Research Communications

Dixie, Debunked: Historian paints a global, modern view of the Old South and origins of the Civil War 

By Frank Stephenson

When the Union armies of General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Savannah on December 22, 1864, Sherman wired President Abraham Lincoln a message:  "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with 150 guns and plenty of ammunition; also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

Ultimately, Sherman seized an estimated 40,000 bales from the Georgia seaport and shipped them to New York, where they were auctioned off. The proceeds—amounting to millions of dollars—went directly into the U.S. Treasury to help pay for the war. As his armies burned, slashed, and shot their way to the sea from Atlanta, Sherman put thousands of liberated blacks to work growing cotton on confiscated plantations.   

Sherman's battlefield focus on cotton was no accident, says Ohio University historian Brian Schoen. Cotton had become the ‘white gold’ of the South, quite literally the coin of the Confederate realm and the heart of its economy. In the span of only a few decades, a vast region that had suffered hard times since the Revolutionary War turned into an economic juggernaut that had the world’s full attention.   

In his book The Fragile Fabric of Union:  Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War (Johns Hopkins; recipient of the 2010 Southern Historical Association's Bennett H. Wall Award), and more recently as a contributor and editor for a volume of essays, The Old South's Modern Worlds:  Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress (Oxford Press), Schoen discusses the impact of the Southern cotton trade on the global economy, as well as how Southern planters factored global markets into their decision to secede from the Union.

 Brian Schoen
Brian Schoen

“The Civil War is portrayed as a clash between the past and the future—a view that’s held sway in the scholarship for a long time,” says Frank Towers, an associate professor of history at the University of Calgary who co-edited The Old South’s Modern Worlds with Schoen and Youngstown State University historian Diane Barnes. “Brian’s is one of the more important books to recast the Old South. The new wave of scholarship discusses how the South participated in modernity. In a lot of ways, it was at the forefront of it.”

In the early days of the American economy, Southern planters placed their biggest bets on tobacco, rice, sugar, and hemp, crops that flourished only in the temperate region. But when a machine capable of rapidly separating seeds from cotton lint was invented in 1793, the production of cotton soared. World markets suddenly had a steady supply of a raw material that fascinated consumers—and industrialists—around the globe. British textile mills, starved for good-quality cotton, became the South’s biggest and most enthusiastic customer, eventually importing up to 80 percent of their precious raw material from Southern ports. By 1835, the Lower South—principally South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—was producing more cotton than all other countries in the world combined.

As a consequence, the region was soon producing the wealthiest class of people in the nation.  The meteoric rise of “King Cotton” also made a lot of Northern textile mill owners, shippers, bankers, and merchants rich as well, but the prosperity came with a dark foreboding. Many anti-slavery observers in the North had long predicted—and hoped—that economic forces would eventually make slavery unprofitable and the South would have no choice but to give it up. A seemingly inexhaustible, global demand for cotton dashed those dreams.

“What happened was this enormous expansion in cotton agriculture, and that reinvigorated slavery in the South,” Schoen says. “The Southern economy stayed dependent on slavery, and it became more profitable than ever.”

Cotton’s critical role in the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War has been documented exhaustively by historians. But the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of the war last year saw a revival of scholarly debate and research that offers a new broader, more international perspective on the issues.

When Congress abolished the importation of slaves in 1808, domestic prices for slaves steadily rose, eventually pushing slave ownership largely beyond the reach for all but the wealthiest Americans. A relatively elite group (less than 5 percent of the region’s white population) owned the vast majority of the South’s slaves and ran plantations growing cash crops aimed for both domestic and world markets.   

“By the 1830s, cotton was providing both the incentive for buying slaves and the money to buy them,” Schoen says.  “It was an incredibly powerful force.”

It was cotton’s importance to the world economy—and not just the issue of states’ rights, as previous accounts of the Civil War have argued—that emboldened Southern planters to aggressively push for secession and war, Schoen says. Defending slavery would be the cornerstone of the Confederacy, but slave states that weren’t heavily dependent on cotton growing (the tobacco, hemp, and wheat-growing regions, for example) hesitated to secede because they weren’t as well positioned in the global marketplace, he notes. With no chief competitors in that arena, however, the “Cotton South” perceived itself to be in a great position of power.

