. Banks in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even London offered lines of credit to anyone looking to buy land in the Southwest. Some even sent their own agents to purchase cheap land at auction for the express purpose of selling it, sometimes the very next day, at double and triple the original value, a process known as speculation.
The explosion of available land in the fertile Cotton Belt brought new life to the South. By the end of the s, Petit Gulf cotton had been perfected, distributed, and planted throughout the region. Indeed, by the end of the s, cotton had become the primary crop not only of the southwestern states but of the entire nation.
The numbers were staggering. Seven years later, in , South Carolina remained the primary cotton producer in the South, sending 6. By , the five main cotton-growing states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—produced more than five hundred million pounds of Petit Gulf for a global market stretching from New Orleans to New York and to London, Liverpool, Paris and beyond.
That five hundred million pounds of cotton made up nearly 55 percent of the entire United States export market, a trend that continued nearly every year until the outbreak of the Civil War. But tobacco was a rough crop. It treated the land poorly, draining the soil of nutrients. Tobacco fields did not last forever. In fact, fields rarely survived more than four or five cycles of growth, which left them dried and barren, incapable of growing much more than patches of grass. Of course, tobacco is, and was, an addictive substance, but because of its violent pattern of growth, farmers had to move around, purchasing new lands, developing new methods of production, and even creating new fields through deforestation and westward expansion.
Tobacco, then, was expensive to produce—and not only because of the ubiquitous use of slave labor. It required massive, temporary fields, large numbers of slaves and laborers, and constant movement. Cotton was different, and it arrived at a time best suited for its success. Petit Gulf cotton, in particular, grew relatively quickly on cheap, widely available land.
But this all came at a violent cost. And by the s, that very tradition, seen as the backbone of southern society and culture, would split the nation in two. The heyday of American slavery had arrived. This map, published by the US Coast Guard, shows the percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in Hergesheimer cartographer , Th. Without slavery there could be no Cotton Kingdom, no massive production of raw materials stretching across thousands of acres worth millions of dollars.
Indeed, cotton grew alongside slavery. The two moved hand-in-hand. The existence of slavery and its importance to the southern economy became the defining factor in what would be known as the Slave South. Although slavery arrived in the Americas long before cotton became a profitable commodity, the use and purchase of slaves, the moralistic and economic justifications for the continuation of slavery, and even the urgency to protect the practice from extinction before the Civil War all received new life from the rise of cotton and the economic, social, and cultural growth spurt that accompanied its success.
Slavery had existed in the South since at least , when a group of Dutch traders arrived at Jamestown with twenty Africans. Slavery was everywhere by the time the American Revolution created the United States, although northern states began a process of gradually abolishing the practice soon thereafter. In the more rural, agrarian South, slavery became a way of life, especially as farmers expanded their lands, planted more crops, and entered the international trade market.
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Just twenty years later, in , that number had increased to more than 1. Though taken after the end of slavery, these stereographs show various stages of cotton production. The fluffy white staple fiber is first extracted from the boll a prickly, sharp protective capsule , after which the seed is separated in the ginning and taken to a storehouse.
Unknown, Picking cotton in a great plantation in North Carolina, U. During that time, the South advanced from a region of four states and one rather small territory to a region of six states Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and three rather large territories Mississippi, Louisiana, and Orleans. The free population of the South also nearly doubled over that period—from around 1. The enslaved population of the South did not increase at any rapid rate over the next two decades, until the cotton boom took hold in the mids. Indeed, following the constitutional ban on the international slave trade in , the number of slaves in the South increased by just , in twenty years.
But then cotton came, and grew, and changed everything. Over the course of the s, s, and s, slavery became so endemic to the Cotton Belt that travelers, writers, and statisticians began referring to the area as the Black Belt, not only to describe the color of the rich land but also to describe the skin color of those forced to work its fields, line its docks, and move its products. Perhaps the most important aspect of southern slavery during this so-called Cotton Revolution was the value placed on both the work and the body of the slaves themselves. Once the fever of the initial land rush subsided, land values became more static and credit less free-flowing.
If that land, for one reason or another, be it weevils, a late freeze, or a simple lack of nutrients, did not produce a viable crop within a year, the planter would lose not only the new land but also the slaves he or she put up as a guarantee of payment. The slave markets of the South varied in size and style, but the St. Louis Exchange in New Orleans was so frequently described it became a kind of representation for all southern slave markets. Indeed, the St. After the ruin of the St. Clare plantation, Tom and his fellow slaves were suddenly property that had to be liquidated. Starling engraver , Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans , So much went into the production of cotton, the expansion of land, and the maintenance of enslaved workforces that by the s, nearly every ounce of credit offered by southern, and even northern, banks dealt directly with some aspect of the cotton market.
Millions of dollars changed hands.
Slaves, the literal and figurative backbone of the southern cotton economy, served as the highest and most important expense for any successful cotton grower. Prices for slaves varied drastically, depending on skin color, sex, age, and location, both of purchase and birth. By the s and into the s, prices had nearly doubled—a result of both standard inflation and the increasing importance of enslaved laborers in the cotton market. The key is that cotton and slaves helped define each other, at least in the cotton South.
By the s, slavery and cotton had become so intertwined that the very idea of change—be it crop diversity, antislavery ideologies, economic diversification, or the increasingly staggering cost of purchasing and maintaining slaves—became anathema to the southern economic and cultural identity. Cotton had become the foundation of the southern economy.
Indeed, it was the only major product, besides perhaps sugarcane in Louisiana, that the South could effectively market internationally. The Cotton Revolution was a time of capitalism, panic, stress, and competition.
Planters expanded their lands, purchased slaves, extended lines of credit, and went into massive amounts of debt because they were constantly working against the next guy, the newcomer, the social mover, the speculator, the trader. A single bad crop could cost even the most wealthy planter his or her entire life, along with those of his or her slaves and their families. Although the cotton market was large and profitable, it was also fickle, risky, and cost intensive. The more wealth one gained, the more land one needed to procure, which led to more slaves, more credit, and more mouths to feed.
The decades before the Civil War in the South, then, were not times of slow, simple tradition. They were times of high competition, high risk, and high reward, no matter where one stood in the social hierarchy. But the risk was not always economic. In southern cities like Norfolk, VA, markets sold not only vegetables, fruits, meats, and sundries, but also slaves.
Enslaved men and women, like the two walking in the direct center, lived and labored next to free people, black and white. The most tragic, indeed horrifying, aspect of slavery was its inhumanity. All slaves had memories, emotions, experiences, and thoughts.