The Southern Plantation
A large plantation was not just cotton fields and a stately mansion approached along an oak-lined drive. A plantation included many other buildings: the smokehouse where meat was preserved, the henhouse where poultry was raised, stables where thoroughbreds were tended, the barn where dairy cows and work animals were housed, and sheds and silos for tools, grain, and other farm necessities. In workshops scattered near the barnyard, slave artisans might craft barrels, horseshoes, furniture, and cloth for use on the plantation. Gardens were cultivated to supply herbs and vegetables. Larger plantations might also maintain a schoolhouse for white children. Some planters built chapels for family worship, and some allowed religious services for slaves as well. More commonly, large plantations included slave infirmaries and nursery facilities where older slave women tended the children of women who worked in the fields. As a safety precaution, almost all plantations had kitchen structures separate from the "big house," the main mansion that housed the planter family.
The big house, usually a two or three-storied mansion, was a visible symbol of the planters wealth. Coming in from the front porch, a wide entrance hall might lead into a dining room, a parlor, a library, and one or more sitting rooms. In these rooms a planter could display his wealth with European furnishings and imported artwork. On the upper floors, bedrooms for family members and guests were maintained with the most comfortable and luxurious decor available. Nurseries for planters children were located on the uppermost floors and could be reached by the servants stairs at the back of the house.
The big house, the centerpiece of the entire plantation, might have formal flower gardens, like the famed plantings at Middleton Place outside Charleston which took nearly ten years to complete. A separate office for the planter or overseer might be attached to the main house. Slave cabins were often built not far from the big house. Overseers sometimes lived on the plantation, in which case their modest homes might also be found nor far from the slave cabins, especially in the case of absentee planters. But economic studies indicate that fewer than 30 percent of planters employed white supervisors for their slave labor. Although nor all plantations contained every element listed above, the crucial components were the masters home and the slaves domiciles, reflecting the difference in status between the black and white worlds on the plantation.
Plantations Mobilize For War. From Abraham Lincolns election onward, secession fever propelled the South into war. Once South Carolina broke with the Union and the rest of the Southern states fell like dominoes in the early part of 1861, war appeared inevitable. Mary Boykin Chesnut saw the handwriting on the wall: "These foolish, rash, harebrained southern lads . . . are thrilling with fiery ardor The red-hot Southern martial spirit is in the air," she wrote in her diary.
Southern gentlemen, especially the young, knew their choices and, buoyed by secessionist bravado, enlisted when the war broke out. Confederate manhood ironically required husbands and fathers to leave the very home and loved ones they were pledging to protect. Slave-owning patriarchs had to abandon their beloved plantations. Loyal Confederate plantation mistresses had to hammer home the necessity of fighting, in case men might falter in their duty. The press and private correspondence overflowed with parables of strident patriotic females: the belle who broke an engagement because her fiancÚ did not enlist before the proposed wedding day, the sweethearts who sent skirts and female undergarments to shirkers.
The formation of many Confederate units demonstrated the resolve of the planter class to serve. In Selma, Alabama, the Magnolia Cadets assembled, manned entirely by local gentry. In Georgia, the Savannah Rifles, the Blue Caps, the Rattlesnakes, and many other colorful groups closed ranks against the charge that the battle would be a "rich mans war and a poor mans fight."
Class solidarity was built on the bedrock of white superiority to which most white Southerners subscribed. As contemporary Southerner William Cabell Rives proclaimed, "It is not a question of slavery at all; it is a question of race." Therefore planters necessarily blurred class lines for whites by engaging in cooperative ventures during wartime. Parthenia Hague described the way in which Alabamians forged alliances during war: "We were drawn together in a closer union, a tenderer feeling of humanity linking us all together, both rich and poor; from the princely planter, who could scarce get off his wide domains in a days ride, and who could count his slaves by the thousand, down to the humble tenants of the log cabin on rented or leased land."
