King Cotton

        In 1858 Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina replied to Senator William H. Seward of New York:

        "Without the firing of a gun, without drawing a sword, should they [Northerners] make war upon us [Southerners], we could bring the whole world to our feet. What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? . . England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King."

Hammond, like most white Southerners, believed that cotton ruled not just in the South but in the United States and the world. Many economists agreed. In 1855, David Christy entitled his influential hook Cotton Is King. Cotton indeed drove the economy of the South, affected its social structure, and, during the Civil War, dominated international relations of the Confederacy through "cotton diplomacy."

Cotton in the Antebellum Period

        In the early eighteenth century, long-staple cotton was grown in Georgia and on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, but it depleted the soil and proved unprofitable to market. The intensive and laborious hand method of picking out cotton seeds severely restricted the amount of cotton that could be prepared for making into cloth. Cotton could not compete with rice and indigo for commercialization, and Southern colonialists experimented with the crop primarily for domestic use. Despite some increased cotton production during a tobacco depression between 1702 and 1706, few attempted to produce cotton commercially before the Revolutionary War.
        Extensive production of cotton awaited the advent of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in the spring of 1793. To separate the seed from the cotton, gins first used spikes placed on rollers and then saws. The influence of the gin was instantaneous; soon Southern mechanics set up gins as far west as Mississippi. By 1804 the cotton crop was eight times greater than it had been the previous decade. The cotton gin made practical the use of the heavily seeded short-staple cotton, which could he grown in upland areas more readily than long-staple cotton. An increase in market demand growing out of England's textile industry ensured favorable prices and spurred the ascension of the short-staple cotton industry.
        Cultivation of cotton, on both small and large farms, utilized relatively simple methods. Hoe ridge cultivation was developed after 1800 with ridges set apart about three to six feet, depending on the fertility of the land. After 1830 farmers used V-shaped harrows, which were converted into cultivators, side harrows, and double shovels. (Harrows raked soil with metal teeth to remove debris and smoothed out and leveled the soil once it was broken; cultivators turned the soil under; shovels were used as more traditional plows and also turned the soil over while digging deep furrows.) Cultivation procedures changed little throughout the nineteenth century. A bed for the cotton had to be prepared by clearing out the old stalks from the previous crop. Sometimes these stalks were beaten down with clubs, but if they were large (four to five feet), they had to be pulled by hand. Manure or commercial fertilizer was placed as deeply as possible in the furrow. Usually the cotton bed was built up in February and March. The actual planting of the cotton seed in most areas was in April: early planters risked frost; late planters risked dry spells. Planting was done by hand. In about a month, the plants were thinned. The crop was cultivated with a sweep plowed between the rows four or five times and hoed by hand three or four times. In the middle of June, when they were anywhere from six inches to a foot high, the cotton plants bloomed. Around the last of July or first of August, forty-two to forty-five days after they had blossomed, the cotton bolls opened. Picking usually began about August 20. Most of the crop was ginned immediately after picking.
        Cotton prices fluctuated wildly over the years. Prices were high until 1819, then down, up, and down again. In 1837 they hit a crisis low and remained rather low until 1848. Prices rose sharply in 1849 and 1850 but dropped in 1851, though not as low as previously. Throughout the remainder of the 1850s prices rose.
        The average amount of seed cotton used to make a 400-pound bale of lint ranged from about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. The bales had to be transported from the gins to a local market and then on to larger markets. Cotton was shipped to market continually from September through January. Wagons loaded with bales of cotton often lined roads. The moving of cotton demanded better roadbeds, sometimes even plank roads, near market towns. River transportation to seaports was common from market towns located on rivers or canals. Major cities grew up at railroad stations as rail lines began to link the hinterland to ports and then to the Northeast and Midwest.
        Improvements in the production and transportation of cotton and the new demand for the fiber led to a scramble for greater profits. To reap the most profits and to provide the labor needed for cotton picking, a large number of slaves were imported into South Carolina and Georgia, and slave labor became a valuable market throughout the South. The way into the Southern aristocracy was through the ownership of land and slaves, and the way to get land and slaves was to grow cotton: the crop provided the cash and credit to buy both. At this time, too, the cotton kingdom pushed ever westward with planters searching for new and richer soils to grow more white cotton with the labor of more black slaves. Ironically, just as abolition-1st sentiment was increasing in the United States, the invention of the cotton gin instigated a deeper entrenchment of slavery into the Southern economy and society.
        The Southern aristocracy, which slavery created, dominated Southern society and inhibited the development of efficient methods for soil use. In the face of soil exhaustion, Southern planters needed to extend control into the fresh lands of the western territories. Hence, territorial expansion became a sectional issue as both North and South realized that western lands were essential for the survival of the Southern slave culture.
        Most discussions of cotton dwell on the short period when cotton did rule as king. This "mature" period of cotton and slavery was not necessarily typical of or relevant to the earlier periods of plantation agriculture that accompanied the emergence of the cotton mono-culture. Discussions also tend to treat the South as one unit rather than the large and varied region it was. The cotton kingdom extended west through Texas and north about six hundred miles up the Mississippi River valley.
        Antebellum history often seems dominated by scenes of plantations worked by slaves. Although thousands of large plantations employed slave labor and produced most of the South's cotton, numerically there were more small farmers, mostly whites, who cultivated the upland areas. Many of these yeomen were subsistence farmers and produced only a surplus of cotton for market. Southern farmers who did not grow cotton sold some of their foodstuff to the planters. Cotton could bring prosperity or depression, according to changes in the market, and these fluctuations meant very differing experiences for whites, slaves, and antebellum free blacks of each different region of the South.
        When at its peak, the demanding cultivation and transportation of cotton required the labor of the majority of men, women, and children in the rural South. Most Southern life was regulated by the agricultural economy, and more and more over time, this came to mean the cotton economy. Although free workers and slaves pursued a diversity of agricultural and industrial occupations in the antebellum South, by 1850 the routine of taking care of the white-blossomed, white-bolled, short-staple cotton plants increasingly typified rural Southern existence.
        By 1860, cotton ruled the South, which annually exported two-thirds of the world supply of the "white gold." Cotton ruled the West and Midwest because each year these sections sold $30 million worth of food supplies to Southern cotton producers. Cotton ruled the Northeast because the domestic textile industry there produced $100 million worth of cloth each year. In addition, the North sold to the cotton-growing South more than $150 million worth of manufactured goods every year, and Northern ships transported cotton and cotton products worldwide.

