Cotton in the Civil War

Many of us, particularly in the North, like to think that when America gets involved in a conflict, especially on its own terf, that it’s a just war, a righteous conflict. But the truth is, most of the conflict we’ve fought in the past 243 years have been for economic reasons: tariffs and taxes, access to trade routes and natural resources, and who gets a bigger slice of the pie.

It’s an ugly picture.

And while there were thousands of people lobbying to end slavery prior to the Civil War, that wasn’t what sparked the first shots at Fort Sumpter. While abolition was undoubtedly one of the best things to come out of the conflict, it wasn’t why the fighting started in the first place. It was money.

Revolution to Civil War

From the formation of the constitution, there had been disagreements over just how big the government should be. Southern states, which have always been far more agrarian and remote than the more settled and industrial North, argued for smaller government with less control over individual states and daily life. At the time, this made a lot of sense. The distance between the thirteen colonies was comparatively vast. Roads were poor to non-existent, mail service was unreliable and could take months to deliver, and getting messages within a state could take days or weeks, let alone between the states. How could someone in Georgia, with heat, hurricanes, and outbreaks of yellow fever trust that someone in New York or Massachusetts would understand what their state needed when they were used to snowstorms and cities? Each states founders were radically different. The south, which was mostly governed and settled by former gentry from various parts of Europe, had very different priorities than the puritanical North.

As the 19th century wore on, however, unprecedented changes in technology began to take hold. Trains and telegrams made the distance between states feel smaller, even as the country expanded westward.

In the 1820s, the federal government voted to charge tariffs on imported goods in order to protect New England manufacturing. The south, which relied heavily in international imports of sugar, slaves, and other goods, was enraged, and South Carolina threatened secession for the first time–barely fifty years after the nation was formed.

For the next forty years, South Carolina would lead other states in a back and forth tug-of-war with the federal government about taxes and slavery regulations. When new territories were settled as non-slave states, the South felt their way of life being threatened. Their wealthy plantations would cease to exist without the free labor of slaves. The North argued that because of this, Southern plantations had an unfair leg up on Northern industry, and the tariffs therefore leveled the playing field.

Various compromises and laws were passed in the interim, but when Lincoln was elected president, Southern leaders felt they had to act. Though Lincoln had no strong feelings one way or another about slavery, he had run on a pro-abolition platform on the advice of his party. For the South, that was the last straw and South Carolina seceded on December 20.

The Role of King Cotton

Arguably the South’s largest industry in the 19th century was cotton, and it was also one of the most direct beneficiaries of that free slave labor. Cotton is labor intensive to grow and horrible for the soil, especially in the days before mechanical aids and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Though grown in the south, the cotton was sent both north and overseas for manufacturing, comprising 59% of US exports on the eve of the war. Cities like Manchester in England became famous for weaving American cotton, and up to 2/3 of mill workers in those cities found themselves out of work when war broke out, but the low income factory laborers, many of them immigrants themselves, stood by the decision, refusing to weave slave-grown cotton. Instead, England turned to cotton from India and Africa and other parts of the Empire. The conditions of the workers weren’t much better, but at least they weren’t slaves.*

As Union blockades squeezed the south, it highlighted just how dependent they were on not only that free labor, but also on those foreign imports and exports. Cotton crops rotted in the fields, bales of harvested fiber sat in warehouses where they were exposed to mold and rodents, ruining their sale value. Though blockade runners had a far higher success rate than Union forces would like to admit, it wasn’t enough to support the Confederate military. When Union vessels confiscated cotton, it went straight to Northern mills. As Union soldiers marched south, many growers burned their crops and harvests to prevent it from falling into Northern hands.

Southern leaders tried desperately to barter cotton for military support. Cotton was a huge cash crop, used in clothing, furniture, bandages, and a hundred other things the world over. They felt sure that someone, eventually, would capitulate. They sent emissaries to Canada, England, and France to negotiate treaties for food, supplies, and military assistance.**

Things only got worse as more and more slaves fled north, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. With no way to import machines to take over the labor, planters began to suffer even more acutely. Not only could they not sell their cotton crops, they didn’t have the mills to process it themselves, and now they couldn’t even grow it.

Though the South had banked on King Cotton to save them, repeating this belief over and over from the 1830s onward, they bargained too much on this one crop being their savior. In the North, confiscated cotton went to mills, and some Northerners even went south with the army growing their own crops. Other countries turned to Great Britain’s colonial crops, or reverted to linen, which had been the most popular cellulose fiber prior to the rise of “King Cotton.” In the end, the difference in ideology would bring down the Southern economy, leading to its capitulation on May 9, 1865.

There is no doubt that slavery was and is a crime against humanity, and the core of the racism we still face in this country today. But to argue that it was at the heart of the Civil War, is, unfortunately, a mistake.

*Slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire in 1833, four years before Victoria took the throne.

**This is actually of the key points in my gender-bent retelling of the Three Musketeers. If you’d like to get a copy for yourself, click the shop tab above for purchasing options.

Further reading:
South Carolina Secession
Cotton by Hahn & Baker
Cotton is King
King Cotton wiki
Why was Cotton “King?”

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