The blockade, of course, threw all within the Confederacys borders hack on their own resources. Plantations were not the hardest hit, but they did have to modi& long-established patterns of production and consumption. Most significantly, the Confederate government wanted planters to switch voluntarily from the cash crop system to a more diversified subsistence strategy, which would include the planting of crops that could feed the army and civilian populations. A slogan that appeared in the press captured Confederate philosophy: "Plant Corn and Be Free, or plant cotton and be whipped."
Many planters in the Deep South, which was more dependent upon food imports than the upper South border states, adopted the 'corn and bread" ideology early on. Cotton production was severely curtailed, dramatically so in the first year of the war. The South's output, 4.5 million bales in 1861, was cut to 1.5 million in 1862. Some states complied more than others; indeed, Georgia reduced its cotton output by nine-tenths from 1861 to 1862. In the coastal regions, especially Louisiana, sugar planters responded to the call, with a decline from 459 million pounds in 1861 to 87 million in 1862.
Many planters were concerned about this move and wondered how they could keep their slaves occupied and afford their upkeep under such conditions. The more conservative decided to reverse the traditional proportion of cash crops to foodstuffs; instead of the usual 600 acres of cotton to 200 acres of corn, they planted 200 acres of cotton to 600 acres of corn. A high rate of cotton production was nevertheless maintained by a minority of planters who refused to toe the patriotic line. As private speculators sought out cotton to store for future sale, a number of planters were happy to supply them, viewing war as an opportunity for profit. Indeed, many smuggled their cotton to Europe through Texas and Mexico, ignoring the government proscription. A handful of planters, oblivious to the charge of treason that could be brought against them, sought out Northern buyers. They hid their bales in remote warehouses or buried the cotton on their plantations until safe passage might be secured.
One such manipulator, James Alcorn, whose plantation was in the fertile Mississippi Delta, owned a hundred slaves and property worth nearly $250,000. When war broke our, Alcorn sent his family to Alabama and continued his prosperous trade in cotton, hiding and selling it, and avoiding both armies. In 1862 be reported that he had sold over a hundred bales, with another ninety ready to ship. Greed was his motive: "I wish to fill my pockets," he said, and boasted, "I can in five years make a larger fortune than ever. I know how to do it and will do it." At wars end, however, Alcorn decided to cater to loyalist dictates rather than side with the enemies with whom he had collaborated in matters of business. Although he had traded with Northerners, after the surrender at Appomattox he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union and was credited with being a great Southern patriot, much to the mystification of his former slaves.
Planters and Conscription. Planters were divided on the subject of cotton policy and many other issues, but the question that seemed to dominate the Cotton Planters Convention in Memphis during their meeting in February 1862 was not agriculture but politics. And many expressed doubt that their revolution, Confederate independence, would succeed. The intertwining of economics and politics was too tied to the fortunes of war.
When in September 1862 the Confederate Congress raised the upper age limit of conscription from thirty- five to forty-five, heads of many poor families were for the first time subject to the draft. This legislation appeared just at a time when that summers drought had ruined most harvests. Compounding the difficulties, the Confederate Congress in October passed an even more unpopular statute that became known as the Twenty-Slave Law, which exempted from army service any white man who could demonstrate that he was in a managerial role on a plantation with twenty slaves or more; both owners and overseers qualified. This law was intended ostensibly both to control the slave population and to keep the Confederacy fed. But the argument that the law would benefit all whites stuck in the craw of most white Southerners. Even when in May 1863 exempted slaveholders were taxed $500 (to fund the distribution of food for soldiers families), civilians and especially soldiers were not mollified.
Throughout the war, only 4,000 to 5,000 men received exemptions under this law; indeed, only 3 percent of those men who claimed exemptions took them on the basis of the Twenty-Slave Law. On 85 percent of those plantations that qualified for exemptions, none was taken. Nevertheless, the perception of favoritism rankled. Members of the planter class already could afford to buy substitutes, and now any choice to sit out the war was ratified by government legitimation. Attitudes may have been regionalized: within the Deep South more planters perhaps took advantage of the system, sparking more resentment. There were 1,500 exemptions issued in Alabama alone and of the nineteen categories of exemption, only medical disability was employed more often than the Twenty-Slave Law. Thus, the law was a public relations disaster, to say the least. Mississippian James Phelan wrote a warning to Jefferson Davis: "It has aroused a spirit of rebellion in some places, I am informed, and bodies of men have banded together to resist; whilst in the army it is said it only needs some daring men to raise the standard to develop a revolt."
