The South in ruins

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The South lost everything in the war: its dream of an empire for slavery; its myth of superiority over Northern men; its economic capital, that had been largely invested in slaves who were now free; the little it had accomplished in the way of industrial growth. Most of all, it lost its way of life, its traditional occupation, and its confidence in the future. How could you have plantations – even if your plantation home hadn’t been burned out by Union soldiers – when your labor force was gone and your markets were disrupted? How could you hold yourselves up as the hope of the white race when you now had to live among freed slaves who had been given the vote, many of whom believed that freedom meant freedom from work? Where was your future, when so many young men were gone and so many others were cripples?

Also, with the dream of a perpetually expanding slave and cotton empire destroyed, even the most fanatical slavery advocates had to see the South’s true condition in an unsentimental clear light, perhaps for the first time.

How many steamboat companies do you suppose were put together by slave-owning Southern gentlemen, as opposed to Northern corporations? And the same for railroads, and factories, and everything that had to organize people and money and materials and all the thousand details that have to be put together. The slavers couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the training, didn’t have the liquid capital and – mainly – they couldn’t admit to themselves that it was a thing worthy of “gentlemen” doing. The long and the short of it is, the slavers who ran the South couldn’t turn themselves into capitalists or corporations and they couldn’t let others in to do it for them. If they had, they’d have put themselves out of business. (It isn’t entirely true. You can’t say a thing that’s going to be entirely true, but it’s true in the main. Exceptions like Atlanta, or like the South’s few railroad lines, or like Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, were just that – exceptions.

Economically, the South was a colony. Slavery didn’t mix well with manufacturing, or engineering, or trade. Capital invested in slaves was not available for other enterprises. Thus, the South was always short of capital for the construction of railroads, and canals, and steamboats and factories, or the operation of steamship lines. In all the South, in 1861, there were only two iron factories – one in New Orleans, which city was soon captured, and the other, the Tredegar Iron Works, in Richmond, Virginia, which was not the least of the reasons the confederates fought to hold that capital city at all costs. Until slavery was destroyed, the South had no hope of raising up a new prosperity on a different basis. It was just as General Grant said in his Memoirs, destroying slavery was the best thing the North ever did for the South.

But after the war, the South’s capital was gone and much of the new generation was gone, through death, crippling injury or emigration to the West. And if all that hadn’t been enough, there was military occupation, and reconstruction, and carpetbaggers, and the problem of finding a way to deal with a race of former slaves who had neither education nor capital nor, in most cases, skilled trades. The North (or rather, the federal government) was temporarily able to impose any solution on the South that it could devise, but no one had thought the problem through. The slaves were freed, and they were given the vote, but they were left without savings or income or education, and in a way they were left unemployed, and they were supposed to make their way. Perhaps Lincoln would have found a more complete solution, because as usual he had given the matter a lot of thought, and as usual he had done his thinking without hatred or malice.

A possible solution would have been to confiscate the property of the slave owners and divide it among the slaves. That would have solved a lot of problems. It would have caused other problems, but everything causes problems; we could have dealt with them somehow. If the slaves had been given land to work, that would have been something they knew. Perhaps they could have been given help learning the business end of farming it. Maybe the craftsmen among them could have been set to work building the things they was all going to need. But nobody gave it much thought, and look at all the evils that followed –carpetbaggers, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and former rebels re-elected to their old seats in Congress, and then reconstruction. The country needed long-headed Abraham Lincoln to help find the way, but fanatics had put him in the grave, along with so many soldiers.


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