Cotton in the Confederacy

        As the U.S. cotton industry developed, other countries became more dependent on cotton produced in the American South. The power of cotton allowed the Confederacy to employ cotton diplomacy as its foundation for foreign relations during the Civil War; Southerners attempted to use cotton to pressure countries such as England and France into the war on behalf of the Confederacy. Southern leaders were convinced that the key to their success lay in gaining international recognition and help from European powers in breaking the blockade that the Union had thrown up around coastal areas and ports and that was increasingly effective as the war went on. (Although the Union blockade never thoroughly sealed the Confederate coastline, it was successful in causing Southern imports and exports to drop drastically at a time when the Confederacy needed to fund its huge war efforts.)
        Southerners saw cotton as the great leverage in this effort, and at the time this made sense. More than three-fourths of the cotton used in the textile industries of England and France came from the American South. Between a fourth and a fifth of the English population depended in some way on the textile industry, and half of the export trade of England was in cotton textiles. About a tenth of the nations wealth was also invested in the cotton business. The English Board of Trade said in 1859 that India was completely inadequate as a source of raw cotton; England apparently was dependent on the American South for cotton. This concept of King Cotton led many Southerners to believe that England and France would have to intervene in the Civil War in order to save their own economies. The Confederacy began applying pressure on the neutral powers through a voluntary embargo of cotton. Although Congress never formally established the embargo, local "committees of public safety" prevented the shipping of cotton from Southern ports.
        To exploit their leverage, the Confederate States sent William Lowndes Yancey, Pierre A. Rost, and A. Dudley Mann to England in the spring of 1861 to confer with Lord Russell, the British foreign secretary. As a result, the British and French granted the Confederacy belligerency status. It was a small victory, probably not very effective in helping the Confederacy. The cotton diplomats failed to arrange with England a denunciation of the blockade or the negotiation of a commercial agreement, let alone diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy.
        Regardless of wishful beliefs and England's real economic dependence on cotton, at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War an overabundance of cotton existed in Europe. Furthermore, British hostility to slavery decreased the likelihood of intervention. Moreover, it was not in the vested interests of the neutral powers, particularly Great Britain, to denounce the blockade. The Confederate government attempted to convince the Europeans that the Federal blockade was ineffective and thus illegal under the terms of the 1856 Treaty of Paris. The Confederacy failed to acknowledge that Great Britain, as the worlds foremost naval power, would desire to let stand any blockade, regardless of its legality or actual effectiveness. And to make matters even worse, the South's voluntary embargo undercut its own argument that the Federal blockade was porous.
        Although the South never succeeded in convincing foreign powers to intervene against the North, cotton diplomacy was successful in obtaining financial help from abroad. This came in the form of loans and bonds, which Confederate Treasurer Christopher G. Memminger guaranteed with cotton. The Confederate Treasury Department issued $1.5 million in cotton certificates during the war for acquisitions abroad. One such loan backed by cotton was the Erlanger loan, signed on October 28, 1862, and modified on January 3, 1863. This loan, amounting to $15 million, was secured by cotton. At the time cotton was worth twenty-four pence a pound, and the Erlanger loan made cotton available to holders at six pence per pound.
        This reliance on cotton for the security of loans, bonds, and certificates placed a great deal of responsibility on the Produce Loan Office, whose agents had to ensure that planters would fulfill government subscriptions of cotton at a time when many planters were unwilling to sell to the government. Ultimately, however, cotton enabled the Confederacy to realize $7,678,591.25 in foreign exchange.
        The Confederacy also hoped to raise tax revenue on the sale of cotton abroad. On February 28, 1861, Congress passed an act levying an export duty of 1/8 cent per pound on all cotton shipped after August 1 of that year. The government hoped to raise $20 million through the export tax in order to pay a $15 million loan funded by an issue of 8 percent bonds. But because of the tightening blockade and the South's own voluntary cotton embargo, the measure raised only $30,000. When the secretary of the treasury lobbied to have this minuscule tax raised, opposition from the planter class kept Congress from increasing it, even when the Confederacy's finances were desperate.