White women, too, voiced their alarm over conscription. Many left behind in parishes and counties without adequate male assistance appealed to their government. Late in the war a group of women in South Carolina sent a plaintive letter to the governor:
We are personally acquainted with Erwin Mid/en for over three years and do no that he is a sickly and feeble man and we do Believe that he is not able for service in the field We are informed that he is in the 56th year of his age. And we do further swore that he has done all our howling for the last three years and attended to all our domestic business as we could not Procure any other man to do--see to our hawling and other business as our Husbands are all in the army and some of them killed and some died in service.
The seventeen women who signed begged that Midlen be spared military service. The governors ruling on the matter remains unknown.
The Decline of Plantation Agriculture and Planter Morale. Even more disheartening to both the Confederate government and the Southern farmer was the fact that all agricultural indicators in the South spelled decline, while prosperity reigned in the fertile regions of the Midwest. Although over 75,000 farm boys left Iowa for Union service and over 90,000 came from Wisconsin, Northern agriculture did nor suffer. Iowa and Wisconsin both reported improved acreage and grain production as well as a rise in farm income during the war.
The South's declining agriculture created a dilemma. The army needed fresh troops, but the home front required care as well. President Davis, among others, harped on the dangers of deserted or unproductive plantations; these Cassandras were unpopular yet prophetic. One advised: "We are today in greater danger of whipping our selves than being whipped by our enemy" Sinking morale and declining food supplies contributed to gloomy predictions of further degradation. The crippling of cotton production undermined the ruling elites sense of mastery and helped pave the way for defeat. There were countless examples of reduced fortunes: by 1864 James Heyward of South Carolina planted only 330 acres in rice and 90 in provisions; a mere one-tenth of his land holdings were under cultivation.
Heyward at least was able to continue planting. Many slave owners were driven off their plantations, losing homes and livelihoods in one fell swoop. Some former mistresses, hoping to elude Federal troops, were reduced to living in cabins in the woods. In the first few months of the war, Confederates feared the unknown threat of a Union army, but by 1862 too many Southerners knew firsthand the toll such an invasion extracted. In December 1863 the Confederate Congress railed against the enemy:
Houses are pillaged and horned, churches ore defaced, towns are ransacked, clothing of women and infants is stripped from their persons, jewelry and momentoes of the dead ore stolen, mills and implements of agriculture are destroyed, private salt works ore broken up, the introduction of medicines is forbidden.
Indeed, plantation mistresses turned to the woods as "natures drugstore" and for other necessities of life. One woman reported that after the enemy left her home she was "forced to go out into the woods nearby and with my two little boys pick up fagots to cook the scanty food left to me." The scorched-earth policy of William Tecumseh Sherman and other Union generals reduced many plantations to ashes and permanently impaired the planters ability to recover.
Morale was at a low ebb and hopes were being steadily dashed against the shoals of wartime reality. Those planters who stockpiled their cotton crop were in as much danger of losing it to the Confederate cause as to invading Northerners. It was the policy of the Confederate army to burn cotton whenever Federals moved within striking distance. This was an unpopular measure, to say the least, especially at a time when planters were pressing the government to buy their unsold crops. To have their hopes go up in smoke at the hands of soldiers in gray rather than the hated Federals created conflicting loyalties.
Some of these policies alienated planters to the point of political disaffection. In the 1870s the Southern Claims Commission was empowered to rule on the petitions of planters who declared both their pro-Union sympathies during wartime and the destruction of property by Union troops. Of the 700 claims filed to obtain damages of over $10,000, only 191 were successful, and a mere 224 of the 800 and more who complained of property losses of less than $10,000 were granted.
Perhaps no more than 5 percent of the planter class were Union loyalists doting wartime. But many more simply resisted the entreaties of the Confederate government to perform patriotically. As many as 25 percent of the slaveholders in Virginia refused to comply with the governments requisition of their property-- slaves--in 1864. Both the loss of labor and the strong resistance combined to weaken the Confederacy's ability to win its war for independence.
