buy tb-500

It is impossible to overstate the importance of cotton to the South during the antebellum period, or its contribution to the chain of events that resulted in the Civil War. As the major export of the South – perhaps the United States – cotton economically supported the South. As a crop that required extensive labor, cotton’s role in the slavery culture that grew in the South loomed large. Understanding the degree to which the South depended upon cotton is key to understanding the role this crop played in a war that divided a nation.

While the South was an agricultural society that produced other crops besides cotton – tobacco in the Upper South, rice in the coastal regions, sugar throughout – no crop was as essential to the economy of the South in the way that cotton was. The demand for cotton was great; not only did the South supply the textile mills of the Northern states in America with cotton – Europe depended heavily on Southern cotton, as well. The powerful nations of England and France relied on Southern cotton for their own textile industries, with Southern cotton accounting for more than three-quarters of the cotton imported into these countries.

Cotton brought wealth and prosperity to the South. As prices for cotton grew steadily throughout the 1850s and 1860s, planters increased their land holdings in order to raise their production numbers. They also increased their slave holdings, as well. The labor-intensive production of cotton required many hands, and the demand for slaves to do this work increased in tandem with the market for cotton.

The inherent risk of cotton cultivation, however, was the fact that this crop depleted the soil over a period of several years, forcing planters to extend their land holdings even further. It was not unusual for a prosperous planter to own several plantations; in the late antebellum period, owning several plantations became a necessity rather than a luxury as higher cotton production wore out the soil.

Cotton production depended heavily on slave labor, and as the increased production of cotton began to deplete soils in the South, the necessity of assuring that new states whose climate and soils were suitable for cotton cultivation were admitted to the Union were admitted as slave states became a key political issue for the South. Protecting the economy of the South meant protecting cotton. Protecting cotton meant protecting slavery.

After the election of Radical Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, the threat of abolishment of slavery became real. Knowing that the cotton economy would collapse with abolition, secession was proposed. Not surprisingly, secession began with the states that relied the most heavily on cotton – South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana. The Upper South slave states, who relied on other crops – North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia – were slow to secede, or did not secede at all.

The emerging Confederate States of America depended upon national and international dependence on Southern cotton as an important bargaining tool. However, while France and England were willing to risk Union blockades on Southern ports in order to obtain cotton, they began to look elsewhere for cotton when possible. Making matters worse, despite the fact that the Confederacy had forbidden the sale of cotton to Northern states, many planters swallowed their nationalism and pride and smuggled cotton across the lines, especially as the war dragged on and the Southern economy began to fail.

The toll of a war fought primarily on Southern soil was paid with a collapse of the cotton economy. Production of cotton fell from 4.5 million bales were grown in 1861 to a staggeringly low 300,000 in 1864. Much of this was due to the fact that many of the civilians left in the South were struggling to grow foodstuffs in order to feed themselves and the Confederate Army. The gradual flight of slaves from the South to freedom in the North also contributed to the problem. Although the Confederacy recognized the importance of cotton to the South, they were unable to shore production or deliver cotton to the market with any consistency, and along with the cotton economy, the economy of the South collapsed.

While King Cotton was forced to abdicate throughout much of the Civil War, the cotton economy of the South managed to re-emerge during Reconstruction. Cotton survived the abolishment of slavery, even if the Confederacy could not.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 15th, 2008 at 12:20 pm and is filed under Civil War Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed at this time.