        To a degree, planter opposition also undercut Southern efforts to shift from cotton production to the planting of foodstuffs. The Confederacy was convinced it could become self-sufficient. It would produce all the food and cotton it needed, and revenue from cotton could buy weapons, blankets, and other manufactured goods until the Confederacy started manufacturing its own. Planters believed that the yeomen and pout would fight in the army and that slaves would continue to produce food and the South's greatest weapon, cotton.
        By the spring of 1862, however, there was already an abundance of cotton and a shortage of foodstuffs. In April 1862 yeomen soldiers could not go home to plant spring crops, and their families would again have no food. To encourage the growth of foodstuffs, every Southern cotton-producing state attempted to limit the amount of cotton that could be grown. State governors issued proclamations urging planters to reduce their cotton acreage by as much as four-fifths and encouraging them to plant enough wheat, corn, and beans to feed themselves, their slaves, and the armies in the field. The planters responded, cutting their usual acreage of cotton to about half and devoting the rest to food crops. Many planters even had enough surplus foodstuffs to sell to the families of the yeoman poor whose husbands and sons were away in the wan Still, the planters did not reduce their cotton production as much as the state and Confederate governments wanted. Some scholars argue that this is an example of how the Confederacy contributed to its own defeat by refusing to disturb the interests of the planter class.
        But even with resistance by the planters, the shift to the production of foodstuffs combined with the drain in manpower and the eventual Union occupation created a drastic drop in Cotton production as the war dragged on: 4.5 million bales were grown in 1861; 1.5 million in 1862; 500,000 in 1863; and only 300,000 in 1864. As production dropped, the price of cotton skyrocketed on the world market, and blockade runners decided the risks were worth raking; cotton-exporting corporations formed throughout the cotton kingdom. In addition, Mexico traded cotton directly across the Texas border.
        In an attempt to control the flow of cotton to Europe and rectify the declining economy, Southern politicians in late 1863 introduced an approach called the "New Plan." Through this series of administrative actions and congressional laws, the Confederate government became directly involved in blockade running. Rather than making contracts for supplies payable in cotton, the government itself began selling the cotton abroad and buying supplies with the proceeds, thereby cutting out the middlemen. The plans supervisor, Colin J. McRae, gained direct control over cargo space on blockade runners. Those who refused to accept a fair rate to transport cotton for sale by the government would have their vessels confiscated. The War Department increasingly turned to the sale of cotton to purchase needed supplies, and by the end of 1863 it bad reserved fully one-third of all cargo space on blockade runners.
        As a result of these measures and other financial consolidations under the plan, Confederate foreign financing was greatly improved and 27,229 bales of cotton were exported for $5.3 million in sales. But because of the Confederacy's early confidence in the diplomatic leverage of King Cotton, it did not institute measures such as the New Plan soon enough to make a considerable impact on the war effort. The South could nor keep its vital ports open or continue to endure Northern attacks on the battlefield.
        Some scholars have written with hindsight that the Confederacy might have been more successful, had it pursued a different strategy with its cotton. If Confederate leaders had confiscated all the cotton in the South and stored it, they could have used it as a basis to obtain credit from European nations. With credit, some scholars believe, the Confederacy could have bought a navy strong enough to break the Union blockade. Others argue that the Confederate government would have been better served if it had made cotton, nor gold, the basis of its currency.
        Although the Civil War ended the slave plantation system, it did not end the South's legacy of cotton. Cultivation of the crop had worn out much of the land. Many planted up and down on slopes, which then eroded. The concentration on cotton production meant complete reliance on a one-crop system; crop rotation was uncommon, and farmers did nor plow under clover or peas to restore humus to the soil. Diminishing fertility of cotton lands was a major problem farmers continued to face after the Civil War.