The End of Slavery and the Plantation System. The dangers within arose not only from recalcitrant planters but from the omnipresent threat of slave resistance. John Edwin Fripp of Saint Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina was able to write: "I am happy to say my negroes have acted orderly and well all the time, none going off excepting one or two Boys who accompanied the yanks for plunder but have returned home and appear quite willing to work." Nevertheless, Fripps experience was the exception rather than the rule. The majority of planters made careful notations in their logs about African Americans deserting plantations. Whenever Union troops moved into a region, slaves fled behind enemy lines. Many, if not most planters, felt wounded when their slaves abandoned the plantation for "Lincoln land." They were especially angered by those African Americans who led Federal troops to storehouses of food and buried treasure--the family silver and other heirlooms. Even after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, slave owners mistakenly placed their faith in paternalism. As one woman complained bitterly, "Those we loved best, and who loved us best--as we thought--were the first to leave us."
Planters who feared insurrection, however, were pleasantly surprised, in contrast to those whose cherished notions of slave loyalty were disappointed. Historian James Roark has suggested: "Slavery did nor explode; it disintegrated ... eroded plantation by plantation, often slave by slave, like slabs of earth slipping into a Southern stream." Some planters responded by moving their slaves away from approaching Federal troops, but as the war dragged on, there was nowhere left to hide and hundreds of thousands of African Americans made their way to freedom.
During the fall of 1863 over 20,000 slaves were recruited for service in the Union army in the Mississippi valley alone. Jane Picken, a plantation mistress and a refugee, recounted the planters predicament: "The negroes in most instances refused to leave with their masters, and in some cases have left the plantations in a perfect stampede. Mississippi is almost depopulated of its black population." By the winter of 1864--1865, slave owners were reduced to a lengthy process of negotiation with those African Americans who remained. Emma LeConte of Berkeley County, South Carolina, lamented: "The field negroes are in a dreadful state; they will not work, but either roam the country, or sit in their houses. . . . I do not see how we are to live in this country without any rule or regulation. We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate."
The fall, then, came from within, as historian Armstead Robinson has argued, as well as from without. The plantation South simply crumbled, unable to withstand African American challenges to slavery as well as the burdens of blockades, wartime production, and invading armies. The superhuman task of retaining the illusion of white superiority in the face of black resistance, African American independence, and the final blow--the full-blown glory of black manhood in the form of African American Union soldiers--combined to destroy Confederate dreams. Economic ruin further eroded the fragile leadership of the struggling nation. Confederate wealth (excluding slave property) declined nearly 45 percent during the war.
In February 1864 the Confederate Congress authorized impressment of free blacks and slaves for noncombatant military roles, and by November 1864 President Davis was advocating gradual emancipation and military use of African Americans. Davis wrongly assumed that Southerners would choose to give up slavery rather than go down to defeat. But slaveholders stuck to their guns. The Confederacy had been founded because of the perceived threat that Northern Republicans presented to the institution of slavery, and proslavery stalwarts stayed the course: "We want no confederate Government without our institutions." These and other sentiments have prompted historian David Herbert Donald to suggest that the Confederacy might ironically have "died from democracy. Whatever the cause, the plantation system, with its fortunes so tied to black labor, died along with slavery.
The surrender at Appomattox triggered a long, slow process of recovery, but planters never actually recovered. Rather, they devoted their time and energies to promoting romantic legends of the Lost Cause-- seeking historical justification rather than economic recovery Planters devotion to an imagined past was embodied in Margaret Mitchell's mythic re-creation of Tara and Twelve Oaks, perhaps the most famous plantations of all, in her 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind Despite such fictional exaggerations, most plantations were scarred visibly by the wan And even those not damaged by wartime destruction indisputably suffered a permanent stain--the psychic blight of Confederate defeat.
Source: Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia, "The Confederacy", article by Catherine Clinton in that document.
This Page last updated 02/24/02
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