Flourishing in the World Market

Because Southern planters built their agricultural empire on slavery, critics of that inhumane practice—both during the antebellum era and today—often view the Old South as an anachronistic model that happened to flourish while the rest of the world embraced more modern economies. But that traditional view glosses over a complicated reality, Schoen says. The Southern planters possessed an uncanny business sense and appreciation for world markets.

Schoen’s research turned up a trove of documents that showed how closely planters followed news of trade in Java rice, Cuban sugar, Russian hemp, and other global commodities, for example. Planters showed remarkable ingenuity in using their considerable political skills (often to fight for free trade) and in adapting their crops and their use of slaves to meet the demands of the global marketplace, he says.

“As it turns out, slavery was a shockingly adaptable system, and the people of the Old South were as interested in making money as any of their Northern counterparts were. And they were very good at that,” Schoen says, stressing that this economic success came at a great human cost.

Perhaps nothing marked the modern mindset of Southern aristocracy as plainly as planters’ willingness to experiment with new ideas and technologies. Southern inventors built better versions of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and revolutionized production of rice, tobacco, and sugar with a variety of steam-powered tools and other innovations.  

But the biggest advances came not from machines, but from biology. Southern agronomists enjoyed spectacular success in cross-breeding varieties of cotton, creating hybrids of the popular Sea Island and Petit Gulf varieties that ultimately produced the most sought-after cotton in the world. The hybrids produced bolls, pods of cotton that not only ripened earlier but were easier to pick, an innovation that more than quadrupled the amount slaves could pick in a day.

Efficiency in the workplace wasn’t an obsession known only to Northern factory owners (who Southern planters enjoyed branding as owners of “wage slaves” bound by low pay to squalid lives). Schoen details measures by which Old South bean-counters made sure that their slaves kept their shoulders to the wheel. He cites research that reveals the Southern planters’ curious fixation on accurate time-keeping—as a class, they may have owned more watches than any other class of Americans. Schoen notes that Southern planters may have been “the first agrarians to transition away from ‘natural’ time to ‘clock time’” in a relentless pursuit of maximizing profits with brutal efficiency.  

“If we define modern economics as something where you have wage (as opposed to slave) labor, then no, the South wasn’t modern at all,” Schoen concludes. “But in my view, modern economics is a whole host of other things. It’s commercial connections to the outside world, it’s the belief that you’re trying to optimize profits as much as possible, it’s a belief that you’re trying to tinker with new things, experiment with new tools and technologies. Southern planters did all those things.”

Slavery was a monstrous cruelty, but as the fuel for the Old South’s economic engine, relying on it seemed completely rational to Southern planters, Schoen says. Unlike all other slavocracies in the world at that time, slavery in the Old South had prospered, growing both in size and importance.  
On the eve of the Civil War, Southern planters argued—with some limited success to consumers in the North and in Britain—the importance of slavery’s continued centrality for the world economy, Schoen notes. Planters pointed to their own continued dominance and largely failed efforts overseas to grow commercial cotton with free labor.

Though the slave-based agricultural economy of the Old South is often compared to the wage-labor, industrial economy of the North, Schoen points out that Southern whites also measured themselves against developments in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even as they lagged behind the North and Britain on some economic indicators, they looked favorable when compared to other parts of the world—especially in terms of industrial development and economic wealth. Many even believed that slavery helped explain why they were wealthier than farmers and entrepreneuers in developing nations.  

“They had come to the shocking conclusion by 1861 that this economic-centered apology for slavery was gaining ground in Europe but not in the North, which elected an anti-slavery Republican president,” Schoen says. “That helps to explain why they (seceded) in April 1861.”