Selling to the Enemy

        If the Confederate government was able, albeit partially and belatedly, to gain control over the cotton trade with Europe, it had much less success in curtailing the cotton trade with the Union. On May 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress prohibited the sale of cotton to the North. Yet an illicit trade across military lines flourished between Southern cotton farmers and Northern traders. President Abraham Lincoln gave licenses to traders, who followed the Union army into the South. On March 17, 1862, the Confederacy gave state governments the right to destroy any cotton that might fall into the hands of the Union army. Some devoted Confederates burned their own cotton to keep it out of enemy hands. Other Southerners, however, discovered that Union agents were willing to pay the highest prices in over half a century for cotton or offered badly needed supplies as barter. Ironically, valuable currency for cotton from the North saved some small Southern farmers from starvation. But this selling of cotton to the North undermined Confederate Nationalism, as did the official Confederate trading of cotton with the North conducted in the last years of the war.
        As the price of foodstuffs reached astronomical heights and Confederate currency became worthless with inflation, the smuggling of cotton out of the South to the North increased. Women whose husbands had been killed or were away at the battlefield or in prison were heavily involved in forming these caravans. Rich planters and factors also made large deals with Federal officials. The situation became totally absurd when cotton was sold to Federal troops to get supplies for the Confederate army. Even President Lincoln approved an arrangement to send food for Robert E. Lee's Troop at Petersburg in exchange for cotton for New York. Ulysses S. Grant stopped this exchange because he was attempting to cut off Lee's supplies, but other such exchanges occurred through the Civil War.
Source: "The Confederacy" A Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia, article by Orville Vernon Burton and Patricia Dora Bonnin.

This Page last updated 02/16/02