Cotton Diplomacy

From the start, Southern warmongers had convinced themselves that they held the high cards in the dispute, since they sat atop the world’s most lucrative business—the growing and selling of the world’s best cotton. They took enormous comfort in the fact that the South supplied more than three-fourths of all the cotton that fed Europe’s thousands of textile mills. In Britain, cotton-made goods represented fully half of that country’s foreign trade and accounted for roughly one out of every four jobs.    

“When most historians talk about the Civil War, they see it as largely a domestic event, affecting only the United States,” Schoen says. “But in fact, the eyes of the world were closely watching this conflict. We can understand why it happened and why it was important to the U.S. only when we fully appreciate the war’s global dimensions.”

Southern leaders knew that Britain—which had banned slavery throughout its sprawling empire in 1833—struggled to reconcile its commercial interests with its abhorrence of slavery, the same moral dilemma that had vexed Northern interests for most of the century.  The South was betting that when the chips were down, Britain would put concerns about its pocketbook—namely its pipeline to Southern cotton—over its angst about the human misery that produced it.   

“England genuinely feared a full-blown depression,” Schoen says. “When the war started, the British had supplies built up thanks to a huge crop in 1860. But by 1862 those supplies were gone, and the country was facing a catastrophe.”

To force Britain to recognize it as a legitimate, sovereign nation, the young Confederate States of America resorted to “cotton diplomacy,” hoping that by putting the squeeze on cotton supplies Britain would align itself diplomatically and economically with the South, a move that would almost guarantee war between England and the Union. The Confederacy tried a cotton embargo, clamping down on exports to Europe, and then sending envoys to Britain and France to try to negotiate diplomatic ties from their only strong suit—millions of tons of cotton idly sitting on the docks of Southern seaports.

Schoen’s research suggests that previous compromises made by the British led Southern planters to believe that England would relent. The effort ultimately led nowhere, however, thanks largely to a stifling Union naval blockade of Southern ports that soon made the embargo meaningless.

With its cotton supplies choked off, Britain’s textile mills came to a grinding halt. A “cotton famine” strangled the country’s Northwest region, the epicenter of its textile industry, and in the span of a few months, upwards of 500,000 workers were jobless and hungry. Riots paralyzed towns, prompting Parliament to cobble together relief efforts.

Desperate to find alternative cotton supplies, the British and French governments poured money into cotton-growing projects in India and Egypt, an effort that ultimately proved futile even though it made a lasting mark on world history. Research by other historians suggests that the Civil War helped contribute to a second wave of imperialism and heightened nationalism, Schoen says. The search for free labor alternatives to cotton production accelerated railroad construction in Asia and Africa and prompted European powers to form new partnerships.

In September 1862, the Union’s victory at the Battle of Antietam persuaded British policymakers that militarily, the Southern cause remained precarious. Aligning itself with the Confederacy would mean almost certain war with the North and the subsequent loss of critically needed imports of New England wheat and corn. Painful though it was, the cotton crisis would have to be endured.

Britain joined France in declaring neutrality in the conflict, and suddenly King Cotton—the South’s only trump card in a global game in which it had staked literally everything—was spent, and of no avail.  As the world watched, the South agonized through another two years of death throes that brought horror and misery to millions on both sides of the conflict.

A Tragic Gamble

Ultimately, by the time the die was cast to go to war, the South possessed a well-oiled, highly efficient economy—albeit far too dependent on a single commodity and a perverse system to produce it.  Flawed as it was, the system worked so well that it emboldened secessionists and their sympathizers. It also helps explain why the Confederacy, facing insurmountable odds early on, fought so doggedly for so long to protect the only way of life it knew.  

“They did everything they could to see that they maintained control over global cotton, even if that meant going to war and risking it all,” Schoen says. "From our perspective today, that might seem insane.  But in their world, they thought economics would drive everything.  In their view, what they did made perfect sense.”

Ironically, the war that the South wanted wound up destroying everything it fought for in the first place.

“Obviously, and fortunately, Southerners overplayed their hand,” Schoen says. “But they did it based on information they had at the time. In the end, it was an enormous, and tragic, misperception of reality.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.